Roundtable Response: Brian Purnell

By Brian Purnell

Reconsidering “Community Control”: Who? What? When? How? Why?

Reading these essays, I miss Adina Back (1958-2008).[1] She should be commenting on these exciting pieces of original scholarship, written by representatives of a new generation of historians who will completely overturn everything we thought we knew about the struggles over education in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. Adina was a committed public historian, a progressive activist-intellectual, and a generous mentor. Our paths did not cross in New York University’s graduate program in History; I started three years after she finished. When I expressed interest in writing a dissertation on interracial activism in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1960s, my professor, Danny Walkowitz said the first thing I should read should be Adina’s dissertation.[2] I did, and it served as a model, both for how I thought about historical research on activism and my role as an historian writing about problems that were still such a large part of social and political life in my city and nation.

“Up South in New York: The 1950s School Desegregation Struggles,” was a decade ahead of its time. It uncovered a battle for justice and racial equality in public schools that stretched back to the 1930s. Adina Back wrote about how Cold War anti-Communist ideology crept into antiracist education activism. She captured the work of women activists. The ethnic and ideological diversity of school integration activists was front and center in her narrative and analysis. There were no stereotypical or static archetypical characters. Blacks, whites and Puerto Ricans played multiple and dynamic roles in her scholarship. Adina’s history of movements to racially integrate New York City public schools showed the rise and fall of those efforts, but it did not close out the possibilities of other struggles for justice to rise up in the wake of these protests. In many ways, Adina’s scholarship helped set the stage for a major paradigm shift in histories of community-based education activism in New York City.[3]

Adina’s work showed how women who supported integration, and those who opposed it, were engaged in a battle over the future of social equality in New York City. She wrote, “The activist mothers, those who opposed and those who supported school integration, understood the urgency of the fight. Their children’s education and hence their futures, were at stake. And they were organizing at a particular moment in the history of New York City when school integration was in fact a real possibility. They seized this window of opportunity and made the issue the preeminent one for the City’s public school system. In postwar New York City, the classroom became the place where inequality was contested and ultimately solidified.” [4]

The essays in this roundtable on New Histories of Education in New York City not only echo, but also revise and expand upon the ideas in that last line of Adina’s dissertation. The Black and Puerto Rican parents who saw I.S. 201 as a beacon of hope after over a decade of frustrated struggles (see essay by Michael R. Glass) were understandably irate when the promised racial integration produced more of the same: a school that reflected and preserved racial, ethnic, neighborhood and economic segregation. Glass’s argument about how I.S. 201’s turn toward “community control” “grew out of previous struggles,” deserves repeating: “activists never saw integration, quality education, and community empowerment as mutually exclusive; rather all were entwined in a broad, transformative vision of educational equity.” Indeed, Glass’s final questions summarize many of the issues at the heart of these essays, and that drove the work of Adina Back’s generation of activist-minded historians who tackled the thorny subject of public education and post-WWII social inequality in Gotham: “Who does a public school belong to?” “What is the relationship between education and democracy? Between opportunities and outcomes?” Can segregated schools every truly be equal?”

If the classroom became the place where inequality was contested and ultimately solidified, than those classrooms become powerful historical microcosms for every facet of social, political, economic, and cultural life in the larger city. Labor relations -– who has access to employment and what types of professional opportunities exist, and for whom –- take on new meanings in contests over control of schools (see essay by Nick Juravich). Expanding social and economic opportunities for the people most left behind in the post-WWII urban political economy becomes an issue for experimental community-based schools (see essay by Barry Goldenberg). Schools –- public and parochial –- become spaces where ethnic and religious and transnational communities struggled for their children’s educational opportunities, and futures (see essays by Dominique Jean-Louis, Lauren Lefty, and Jean Park). Educational outcomes determined by structural resources, like the presence of specific enrichment programs as much, if not more, than cultural practices (see essay by Jean Park). “Community control” of schools is never simple and decisive. It has multiple meanings and manifestations. It is as different and diverse as the many communities, and the communities within communities, that advocate for power over schools and education in the name of “community control.”

So much of the history of fifty years of education activism in New York City hinges on the rise and fall of “community control,” but these essays force us to reconsider what exactly the fight for “community control” looked like in the past, and what is could, or should look like in the future. Taken together, these essays encourage us to ask for whom should “community control” of schools exist? Should “community control” exist for parents; teachers; students; funders; activists – radical, reformist, local, transnational and everyone in between? What does “community control” include: control of the curriculum, the staff, the budgets, the student population, the space, the languages spoken, and the measurement of learning, as well as the goals of education? When does a community know that it has control of the schools? How does it maintain that control? And why?

Part of the challenge with this history stems from the ways that “community control” is more of a slogan than it is a concrete set of policy proposals and solutions. “Community control,” is subject to so many meanings and interpretations for intractable problems that stem from long histories of racism and unequal distribution of educational resources, such as classroom space, excellent teachers, and extracurricular enrichment activities like programs in sports, art, music, standardized test preparation. The 1967-1968 battles for “community control,” seemed incredibly simple at first. The demands were born of decades of frustrating struggle for racial integration and resource equity in public schools. In that phase, “community control” meant a decentralized board that represented “the community” would determine the schools’ staff, curriculum, and budgets. Who worked and taught; what students learned and how they learned it, and how the schools’ money was spent: that was control; that was power.[5]

Simplicity and clarity in matters of power and politics are probably the first signs of a long and arduous fight. The form of “community control” so closely associated with the Ocean-Hill Brownsville experimental district opened up a Pandora’s Box of political turmoil. The teachers’ union lined up against the district’s governing board. White opposed black. Blacks fought Jews. Parents fought teachers. Teachers fought students. Politically powerful elites fought rank-and-file workers. Elected officials fought neighborhood activists. Militants fought moderates. In the middle of all the confusion that surrounded past social movements for “community control” of schools, and through all the contentious debates about the successes and failures of “community control” that dominate fifty years of historical interpretations of school activism, one can lose sight of the most important fact, which should be the only fact. Like Adina Back wrote, “children’s education and hence their futures, were at stake.”

The crime at the heart of this history is that children’s education, and their futures, suffer terribly in the communities that need good, high quality, dependable education opportunities the most.[6] The essays in this roundtable preserve some of the “small victories” within this history of “community control” in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. For all intents and purposes, Harlem Academy worked well; so did the community-based experimental Catholic schools in Brooklyn. Mostly women, mostly black and Latina, paraprofessionals became an established labor force in the public schools. Multi-lingual, culturally diverse immigrants and migrants remade the mores of public education in the city. As communities in New York City changed demographically, economically, linguistically, and culturally, so did the schools. Those changes in the schools, however, haven’t been enough to reverse the trends of social inequality that still exist disproportionately in the city’s poor Black, migrant, and immigrant communities.

While the essays do not offer answers to these ongoing dilemmas, they do reveal a messy, fascinating history of “community control.” The history of “community control,” these essays prove, did not unfold in a vacuum of social decline and political crisis. It contained many different experiments and opportunities to refashion schools into places of empowerment and learning, opportunity and stability. The tsunami of fiscal calamity that changed New York City in the 1970s and refashioned it into the hyper-economically segregated place we see today, cannot go undiscussed. Any analysis of “community control” of schools that happened in the mid-1970s up through the present has to contend with the realities of an urban political economy in which low-wage service workers proliferate, a minority of mega-rich citizens dominate, austerity policies dictate the contours of public life, and statistical measurements determine success and productivity in practically every facet of life, including education. In this world, histories of class-based and racial and geographic segregation continue –- in schools and elsewhere –- with no seeming end in sight.

Perhaps with new understandings of the historic struggles for “community control” of schools, and of the general history of inequality in American schools, we can imagine new solutions to old problems.[7] These essays are certainly an exciting start to a new debate and analysis of “community control” of schools in New York City. We need this research and new ideas about education inequality and activism, now more than ever. After all, as the social movement historian and theorist Robin Kelley wrote, “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”[8]

Brian Purnell is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Bowdoin College.

[1] See obituaries by Aaron Back; Pennee Bender; and the one aired on 99.5 FM.

[2] Adina Back, “Up South in New York: The 1950s School Desegregation Struggles,” Ph.D. diss., New York University (1997).

[3] In addition to her dissertation, see Adina Back, “Exposing the ‘Whole Segregation Myth’: The Harlem Nine and New York City’s School Desegregation Battles,” in Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodward, eds., Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980 (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 65-91; and the posthumously published essay, “‘Parent Power:’ Evelina López Antonetty, the United Bronx Parents, and the War on Poverty,” in Annelise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds., The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 184-208. During the late-1990s and early 2000s, Back was part of a small but very significant generation of scholars who rewrote the history of post-WWII activism in New York City. Others important contributors to this scholarship were Martha Biondi whose 1997 dissertation, “The Struggle for Black Equality in New York City,” became the book, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Clarence Taylor, who has written and edited several books on post-war civil rights activism in New York, especially in schools, including, Knocking at Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); and Wendell Pritchett, Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002), Craig Steven Wilder, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), and Steven Gregory, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1998), whose books on African American history in Brooklyn and Queens contributed new social histories of community, racism, ethnicity, and activism in New York City.

[4] Back, “Up South,” 467.

[5] The essays’ footnotes list many good books on the history of “community control.” A good start is Jerald Podair’s The Strike that Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean-Hill Brownsville Crisis (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2003).

[6] See the following reports and news articles on racially segregated education in New York City in the twenty first century: John Kucsera and Gary Orfield, "New York State’s Extreme School Segregation Inequality, Inaction and a Damaged Future;" Clara Hemphill and Nicole Mader, “Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City;" Nikole Hannah-Jones, Segregated Schools in Integrated Neighborhoods," June 9, 2016; Joy Resmovitz,“The Nation’s Most Segregated Schools Aren’t Where You’d Think They’d Be.”

[7] Ansley T. Erickson’s work deserves special mention. See Ansley T. Erickson, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016); and the project Erickson leads with Ernest Morrell called Educating Harlem: https://researchblogs.cul. So does Matthew Delmont’s fantastic history of “busing.” See Matthew F. Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).

[8] Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston, Beacon: 2002), xii.