Audacity of Nope: You Want People of Color Until You Don’t

May 27, 2016 12:00:00 AM


I’d never say conservatives, especially those in education reform, have been cowed into silence. Conservatives tend to run the game, be quick to assume power and to alienate people who do not look like them or agree with them. So when I read Robert Pondiscio’s piece on how the left is trying to push the right out of the education reform community, I couldn’t contain my disbelief. This isn’t about politics, but about unchecked White privilege. Reducing this to left or right politics is lazy. It implies lefties, or people of color, are finally speaking up, making the conservatives in the room uncomfortable. It must be hard to have your privilege questioned. It must be unsettling to have those you’ve tolerated begin to voice thoughts that challenge you, your work, and your expertise. This is about race, but Pondiscio can pretend it’s about politics. Let’s face the truth, however.

No Seat at the Table

For years, people of color have been relegated to sitting at the proverbial back of the bus in the education reform community although we have been the ones trusted by the communities we serve. Rarely have we been invited to the decision-making table. If we are invited, because of superficial notions of democracy, we are often outnumbered and essentially silenced. Being tokenized is just as insulting as being marginalized. The conversation about race and public schools in our country is one that people in the education community rarely want to have. This is true for education leaders in traditional public education and education reform. White people are uncomfortable talking about their privilege because once it is on the table, it has to be addressed and then negotiated. When discussions about privilege are ignored, people of color are left to navigate their feelings about the fundamental unfairness in public education. This dishonest conversation about racism isn’t only happening in education reform. It is happening within all education circles. Teachers of color push within their unions to raise issues affecting English-language learners getting reclassified as fluent or decrying the disproportionate numbers of Black students in special education or being disciplined. School board members of color must go so far as to start their own organizations, such as the California Latino School Boards Association, in order to have the space to talk about issues affecting students of color. The California School Boards Association is controlled by White people who are not willing to address that the majority of school-aged children are Latino. Traditional associations of educators don’t want to incorporate the voices and experiences of people of color, so we always get short shrift when it comes to having a say.

Doing It Right

I helped build Green Dot Public Schools. I was employee no. 5 at its central office, which was co-located with a senior citizen day care program. As we built a political movement for education reform in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world, our small, racially diverse staff had to confront our differences. We had emotionally exhausting conversations about race and privilege in the context of our work when we disagreed and at a time when some wanted to demonize White reformers coming into their neighborhoods to build schools. It was as hard for the White leaders as it was for me. It was hard for the team I built and led, the Latina and Black female organizers whose work put Green Dot on the map as a political machine. We live in a segregated country, so the workplace is often the only place where we have the opportunity to convivir, a Spanish word that expresses the idea of sharing each other’s company. We learned together as we worked on building great schools and building political will for excellence in education for all kids in Los Angeles.

Real Talk

I’ve been involved in education reform for 15 years and have been one of the most visible Latinas doing this work not just in California, but in the country. Our movement has grown in large part due to us pioneers of color who used our credibility to build this movement. We used our community-organizing skills, our passion as survivors of this broken education system to convince the disadvantaged to trust the White people with whom we were aligned. Yet our ethnicity continues to be used against us even though it’s arguably one of our greatest assets. Enough of us have shared this frustration that we can no longer be ignored. Hence, the relatively new commitment by the New Schools Venture Fund to addressing racial inequities. To have conservatives now try to minimize the real impact of race, racism and inequity in education in the United States is unethical and un-American. We have to find the courage to deal with our demons.  
An original version of this post appeared on La Comadre.

Alma V. Marquez

Alma V. Marquez, Founder of Del Sol Group, has over 25 years of experience in finding solutions to complex problems and a vast network of allies locally and nationally. Before founding Del Sol Group, Alma was Vice President of External and Government Affairs for Green Dot Public Schools, a national education reform organization that manages public charter. Alma also served as the California Latino Vote Director for President Obama’s campaign, where she developed innovative Latino Voter strategies including the “Obama Nos Llama” campaign.

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