Sunday, August 14, 2011

A History of the Grassroots Education Movement

The genesis of GEM 

GEM emanated from a committee established in Jan. 2009 by the Independent Community of Educators, a caucus in the UFT that has been challenging the leadership since its founding in late 2003. This committee was charged to organize around three principles: school closings, high stakes testing that drove school closings and the resulting creation of a pool of teachers from these closing schools who were left to fend for themselves looking for a job on the open market.

At that time, some people in ICE had joined a high stakes testing committee called Justice Not Just Tests established by the NY Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE). The two committees merged and  held an all-day conference around these issues at the end of March which attracted participants from other activist groups around the city.

Even before that conference took place, a 4th major issue was rearing its head: the growth of charter schools and their co-locations within public school buildings. Rather than expand the conference to include this issue, a separate event was held a few weeks later. It was the still unnamed group's tackling this issue head on and taking a stand against not only co-locations but the very idea of charters as undermining public schools that began to get noticed.

Meetings were held every week or two and began to attract people but not having a formal structure or a name was confusing. Finally, Grassroots Education Movement was chosen. GEM was no longer a committee but had taken on a life of its own, still operating conceptually as a coalition of activist groups in NYC.

In late May, 2009 GEM held a march from Battery Park to DOE HQ at the Tweed Courthouse, stopping briefly at the UFT HQ to register opposition to the UFT favorable position on charters, along with its refusal to make a stand on school closings and the way the seniority rights of teachers being forced out of these schools were given away by the union.

Through the summer of 2009 GEM's focus turned almost solely to charter co-locations in Harlem and Red Hook Brooklyn. Parents and teachers at Harlem schools being invaded by Eva Moskowitz's Success Charter network asked GEM's assistance in organizing opposition to the most aggressive charter school operation in the city. At the same time GEM and the Red Hook group (CAPE) based at PS 15 which was invaded by a charter run by the son of a billionaire who was a contributor to Mayor Bloomberg's educational initiatives joined forces.

The 2009-10 school year
During the 2009-10 school year GEM activities were focused less on the union and more on school closings and charter co-location battles, reaching out with whatever limited support GEM could offer. A series of Toolkits to aid schools in fighting back were created along with a widely distributed pamphlet, "The Truth About Charter Schools in New York City." GEM built alliances with other activist groups, the highlight being a Jan. 2010 rally/demo across the street from Mayor Bloomberg's home (and peripherally, his next door neighbor, billionaire Meryl Tisch who heads the State Board of Regents.) Towards the end of the school year GEM helped organize Fight Back Fridays where a number of schools take local actions on certain Fridays followed by some concerted actions.

In early 2010 GEM also began to address the structural issues involved in trying to build a democratic grassroots based organization, establishing an interim steering committee and beginning to move towards a membership based organization. Those efforts continue today.

2010-2011 school year/summer
GEM continued its work on on school closings and charter co-locos throughout the year. GEM members attended many of the school public hearings speaking about how all these issues are part of the national neo-liberal agenda to privatize public education to clarify how these are not just local/neighborhood battles.

GEM formed an ad hoc committee of many groups and a rally in late January and organizing with parents and teachers to speak out at Panel for Educational Policy meetings (the rubber stamp Bloomberg appointee dominated Board of Education), which also included some performance art.

Fight Back Friday events escalated as more schools signed on. GEM was in the middle of the battles to deny a waiver to the inappropriate (and insulting to many educators) of Bloomberg's appointment of magazine publisher Cathie Black as Chancellor. GEM members attended a conference in Chicago where 250 teacher union activists from around the nation gathered to discuss the crucial issues facing teachers and their unions. GEM was an active participant in the SAVE OUR SCHOOLS activities in Washington, including doing a well-received workshop on organizing.

With the imminent release of the biased ed deformist documentary Waiting for Superman about to be released at the end of September 2010, GEM organized a rally in front of the theater on opening night that attracted press attention. Wearing red capes with RR (Real Reform) stamped on them, 50 GEMers and their supporters serenaded movie goers with a rap song throughout the evening.

A GEM committee named Real Reform Studios was formed to create a response to WfS. Since the director of WfS had made Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the GEM film was titled "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman." The GEM film would expose the biased inaccuracies in WfS and offer its own vision of Real Reforms, listing 10 as a basis.

Work continued on the movie throughout the school year, premiering in May in front of 700 people at Riverside Church with Diane Ravitch as the guest speaker. Word of mouth led to the film being spread all over the nation and abroad as 4000 dvds were distributed (with 3000 more on order). The film was featured at SOS in Washington and at SOS local events in cities around the nation.

Over the last year GEM has been meeting with other activist groups in NYC to explore areas where we can all work together to bring more of a unity of purpose to the battle for public education. One key point of unity is developing a concept of social justice unionism.

Many of these groups have come together for a current action we have planned: to support the Verizon workers on strike while at the same time opposing an outrageous contract the NYCDOE is trying to push through. The Communication Workers of America are working with the groups and a rally was scheduled outside the Panel for Educational Policy meeting on Aug. 17.

The upcoming 2011-12 school year
One of the most exciting initiatives undertaken by GEM for the upcoming school year was the decision to focus attention on high stakes testing, forming a committee in July to examine the issue from all angles, including an opt-out campaign. Over 25 people attended the incredibly productive August 15 meeting and are looking forward to an exciting campaign.

Other upcoming GEM activities:
  • The work on school closings and charters will continue and a refocusing on some of the union issues that GEM dealt with in its early days is on the agenda.
  • Continued distribution of the film and more film projects for Real Reform Studios.
  • Continue to work for more of a synthesis between the various activist groups.
From the GEM web site:

About Us

Inform, Support, Inspire: Promoting Policies for a Fully Funded and Effective Public School System

The Grassroots Education Movement (GEMNYC) educates, organizes, and mobilizes educators, parents, students and communities to defend public education. Too many current corporate and government policies seek to underfund, undermine and privatize our public school system. GEM advocates around issues dealing with the equality and quality of public educational services as well as the rights of teachers and school workers. These issues include the incessant push for charter schools, the attack on union rights, the focus on high-stakes standardized testing, school closures, and the failure to address the racism and inequality that exists within our schools. As the attacks on public education and teachers grow more vicious, the collective organization of those who directly face these attacks at the grassroots level becomes all the more essential, and in fact constitutes the most effective potential resistance. GEM advocates for a positive vision of education reform by building alliances with other activist groups and organizing and helping coordinate the struggle at the grassroots school and community level, with a focus on school-level organizing.

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