We Ain’t Gonna Stop, ‘Till Our People are Free! – The Battle against Education Austerity in Utica

(Photo: Stephanie Inserra/Love and Rage)

by Brendan Maslauskas  Dunn/Love and Rage

Something new is taking shape in the Mohawk Valley in response to the local austerity measures which have slowed, but not stopped, the pulse of the school system. Some may call it a simple protest here and there; others a passing outrage at a governor and his government who declared war on teachers and education. However, what is happening in Utica is not simply a localized affair. It is a small part of both a national and international response from the grassroots of education against austerity. What appears to be taking shape is a social movement, one that has the potential to change, in a real way, the very nature of education in our society.

Facing the bitter cold on March 5th, nearly 1,500 union members, educators, students, parents and others from the broader community met at Cornerstone Community Church in Utica’s historic Oneida Square and marched down Genesee Street to rally outside the State Office Building. The march was organized by the Alliance for Quality Education and various other groups. The church was only a natural starting point for the spirited protest. Over the last few years, the congregation opened its doors for countless community and activist groups to hold meetings, host events, and organize to fight for a better world.

Demonstrators came from Rome and Waterville, Dolgeville and Herkimer, and countless other towns. The majority of those present however came from Utica. The Utica schools have taken a considerable beating from those in power in recent years. The school district is one of the poorest districts in the entire state. Chronic underfunding, mass layoffs over the past few years of 100s of teachers and other workers, and the ever-increasing rolling-back or outright slashing of programs for students have become “normal” occurrences in the school district. To add insult to injury, the Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing a series of reforms that measure success to test scores. Promised funding will only come in from the state if school districts are willing to accept these reforms.

But what started out as a rally here and there after the financial crisis erupted has evolved into a constant frenzy of political action and discourse. Public forums, letter-writing, speak-outs, pickets, Common Core test opt-outs, and marches and rallies, like the one held on March 5th, have given a new meaning to what it means to be both a teacher and a student. Today, to be a teacher, and one who supports and is active in their union, is a decidedly political stance. Similarly, when students stand up, speak out, and fight back against austerity they are redefining what it means to be a student in modern society. No longer are students passively accepting this most recent crisis in capitalism. They become agents of social change when the stand up and speak out.

Demonstrators marched down the sidewalks on both sides of Genesee Street toward the state office building. A feeling of solidarity was felt by many as young and old, student and teacher marched side by side. One teacher carried a life-size cardboard cut-out of Governor Cuomo who is leading the charge against public education and teacher unions. The two-dimensional governor received boos and jeers the entire afternoon. The Proctor High School marching band welcomed everyone at the front of the State Office Building. People chanted. They sang. They shouted. For a brief moment, people could both see and feel the power that they have in numbers.

A few demonstrators sang a song inspired from the Black Lives Matter movement:

Teachers, students, parents sayin’ I can se

a way out of this problem called austerity.

Now I’m in this movement sayin’ I won’t leave.

We ain’t gonna stop (clap, clap)

‘till our people are free.

We ain’t gonna stop (clap, clap)

‘till our people are free.

Trying to keep warm in the middle of the crowd, ESL teacher at the Refugee Center Lorraine Eady stood next to her children who attend Utica schools. “I’m out here for my kids and for my students,” she said. Eady has seen first-hand the devastating impact of austerity and education reform. She lamented that politicians in New York are quick to blame teachers for the dismal state of education and even quicker to enforce a never-ending proliferation of testing students into submission to these new reforms. She commented that she “would like to see less testing and teacher accountability that’s not tied to a test.”

Eady’s son Donovan, a fifth grader at Jones Elementary, echoed his mother’s concerns. “We need to stop Common Core. It totally changed the whole curriculum in a bad way.” Donovan was not alone. Hundreds of other students were out braving the cold to echo his sentiments. He also had a personal message he wanted to give to the governor, which was to have smaller and “more classes, Common Core gone, and no state testing.” Perhaps the political establishment in Albany could take some cues from those who are younger and more educated who must suffer the windfall of education reform – the students.

From where Donovan and his mother stood, it was difficult to hear the voices of the speakers at the rally. Some of the speakers were predictable for rallies such as these such as superintendents and Democratic politicians. However, there were voices from the grassroots that spoke up. One voice was that of Trinh Truong, a senior at Proctor High School who has been fighting austerity since the first budget cuts protest she organized as a freshman. “I have been fighting this since ninth grade. Four years at Proctor and nothing has changed… This is not just an attack on public education but an attack on equal opportunity.” She told the crowd about how she immigrated to the US from Vietnam as a child and credits Proctor High for getting her on a pathway to college and success.

Other refugee and immigrant students at Proctor however are not as fortunate as Truong as their opportunities are cut left and right from austerity and education reform. Two ESL teachers from Proctor who attended the rally, Lynn Joseph and Deanna Risucci, provided tragic details of how these reforms and the straightjacket of testing affects their students. “Our ESL kids have to take and pass the English test with only a few years’ experience in speaking English,” stated Joseph. Many of these ESL students come from refugee camps or war zones in places like Burma, Thailand, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia. They are expected to rapidly transition to a new and foreign society, learn the language and catch up to and be on par with native English speakers. The education reforms do little if anything to address the various needs of these students.

Protesters listened to speeches, chanted slogans against austerity and sang Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is my Land” with a revised set of anti-austerity lyrics. The speeches wrapped up, and the demonstrators went their separate ways. But this protest in Utica was not the first of its kind and will not be the last. Demonstrators here are also not alone in their struggle. In the same week, mass student demonstrations rocked the nation of Burma against education reform and austerity measures there. In Quebec, students and workers are gearing up for an unprecedented and potentially illegal strike against austerity measures in Canada, leading many people to predict a second Maple Spring. Although borders divide these movements, the struggle is the same.

This an international struggle that can be wrapped up in the sentiments of educator and mother Lorraine Eady. When asked what the solution should be, she stated simply, “I would like to see change stop beginning from the top-down and start seeing it come from the teachers.” It is as simple as that. Rather than decisions being made by investors, bankers, for-profit companies, and political parties and politicians that push austerity, decisions should be made at the grassroots by the workers, teachers and students who are most affected by any change in education.

There is precedence for this kind of bottom-up grassroots approach. Montessori schools, the Sandinista popular education and literacy movement in Nicaragua during the 1980s, the Freedom Schools that sprung from the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in 1964, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy that transformed education systems throughout Latin America and Africa, and the anarchist Escuela Moderna movement in Spain in the early 1900s are just a few of the many examples that come to mind. All of these approaches valued the agency and leadership of students, built power for teachers and workers, encouraged critical thinking, questioned poverty and institutional racism, and practiced direct democracy at the grassroots.

There are other movements such as these in the world today such as the Zapatista Escuelita in Chiapas, Mexico, the Escuela Nueva in rural Colombia and the Mesopotamian Academy and new approaches to education in Kurdish areas of northern Syria which are currently being transformed by a social revolution. Some local expressions of a more emancipatory education are the Akwesasne Freedom School in Mohawk Nation and the Mohawk Valley Freedom School in Utica. If there is anything that teachers and students locally can take from these experiences however are entirely up to them.

The questions now, of course, are what next steps will this local movement take, how far are teachers in Utica willing to go to fight austerity, and what, exactly, would an alternative look like where teachers and students actually have a voice and have power? The answers will only come through constant dialogue, organization, agitation and action. It appears thus far that teachers and students are more willing than ever to make the change that is needed to build a better school system, and with that, a better world.

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