Sometimes, in the midst of powerful interests steamrolling communities, we are reminded that silence is a choice. One example was last November in the small city of Richmond, California where oil and gas giant Chevron put down $3 million to buy the city council election but were beaten back by a slate of candidates with only $50,000 to spend. Another example has been unfolding in Newark, New Jersey where state appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson has wreaked havoc upon the school system with her "One Newark" plan that was put into full implementation this school year. One Newark, the fruition of a partnership between Governor Chris Christie and the former mayor of Newark, Senator Cory Booker, and backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, throws open the entire school district to school choice and expanded charter school options. In practice, the implementation has spawned chaos and situations that would be intolerable to parents and students anywhere, but which have been forced upon the district with no recourse due to state control of the schools.
Bob Braun, the former education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger, has relentlessly documented Anderson's tenure as superintendent and the series of rolling disasters One Newark has spawned. Braun has documented schools that were slated to close under Anderson even though they were succeeding and beloved. He has documented Anderson's abrupt decision to stop attending board of education meetings from which she has been absent a full year. He was there to cover the insensitive and incompetent summer enrollment where parents who had taken time away from work just to get put into the school selection pool waited for hours and were sent away with nothing. He was a main source of information on Barringer High School where parents and students marched out to protest the deplorable conditions that persisted well past the opening of the school year.
Anderson, for her part, has remained an elusive figure in the city but has traveled widely to talk about education. However, even outside of Newark, she has refused to face the people whose school system she runs, canceling a public talk at the American Enterprise Institute in November when Newark students and parents arrive in Washington, D.C. to demand answers from her. Even state legislators have had to make repeated requests and wait nearly a year for Anderson to appear at the joint committee on education to answer questions about her performance in Newark.
In the face of this superintendency characterized by arrogance, silence, and disregard for community, few adults have managed to bring adequate attention to the situation. And then there is the Newark Students Union, a collection of young activists acting as the conscience of Brick City. The students, who have staged a number of direct action protests this school year, made national and international headlines on February 17 when they walked out of another board meeting where Anderson was absent and occupied the Superintendent's office suite, refusing to leave until Anderson met with them and agreed to attend a school board meeting. The district administration initially responded with hostility, calling the students trespassers and sending police to the students' homes to "inform" parents of the situation:
— Marie Corfield (@mariecorfield) February 19, 2015
The student occupiers got support from local clergy, Mayor Ras Baraka, and former talk show host Montel Williams who took to Twitter to offer encouragement and to chastise Anderson for her continued refusal to meet with them:
— Montel Williams (@Montel_Williams) February 20, 2015
The Newark Students Union provides an extremely compelling case for their occupation:
The students ended their occupation after Anderson met with them for an hour, something that the state legislature took nearly a year to accomplish. In their meeting, Anderson agreed to attend a board meeting this week. However, that pledge was swiftly broken as the board met on the 24th with Anderson nowhere in sight:
— Newark Student Union (@NewarkStudents) February 25, 2015
It may be back to business as usual in the Superintendent's office in Newark as Cami Anderson continues to push changes and incompetent management upon the children and families of the city and ducks her legal and ethical responsibilities to meet with them. However, in one very important way, business cannot return to usual. These eight student activists showed that decision making power may have been placed in the hands of those who refuse to listen, but that the Newark's families do not have to relinquish their voices because of it. The students drew national and international attention to an arrogant and damaging way of doing business that sees itself as a national model for urban education. In four days of direct action, they got from Cami Anderson something that the school board and state legislature have failed to get: her presence. They have gained notable advocates who have platforms capable of amplifying their message far beyond Newark.
I am immeasurably impressed with these young heroes. We should all support them.