Inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Steve, January 21st, 2008


In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.

–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail (78KB PDF) (quote sent to a Jefferson High School e-mail list)

Those of us working for equity in Portland Public Schools are on the second step: negotiation. We’ve clearly documented the gross inequities plaguing the district, and we’ve outlined sensible ways to address these problems. We’ve been speaking to the school board about this for years now, and we’ve taken our concerns to the city council.

Our civic leaders are now saying they “get it” (how could they not?), but we have yet to see any significant concrete action to “address it.”

If the school board fails to address this inequity in a meaningful way, Dr. King has pointed the way toward direct action. Will we need to organize walkouts and boycotts of our schools that have been starved by the institutional racism and classism of PPS? Will we need to do sit-ins at our more comprehensive schools across town? Do we need to draw national attention to the shameful state of our schools before the school board makes significant policy changes to address it?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not calling for direct action right now. I’m willing to give negotiations a chance, and I think we have a reasonable partner in Carole Smith. But policy makers need to be on notice that patience is thin, we are strong, and there is a sleeping giant in the cross-cultural, multi-generational Jefferson community that is ready to be awakened.

This is not a community to be trifled with.

14 Responses to “Inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  1. Comment from melissa lion:

    Forgive a very stupid question, but I can ask this because I know you and the WM are all about education and there is no stupid question. And you know I’m just beginning to start eyeballing Roosevelt and the sorts of things the families in St. John’s need to do to improve our schools. So the question is: if Jeff and Roosevelt are so bad, why aren’t all the students fleeing? What I mean is, how are there 600 people there at all? Why aren’t all the students transferring? I worry that I’m not clear. I don’t doubt the school is in dire shape, but I want to know what is going on with the families of the kids there that they don’t send their kids away.

    Once again, I know the people who read this blog are very passionate about the school system and please know, this is not a slam against Steve, or the parents who keep their kids in Jeff, but a sincere question by a parent who is new here. I really want a comprehensive picture of the situation. Thanks!

  2. Comment from Steve:

    There are many reasons students don’t transfer.

    Many can’t afford transportation, or don’t feel comfortable or safe going to a school out of their neighborhood, where they would be in the minority ethnically and economically.

    There is a strong, multi-generational tradition at Jefferson, and I assume also at Roosevelt.

    There were a number of students who spoke to this at the school board and city council meetings last week.

    Whatever their stated reasons, we know statistically that wealthier, whiter students are vastly more likely to take advantage of the student transfer policy, and those left behind are disproportionately poor, minority, and special needs.

    We also know that the district continues to punish those who stay in these neighborhood schools (by choice or by default) with significantly reduced educational opportunities.

  3. Comment from Steve:

    I should also add that there are good things happening at all of our schools. Jefferson has an average class size of just over 18, for example, and a really great teaching staff. You can’t get that kind of individualized attention at Grant or Lincoln. I’ve heard wonderful things about Roosevelt, too.

  4. Comment from Toni:

    It was great to see the responses that we had during the Mayor’s week at Jefferson, however, one thing perplexed me. Why didn’t that wonderful presentation made to the Council on Wednesday Morning by Jeff students come to the board first? The board is full of the policymakers that can affect change and I just wished I would have heard those wonderful presentations at the board meeting as well. Steve, I must agree that individualized attention is rare at Grant unless you are a minority, and your teachers feel that they have to pay special attention to you because of the fact. I’m sure that is an occurrence most other schools that have a white majority.
    Happy MLK day to all and let us not forget who will affect the future and solve the problems that older generations caused: it is the students.

  5. Comment from Anne:

    People have been talking to the Board and getting little or no response for years. I was there in 2005 and 2006 when students, parents and teachers spoke out against the racism and stupidity of the reforms intiated by Vicki Phillips. For an example: I posted PTSA president Glenda Walker Simmons speech to the school board from Jan.06 her on this site a few days ago. The board ignored common sense, complete documentation, impassioned appeals and instituted the latest reforms at Jefferson that mostly worsened the situation. In fact they lauded Phillips for her vision and promised this would be an improvement.
    We are tired of pointing out the obvious, tired of the school board mouthing platitudes about equity.
    The latest presentations, I believe, were an attempt to gain the school board’s attention while the City Council was watching. I sure hope it works, but if it doesn’t, as Steve points out, we will have to move to the next stage.
    I speak as someone who has been speaking out about inequity, racism and corporate influence in our public schools for 5 years since my daughter was in Kindergarten. I know there are activists out there with a much longer track record than that and I honor their commitment. It is a daunting task to continue to stand up to this kind of institutional racism, but it must be done.

  6. Comment from Steve:

    Props to Anne, and all the other folks who started NSA and have continuously pressured the school board to do the right thing over the past several years. Nothing I’ve written on this blog, and nothing I’ve said to the school board in my 11 months of direct involvement is fundamentally new.

    I’m not sure who made the decisions about who spoke to the school board and council. Noah Kone and his mother Kenya Nelson did speak to the school board on Monday night, though, and the message was consistent with the message Noah and his student colleagues delivered to the city council Wednesday.

    I’m willing to give the district another chance, under the leadership of Carole Smith. But meanwhile, we’re depriving thousands of students of a comprehensive education in their neighborhood schools.

    Too much is at stake to keep hoping waiting for the district to get it right. They must start acting now.

  7. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Who are these people who are out there tiring of the inequities? Haven’t seen many. When you go into the neighborhoods in the outer SE and North Portland there are very few people interested in taking on the status quo. Sure, in the Jefferson cluster there are many who understand the inequities, but there is no leader to gather around. No organization which stands up against the school board. So I think the board can, as always rest pretty easy that they will be protected by The Oregonian, Stand for Children etc. who will rail against the dissidents.

    The last serious direct action was Ronnie Herndon standing on the tables shutting down the meetings. It is the only action the school board understands. But even so, there is no one on the board to lead toward justice for the kids stuck in the miserable schools. And it takes that too.

    Don’t get me wrong. My school board campaign was serious direct action. I would love to help in a campaign which took these people on. I’ll be there.
    But, in the meantime, the entrenched bureaucracy and power structure doesn’t really need to listen. Heck, they are doing just fine. And even the most radical dissenter thinks they will eventually come around to seeing it how it is if the dissenters are just reasonable and make the argument. Ha!

    However, I really think the exchange of ideas on this blog and others may be having an effect in the “baby steps” (suggested by Steve) way.

  8. Comment from Toni:

    Yes I am aware of all of this. I’m on the school board (duh!!) lol. Anyway, as the Student Rep, I wanted to hear from the STUDENTS themselves who presented at council. I also wanted to see them at the SuperSAC meetings that I have announced almost every board meeting since November. Steve, you need to keep the board chances as long as you live in this district. Repetition is key. What is important is that adults don’t overhype and overshadow the students. Let the students talk without having hundreds of angry adults breaking the moment. To both Anne and Steve, I don’t doubt your commitment to this district, this city, or this school system for one moment at all. But my job recruiting students has not been easy. It’s hard trying to be a student while simultaneously being involved in the community, but students haven’t exactly been rushing to the Student Advisory Council meetings voicing their opinions. In fact, most have just written it off not knowing that they have that opportunity to talk directly to the Superintendent. What more can I do? I can’t force students to come. The district must act but to those students who are old enough must take action as well and speak for the younger students, too. People like to bring up the fact that the board members are volunteers so they don’t put their all into it. I’m a volunteer and a student and I sacrifice my Mondays to be at those meetings. I make the necessary calls and emails to my fellow board members and I have the necessary conversations with them as well. I am not at all a sitting duck. Just because I’m not having those conversations on Channel 28 on Mondays at 7pm doesn’t mean that those convos aren’t taking place. I am a student in PPS so I know exactly what it means to be a student. I don’t go to Jeff, I go to Grant. I am one of few African-American students in most of my classes. I have to do what I can to demand attention in my classes because of class size. Please don’t think that students in high school are peachy keen in every other school BUT Jeff. Every school has its issues with race and class. When we try to have those “open conversations” about race, somehow Jeff and Roosevelt seem to be the only schools people talk about. What about those schools with a small percentage of minority students, why aren’t we focusing our attention on them as well? Why aren’t we engaging them in these conversations? What about the minority students who transferred out of Jeff and Roosevelt clusters and fell through the cracks at the other schools? Who will speak for them?

    If we are going to have those conversations, we must talk about every school and every neighborhood, not just the ones that seem to be the most “diverse”. I definitely agree with most of the standpoints that I’ve been hearing about the state of our schools. But I am a student in those schools. I am not at all privileged and I am not a part of the illustrious middle-class. However, I make the best of what I have and I fight for what the students don’t have. Together with an inclusive student council we, the students, can create resolutions and make a change in district policy. But where are the student leaders I made a call for at Wednesday’s council meeting? I wasn’t exactly talking to the air and I certainly wasn’t on stage for a couple seconds of fame (i mean it’s public access t.v.)! And while I might not incite controversy or speak out often during the board, I hold my opinions strongly.
    I put out a call for student leaders to stand up, join with me, and make a change. It’s been done before.
    Sometimes, it’s not always up to the adults to do the talking.

  9. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Heh heh — I knew it was Toni.

  10. Comment from Toni:

    Hey Wacky Mommy! lol.

    Good job! Thanx for the email earlier! I was just writing you a response….

  11. Comment from Steve:

    Ohhhhh!! That Toni!

    You set a great example for all students, and I certainly understand your frustration. (Little known fact: I was a student school board rep in high school.)

    It was certainly not my intent to detract from the students at either the school board meeting or city council meeting. I hope it didn’t come across that way.

    To your frustration with getting students involved, and also to Steve B.’s point about people not wanting to take on the status quo, I say you have to be very patient with people who are under siege. Many people have reason to shy away from the kind of confrontation that comes with speaking truth to power.

  12. Comment from Terry:

    Direct (non-violent) action may be the only thing that will capture the attention of the community –and the board. Board protocols do their best to tamp down any overly “enthusiastic” demonstrations of discontent with school policy.

    I’m ready to start some strategic civil disobedience. Just let me know when and I’ll be there (as long as it doesn’t involve public speaking. I’m not ready for that.)

    I’m happy to see Antoinette back on the blogs. (Hi Toni!)

  13. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    He really was a student rep for the school board, representing Iowa City City High High School (as we call it). The platform he ran on was…

    “What is this crap?”

    Some things never change.

  14. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Toni, thank you. Go ahead and speak out more at the board meetings. Somebody needs to do it. Trying to get more people involved is always a worthy goal. I share your frustrations. People often just don’t pay any attention and it is often the people who should the most. I taught 10 years at Lane Middle School, was a well liked and respected teacher, ran the major part of my campaign directed at improving the middle schools in lower economic neighborhoods like Lane, and never won a precinct in the whole attendance area. Not one. Nobody was paying any attention. The way it goes sometimes. All you can do is hang in there.