Why We Need the Community
This blog follows up on the previous two posts on the crucial roles of youth and teachers in the co-creation of powerful learning communities. Here we focus on the necessary leadership role of indigenous members of the broader community. These often unsung s/heroes are crucial if student/teacher learning communities are to be actually effective. Students and their teachers can accomplish incredible things together, but without the support of wise and savvy individuals and committed groups deeply embedded in the surrounding community, students and teachers, alone, lack the capacity to deal with the devastating conditions and overwhelming obstacles that often block student growth and learning.
Indigenous Community Resources
One of the vital roles of students and teachers is to get to know the community in intimate detail and discover these indigenous resources upon whom they can count when life becomes unbearable and creative breakthroughs are necessary. Beyond these emergency crisis supports, it is also important to seek out groups that are working toward fundamental change over the long term and become part of such efforts as it feels right to do so. In addition, the learning process itself can be revitalized and enriched daily, by community members with a treasure trove of experience in a wide variety of arenas and callings.
Community-Based Crisis Supports
In the novel, In a Silent Way, students and teachers discover the resources they need right under their noses, in the most natural and organic of ways. Many of these resources are ones that conventional school authorities and social service professionals might never perceive as valuable, or actually wish to suppress as too threatening to the status quo. For example, when young Cat, an impoverished, hyper, barely surviving youngster, shares his horrific home situation with Lonnie, a fellow member of Project Group Survive, Lonnie asks Guff, his savvy go-to community elder for help. As mentioned in an earlier post, Guff goes up to see Cat’s father in prison, where he has been transformed with the help of the Black Muslims, who finds a way to resolve Cat’s home situation. Simultaneously, Jeanna visits the local chapter of the Black Panthers to connect her hungriest students with their free breakfast program, and in the process meets Clayton James, a medic fresh from the Vietnam War, who connects Cat and other students not only to the breakfast program, but with a men’s support group, health clinic, tutoring program, and a future occupation as EMT’s.
When Jeanna, the teacher, is at her wits’ end in trying to engage Jam, a hardened gang member, in his own growth and development, she searches out Nate Smith, a local auto mechanic, who takes Jam on as an apprentice and gives him a reason to live and a chance to fulfill his dreams. When young Meta has to become the mother for her siblings as a result of her father’s abuse of her mother and her forced institutionalization in a mental hospital, Jeanna finds an internship for Meta in a newly emerging feminist women’s health center. There Meta gains the support, knowledge and empowerment necessary to survive and thrive in a virtually impossible situation.
Community Enrichment of the Learning Process
When Karima and Felice find themselves at opposing ends of the social change spectrum in their project group focusing on the struggle for racial justice, they ask Felice’s grandmother, who was deeply involved in southern civil rights movement, to shed light on their bitter disagreements. In the process they are introduced to Ella Baker’s leadership principles and practice that the students have never heard of, which opens up a new world of possibility for all members of the group, black and white, women and men.
Community-Based Social Transformation
Matt, the school’s principal, invites Jeanna to join “the Group,” a multi-issue, cross-race, cross- class, grassroots movement organization, which succeeds in generating local jobs & training opportunities for unemployed members of the community (including key students’ parents) in building cooperative, affordable housing, among an array of other projects. Over time, several of her students also join the Group, which provides an education in the contradictory dynamics of social movement politics for all involved, as well as the promise of practical solutions to their problems. For Lonnie, this involves overcoming the racist exclusion of black workers in the lucrative construction trades. Jeanna, the main character, ultimately finds her source of self-liberation in: her students such as Lonnie, Cassius, and Valledonia; Lillian, a parent and co-activist; Guff, a savvy community elder and former "race man"; and Ma Carrington, Chair of the movement Group, a black elder of incisive insight.
Our Sacred Opportunity
Thus, the resources within the community and the possibilities for mutual growth and liberation--while fraught with contradictions and tensions-- are endless. It is our great opportunity and sacred responsibility to open to this abundance of indigenous leadership treasures hidden away and deeply embedded in the community beneath the level of “appropriate professionals and mainstream political leaders," where the roots of transformation interconnect, ground and sustain us.
Join the Dialogue
Can you name unsung indigenous leaders in the community that have made a difference in the lives of students and teachers in your own school’s learning community and describe some of these contributions? Please share your stories here in the comment box so we can honor the hidden s/heroes of our own communities and schools. Have you noticed the powerful roles of the very young and the very old in the process of community building and social transformation?