Transcription of the episode “Why Geoffrey Canada is wrong: Defending schools as democratic spaces”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Brian Jones. Dr. Jones directs the New York Pblic Library’s new Center for Educators and Schools. He is the former associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where he was also a scholar in residence. The recipient of many awards, Dr. Jones taught elementary grades for nine years in New York City public schools and also taught several courses at Hunter College’s School of Education. Welcome, Brian! 

[00:00:46] Brian J: Thanks for having me.

[00:00:47] Amy H-L: Brian, you come down hard on corporate school reformers who cast themselves as champions of Black youth while at the same time undermining teacher’s unions. Would you explain that?

[00:01:01] Brian J: I had the experience of beginning my career as a classroom teacher in the early two thousands in Harlem, which felt like one of the epicenters of a wave of privatization and attempts to what felt like attempts to undermine public education. And so here I was going to work every day, trying to do my best as a teacher, with my colleagues, under resourced, always trying to campaign for smaller class sizes and more resources and less standardized testing and all the things that would make the educational experience more rich and rewarding, more relaxed and groovy. And it felt like along came this agenda with a sledgehammer where suddenly people with a lot of deep pockets suddenly seemed to have a target on my back. And so that’s why I didn’t really understand what was going on. We, my colleagues and I ,were struggling to get our heads around what it was. I think it can sometimes, in American politics, be easy to see the Republicans as the party of big business or whatever, and the Democratic Party, the party of the unions and the ordinary folk. But in this case, it seemed that the Democratic Party, too, was deeply implicated. And more than that, even leading the charge. And so that was a head-scratcher for a lot of people. 

So I started reading and doing a little bit of writing, trying to get my head around what was going on. And it led me to the conclusion that this is part of a long pattern of education, that many different classes have tried to put their stamp on this institution because it’s so important. It’s so central in our contemporary life in so many different ways that different classes and different strata of the population come to this institution in which we’re all involved and have different and sometimes conflicting aspirations for what we want to get out of this thing. And that it’s those different interests that lead to these battles that sometimes are submerged and hard to see. And it seems like we’re all on the same page about what we’re doing here and then other times flare up and become really acute struggles. So that was my experience is the short answer, as a classroom teacher in Harlem, in the early two thousands, that led to me being very suspicious of this agenda in education. It would seem to be a top-down agenda. 

[00:03:55] Jon M: Who benefits from corporate reform and who loses out?

[00:04:00] Brian J: Well, it’s complicated. I think that the interests were not the interests involved in the privatization effort, which is ongoing. Obviously there’s some like straight up grifting and profiteering. Diane Ravitch and others have tracked this. And there are a lot of watchdogs out there who are really tracking this and, and following it. There’s straight up grift and all kinds of scandals and skimming and corruption involved in the privatization effort.

But I don’t think that that alone explains it. Like, I don’t think people are just trying to turn a quick buck, although that is an ingredient, I’m not even sure that’s the dominant ingredient. I think there’s been a more fundamental attempt to dislodge the democratic power of schools as a space where parents and teacher unions have power.

And I think teacher unions in particular, teacher unions are the largest non uniformed the largest non uniformed unionized force in the country. And therefore it’s not hard to imagine why they are going to be the target of campaigns to try to weaken their collective power. And so I think there’s some of it is that is about the taking teachers down a notch.

And I think there, there are other things that are at play as well that have to do with, in some cases, gentrification, land grabs. There is a geographic and real estate component to some of this, or so it seemed from our perspective in Harlem. But I think the losers of the disruption model of education reform were parents, teachers, and students who really went from, for all of its flaws, a system in which parents were empowered with a lot of rights, the right to march their kid into a school building and demand a service. And [inaudible] demand services. If there’s a child with special needs or needs extra resources, the ethos of the way public schooling is set up is that it’s on the school to meet the needs of whatever child literally crosses the threshold.

And it’s amazing, you know. You think about our society. There’s very few things that work this way, where for you to access the service, all you have to be is breathing. You cross the threshold. You don’t pay, you just show up. And when you show up, the institution is obligated to surround you with well-trained professionals who are supposed to meet your needs every day. I mean that’s a really remarkable model. Now it’s flawed. There’s lots of ways in which my colleagues and I, for many, many years, and going back before I was in this game, were and are campaigning for ways to improve it. But the new model, and this is the other thing I think about winners and losers here. In the new model, which we saw in its extreme version in places like New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, places where the privatization agenda was able to make greater advances more quickly. We see that parents lose that power to make lay claim to the resources of the school. Instead, there is no school that has any obligation to any particular child. You can apply to be in a school, but you have no guarantee of service in any particular school.

And this is the choice model, which Ujju Aggarwal and others have written about brilliantly, where the real problem is that the schools also get to do the choosing. It’s not just the parents. So no longer are you a citizen empowered with rights. Increasingly, you’re a customer. And as the customer, your relationship is more like your relationship to Burger King. They don’t have any obligation to you. They reserve the right to refuse you service, in fact. And so that is something that I think is lost, is school as a democratic space where parents and teachers and students might come together and engage in a process of trying to improve the institution together in their community. Instead they are parents and students, especially, positioned as customers who try to choose from a portfolio of schools and hope that this school also chooses them.

[00:09:04] Amy H-L: What does school choice do to the fabric of neighborhoods? 

[00:09:10] Brian J: I remember when I was an elementary school teacher. I taught in two different schools in Harlem. When I was in East Harlem. I distinctly remember parents coming to me confused as to why the central New York City Department of Education was sending them letters that seemed to imply that they should leave the school. The letters were pursuant to, or in compliance with, the No Child Left Behind law. The letters were intended to inform parents that if they were dissatisfied with the school, they had the right to leave. Instead of inviting parents to participate in a process of improving the school, you could imagine what that process would look like. You gather parents together. You say, what do you like about this school? You have a discussion all together, in the auditorium. What does the school not have that you would like? People throw things out and start talking about how they’d like to shape the school. Maybe they would want smaller class sizes. Maybe they would want more physical education or more arts or whatever it is that they would want that’s not there. And then that would put the onus on not only the administration of that school, but on the central system to try to make changes to that school. And you’d probably add resources to that school to make it the school that the parents want. But there’s no choice to do that. There’s no choice to participate in something like that. Instead, the choice is leave if you don’t like it. It’s kind of a cheap way to sell something as improvement. It’s like choice as improvement. Well, you don’t have to stay. So some people might, here’s what’s contradictory about this is that some people might actually, and some people do, experience this as improvement. They didn’t like the school they were in and now they’re allowed to leave. They leave. They find a better school. That’s an improvement. Anecdotally, you could find people who experience the process of choice as an improvement. The problem is it’s not a process that sets up all schools to improve, to actually get the resources they need to improve. Unfortunately, instead of investing in the neighborhoods and building them up and making their schools richer and deepening parent involvement, adding more resources to the school, you can imagine what that would do to the community and the the ties that that would build in a community. Instead it’s about flight. And so I think that has the impact of having people feel like their choices, about something as central as a community institution as a school, is that their option is not to improve it, but just to leave it. 

[00:11:57] Jon M: Yeah. That’s as you were talking, I was just thinking back to the sixties and that the Johnson Great Society, which was a response to a mass people’s movement,and obviously in many ways was intended to blunt it and co-opt people and so on, but still it had to be responsive. And the key phrase was “maximum feasible participation.” And I just was thinking about how far we’ve come, that nobody talks about maximum feasible participation at this point at all. And it really is exactly what you’ve described, that it’s turned into a consumer relationship and not the expectation that you can make bottom up change. 

[00:12:43] Brian J: Yeah. It might require another large scale social movement that brings that pressure to bear again, in order to have the safety valve be democratic participation as it was then.

[00:13:03] Amy H-L: Why do you think there’s been such consistent support of school choice and charters from both Democratic and Republican administrations over the last several decades? 

[00:13:14] Brian J: Well, I think it seems to be a way to offer improvement. The choice is it feels empowering. It can feel like you’re empowering parents. They don’t have to accept a school as it is. They can pick up and go somewhere else. And I think some people can experience that as empowerment. That’s very attractive. You can’t deny that that having choices in life is a powerful thing and it’s something people’s desirous. It’s not all bad. It’s just that some are off the table. There’s no choice to improve the school, to add resources, so it’s a certain set of choices that are being constructed. A competition between schools is set up. And so I think that’s part of what’s happened in New York City.

I’m a parent of two kids now, and no longer a classroom teacher. So now I feel like I’m on the other side, experiencing this as a parent. And the feeling is that the schools are dramatically different from each other and they have different resources, they have different vibes and different cultures, and struggle in very different ways. And there is a tremendous competition over spots in the most desirable public schools. And so it’s almost like we have privatization without privatization because the schools are in competition with each other. The parents feel this competition acutely. They feel that it’s very high stakes. And so a school that promises a way out, promises path to high test scores, and that, that will be we’re going to put your kids on a track to success, that’s very attractive. I think that’s a very, very attractive. 

We had this moment where ironically, I’ll never forget. I’m not saying this was a wise decision, but many years ago I got invited to go on like one of these, like Fox News to debate this whole thing, charters and choice and all this. And I agreed and I’m sitting in the green room with a parent and I’m realizing, oh, they’ve got a charter school parent here, parent of color, who is sitting with me. And this person is going to speak from their experience about how this charter school was such a saving grace for their kids. And so I just asked the parent, I said, “okay what is it you like about your school? “The parent starts to rattle off basically the demands of the progressive education movement from the past, like 40 years, hands-on learning arts and recreation, chess clubs, dynamic afterschool programs, in depth science exploration, small opportunities for small group work and in some cases, smaller class sizes.

I could go on and on. The parent wasn’t like, “well, I’m so glad that they don’t have a teacher’s union” or any of these kinds of things. It was all of the things we’ve been fighting for for the public schools. So I feel like, in some ways, it’s vindicating of that agenda and an understanding that those are things that are attractive to parents and really, we ought to be providing those same rich resources and opportunities to all students. And so that it doesn’t matter really what school you go to. If you go to a school, it’s going to have a great library and it’s going to have opportunities for science education, and there’s going to be lots of clubs and different ways for you to shine and multimodal ways for you to develop your talents and abilities and creativity.

We know this. And if some people feel like they can only find it, or maybe it’s only given the setup that they did not create, some parents find that they can only find that at a charter school, well then, who can blame them? And it’s our shame as a nation that we don’t give that to every single student.

[00:17:17] Jon M: So it’s interesting that choice is a very individual thing as opposed to a collective thing. And that seems to me a really central thing that you’re saying is that it’s every parent for themselves and for their kids. And you get the best deal you can, whether it’s within the public school setting or if there’s a charter school, or if you have money and you choose a private school of another kind. It’s all your individual decision and the burden is on you, as you said, it’s shifted from that you can just walk in the door and the burden is on the school. And it reminds me of something in the late eighties. I worked as a parent coordinator in District Two in New York City when Tony Alvarado was the superintendent there. And he said that his idea of choice was that different parents might prefer different styles of education for their child, but that you shouldn’t have to choose between whether your kid was going to get a good education or not. It should simply be a matter of, do you want your child sitting on a rug, calling the teacher by their first name, or do you prefer that they call them by their last name, but it’s not whether they’re going to learn to read and write and be an engaged, ultimately an engaged citizen in the broadest sense of the word citizen.

[00:18:42] Brian J: Right. Absolutely. And it’s not just like these kinds of stylistic or educational philosophic choices. It feels much higher stakes than that. And the coin of competition between schools has been standardized test scores, which only further ratchets up the pressure on those on those tests and teaching to them. Absolutely. If we changed the paradigm and you couldn’t find a school that didn’t have amazing resources, then it would take a lot of the pressure off of, and you could still allow people choice say, go to any school. But if it actually didn’t matter in fundamental ways, you could have a system of choice and choice would be a fringe part of the way that the system worked, but it wouldn’t be this soul wrenching, agonizing process that it is, right. 

[00:19:38] Amy H-L: So even putting aside the aspect of different features at different schools and school choice for stylistic reasons, I tend to think that this idea of kids going all over the place does eat into the fabric of the neighborhood. Historically schools have been hubs for the neighborhood. 

[00:20:01] Brian J: Yeah. That’s true. We have a complicated politics in this country of who gets to live in which neighborhood, who gets to live where, and so we have to include that in our discussion as well. But even given that, there’s lots of great research that shows that were we to have an intentional model of trying to bring students from different backgrounds together and especially in a place like New York City where different kinds of neighborhoods are, a lot of them are pressed right up against each other. We could have very diverse schools that are hubs of multiple communities. Certainly. Yes, that’s true. And I think if people had really well-resourced schools near them, it’s unlikely that they would go to great lengths to have their children do a great deal of traveling because there’s so many benefits to having your students attend a school that’s closer to home. It makes it easier for the parents to be involved in the school, for one. It makes it easier for the kids to see their friends when they’re not in school, and on, and on. All these things we know. The community, the geography of it, is not, it’s not an uncomplicated issue, depending on what community you’re talking about.

But yes, in general, I think building up the schools as a really well-resourced, attractive place to go and have your needs met and feel seen as an individual, feel cared for and understood and have many different opportunities for your abilities to grow close to home is an amazing thing. And we should really, we should really offer that to everybody, whether they avail themselves of it or not, it should be there. 

[00:21:55] Jon M: Yeah, I agree that especially in elementary school, having a community school can be really central. And certainly you’ve seen that in places like Chicago, for example, where people have fought really hard against school closings to maintain their community schools. On the other hand, as you say, it is complicated because again, going back to the civil rights movement, and certainly since then many of the fiercest resistance to integrating was around the sanctity of a neighborhood school in places like Malverne, for example, on Long Island, or a big fight where I live now in Teaneck, where people created situations where the community schools were integrated. And then also historically in the South, at least Black and, I think, white students in some cases were bused long distances to avoid integration. So I think it is fascinating how much issues of integration and being multi-racial in schools are, just like everything else, is so tightly tied into housing and residential segregation or integration, both economic and racial, of course. 

[00:23:07] Brian J: Yeah. And the more I’m learning, I’m really curious about Black education history and the more I learn about it, the more I realize that Black people, out of necessity, have built their own schools on this land again and again and again, built and then had destroyed, and then had to rebuild. And so there’s this long pattern of people trying to create this resource, bringing it into being for their children. W.E.B. Du Bois, in his book, Black Reconstruction, he talks about in the aftermath of the Civil War. The first public schools, that is schools that were available to everybody at no cost supported by taxes, were brought into being by the Black led movement for democracy in the radical phase of Reconstruction. He says public schools for all, I’m paraphrasing, was a Negro idea. And then goes on in this amazing chapter, one chapter on schools that’s really remarkable, that everybody should read. He goes on to describe all of these places across the South where white students who were not wealthy, who had never had any access to education, go to school for the first time, and in some cases, alongside Black students. And that, in other words, the movement for this democratic resource, this Black led movement for this democratic resource has actually ended up benefiting white students as well in the South. It’s a remarkable history.

[00:24:41] Amy H-L: You’ve argued that both Democratic and Republican administrations have sought to separate racial justice from economic justice. What do you mean by that? 

[00:24:51] Brian J: Well, I think there’s a way in which the privatization movement very much centered attention on and its moral appeal on the plight of students of color and Black students in particular. And there’s a way in which they did that in films like Waiting for Superman, and effectively what they did was position themselves as the people who were swooping in and saving Black children from a system that’s failing them. And there’s so many, whether they’re public officials or people from private industry, wherever they were coming from, and they were coming from all over. And like you say, Democrats and Republicans, they often spoke in the language of the civil rights movement and spoke of themselves as continuing the legacy of the civil rights movement by doing this work. And what that ignores is the way in which the civil rights movement was a movement that was chocked through with themes, not only of what you might call racial justice, but economic justice as well.

Everywhere you look scratch a civil rights story and there’s that economic element underneath it or alongside it. For example, that celebrated 1963 March on Washington, where King gives his “I have a dream” speech. That’s a March for Jobs and Freedom. Where is King assassinated? He’s assinated in Memphis. What’s he doing there? He’s supporting Black sanitation workers on strike, fighting for a union. So again and again, there’s an agenda that’s about democracy, a financial democratization, guaranteed income, guaranteed employment, putting a kind of economic floor under people. And that goes alongside the fight for democracy and greater worker power at work, which many people get from participating in a union. So we could go on and on and on. Oh. And by the way, I think that “I have a dream” speech was first rehearsed or had an early version of, it was first given at a union, I think it was a UAW union hall ,where it was first given. So that’s the actual history. There’s a deep connection between struggling for opportunities for civil and political equality. And also trying to put any economic floor under not only Black people, but all people, those are connected ideas. 

And then along comes this privatization movement, which is aimed at unions and says effectively, these adults are standing in the way of the prospects of these young people. What we have to do is disempower them in order to empower the young people. I wrote a book chapter about the way that this attitude and the policies that flowed from it ended up impacting Black teachers disproportionately. And so ironically, this civil rights movement with Black youth at the center of its moral appeals, leads to an enormous destruction of Black teaching jobs, driving Black teachers out of the profession in city after city after city. Why? Because it turns up the heat so high on standardized test scores. It zeroes in on the places where Black teachers are concentrated, which are the places where Black students are concentrated, hangs the heaviest sword over those teachers with the greatest consequences and therefore leads to a dramatic deleterious results for Black teachers. And so you can see a plummeting percentages of Black teachers in Chicago in, in New Orleans, in New York City.

And I think it was a very clear path nationwide. And then that has economic implications, public sector employment, especially unionized public sector. Employment has been one of the principal levers that Black people have used to achieve middle-class status — send your kids to college, own a home, save a little money, have a financial security. 

And guess what. Young people don’t stay young forever. They’re going to need jobs. What will the employment landscape be for them when they grow up? What kinds of jobs will be available to them? And will those jobs be jobs that are precarious? It’s like turning, teaching into something that you sit with and you really work on, hone it as a profession over decades, or it seemed, especially in the early, heady years of privatization, that they were trying to turn this into a revolving door, as a job you do for just a few years on your way to law school or somewhere else. And that too has implications, not only for financial stability of Black communities, ironically, or maybe unironically, but also implications for the quality of teaching in the long run and for the profession. So I think there’s a way in which they took the banner and waved the flag of racial justice, but the economic implications of the policies were dire and it was about a rhetorical pulling of those things. 

[00:30:21] Amy H-L: You’ve compared two of the best known Black educators, separated by many years, Booker T. Washington and Geoffrey Canada. Would you please explain who they are and the parallels between both their environments and their approaches? 

[00:30:36] Brian J: Yes. Booker T Washington is probably the nation’s most famous, he might even be most famous educator in the nation’s history, but certainly the most famous Black educator, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, today, Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, and he founded the Institute at the end of the 19th century, at a moment when the hopes of radical reconstruction were being dashed all over the South, and there was a counter-revolutionary movement to “redeem” the South, burn down the school houses, overthrow biracial governments, democratically elected biracial governments. This is the era of the Klan, of lynching, of using terrorism to overthrow a grand experiment in democracy that was just getting started in the US South. Land reform, and we could go on and on. So in that hopes raised and hopes dashed moment, Booker T. Washington made a way out of no way. And people celebrate him because his institution endured. All of the historically Black colleges and universities are really important institutions and have trained and developed and were islands in a sea of hostility and racism, islands of enlightenment and personal development and growth that generations of activists and change makers and thought leaders come out of.

They all have, as all education in the United States has also have, this pattern of being stamped by the interests of different classes that bring them into being, that shape them, that try to control them. For a long time, historically Black colleges and universities all had white leadership, and it was a big deal to change over to Black presidents in charge of them. But Tuskegee is different because it was founded by a Black man, by Booker T. Washington, so people understandably have a lot of pride in that.

So what’s complicated about Booker T. Washington’s legacy is that because, and this is part of my argument, because of the context in which he was emerging, that in order to rise and build an institution that was going to be enduring, and also, I think he also had ambitions to be a player, not just in his little school house, not just to close the door and just do his thing for his students, as many teachers and educators, that’s really their agenda. 

But Booker T. has greater aspirations. He has a line to the White House. He’s the first Black person invited to walk through the front door of the White House and meet with the president, to rather to dine with the president. He develops a powerful political machine. And the political machine is opposed to figures who have less of a conciliatory stance toward the Jim Crow social order than he has. For example, the Niagara Movement led by W.E.B. Dubois and others. And so what’s complicated about him, or rather what I’ve tried to write about him, is the way in which in an era of collective defeat, when the movement, the collective democratic movement of Black people to try to bring about changes, to bring about democracy in the South, when that movement, that democratic uprising of Black people trying to build democracy and achieve a greater freedom from below, when that was crushed, then Booker T. found anotherway. And initially he signed up for the Republican party. He went to the meetings. We have him on record trying to pursue a different path where he’s going to become a politician and maybe get elected to office. And he’s going to get involved in Republican party politics. He’s joining with the revolution basically as a very young person. That movement gets crushed, and so now he pivots and he pivots to he becomes enmeshed with, and over time and develops a relationship with, some of the most wealthy and powerful people in US society. And they fund his Institute and make it possible and make his career possible. And as he does so, he’s making these public pronouncements that are very much against what people are trying to do to his left. People were advocating for civil rights and political equality and that sort of thing, and he’s navigating a different path.

I think there’s something similar about Geoffrey Canada, and that is that he also comes of age at a time when the uprisings and the energy of the movement of the sixties and seventies feels like it has been thwarted, like it has been [inaudible]. It felt to him, he writes about this in his memoir, like it was not finding a way forward. The Black Panthers were not coming to save him or were not going to transform his circumstances. And he too reaches out to some of the wealthiest figures in our society today, makes common cause with them. And on the basis of the energy and support that they lend him, he becomes, he’s on television all the time, all of these kinds of fawning profiles of him. And like Booker T., He has a record of making these public pronouncements that are hostile to what people are trying to do to his left. In his case, he directs a lot of energy. At the time of when I was writing about him, he was directing a lot of fire at teachers’ unions and the activists who were trying to, what I perceived, that we were trying to perceive as defend and improve public schools.

And so it seems like the parallel between the two of them is figures who rise at a moment when collective struggles for democracy and justice are thrown back on their heels. That that’s the context for figures like these to become the most prominent leaders of Black education efforts. Whereas when you look inside the movements in their ascent and look at what educational thinking comes out of them, it’s a different picture. And it’s ideas about teaching that are more about democratic empowerment. And if anything, they’re more suspicious of people who are wealthy and powerful, and are more friendly to a broader, radical agenda and radical ideas and thinking, and a broader way of thinking about political and social life and what equality ought to mean. 

And so these figures, again, it’s one thing, everybody has freedom of thought and can think and advocate for whatever they want. When you get to that kind of a grand stage and that many people are listening to what you have to say, and you go out of your way to try to foreclose the opportunities of activists to your left, that, to me, is a certain kind of move that is different than what other Black educators are doing, even their contemporaries, in both cases.

And then I have a book coming out in the fall that’s based on research I did at the CUNY Graduate Center. It was archival research in the Tuskegee archives in Alabama and interviews I conducted with more than 20 former Tuskegee students, faculty, and administrators. And what I was looking into is the history of student dissent and protest on the Tuskegee campus. What a lot of people say is ” Well, Du Bois, of course Du Bois didn’t see things the way Booker T. did. Booker T. was born a slave. This is somebody who felt the lash. How dare we criticize him when we don’t know half of the danger that he faced.” A totally understandable sentiment, by the way, I always feel a moment of caution thinking about Booker T. and saying these things about him publicly. But what my research covered is that you didn’t have to be in Massachusetts, like Du Bois was, to be a critic of Booker T. Washington. The people on the campus in Alabama, who didn’t come from Massachusetts, who came from Alabama and from Louisiana and from Mississippi, that is people who shared Booker T. Washington’s, shared the dangers, shared the experiences, on the campus in the late 19th century protested, dissented, wrote petitions, wrote letters, and even went on strike. There is a legacy of disagreement, that is, you can say whatever you want to say to defend Booker T. Washington. Fine. That’s understandable. But what we can’t say is that everybody who was in his circumstances saw it the same way or that you have to be a Negro from somewhere else to disagree with him. That’s not true either in place or in time. People in his place and his time disagreed with him. 

And then in the book, which is called “The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History.” It’s coming out in NYU Press’s Black Power Series this fall, I believe. And it traces that history and then slows down to really tell the story of the 1960s Tuskegee student movement, which is very exciting, in which students radicalized, like many other students did in that era, participating in Southern movements and across the whole region, in the Black Belt movements for democracy and social change. And then they returned to their campus changed. They were transformed. And when they got back to class, they saw class differently. They saw teaching and learning differently. They had different expectations about their education, and they took the lead in transforming their university, in making curricular demands and making demands about the content, the teaching and learning, the administration. They had so many ideas about how this school needed to change and they reckoned with the legacy of Booker T. Washington. As you enter the campus, there’s his statute right at the entrance of the campus. So I’m trying to tell a story about how, even in these places that get carved out as centers of Black conservatism or whatever you want to say, that even in those places, people can go through an intellectual awakening that leads them down a road to not only having different political ideas, but also in relation to that awakening, different educational ideas.

[00:41:47] Jon M: That’s fascinating. I can’t wait for your book to come out. And speaking of people pushing for change, you’ve said that many districts that have implemented positive steps pushed by Black educators, such as culturally responsive education, restorative justice and ethnic studies do so in a top-down manner that strips away the redistributive potential. Could you talk about that? 

[00:42:12] Brian J: Well, yeah, I don’t want to overstate that point. I think we’re in a moment where there’s a lot that’s contentious and being debated and discussed and fought over in education. Certainly the current freak out about critical race theory and all kinds of things we could name. I think it’s important to first acknowledge that there is a certain victory in having things like restorative justice discussed and in any way, shape, or form implemented at the highest levels of education in the United States, go all the way up to the US Department of Education, putting a stamp of endorsement on these things.

The reality though, when I speak to my colleagues who are still in the classroom, is that to meaningfully carry out a process that is genuinely restorative when there has been harm, student to student, teacher to student, student to teacher, whatever it is, it’s somewhere in the school community, requires resources of time and personnel. It requires more resources. It’s not just a methodological change. It’s also that you have to add something to these ingredients to make it possible for people to take a breath and take the time to go through a restorative process. And so there is a, there is a danger of people taking a methodology and saying, yes, you should all be restorative. Why aren’t you doing restorative justice now? And you could easily see how an administration could use that as a stick with which to whack the teachers on that. Why aren’t you being more restorative? Let me talk to you about my class size and my workload. If you want me to be restorative, make the space in my day for this.

So that’s the danger really, and it’s the danger with all reforms. We go through this. You spoke earlier about maximum feasible participation. Every time we win something, there’s a danger that the method of its adoption ends up becoming problematic in some way, shape, or form. So this is nothing new. This is just recognizing, I think, that there have been some victories. For example, New York City just devoted $10 million to developing a K-12 Black studies curriculum for all New York City public school students. That’s amazing victory. All right. That’s amazing. And that just means that whenever we win these kinds of victories, we also want to not take our foot off the gas. And recognize that we have to try to make sure that things get rolled out, that space and time get made, and that resources are put into the rollout in a way that’s going to make it genuinely possible and genuinely a good thing.

You could make this case about Black studies in higher ed or ethnic studies. You fight for these things. You fight for these things to get institutionalized. And then is it possible for them to get institutionalized in a way that that becomes hostile to further organizing, the very organizing that made them possible? Yes. That can happen. And that does happen. So that’s, that’s really what I’m pointing to when I’m talking about something like that. It’s about the way in which a lot of what we consider progress or moving forward are things that came out of social struggles and social media. They can be institutionalized in a way that then tries to close the door to further advocacy. And I think we should keep those doors open. 

[00:45:46] Jon M: You’ve given shout-outs on many occasions to the late Jean Anyon of the CUNY Graduate Center and her influence on you. Could you talk about some of her lasting impact? 

[00:45:57] Brian J: Well, I’m deeply grateful to her for many reasons. We became friends after speaking on a panel together while I was a classroom teacher. And then she reached out and strongly encouraged me to pursue the PhD. And that began the series of discussions that led to me doing just that. Just for that alone, I’m deeply grateful to her. She is the one who convinced me to go on this journey of conducting research. And it was challenging and very difficult, but it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

And she was, I felt, in all things truly a comrade in the best sense of the word, that is truly somebody who was working alongside me to try to figure things out. It was amazing to take classes with her because we were in awe of her work and her writing and her intellect. And yet, she seemed to have zero ego when it came to thinking critically about her own work and really invited us to see her as a peer and somebody we could criticize and as people whom from whom she could learn. And so that was really a remarkable experience. So there’s so many ways in which she was teaching just by her way of being in the world that I’ve tried to pay forward in my life. And then she passed on unfortunately early in my career as a researcher. And was really just taken from us in a surprising and unexpected way.

And so. I’ve really tried to hold on to the phrase that is the title of her last book, “Radical Pssibilities,” that there are things that when we join together and when we develop and discover our latent collective abilities, when we combine, that amazing things are possible that are possibilities that we didn’t think were possible suddenly become possible. And school is one of those places. One of those rare, still a rare institution in our society, where most of us participate one way or another. And I think there is a lot of possibility for school to be a place where we think together outside of the bounds of what is, and dream about what else may be. 

[00:48:27] Amy H-L: So speaking of rare institutions, the New York Public Library, which I think has influenced so many of us in so many ways. Would you tell us about this new Center for Educators and Schools? What sorts of resources do you provide and how can our listeners access those resources? 

[00:48:49] Brian J: The Center for Educators and Schools, I hesitate to say it’s a new initiative because I’ve learned that the New York Public Library has been around for 125 years. There’s almost nothing that’s new, but we are newly gathering a team of people at the New York Public Library whose sole mission is to serve educators. So what that means is that if there’s some way in which you, as a teacher listening to this, or an educator wants to make use of the New York Public Library, now there’s a whole team of people devoted to making that happen. And that means that we are combing through the library’s immense archives, the archives of the Schomburg Center, of the Stephen Schwarzman Building of the Library for the Performing Arts, looking for unique and amazing items that could be impactful and relevant in your classes. And getting them ready so that they’re easy to teach with. We are providing credit-bearing workshops for teachers on these and many other topics every week, which are free for teachers, some of which are virtual, some of which are in person. On June 9th, we’re going to host at the Schomburg Center an all-day Juneteenth inspired day of professional learning, credit-bearing. Half the day will be hybrid for a virtual audience, where we’re having Nicole Hannah- Jones as a, in a keynote conversation at the beginning of the day. We’re very excited about that. And if people want to find out more, and there’s more than I’m leaving out — special access to exhibitions, a crack team of librarians who are expert at working with educators, there’s just so much that this Center has to offer. 

You can find it at, which stands for Center for Educators and Schools, And one of the easiest things to do there right at the top of the page is subscribe to our newsletter. We won’t bombard your inbox. It’s monthly, and that will keep you in the know about what we’re up to and what we’re offering. 

[00:50:51] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Brian Jones, Director of the New York Public Library Center for Educators and Schools.

[00:50:58] Brian J: Thanks so much for having me. This was a pleasure.

[00:51:00] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes.

We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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