12/05/2013 02:17 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

Voices That Deepen Our Thinking and Work in the Struggle for Educational Justice

In recent months, I have been pushing myself to think more critically and with a broader lens about some of the challenges and realities we see unfolding within, and related to, public education today. I wanted to begin to share some of the work of people and groups that I find particularly meaningful.

I have been reading the writings of a few people in particular whose thinking has helped me to recognize, even more deeply, how the two-tiered, corporatized education system we have today can not be separated from an understanding of public education historically. Two of the people whose works have particularly informed my thinking are Damien M. Sojoyner (formerly Schnyder) (CA) and Ujju Aggarwal (NY).

In his article, "Criminals, Planters, and Corporate Capitalists: The Case Of Public Education In Los Angeles," in Black California Dreamin, Damien M. Sojoyner, who looks at Black resistance historically in relation to what is happening to public education today, points out that

Much more than the structure of public education is in peril; rather, it is the philosophical ethos of freedom that has undergirded black resistance that is the true threat to corporate and plantation forms of governance.

He writes that,

Harking back to the insight of Du Bois, it is key to remember that the current regime is not at all interested in the development of an educated black population, but rather control over the ideological and material resources that are provided within education. Key to their quest is the attempted destruction of public education.

Sojoyner stresses the importance of recognizing and building upon the history of Black resistance (in this case, in Los Angeles) in the process of determining policy and action for the future.

Ujju Aggarwal's work, growing out of her organizing in uptown Manhattan, has focused on what the struggles over access to public schools reveal about race, class and gender as well as urban space. In her work, Aggarwal looks at how low-income and middle-income mothers gain access to public elementary schools for their children in New York City's segregated and unequal Community School District Three. She "traces the production of a normative cultural logic of inequality that narrates inequality in education as resulting from 'bad' yet 'fair' choices that are qualified by a lack of individual initiative, informed decisions, and capacities of parental care." Rather than these explanations, she argues, inequality in education can better be understood as resulting from the ways that "choice" as a key principle of "reform" since Brown v. Board of Education became critical to "how rights, freedom, and citizenship were imagined, structured and constrained." (Ujju Aggarwal, Public Education in the United States: The Production of a Normative Cultural Logic of Inequality Through Choice)

I have also been following the work of Edwin Mayorga (NY). Part of Mayorga's work and research is rooted in the Education in our Barrios project, a research study on public education reform in New York City Latino core neighborhoods (neighborhoods that are, or have historically been, majority Latino). The project -- which, in addition to Mayorga, has two co-researchers from East Harlem, Mariely Mena, a college student and Honory Pena, a recent college graduate -- has as its goal providing "concerned community members, local politicians and researchers an opportunity to identify and learn more about what educational issues are most pressing for the local community now and in the past." They also "help to document what kinds of action residents have taken to advocate for their own educational needs, and explore how these tactics and strategies may be useful for present and future organizing." Mayorga's work is deeply rooted in community, and his recommendations grow out of an interactive process among educators, students, community members and academics.

Finally, I have recently become connected to a group, Justice by the Pen, that also combines theory and action at every stage of its work. JBP's work is devoted to encouraging communities toward self-determination through the engagement of young people in social justice and community activism. As its mission statement notes:

Far too often youth are left out of the discussion on issues that affect their lives; we want to not only ensure they are being included, but ensure they are in leadership roles inspiring their mothers, fathers, families and communities to direct action.

The group's founders, Hany Massoud and Ayesha Hoda, recognize the great value of their work being rooted in history, and their wide-ranging curriculum reflects that understanding.

I have highlighted these individuals and groups -- and there are certainly many more who deserve attention -- because I believe their contributions and work are valuable for any movement that strives for educational justice, for self-determination, and for true transformation.