More than a hundred people attended the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance’s (MEJA) first statewide convening in late June. Held in central Massachusetts, organizers and representatives from community, parent, youth, and educator groups from across the commonwealth gathered for a day of strategizing, network-building and inspiration to help build a stronger network to fight for public education.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, the MEJA convening was sandwiched between two challenging legal setbacks for the education justice movement. The previous Monday, June 18, saw the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court strike down the Millionaire’s Tax ballot initiative that so many public education groups, including Schott grantee partners, had spent time and resources building toward in the fight for fully funding public education. On the Wednesday after the convening, June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Janus v. AFSCME ruling, dealing a devastating blow to the ability of teachers and other public sector workers to organize.
MEJA’s convening was in that sense a bright light in an otherwise gloomy June — a light that may also shine a way forward for public education advocates. Especially now in the face of judicial and legislative setbacks, only through collaboration in cross-sector, multiracial coalitions will we be able to build the public and political will to ensure that every district is able to provide every child with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. And as MEJA has grown, so has its local chapters: the North Shore area, Lowell, Lawrence, Boston and Worcester all have organizing tables that community members can get involved in, with more to be launched soon. Advocates also highlighted the intensive and long-running work of the Boston chapter, the Boston Education Justice Alliance, whose efforts predate MEJA’s formation and helped ensure its statewide focus on grassroots movement-building.
Jay Travis, Co-director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), came to the MEJA convening from Chicago to help strengthen the AROS national network and strategize with participants. Key to AROS’ success is keeping its roots in local efforts, with disparate groups across the country uniting over a common vision for what public education can be. “We are also believers in deep, lasting community partnerships — which aren't always easy to maintain but so worthwhile,” she said. “When we’re pitted against each other it’s harder for us to united our forces, fortify our power, and win.”
Graciela Mohamedi, a science teacher and organizer, reminded the audience of the unique and important heritage of public education in Massachusetts: first state in the nation to enshrine public education into its constitution and first to pass a comprehensive public education law. “We, the parents, educators and students of Massachusetts, must fight to ensure the principles within our constitution are protected,” she said. “Corporate education reform is a continuation of the nasty legacy of segregation and the oppression of people of color and marginalized communities… In Massachusetts, students and teachers are under siege by high-stakes testing and an education budget formula that consistently leaves our most vulnerable behind… The only way to truly cherish the education of our children is by building strong unions and strong communities.”
Students and young people led sessions and made their voices heard at the convening, providing important perspectives from people on the front lines of education struggles and underlining the importance of intergenerational movements. Anthony Piña, a youth organizer with Youth On Board (YOB), graduated from Mary Lyon public school in Boston this past spring and will be attending Suffolk University in the fall. He told the assembled participants how joining YOB helped him see how he fit into a larger world:
“Being part of YOB has helped me in so many ways, changing my perception of what really goes on in our political system and society in general. Before YOB, I didn’t see how I could make a difference. But joining a group of young people and adults who care and want to make a change made me understand that it’s important to be motivated and why we still need to try. I joined Youth On Board not just to make a difference in my school’s community, but in the greater Boston school community. I saw the value in trying to enrich the lives of everyone for the greater good. I know that in order to do this work we need to include everyone who has a stake in it... Teachers, parents, and most importantly, students. Most people in this country are educated through the public school system, and without equitable and well-rounded education, we’ll never be able to truly advance as a society.”
Edwin Argueta, an organizer with Mass Jobs with Justice, closed out the afternoon session by leading participants in a chant of “When we fight, we win!” He also reminded us that no matter the temporary setbacks that may come from Beacon Hill or Capitol Hill, at the end of the day the ultimate tool in politics is people power, and in that respect the struggle for education justice in Massachusetts is well-equipped to win the victories our students, parents, educators, and communities deserve.