04/09/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2013

Organizing for Educational Justice Rooted in Community

Resistance against an unjust public education system takes many forms; educators, young people, parents, and community members speak out and take action in far-reaching ways. One recent example is the courageous teachers strike in Chicago, which encompassed a long organizing campaign that brought communities and groups together with intentionality and vision.

I have been involved with parent organizing for many years and would like to highlight two groups whose ongoing work and commitment to justice in education reflect a model of organizing that I believe is truly transformative.

The work of each group -- La Union in Brooklyn and the Parent Leadership Project (PLP) in uptown Manhattan -- is based on principles of popular education and Participatory Action Research (PAR), which are rooted in the belief that communities organizing for justice, in this case, low income parents of color, bring with them the knowledge, wisdom, and expertise to effect meaningful and sustained change.

I spoke with Leticia Alanis from La Union and Ujju Aggarwal from the Parent Leadership Project about their work and their visions for the future, and I share some of their reflections below.

What is the most inspiring thing about the work you do?

Leticia Alanis: Building community! Discovering that we are not alone and that we share hopes and struggles and also the collective power to transform our lives and our society in a way that responds to our best aspirations and values.

Ujju Aggarwal: There are so many things! One is the dedication -- seeing the daily dedication that low-income mothers of color have to demanding good educations for their children, especially when they are holding down so many other areas of life. It is work that they should not have to do -- but they do, day in and day out. Another inspiration is the community that we build. We work for justice in education -- but the community that sustains us is a community of love, of support.

How do you decide what issues to work on? How do you think about organizing?

Leticia: We decide it as a group, listening to each other and seeking the voices of members of our community. We know now that we can't do the work that needs to be done if we don't listen. We have adopted the motto: caminar preguntando, which reflects the need to have our ears and minds, but mostly our hearts, open to the learning that comes from listening to everyone with whom we interact. Organizing is bringing people together to build community, to decide as a collective what we want to do for the good of our community, and to then fulfill our commitment and review as a group what's happening in the process. It's a circular process.

Ujju: Our work is based on popular education -- so we work on issues that emerge out of our stories. As we shared our stories, we realized a common thread that wove our different stories together had to do with public education -- our hope for it, but also the segregated and unequal reality of our schools. So we talked and learned more and our work became targeted at dismantling the structures of segregation in Community School District 3, and working for schools that reflect, respect, and serve the communities they are part of.

Who are your partners, and why?

Leticia: All parents who want to be part of a change in education, students, conscious educators, schools trying to serve families and communities as best as possible, advocates of parents and children, the community at large.

Ujju: We partner with a number of different groups. Working in coalition is critical. One group we're dedicated to organizing proactively with is teachers, and we've worked closely with the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE) for a number of years.

What do you see as the power of the kind of organizing your groups do?

Leticia: When the seed is planted with care, and you also take care of the conditions that allow a plant to grow, the results will be beautiful. I feel our seed may be small and take time and lots of nurturing, but I'm sure the fruits are coming. I start to see them in our own transformation, in the slow transformation of relationships between parents and schools, and in the children knowing that their parents and allies are working for them, for their future. And more positive and broader changes will surely come if we keep building -- from the ground up -- the kind of education we want in our communities."

Ujju: PLP is a bit of an experiment. We grew out of more than a decade of collaboration between the Center for Immigrant Families and the Bloomingdale Family Head Start Program. We combined our resources and are building a project that links popular education, community organizing, and advocacy with much-needed services. So that is powerful to be part of. Another thing that is powerful is that the struggle to dismantle segregation in our community is also linked to a larger struggle that has to do with gentrification. So when we work to make sure the schools reflect and respect all of the families in the district, it's a fight that is at once about the schools, about the immediate educations of low-income children of color, and about the collective future of the communities that have been here and are struggling to stay.

Both La Union and PLP embrace imaginative and life-affirming processes at each stage of their work. With little funding and few resources, they don't take short-cuts but remain true to their commitment to making visible and central the voices and leadership and collective vision of their members as they organize for a just public education system and society.

Note: I have had the privilege of experiencing the work of both groups first-hand through my current work with the Participatory Action Research Center for Education Organizing and, before that, the Center for Immigrant Families.