A LETTER TO AN ACTIVIST
Recently I received an email letter from a friend of a friend. This person is a teacher and very active in the fight to change her union. She seemed to me to be experiencing some of the burn-out that sometimes affects us all. ED.
You wrote me that:
<< As long as most of the teaching staff on our campuses is white, middle class, and the vast majority of our students in the public schools are people of color from various ethnic backgrounds and from working families and families in crisis, >>
I don't really agree with this as an analysis. I mean, the problem in the schools is not the color of the teachers or even the class background of the teachers, in my opinion. Teachers don't become teachers because they want to fail at teaching; they want to succeed. The problem is that the education system is rigged against teachers and students. It is designed to reproduce and reinforce the system of inequality and class domination of the society. It would have the same outcome no matter what the color or background of the teachers. The problem with an analysis that gives such prominence to the color or background of the teachers, I think, is that it makes teachers the problem and makes them an enemy.
I appreciate you sending me notes on how things are going for you. You and I have never met, and I hope I'm not being presumptuous by offering my viewpoint.
I've been sorry to read how stressed out and isolated you seem to feel. It sounds like you're in a very tough position, and dealing with the union I'm sure is maddening. I don't know if I can say anything that will be helpful to you, except that it's very important to try not to see your colleagues too critically.
I speak from experience. As a young radical professor during the Vietnam war, I was so distraught by the war and so outraged that my colleagues weren't doing much about it that I managed to alienate just about everyone I dealt with. I'm not saying that this is what you're doing, I'm just saying that this is the biggest "occupational hazard" of activists/revolutionaries. We can get so involved in seeing what's wrong—and there's so goddamn much that is wrong—that we can lose sight of the basic goodness of the people around us.
The fact that our friends and colleagues aren't involved in the same ways as we are does not mean that they don't care about the same things or have the same values as we. It may simply mean that they don't see much possibility of change, or maybe they have other things going on in their lives that they have to focus on, or maybe we don't yet have a movement that is really inviting to people, because we are too frantic ourselves about the wrongs that we see and the changes we want to make.
We are living in a very difficult time. The revolutionary movements of the past have failed, and while the necessity for revolution seems ever more obvious to so many of us, the possibility of revolution seems very remote to most people. People like you and me and Gregg Shotwell and Tom Laney and others have a special task, which is historically very important. That task is to help find the basis for hope for a new world which can help inspire a new movement. I think it's pretty clear that we're not going to find that inspiration in a text of Marx or some other revolutionary thinker from the past. We have to find that inspiration in our own lives and in the lives of the people around us—our students, our colleagues, our families, the very people whom we may find maddeningly frustrating at times (and who no doubt find us maddening too). Finding our inspiration in other people is absolutely essential to the creation of a new revolutionary movement, and it's essential also, in my experience, to our personal salvation. Without it we are lost.
A few years ago, when three or four of us in Boston were talking together and were first starting New Democracy, we concluded that "revolutions are built on hope, and the basis of hope is confidence in other people." We also decided that we couldn't just be experts on what's wrong. Our most important task as revolutionaries is to see the good in people and in their lives. That's the only place we're really going to find hope.
We're all of us in this fight for the long haul. We all need friendships and relationships we feel safe with and can rely on. It's very clear that you feel a lot of stress right now. If I can offer some advice, I would say just focus for awhile on making and building friendships. You must teach with some good people. Forget about "politics." Or rather, if you truly believe as I do that "the personal is political," just concentrate on repairing relationships with your fellow teachers, gaining their confidence, learning from them, hearing more about what their concerns are, what their hopes are. Be a friend.
As I say, I hope I'm not being presumptuous. I don't know if this makes any sense, but I hope it does and that it is of some use to you. You have my very best wishes. Hang in there.
From New Democracy Newsletter, March-June 2001.