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Community Organizing in Education

By November 13, 2017February 21st, 2022Resources

Dan Thalkar

Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA

Dan lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Over his nine years in the classroom, he has taught 4th through 8th grade, and in his free time he probably watches more cartoons than most of his students. He also enjoys poetry, critical race theory, and Kendrick Lamar.

When President Trump was elected, I was flooded with emails from former students. Should I walk out? Will protests do any good? Are our hearts in the right place? Will anything we do make a difference?

While reading the myriad One Year Later thought pieces that flooded the internet over the past week and growing increasingly depressed over how quickly not normal does, in fact, become normal, I realized that to a large degree, my students’ questions have shaped my approach as a citizen and an educator over the the past year. Are our hearts in the right place? Will anything we do make a difference?

Though I’m nowhere near finding answers to those questions, the searching has increasingly drawn me toward community organizing. If we approach teaching through the lens of community organizing, we suddenly have access to the tools and language our students need in order to move from questions to action.

Through the lens of community organizing, teaching isn’t just about imparting knowledge or building skills, it’s about developing the capacity and wherewithal and desire to actually use that knowledge and wield those skills in a change effort. It’s about empowering students with the agency to move forward after asking, “Will anything we do make a difference?”

Unfortunately, when educators discuss community organizing, students and families are rarely viewed as the agents of change. Far too often, we claim that title for ourselves. At a professional development recently, I attended a workshop on Community Organizing 101. It was fine. It was also abundantly clear that I viewed the role of the teacher in community organizing through a very different lens than the facilitators and other participants.

There was a lot of language about wanting to create change the community. About how to mobilize other teachers and have house meetings. Through this lens, organizing is separate from teaching. Teaching, in fact, might just be a pit stop until public policy work is available, after those two years in the classroom give you the credibility you need to impact policy in low-income communities. This lens also reveals an inherent power structure: by organizing the community, you are claiming to know their needs better than them, to be the advocate they do not have, to be their selfless savior. We run the risk of Lorax Syndrome. I am the teacher who speaks for the communities.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, I know. Public policy is an important endeavor, and we need more teachers to play a role in directly shaping policy. We need players at all levels of the game. However. When a conversation about community organizing has minimal acknowledgement of children and families — you know, the actual community — we have a problem. The problem, I think, is one of perspective. There is no need for the bifurcation of teacher and organizer, not when they are so naturally intertwined.

John Dewey famously wrote, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” As such, we do not merely educate of the world, we educate inthe world. If we view the skills and content as something our students will need later, then we’ve already lost them. I teach middle school. Kids can’t comprehend an ethereal “later”. They can barely comprehend their own mortality. They know now, and each moment is the most important moment. Each experience, each love and heartbreak, the most profound experience. Each child at the center of their own universe, creating the dazzling multiverse that is a classroom.

If I teach my kids how to write an argument or how to deconstruct an author’s claim, if together we learn about the branches of government or anti-immigration laws, if we wrestle with the legacy of slavery or the impact of Manifest Destiny, if we ask what it means to be human or what it means to be American, if we engage in the messy business of the world, if we do all of this and do not somehow chart a path forward, then I am implicitly teaching them that oppression is simply the way things are and the way things have always been.

I need to do better. Collectively, we need to be better. I frequently fall short — my class is definitely characterized as depressing and I struggle with not privileging issues that I think most matter — but the lens of community organizing provides me with standards toward which to aspire. We learn these skills, we wrestle with these truths, in order to change things now. Along with teaching reading and writing and history, it’s about teaching problem analysis and advocacy methods and activism.

I try to let the kids guide the issues and provide them with the language and tools they need to carve their visions into existence. I try to point them towards platforms where they can share their voices. I try to help them see their own participation in the great lineage of voices speaking up against oppression. I try to help them network with local organizations. I try to provide opportunities to experience different perspectives and different communities. I try to engage in action research and root cause analysis. I try to situate their own wisdom and experience at the heart of every project and to provide ample time for us to learn from one another. I try to ensure our classroom is always in the beautifully messy state of co-creation.

Students who are empowered to be organizers will show their inherent greatness. They’ll direct their own letter-writing campaigns, organize community events situated in cultural identity, wield social media like a weapon, turn every school function into a fundraiser, argue school policy, educate their families. They’ll give a damn.

Maybe, instead of viewing community organizing as something that happens outside of the classroom, we should consider the potential our children and families have to organize around what matters most to them. Maybe if we viewed our classrooms as hotbeds of organizing, our students would see a sense of purpose in schooling.

Our society is currently a roiling mess of angst and id. We know this. Our kids know this. If education is to play a role in transforming our society, then maybe it’s time we stop doing things for our kids and communities. Maybe it’s time we start doing things with them. Where they organize, I’ll follow.