parents who are concerned about issues of gender and want to make sure there are gender-neutral washrooms in their school. I think anything that supports the building of relationships around common issues and concerns is critical because those issues can be building blocks to having harder conversations around more systemic issues, around how governments make decisions, around cutbacks to public services like education or health care. But you can’t have those conversations on the fly. Those conversations have to be part of a long-term effort and have to be part of relationships you’ve been building for a long time, when you’ve had a chance to get to know each other and work together and talk about other issues people are concerned about.
Our social justice committee has played that role for us. You know, if you get parents connected to your work in the kindergarten years, they’re going to be with you for six or seven years. That’s long-term. For activism and organizing, if you have the potential to recruit someone and get them engaged for the next six years that’s good. I think it’s an important investment to think through how people can come together to have conversations about equity and social justice.
IZ: If you were asked to give a five-step tutorial on how to organize, what would your five steps be?
DL: My five steps for organizing are basic. Number one is to build a strong foundation. If your foundation is weak, your efforts can’t be sustained. Map out who your allies are. Who’s in your school? Who has a voice? Who doesn’t have a voice? Who might share a common agenda? Who are the people you never see at parent council meetings? Who are the people whose kids get bused in from a different district and who will never be a drop-off or pick-up. Who are the allies in the community where children and teachers and parents are interacting, the local business, the local church, the local daycare, the local convenience store where the kids all buy their candy? Those are the people I would be mapping out first and figuring out who I want to reach out to and why.
The next step is working with those folks, working with parents and teachers, to figure out an agenda. Let’s be clear whose agenda it is. It must be a shared agenda anf there must be consensus. If people don’t own it and are not invested in it, why would they come to a meeting and do the work?
My third step would be to use a range of strategies in organizing. Ensure that you don’t use just one way of communicating or one way of doing outreach, but use multiple strategies to involve people and motivate them to take action. It’s not useful to limit people and say the only way to effect change is through letter writing, or the only way is through a petition. We need a range of strategies that can inspire people to get involved. It could be an inspiring film or speaker, but it could also be having a fun action, a pop-up party where the kids get involved and do a lemonade stand, lemonade for equity or to highlight the fact there aren’t enough dollars in the school so you have to resort to a lemonade stand for the education you’re trying to provide. People relate and connect in different ways. We’ve certainly done that in the Fight for $15 and Fairness. We’ve done all kinds of crazy things but the thing is, they should be fun, interesting, engaging and action-oriented. You can do your traditional letter writing, petitions and meetings but also have some fun actions that parents, kids and the broader community can get engaged in.
The next step would be ensuring that you’re achieving what you’ve set out to do and not getting distracted by bureaucracy and different agendas. People want to see change happen. They don’t just want a policy brief that sits on a shelf or endless meetings where you just talk and talk and talk and nothing ever happens. The action piece is critical.
The last step is to make sure you’re building the capacity of everyone who is involved in your committee, that everyone has a chance to be a leader and that you’re building skills, ensuring representation of the diversity of families in your school, getting new people involved. You can’t just have one person who is the shining light. For our work to be sustainable in the long term, the investment we make in ensuring everyone gets a seat at the table and everyone is supported to be at that table is really important.
If you have those five pieces working together you can build a strong foundation because you’ll have the leadership, you’ll have a range of activities, you’ll have a power analysis of who’s at the table, you’ll have mapped out your allies and you’ll have an agenda that everybody’s invested in.
IZ: Any last advice for teachers who are organizing in their communities?
DL: If I was going to give advice to teachers I would say map your schools out and see what strengths you have there. See who should be part of the conversation. Don’t just take the easy route. Reach out to communities and parents whose children have been marginalized, who are facing racism, dealing with issues of poverty, in precarious jobs. They will be your strongest allies because, frankly, they get it. They understand what it means to struggle on a daily basis and they are fighting for their children every single day. But it has to be a partnership. It cannot be a one-way street. When you are going out and talking to people about public education, you also need to be ask them “What are you concerned about? What is the thing that keeps you up at night? What are your fears for your children? Are you afraid of the fact that you’re going to have to move from your apartment because you can’t pay your rent or because there are cockroaches or you don’t feel safe on the streets?” What are the issues that parent is concerned with and what are you going to do to support them in their community, in their neighbourhood and in their home? If they don’t see that it’s a two-way street and they don’t see that you care about what their issues are, why should they care about your issues even though their child is in your classroom?
You have to reach out, do a lot of listening, try to make the linkages with what people are experiencing in their community and understand the points of connection between what you are fighting for as a teacher and what they are fighting for. If we don’t understand what that common agenda is and how we can work together, we’re not going to move this discussion forward.