Community Organizing and Educational Justice – From Local Struggles to a Global Movement

in Another Way
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Another Way is a timely and important book for scholars and activists who care about the future of education in communities that are struggling from economic marginalization and social and political exclusion. The trends that shape public education are increasingly international, both from the elite and grassroots levels. Many elites have advanced a global agenda of neoliberalism that promotes privatization and decentralization of public education and sometimes austerity measures. Resistance comes in the continual efforts of oppressed or marginalized communities to confront power and inequities in which the struggle over control of education plays a central role. We know more about the neoliberal agenda than we do about grassroots resistance. This volume offers us the opportunity to begin to learn from a diverse set of grassroots efforts to promote community-based education across the globe. Speaking as a scholar of community organizing and education in the United States, we North Americans tend to be woefully ignorant of education movements outside of our country. This volume promises to provoke and stimulate important conversations within the education research community and the broader educational justice movement.

The focus of Another Way on community-based education and community schools is highly important and instructive. The editors have assembled an impressive array of careful studies. From them we learn that decentralization can serve in some cases to create opportunities for community control of education, creating schools that are more responsive to community cultures, histories and traditions. If these schools serve marginalized students better, they can be a force for equity and inclusion. On the other hand, decentralization can also serve the movement to privatize education and decrease state funding of education, leading to greater inequities and new forms of exclusion. The chapters in this volume offer careful analyses of the rich array of patterns that exist between these poles including some that seem to contribute simultaneously to both results: increasing local democracy while decreasing the resources available for public education, which of course undermines the foundations for a healthy democracy.

The struggle for the direction of public education is a struggle over power: who will have the power to determine whether decentralization moves towards equity or towards exclusion? In this context, local community mobilization is not sufficient to create the power necessary when privatizing forces are not only well financed but organized nationally and internationally. Community school movements will likely be more successful if and when they can become part of larger social movements which can create the power needed to set educational policy.

This is not to say that localized efforts to create small-scale models of community education are not important. They may well be necessary for a community’s survival, as in cases of indigenous communities who need to find ways outside of state controlled institutions to teach their own language, history and cultural traditions. Local organizing efforts are also the places where grassroots people can begin to participate in democratic struggles, so they provide an essential foundation to broader national efforts (Warren et al. 2011).

The danger for cooptation of community movements, however, is ever present. For example, charter schools began in the United States with the promise of local responsiveness and creative innovation. Many were started by community-based organizations looking for alternatives to traditional forms of public education that were failing their children in large numbers. Twenty years later, the U.S. charter movement finds itself dominated by corporate networks bent on the transformation of education from public to private control. Cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, among many others, have experienced large numbers of school closures in black and brown communities and the opening of charter networks and “schools of choice.” Under the guise of “choice,” some of the schools serve the new urban gentrifiers and thus become a force for the displacement and dispossession of communities of color. Wealthy funders like the Broad, Gates and Walton Family foundations have poured millions into charter schools. As it turns out, both the Republican administration of George W. Bush and the Democratic administration of Barack Obama have supported this trend towards privatization of public education.

The past few years have witnessed a dramatic change in community organizing efforts at education reform as they have increasing sought to combine forces into national alliances to combat the well-financed and politically-connected corporate reform movement behind charters and choice. These national alliances – like the Journey for Justice Alliance and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools – sometimes target federal policy but they mainly serve as venues for local struggles to connect, support each other, share resources, and publicize victories to inspire the larger movement. In other words, while centering their work locally, they seek to “nationalize” their local struggles and marshal greater resources and power to their efforts (Warren 2014).

Several of the essays in this volume, however, alert us to the fact that the forces of neoliberalism are increasingly organized at the global level, through institutions like the World Bank and a rapidly growing set of international educational nonprofits and businesses. Yet, we see that community-based efforts remain local, while at best linking at the national level. It would be interesting to know if community-based movements are beginning to seek connections across countries. There are some early signs in the United States, for instance, that groups are beginning to move in this direction, involving both discourse and technology. More and more the American educational justice movement is adopting a discourse drawn from the international human rights movement: that black and brown children and their families have a fundamental right to education, which includes the right of families to participate in the education of children. National alliances like the Dignity in Schools Campaign denounce harsh and racially inequitable school discipline policy as a violation of children’s human rights. Meanwhile, community-based movements in the United States are also calling for building sustainable community schools as an alternative to closing and privatizing schools. Adopting human rights and community schools discourses provides a vehicle for connection to struggles employing similar frameworks and demands in other countries.

Meanwhile, social media has provided a platform to publicize local struggles across the globe more quickly and easily. When black parents went on a hunger strike in 2015 to stop the closing of their local high school on the south side of Chicago, they utilized Facebook and twitter and received support from people in many countries. #FightForDyett and associated hashtags trended heavily for five straight days, receiving nearly 100,000 tweets. People from around the United States and the globe posted pictures of themselves holding supportive signs and contributed food and money, while video tributes came in from France, Johannesburg, and Quito, helping to build a broader base of power that eventually forced the Mayor to back down.

In the end, the chapters in this volume, and the community struggles they examine, remind us that education is not simply one public service that communities might try to control or make more responsive to their needs. Education is the key to community development and the liberation of peoples. The Freirean tradition of popular education, the Alinsky tradition of community organizing, and the American civil rights movement’s freedom schools are all examples of movements that understood that education was part and parcel of the struggle for liberation. John Dewey, from a somewhat different perspective, understood that education provided the foundation for a healthy and equitable democracy. In order to free themselves, people must learn the knowledge and skills to analyze the world around them understand the root causes of oppression, adopt effective strategies for change and develop the critical consciousness to support social movements.

Sociologists of education have long understood the duality of public schools as both sites of social control and potential sites of resistance or liberation. Schools lie at the epicenter of the struggle over the future of the next generation. Will our young people become cogs in the machine of global capitalism and state sponsored systems of domination, or will they be full human beings capable of determining their own fate and the future of their communities? The essays in this book remind us that the struggle for the soul of public education is at once a local, national and global struggle.


  • WarrenMark R.Karen L. Mapp and the Community Organizing and School Reform Project. (2011). A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School ReformNew York: Oxford University Press.

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  • WarrenMark R. (2014). “Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice MovementNew England Journal of Public Policy 26(1):116.

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Another Way

Decentralization, Democratization and the Global Politics of Community-Based Schooling


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