Or, how my day would have been very different had I worn khakis.
This is a story about access; who has it, and who doesn’t. This week my friend and fellow activist Tomika Anglin and I both pushed back against a system that attempted to marginalize us in order to more easily advance private interests over the public good. I hope our stories will inspire parents, teachers and students to take a page from the Ed Reform 2.0 handbook and start actively disrupting these systems that are trying to silence our voices. Showing up (and sometimes sitting down) raises awareness of critical issues and will catalyze the direct action we need to defend neighborhood schools against predatory venture capitalists and the so-called “community partners” who benefit from education austerity budgets. The latter, those non-profits NOT actively speaking out to secure public funds for public schools but rather accepting funds from private interests to fill the myriad gaps created in our schools through intentional defunding, are not acting in good faith and are not allies.
It was a busy morning. Before I hopped on my bike into Center City Philadelphia I double-checked my supplies. I had printed a paper copy of my Eventbrite ticket to “Educate Philly: Rethinking America’s Schools,” a reformy book launch and panel discussion over breakfast with David Osborne of the “radically pragmatic” Progressive Policy Institute. The event page noted “If you believe in the virtues of a public education AND are willing to be challenged – join us for breakfast this Friday, September 8th for a compelling conversation on public education.” If I had only known the level of “challenge” attending this breakfast was going to pose, I would have had my coffee before leaving the house. I had sidewalk chalk and a Ziploc bag with slips of paper of printed with sentiments that expressed my displeasure with the corporate plan to “reinvent” public education for the 21st century by creating impact investment opportunities predicated on the data-mining of students through ubiquitous online “personalized” learning programs.
My ticket, which was torn when Union League staff tried to grab it out of my hands.
I wore jeans that morning. While some people are coordinated enough to wear a skirt while biking, the last time I did that the fabric got caught up in the wheel and wrecked my brakes. Lesson learned. Center City parking is expensive, and street parking hard to find. Biking is definitely the way to go. So in dress-down Friday mode, I left for the Union League in functional, yet presentable cycling attire: jeans and a lavender cotton sweater. I looked “nice.” My suburban, South Carolina mom bought the sweater for me. In fact it may have come from Talbot’s. It’s early fall, a lovely morning. I know it’s going to be a good day.
I had two goals. The sidewalk chalk was for a bit of thought-provoking disruption in the public sphere. I wanted my messaging to highlight issues of Pay for Success (PFS), social impact investing, and the public-private partnerships that are going to be playing bigger and bigger roles in education and Out of School Time Learning. People know about charters and expect Osborne’s union-bashing routine. I intended to introduce some new material to the conversation, information about education data and finance. The Union League, a private social club established in 1862 and touted as the #1 City Club in the country, takes up an entire city block a few blocks south of City Hall. It offered an expansive canvas of highly-visible public sidewalk for chalked messages. It was going to be perfect!
My second goal was to attend the breakfast (I have a ticket, remember) and attempt to get Mr. Osborne and the other panelists, including our Broad Academy/Chiefs for Change superintendent William Hite, on the record about their positions on the above areas of concern. While I haven’t read it, it sounds from the reviews like Osborne’s 1992 book “Reinventing Government,” very much set the stage for Pay for Success with a focus on outcomes-based payments and governmental entrepreneurialism. That worries me a lot. It is increasingly clear that in Philadelphia, regional foundations, venture capital, and well-connected non-profits are slowly but surely building a data-driven Ed Reform 2.0 learning ecosystem while neighborhood schools are systematically starved of public funding, resources, and experienced educators.
The breakfast, co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Education Fund and the so-called Progressive Policy Institute, was definitely geared to corporate and civic stakeholders NOT parents, teachers or students. The fact that it was held on a Friday morning, and with it being the first week of school, even people who might have been available were settling into their new back-to-school routines. I didn’t expect a big crowd with signs, so sidewalk chalk messaging and slips of paper were going to be my communication tools of choice. As it turns out, I was the sole activist on the front lines that morning.
So I locked up my bike and got to work. You have to realize the Union League is vast, and has at least three entrances. It’s been awhile since I’d done any serious sidewalk chalking and as I squatted and scooted from message to message, my muscles were definitely reminding me of my age. I left my marks on 15th Street where I started with a big inscription at the base of the steps “No one asked you to reinvent our schools.” To one side I wrote, “Philanthrocapitalism can take a hike (heart) Philly.” On the other “Our kids are NOT your profit centers” and “Fund schools, don’t disrupt them.” On Sansom Street near the smaller side entrance I wrote, “David, No one asked if we wanted our schools reinvented. Can we say NO THANKS?” and “Budget for human teachers NOT AI ‘personalized’ learning systems.” Then I made my way around to Broad Street, the grand entrance where the sidewalks were even wider. I began to write. As I did an employee of the sheriff’s office ambled over, looked at my message and left. Shortly thereafter a few staff members of the Union League came out in a tizzy insisting that what I was doing was illegal, but after consulting with the sheriff employee it turned out it was NOT, in fact illegal, and so I continued on.
“Data is the new oil; hands off our kids.”
“Schools are a public trust, not a public-private partnership business opportunity.”
“Disruption empowers the elite; hurts students.”
“Tax $ 4 Schools; NOT Venture Capital. No Pay for Success”
“Non-profits that use austerity education budgets to expand community-based programs are NOT allies of schools. #OutOfSchoolTimeLearning”
“Data-driven education is a dead-end for curiosity and intellect.”
Foot traffic on the sidewalk began to pick up as minutes ticked by and rush hour started. Quite a few people paused to read the messages. At some point one of the staff members came out with a silver teapot full of water and poured it over the “Data is the New Oil” inscription. So I rewrote it. They were all very frustrated that they might have to wash up the sidewalks. Evidently there wasn’t a hose hook up nearby. They hauled out a luggage cart holding two large trashcans of water once it was clear the teapot alone wasn’t going to do the job.
They were going to need a bigger teapot!
By that time the breakfast was about to begin. So I put away the chalk, took out my paper ticket, and went in the Sansom Street entrance. It was a narrow hall, plush carpet, and refined furniture. There was a check-in desk not unlike a hotel. I went in with my ticket and asked to be directed to the meeting location. After a moment the person told me that I couldn’t go any further, because I was wearing jeans and that was against the dress code. Meanwhile several women walked by in Lycra exercise gear, but evidently that was all right because they were members going to the gym. Um, ok. I explained that I had biked in, and that’s why I was wearing jeans. Too bad, they said. So I said I didn’t want to impose, if they could just direct me to the meeting room, I would go straight away to limit any negative impact on the Union League’s classy ambiance that might come from me walking around in mom jeans. The dress code for members is outlined here, but there is no mention of this being extended to the general public attending an event in the space. I was not provided a copy of the dress code by Union League staff despite a number of requests.
There had been no mention of a dress code on the Eventbrite OR the website promoting the event. I couldn’t imagine that a meeting that was promoted as free and open to the public would exclude a person based on the fact that they were wearing jeans. This was a meeting about public education for goodness sake. They were talking about “Rethinking America’s Schools” in a district where a majority of students live in poverty. What a huge disconnect. Why would the Philadelphia Education Fund choose THIS particular venue to host an important discussion about the future of public education? And why would our superintendent sanction it by sitting on the panel? The Union League is a space steeped in exclusivity. It only began allowing women to be members in 1986, and the 15th Street façade has a fortress-like character. Let’s just say it is not a very welcoming space if you are not a member of Philadelphia’s elite inner circle. If you drew a Venn diagram of Union League members and parents of Philadelphia public school students, I hazard a guess there would not be much overlap.
I expect it shows the extent of my privilege that it never occurred to me I would run into problems trying to get into this breakfast. I’d registered. I had a ticket. I was a parent. I had a direct, personal interest in the proceedings of this meeting. But there I was, standing in the hallway of the Union League, gradually being surrounded by seven or eight staff members who became increasingly agitated once they realized I was the person who had legally the chalked messages on the public sidewalk surrounding their building. One of the staff members went to grab for the Eventbrite print out I held in my hand and grasp my arm and in the process tore off a portion of the ticket, though I managed to hold onto the larger part of it. It all happened so fast, but I definitely felt physically threatened and intimidated in that moment.
At that point I sat down. I just sat down. Right there in the walkway on the plush blue and yellow carpet of the Union League. It seemed the only way to diffuse a situation that seemed slightly unhinged. All of this, because I was insisting on my right to attend a public education meeting for which I had a ticket? Or if I couldn’t do that, that I at least be able to speak to a representative of the Philadelphia Education Fund about why a key stakeholder, a parent of a Philadelphia public school student, was being excluded from the event and man-handled in the process? Throughout this experience I was called an “idiot,” told I “was doing it wrong” that “no one was going to pay attention to my message.” One staff member even told me she’d been told I had an arrest record, which was patently false. Had they run some type of search on my name while I was sitting there waiting for someone for the Philadelphia Education Fund to come down and talk to me?
Me, sitting on the floor in the hallway.
There were harsh words meted out by Union League staff as I sat there. The worst came from a man in a bow tie who definitely seemed to enjoy lording over me. A few minutes after things were more on kilter they said they were going upstairs to ask someone to come down, would I sit in the chair off to the side, which I did…for a bit. But then I realized no one was going to come down, so I left my chair and went back and sat in the middle of the narrow hall. Not fully obstructing the passage, but situated to ensure those in suits coming to the meeting had to wind their way around me to get to their intended destination.
I explained my plight each time, but no one stopped or really registered my presence. Sadly it seems we’ve become numb to people sitting on the ground asking for help. Still, my presence in that particular space must have been at least somewhat jarring. People passed, singly and in a pairs. Eventually Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership entered. His non-profit has a very high profile as a funder of education reform initiatives in the city. He knows who I am. I stood up to him face to face in the hall, once again stating the situation that as a parent I was being kept out of the meeting for which I had registered, but he said nothing. I called out as he went up the stairs that silence is complicity. I sat down again.
By that time the breakfast was underway. Then Farah Jimenez swept in. Ms. Jimenez became President and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund in April 2016 AND currently serves as a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the appointed commission that has controlled city schools since the state takeover in 2001. Her husband’s firm does considerable legal work for charter schools of the type prominently featured in Mr. Osborne’s talk. I’m not sure what, if any, role she had in selecting the venue. However since the Philadelphia Education Fund was the co-sponsor of the event, I tried to approach her and explain the situation. I was physically blocked by a phalanx of Union League staff who shoved me and almost knocked my phone out of my hand. I got through my spiel as she paused on the stairs, her face obscured in shadow. Just like all the others she did not respond or speak, but merely continued up the steps to room where the future of public education would be mapped out beyond the reach of people like me who wear jeans and ride bikes and build community at the grassroots level rather than in exclusive membership clubs catering to the upper echelons of society.
It’s hard to tell exactly how much time had passed. I’m sure the security cameras recorded the whole thing, so the Union League can probably tell you. It felt like about a half an hour. After Jimenez left me stranded in the lobby, I decided the message I had come to convey had been issued. If the powers that be needed a wake up call that there are people willing to stand against their manufactured agenda to “reinvent” public education to serve the state-finance nexus, I think they now knew. After I left the building, a police officer arrived. The Union League staff insisted he write me up in an “incident report,” though I’m not sure under what pretext since I had done nothing illegal, I had exited their property and if anything security camera footage will clearly show I was the one being physically intimidated. I got back on my bike and by around 9am finally got my morning coffee. The event description online had said to be ready to be “challenged.” Well, that was an understatement.
Please know that we will continue to show up, physically, in these contested spaces despite continued pressure to marginalize us. I was told repeatedly over the course of the morning that was I was doing didn’t matter, that no one would get the message, that it wouldn’t work. But you know what? I have gotten tremendous traffic on just my Facebook post. I got the final word, including information about impact investing, in this article about the event, and people are telling me they are inspired. Each of doesn’t have to do everything, but we can do something. We do it together. I am hopeful that all of those “somethings” will lead to positive change for our future, helping to build a people’s vision of liberatory public education.
She showed up at the Philadelphia Education Fund’s monthly “public” education policy meeting the day before this Union League event, too. According to Lisa Haver, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools and a veteran advocate for all things related to Philadelphia public education, the PEF meetings were once very open and welcoming of all who expressed an interested in Philadelphia’s schools. Now access to these meetings is becoming more restrictive. They are being held in private law offices like that of Dilworth Paxon. Pre-registration is now expected. An optional “donation” button has been added to the online RSVP page. However a number of people with whom I have spoken have had the experience of being put on the wait list if they left the donation box blank. Many who had attempted to register for the free event at the Union League had the same experience of being wait listed after leaving the PEF donation form blank. That is highly questionable.
I admire Tomika for coming to the Philadelphia Education Fund meeting this week without registering in advance. While she was welcomed at the check-in table and told to go on in, Ms. Jimenez passed Tomika on the way into the meeting room and said that Tomika had to wait outside. There might not be enough room, though in reality there were always empty seats at the meetings, and there were that day as well. We are looking at an incursion of private interests into the public sphere. What happened to Tomika Thursday and to me yesterday at the Union League were not isolated events, but rather an escalation of a pattern of marginalizing tactics employed by Philadelphia’s power elite. It has been going on for decades but it definitely IS escalating and becoming decidedly more brazen.
The Union League is Philadelphia’s Davos. Those without privilege, who don’t know the rules, who don’t know there is a dress code, who can’t leave their jobs on a Friday morning, who don’t have the “right” connections are systematically excluded from conversations that shape the policies that directly affect the quality of their life and their children’s lives. We can change that, together. Everyone, grab your chalk and let’s meet on the sidewalk. It’s time that Philadelphia public education’s TRUE stakeholders begin to build a better future for our city’s children. Let us get THAT message out. Let us work towards OUR goals, OUR vision. A vision that is supported by PUBLIC resources, not a corporatized public-private partnership model that turns children into surveilled, data-mined commodities. See you out there!