Keron Blair will look you directly in the eye the whole time he’s talking to you, making sure you absorb every single word he’s saying. His personality seemed a bit reserved when he sat down with me at a Starbucks to discuss Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the coalition he is director of, which been responsible for organizing and supporting school protests across the country. But when you listen to his speeches, you hear a minister’s voice.
“Public education…could die on our watch,” Blair said at a recent event for the Milwaukee Teachers Association. “The reality is what drew me to this fight is the shared acknowledgement that we are in fact at war, and what I’ve learned about wartime is that you cannot operate with the same kind of rules. You’ve got to make some wartime adjustments.”
AROS’ ongoing protests have conveyed exactly that level of urgency.
The coalition’s campaign began with a “day of action” where cities across the U.S. protested cuts to public education, the closure of schools in low-income neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Hispanic, the expansion of charter schools, and the proliferation of standardized testing. An estimated 40,000 parents, teachers, and students from over 830 schools in more than 30 cities participated in the February 17 walk-ins. A spokesperson for AROS said the protests were biggest in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Seattle, and Chicago.
— Michelle Couture (@michellecoutur3) April 14, 2016
AROS believes that schools are ultimately community institutions that help in the fight against poverty by providing support services. The coalition rejects top-down reform from “corporate executives, entrepreneurs or philanthropists,” and wants the voices of teachers, parents, and students to be prioritized in the decision-making process about important changes in education policy, whether local, state, or federal.
Drawing inspiration from other grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, Blair easily weaves together various political and economic issues to ensure that AROS is engaged in a broader fight — one focused on narrowing the gap in economic inequality and focusing on the voices of teachers, students, and parents in black and Hispanic communities. Blair says he learned what not to do from Occupy Wall Street as well. He wants to make sure the message isn’t so broad that people don’t see a focused policy agenda.
“I came to AROS because I felt that the fight for education and public schools in this country would be one of the defining fights of the decade,” Blair said.
Blair’s background as an immigrant helped inform his views about the value of public schools. Blair and his mother emigrated from Jamaica to the United States, where he attended Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School in New York. At the time, the school was struggling, but it was important as a community center for immigrants, Blair said.
— Chenine Peloquin (@CheninePeloquin) February 17, 2016
“It was under-resourced, but it was public, and it was local, it was free, and so I enrolled and got my classes and I was free to participate for a year in the life of a public school that then prepared me to go on to Howard University,” Blair said. “Where do people coming to this country of immigrants go to get their orientation, to live in this country, to learn the language, to learn to drive, to make friends, to know the whole community? We go to school.”
He didn’t always want to be an organizer. Although Blair first began exploring activism in his time as an undergraduate student at Howard University, he initially aimed to become a minister leading a social justice congregation and studied liberation theology. But after going to New Orleans to work on recovery efforts in 2007, he realized he wanted to be an organizer instead of a minister.
“I felt that the fight for education and public schools in this country would be one of the defining fights of the decade.”
Today, Blair brings the discussion of barriers for students of color, such as systemic racism, to the fore. When he’s giving speeches, he makes sure to emphasize the importance of race in the conversation over who gets to control public schools. Issues ranging from school resource officers, to metal detectors in schools, to state takeovers of schools represent the racist impact of what Blair considers to be bad policies.
For instance, Blair connects efforts to wrest control of school boards and close schools in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods to the voter ID laws that prevent many people of color from casting a ballot, saying they are both examples of distrusting people of color to govern themselves.
“For us, it is rooted in racism that says certain people should not have access to the political process,” he said. “When you have an appointed school board like they do in Chicago, that school board is unaccountable.”
His point of view is similar to that of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who has called Chicago Public Schools’ decision to close around 50 schools in 2013 “racist” and “classist.”
Chicago isn’t the only major city school district embroiled in controversies over community control of schools and school closures. Governors have been considering state takeovers of school districts all over the country, including Detroit and Philadelphia. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has advocated for, and in the case of Youngstown City School District, won executive control of schools over the years. Meanwhile, school districts across the country are going broke and are unable to provide things like updated textbooks, Advanced Placement classes, extracurricular activities, and in some cases, suitable drinking water. There are ongoing lawsuits in states such as Connecticut, Texas, and New York to enforce the quality of education promised by states’ constitutions. In Chicago and Detroit, teachers are going on strike to protest poor school conditions and lack of support services. In sum, there is no shortage of outrage over the state of education in public schools.
Blair remains focused on practical solutions to fix what’s broken in public education. He sees it as a battleground, and given the high stakes, he said it is necessary for groups to put aside their histories and work together.
“We are under serious attack,” he said. “We’re at war and we have to focus on winning.”