New New Deal

Back in 2008, when he was leading the Ella Baker Center here in Oakland, Van Jones articulated a bold and modern reworking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The key feature of FDR’s new deal was that it put the unemployed to work while improving the functional and cultural infrastructure of the nation. The Green New Deal that Jones envisioned did the same, proposing to train and employ a large workforce to improve the green infrastructure of the nation for the purpose of saving our environment. Jones’ visionary Green New Deal has been adopted by many politicians and activists, but it’s helpful to remember that his vision has its roots here in Oakland. Jones’ idea was that we could address the dual issues of underemployment and climate change with a single bold initiative that trained workers in a green collar economy.

We need a similar new deal today. As we grapple with the lack of broadband internet access for our most vulnerable youth in urban communities like Oakland, we could address two problems in a single stroke. Unemployment has exploded in the past few weeks and students and teachers have been forced find ways to connect virtually. A coordinated program that trains unemployed workers to connect homes to lifeline services offered by internet service providers would address both problems.

Broadband access to the internet is table stakes for a comprehensive remote learning program. But that access is increasingly out of reach of many families in the country. As a nation we could have chosen to make access to the internet a basic service available to every American as a benefit of citizenship. The nation could have chosen to build the infrastructure for delivering network access to every address as an investment, supported by taxes. We chose a different option, though, offloading that infrastructure investment to profit-focused corporations (so that we could cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans). Included in our deal with those corporations was a provision for providing discounted services to families that couldn’t afford the luxury pricing that ISPs offered. Those discounted services are typically difficult to access due to complex applications and qualification processes. Making access universally and easily available to every citizen requires that we unravel the complexities that were created as a result of the choices we made as a nation decades ago. That’s a long process and will not be easy. But in the face of this current crisis, we could step up and create and train teams of Oakland youth within our community to assist in the process of applying for and installing the services that are necessary for providing access for our students. And with sufficient pressure, (like Dirk Tillotson applied when he pressured Comcast to relax its draconian rules that limited access to their offering) we can begin the process of moving towards equitable access for all.

Our founding documents guarantee the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as fundamental. To guarantee those rights, we also need access to basic services: healthcare; housing; nutrition; education; and an opportunity to work. Within each of those broad services are the implied access to services like access to information. Without equitable access to the internet we are denying citizens the enjoyment of their inalienable rights.

A joint effort of Oakland’s Mayor, our OUSD leadership, and concerned citizens could step up and make this happen.

Literacy, Liberation, and Love

I attended a town hall meeting yesterday, sponsored by the Oakland Branch of the NAACP at Williams Chapel Baptist Church. The primary focus was on the need to address OUSD’s failure to unlock the liberating power of literacy for students, especially black students, in the city’s schools. (Only 18% of Oakland’s black students are reading at grade level.) Speakers at the event included representatives of 100 Black Men, Oakland Reach, the NAACP, Our Kids, and others who have a deep love for the children of this city. In attendance were many folks representing organizations like Educate78, State of Black Education in Oakland, GO Public Schools, OEA, and elected leaders. (Both the District 3 city council member, Lynette Gibson McElhaney and District 3 school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge were there).

Literacy is the key that unlocks the door to an excellent education, and, many argue, a structured literacy curriculum is the way to cut that key. The New York Times posted an article this week that shines a light on the only two places in the country to see improvement in literacy scores, and in both cases the schools are focusing on a structured curriculum in reading that includes explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, rather than a “balanced literacy” curriculum like the one OUSD provides.

When looking at the school to prison pipeline, it’s easy to draw a connection to literacy: by some estimates, 85% of the prison population in the U.S. is illiterate. If we hope to break our country’s addiction to extreme incarceration, teaching reading is a critical and urgent priority. No child should leave third grade without basic reading skills. But that is not the current reality in Oakland — especially for black and brown children. Literacy is the pathway to success in almost every career, and a primary requirement for access to higher education. If black and brown children are to be liberated from the systemic inequality that is rampant in this country, literacy is a key liberator.

A fair and equitable society is based on mutual love and respect. To put it in grammatical terms, love is a verb. We must love all the children in this city (and love one another) if we hope to create a fair and equitable society. (Can someone please diagram that sentence for me?) “Of all weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating, and few there be who dare trust their fate in its hands,” said the theologian, Howard Thurman. To those who dare, trusting our fate in the hands of love is the pathway to equity. Let’s dare to love!

Social Justice

I read an interesting article this morning that articulates two definitions of Social Justice, one a modern progressive definition, the other an older, traditional definition. It clarified something that I’ve been grappling with for a while. Despite the appearance of divisions within our community around education policy, I believe all of us want the same thing. I defy you to find anyone in Oakland who would argue that we should preserve the systemic inequity that robs many of the children in our community of an excellent education. We’re not divided about the goal, though we may disagree about the path forward.

The article’s authors, Andy Smarick and Bruno K. Manno are conservatives who favor the traditional view of social justice. But they acknowledge that our goals around education are similar and they recognize an overlap in the foundational beliefs of social justice advocates of both stripes.

Because both approaches to social justice aim at fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is a great deal of overlap. But the understanding we’re advocating explicitly encourages the formation of a variety of groups aspiring to protect the common good and recognizes the danger of investing too much authority in distant, powerful bodies. It respects the right of social groups to take different forms and pursue different activities while holding such groups responsible for living up to their obligations. And it expects from all of us a high degree of civic participation, restraint, and collaboration.

Rethinking Social Justice

My quibble with Smarick and Manno is the characterization of the older, traditional flavor of social justice as being inherently conservative and rooted in Catholic tradition. I grew up in a family that was committed to social justice, and we were neither Catholic nor conservative. My father attended the a Augustana Seminary in the 1950s where he studied under A.D. Mattson, professor of ethics. Mattson taught and practiced the kind of social justice described by Smarick and Manno, but as a protestant (Lutheran) and liberal. The Augustana Lutheran Church (into which my father was ordained) had a strong social justice ethic, and was definitely on the liberal spectrum of religious denominations of the day. In 1915, an Augustana student, Conrad Bergendoff (who would serve as president of Augustana College and Seminary in the 1930s and 1940s) wrote (somewhat provocatively at the time) about the commonality of Christianity and Socialism. “Christianity strives to better the condition of man’s nature, Socialism to better man’s conditions,” he said. While it may be true that conservatives practice this kind of traditional social justice, we liberals have a long history of the tradition as well.


I am personally more aligned with the progressive view of social justice, and like my brothers and sisters in the Oakland Education Association, I see the challenges facing OUSD as urgent and pervasive, requiring immediate action. But I also see the need for a multifaceted approach to solutions that may require intermediate steps towards our shared ultimate goal. And I see the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree and finding ways to work effectively towards our common goal. The students of our city deserve adult advocates who work collaboratively to bring about the systemic change that will lead to achieving the goal of truly equitable educational opportunity in Oakland.