Schools, Communities, and Sustainable Partnerships

I was fortunate last night to have a free evening that coincided with a meeting of the RPS school board during their final hearing on a much-contested budget. Torn between the needs of city hall and public schools, our board had considered offering the mayor a budget that was much reduced from the proposal put forth by Richmond’s superintendent. What followed at last night’s meeting was a clear rallying cry from the community: we deserve to know what our schools need.

I’m an indirect stakeholder in RPS. I don’t have children. I probably won’t. I do serve on the board of a nonprofit that works directly with RPS, and at CFC we see very clearly the heightened needs not only of our city schools, but also of those schools in the county into which we’ve pushed poverty as part of our rapid gentrification. The needs, to put things mildly, are high.

I also hear directly about the needs of RPS students from VCU’s partnership with the city jail. With one of my colleagues, I’m visiting RCJC currently to teach a short-term seminar on public education in the women’s tier. The women at RCJC are very vocal about the ways that the public education system has failed them, and those ways are many. Because we allow schools to continue to be a site of inherited poverty and disenfranchisement, those failures are passed on to the children of incarcerated adults. Incarceration locks these women out of disrupting this cycle. When they are released they will be pushed out of the decision making process again through felony voter disenfranchisement. The mothers at RCJC rely, very directly and with great urgency, on structures like a school board to truthfully tell the stories of what happens in our schools. If a school board can’t honestly represent our needs, who will?

RPS was lucky last night–or rather, the community worked hard to make its own luck. The community launched a strong campaign and the school board voted in favor of a needs-based budget. This budget will be presented to the mayor, but it’s up to all of us to see that we do better about meeting the needs of our students.

The last public event I attended in service of public education was the Community Justice Film Series session on education. Their organization is founded on the premise that our issues are interconnected, and this weekend they held their second event on public health. CFC was present to highlight the overlap between education and health outcomes, a sliver of a wide venn diagram to which we’re dedicating our lives right now. We spent Sunday frantically packing flats of seeds for later farm planting, and we arrived at the CJFS looking, I imagine, a little rough around the edges. We were in good company. I wrote a blog post back in November for some of my VCU students about what we can do in the context of a Trump presidency. That post, in retrospect, was an act of optimism. As 2017 plays out I’m realizing that what we actually have to do is tuck back our grief as much as possible, and commit ourselves (untenable as it is) to everything, even when it seems like a lot.

For a few years now I’ve mostly written here about Higher Education or (and) criminal justice reform. These things still occupy most of my waking hours. This year’s programming for VCU Common Book, however, has illustrated something I’ve avoided for a while: in a landscape defined by prison planning, carceral practices bleed out into everything. For a long time I segregated VCU and reentry work. A year of teaching Just Mercy broke me of that habit. IN the process, I’m collapsing some other boundaries: If I care about incarceration reduction, I also have to care about school disciplinary policies. If I care about school discipline, I need to care about student health outcomes, which intersects with public health concerns. This isn’t the slippery slope it looks like: addressing community needs simply can’t be done in single initiatives. This isn’t news to most people, but it’s hard to hear in a university where disciplinary silos discourage conversation beyond one’s own area of specialized knowledge. This compartmentalization is the foundation for a system of knowledge construction based on peer-review, but it fails to meet the needs of progressive social action based on publicly-articulated need. If one needs a PhD in public health or criminal justice reform to come to the table for discussions about community wellness, diverse communities will never be the seat of those discussions.

All of this, I suspect, is one way of rethinking general education at the university. Interdisciplinarity in the early stages of higher education can be an avenue for engaging with civic process before disciplinary specialization — a model championed by agencies like SACSCOC and SCHEV. We need active public lives before we can work exclusively in the segregated environment of a lab or a disciplinary department. Public research should meet public demands, which is a charge for scholars to be engaged with public discourse. For university employees like my own department, who are uniquely charged with implementing equitable outcomes in higher education attainment and designing community-engaged curricula, this means putting versatile public lives first, even if at the expense of disciplinary research careers.

All of this is to say: I’m rethinking and recommitting myself to the work of interdisciplinary first-year education at VCU at a time when I’m ready to rotate off some substantial administrative commitments. Next year I’ll no longer coordinate the curriculum and textbooks for our first-year courses, nor will I be tasked with VCU’s general education redesign. Rather than a labor reduction, I see this summer and next year as a chance to collapse a few more walls, bringing work at VCU and in RVA together in new ways. I’m already talking with CFC and OAR to see what middle school food access has to do with adult reentry support. I’ll be joining FI’s service learning faculty in the spring for a more streamlined partnership with Cornerstone Community Farm. It’s a big, weird, wayward leap, and we’ll see how it goes. I do believe, however, that only more sincere coalition building will get us where we need to go.

Is this a new leap of faith in the academy? No. I continue to believe community colleges are the actual future of higher ed in the united states.  I also remain deeply skeptical of higher education community partnerships that are driven by quality enhancement plans over community-articulated needs. That said, if institutions of higher learning are going to do better, then those of us employed by universities have to do better, and for the time being that “we” includes me.

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