Chicago I am participating in quite an exceptional event, almost unheard of in the organizing community in fact: a joint strategy session between two community organizing networks — PICO and ACORN — trying to struggle together to find new paths and successes in education organizing. About a dozen organizers from each organization are attending. From ACORN organizers are here both from the national level as well as Miami, California, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City, and New Orleans. From PICO our counterparts are from Flint, Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, and Kansas City among other locations.
The morning agenda put together by Gordon Whitman from PICO’s National staff and Liz Wolff, ACORN’s Research Director, focused on case studies from Chicago, Oakland, New York, and Denver that highlighted the best practices in organizational work from each group on the local level. In the afternoon Norm Fruchter, a nationally recognized educational expert and a great partner for ACORN in much of our education work, gave an excellent survey on “interventions” around the country designed to improve educational performance and outcomes. The conversations that followed Norm’s presentation focused on the hard questions of high schools and trying to determine measurements for success, proving once again that nothing is easy in this type of organizing.
There were a lot of good ideas: creating advisory plans for students, folding in community college-based work with the last 2 years of high school, creating “critical friends” groups that were not only peer based support for teachers but dedicated to school reform, evening schools for adults, and other interventions. The simple, but obvious, point was reinforced: everyone involved — teachers, parents, community, administrators — have to be brought in on the front end to make change work.
There are few organizers working with ACORN in urban America who has been on board for more than a year or two who have not had to contend with anti-school closing campaigns. One concrete suggestion emerged that made perfect sense: get in front of the closings in shrinking districts and figure out where schools should be closed, if necessary before it wrecks the neighborhood.
Looking at the campaigns and how they have developed, capacity was important. Where PICO had invested in California in a full-time staff person over the last 3 years to support educational organizing, not surprisingly their experience was that there was a lot more of such work than where they did not have the support for such intensive local campaigns. ACORN needs to revisit that question, if we are serious about more.
This kind of cross fertilization requires a lot of work and planning and some real sensitivity to learning a different language to be able to bridge uniquely different, but important, organizational cultures. My day in this joint PICO/ACORN Education Institute, as we called it, made me believe it was worth all of the work.