After last week’s protest at McGraw I made a point to attend the East Camden Middle School meeting the following morning. It was much less eventful. The meeting was at 9am, only a handful of parents showed up, and the tone was not one of defiance so much as one of seeking information. But, Camden residents were also met at the door by security who said that only those with children in the school will be allowed into the meeting. I took video of that exchange (I was also initially denied entrance), and I want to use it to emphasize a broader, more nuanced, point I have been trying to make. The cultural bias of those in power makes it hard to empower Camden residents. Ultimately, this is why we need more democratic structures, because absolute power comes with it bias and exclusion.
This video is from the front lobby of East Camden Middle School. When I attended last Thursday’s meeting, the district’s head of security was at the door ensuring that everyone who attended the meeting had a parent in the school system. As you can see, Camden advocates Moneke Ragsdale and Gary Frazier were initially denied entrance to the meeting. Upon pressing security, they were told that only parents who were listed as an “emergency contact” would be allowed into the building. At that point, a parent offered to go into the office and change her emergency contact forms. Then, all three of us were let into the building.
Now, there are plenty of reasons to only want parents in meetings, and I’m sure the school district was trying to avoid disruption during the school day. Maybe they were also trying to do damage control after the previous afternoon’s meeting went viral. But what I want to point to is something subtler. While we were in the lobby, waiting to sign paperwork, another Camden resident came through the door. That resident was asked if she had a child at this school. She said no, but that she had a child at a Mastery school, and that the school district had invited her to speak to other parents.
When I talk about how one set of views is favored over another, this is what I mean. Yes, the school district has held events and public comment. But certain types of involvement is privileged over others. Watch the above video again. Gary Frazier knows it. He asks “why are you trying to hide the truth from these parents?” What both Gary and the Mastery parent knew instinctively was that the content of what they wanted to share with parents indicated how they would be treated. For the Mastery parent, she knew that sending a child to the chosen policy “solution” of the district meant that she would be allowed into the meeting. For Gary, he knew that his skepticism of that same policy choice (the takeover of a school by Mastery) would mean he had a higher bar to hurdle in order to attend.
This sometimes explicit, and sometimes subconscious, ways of discouraging opposing views or privileging the “right” views happens all the time in subtle ways. A few weeks ago, when Mastery was going to be recognized at a board meeting, the district purchased translation devices. This is great, it has been asked for by the hispanic community for a long time. But, to many who have been going to meetings for years, it was heartbreaking. For years, parents of traditional public schools have been showing up at school board meetings without appropriate translation devices, yet the first time Mastery parents are scheduled to come to a meeting for an award, the District debuts the device. Those parents are encouraged in a different way than others.
These types of subtle expressions of power and favor are always there if you look for them, and need not be intentional to be harmful. A school district employee pulled me aside right away upon our entering of the East Camden Middle School meeting to ensure me that as soon as he found out, everyone was let in. But the damage might have already been done. The chief of security had met Camden residents at the door to exclude them (it seemed the chief was there explicitly for this purpose), while other parents were invited to present at the meeting. It is only because this wasn’t my first meeting, and I’d seen these type of things before, that I even stuck around long enough to take that video. Others were told not to come because community members suspected they wouldn’t allow non-parents into the meeting.
This is why I think the call for a parental vote for school takeovers is so critical. There were so many subtle ways in which parents of these closing schools were unempowered. They were told they could vote with their feet, but when they did, their school was taken over anyway. They did not attend the meetings to talk about “struggling schools,” but when they showed up after the announcement, they were told the decision was already made. The meetings about closing these schools didn’t even happen at the schools in question.
Empowering residents is hard, and many times those in power in Camden don’t even try. It’s difficult to get Camden residents, who hold jobs with weird hours and may struggle to find affordable child care on the fly, out to meetings. It’s difficult to overcome cultural barriers and ideological disagreements. But these are reasons that democracy should be the backstop, not the best judgement of people who neither know Camden’s history nor have history themselves here. Let the parents vote, like they’ve done in Philly. If it’s true that the district, as they’ve consistently told me, are sure there is community support for their policies, than there is no risk. But if, as I suspect, the nature of the district’s engagement privileges certain voices over others, we could learn a lot about what Camden residents really want.