For much of OPEN’s nearly 10-year history we have focused on building the capacity of people to confront inequitable systems focusing on the place where they are created and negotiated: the policy table. We’ve done it all, from traditional boots-on-the-ground organizing, to policy advocacy, community leadership programs and professional development for homegrown education talent. Through convenings, participatory action, direct service programs, and campaigns we worked to bring people in from where they had been excluded and voiceless all with the goal of making sure the people of New Orleans had the most say and power over the institutions that will be educating their children. We brought diverse groups of people together to build a common vision and collaborated with others to create equity driven policies for public school students.
And we’ve learned that while it’s important and necessary to engage the individual in creating change, it’s not enough. The fact is that the passing of Act 91 without community input and deliberation did not happen because the community was not invested in their city’s public education system. Far from it. In fact a lot of our work has tried to address the sting felt by communities of being ignored, silenced and disrespected while other people in power made plans for their children. That sting- which still persists today- could only be felt by a community that is invested and most certainly cares. At OPEN, we love the people but the locus of the problem does not lie with them. While it’s important and necessary to engage the individual in creating change, it will never be enough. And a set of tactics that make individuals responsible for the shortcomings of a system that is oppressing them is not only foolhardy but cruel.
Although people may not be the problem, they are the solution — and the locus of change. We must continue to engage citizens to seize their political power through policy education and advocacy. And we must do more.
As I said in the beginning of this letter, the public education system is the first and most prevalent system a young person encounters, but it is not the only one. We must continue to fight for a quality public education system that all American children can access. But what happens in schools is a reflection of what is happening around them and in the pursuit of better educational outcomes, we must confront all of the systems that impact child wellbeing and life trajectories.
This is ambitious work. Some would argue too ambitious for one local nonprofit. But in the face of such wicked problems, there’s no other choice. We’re just getting started, and we hope to work with you at all of the policy tables where Black and brown children’s lives matter.
Yours in the work,
Executive Director, Orleans Public Education Network