After Reading Between The World And Me, Consider What Must Be Done Between Philadelphia and You. We Welcome You to Join Us.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

In the spirit of Lilla Watson, Teacher Action Group Philadelphia would like to invite those who found Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work Between The World and Me a powerful treatise of an ongoing history a reminder that there are many local organizations, with only a few named below, who have deep histories of organizing Philadelphia community members to reckon with many of the concrete realities that his book draws to the surface.

“To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of [Philadelphia] as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most [Philadelphians] to do this. But that is your work.”

In leading up to Friday’s event at the Free Library, Teacher Action Group Philadelphia convened two community roundtables for the truths and stories provided by Ta-Nehisi Coates to emerge significant lessons for local students, educators and the greater Philadelphia community. Through our inquiry, we seek to urge audience members to recognize that the issues that make Between The World and Me such a powerful text is more than a true human story, but a present living history that is actively plundering, assaulting, and burdening Black life in Philadelphia. There is much work to be done to transform cross-sector public policies that have collided to create and collectively reinforce the conditions that underwrite the undeserved suffering in many Black and Brown neighborhoods within Philadelphia. This stands beyond yet inextricably intertwined with the personal necessity of interrogating and transforming harmful attitudes and beliefs that make such policies justifiable. Furthermore, let this be a reminder that there are many local organizations, with only a few named below, who have deep histories of organizing Philadelphia community members to reckon with many of the concrete realities that his book draws to the surface.

“I was a curious boy but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance….When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing…Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them.”

As foremost a group of educators, Coates’ insight around the schools of West Baltimore re-affirmed many of the conditions that we struggle with our students to name, and with local and state policymakers to overturn. One such avenue where schools are held to become sites of compliance is the onslaught of high-stakes testing that threatens our school buildings to become data-driven centers of instruction instead of human-centered communities of learning. While many locally and nationally continue to discuss the damaging and ineffective nature of the testing regime, a group of parents and educators have organized to use the lever of individual student opt-outs to push toward systemic change.

Opt Out Philly is here to provide information about standardized testing and the rights of parents to opt their children out of the these harmful tests.

One of the ways that Teacher Action Group Philadelphia seeks to reverse this trend is through the intentional creation of inquiry groups, such as this one, which aims to bring educators together to grow their practice and investigate potential opportunities for transformation. Luke Zeller, a SDP educator, is currently recruiting local educators (and interested community members) for a Critical Pedagogy Inquiry-to-Action group. Much like Coates does in Between The World And Me, critical pedagogy is meant to offer an inquiry-based vision of education. Luke writes:

This inquiry-based vision of education connects students to their authentic lived circumstances in order to identify “limit situations” (situations/policies/cultural practices that hold them back from being fully human), and ways to respond to these “limit situations” to liberate the mind and body through reflective action, to become a human ever in the process of achieving freedom.

You can reach out to Luke through his Twitter for more info.

Even more troubling than schools positioned as a sole means of escape for Black children from impending “death and penal warehousing”, schools have become an increasing contributor of young people into the hands of the justice system. Most popularly known as the School-to-Prison Pipeline, this phrase is meant to detail how punitive approaches to discipline and “restoring order”, heavily influenced by zero-tolerance and broken windows rhetoric, have pushed school environments further into policing compliance under a growing set of disciplinary guidelines. This contributes overall to a growing carceral environment in Philadelphia where prisons are believed to be a more effective investment into creating safe and sustainable communities than social supports such as schools and public health facilities. Coalitions such as DecarceratePA have made major strides locally in pointing out the hypocrisy of the prison industrial complex and have an ongoing number of campaigns and gatherings for community members to support and partner with their work.

No new prisons — Enough is enough! More prisons mean more problems.
We advocate that Pennsylvania enact an immediate and lasting moratorium on all new prisons, county or city jails, prison expansions, new beds in county jails, immigrant detention facilities, and private prisons.
Decarceration — Prison overcrowding can be solved one way and one way only: reduce the number of people in prison.
We advocate that Pennsylvania shrink its prison population by reforming existing arrest, sentencing, and parole practices.
Community Reinvestment — Imprisonment guts local resources and destroys families. We need to build communities, not prisons.
We advocate that Pennsylvania reinvest money spent on prisons into community institutions.

“We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was inferior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior. And our inferior bodies be could not possibly be accorded the same respect as those that built the West.”

One of the sites of accomplishment for the School District of Philadelphia has been the requirement of teaching African-American History. A community-driven campaign that dates as far back as the 1960's was note effectively implemented until 2005. Ten years later, we recognize that there is still much work to be done to ensure what the spirit of the community organizing meant to bring into our schools. Is it simply the requirement of teachers to introduce historical figures and name oppressive conditions imposed on Black bodies as they were captured and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean? We challenge students, parents, and our fellow educators to investigate what the African American History requirement means in their school. How can we move from an understanding of past movement within Black communities to inviting Philadelphia students of all communities to take ownership in the movement to break the chains of white supremacy? How does this work connect to the lived daily experiences of our students? This is the work that must be done.

Many were rightfully outraged when Philadelphia Magazine debuted their October cover that focused on the Philadelphia schools without featuring any Black children. The editor apologized for the cover. However, the content of the article that backed up that article contain a much more insidious form of racism that aims to focus on the “good” schools for their audience of readers. What bodies make up “good” schools? When it is heritage to destroy the Black body in these United States, who will lose out when it is morally justifiable to not focus on every school, but YOUR school? When we have a legacy of de facto segregation and the containment of Black bodies into dilapidated conditions, will an educational system based on individual “choice” force us to reckon with the incentivized systemic inequities of past and present Philadelphia? Instead of doing away with the discussion through an appeal to improved intentions of individuals, where might the opportunity lie to engage with the massively burdensome impact of systemic disadvantage?

Comparably, many questions arose over the summer when Lindsey Scannapieco and Scout, Ltd. took a closed public school and invented a pop-up beer garden and yoga studio to raise funds for its creative reinvention. What they rendered “discarded” and “dismissed” when emptied of the dreams and labor of young Black bodies now sang of opportunity and vision when crowds of mostly white urban professionals made their way to the roof of the building to take in the spectacular view of the Philadelphia skyline. In order for this opening, many Black and Brown families had to face the devastation of losing a site of opportunity and access for their children. In considering these dog-whistle messages of inferiority, we urge you to consider in terms of redevelopment: Who are we forgetting? Who are we dismissing? Who are we discarding?

The Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities has done much research and organizing into the need to expand and protect affordable, accessible housing and green space in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification. Their report, Development without Displacement, highlights many strategies to come to terms with how the housing market contributes to the overall invisibilization and erasure of Black bodies within Philadelphia.

“It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction…”

The family of Brandon Tate-Brown, a 26yr-old Black male, continues to fight for the recognition of injustice in the death of their loved one. Tate-Brown represents a local name, of many more, in a national effort to address the premature death of Black bodies at the hand of police officers. This is even more complicated by mass incarceration policies which also subjects many to never be able to recover their full lives post-interaction with the criminal justice system. Commissioner Charles Ramsey was selected by President Obama to head up the reform effort toward community policing and offered many possibilities at restoring the relationship between police and community members. We know that there still stands much work to be done. What are ways to bring community accountability to the Philadelphia police department? How can we invest in restorative, non-violent approaches to creating safety within communities?

A very interesting national model that is arising through the work of activists within the Black Lives Matter network goes by the title of Campaign Zero. Campaign Zero represents a “comprehensive package of urgent policy solutions — informed by data, research and human rights principles — can change the way police serve our communities.”

They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives…The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, [of Philadelphia], were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are slowly dying within them.

Coates’ was speaking historically to the federal government’s role in the subsidizing of inequity through redlining, a process of neighborhood valuation that still has damaging effects to this day. Particularly focusing on the “weight”, this reading is meant to offer interested community members an opportunity to join in with this work to overturn these traumatizing conditions to be able to restore ourselves and our communities. Coates’ continually mentions how those who cling to the Dream are trapped as well. Reaching back to a Coates’ influencer James Baldwin, Baldwin states “not so obviously, but equally victimized.” We end this offering for us to begin the work of imagining what reparation in the path of transformation may look like. What are the seeds of the movement to redefine our relationality to one another beyond that of subordination? When we struggle to realize our complexity and multiplicity, we can begin to build a web of shared humanity that recognizes that what one faces is felt by all. We believe that is a world worth teaching for, worth fighting for, worth living for, and we invite you all to join us so that our work in Philadelphia can be that much stronger.