Organize 2020 and Durham’s Tipping Point

o2020-final-TeachOrganizeWin-BannerI’m posting today to ask folks to consider supporting an Indie Go Go campaign currently heading into its final week by Organize 2020, the social justice caucus of the North Carolina Association of Educators.  As an active member of this group, I have been impressed by the commitment, vision and integrity of people involved in this work.  The goal of the campaign is to raise funds for building a teacher’s union whose goals go beyond improved salaries and working conditions for educators to include broader struggles against racism and poverty in the communities we serve.

decline 2 sign


One example of this was how the Durham Association of Educators helped turn out members and allies such as parents and students to speak at a hearing on the County Budget on 6/9/15.  In the wake of the latest round of state budget cuts, the School Board recommended that the county allocate an additional $7.8 million in funding for Durham Public Schools.  The City Council’s first response was to recommend that only $1.8 million be provided, because test scores in the district lagged behind those of neighboring counties.  Why should the county reward “poor performance”?

county commission 3

This assessment failed to take into account that Durham County has higher rates of poverty than neighboring counties, as well as a greater percentage of students of color whose families are negatively affected by the continuing patterns of institutionalized racism and white privilege in this country.  One expression of that reality is the fact that while Durham is 55% white, Durham Public Schools has a student body that is 80% people of color.  We also have more students who are learning English as a second language than neighboring counties, as well as a greater percentage of students with disabilities.  The commissioner’s decision not to include those factors in his assessment of the district follows the nationwide pattern of refusing to recognize poverty and racism as factors that impact education outcomes.  This allows those who hold the reins of money and power to deflect responsibility for policies they lobby for because they increase inequality in society to their benefit.

It also allows them to to mischaracterize intellectually vibrant and diverse schools like ours as cautionary tales in ways that seriously underestimate the intelligence of our students and scare away prospective parents in the process.  Some of the best writing I’ve read as a teacher was by students whose standardized test scores were significantly lower than those of students whose writing was less compelling to read.  But standardized tests at the elementary level don’t take writing into account at all.  They certainly don’t measure awareness of history of the kind demonstrated by one student I taught who wrote a 10 page story about immigration.  His text featured power struggles between Barack Obama, Enrique Pena Nieto, and protest movements in and outside of jails on both sides of the Mexico / US border.  This young man was labelled “far behind grade level” because he had only been speaking English for a year, but he was one of the most dynamic and intelligent students I’ve had.  The same could be said for black students in my class who took the reins of a discussion about the Black Lives Matter movement as they shared points of view they had heard from their pastors about these issues. Their voices supported each other in a way that would have never happened in private schools I have taught in that typically had only one or two black students in a classroom.  Their valuable awareness and powers of articulation won’t be reflected in the County Commissioner’s statistics, but they taught everyone in my class a great deal, myself included

At the June 9th hearing, the overflow crowd of 250 – 300 people spilled out into the hallway as nearly 60 speakers requested changes to the budget.  By the time my turn came, the points outlined above had been made with eloquence and force by many.  So I shared what it was like to start count commissioner speechteaching in the district in the current climate, contrasting the love I felt for teaching in Durham with the frequent warnings I had heard from various quarters that it would be in my best interest to leave for a neighboring community like Chapel Hill or to a private school as soon as possible because, as one colleague warned me, “They won’t take care of you here.”  Rather than criticize anyone personally, I pointed out that incentives were set up to pressure teachers to gravitate to majority white schools in affluent communities.  I quoted Imani Perry’s critique of the standards era of education: “There is a place for standards, but that they shouldn’t be used to punish poor students for being poor, and to punish teachers who teach students living in poverty.”  Bert L’Homme, the district superintendent, came up to me afterwards to ask about Imani’s work because he wanted to cite it himself.  He also gave me the supportive directive “Don’t leave!” as a parting gesture.

more jail folks

What was really remarkable about the meeting was the convergence of speakers about education and anti-mass incarceration activists from the Inside-Outside Alliance.  The latter drew an audible gasp from the audience when they informed us that the amount of space allocated to prisoners was less than the what the county required of dog owners under local statutes about animal abuse.  They spoke powerfully against the lockback that had been going on in the jail, and against the jail’s request for an additional $2 million in funding.

They also set up a mock jail cell outside of the building that served as a kind of teach-in about the conditions people are living in at the County Jail, which is a disturbingly stylish and prominent building. It sits immediately across the street from iconic symbols of Durham’s revitalization such as the Bulls baseball stadium and the Performing Arts Center, on the right in the picture below as the jail stands to the left.  The PAC has stylish glass outer walls, but the jail has letter box sized windows designed to keep the reality of human beings locked up in cages out of sight.  I thought of it by way of contrast when I read Eddie Conway’s powerful description of a 1970’s jail in Baltimore that had a large wall of glass that allowed passersby to see directly into the jail. Inmates would sometimes protest against abuse by climbing up into the windows in ways that attracted attention from the outside and sparked dialogue in the surrounding community.  This use of architecture to limit dialogue reminded me of a college dormitory I lived in that had been designed to make it impossible for students to meet in groups of more than 5 or 6 in the wake of the campus protests of the Vietnam War era.


On May 1st of this year, I attended a march from police headquarters to the county jail.  A large crowd gathered outside first the headquarters (see pictures below) and then the jail to speak about various abuses.  A daughter spoke in tears of her father inside who was only allowed to call her at 3 in the morning, leading him to have to make the painful choice between speaking to their child and disrupting their sleep on a school night.  Speakers pointed out that many people in the jail had not been tried or convicted of anything, but were spending months in prison awaiting trial because they could not afford bail.  Prisoners began tapping on their tiny slot windows to acknowledge the crowd that gathered outside the prison gates to speak to their concerns.   The crowd began chanting “We see you! We love you!”  and then proceeded to march around the whole building, allowing people in each sector inside to make this audible but invisible gesture of solidarity.


May-1 march

May-1-4The protesters from the Inside-Outside Alliance were not acknowledged by the County Commissioners, however.  At the final budget meeting on June 22nd, each commissioner responded at length to issues raised about the education budget, whether they voted for the school board’s request or not.  But not one of them said one word about the prisons.  They refused to even acknowledge the topic, much less say anything productive about it.  As the people filed out after the budget had been approved by a 3 to 2 margin, one activist called out in anger and sarcasm, “Thanks for taking the time to speak to our concerns about the county jail!”

jail cell best view

22 hours per dayjail 4jail folks 3The contrast between the denial of funds to the schools and the approval of funds for the jail is not unique to our city, but it was powerful to see this national pattern play out on a local level where the consequences are so immediate.  And it was powerful to see two different constituencies organically join together as most of the speakers, myself included, expanded their frame of reference beyond either education or prison reform to embrace both as one interdependent reality.  The failure to invest in education does not save money in the end.  It transfers capital from schools to prisons, along with bodies and minds along what many activists have described as the school to prison pipeline.

county comm jail protesters

So please consider joining Organize 2020 as we try to build an organization that can continue to advocate for a change of course.  Elections will also be coming up in the fall for City Council seats.  We knew going in to the meeting that our chances of getting the full School Board request were not good.  The Commissioners did increase their funding from their initial $1.8 million proposal to $3.5 million, but, as DAE President Bryan Proffitt said, the real win was to bring public awareness to the choice that the commissioners made in such a way as to pave the way for the city to realize what is at stake in this fall’s election.

As Bryan acknowledged, there are complex dynamics at play.  In what came as a surprise to some, all of the black Commissioners voted against the School Board request, while all of the white members voted for it.  Bryan said one reason was that there has been an understandable mistrust of schools among some in the black community because of negative experiences with racism in the education system, such as the disproportionate rates of school suspension for students of color.  His counterpoint that budget cuts would only exacerbate those problems, and that charter schools that might replace traditional schools are not as accountable to citizens who may raise such concerns.

The Commissioners also made the understandable point that they did not want to set a precedent of making up for state budget cuts with local funding increases that the state would continue to take advantage of in the future.  In a county like Durham with a large black and latino population, this could be seen as an unfair shifting of tax burden onto people of color.  One senior audience member turned to those of us who had spoken in favor of the School Board proposal and said, “You all need to go Raleigh with these demands you have.”  “We will,” Bryan said, “We know what we’re doing.”

county commissioner votes

However, another factor is the class-based alliance of County Commissioners with the business interests of a growing city. As the above graphic shows, there was a distinct class bias in the allocation of additional funds.  Left out in the cold were classified staff, which include school bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers.  These workers were the ones most in need of a raise, after what had been brought to light at the May 4th school board meeting, as described by the Durham Herald Sun:

“Finance officials shared a document showing that city and county classified personnel have received pay increase of 2 percent, 3 percent and up to 4.25 percent since the 2011-12 fiscal year while Durham Public Schools classified workers have only received a 1.2 percent raise in 2012-13 and two one-time bonuses over the same period.

That fact proved shocking to new school board member Mike Lee, who vowed that he will fight to end what he considers a grave inequity. “That’s appalling,” said Lee. “I’m sitting here shocked. It’s unbelievable. This is wrong.”

He also urged the dozen or so classified workers who attended the public hearing to consider such matters the next time they vote for elected officials. “We should be marching to the County Commissioner building right now,” Lee said. “We have to make this equal.”

Jillian Johnson has since emerged as a progressive candidate that offers voters a better deal.  Her website statement about “Durham’s Tipping Point” maps out the larger conflict represented by the architectural juxtaposition of the ballpark, the performing arts center, and the county jail:


Every day, luxury condos go up as affordable housing disappears. Youth of color suffer from racial profiling by police and working families struggle to make ends meet on poverty wages. Rather than lifting up the whole city, development has been creating two separate and unequal Durhams. We are nearing a tipping point. If things continue as they are, Durham, like so many cities across the country, will become another gentrified town where racism and inequality are built into the very structure of our city. Without bold and deliberate action from our elected leaders and broader community, Durham risks losing the rich diversity and social justice values that make us who we are.

It is not too late for us to choose a different future and to make real a Durham for all. Working together with a mobilized community, a progressive city council can make local policies that lift up all of us, confront disparities, and promote racial and economic justice.

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