Navigating radical environmentalism and the charter school debate in honor of MLK

Photos by Chris Faraone

Last Thursday night, in an anticipated highlight of Brookline Climate Week 2014, former NPR producer turned climate justice activist Wen Stephenson pushed a crowded Booksmith basement full of seemingly compassionate progressives to the brink of discomfort. Also a recovering Boston Globe Ideas section editor, he spoke in certain terms about looming and inevitable environmental havoc, and how individuals and governments alike are on the hook for steering humankind away from ruin.

I’ve heard Stephenson’s argument before, and have spent a great many hours contemplating his charge. The thought process often begins with me getting frustrated about everyday inequities–petty municipal corruption, NSA spying, annoyances of that sort–then ends with me lamenting the futility of journalism. The reality’s a lot to wrestle with, but when I think deeply about putting everything on hold to crusade against earth destroyers, I always manage to convince myself the small battles are still worth fighting.

Unafraid to illustrate the catastrophic future that continued apathy could lead to, Stephenson led the Booksmith congregation down a depressing path, eventually arriving at a question posed by Martin Luther King Jr. On the week of the civil rights icon’s birthday, Stephenson cited the title of King’s last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The message–either we do something radical about pollution, or prepare for the meltdown–hung over the attentive audience like smog. His words were harrowing, and over the next few days I thought about easing up on issues like surveillance so that I could focus on the struggle to slow global warming.


Stephenson’s comments about King’s final work stuck with me. In fact I was thinking about the chaos and community dichotomy at a wholly unrelated lecture Saturday, this one hosted by the Boston-based Citizens for Public Schools in Roxbury. Teachers and administrators from across the commonwealth assembled at Madison Park High School to evaluate the impact of charter institutions on students and municipal budgets. Since school privatization and the misnomer of “ed reform” are among my primary peeves, I listened closely and took notes.

There’s a daunting situation facing Boston Public. Though only 7,500 students attend charters in the Hub–compared to 56,000 in regular programs–those special entities, whether they succeed or fail, receive substantially more than their fair share of state aid. Such damning figures were discussed for several hours Saturday, as the likes of Jerry Mogul from Mass Advocates for Children detailed the deliberate exclusion of emotionally handicapped and foreign language-speaking students at most charters. Of the bunch, I found myself especially intrigued by a visiting guest named  Daniella Ann Cook, who traveled from the University of South Carolina to share a presentation called “Navigating Chartered Waters: Lessons from New Orleans Post Katrina.”

Few among the packed Madison Park crowd seemed surprised by the insult charter advocates have added to the injury of Hurricane Katrina. Given a relative blank slate with 50 percent of schools awfully damaged and the largest number of displaced teachers in America since desegregation, so-called ed reformers focused on rebuilding efforts in Louisiana with insatiable eyes. In her PowerPoint at Madison Park, Cook outlined a clusterfuck in which dozens of entities operate uncoordinated groups of schools. New Orleans has the highest share in the nation of students who attend charters (79 percent). Needless to say, the big picture is a bureaucratic labyrinth where snakes steer billions worth of tax dollars to political and ideological allies.

An optimist considering the pedagogical tragedies she’s seen, Cook brought more than merely news of corporate scams afoot. Offering a modicum of hope to those who are weary of charters–presumably everyone at Madison Park–the college education prof asked the same MLK question that Stephenson pitched days earlier. Chaos? Or community? It was eerie. Beyond the coincidence of their both quoting the same text, I got to thinking about how NOLA was sacked by environmental chaos, then saddled with school turmoil as a consequence.

MP 2

At this juncture, New Orleans schools appear to be jacked beyond repair. In addition to companies like Capital One partnering directly with charters, aggressive privatization zealots are assisting with citywide administration. The Walton Family Foundation–the philanthropic extension of Walmart–even funded the development of a common application through which families can apply to multiple charters. There’s nothing communal about it; rather, the trend is for corporations to wield increased power over public institutions. This despite implicit warnings from the likes of Cook, who says, “a market-based model for our kids is a bad idea. They are not widgets. Do we really want our kids to crash?”

All things considered, it’s impossible for me to choose between attending to the earth or its children. As such, I won’t be dedicating all my column inches to impugning practices like fracking, but do plan on setting ample time aside to head wherever tree lovers are fastening themselves to heavy equipment, and throwing wrenches in Big Energy’s sadistic plans to milk every gassy hole and greasy tit from Alabama to Alaska. Stephenson and Cook were comparably spot-on in invoking King’s quandary–the question is a fair one to ask regarding public education as well as planet earth. But if we keep allowing cities to entrust our schools to the same profit-driven parties that finance the pollution of our planet, there’s little chance of ever getting to community from there.