20 May Podcast Episode 4 – Black and Brown Solidarity: The Struggle to Defend Public Education in Puerto Rico and the USA
How can we stand together to ensure the educational future of the next generation? Listen to the voices of AgitArte, the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico, Journey for Justice Alliance, and the Alliance for Quality Education as they worked together to convene The Transnational Encounter to Defend Public Education. This forum was held to explore how solidarity between two nations is imperative in working towards creating a strong public education system.
Hola, and welcome to When We Fight, We Win!. I’m Dey Hernández.
And I’m Greg Jobin-Leeds. Today is a really special episode. We are going to go to Dey’s homeland in Puerto Rico. Dey is part of the artist collective AgitArte, and AgitArte co-authored When We Fight, We Win! with me. In this episode, we will focus on the Transnational Encounter to Defend Public Education. It’s a multinational event that was organized by AgitArte, the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico, and the US-based Journey for Justice Alliance. We will explore why this event was necessary and how solidarity plays a key part in creating a strong public education.
[singing and drumming in Spanish]
¡LÁRGATE, KELEHER, TE QUEREMOS PRESA! “Keleher, we want you in jail” is what the Puerto Rican group Plena Combativa was singing during the Transnational Encounter to Defend Public Education, held in San Juan, Puerto Rico in August 2019.
Julia Keleher is the former Secretary of Education of Puerto Rico. She is currently implicated in a corruption scheme that is under investigation by US federal authorities. She’s accused of using federal funds to benefit firms and consultants instead of students. Most recently, she was accused of giving away school property to a real estate developer in return for an apartment for herself. During her time in office, hundreds of schools in Puerto Rico were closed. Most of these closings were suspicious and without concern for the children.
[singing in Spanish]
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, appointed Keleher to lead the Department of Education in 2017. Rosselló is the governor that was recently ousted, following weeks of massive protests in Puerto Rico. He was the first governor in US history to be ousted due to public outcry. The dissatisfaction against him escalated when 889 pages of private chat messages with his executive team were leaked to the public. In these chats, the governor and his team used homophobic, sexist, and misogynist language. They insulted rival politicians, and even joked about Hurricane María’s deaths. Hurricane María was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 100 years, and caused thousands of deaths.
It is within the post-Hurricane María and climate change context that Puerto Rico’s education faces the greatest threat in its history. On top of that, Puerto Rico has been in economic recession for more than ten years, and the country has a 73 billion dollar public debt. The US Congress also imposed a Fiscal Control Board of seven members in 2016. This board has plenary powers over Puerto Rico’s administration, and ensures that the island continues repaying its debt to Wall Street bondholders. The debt and climate crisis has opened the doors for disaster capitalists, such as Julia Keleher, to take advantage of the country’s fragile situation to make profits out of the disasters.
Many people continue to fight to ensure the survival of public education and protect it from the claws of disaster capitalists.
Chapter One: The Pain
See, our education should be a resource, not a badge.
It should be a resource. We should come to our communities and say Well, how can I serve?
This is Jitu Brown, National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance. It’s an organization in the US led by black and brown parents and students. The alliance organizes with community-driven solutions instead of the corporate-driven solutions, such as privatization and the dismantling of public school systems. After conversations with Mercedes Martínez, president of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico, they came up with the idea of making a transnational encounter, recognizing that Puerto Ricans and black and brown communities in the US face similar threats to education.
So we do a podcast called On the Ground, where we highlight community organizing, and we had Mercedes and another parent that was on the podcast.
And we asked Mercedes what – you know, how could we support? And she mentioned two things. She mentioned writing letters to the the folks in – you know, elected officials at the state level. Then she said, you know, some type of gathering – well, like we could talk like, against privatization, we can educate our folks.
We basically organized the conference on WhatsApp, laying out the logistics, finding out kind of what workshops will be helpful, because we didn’t want to have a thousand workshops, because we knew that this was not a regular conference. This was like, folks that are trying to envision what education looks like.
So even if I’m looking at a sister that speaks Spanish and I can’t speak Spanish, she knows love when she sees it. I know love when I see it, right? I know that my people are beautiful. I know my people are vibrant. I know my people are generous. That’s what we have experienced, right?
[singing and drumming in Spanish]
The first event of the Transnational Encounter to Defend Public Education was a protest in front of the Minillas Government Center. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans were demonstrating their opposition to a new zoning plan, which would allow commercial and industrial activity in residential and ecologically protected areas.
José Rivera Santana, a professional planner in Puerto Rico, addressed the crowds.
[man speaking in English over the voice of José Rivera Santana]
This plan is about destroying our communities, destroying our residential areas, allowing with a new zoning, the approval of permits for commercial and industrial use, which are not compatible with the community and residential environment. So this is a plan from the Planning Board, which aims to dismantle decades of planning work in Puerto Rico.
The activists from the US, like Zakiyah Ansari, showed their support towards the Puerto Rican people and identified parallels between the neoliberal agenda happening both in Puerto Rico and black and brown communities in the US. Ansari is from New York; she is the advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, and a member of the Journey for Justice Alliance. Here she is addressing the crowds in Puerto Rico, where she also criticized New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo.
In our cities, we’ve seen the privatization of our hospitals, our utilities, our schools. We’ve experienced the impact of hedge fund money in our politics, from buying our elected officials to push their privatization agenda to buying their way onto our school boards. And guess what? Gentrification’s nothing but a nice and acceptable way to say colonization.
Stolen land and popular vote are colonizers. Black and brown bodies are pushed, priced or purged out of their communities by making it so unaffordable to live there anymore. To add insult to injury, they renamed our historic streets and neighborhoods to remove any indication that we were ever there or existed. Colonization aka gentrification is disguised as AirBnB sounds nice and maybe cheaper than a unionized hotel, but it removes affordable housing from the people and undercuts union jobs.
We say basta, enough. Brothers and sisters, you are not and never will be alone in this fight. Family! [crowd cheering] Family, we are witness that this struggle for justice and liberation is a marathon. We are proof that we will never let language be a barrier. Brothers and sisters, we are an example that el pueblo unido jamás será vencido. [crowd cheering]
So all these things are actually absolutely connected at the same time, you know, trying to end the school to prison pipeline and understanding the same people that fund that are funding the school to prison pipeline, who are funding the privatization agenda, who are funding keeping us out of our houses.
And AirBnB is a big issue in New York as well, where they’re pushing out, they’re pricing out people in neighborhoods with no one ever wanted to live in before. East New York and Brownsville, ain’t nobody trying to live there. But now we get $2,800 for like a two-bedroom apartment and that’s if you could – so, where are you going to go? Like so this is push out of people that live there, all those things even though it’s not not be education. It is connected to education because of children can live in their communities, then they can’t go to the schools in their communities and those schools don’t look like them anymore and parents and communities are not there.
And so what happens? You get pushed out, right?
We need elected officials who are going to stand by our children and our communities, and not just say it, but do something about it, right? And we have a governor who ran saying he was an anti-Trump. That was what he ran on. He’s worse than Trump. Right? And so… And he’s worse because at least Trump says, you know what he says when he says it, as opposed to this governor who hides behind and says I’m going to be better than he has not been right? So attached I wish we could push him out like yeah, I did like I’m the people aren’t ready for that yet in New York, but I wish we could do the same thing at that folks did here in Puerto Rico.
[singing and drumming in Spanish]
The event was followed by a dinner where Mercedes Martínez, president of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico, explained how the operation to close hundreds of public schools within the last years has been executed. Martínez started by stating that the school closings are a bipartisan project, where Puerto Rico’s two main political parties (New Progressive Party, PNP and the Democratic Popular Party, PPD) are and have been historically involved.
[woman speaking in English over the voice of Mercedes Martínez]
In the year 2014-15, the Popular Democratic Party was in power, and in that moment began what to this day has been the largest, most destructive closures we have had in the Department of Education in Puerto Rico.
In 2014-15, Rafael Román, former Secretary of Education, determined he was going to close 200 schools. Out of the 200 schools they ended up closing 120. We saved 80 of them, but they still closed way too many. Anyone would think that this would be the last we would see of the school closings in the Department of Education. Unfortunately, we are yet to see what has been done by the previous Secretary, who has been the most despotic, most insensitive, most arrogant that we’ve had in Puerto Rico. Her name is Julia Keleher.
Julia Keleher was appointed by Ricardo Rosselló in January 2017. She is from Philadelphia. She is a person with no connection to the culture of our country, and did not have the slightest respect for our students. And she came to close schools. And she came to privatize the schools. And she came to comply with the mandate of the dictatorial Fiscal Control Board that exists in our country, which is here due to the PROMESA law that was signed by Barack Obama, that was supported by the US Congress. And that dictatorial board determines that this is the ideal person to direct the public education system in Puerto Rico.
She started earning a salary of $250,000, earning more than the governor of Puerto Rico. She came to dismantle the public education system. We are very happy to have her out, this is one of the achievements we have had as people that, this woman is no longer in the public system of this country.
On September 20, 2017, to aggravate the situation of closed schools, Puerto Rico undergoes a natural disaster. We were living the largest political disaster in our history and to make matters worse, Hurricane María came. The boys and girls … the boys and girls, studies say, need some kind of normality after a catastrophic event of this magnitude.
And that normality comes through the school. It comes through going back and seeing their teachers, it comes through going to school and receiving their teacher’s hugs, to receive the counseling of their social workers in a country that lost 300,000 homes after the hurricane passed. 75,000 of those homes lost permanently. 4,645 dead that to this day we do not forget, because of the crass negligence of the government of Puerto Rico and the United States. And the suffering of having lost those loved ones. Many – many of them migrated, and they are no longer here with them. And what was left of hope to our children, was their school. And upon seeing this panorama, the mothers, the grandmothers, the teachers, the entire school communities, all the people joined to reestablish the schools right there, where the government had not yet arrived, in all of Puerto Rico.
But while all this beauty was happening in such a terrible moment in our country, disaster capitalism accelerated. And Julia Keleher, and the Fiscal Control Board, and Governor Ricardo Rosselló, understood that the immediate moment after the hurricane passed, was the ideal time to close children’s schools, more schools.
We are resisting disaster capitalism, holding our ground against any imposition that privatizes the public education system. We are organizing mass collective actions, and Jitu will talk about this tomorrow. And we are holding our ground against the privatizers.
And then we asked ourselves, after the closure of 442 schools: what are we going to do? If they did not ask permission to close the schools, then we do not have to ask for permission to reclaim what belongs to us.
The fact that you are here today is proof that this struggle is transnational. That you care about what happens in our country, and we care about what happens in yours, because we are a single class, a working class.
My name is Jorge Díaz, and you’re listening to the word of the day. The word of the day is privatization. When the state outsources and/or externalizes government services to the private industry, it is called privatization. Privatization is one of the key components of the capitalist neoliberal project.
This ideology became the primary agenda for right wing governments, and was implemented for the first time in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, with the support of the US government. Subsequently, the ideology was championed by President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the UK, who led the way for a new hegemony in late stage capitalism.
As she very candidly said, economics are the method. The object is to change the heart and soul. In practice, neo-liberals aim to privatize all public services, from education and healthcare, to transportation and electricity. For neoliberals, the state should only function to protect the private industry and maintain the privatization model.
By the privatization of public services, civil liberties are undermined, and people’s rights directly attacked. Privatization often leads to deregulation of policies and taking the power away from government bodies, which limits our ability to keep private corporations in check, and to fight against the exploitive methods, which destroy our peoples and environment. Advocates and defenders of privatization often argue that competition in the market will provide better services and that the market will regulate itself, and the benefit of society, who receives the trickle down of the crumbs of the wealthy. Privatization generates rising costs and lower quality and services, lack of accountability, and extraordinary levels of profits juxtaposed with the disinvestment in our infrastructure. And the massive displacement of workers and communities.
Neoliberals are constantly attempting to push a privatization agenda, exploiting crises and disasters to justify the intervention of the private sector and dismantling public services, and hoarding our resources. However, there are always struggles being fought by communities, groups and organizations, and resisting the privatization agenda, and it is through this relentless fight that we generate the possibility to win.
This has been the word of the day.
Chapter Two: The Fight
[singing and drumming]
Most of the transnational encounter took place at the University of Puerto Rico, which is under threat by recent austerity measures. The Fiscal Control Board imposed by the United States Congress in 2016 to manage Puerto Rico’s finances, has been asking the Puerto Rican government to raise tuition, and cut funding for fellowships and scholarships at the University of Puerto Rico. Here at the University, Jitu Brown discussed the development of community schools.
Good morning, everyone.
Alright. Again, my name is Jitu Brown. I’m with the Journey for Justice Alliance.
We don’t want education or schooling just to get a good job. We don’t want our people to be spokes in the wheel of a corrupt government. We want education that will create thinkers, believers, fighters.
So we said that it has to be inspiration and information that prepare people to impact the world that they live in. That’s our definition of education. We recognize that the biggest problem in public education in the United States is not bad teachers, it’s not low income parents, it’s not low income students that don’t want to learn. The biggest problem in the United States is equity. That the system refuses to educate people that look like us, and that hatred has never been dealt with.
We’re not asking for the same things that our white counterparts have. Because if the start, if the, if we have a deficit where we start, and you give me what you give my counterpart, that does not heal what the, injustice that has happened.
So we say equity is about giving us what we need, not what you want to give us. It’s about having what we need in public education.
What do you need to have inside of a sustainable community school to make itself? So the first thing you have to have is a leadership committee. This leadership committee is the governing body for your school.
It can be community organizations. It should be church, a church in your community, a religious leader in your community, a student, parents, a teacher. But the people that will help bring the vision of the community school to life.
What we’re talking about is infrastructure for community control of your schools. Infrastructure to make sure that the type of education that flows to and through your children, it’s equitable and rooted in your real experiences, not in someone else’s opinion of who we are. Because when people create education policy that closes hundreds of schools, that is an education policy rooted in white supremacy and rooted in a hatred of us.
You can’t have a community school ran by corporate people, right? You can’t have a community school unless you have the wisdom of the community rooted in what you are forming. We say that there are two types of knowledge, content knowledge and community knowledge, and both of them are essential to school improvement. Because there are a lot of educated people who make decisions to close schools, right? They have PhDs, master’s degrees. So you can’t just have people who have only academic expertise, but don’t have a respect for you, determining what happens to your children. So these are the components of a sustainable community school.
My name is Megan Bumpus, and I’m from Oakland, and I’m here with Journey for Justice. Just building and learning from community here in Puerto Rico, it’s super awesome.
We kind of learned about the Journey for Justice platform, and like what is a community school and what are the components and then we walked around the room and in groups, we each kind of discussed different – we kind of broke down the components and said, what would we like to see in our schools? And then we kind of visit – revisited the idea so that we can see what other people had added to them and it was cool because it was a bilingual conversation in some of the groups and just like the experience was great, I’m just hearing like the idea that what happens in a school needs to come from the school itself, from the parents and the students in the community.
It’s actually kind of creepy. I mean, it feels like the people who are trying to privatize in different spots even all around the world are following, like the same Playbook. It’s like, they say oh your schools are underutilized, they’re intentionally under resourcing, like in Oakland, they’re just cutting left and right and making extra cuts to like the lowest performing and the lowest income schools. And so they starve your school and then they say – well sorry your school’s terrible and you’re losing students, so now we’re going to have to close it and then we’re going to open up charter schools. It just looks like the same exact thing from from place to place.
Hi, my name is Maria Harmon. I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana. I lead an organization called Step Up Louisiana. I’m a co-director, so I pretty much run a non-profit.
I’m hoping to build relationships with the locals of Puerto Rico. Really trade experiences and learn from each other. You know, we’ve been dealing with issues in public education and privatization since Hurricane Katrina for about 14 years now.
The agenda is all the same, you know, this is not only a colony of the United States, but it’s a unique culture where indigenous African people have built out the framework in a culture of this area of this, of this island, you know, and that’s something to be proud of, you know, that’s something that we can relate to in New Orleans. New Orleans isn’t an African country, but it’s infused with so many different cultures. You know, having these types of connections transnationally, internationally is so important because we really have to show who’s the real majority here, you know, and we also have to make our ancestors proud, because we know that’s what they would want us to do.
On behalf of Journey for Justice Alliance, I just want to say Asante Sana, thank you very much for welcoming us into this space. We appreciate you. We seek sisterhood and brotherhood. We want to do this work with you. We are doing our very best to be for real.
So we’re going to close with something of the from of the tradition of all of our ancestors called Seven Strong Harambe. And it reminds us that when you feel at your loneliest, you remember days like today and know that there are people whose heart beats just like yours. At the count of three – one, two, three. . .
HARAMBE! HARAMBE! HARAMBE! HARAMBE! HARAMBE! HARAMBE! HARAMBE!
Chapter Three: The Win
The Transnational Encounter to Defend Public Education concluded in Loíza, a black town east of San Juan, which has a rich history of African heritage and culture. The participants of the event gathered at El Ancón for Puerto Rican food, which is heavily grounded on the island’s African culinary ancestry. They also learned about the rhythms and steps of bomba music. Bomba is a drum based music and dance created by black slaves in the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade in Puerto Rico. With bomba, they told their stories, and used the musical language to disguise their plans of rebellion against plantation owners.
This time in Loíza, bomba music was used to seal a transnational commitment to defend public education in black and brown communities. Bomba was music to rebel against slavery, but now at this conference, it is serving to fuel the fight against the privatization of education, and to cut the shackles from the legacy of colonialism reflected in the poor education systems of people of color.
I visit a lot of places and I’m like, I can’t wait till I get back home. When I stay here, I never want to go back home. Because I can feel what my ancestors had came through here at one point of time. So it feels like I’m at home. I’m at peace, and I go to sleep. When I’m in New Orleans, I don’t go to sleep. I can’t tell the last time I had a good sleep in New Orleans. You know, I sleep like five hours there, but when I’m out here, I could sleep ten hours a day.
Tashara Marshall from Step Up Louisiana, and a parent education advocate from New Orleans, encouraged Puerto Ricans to remain vigilant in the aftermath of Hurricane María. Because in post-Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, all schools were privatized: 100% charter.
After Katrina, where we had public schools after Katrina, now, it’s 100% charter in Orleans Parish. We go by parishes in Louisiana, we’re the only state that go by parishes. So Orleans is the only parish that has charter schools. We lost the last public school, and it was the only black public school that was founded, and they took it under the rug, and it was black people that sits on the OPS board in New Orleans and they voted to get that school and make it a charter.
How is that? And that’s why I want to tell y’all, too don’t get mixed up with people that look like your skin color because a lot of time it’d be our own people selling us out for a piece of dollar, so don’t let it happen because our school system is failing our kids and we don’t have teachers. Teach for America’s down there, and those teachers don’t look anything like our kids, and they can’t relate to our kids because they’re white and our kids are black. How can you do that? How a white person could teacher our black kids to be black? It’s impossible. That’s like an elephant trying to raise a tiger, that’s impossible. Right? So that’s why I say the fight have to keep on keeping on because before Katrina we had public school.
So like I said, I’m going to just keep on fighting for my city, keep reconnecting with y’all out here in Puerto Rico and helping y’all build, come back, get sweat on my hands, I don’t care because I’ve been through the struggle and the struggle is real and it’s not over, but I know one thing for sure, everybody on this island is here and they willing to work together and it’s not just me, it’s not sad to me. It’s just the people of New Orleans. We just got lost and the rug got pulled from underneath us because they sold us a dream, and the a dream was not for us. But like I said, my love my peace, the soul goes out to my brothers, sisters, queens and kings and Puerto Rico and keep up the fight.
[drumming from Rev. Sekou’s song, “Resist’]
We want to let you know that all of our episodes are transcribed in English and translated to Spanish at our website, whenwefightwewin.com.
And for more ideas, visit our website at whenwefightwewin.com.
This episode was written and produced by Juan Carlos Dávila and co-produced by Osvaldo Budet. Yooree Losordo is our managing producer. The word of our day was produced and hosted by our own, Jorge Díaz. Translations by Rocio Natasha Cancel and Juan Carlos Dávila. Our artwork was created by Jose Hernández Díaz. The music was generously shared by Reverend Sekou. This episode also features live music from Plena Combativa and the bomba players at El Ancón. We’d like to thank our friends at The New Press, publisher of When We Fight, We Win!. It’s available at our website and wherever books are sold.
Wondering how you can get involved? Support AgitArte, an organization that I am part of, and Journey for Justice Alliance. Visit our websites: agitarte.org, that’s J4Jalliance.org.
Please share, subscribe, and follow us on social media. @whenwefightwewin on Facebook and Instagram, @wefightandwin on Twitter. Have something on your mind? Email us at email@example.com.
[music: “Resist” by Rev. Sekou]