Celebrating a Fundamental Principle for Social Entrepreneurs at the East Harlem Block Schools 50th Anniversary: Accountability to the Community

06/18/2015 11:21 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

The idea that individuals create solutions to social problems, raise philanthropic dollars to replicate them, and then "take them to scale" with public funds, to solve the big problems across the land, is not really new. But the relatively new title of "social entrepreneur" has caught the imagination of foundations and public leaders, and attracts the idealistic activists who feel that creating something wonderful is more satisfying than attacking something that isn't working. It is, after all, very American. We start things, we build things, we have the freedom and the resources to create experiments that represent a vision of a better world.

In the sixties, protest campaigns to reveal injustice, to isolate it, to change laws and practices that were oppressive and unjust, carried the day. Sit-ins, marches, blockades, mass rallies, were the methods of the times. But even then some people were busy building institutions that represented the change we envisioned. The Office of Economic Opportunity, otherwise known as the Anti-Poverty Program, distributed funds for a brief period to local community-based groups to create solutions. I participated in one of these.

I was deeply engaged, first as a teacher and then as director of the East Harlem Block Schools, a parent-controlled nursery and elementary school that was created by parents in East Harlem in partnership with a Quaker activist who was married to one of the parents and who knew how to access federal anti-poverty funds. Together they built a marvelous community school and an independent public elementary school, before charter schools were named.

In the sixties some of the best inventions came from couples who fell in love, who created personal relationships that bridged the enormous class and racial divides. In getting to know each other, sharing their deepest vision for how the world ought to be, they merged the strengths of their very different perspectives and skills. On the one hand with deep knowledge of what was wrong and community connections that could be mobilized, and on the other hand with skills and confidence to access resources, they created entities that generated beautiful change. This was true in East Harlem: Tony Ward, the Quaker activist, and Carmen Maristany, the Puerto Rican mother who wanted the best for her children and community, married each other. Then they put their heads and hearts together and created the East Harlem Block Schools.

I had the great good fortune to find my way to the East Harlem Block Schools in 1966, where I would learn some very basic principles and have the opportunity to build something great. The most basic principle was that of being accountable to the local community. Although I was a Harvard graduate, with a Master's degree in education from Bank Street College of Education, I came to East Harlem as an employee directly accountable to the parents of the children in the school. All of the board members were low income parents who lived in tenement housing. They interviewed me and decided to hire me as a teacher of their children. Later they promoted me to executive director.

As director it was my job to listen to their ideas, their vision, their convictions, and translate their vision into reality, bringing my own skills, knowledge, and passion to the task. This was a profoundly different relationship to parents and community than existed in the public schools. I realized that given the inequality of opportunity and education and access to resources that existed in society, one way to get an equal partnership was to reverse the power relationship: that is, with the parents as my boss, I had to learn how to use my skills in a respectful way, to share the full information and challenges facing me as executive director with them, to think together about solutions, and to defer to their deepest convictions. This equalized the relationship and created a wonderful partnership. They had the power and the insight; I had important information and skills; together we had what we needed.

This relationship was consistent with the principles underlying the Anti-Poverty Program: "maximum feasible participation" of the local community. This was the right principle. It still needs to be better integrated into the modern national service movement, and the movement of social entrepreneurs, which is where youthful idealists tend to come into their own these days.

On Saturday, May 23, 2015, I joined many East Harlem families in a block party on East 106th Street celebrating the 50th anniversary of the East Harlem Block Schools. The schools still exist to this day, and many of the children who are now in their fifties with grandchildren of their own still say it was the best experience of their lives. They were very happy in the loving community that was created for them by their parents in partnership with teachers they had hired. The children honored their parents who had started the school 50 years ago.

Tom Roderick, one of the early teachers and now the Executive Director of the Riverside Center, wrote a wonderful book about the East Harlem Block Schools many years ago, called "A School of Our Own." I recommend it for all who are trying to build a community-based school or trying to understand the principles of accountability to community residents.