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Educational Activism
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How do I find the time to be an educational activist?

David Montemurro, Lecturer, Dept. of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, OISE

On one level, this question generates a wistful smile because it points to a certain irony – if I am honest about my frail failings – I don’t find the time!! The hurry-scurry of everyday demands can easily lead to those somewhat dismal moments at the end of the day where one finds oneself questioning their impact in acting for a more just world.

On another level, I am fond of the invitation because it invites me to consider and reconsider how I see ‘the work’ – how every step can and should be filled with the sense of purpose that it is about educational activism. In Everyday Anti-racism, Micah Pollack draws attention to the ordinary acts taken by educators on a daily basis that reproduce or challenge racism. Routine classroom interactions, contacts with parents and community, and passing conversations with fellow staff are filled with opportunities to think and act differently about difference and equality. Thus conceived, some acts explicitly surface as moments for teacher activism while other more mundane, seemingly innocuous exchanges are charged with possibility to promote a better world. Applying common critical questions (In whose interest is this so? Whose voice is included and/or excluded? How does this reproduce and/or challenge inequity?) to casual exchanges over the counter in the front office, catching up with staff in the lunch room or deliberating over the classroom seating plan promotes a sort of everyday teacher activism. Framing every moment as filled with possibility means you always have the time!

If explicit moments of teacher activism can inspire and invigorate (and chafe?), perhaps pursuing implicit moments of teacher activism can daily sustain and nourish the moments in between. Others have pointed to the distinctions between advocacy and activism. While this is helpful, it may also well be that we are simply speaking to two distinct points along the same continuum – that is, being a proponent of progressive education for change means we sometimes act as advocates for students and colleagues in day-to-day instructional exchanges and at other points, we line up together to push forward in program design or policy positions. Teaching for social change means we look through the lens of this work in all that we do – lessons, assignments, personal & professional relationships. Thus conceived, the question becomes less about “how do I find the time?” and simply how do you strategically embed it within your work the most meaningful actions for social change.

This is insider/outsider border work, fraught with many tricky steps. Sometimes I experience dismay when I fear both feet are planted in a role that reproduces the institution. On these days, I return to those sources that nourish me, that ground me in collective action for social change – colleagues, readings, students, schools, and/or frontline activists. On other days, I weigh the risk of reducing impact by being too forceful or oppositional. These “strategic decisions” call to mind dian marino’s call to locate the ‘cracks in constraint’ – requiring you to read the moment (the current context shaped by people, issues, events & resources) to locate the most likely levers of change. Sometimes you decide to run with the adage, ‘it is easier to ask forgiveness than it is permission’. Other times you listen carefully to how those with power define their vision and demonstrate to them how social change issue is, in fact, already part of their vision. In each instance, I find encouragement in insights as follows:

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
And to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way…

- from a poem by Archbishop Oscar Romero

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