There is a great tradition in Chicago of Saturday schools–classes, programs and workshops led by community organizations and members on Saturday mornings and afternoons. Most prominent and ongoing in immigrant communities, especially in Polish and Greek neighborhoods, many of these programs started as a means of addressing the needs of immigrant students which were not being met in the larger school system, and of maintaining cultural practices in a new city. They commence in religious temples, halls, lodges, and the homes and apartments of community members. Often placing a heavy emphasis on language, many of these schools also teach history, dance, folklore, art, music, and a host of skills which have not been taken up or given the same value by the public schools. While some of them have been absorbed by larger projects and after school programs, many of them remain as they began, run by the community for the community, with the intent of providing for students what the system cannot, and keeping cultural bonds alive.
One of the last events I participated in before moving to Chicago was a vogue workshop I co-organized with one of my close friends. He, a youth organizer and dance teacher, encouraged me to lead a workshop for a queer youth group he coordinates in one of the local cities. I agreed, and the studio where he teaches dance classes provided the space. On the day of the event we gathered as a group in the studio, and before we began dancing, sat to have an introductory discussion about the art from–which was originally created by incarcerated TLBG folks, and exported to a larger scene of poor, working, immigrant and Brown queers. We talked about the roles of trans folks, homeless people, and youth in the development of the form. We talked about sex workers and their important relationship to the ballroom scene, and to voguing. We debated the role of the mainstream in propelling and diluting the art form, and addressed many more complicated questions as a group. By the time we were ready to dance, I was feeling energized and ecstatic about the enthusiasm of the gathering, and the purpose with which the participants were taking on the challenge. And I found myself wondering, why haven’t I tried something like this earlier?
I am currently enrolled in an Elementary Education masters program, and so asking all kinds of questions about the nature of learning and school. What teaching the vogue workshop helped me to remember is what oppressed communities relearn every day: The systems which are in place to educate us, like those which exist to house, feed, and clothe us, have been designed to limit our abilities as thinkers, organizers and community members, not nurture them. If we can recognize this, then whose approval our we waiting for? Whose credentialing? Whose funding? Whose licensure? Our survival thus far has depended on our finding ways around the structures which indoctrinate our minds, appropriate our resources and denigrate our spirits. Our traditions persist because we have found so many gaps through which to smuggle them, cracks in the walls where enough light gets through to keep them growing. It is in these openings where the most valuable kinds of learning happen–in the kitchen, on a basketball court, at a house party, a family gathering, a church service, the playground, the street corner. Even as educators who work in the public sector, the kinds of teaching we are obligated to perform, the skills we are assessed on, are easily the least significant kind of knowledge building we engage in. How do we keep finding these cracks and embellishing them?
This is not to say there are not real limitations to and obstacles in the way of radical education and organizing. Earning a living, and the bodies which oversee those transactions, are one concern. Finding the time, the funding, the support and resources to do what needs to be done may be another. Yet isn’t it precisely the traditions we hope to pass on, the knowledge we already rely on for our daily survival, which point out how we can evade those limitations, and do the work which is most meaningful to us, and empowering of our people? Instead of seeing ourselves as running on a deficit, can’t we start to notice the resources we already share amongst us–the spaces for learning which it is already within our power to create–without anyone’s funding, without anyone’s approval but our own?
We know that schooling–as distinct from learning–does not welcome certain kinds of knowledge, does not share certain political commitments, does not have the capacity to acknowledge all the kinds of learning that its participants are engaging in constantly. So why do we continue to imagine it as the primary place where teaching should happen? Feminist scholar and education philosopher Nel Noddings has written controversially on what she calls the importance of engaging students in self-defined learning. On talking to a student who says he hates math, she writes: “What matters to me, if I care, is that he find some reason, acceptable to his inner self, for learning the mathematics required of him or he reject it boldly and honestly.” I suggest that we fight to find ways of teaching, learning, and engaging our whole communities which struggle to bring about the exact kind of education we desire, and that if the structures in place deny any of our vision’s necessary components, we reject them boldly and honestly, and work on building our own.