Tuesday, August 16, 2016

To Change the Future, Know Your History

Milwaukee has a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the worst city in the country to raise an African-American child. The city's intense segregation and disparity did not happen overnight, but are the result of decades of practices and policies.

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of my book Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City. The chapter details the tumultuous events of the summer of 1967 — both the city's long-standing practice of valuing law and order over social justice, and the power of sustained grass-roots organizing.

Chapter 7

A Good Groppi Is a Dead Groppi.
—White supremacist sign during Milwaukee’s open housing marches

Except for Alderman Vel Phillips, who had been raising the issue for five years, no alderman would even consider the topic [of Open Housing]. “Seventeen white Milwaukee aldermen listened silently for 30 minutes Tuesday while their lone Negro colleague urged them to consider the adoption of a city fair housing ordinance,” the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote of the day’s events. “Then, without a word of comment or criticism, they voted to reject the proposal.”

That summer, Phillips got support from outside the council. Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council launched their Open Housing campaign, demanding the city pass legislation prohibiting discrimination in the sale, lease, and rental of housing property in Milwaukee. The campaign began with picketing outside the homes of prominent aldermen. On July 30, however, the marches were interrupted by what in Milwaukee are known as the 1967 Riots, part of a national explosion of pent- up black rage.

In Milwaukee, as in other cities, anger in the black community had long simmered over police brutality, unemployment, housing discrimination, school segregation, political and economic disenfranchisement, and the refusal of the white power structure to acknowledge the pressing need for change. On July 12, 1967, disturbances broke out in Newark, New Jersey, sparked when two white policemen arrested a black cabdriver for improperly passing them. Rumors that the cabbie had been killed led to six days of rage, leaving twenty- six people dead. Less than a week aft er the end of Newark’s riots, Detroit was in flames. Police action— this time against an aft er- hours bar— once again lit the fi re. Disturbances grew so intense that not only did the governor call out the Michigan National Guard, but President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in army troops equipped with machine guns and tanks. The riots lasted five days, leaving forty- three people dead and more than two thousand buildings destroyed.

Milwaukee’s two-day upheaval began the night of July 30. By national standards, it was a relatively small disturbance. But it left whites in Milwaukee absolutely terrified, and it had a lasting impact on the city’s psyche.

The outbreak was fueled by rumors that a white policeman had killed an African American boy. Before long, the central city was beset with arson, gunshots, and looting. At around 3:00 a.m., Mayor Henry Maier instituted a twenty- four- hour curfew and asked that the National Guard be called out. Only emergency and medical personnel were to leave their homes. Mail delivery and bus ser vice were suspended. Those who violated the curfew were subject to immediate arrest.

The following morning, the city’s freeways and streets were empty and still. Six armored personnel carriers, each mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun, were ordered into the Milwaukee area. In the central city, the Milwaukee Journal reported, “every pedestrian and civilian vehicle was challenged by troops armed with bayonet- tipped rifles.” The riots left four people dead, almost a hundred injured, and 1,740 arrested.

Maier’s show of force was widely praised as saving the city from even more devastating consequences. At the same time, nothing of substance was done to alleviate the conditions leading to the unrest and anger in the African American community. [emphasis added.]

Shortly after the riots, Father Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council again took up their demands for open housing. And, just as they had crossed into the suburb of Wauwatosa, the civil rights demonstrators were not afraid to venture into white supremacist strongholds of Milwaukee. The decision led to the now legendary marches across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct separating the city’s downtown and Inner Core from the South Side.

On Monday, August 28, 1967, protesters gathered at St. Boniface in the central city. For the first time, they set out for the South Side, infamous as a stronghold of ethnic whites opposed to civil rights.

In a tribute to Father Groppi’s reputation among his former South Side parishioners, a small group of supportive whites from St. Veronica’s met the demonstrators at the beginning of their march across the bridge.1 By the time the protesters walked the half mile across the bridge, however, matters had changed. Most of the three thousand whites on the other side were hostile, with signs that read “A Good Groppi Is a Dead Groppi.” Some yelled “Sieg heil,” others “Go back to Africa.” The marchers continued. Before long, counterdemonstrators along the march route were throwing bottles, stones, and chunks of wood at them. Another five thousand white counterdemonstrators were waiting when the civil rights protesters arrived at their destination, Kosciuszko Park in the heart of the South Side.

The next night, Groppi and the Youth Council once again headed to the South Side. This time, an estimated thirteen thousand counterdemonstrators challenged them. Once again, Groppi and the marchers continued. After their march, they returned to their Freedom House in the Inner Core. At about 9:30 p.m., the house was on fi re. Groppi said the police started the fi re with tear gas; the police said a firebomb had been tossed into the house by an unknown person. When fi re trucks arrived, the police would not let them near, citing reports of gunshots and fears of a sniper. “Youth council members said the gunshots came from police weapons,” writes journalist Frank Aukofer in his civil rights history of Milwaukee. “No arsonist or sniper ever was found.”2

After the day’s events, Mayor Maier banned nighttime demonstrations. On the night of August 30, however, Groppi held a rally at the burned- out Freedom House and led a march down city streets. Police ultimately arrested fift y-eight people.3 The next night, declaring that Maier’s ban violated their First Amendment rights of assembly, marchers headed toward city hall. Some 137 people were arrested, including Alderman Phillips and Father Groppi.

Within days, the mayor was forced to lift his ban. Keeping their promise to continue marching every day, Father Groppi and the Youth Council didn’t stop even during the cold winter months, when temperatures sometimes dipped below zero.

On the South Side, white racists organized Milwaukee Citizens for Closed Housing, led by a white priest, Father Russell Witon. Decrying  “forced open housing,” Father Witon and his supporters organized counterdemonstrations at the Milwaukee archdiocesan chancery office and in the central city. The group, however, had more fury than staying power. Their efforts dwindled.

Open housing supporters, meanwhile, refused to give up. Beginning with the walk across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct on August 28, 1967, they continued with marches and protests for two hundred consecutive days.4 Finally, propelled by national events, Milwaukee’s power brokers realized they could no longer hold onto the past. On April 30, 1968, Milwaukee’s Common Council finally passed the open housing bill. The vote occurred two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated during his campaign in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Riots of rage broke out across the country. In Milwaukee, an estimated fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people marched somberly but peacefully through downtown.

The open housing legislation ended a long chapter in Milwaukee’s civil rights struggles, spanning almost a decade and involving the city’s seminal civil rights leaders and organizations. As early as 1961, [Desegregation activist Lloyd] Barbee helped organize a thirteen-day sit-in at the state capitol to ban discrimination in housing. In 1965, by that time a legislator, Barbee successfully co-sponsored statewide open housing legislation, but even supporters acknowledged it was a weak bill. In Milwaukee, meanwhile, Phillips and Groppi were pushing the more comprehensive local ordinance.

Barbee, Phillips, Groppi, and countless other activists easily moved between housing, school, and employment issues. They believed not only that the issues were inherently intertwined but also that they all had deep roots in overarching problems of racism and discrimination. ...

Monday, August 1, 2016

Lecciones de Medellín: Cómo la capital mundial del asesinato se convirtió en un “modelo” de innovación urbana

El otoño pasado, días antes de que mi marido y yo saliéramos de Milwaukee a Medellín, Colombia por tres meses, miramos la serie de Netflix, “Narcos.”

Roberto y yo nos miramos preguntándonos, “¿Estamos locos?”

Unas semanas más tarde, viajamos a la Comuna 13, una vez considerado el peor y más peligroso barrio de Medellín. Usamos el sistema de bici-reparto de Medellín (que es gratis) para llegar al metro. Pagamos 70 centavos para tomar el metro hasta la Comuna 13, luego otros 40 centavos para tomar un autobús a un sistema de escaleras eléctricas, gratis,  que va en zigzag a las colinas escarpadas  del barrio, subiendo el equivalente de un edificio de 25 pisos. Un poco  después, nos montamos en un sistema de góndolas por 1.7. millas, un sistema que ha acortado el tiempo de viaje de más de un hora hasta menos de 10 minutos. Las góndolas, una parte integral del transito público de Medellín, pueden transportar más de 3,000 personas por hora.

Las góndolas de Medellín.

Medellín fue la primera ciudad en el mundo en usar góndolas para el transporte público, y también la primera en usar escaleras mecánicas en un barrio residencial.

Roberto y yo pensamos en Wisconsin, donde una de las primeras acciones del Gobernador Scott Walker fue rechazar el subsidio del gobierno federal de $810 millones de dólares para el tren de alta velocidad.  Es imposible no preguntarse por qué Medellín, una cuidad en un país supuestamente “en desarrollo,” está más adelantada que los centros urbanos en los Estados Unidos económicamente poderosos — y años luz más adelantada que Milwaukee.

Un enfoque en los barrios pobres
Es una tarde hermosa del sábado — cada día parece primavera en Medellín, donde las temperaturas del día se mantienen cerca de 23º C todo el año. Carolina Andrea Ramírez, una madre soltera de 34 años afro-indígena de gran energía, nos lleva en un viaje por la Comuna 8, en las colinas del este de la ciudad.

Medellín, cuyos 2.4 millones de habitantes la hacen la segunda ciudad más grande de Colombia, tiene 16 comunas — o barrios de la ciudad. La Comuna 8, con una población de aproximadamente 135,000 habitantes, es uno de los sectores más pobres.

Ramírez nació en la Comuna 8 y vivía en las calles desde los 14 hasta los 28 años de edad. Hace aproximadamente un año formó una organización de la comunidad, Corazón de León, que se concentra en “ofrecer a los jóvenes otra opción que las drogas,” en particular el arte y la música.

Nos encontramos con Ramírez debajo de la construcción del nuevo sistema de góndolas. Caminamos hacía arriba, las calles se convirtieron en escaleras, que se convirtieron en caminos de tierra. Después de poco tiempo, entramos en una área de un ,cinturón verde con “eco-parques,” juegos infantiles, parcelas de jardín orgánico, y un camino que parecía de adoquines, a la cima de un colina conocida como Pan de Azúcar (Sugar Bread), que tiene una de las mejores vistas de Medellín.

Los proyectos son parte del Jardín Circunvalar, traducido más o menos como
“The Circular Garden,” que, a su lado, es parte de un cinturón verde que se está construyendo en las colinas de Medellín. A medida que caminamos, traté de pensar en un proyecto similar, multifacético, en un barrio pobre de Milwaukee, especialmente un proyecto controlado y financiado con fondos públicos, no pude.

Los proyectos de la Comuna 8 reflejan lo que se llama “urbanismo social” en Medellín, que se refiere a proyectos públicos completos, holísticos que unen el transporte público al espacio verde, a bibliotecas, proyectos culturales, parques, instalaciones deportivas, escuelas y guarderías.

Estos esfuerzos han atraído reconocimiento internacional, incluyendo un 2013 “Premio Verde” de la escuela de posgrado de diseño de la Universidad de Harvard, en el 2013 y un  premio “Ciudad Innovadora del Año” de The Wall Street Journal y Citi en 2012. Pero, lo que hace que Medellín destaque es que sus proyectos más ambiciosos han estado situados en barrios pobres.

Las páginas de la red del gobierno invariablemente explican los proyectos de la ciudad en términos elogiosos. Yo tenía interés en la perspectiva de Ramírez, una activista del barrio.

“Todo en Medellín es muy complicado,” ella comienza. Haciéndose eco de una creencia generalizada en un país infame debido a la corrupción política, ella cree que todos los políticos “son ratas.” La diferencia, explica, “es que en Medellín las ratas también hacen cosas buenas.”

Al pedirle datos concretos, menciona mejoras en educación, guarderías para las madres que trabajan, parques públicos, o en la góndola que se está construyendo. Pero no es sólo eso, añade. Su experiencia al vivir en las calles le enseñó la importancia de creer en un futuro mejor. “Ahora,” dice,” hay más esperanza.”

“Soy una Fajardista”
Cuando Pablo Escobar fue muerto en 1993, Medellín era un caos. Además de la violencia, la ciudad estaba fuertemente segregada. Barrios enteros fueron considerados “zonas de no-entrar,” peligroso para residentes y visitantes igualmente. Había un consenso creciente de que Medellín, un eje industrial y económico de todo el país, tenía que cambiar.

El empuje para una Medellín nueva recibió un impulso importante con la apertura del metro en 1995. Pero la elección del reformador Sergio Fajarado como alcalde en 2003 fue un momento decisivo, y Fajardo se ha convertido en un símbolo icónico de la transformación de Medellín. Incluso hoy, los candidatos políticos buscan votos proclamando, “Soy un Fajardista.”

Un profesor y periodista carismático convertido en político, Fajarado fue elegido como parte de un movimiento cívico independiente de los partidos principales. Su estatus es en parte debido al ritmo de cambio que hubo durante su mandato de alcalde de 2004 a 2007, antes de que él llegara a ser gobernador del estado de Antioquia por dos términos.

Lo más importante es que Fajardo y su movimiento cívico interrumpieron la manera normal de hacer negocios en Medellín. No tenían interés en mostrar arquitectura o proyectos ostentosos, diseñados para dar a Medellín una nueva imagen internacional. Vieron la arquitectura, el diseño y la innovación como herramientas de transformación social.

Después de tomar posesión del cargo, Fajardo destacó tres problemas principales: la desigualdad, la violencia, y una cultura de corrupción. Prometió un compromiso con la educación, la transparencia y la lucha contra la corrupción, así como la importancia de espacios públicos y participación cívica.

“Nuestros edificios más bellos deben estar en nuestros barrios más pobres,” dijo Fajardo.

El barrio cerca de las escaleras mecánicas 

De manera interesante, Fajardo pasó sus años formativos en Madison, graduándose de la Universidad de Wisconsin—Madison con un doctorado en matemáticas en 1984.  Esta fue una era cuando “La Idea de Wisconsin” — “que la educación debe influir en la vida de la gente más allá de los límites del aula” — todavía era honrada y protegida,  y la reputación global de la universidad permaneció intacta.

Algunos de los muchos proyectos iniciados durante la administración de Fajardo incluyen la reconstrucción de los Jardines Botánicos de Medellín (que son gratis); la construcción y renovación de escuelas públicas; la expansión de los parques públicos y plazas; la ampliación del sistema de góndolas, y el desarrollo de parques bibliotecas, que son una combinación de bibliotecas con espacio verde, un concepto que desde entonces se ha extendido a otros países de América Latina. Muchos de los proyectos fueron desarrollados con la participación de consejos comunitarios financiados con fondos públicos.

De balas a libros
En el barrio San Javier en Medellín, arriba de la estación del metro en la Comuna 13, hay un parque biblioteca,“Parque Biblioteca Presbítero José Louis Arroyave,” nombrado por un sacerdote asesinado a tiros por fuerzas paramilitares in 2002. Los murales dan paso a un sendero serpenteante y espacio verde, que, a su vez, dan paso a un jardín orgánico, esculturas y, en la cima, la biblioteca.

Pero la Comuna 13 tiene una historia más oscura. En un país donde la violencia militar/paramilitar/rebelde/bandas/droga es común, el barrio es el sitio de una de las invasiones militares más infames de una zona urbana en Colombia— Operación Orión, en 2002.

Durante ese otoño, el presidente conservador de Colombia ordenó una ofensiva militar para expulsar a los rebeldes izquierdistas. Miles de soldados y policías atacaron, apoyados por helicópteros armados y fuerzas paramilitares. Aproximadamente 100,000 residentes del barrio quedaron atrapados en el fuego cruzado.

Nadie sabe exactamente cuántas personas murieron, pero las cifras se extienden a más de 70 personas. También, los paramilitares “desaparecieron” a personas sospechosas de simpatías izquierdistas. Las estimaciones de los “desaparecidos” civiles alcanzan hasta 300 personas.

Hoy, la Comuna 13 es hogar no solamente para el parque biblioteca, pero también el metro, las góndolas, las escalaras y los servicios, sociales, educativos y culturales ampliados. Los murales a nivel de la calle, en la base del parque biblioteca hablan de la historia del barrio. El arte es impresionante y los mensajes son claros “Intervención militar, nunca más,” dice un mural. “Somos Comuna 13, donde la memoria y vida son presente,” dice otro.

La Comuna 13 es sólo un ejemplo de cómo la Medellín de 2015 es significativamente diferente de la Medellín de 1995. Los inversores extranjeros han tomado nota. Añadiendo a la historia de Medellín como centro industrial, el sector tecnológico de la ciudad ahora es el tercero más grande de América Latina.

Algunos críticos han rechazado los cambios de Medellín como adornos que dejan intactas las estructuras básicas. Sin embargo, no se puede negar el progreso y la interrupción de negocios como era costumbre. Y en una época cuando, en todo el mundo, las iniciativas del gobierno están dominadas por la privatización y fondos públicos para proyectos privados, Medellín es un anomalía.

A medida que Roberto y yo leíamos noticias de Madison durante el otoño, estábamos desanimados por los ataques continuos contra los tradiciones de un gobierno transparente, un sector público fuerte y un sistema vibrante de la universidad en Wisconsin.

Como a veces bromeábamos, “La Idea de Wisconsin, estilo Latinoamericano, está viva y bien en Medellín.”
— —
Bárbara Miner es una escritora y fotógrafo en Milwaukee, WI, EEUU. Esta opinión ha sido adaptada de un artículo en la edición de diciembre-enero de la revista The Progressive.

Gracias a Floralba por su ayuda con la traducción.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Misogyny and male privilege: Time to take a stand

Dear Bernie supporters: We need to talk. Specifically, we need to talk about misogyny and male privilege.

If there was even the slightest doubt, the Republican convention has made clear that Trump will use no-holds-barred misogyny to try and take down Hillary. And it will get quite ugly — perhaps even uglier than the Republicans’ race-based attacks on President Obama.

Chris Christie’s Salem-Witch-Trial “lock her up” speech at the Republican convention was perhaps the most menacing and demagogic speech I’ve ever seen at a convention.

Unfortunately, there are disconcerting signs that some Bernie supporters are willing to take up the “lock her up” chant.

Trial of a witch, wood engraving, 1892. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

It’s especially important during the coming months that Bernie and his supporters take a stand against misogyny — both blatant sexism a lá the Republicans, and also the more nuanced and subtle forms of male chauvinism and privilege.

The Black Lives Matter movement has done an admirable job of raising consciousness around issues of racism and white privilege. But calls to discuss misogyny and male privilege among Sanders supporters have, too often, been dismissed as an overreaction to legitimate criticisms of Clinton. That’s a mistake. Such concerns need to be taken seriously.

Learning from feminist consciousness-raising of the 1960s and 1970s, the left/progressive movements need 21st Century discussions that explore how misogyny and male privilege are far more nuanced and complicated than raw, intentional sexism. For instance: when out-of-control anger and rage is disproportionately directed at a woman, that’s bullying. That’s male chauvinism. And, to many women, it’s downright scary.

My sincere hope is that Trump loses in November, the Republicans are forced to focus on rebuilding their party— and progressives harness the energy and ideas of the Sanders campaign to strengthen existing movements for social justice and to create new ones.

As we build and strengthen our movements, we need to ensure that race and gender are not merely subsumed into calls for economic equality. One need merely look at Europe to see how economic populism, on its own, is not enough.

Precisely because Sanders has proclaimed socialist ideals, I hold him to higher standards. Similarly, because Sanders supporters will be part of any new left/progressive movements, I hold them to higher standards

“Hillary the child-eater
I’ve been concerned about sexist strains among some Sanders supporters for months, but it never seemed the right time to bring up the topic. But when, in the midst of the Republican convention, some pro-Bernie Facebook pages remained focused almost exclusively on criticizing Hillary — sometimes with memes that differed little from the Republican onslaught of attacks — I realized that there is never a good time to talk about such a complicated and emotional subject.

At the very time that Trump was speaking at the convention, one of my Bernie Facebook pages had pictures of Hillary eating a baby, of a George Washington meme saying he would “bitch slap all of you,” and calling for people to “grow a pair of nuts and take back your government.”

Yes, the examples are extreme, and maybe they were put up by Republican trolls. But that’s a poor excuse, because posts on the page have to be approved by an administrator before they go public.

And yes, it may be a small percentage of Bernie’s supporters who make such attacks. But misogynistic anger, rage, distortion and double standards need be condemned forthrightly whenever they occur. To turn a blind eye allows such a culture to fester and potentially infect the entire movement.

Go back to October 2015, when a post on the official Sanders campaign website called for a “Bern the Witch” event to watch a debate a few weeks before Halloween. Anyone could register a campaign event on Sanders’ website and to its credit, the Sanders campaign took down the notice (but not until five months later, in March.)

Joe Smith, who posted the event, was asked if he thought “Bern the Witch” was sexist. “No, not at all,” he said.*

Fast forward to May and the infamous Nevada Democratic Party caucus.

Did Bernie supporters throw chairs at Hillary supporters? I don’t know. I’m one to discount Facebook facts unless I can independently verify the information. But I did see more than one on-line video where “bitch” was shouted at Barbara Boxer. And it was impossible to not see the many articles about the harassing texts and voicemails sent to Nevada State Democratic Party chair Roberta Lange, reportedly ranging from name-calling (“cunt,” “bitch” and “criminal”) up to and including death threats.

Days later, Sanders released a statement on the tumultuous events in Nevada. Oh how I wished he would have forthrightly condemned the out-of-bounds behavior by his some of his supporters. Instead, he began by saying that the Democratic Party needs to understand “that millions of Americans are outraged at establishment politics and establishment economics.”

Then, after all-but condoning rage, he half-heartedly distanced himself from the Nevada ugliness. In a nearly 500-word statement, his only reference to the name-calling and threats was, “Our campaign of course believes in non-violent change and it goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals.” It was one of the most disappointing moments of Bernie’s campaign.

And now we see some Bernie supporters echoing the Republican mob mentality and demanding, “lock her up.”

Bernie and his supporters need to take a stand against misogyny — both blatant sexism, and the more nuanced and subtle forms of male chauvinism and privilege. The time is long past.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Rocketship Milwaukee: Another view

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's article on Rocketship Milwaukee on July 11, 2016 omits essential information. The following is a feature I wrote for the December 2014/January 2015 issue of The Progressive. For more information, check out the analysis of Rocketship Milwaukee by the Economic Policy Institute.

MILWAUKEE, Wis — Like most principals, Brittany Kinser is a cheerleader for her school. “I just want to make sure you’ll be positive,” she says when I visit the Rocketship charter school in Milwaukee.

Looking younger than her 37 years and with the physique of a long-distance runner, Kinser has a seemingly endless supply of energy, enthusiasm and commitment. It’s hard not to like her. Following one of the school’s axioms — Dress for Success — she is wearing a magenta pencil-skirt that nicely sets off her black sweater, tights and four-inch stiletto heels. Her Dress for Success message is clear: I am competent and I am in charge.

At the same time, Kinser is nervous about my visit. It’s understandable.

For almost a quarter century, I have criticized using public tax collars to fund private voucher schools and privately run charter schools. Rocketship, an entrepreneurial network of charter schools based in the Silicon Valley, has become a national poster child for the privatization of public education. It is particularly known for its bare-bones curricular focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, its use of computer-based “learning labs” that cut down costs, and its promotion of the Rocketship brand — including a daily pep rally where students chant that they are “Rocketship Rocketeers.”

After visiting Rocketship Southside Community Prep, as the K-4 through fifth-grade school is formally known, there was much to like. Students were well behaved. Parents were welcome. Teachers, although young and relatively new, were energetic.

But as I left the school, I couldn’t help but wonder. Can young students dress their way to success? Or chant their way to academic achievement? Are computerized worksheets the answer to reducing the achievement gap?

Rocketship opened its Milwaukee school in 2013, serving an overwhelmingly low-income, Latino student body on the city’s south side. The local chamber of commerce raised $2.5 million in private contributions to help fund Rocketship’s expansion to eight schools in Milwaukee by 2017.

When one enters Rocketship’s school in Milwaukee, there are banners from 
various universities hanging from the ceiling — part of the school’s 

Flyer distributed in Milwaukee by opponents of privatization.
commendable message that the students should aim high and attend college. But at the students’ eye level are Dress for Success posters. In the poster, young children wear the preferred school uniform of khaki pants and a blue polo shirt with the Rocketship logo, with shirts tucked in and pants belted at waist level.

I’m not opposed to uniforms. I wore them throughout high school and appreciated that I didn’t have to figure out every morning what to wear. But the nuns never told us that our uniforms were the key to success. The policy was based more on a Catholic school philosophy that too much attention to one’s individual appearance can lead to the Cardinal Sin of pride.

When it comes to Rocketship, I couldn’t quite figure out the laser-like focus on Dress for Success. And the focus is not to be taken lightly. The school handbook notes that students who do not wear their uniform “may lose recess, lunch or other privileges.”

Is Dress for Success really one of the main messages we should be drilling into four-year-olds? And why is it that the Rocketship uniform bears a disturbing resemblance to the uniforms worn by Best Buy and Kmart clerks? How I would have loved to see a “Learn for Success” poster, or even a dog-eared, torn poster of César Chavez.

Ultimately, however, I was more curious about the school’s focus on chanting. It seems that Rocketship, along with Dress for Success, believes in Chant for Success.

Rocketship Milwaukee is located in one-floor, former industrial building. There is no library, nor music or art room, nor cafeteria or assembly hall. But there is a gym used for all-school gatherings.

Every morning, at 7:55 a.m. when school starts, students go into the gym and sit on the floor in their assigned places. It is time for The Daily Launch.

“Good morning Rocketeers!” Kinser shouts to the students.

The students shout back a similar response.

“Good morning Rocketeers!” Kinser shouts a second time, making sure she has the students’ attention.

In addition to The Daily Launch, this Friday is also an awards ceremony — one of four or five during the year. Two students from each class will receive recognition for their math and reading achievement. As their names are called, the students silently come to the front, receive a certificate and a medal is put around their neck, Olympics style.

When told to do so, the students in the audience clap for those awarded. I soon learn that Rocketeers have their own way of clapping. They say “ooh,” clap once, and then perform a highly stylized motion that produces no sound —a dolphin-like flapping of arms. Then they say “aah,” followed by another single clap and stylized motion. I’m confused, but the students know the drill. Learning the Rocketeer way to behave is clearly a significant part of the school culture.

The Daily Launch ends with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the Rocketship chant. In case a student forgets the Rocketship chant, it is painted in large letters on the gym’s wall. Kindergartners rely on rote memory.

The students begin their chant: “I am a Rocketship Rocketeer at home, at school, and in my community.” The chant goes on for several more sentences, referring to respect, responsibility, empathy and “persistence in attaining excellence.” Everyone chants in unison, even students who may not understand the words.

There is a noticeable crescendo as the chant reaches its end: “Together, we are all Rocketship Rocketeers!”

Silence then descends. The students slowly walk out in single file, class by class. Barely a sound is heard.

I am impressed with the students’ behavior and ability to sit quietly. But at no point during the entire ceremony did any student address the gathering or say a single unscripted word. As I left the gym, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been part of a motivational seminar for young children, some of who barely knew how to tie their shoes.

Every principal knows there is one sure-fire way to guarantee success. Control your student body.

For decades, many white parents and their schools relied on Jim Crow laws to help shape the local school. In the decades following desegregation and the Brown v Board decision, new methods came into play. Transfer to a private school. Move to the suburbs. Institute admission tests. “Counsel out” English Language Learners, special education students or behavior problems.

And then there’s transportation policies.

In the Milwaukee public schools, school buses have become a fact of life.  Partly that’s to provide as many choices as possible to parents, even if a preferred school is not within walking distance. In addition, poor families tend to move a lot, and the Milwaukee district has a policy of wanting students to stay in the same school, even if it means extra buses.

Interestingly, Rocketship does not provide transportation. (The same is true of many private voucher schools and privately run charters, and with “open enrollment” for students who attend a public school in a nearby district.) The Rocketship handbook makes clear that parents are responsible for getting their child to and from school, no exceptions. “Staying late at work, running into car problems, or getting stuck in traffic are not excuses for picking up a student late,” the handbook says.  Every Thursday, meanwhile, is a “minimum” day and school ends two hours early.  In addition, parents/guardians are expected to volunteer at least 30 hours at the school, and are required to attend school exhibition nights.

What if you are a single parent and your work schedule interferes with providing transportation or attending school events? Or you don’t have a car? Or you are undocumented and you do not have a driver’s license? As the saying goes, you are SOL.

Put aside Rocketship’s transportation policies, its chanting and its Dress for Success culture. Forget that there’s no library, guidance counselor or social worker, and that there are fewer certified teachers than in comparable public schools. Does the strength of Rocketship’s curriculum outweigh these concerns?

Which brings us to Rocketship’s computerized Learning Labs. The labs are central to Rocketship’s “blended learning” model and to its claim to have found the holy grail of education —improving academic achievement while cutting costs. (John Danner, the firm’s co-founder, once boasted that he wanted Rocketship to become the Model T of schools, providing a mass-produced, cost-effective model of quality education in 50 cities by 2020. Like many Rocketship projections, this has been scaled back.)

Gordon Lafer, in an in-depth report this year for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), notes that Rocketship’s educational model rests on four strategies: “the replacement of teachers with computers for a significant portion of the day; a reliance on young and inexperienced teachers for the rest of the day; narrowing the curriculum to math and reading with little attention to other subjects; and even within these subjects, a relentless focus on preparing students for standardized tests.”

As part of my tour, Kinser took me to the Learning Lab, which was a double-classroom with a partial divider in the front. The open back makes it possible for the three Learning Lab monitors to switch between the two classes using the lab. The monitors are paid less than the teachers and their main job is to keep the students on task and not let their attention wander. Students spend about an hour in the Learning Lab every day, with original projections for that to increase to two hours.

While I was at the lab, a kindergarten class quietly walked into one of the rooms to work on math. The students dutifully sat down, placed on headphones that completely covered the ears, and began working alone in front of the computer. “Make sure your headphones are connected,” one of the monitors tells the students.

Rocketship touts the Learning Labs for their ability to provide “individualized instruction.” But it’s a narrow definition and has nothing to do with whether a student might learn math best by using manipulatives, or working out a problem cooperatively, or thinking through a problem. It’s all about keyboarding the correct answer into the computer, “personalized” on the basis of how fast the computer allows you to proceed.

Even Rocketship leaders are asking whether Rocketship’s approach is better at teaching students to behave and repeat rote lessons rather than to think. 

Despite the high-tech facade, the Learning Lab relies on an old-fashioned model of drill- and-kill worksheets, albeit on a computer.

In its early years, Rocketship schools in California made significant gains on standardized tests. But those results were unsustainable. In 2012-13, all seven of Rocketship’s schools in California failed to make “adequate early progress,” with English/language arts scores plunging 30 percentage points over the past five years.

At the same time, even Rocketship leaders are asking whether Rocketship’s approach is better at teaching students to behave and repeat rote lessons rather than to think. As Education Week reported earlier this year, “Lynn Liao, Rocketship’s chief programs officer, said the organization has also received troubling feedback on how students educated under the original blended learning model fare in middle school.
‘Anecdotal reports were coming in that our students were strongly proficient, knew the basics, and they were good rule-followers,’ Ms. Liao said. ‘But getting more independence and discretion over time, they struggled with that a lot more.’”

Towards the end of our visit, Kinser and I talk in her office. It’s a back and forth. Some information she provides, for instance that the learning lab monitors do not need a bachelor’s degree. She has hired art and phy-ed staff who, while not certified teachers, are considered “highly qualified.” She would like to offer music and Spanish classes, but says that hasn’t been possible, nor are there any teachers certified in English as a Second Language. Bilingual education, meanwhile, isn’t even on the Rocketship radar.

Kinser won’t provide details on staff turnover or how many teachers are newly hired from Teach for America, although she admits it is “probably higher than you would like.” (According to the Employee Handbook, all Rocketship employees are “at will” and can be fired “at any time, for any reason, with or without case, and with or without advance notice.”) Financial questions, from 

“The setup smacks of colonialism,” I explain. 
“And that bothers people.” 

staff pay to administrative costs, to rent, to how much money is sent back to California, are referred to the national office. I submit my questions, but am not hopeful I will get a response. (Lafer, in his EPI report, reports that Rocketship Milwaukee was projected to spend almost 29 percent of its budget on central administrative functions outside the school, compared to 8 percent for the Milwaukee Public Schools.)

Kinser says that no other journalist has asked such questions. She asks me several times, “What do I like about the school? Will I be positive?” Her desire is almost palpable.

“I don’t criticize parents for where they send their children to school, or teachers for where they teach,” I reassure her. But, I add, it’s important to look at policy issues, from curricular offerings to how public funding of privately run charters undermines the democratic oversight of public institutions.

Kinser taught in Chicago and later worked with Rocketship in California. As we talk, it’s clear she knows little about Milwaukee and its history of educational controversy. She presses me  —why is there such strong sentiment in Milwaukee against Rocketship? I decide to explain at least part of the reason, knowing before I begin that it is complicated.

For more than a quarter century, I tell Kinser, business people and politicians in Milwaukee have said the public schools are beyond hope and that the answer is in private voucher schools and privately run charter schools. Rocketship, a national franchise based in California, rides into town like it’s the savior, bypassing the elected school board. It rents a building bought and renovated by a L.A. real estate company that partners with Rocketship, but refuses to release financial details. So we have all these Wisconsin tax dollars flowing to California — to the charter franchise, to technology firms and to a L.A. real estate company — without even a semblance of financial transparency. In addition, a school serving low-income students of color is overseen by a non-elected board whose president doesn’t live in Milwaukee but in an affluent white suburb, and who does not have an educational background but is head of the chamber of commerce.

“The set-up smacks of colonialism,” I explain. “And that bothers people.”

Kinser winces, but doesn’t try to respond. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Colombian Ceasefire Ends One of the Longest Conflicts in the World

 May this be the last day of the war.”

These were the words of Rodrigo Londoño, head of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, as he choked back tears and shook hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Havana June 23.

He gave voice to the hopes of millions of Colombians.

Last week’s announcement of a bilateral ceasefire removed the biggest stumbling block to ending more than fifty years of ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, the longest in Latin America and one of the longest in the world.  

More than two generations of Colombians have grown up under a state of war, and across the country there is a deep yearning for peace. An estimated 

One of the "Mothers of the Disappeard," who demonstrate weekly in Medellin.

260,000 people were killed during the conflict; as many as 7 million people were displaced, about 14 percent of the Colombian population.

With the ending of armed hostilities, demands for equality and justice will shift to the political realm. As Gonzalo Sánchez, director of Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory noted:

“After spending half a century accustomed to the sound of bullets, now we will have to get used to the sound of social mobilization in the streets.”

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, best known by its acronym, FARC, began as a peasant-based group in 1964, during a time when Marxism was on the rise throughout Latin America. Decades of military offensives, backed by U.S. military aid and often disguised as a “war on drugs,” failed to defeat the guerrillas. At the same time, FARC was unable to achieve its goal of armed revolution. As it turned to kidnappings and drug trafficking to finance its operations, FARC’s popular support declined.

In 2012, under a dialogue overseen by Norway and Cuba, peace negotiations began in Havana. A tentative accord was announced last fall, but thorny details remained. Last week’s announcement of a bilaterial ceasefire signaled an end to the biggest controversy.

The Colombian government hopes for a signed peace accord by July 20, the anniversary of Colombia’s 1810 declaration of independence from Spain. The country’s Constitutional Court will outline procedures for a public vote on the peace accords, most likely a “yes” or “no” plebiscite in the fall.

There are an estimated 8,000 armed fighters with FARC. The handing over of weapons will begin with the signed accord, in a process to be monitored by the United Nations. An amnesty covers guerrillas who do not face allegations of serious human rights violations, and there will be a process to re-incorporate them into civilian life.

Street art in Comuna 13 in Medellin, a neighborhood subjected to a military 
offensive to root out FARC guerrillas in 2002. 
The slogan reads: Military intervention, never again.

Human rights observers note that ending the war may be the easy part. How to win the peace? How to ensure peace with social justice, especially in volatile rural areas far from the media spotlight?

Some of the complexities are similar to those in other countries that have moved from war to peace. How will thousands of armed guerrillas readjust to civilian life? How will the government’s military adapt to a new mission beyond defeating the guerrillas?

Other questions are more specific to Colombia.

    Will Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary squads step into potential power vacuums in former guerrilla strongholds?              
      Will the country’s indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant populations, who have borne the brunt of the killings and displacement and yet were not part of the Havana negotiations, be integrated into the peace process?         
     Will the Colombian government follow through on promises of land reform, or will it continue its policies that favor mono-crop agribusiness and mining interests who have long coveted Colombia’s rich natural resources?
The threat of increased paramilitary activity is the most immediately pressing. For instance, in a thirty-day period during February and March, thirty people were assassinated by paramilitary groups, according to Justice for Colombia, a British NGO. Many of them were community or political activists, often organizing against illegal mining, or victims of “social cleansing” that targets “undesirables” such as homeless people, orphans or drug addicts.

“All these assassinations and the increase in threats and acts of intimidation indicate the extent of paramilitary presence in the country and raise serious concerns about guarantees for social and political activists in the country,” the report noted.

A member of "Mothers of the Disappeared."
In the long term, dealing with land reform is perhaps the most essential. A press release from Amnesty International stated:

“Forced displacement and the misappropriation of land, often through violence and intimidation, have been a defining feature of Colombia’s internal armed conflict. These human rights violations and abuses have targeted above all Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities.”

For now, however, the focus is on the peace accord. At a time when many of the world’s hot spots seems to be spiraling into further violence, Colombia offers hope.

No one disputes the hurdles ahead. But as author and academic Mario Murillo said of the bilaterial ceasefire, on “Democracy Now,” “You’d have to be really cynical not to recognize the importance or significance.”

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based writer who spent several months in Colombia last fall.