More than one week has passed since we were all gathered together in Puerto Rico for Education Anew: Shifting Justice. It was an event rich with healing, collaborative learning and truth. Truth about the systemic racism that makes our schools unsafe for black and brown youth. Truth about the financial interests that weaken our public schools. Truth about Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and the inequalities that system of oppression manifests. Through three days of plenaries, workshops, tours and experiences, we were able to unpack those truths and elevate the genius of those closest to the solutions.
Day 1: Learning About and Experiencing Puerto Rico
Education Anew: Shifting Justice officially opened with a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican ceremony that called upon the spirits of our ancestors, followed by a performance by Bombarrilé.
With the mood set and our minds open, Monique W. Morris proceeded to moderate our first plenary: An Intersectional Vision for Education and Youth Justice. Participants explored the concept of safety in schools and the ways in which we can liberate children of color. The audience joined the panelists in exploring tools for liberation, which include peace-building, love and the right to twerk.
That afternoon, we shifted our focus to Puerto Rico and, specifically, the devastating effects of colonialism in our Puerto Rico, Colonialism and Resistance plenary.
Dr. Hector Cordero-Guzman taught us about the true costs of colonialism: an economy that does not value its citizens, resulting in decades of mass outmigration and loss of revenue which leads to poverty rates higher than the continental U.S. Panelists Tania Rosario-Mendez and Ariadna Godreau expressed their frustrations with disaster capitalism and hurricane recovery through a feminist lens. Nelson Colón, President & CEO of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation, called upon funders to engage in more inclusive, community-centered investments. And, Professor Pablo Luis Rivera explained the importance of preserving culture in order fight back against oppression. Before we departed on our community learning tours, Ariadna Godreau reminded us that Puerto Ricans are “present and strong.”
Attendees spent the afternoon in the communities of Loíza, Santurce and Río Piedras experiencing Puerto Rican history, culture and natural beauty through music, art and dialogue with local community leaders.
Day 2: Reclaiming Safety and Speaking Truth to Power
Day 2 opened with healing rituals that helped us take a moment to clear our minds before a full day of multiple workshops and powerful plenaries.
Our morning plenary wasted no time digging into an issue that feeds the school-to-prison pipeline: police in schools. The Case for Police-free Schools plenary included testimony by organizations on the front lines of the movement, including the Black Organizing Project in Oakland, Philadelphia Student Union, Make the Road New York, Alliance for Educational Justice and LAEN in Toronto. All panelists agreed that we cannot reform our way out of the problem, police must be removed from schools completely in order for children, and specifically children of color, to feel safe.
Andrea Vásquez Jiménez of LAEN explained how her organization organized to completely remove police from Toronto, Canada’s public schools which led the panel to envision what could be possible with police-free schools. To close, plenary moderator Thena Robinson Mock pondered the hypothetical outcomes if Harriet Tubman would have wanted to reform slavery, rather than abolish it. Indeed, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline starts with abolishing the irrational sentiment that police in schools makes our children safer.
Our final plenary of the day focused on the tail end of the school-to-prison pipeline. A powerful video by Youth First Initiative set the stage for the discussions that would ensue. Panelists agreed that incarceration and surveillance begins at schools and absolutely intersects with racial justice and other social justice movements such as housing justice and LGBTQ justice. Hernan Carvente cautioned us to avoid narratives such as “violent vs. non-violent offenders” in the decarceration movement and be mindful of prison closures so that those resources are reinvested into the communities affected by mass incarceration. Youth incarceration is a system that must be dismantled, not reformed.
After a full day of plenaries and workshops, attendees were able to let loose, embrace Puerto Rican bomba and speak their truth during our Cultural Night Party and Open Mic. Attendees were treated to a performance by Yubá Iré, whose vibrant energy motivated attendees to get on their feet and move to the beat of the drums. Later in the evening, attendees used our open mic to sing, rap and speak their truth to power in English and Español.
Day 3: Youth & Elders Show Us How to Elevate the Genius
After an evening of dancing and celebration, priests/priestesses of the Puerto Rican Diaspora welcomed us with an early morning mbongi. Their perspectives were inspiring and provided a much-needed wake-up call. Through the lens of their faith, they challenged us to resist those who oppress the sacredness of our being.
With our hearts and minds centered, we began our final morning plenary on Privatization & Disaster Capitalism. Mercedes Martinez of Federación de Maestros Puerto Rico unpacked the issue of school privatization on the island and how education advocates have resisted the change. Ronsha Dickerson and Antonio Travis echoed Mercedes’ sentiments as similar movements have been mobilized in cities such as New Orleans and Chicago. Despite the challenges, Mercedes Martinez says that “you have to have faith in people, organize people, because they have the power.”
During lunch, we got political with our Building Electoral Power plenary. Speakers from across the country spoke about the organizing strategies their organizations are mobilizing to push policies that are equitable for communities of color. Rachel Gilmer of Dream Defenders spoke about holding politicians accountable and their push to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated Floridians. Neva Walker of Coleman Advocates pushed women of color to make themselves a seat at the table—even if it isn’t offered—invoking the audacity of Shirley Chisholm.
To close Education Anew: Shifting Justice 2018, youth elevated their genius on stage. Young people from California to Texas to New York shared original poetry, songs and wisdom beyond their years. In the words of one of our brilliant youth attendees: “Like the ocean, I will never stop fighting.” Neither will we. #ElevateTheGenius