Roundtable Response: Heather Lewis 

By Heather Lewis

On the anniversary of a pivotal struggle at I.S. 201 in Harlem over the failure of the New York City’s school system to fulfill the mandates of Brown v. Board of Education, this roundtable explores the historical and contemporary significance of 1966 as “a year of struggles that remade the history of education in New York City”[1]. While the year is described as pivotal, the roundtable makes an argument for the enduring nature of the fight for equality in the city’s schools, from the Cold War to the present. The roundtable contributes to recent historical work that counters the more commonplace narratives of decline after the late 1960s and expands the black/white binary.[2]

Working within the contours of the revisionist historiography of the post 1965 movement, the roundtable provides a “reappraisal of narratives of fracture” but also expands the geographic, ethnic and temporal frame of the struggle to include, for example, the transnational influences of the Cold War Era on Puerto Rican activists (Lefty, Glass, Jean-Louis, Park) .[3] The roundtable reappraisals also offer a broader analytical framework for education activism in NYC by including the independent school sector (both secular and religious) as well as organizing among paraprofessionals (Jean-Louis; Goldenberg, Juravich).

However, Jean-Louis’ post about a community–controlled Catholic school in Bedford Stuyvesant cautions against positing success in community-controlled schools in the private sector as a counter-narrative to the failure of community control policy in the NYC public school system. Instead, she suggests that “neighborhood-level comparison of community control between the public and private school systems offers a more complex story of concomitant victories and losses within the context of massive institutional and demographic upheaval, and suggests that New York City educational experiment failures in the post-civil rights era had as much to do with neighborhood context, timing and scale as they did with ‘bad policy’”[4]. Although her post focuses on an example of a successful, but short-lived Catholic community-controlled experiment, she opens the possibility for further exploration of the possible connections between the activists who founded this school and their counter-parts in the public sector.

To be sure, activists responded to the city’s failures to improve schools in African American and Latino communities by seeking private alternatives, particularly in the 1970s. The collective strength of the participants’ posts, however, is that in focusing on both the independent and the public sector, common patterns emerge in activists’ educational beliefs and practices. For example, efforts to change individual schools or clusters of schools versus efforts to change the entire system occurred in both the public and private realms. And while the political context influenced activists’ decisions to work within, or outside the public school system, their common connections within particular neighborhoods suggest that at times, activists might have transcended the boundaries between public and private.

Within the public sector, the history of para-professionals in the city’s schools disrupts the commonplace, polarized narrative of union versus community, the essence of the declension narrative. The wide-ranging and evolving history of the new paraprofessional field and its unionization acknowledges union leaders’ role in the damaging and seemingly irreparable gulf that emerged between community organizers and the union as a result of the community control struggle. But the narrative also suggests that the union’s support for paraprofessionals represented at least one shared platform for improving public schools in disenfranchised communities.

In establishing a broader framework for analysis and challenging the shop-worn union story, the participants suggest the potential for mining activists’ cross-sectoral relationships across perceived impenetrable borders. Some of these brief histories echo Russel Rickford’s concept of “parallel institutions” or “counter institutions”[5], albeit in different political and educational contexts. Yet, they also raise questions about the permeability of the boundaries between public and private, union and community, reformist and radical, suggesting that our historical frames may sometimes unwittingly reify these boundaries.

To be sure, community control activists measured the potential for liberation by how far removed professional or parent activists were from the educational bureaucracy. However, the story of the emergence of para-professionals in New York City inverts this paradigm by arguing that para-professional radicalism derived from “direct employment within, not outside of, existing institutional bureaucracies”. [6] Juravich argues that “seemingly reformist parent-training programs” that launched para-professional organizing engendered “capacious, creative activism”. According to Juravich, the para-professional initiative had “staying power” within the educational bureaucracy. In contrast, by the end of the public experiments in community control, many activists sought to realize the ideals of the movement within alternative and private schools.[7]

However, whether private or public, the roundtable participants illustrate the short-lived and mostly non-systemic nature of educational transformation. Yet, they also contribute to a better understanding of the enduring nature of activists’ struggle for quality education in the schools serving the city’s African American and Latino communities. Through a longer lens that includes the earlier integration struggles of the 40s and 50s through organizing in the 1970s and 80s, and a broader scope that spans private and public, local and transnational, the participants suggest significant continuity in grassroots organizing for community control of schools. A quote from a Young Lord in Lefty’s contribution suggests that this continuity in schools paralleled control over other institutions in Puerto Rico as well as New York City. “Our whole history was one continual line of struggle for self-determination” -- a struggle that extended to “community control of land and institutions,” including schools.[8]

Perhaps this aspect of the roundtable posts is the most relevant for today’s educational activists. Glass argues that “the emergent call for community control grew organically out of previous struggles. Neither an ending nor a beginning, IS 201 was a turning point in a historic -- and still ongoing -- search for educational justice in an unequal society” [9]. Given the enduring nature of the struggle for educational equality in New York City through grassroots organizing and community control, this history might provide an interpretive frame to analyze current debates and challenges.

Perhaps this history of activism can help us analyze the charter school movement through a more nuanced and complex lens that considers historical precedents. For example, the urgency with which activists sought to evade NYC’s school bureaucracy and the teachers’ union, during the 60s and 70s, either through public or private means, also drove the shapers of charter legislation in the 1990s. The notion that parents should have more choices about where to send their children-- alternative schools, independent schools and public schools of choice -- emerged during the 1960s and 70s alongside demands for community control. These parallel institutions -- alternatives to zoned, neighborhood public schools -- pre-figured charter schools. Even Christopher Jencks’ concept of free enterprise and school competition as a strategy to achieve greater equity for disadvantaged students in the 1970s elicited support from those who had been part of the community control struggle. Such continuities force us to examine more closely the risks of separating school choice from citizens’ efforts to improve schools and their communities through democratic participation and grassroots organizing.

Heather Lewis is Professor of Art and Design Education at Pratt Institute, and the author of New York City Public Schools From Brownsville to Bloomberg: The Community Control Movement and its Legacy (Teachers College Press, 2013).


[1] Nick Juravich, "New Histories of Education in New York City: An Introduction," August 1, 2016.

[2] Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Sonia Song-Ha Lee, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement : Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014); Lorrin Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2010).

[3] Juravich, "Introduction," (2016).

[4] Dominique Jean-Louis, "Education Activism in Parochial Schools in Post-Civil Rights Era Brooklyn," August 5, 2016.
[5] Rickford argues that Black Power activists considered parallel or autonomous institutions as a means towards self-determination. The failures of community control in the public sphere, Rickford asserts, drove activists to develop “black parallel institutions” that were separate from the state (p. 13).

[6] Juravich, "Making a 'Para-Professional' Movement in New York City," August 3, 2016.

[7] Rickford, We are an African People (2016), 63

[8] Pablo Guzman, “The Not So Young Lords” in Darrel Enck-Wazer, ed. The Young Lords: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[9] Michael Glass, " 'A Series of Blunders and Broken Promises': IS 201 as a Turning Point," August 1, 2016.