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New Jack Activists 

The Coalition for Educational Justice is fighting generations of neglect with a secret weapon — students

Thursday, Jul 8 2004
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Page 5 of 8

This is where the CEJ comes in. Unlike other leftist organizations, which tend to be more academic than action-oriented, CEJ is both: It critiques the state of things but is determined to provide a constructive alternative to it. It is radical but reasoned, highly political but also pragmatic, because, as it impresses on students repeatedly, it wants to get things done. Instead of blasting the NAACP for not sharing its cause, for example, the CEJ simply creates a model it would like the NAACP to follow — moving past the reactive, picket-line mode of social protest to one of community organizing that doesn’t take on any issue without devising a workable plan of action first.

The Kweisi Mfumes and Jesse Jacksons of the world should be so inclined. So should Bill Cosby, who recently ignited a firestorm after he went public with his wrath about the ongoing failure of the black lower class to lift itself out of its poverty/ghetto mentality and cultivate education above all else. Cosby may be right in the main, but he has yet to offer a plan on what to do next. To the CEJ students — many of whom are certainly among the lower class Cosby was speaking of — to get with a program, you’ve got to have one.

The CEJ may be a wonderful exercise in building esteem for kids a bit short on it, but the bottom line is that they need the coalition. Badly. A recent Louis Harris poll of California teachers revealed that school quality, and inequality, breaks down as sharply along racial and ethnic lines now as it always has. Not coincidentally, the poll’s findings were announced in the same month that the country was observing the 50th anniversary of Brown.

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Thus far, Brown remains much more observation than celebration because, as virtually every article written on the subject admits, banning desegregation did not translate into the equality that was expected, and for all the pooh-poohing of racial injustice these days,

the problem of unequal public schools is as urgent as ever.

 

CEJ students say they’ve known this practically since kindergarten, but poor conditions on ethnically isolated campuses were so commonplace and so widely accepted that raising questions was not only not encouraged, it seemed a moot point. Most say that when they reached high school, disaffection threatened to set in for good — but then they landed in a history or English or life-skills class with a CEJ teacher. Epiphanies about their educational situation and the stirrings of activism began then and haven’t abated.

“For me, it really started with 9/11,” says Frances Martin, the 17-year-old CEJ leader who spoke at the June rally. Frances is animated and speaks rapid-fire. Like Channing, she found the CEJ through Crenshaw’s Peace Club. “I like history, and then Alex and CEJ really started breaking it down for me. I mean, America really needs to get off its high horse! Everything connects, issue-wise — war, recruitment, education. People don’t see the connection. Why? We have the escalating price of college, but we’re paying billions for the war machine — you could take a fraction of that money and fix the stuff we’re talking about.” She shakes her head fiercely, and her reddish braids dance.

Marquise, the student from Dorsey, shares this indignation, though somewhat more circumspectly. “I always wanted to act when I saw things wrong, but I didn’t know how,” he says. “I’ve been experiencing lots of things ever since middle school. In my community I see, like, police brutality and crooked cops. There are police on the block every day, but none of the crime seems to stop.”

He says that when he enrolled in a 10th-grade history class with Noah Lippe-Klein, another CEJ teacher, he was at a low point. “I wasn’t doing too well in school,” Marquise recalls, a little sheepishly. “Mr. Lippe-Klein’s class was the only thing I was doing well in. He was teaching me things I’d never heard before, like the truth about Abraham Lincoln and his view of black people, and how that was related to the Southern economy. I liked it. It’s not just dates; it’s things you really need to know. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I have a knack for this.’” He smiles in a kind of disbelief. “It’s funny, but the first day of class I thought, ‘Okay, this is another class where I have a book, I turn in a piece of paper, and that’s it, get the grade.’ That wasn’t it.”

The division of labor within the CEJ is roughly this: Students carry out protests and agitate for reforms, parents monitor school budgets, and teachers try to enlarge the group’s political presence within UTLA to rouse that particular sleeping giant. At points, everybody works together; for instance, at rallies and general meetings. If this wheel has a center, it’s the teachers. Most CEJ teachers have done time in some kind of progressive group or movement, such as the Bamboo Lane Collective or the Solidarity Socialist Organization. Caputo-Pearl and several others did theirs at the Labor Community Strategy Center, one of the city’s premier community-organizing outfits and the birthplace of the Bus Riders Union. The BRU is the occasionally infamous group, comprising mostly low-income black, Latino and Asian bus riders, that made history by forcing the powerful Metropolitan Transportation Authority into court in the mid-’90s over its separate-and-unequal treatment of bus riders. Against great odds, the BRU won a federal consent decree that required the MTA to improve its bus services to the working class and poor — 90 percent of its clientele. In grassroots campaigns like the BRU’s, the David-vs.-Goliath paradigm is a given, and to the CEJ teachers indoctrinated at the Labor Strategy Center and organizations like it, taking on the school bureaucracy is merely another battle that is better fought against great odds than not fought at all.

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