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Is being a teacher activist enough? What is the goal of activism? I always think it’s to transform something, but does activism transform? I’ve heard people say it’s to “disrupt the system,” but what does that mean? How do we define disruption, and is disruption even enough? I’m going to attempt to define that by looking at the similarities and differences between activism, agitation, and transformation in my own practice.
I’ve defined activism in previous posts, so I won’t go into that too much here. What I want to consider is the purpose of activism. In short, I defined activism as small acts of defiance for the purpose of?? I guess for the purpose of challenging a perceived injustice. In my classroom I refused to teach the prescribed curriculum, among other things. The purpose was to provide an education to my students I feel they deserved. Was I transforming anything? Perhaps on a micro level. I like to think I transformed the way my students learned ancient world history.
I see my refusal to stay silent in the face of oppression activism. Does it transform anything? I’ve been in situations where my speaking out opened the door for others speaking out, so it definitely transformed conversations. I’ve been told that others who see me speak out are inspired to do the same, even if it’s not in that moment, so I suppose it has transformed individuals in some way.
What I’m getting at here is that activism has the ability to transform on the individual level. Activism has transformed me, that is for sure. The more I engage in activism, the more I want to engage in activism, and it leads me to engage in the next term I want to define: agitation. I see them as two distinct things. Activism is an individual or group protesting, or acting against a person, thing, or force. Agitation goes a step further.
In my opinion, agitation is activism for the purpose of “disrupting the system.” As stated, I see activism as more of an interpersonal act. Even huge marches are a display of defiance, but rarely does it have an impact on a greater system. Huge marches make a point and may move individuals to change their positions. Agitation attempts to transform systems, but usually falls short.
Agitators act alone or in small groups and are generally hyper-focused on a single issue. One issue I consider myself an agitator in is standardized testing. I break the rules without actually breaking the rules. I didn’t tell my students to refuse standardized tests, I only taught them how the tests perpetuate systems of racial oppression. I don’t tell parents to opt their kids out, I write blogs about how racist the tests are and share them with parents. Agitators push within the confines of the system in an attempt to chip away at it.
Agitators sometimes see a bigger picture than activists, but I feel like the reason agitators fall short is because they see the system, but don’t think in terms of the system. One reason I left the classroom even though I’m missing my kids like crazy is because activism and agitation led me to the understanding that I’m not either. I want to work on transforming the system. For this we need to be transformative people.
Transformation occurs when we combine our activist spirit with our agitation tactics and throw in organizing. Transformation is about the end goal, which is not to disrupt, but to transform entire systems. Upending systems of any kind, but particularly systems of oppression, is going to take as many of us as possible. This is why, as educators, we must get out of our silos. I believe the siloing of our work is intentional. These systems of ours are afraid of educated, passionate, fearless individuals spending too much time together.
A transformative person is a selfless person. This is someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes the purpose of their work. I am working on being that person. It’s not easy to let go of my ego, especially when I have invested so much emotional labor into my work, but I must reflect on the why of my work. I don’t do this for me. My time in the K-12 system is over. I’m doing this for future generations. I attended the Race and Pedagogy National Conference this weekend and listened to a panel of Puyallap tribal members speak about their practice of making decisions based on how it will impact the next seven generations. This is how I want to move forward in my life. I think I have unintentionally done this, but I am going to incorporate this practice with intention. I can’t make decisions for the next seven generations if I am too caught up on whether or not I’ll be fired tomorrow.
At the conference I was privileged to hear Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, who were keynote speakers. Besides being starstruck, I also received affirmation on a belief I had already been developing. Patrisse Cullors said, paraphrasing,“This position doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the people.” When Patrisse was introduced, the one word used to describe her was “transformative.” Her statement is why. Transforming a system requires us to lift up the people who need it to be changed, bringing them to the same level as those who would oppress them. It requires us to put our jobs and bodies on the line to force that change. Yes, force it. It requires me to be unafraid and untethered to the current system that tries to push me out for challenging it. It requires me to live the activism, agitation, and organizing required to get the job done.
As I put this into words it terrifies me, but I am not afraid to lose my job or my reputation. I am afraid to lose. Maybe that’s the real difference between activism, agitation, and transformation.