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On May 12, Something Different?

As someone who is relatively new to the education activist community, I find myself in the position of “optimistic young one” rather often. I was optimistic about my first few Panel for Educational Policy meetings, and though I now see them as the sham that they are I still joined the Grassroots Education Movement at the most recent PEP meeting with over a hundred printed signs to share. I still expect President Obama (and perhaps even Bill Gates) to have a change of heart about charter schools, merit pay, and standardized testing, once they more fully understand how these policies are negatively affecting schools. And I still get excited about connecting and talking with people at rallies such as the May Day action this past Sunday, where a group of a few thousand in support of immigrant and worker rights felt like a huge turnout that could not possibly be ignored.

So I recognized the raised eyebrows I received from fellow teacher-activist Sam Coleman recently when I said, “There could be 50,000 people at this thing.” We were attending an organizing meeting for the Strong Economy for All action that has been initiated by unions across the city and will occur May 12. The flier for the event reads, “TELL BLOOMBERG NO CUTS: MAKE BIG BANKS AND MILLIONAIRES PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE.” To my credit, the reason I was so optimistic is because the action sounds truly exciting and unique. If the organizers can pull it off it will be unlike any rally I have ever attended.

On May 12, citizens of New York will assemble at seven different locations in lower Manhattan, each with its own theme: housing, jobs, peace, immigration, transportation/energy, human services and, of course, education. From our rally points we will all march together and coalesce on Wall Street just as business people are getting out of work.

So far it sounds just like many other rallies, except here is where things get interesting. Throughout the Wall Street area several hundred people will be holding teach-ins on various topics related to creating a strong and fair economy for all. On the steps of each of the major banks someone will be teaching about how that bank contributed to our economic crisis but now gets away with paying little in taxes thanks to special deals and loopholes. There will be teach-ins about how we should stop spending so much of our education budget on standardized testing and spend it instead on supporting schools in providing the best education possible. And the list goes on, but all will be connected to the demand that Mayor Bloomberg no cut our public services in New York by changing his priorities and by making those who caused the financial crisis pay for it.

The UFT leadership has been part of the organizing for this action and word is that the teachers union is actually planning to mobilize for it. But so far, the only information I have received has been from the activist group Teachers Unite. In fact, despite being major endorsers of the action, the UFT did not even have an official representative at the organizing meeting I attended last week. Unless UFT leadership really mobilizes the rank and file for this event, it may fail — the education assembly point (unofficially City Hall at 4 p.m.) is supposed to attract the most people.

Yet I am still optimistic.

I think the real reason for my optimism is that the teach-ins provide something unique. They allow those who join the rally to become actively engaged in learning and thinking about the budget cuts and their alternatives. People won’t just be passively listening to officially sanctioned individuals who have been handpicked by union leaders to speak at the microphone. In fact, organizers put a call out to anyone who wanted to lead a teach-in and invited them to come to training with the promise that they could teach on any issue that concerned them as long as it related to building a fair economy for all. The organizers are hoping the event could be part of a larger movement, connected to those in Wisconsin and elsewhere, to provide an alternative on the left that pushes our leaders to be more responsive to the needs of working people. And that truly is something to be optimistic about.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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