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THEORY CRASHES THE CLASSROOM: ACTIVIST LESSONS, STRATEGIC SMARTS, AND THE LIMITS TO IDEOLOGICAL CERTAINTY

As a young organizer deeply immersed in the social and political movements of the late 1960s and 1970swho had also trained in social work's community practice methods, I brought with me three key lessons from my own work that I hoped to impart to my students. Mixing a lot of theory drawn from the political left and some dawning awareness of what those theories ignored or devalued, my early practice courses had three key, overlapping emphases:

  • 1. Developing strategies and tactics outside of an historical context made many organizing campaigns mechanistic and less effective. While in school, I had been impressed with Jack Rothman's typology of organizing variables and the three distinct models (locality development, social planning, and social action) that used such variables (decision-making processes, use of data, use of experts, etc.) in varying ways (Rothman, 2008). Understanding that different models' emphases would lead to different strategic and tactical choices was illuminating and helpful for any budding practitioner. At the same time, my readings on the political left had made clear that the models themselves were inevitably influenced by the larger social, political, and economic forces of the historic period in which one lived (Draper, 1990). While Rothman's models were different from each other, a model of locality (community) development from the 1930s had a very different set of tactical choices than those in the 1970s (or the Watergate 1970s from the Reagan 1980s). Although later greatly helped by Robert Fisher's brilliant distillation of organizing history, Let the People Decide (Fisher, 1994), from the outside my classes were a cauldron of historical comparison and strategic option, with a disproportionate emphasis on the value of social action over all other method choices.
  • 2. Active in the ideological battles of the political left for many years, I had grown weary if not insightful about the causes of the in-fighting between political groups that made up in ideological ferocity what we lacked in size or influence. As those battles raged, the key insights from an old chestnut of an essay written by Robert Michels in 1905, “The iron law of oligarchy,” kept circling inside my head. He had argued that there was an inevitability—an iron law—that as one group seized power over another that it, too, would assert domination, often misusing the same levers of control it had once fought against (Michels, 1959). Having read of the genocidal disasters of Mao and Stalin—both leaders of what were supposed to be socialist revolutions—and been witness to (and, for a brief moment, participated in) petty purges and ruthless infighting against other political factions, I brought to those early classrooms the wounded desire to explore not only the politics of injustice but also the psychology of power. Classes would explore not only what elites did to the oppressed but also what we did to each other when power was at play and decisions had to be made.
  • 3. Finally, I had one other, idiosyncratic interest. Maybe it was my proper New England white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) upbringing, or perhaps having a close relationship with my fraternal twin sister. I could not understand why so many people—political leftist, seasoned social worker, well-published academic—who espoused commitments to the poor and oppressed and thundered at the harshness of the wealthy managed in turn to treat those they worked with like, well, crap. It was as if being on the side of the political angels gave one permission to be mean to a young colleague or political ally. It was seemingly okay to scream at a coworker beneath you on the organizational chart, or loftily dismiss others' ideas with a mix of condescension and scorn. Always musing on what it would take for large numbers of people to join and turn a militant campaign into a social movement, I had an intuitive interest in “the personal is political,” and that “personal” included decency toward one another, too. No matter what else, my classroom, I was sure, would mix the fire and brimstone of political and strategic insights with an engaging personal process of mutual sharing and individual discovery.

It almost worked. When one is young, passionate, active in poor communities, filled with theory, and has a genuine desire to hear from people throughout the room, it is pretty easy to create an exciting classroom climate. Two things went especially well. First, there was lots of work on strategy and tactics and model building that helped students become increasingly more strategically savvy. Rothman's comparative models, later influenced by Cheryl Hyde's feminist contribution, truly helped students unpack how different models necessarily used the same variables—who made decisions, the value of expertise, etc.—in different ways that led to very distinct forms of organizing (Hyde, 1989; Rothman, 2008). By using role plays and simulations, students began to grasp how tactical choices revealed strategic intent. It was exciting for me and them as they began to “read” others' underlying strategic interests by the choices they made in a campaign or action regardless ofwhat they may have espoused.

Little by little, I also was learning to slow down and provide questions rather than answers in the classroom simulations. It was not easy for me, someone who had thrived on ideological certainty for many years, but over time I began seeing how much more happened on the other side of the room when students grappled with and came to embrace their own answers rather than quickly accepting my own. I still found myself necessarily raising historical context as an important part of their strategic equations—people wanted the 1960s to reappear in the 1980s and 1990s—but ever so slowly I found a few ways to get a piece of classroom ownership away from the front of the room.

The other significant success was to get students to look at themselves and their own strengths and weaknesses as tactics with more or less effectiveness in different organizing situations. Dubbed “tactical self-awareness” (Burghardt, 1982), it was a conscious creation to address issues ofpower and strategic inflexibility that creep into organizers' lives. An organizer's reinterpretation of the social work profession's “conscious use of self,” it also was directly opposed to Saul Alinsky's listing of traits that every organizer had to have—from street smarts to humor, a disciplined mind, and an openness to new issues (Alinsky, 1971). I had eagerly read Alinsky early in my organizing life, and I had been taken aback by his list, for no one I knew, starting with myself, came close to embracing all those talents.

Furthermore, through my own organizing experience I had come to see that I was great at getting a group going but not so good at details later on. Other people hated being in the front of the room but could keep important attendance records and phone trees operational and in order so that necessary follow-up work was not a disaster. While each of us could improve, figuring out whose strengths fit which part of an organizing activity increased the group's flexibility as well as each person's awareness of how he or she contributed and where he or she needed support. (This applies in classrooms as well!) Replacing Alinsky's implicit “great organizer theory of history” through tactical self-awareness (TSA) and the personal insight that “less is more” by allowing for self development and not just community development proved liberating for a number of students. TSA seemed to lessen people's internalized anger and external rigidity as well. As one student said, echoing others, “Allowing myself to be less than perfect freed me to actually work on areas that were hard for me. I spent less time beating myself up and more on celebrating my own ‘little victories' of improvement.” I was proud of the results. Who knows? If it hadn't been for the subtle, ever-present dynamics of power and rage, fear and trembling—mine as well as students'—wrought by race, those classrooms might have become the islands of strategic decency I had hoped for (Horton, 1997).

The subtle dynamics of power in the classroom evolved slowly, more or less at the edges of my awareness, over a number ofyears. On the other hand, as detailed later, classroom dynamics of race arrived one spring day in my third or fourth year of teaching and had all the subtlety of a brick thrown through a large, plate glass window. In both cases, I came to see that personal, heartfelt commitments to alter dynamics ofpower and end racial injustice did not make me any more prepared to transform how I and others dealt with them up close in the classroom.

The issues of power in the classroom perplexed me, leading to a kind of internal discomfort that caused me to seesaw back and forth on how to handle shifting power away from me and toward others. The truth was that I was a popular teacher. Students liked me, gave me strong ratings and wrote engaged, thoughtful papers showing real commitment to organizing and increasing strategic sophistication. The problem was that the more I studied the social psychology of power and its dynamics in the classroom and the more I experienced the struggle for empowerment in organizing among communities conditioned by structural oppression, the more I realized it was impossible for me to give others power. Likewise, I had been part of too many campaigns and movements where the actual process of taking power had had the seductive effect of people holding that power way too tightly. The hands of power, not its shape, were all that changed.

I was confronted with a painful dilemma. I could be a nice-guy professor and organizer and show students and community people ways where I gave them power—they could decide role plays, set the agenda for a meeting, lead part of it. Given others' initial anxiety about their own authority—Freire's dictum was never far away from my thoughts—almost everybody was happy. However, while this approach was indeed benevolent, it still left me completely in charge: I determined the level ofbeneficence, not they. Given other, more oppressive experiences in classrooms or communities, few people ever complained as the comparison had the veneer of genuine participation. People had their voice ... in my classroom. Strategically, the best I could hope for was that others would replicate my kind and gentle model themselves. Although students could claim a part of their voice, their full authority was never as great as mine. The iron law lived on, wrapped in the soft glove ofweekly participation.[1]

On the other hand, I also knew that if students simply took power that I would be replicating the pernicious zero-sum game fostered by elites for generations. To capitulate to the idea that everyone in the room was exactly alike in what they brought to learning was to deny my own “subjectness.” Had I read countless books, studied strategies, and honed tactics for 20 years with no meaning? As much as I wanted students to be engaged with genuine co-learning, I could not accept others “taking” the classroom without a struggle either. Grading papers, following some kind of syllabus, maintaining some coherent approach to learning—those things mattered! But how could I assert my knowledge and experience without replicating forms of domination, especially by WASP men like me?

With too little assertion about the learning, others misuse power. With too much assertion over the learning, I abuse power. Semester by semester, the discomfort quietly grew within me.

There was nothing quiet about race. As a committed organizer working in New York City multiracial coalitions and campaigns since undergraduate school and at the time working in the South Bronx who counted about as many black and brown friends as white ones, I felt that I was well prepared to handle whatever racial issues came up in the classroom. Having read everything from Hamilton and Carmichael's work on Black Power (Ture & Hamilton, 1992) to Gutman's work on slavery and the black family (Gutman, 1977), as well as the works of W. E. B. DuBois and Franklin Frazier (DuBois, 1994; Frazier, 1997), I was pretty confident on the theory side as well.

As an important classroom assignment, I had created different student groups, with members purposely selected randomly to avoid cliques and to stimulate discussion across social lines. Each group was to conduct research together and make presentations on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity, with topics such as gentrification, educational opportunity, and job mobility. I felt well prepared, as these were topics I had studied in graduate school and recently had been involved with in the South Bronx.

What I was not prepared for was the anger, hurt, fear, guilt, and tears that came spilling into the classroom on the first day of presentations. I have never forgotten that scene: Six students who a few weeks earlier had happily formed their workgroup came to the front of the room, grim-faced and silent. A white student had barely begun to speak when eye rolls from two students of color signaled displeasure. Others in the group had their eyes down. A young white woman's eyes teared up; a black student's lower lip began to tremble. It was obvious something was very, very wrong.

People barely got to the content before the emotions poured out. The students of color were angry, frustrated, and hurt; most whites were fearful, “participate,” they just could not decide anything. They were always thanked for sharing, however. See Orleck and Gayle (2011).

guilt-ridden, and confused. The former group could not believe how insensitive and ignorant the white students were; the latter were stunned that students of color did not recognize their good intentions and heartfelt commitments. Other students in the class began to emotionally voice similar comments about their own groups. Listening to them all, my response was simple: I wanted to throw up.

Thus emerged what proved to be one of the most pivotal moments of my teaching career: Fighting back the desperate need to retch, I knew I had to consciously approach whatever happened between these students and my own lack of personal and intellectual reserves to better help them through these uncomfortable dynamics or I was failing to embody the change I sought. I also knew intuitively that I was embarking on a process of personal and social inquiry that was not going to be “answered” in one class or one term but over many years of reflection (How could I, deeply committed and actively engaged in racial justice issues, still be so unprepared for others’ emotional upheaval? And what didprepared" look like, since it wasn’t about changing the syllabus?) and action (What steps could I take in the classroom or community that laid a foundation for dialogue rather than distress among progressive people?)

  • [1] These dynamics reminded me of the co-optive mechanisms used by some agencies regarding “participation of the poor”—poor folks got a chance to come inside and
 
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