An unequal financial system contributing to poverty and joblessness is a focus of the Occupy movement, but little attention is paid to educators
JAISAL NOOR, FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: Protests against unequal economic opportunity, at the heart of the Occupy movement, resonate deeply with many New Yorkers. New York State trails only behind DC in income disparity, according to the Census Bureau. Many of the hardest hit are people of color who are disproportionately affected by poverty, high unemployment, foreclosures, and deep cutbacks to public services. As the Occupy movement loudly opposes these conditions, it’s increasingly found itself a topic of conversation in the classroom.
JAYNA LYNNE UMIPIG, SENIOR MEMBERSHIP FACILITATOR, EL PUENTE: It’s not that Occupy Wall Street, it is, like, all of the issues; it’s that all the issues are there, and there’s just an opportunity now to speak about it through Occupy Wall Street.
NOOR: Twenty-four-year-old Jayna Lynne Umipig is senior membership facilitator at El Puente, an after-school leadership program for underprivileged Brooklyn youth. Brushing aside her initial skepticism, Umipig has spent the last month creating an Occupy curriculum.
UMIPIG: I mean, the movement isn’t a movement until the young people are present.
NOOR: Umipig’s lesson plans aim to empower youth through creating protest signs, writing letters to Wall Street CEOs, discussing the role of social media in revolutions, and examining popular music, such as the song “Words I Never Said” by rapper and Occupy supporter Lupe Fiasco. One popular topic has been the unprovoked police brutality against peaceful protesters. It’s something many New York youth face every day. The city’s schools are the most heavily policed in the country. The over 5,000 officers patrolling city schools represent the fifth-largest police force in the country. Umipig says through discussion her students overcame their fears and participated in Occupy Wall Street’s anti-police brutality rally on October 18.
UMIPIG: And I was telling the young people, ’cause they were so nervous that the police were going to, like, try to do something to them when they came into Wall Street, and I was like, listen, the moment that you guys walk in there, they won’t know what to do.
NOOR: Umipig says her curriculum has received positive feedback from educators across the city and the country. The teachers haven’t just been involved in facilitating discussions of the protests. Many, including 32-year-old public school teacher Kelly Wolcott, helped launch the movement.
KELLY WOLCOTT, NYC PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER: New York City is a microcosm of a trend that’s happening nationally to undermine public education.
NOOR: Since 2007, the city’s school budget has been slashed by about 13 percent, and in the case of nearly 700 school aides laid off in October, the cuts almost exclusively targeted poor communities of color, according to the New York Daily News. Again, Kelly Wolcott.
WOLCOTT: This year alone my school lost $500,000.
NOOR: The Occupy movement’s opposition to the unchecked influence of the richest 1 percent in decisions that affect the 99 percent echoes what grassroots education activists have been saying for years, especially since the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002. It opened the doors for wealthy philanthropists such as Bill Gates to pour tens of millions of dollars into education reform and exert massive influence over policymaking. Business model reforms have been emphasized. Schools with poor standardized test scores are being closed, and many have been turned into privately run charter schools. These policies have been escalated by the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top education initiative. Wolcott says distribution of money is also problematic.
WOLCOTT: Funding priorities have also changed massively in schools, and there’s less money going to resources in the classroom and direct instruction and more resources that are being given to private contracts that are no-bid.
NOOR: Another trend is affecting education. Over the past 15 years, elected school boards have been replaced with appointed education panels. New York’s has not once opposed Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his nine years in office. That’s why teachers in the state organized an occupation of an Education Department meeting at a Manhattan high school last week. Public school teacher Joshua Sol Lewis says for once the community’s voice was heard.
JOSHUA SOL LEWIS, PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER: We’re being attacked constantly by the mayor, by the city. And they’re taking away things. They’re taking away things constantly. And it seems like we’re not fighting to take anything back.
NOOR: New York’s teachers union did not mobilize its members for the action. Lewis says organized labor needs to lead the fight for a democratic education policy.
LEWIS: Our union needs to step up to the plate in terms of bringing the community back into the decision-making process. And the union needs to be active in the community. The union needs to be coming to schools. The union needs to be organizing protests, fighting back on a daily basis. We are the biggest union, one of the biggest unions in the country. We have the resources. We need to be out on the front lines fighting back against what is a vicious assault on all of our basic rights and public education.
NOOR: Teachers and activists are planning to escalate actions in the upcoming week. On Monday they plan to occupy New York’s Department of Education headquarters. Reporting for The Real News Network and FSRN, this is Jaisal Noor in New York.