Occupy the Lives of Children in DC

10/11/2011 11:14 am ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

Thucydides, the Greek historian, had a thing or two to say to #OccupyWallStreet and its progeny like #OccupyDC: "Justice will not come until those who are not hurt are just as outraged as those who are," he wrote in the 4th Century B.C. People who, until rather recently, were not at all aggrieved now suffer deep hurt in the unending economic nightmare.

Maybe now these newly outraged citizens, many of whom are well-educated once-comfortable members of the middle class, will finally understand and raise their voices in solidarity with their fellow citizens for whom poverty has been a lifelong reality.

As I read about all the people who came from all over the country to "occupy DC" this past weekend, I found myself thinking about all the people who actually live in this city who were not present in the protests. Indeed, some of the people who are most grievously hurt in this city remain invisible, historically and completely disenfranchised, unlike many of the protesters who once had a great deal -- homes, jobs, advanced degrees, economic security --- that the recession stole from them. The protesters now have a brief, bitter taste of the poverty and fear that others cope with daily --- most particularly, the children and young people who live in the eastern half of the District of Columbia, especially those who live east of the river.

My marching days are long over, but I am glad to see the rising generations becoming engaged with the most urgent public policy issues of our times. The growing wealth gap, rising poverty rates, lack of real accountability for the corrupt financial schemes that precipitated the recession are all moral scandals that demand action and advocacy.

I just wish that the energy and idealism of this movement could focus more clearly and constructively on real justice issues, not superficial slogans or pointless disruptive acts like trying to invade the Air and Space Museum (which, if news reports are correct, was spurred in part by an agent provocateur on the right, a journalist trying to get a story for the American Spectator). Disorganized, amorphous protest movements risk exploitation and devolution into anarchy without clear and achievable goals.

I wish the protesters would march for justice for the 9,000 young adults aged 16-24 in the District of Columbia who are neither employed nor in school, as a recent Brookings report revealed.

I wish the protesters would cry out on behalf of the nearly 60% of DC children who drop out of high school. According to the report prepared by Martha Ross of Brookings, 13 children drop out of public school every day in D.C.

I wish the protesters would fill Pennsylvania Avenue to overflowing in solidarity with the 33% of DC children who go to bed hungry every night.

I wish the protesters would carry signs pointing to the shame of a nation that allows its own capital city to have one of the highest poverty rates in the country, a disgraceful rate of adult illiteracy and levels of economic insecurity and social inequality that are evidence of the still-unfinished agenda for racial justice.

In the years since my own collegiate marching days, I have learned that large platitudes are useless without specific action plans to remediate the factors that perpetrate injustice. As the most recent Brookings report points out once again, no factor reinforces poverty more completely than educational dysfunction, and no remedy is more urgent than good educational improvement. But we don't need more of the "education reform" that involves public posturing by diva superintendents, ridiculous "races" over the distribution of urgent resources to the neediest schools, the savage alienation of the teachers who do the hardest work of all, or more corporate titans dictating curricula to satisfy their bottom-line agendas.

We need to occupy the lives of the children in DC who are not simply marginalized, they are out beyond the margins of our consciousness entirely, young people whose major concerns run more to staying alive tonight than worrying about the lives of Wall Street moguls. We need to spend some time living in the space of the children who go to school hungry and who are afraid to go home at night, or the very young teenage mothers who are also raising their siblings, or the young men who hang in desperate places disdainful of education and anything else that smacks of normative conduct.

We need to occupy classrooms, not with placards and chants, but with sustained focus on understanding and delivering what teachers really need to teach marginalized children to read, to analyze, to communicate clearly, to add and subtract, to behave rationally in their own best interests.

We need to occupy the schools with sensible, passionate administrators who know that hungry, fearful, sick children cannot learn, who have the personnel and other resources to address the social problems that walk through the school doors every day. (The Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia Teachers College says it would take $4,750 per child annually to provide wrap-around services to impoverished children in New York; surely the tab would not be much larger in D.C., a city that seems to come up with the money to furnish well-appointed SUVs to its city officials.)

We need to occupy the homes and neighborhoods of our children with parents and adults who can read, who value learning, who hold children to higher expectations, who teach durable life skills through their own examples.

We need to occupy the imagination of those who make policy for teachers and students --- the central administration, the mayor and council, the U.S. Department of Education, the Gates Foundation whose money drives so much of education reform --- with a vision for effective learning that does not seek to blame teachers, constrain creativity, emphasize the wrong measurements, deny the impact of neighborhoods, families and poverty on the ability of pupils to succeed.

Real justice is about service to others, not ourselves. A movement that is only about expressing anger over our own individual hurts will soon disintegrate for lack of an achievable common cause. If the current movement is to be more than just another bubble of empty promise, it must focus more coherently on solutions for real social problems. When the tents leave Freedom Plaza, will anything be different for the children of Anacostia? Show me that difference, and I'll show you real change for social justice.