An Interview with a Future Educator and Community Partner, Jaydra Johnson
Interviewed by Gabrielle Hutton
Gabrielle Hutton Interview with Jaydra Johnson November 29th, 2015. This is the first in a series of interviews with the Social Justice in K-12 Education Capstone at Portland State University Capstone community partners and other stakeholders in the fight for educational equity. Thank you to Jaydra for agreeing to the interview and to Gabrielle, a current student, for starting this series!
Gabrielle: What role can the average community member play in pursuing educational equity in our schools?
Jaydra:I think the single greatest (and easiest) thing any person can do to fight for education equity in our schools is to be informed about and vote for initiatives that support folks living on low incomes. Poverty is identified over and over and over again as a significant factor in educational outcomes. We have to provide our kids with the basics if they’re to succeed in schools. I see capitalism’s unequal distribution of resources as the locus of so many problems that affect our kids, including segregation, mass incarceration, hunger, violence, and homelessness. We all have a vote and a voice that we can use to support the poor. Voting for measures that increase and/or equalize school funding is another easy way to help kids that everyone can do. Voting takes very little time, but can make a big difference.
Consciousness raising is another way the average community member can support educational equity. Education is a highly contentious issue in this country and folks love to talk about it! Again, being informed about current issues in education is key here. Then all you have to do is talk with people about them, share the facts, and have a genuine dialogue. Even if they don’t change their minds right then, it’s worth it.
Some of the sites I like for educationrelated writing arerethinkingschools.org, slate.com,theatalantic.com,motherjones.com,socialistworker.org,and of course opb.orgfor local issues. Obviously these sites are liberal and even radically leftist, but I think that’s a good thing. CI would argue that conservative and even mainstream views of education do not support equity, love, and caring for our kids. So I am completely unapologetic about my politics.
G: In your opinion, what is/are the biggest challenge(s) our schools face?
J : Oh, man. This is a really hard question for me to answer. I think privatization if the greatest threat to our public schools right now. Our whole economic system sends the message that profit is the only thing that matters, so public institutions are in a precarious spot. By privatizing schools, certain folks stand to make a lot of money! Because kids need food and curricula and books and technology, of course, tests. Over the last 10 or 20 years a lot of changes have been made and the control of public schools has shifted. Corporations and billionaires have a lot of interest in taking over the schools and have done a pretty good job at it, unfortunately.
G:What about the challenges our students/youth face? Teachers?
J : The biggest challenge my kids face is poverty. Many of them come from underresourced families and underresourced schools. Teachers have a lot less freedom than they used to and are constantly given new standards to comply with, new tests to prepare kids for. Teachers I work with report that they feel squashed and thwarted by a lot of what’s going on in education policy right now. The move toward standardization, privatization, and union busting is hard for teachers and makes being a social justice educator pretty exhausting. Oh, yeah! And teachers and their unions are vilified in the media, so there’s a lot of low public opinion about teaching as a profession, I think. 99% of the teachers I meet are amazing people who work themselves half to death for their students and fight so hard for the right to just teach by giving their kids what they need.
G: What role can the youth play in changing the school system, in your opinion?
J: I’m moved to tears constantly by the bravery and passion of youth. They have a tremendous amount of power in changing the schools and the world. They can organize all sorts of nonviolent direct actions, from walkouts and sitins to testifying before the school board to opting out of tests to writing letters to government officials. Art is another big way kids can change the world. Slam poetry, music, painting, drawing, fashion youth are at the heart of these worlds and people watch what they do and say. Kids have a tremendous capacity to influence their peers and parents and even markets. They have time and, hopefully, fewer fears and responsibilities than adults do, as well. Students in Seattle have been doing some amazing things recently, but students all over the country are taking action all the time. Once you know this, you’ll see examples all the time. Youth have unbridled energy and are steadfast in their beliefs about what is fair and just. They are incredible. Always.
G: What is the most helpful kind of volunteer support that we can give to schools?
J:Any in which a relationship is developed with a kid. Youth need the same things we all need. They need to feel loved and seen and listened to. They need to feel that they matter and that people care. I think relationships make the difference between dropping out and staying in school even when it’s hard. It’s the human being giving the help, not the help being offered, if that makes sense. Many kids I know don’t have supportive adults in their lives, so just being there as a grown up is enough!
G: What would be your plan to bring true equality to our schools & classrooms?
J:Oh, man! Another huge one! Honestly, what I want is probably never going to happen because I’m pretty radical on this issue. It would involve changing the way schools are funded, for sure. I would probably reverse the current funding system to give more funding to schools in poorer neighborhoods. I would abolish all standardized tests, because they are a massive waste of resources and do absolutely nothing positive for schools. The teacher’s unions would be strengthened and teachers would make most decisions about education policy. They are the ones in class with the kids day after day. They know what kids need more than any politician, corporate CEO, and maybe even more than folks with PhDs in Education Policy. If you’re not in the classroom, it’s hard to make informed decisions about what should happen in those classrooms, right? Youth advisory panels would be in there, too. There’d be kids at the table in making decisions about curriculum and programs. So localized control that’s based a lot more on relationships and care and subjective things that the people in control of the money don’t value very much. I’m not sure how I would address racial and economic segregation, but that would be a goal as well.
G: What organizations would you recommend getting involved with to help with bringing this social justice to our classrooms?
J: Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance both have good listservs to join for keeping up on teaching issues and which organizations are doing what. Other than that, this is something I struggled with before I worked in a public school knowing how to get involved and with whom. I would say attending a school board or other public meeting would be really helpful, and just talking to other folks there, seeing how they are organized. And if they’re not organized, finding someone who knows about organizing to help you! People want to get involved and make a difference, so starting conversations about advocacy will yield results. If you are a parent or volunteer at a school, even better, because you can just talk to staff and parents about what is going on and ask how you can help.