A Political Education: An Author’s Response

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s

Cover of A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, 2018)

I would like to thank the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) for featuring this roundtable on Black Perspectives as part of the 2019 Pauli Murray Book Prize. It was a tremendous honor to have my work recognized by my peers in this way — even more so because the award is named for such an inspiring intellectual, organizer, and freedom fighter. I want to thank J.T. Roane and the editors at Black Perspectives for their support and for assembling such a dynamic group of scholars whose work I respect, and have learned so much from, as contributors to the roundtable. I am grateful for the time expended, careful reading, and thoughtful comments and critique provided by Ansley Erickson, Jarvis Givens, Noliwe Rooks, and Dara Walker.

Working with educators and young people has deeply influenced my scholarly work. I started the research for what would become A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s when I was a graduate student. At the time, I worked as a social studies instructor and college counselor at a charter school that was co-located in a building with a neighborhood public school. Forty years earlier, this same school building was a site of the Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project (WESP) — Chicago’s experiment with community control of schools. Led by Rev. Arthur Brazier and Barbara Sizemore, WESP was a collaboration between the University of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and The Woodlawn Organization — a Black community-based organization advocating for community control. WESP, and Sizemore, became a major focus of my research.

So, I was in the archives researching 1960s experiments with community control of schools, while working in the same school building at a charter school that was emblematic of a new — and very different — era of school reform. I was fascinated by this layering of time and space and generations of struggle. One of my co-workers at the charter school was even Barbara Sizemore’s granddaughter. This confluence of events was SO Chicago (a big city with small town tendencies and few degrees of separation — particularly among Black folks). It also reinforced that I was working in a school and Black community that had experienced multiple generations of school reform. This arc framed a central question of the book: What happened and changed between mid-twentieth century Black community-based strategies to improve education and more recent education reform efforts centering school choice, privatization, and the corporate reorganization of education and the public sphere?

To answer this question, A Political Education analyzes transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform from the 1960s to the 2010s. As Walker highlights in her commentary, this is a history of Black organizing — and Black approaches to education organizing have never been monolithic. In the book, I examine struggles for desegregation, community control, independent Black educational institutions, and Black teacher power as diverse strands of a broader politics of Black educational achievement that developed during the 1960s and 1970s.

This particular politics of Black achievement arose in the context of the liberal welfare state’s failure to deliver educational equity through desegregation and the proliferation of discourses of Black pathology and inferiority generated by researchers and the state. As Erickson notes, this politics of Black achievement “was devoted to supporting educational self-determination and rejecting racist ideas of inferiority but flexible in both political and economic ideology and teaching approach.” As Rooks and Walker mention, I employ this analytical frame to disrupt characterizations of Black urban communities as primarily sites of Black pathology, where African Americans were too poor and/or disfranchised to engage politically or organize.

In addition to presenting a different history of Black urban communities, I hope that my work has shifted who we think of as organizers, education reformers, and theorists. I agree with Rooks’ assessment that too often “the Supreme Court, white parents, and occasionally, Black schoolchildren are generally the protagonists in the story of education for Black people in the United States.” Instead, I focus on Black parents, educators, students, and organizers often marginalized in these accounts who developed community-based strategies to improve education since the 1960s.

I center Black women in the book because Black education organizing history is Black women’s history. Black women’s political and intellectual labor powered movements for racial justice and belong at the center of discussions of Black politics, social movements, and education reform efforts. I work to demonstrate how Black women like Rosie Simpson, Barbara Sizemore, Soyini Walton, Lillie Peoples, Sara Spurlark, and Karen Lewis were educators, organizers, and theorists. These women were not always the most prominent or heralded figures in their respective movements or social or political spaces, nor were they necessarily representative of most Black women of their eras. However, their personal narratives and political lives reveal important histories. I also agree with Walker’s critique that I could have done more to engage a richer gender and class analysis that further locates the individual Black women who anchor the book’s chapters in relation to Black women’s intellectual history. Additionally, for every Black woman organizer who I discuss in some detail, there are many others who remain unnamed and whose histories are equally valuable. There is so much exciting new scholarship on Black women’s history, and I look forward to more histories of Black women educators, organizers, and theorists.

I was excited to read that Erickson and Givens assigned my book to their students — more so because their students were largely current and future educators. In the course of writing this book, I tried to put myself in the position of an imaginary “reader,” but it is continuously mind-blowing and deeply humbling that folks are taking the time to read and engage with my work. I’ve also cherished opportunities to be in conversation about this history with audiences outside of university spaces — in public libraries, schools, union halls, and coffee shops, with educators, elementary and high school students, community organizations, and advocacy groups. As is the case with teaching, I’m convinced that I learn as much, and often more, from these exchanges than whatever content I might be conveying.

When I give talks, I’m often asked questions about education and neoliberalism. Givens and Erickson both question what is necessarily new about more recent public-private relationships in education characterized as neoliberal. Erickson is right to point out in her response, and in her own work, that there is a long history of public-private entanglements and corporate power in public education that renders contemporary coalitions advocating for privatization far from “strange bedfellows.” As Rooks outlines in Cutting School, business interests have profited from what she calls “segrenomics” — private profits made from segregated and unequal public schooling — for a long time. And Givens is right to remind that “there have been ‘white architects of black education’ controlling its institutional development since the Civil War.”

At the time that I was writing A Political Education, it felt important to bridge historical conversations about Civil Rights and Black Power-era education organizing and contemporary conversations in education policy studies that framed public education debates in relation to neoliberalism. I’m not so invested in the term neoliberalism, but I do think there are historically contingent and unique developments in politics, education policy, and political economy over the last half century that are worthy of interrogation. Of particular interest, drawing on Naomi Klein’s work on “corporatism,” are restructuring policies that have aspired toward the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending as part of broader trends in the transition from an industrial economy to a service economy, the rise of finance capitalism, and the intensified consolidation of money and power by a small group of political and corporate elites.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, public education held out longer as a site to protect from privatization than other parts of the public sphere (e.g. housing, healthcare, etc.). Nonetheless, this economic restructuring has come to profoundly impact public education where corporate and political elites have projected a perpetual state of educational crisis — of funding, achievement, and pedagogy — to justify the transfer of public funds to private entities, attacks on teacher unions, divestment from funding universally accessible high-quality public education, and the embrace of market-based competition and choice by private sector actors, state officials, and corporate education reformers. However, I can also see how a long historical view of U.S. education policy might see continuities outweighing contingencies and interpret the racial history of U.S. education policy as, to borrow from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s assessment of the last century of housing policy, education “under capitalism” rather than a distinctive phase of neoliberalism.

Regardless of terminology, the consequences of the more recent privatization of public education have been profound. Corporatist reform policies have contributed greatly to the dislocation of Black students, Black educators, and Black neighborhoods. Borrowing from Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Givens implores that corporate imperialism “is antithetical to black self-determination.” Black organizers, educators, and parents have navigated, challenged, and at times contributed to the corporate reorganization of education and the public sphere from the late twentieth through the present. However, Black responses to the privatization of public services were largely based in histories that preceded this moment. They reflected past struggles for racial justice and the historical denial of Black self-determination in urban public schools, rather than strong commitments to privatization or corporate logics. When Black parents send their children to charter schools or Black education reformers fight to operate charter schools, they are not always simply colluding with the corporatist order, but responding to the historic denial of quality education for Black children and a lack of Black community control of urban public schools. In this sense, a focus on neoliberalism can both powerfully articulate shifting political and economic dynamics and erase histories of Black struggles for racial justice. Ultimately, I agree with Givens, “in the context of education or otherwise, there are but shallow heights to what Black people can achieve when acting in the interest of capital.”

As Erickson mentioned, in June, I was appointed to Chicago’s Board of Education. It is a great honor, a responsibility that I take very seriously, and a different space to pursue racial equity work. When I was appointed to the Board my mother said, “Ooohweee, this is about to be the political education of Elizabeth Todd-Breland!” And it has been. I learn new things every day in this role. However, there is nothing about my experience thus far that has made me any less convinced of the power and necessity of organizing and social movements to dream more just futures and create meaningful change.

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Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Elizabeth Todd-Breland is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on U.S. urban history, African American history, and the history of education. Her book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s, analyzes transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform from the 1960s to the present. Follow her on Twitter @etoddbreland.

Comments on “A Political Education: An Author’s Response

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    Bravo Liz. It’s an important contribution to the canon. Congrats again on everything.

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