Overwhelming

Not necessarily in hits, but definitely in who has responded to my last piece on here. My whole head has been spinning with the words of the heroes of mine who have commented, and I don’t quite know what to do, except do my damnedest to keep up that level of work.

So, I’ll be back next week with more things. Until then, I’ll be listening to this song reeeeeally loudly.

On the CTU Strike: Don’t Blame Teachers, Work With Them

Reposted from In Our Words: A Salon for Queers & Co.

If you’ve been even peripherally watching the news this past week, you probably know that the teachers at Chicago Public Schools have been on strike since Monday, after months of fighting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and special interest groups over the abhorrent conditions under which teachers are expected to work in our city. The former would have us believe that it is the latter’s fault that only 44.6 percent of CPS students meet or exceed the Illinois Learning Standards, that Chicago has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation, and that 74 percent of the schools in the CPS system did not make Average Yearly Progress for two consecutive years as of 2011-2012.* They buy the usual capitalist neoliberal gospel; that it’s about individual ability and willpower alone that makes a great teacher, that they should be able to overcome buildings that are un-air conditioned, infested with bedbugs, lacking Internet connectivity, and enormous class sizes, because they have  a divine mandate to instruct America’s Children™. Any failure in this regard simply means that they are Bad Teachers, and thus must be fired and exiled somewhere, to be replaced by non-union, corporate-run charter schools, which because they’re all about the free market, will succeed where the bleeding hearts failed.

Now, anyone who listens in on the debate around public school education in the United States knows that that last part is utter and complete hogwash. Charter schools have been shown to be no better, performance-wise, than public schools. Emanuel and out of state cronies are waving an empty solution at a catastrophic problem, and they haven’t been doing it half heartedly; with the help of outside business interests, Emanuel raised the strike threshold for the union to 75 percent, which was then smugly trumpeted by Jonah Edelman, head of Stand for Children, as having crippled the CTU’s ability to strike. The city has also refused to place limits on class size, as well as refusing to grant teachers a four percent pay raise that was agreed upon. Out of state groups have even hired paid protesters to demonstrate against the teachers’ union.

This continuous campaign against teachers is completely baffling to me, far more so than lower-class Tea Partiers who vote Republican, against their interests, or even those who find cricket entertaining (I will never understand that latter bit, ever). I went to a public high school for four years; in fact, before college, I was in public schools my entire life. While I might loathe with a furious passion most of the people I attended that high school with, I can’t say the same for most of my teachers, particularly my English instructors, who always challenged me to do better, to read more, to find my own voice in my writing. Tom Gaffigan, my AP teacher senior year, will always be a huge hero and mentor to me, someone whose influence I see every time I sit down to type, whenever I’m reading and annotating, and someone who I am fortunate to call a friend.

I know that I am lucky, and privileged, to have had the experience I did. I won’t say there is no such thing as a bad teacher; there is, and I have had many of them. But the answer is not to join Emanuel, Arne Duncan, and other corporate hacks in the destruction of public education in America. The answer is instead to support our teachers so that we can give them the classrooms and infrastructure that they need to make sure we don’t find ourselves with a failed generation in a decade. Rather than blame teachers exclusively, let’s work with them to tackle the real issues at hand: youth poverty, demographic shifts, and the resegregation of schools. How we deal with them, and how hard we fight against charter schools and privatization, will determine whether American education can flourish again, or whether it will fail completely.

This week, it looks like Chicago teachers may have won. But those that want to end public education will be back, and the systemic issues facing public schools will remain. Wearing a red shirt isn’t enough to change our schools for the better.

*Stats via Pedro Noguera at The Nation

No More Bandaids: A Call to the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Mainstream Atheist Organizations

On Monday, I got this e-mail from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, with the subject title “Tell Illinois schools to stand by Jessica Ahlquist!”:

Three Illinois public schools are coming under fire because of a decision to invite First Amendment advocate Jessica Ahlquist to speak during their “Constitution Week” festivities. (FFRF’ers can hear and meet Jessica at FFRF’s upcoming annual convention in Portland Oct. 12-13, where she will receive the “Freethinker of the Year” Award.)

Ahlquist, 17, still in high school, is scheduled to discuss her successful state-church lawsuit over a prayer banner at her Cranston, R.I., high school. She will speak at York Community High School, Waubonsie Valley High School and Downers Grove North High School this week.

The Illinois Family Institute (IFI), “a non-profit ministry dedicated to upholding and re-affirming marriage, family, life and liberty in Illinois” has issued a mean-spirited call to Illinois citizens to protest Ahlquist’s appearances at the schools.

The group argues that “York and Waubonsie Valley high schools sent out permission slips to parents, permission slips that failed to include any information whatsoever about Jessica Ahlquist, the specifics of her lawsuit, or any details regarding the topics she would be addressing or the learning objectives her presentation is intended to fulfill.” IFI mainly seems to feel Jessica’s atheism is the issue. Very few adults have had the first-hand experience Jessica has had in defending the Establishment Clause and in winning a Federal Court battle.

They claim that Ahlquist will spend more time discussing an “issue about which she cares deeply and about being bullied” than the Constitution. Talk about irony. A religious right group during “Constitution Week” seeks to muzzle the First Amendment rights of a champion of the First Amendment.

IFI contacted a Waubonsie teacher who spoke against the group’s suspicions: “The purpose of the optional presentation is so that students may see that the US Constitution, which is the foundational document for our country’s government, is still relevant today.”

Help counter the outcry from the religious right, as IFI is encouraging its members to take action by contacting school administration and school board members.

It concludes with the usual Action Alert links to send e-mails and phone calls to school administrators.

This is all well and good, and fair play to the FFRF: Laurie Higgins and the IFI are despicable people and we should absolutely fight on Jessica’s behalf to make sure her voice is heard.

However, there is a but.

I was never really sure before now how to write this post, but I’ve known for a while that I wanted to. I’ve noticed a definite trend in those that we in atheism have begun to champion as the next super-activists; Jessica, Damon Fowler, Zack Kopplin, and Harrison Hopkins are all atheists who have challenged prayers at their high schools, and created stirs about it. In Jessica and Damon’s cases, the backlash was severe, in the former’s case being met with threats of rape and violence and in the latter’s case being effectively disowned by his parents. I am privileged to know Jessica, Damon, and Harrison; they are all incredibly brave, and we should applaud their efforts.

But.

My issue is not with any of them; my issue is with secular organizations, and with the blogosphere. We have set up these four, and a few other besides, as the Next Generation of atheist activists. We’ve championed them, their struggles, as indicative of what the rest of us should do. In doing so, however, I contend that we are erasing the voices and struggles of atheists who aren’t so privileged, or white, i.e. accessible, to gain the attention of the FFRF and other mainstream organizations.

For instance, in Los Angeles, there is a program being run by writer and secular activist Sikivu Hutchinson called the Women’s Leadership Project, which states their aim as being to “educate and train young middle and high school age women in South Los Angeles to take ownership of their school-communities,” and

Using a humanist curriculum with a social justice lens, the goal of the program is to empower young women of color to develop their own voices, increase their self-esteem, foster healthy relationships, promote critical consciousness about and activism around race, gender, and LGBT equality, and prepare for college and careers. WLP guides young women through public advocacy projects of their own choosing, toward helping them develop and sharpen their critical thinking, writing, organizing and leadership skills.

The WLP’s mentees live in what has been shown to be one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the nation. Many members of their cohorts are the first in their families to go to college, suffer direct consequences of rape culture and are ridiculed for their resistance to it, have to deal with the widespread and accepted notion in their communities of validation rape, all while, as Hutchinson puts it, “work[ing] their asses off to become the first in their families to go to college.”

The WLP is an amazing story of activism at its best, of culturally relevant humanism put into radical practice that is changing the lives of women in a real way. I doubt there is a single one of you who could argue otherwise.

So, why then is Dr. Hutchinson the only one writing about the WLP? Why aren’t we  hearing about these students at The Friendly Atheist? Why aren’t action alerts on their behalf being released by the FFRF, or the Secular Coalition for America? Why aren’t activist groups forming similar projects in their areas? Do these mainstream atheist organizations think these students aren’t worth talking about?

Now, I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the FFRF and SCA haven’t ever even investigated the WLP, beyond noting its existence in Dr. Hutchinson’s bio. I think they are so wrapped up in their actions within the hierarchies of the state, through court actions and writing to politicians and the like, that they have no notion of what is going on in South Los Angeles, or in the Bronx, or North Lawndale, or in any such neighborhood. I think Jessica Ahlquist in small town Rhode Island is the most radical notion of oppression of which they can conceive, because mainstream American culture doesn’t allow us to think that systemic racism and misogyny can exist in our culture anymore. Those are ideas that to white America died in the 50s and 60s. The fact of the matter is, though, that they are a daily reality for the marginalized populations in our country, and throughout the world, and are preserved and given fuel by the privileged classes’ unconscious, color blind racism.

I call on the FFRF and all other atheist organizations, from American Atheists and the Harvard Humanist Community down to the smallest Secular Student Alliance or Center for Inquiry affiliate, to make these issues a priority in their organizing. This message will fall flat to those Neanderthals who think sexual harassment policies at conferences are infringements on free speech, but I don’t write for them. I’m writing for everyone who commented on Jen McCreight’s posts about Atheism+ who thought it sounded like a cool idea, who liked the logos, who haven’t yet made this part of their daily thoughts when they look at the world we live in. An action alert or court case about a school prayer is not going to make any real difference in the lives of those who the WLP and similar organizations serve.

If there is anything we should have learned by now, it is that the American criminal legal system does not benefit the marginalized and oppressed; it is a tool to serve the rich and privileged. Change will not come through the Supreme Court; it is going to come through sustained grassroots action that first listens to the concerns of people who live with oppression every day, like that work done by the WLP. We need radical action, not legal bandaids.

They On Some Nonsense, We On Some Nonstop

(Title from this song I can’t get out of my head. Thanks to those who pointed out I forgot to mention it.)

Apologies for the egregious break in blogging. August was a ridiculous month for about everyone I know, me included, what with moving and such. Now that I’m lacking in employment, though, I’m going to try and up the writing quotient considerably.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my experience at the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., which was the largest gathering of American secularists in history, an event that I was intensely skeptical about leading into, but that I left with a positive feeling, largely thanks to many of the speakers insisting that just gathering together on the National Mall wasn’t enough, and that those of us there had to go back to our homes and start organizing. After spending most of my time in the atheist movement trying to call out my fellow nonbelievers to get out of their basements and actually start to make real change, I hoped that  this would finally be the moment that it started to happen.

Well, frankly, my optimism, at this point in time, seems largely unfounded. First, there was the resounding failure of the atheist community to stand in solidarity with Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant who was attacked and imprisoned for professing his nonbelief. The Center for Inquiry sent out a call around the internet for 25,000 people to sign a petition that would be seen by White House staff; while I know that probably would have done the square root of jack shit in terms of actual results or help for Aan, the fact that the petition attracted only 8,000 signatures is made even more awful when one looks at the comments section of the piece I just linked to; most did not sign it out of apathy or the website itself.

Frankly, though the petition would have likely done nothing, that attitude is part of a pervasive one within the atheist movement that I have noticed more or less since I entered it. I’ve written about it, yelled about it, typed any number of futile comments on Facebook about it. Now, something new has happened that I hope will give atheism the kick in the ass it so sorely deserves, but because we in the movement who actually care can never have nice things, I also want to raise some issues with it, too.

This new hotness is called Atheism+. Jen McCreight, whose amazing blog post kicked off the notion in many minds, defined it thusly:

It illustrates that we’re more than just “dictionary” atheists who happen to not believe in gods and that we want to be a positive force in the world. Commenter dcortesi suggested how this gets atheists out of the “negativity trap” that we so often find ourselves in, when people ask stuff like “What do you atheists do, besides sitting around not-praying, eh?”

We are…

Atheists plus we care about social justice,

Atheists plus we support women’s rights,

Atheists plus we protest racism,

Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,

Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

In essence, to quote my friend Danielle, rad as hell. I’m not entirely sure about the name and logo, but hey, I can deal with it if those who stand behind are actually going to walk the walk on it.

That latter bit I’m going to come to in a bit. First, I’m going to mention what happened after Jen set off the fuse on a version of atheism that, you know, actually has a point to it. Actually, there was quite a bit of positive. There was lots of support from the awesome likes of Greta Christina, Richard Carrier, and PZ Myers. There were some excellently reasoned critiques from Hemant Mehta and others. But, as ever, whenever anyone tries to accomplish something that might move the atheist movement forward, the trolls descended. Ed Clint, formerly of the University of Illinois, was a chief offender (You can look up his blog on your own. I’m not going to give him hits). There were accusations that those of us who are interested in social justice are all really Nazis, or wailing cries of “free speech, bro!” And, of course, the usual torrents of misogyny, sexism, homo/transphobia, and all that lovely jazz. Because, as we’ve all learned by now, being an atheist does not in any way engender rationalism.

Now, that’s gone too far. The threats and abuse have gotten so out of hand that Jen has taken an indefinite leave from blogging, and the trolls have even been hurling their nonsense at her family. Jen isn’t the only one who’s decided that enough is enough; Natalie Reed called time on talking about atheism a few weeks ago, and other female bloggers have left us besides. All you have to do is skim any FreethoughtBlogs or Skepchick contributor’s page to see it.

This is, frankly, appalling behavior, particularly from a crowd of animals that supposedly have beef with those of us who want an ethical, involved atheism because they think we’re restricting their free speech. Clint, Vacula, ERV, and all those other neckbeard, unevolved, shit-eating schmucks are at this point in time no better than Fox News pundits. All they seem capable of doing is to hurl baseless accusations and character assassinations, and it’s past time they slunk back into their holes.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. The haters shall always be with us, because hate is all they can do. What the rest of us can and should do is stand by our sisters who are in this struggle, who get the abuse firsthand. We need to let all of them know that we’re not going to let the thugs win. In fact, I know that they’re not going to, because we are better than them. We’ve got the rationality, the evidence, the eloquence that they claim to have but sorely lack. Our voices are our strongest assets, so let’s use them.