Thursday, March 12, 2009

Citizens Must Organize and Make Leaders Lead

I just returned from a National PTA board meeting and Public Policy Week in Washington, D.C. One of our keynote speakers was Marian Wright Edelman, of Children's Defense Fund fame. She was electrifying, as usual. The essence of her presentation is contained in "The Sea is so Wide and my Boat is so Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation" The book is a series of letters, and I'll quote from "A Letter to Citizens":
Third: Understand that citizens must organize and make leaders lead. A lot of people are waiting for Dr. King to return or for a hew charismatic leader to emerge and save us. But he's not coming back and no single leader can save us. We're it. A statement attributed to Gandhi says: "There go my people; I must run to catch up with them for I am their leader," makes the point. In David Garrow's book, Bearing the Cross, Ella Baker, a crucial role model for me and hundreds of young people in the sit-in movement -- who helped form SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Raleigh, North Carolina, at her alma mater Shaw University in April 1960 -- said, "The central fact of Martin Luther King's life which he realized from December 5 in Montgomery until April 4 in Memphis was that: 'The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement.'" Diane Nash, the Nashville, Tennessee, student sit-in leader, told Garrow: "If people think it was Martin Luther King's movement, then today they -- young people -- are more likely to say, 'gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.'...If people knew how the movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, 'what can I do?'"
Thats the question every woman, man, and child in America mus ask ourselves today. Movements make leaders; leaders don't make movements. The people of Montgomery, Alabama, had been seething for years about their unjust treatment on the city's public buses. Mrs. Rosa Parks was the eventual trigger for a community-wide response, which propelled Dr. King, a reluctant prophet, into leadership. But many Montgomery citizens, including Jo Anne Robinson of the Women's Political Caucus and E. B. Nixon, head of the NAACP, were creating the community infrastructure and awaiting the right spark to create a great conflagration. When it came, it ignited the movement, which changed not only Montgomery but all of America.

When I refer to Parent Leadership in Education, I'm not looking for one or a few charismatic, vocal individuals. Those sought are the families that are connected within a neighborhood, across neighborhoods and cities, all seeking the best possible neighborhood public schools for all children. Marian Wright Edelman is electrifying: her voice and her stance is a laser beam that cuts through to your heart. I'm nevertheless not looking for a duplicate: the search is for the many, many families that care deeply for the education of their children and want to bring other families to the cause, to the meeting that informs, compels and speeds up the movement toward excellent and equitable schools for all children.

Practitioners of the Saul Alinsky/Ernie Cortez model of leadership tell us a leader is one who can bring two or more people to an event. I recall that over 40 years ago the most effective organizers in south Texas were those who brought along others to a meeting, a march and even a celebration. I want to connect, selectively and strategically, with those parents who can bring two or more other families to the meeting. I furthermore would like for them to invite others who will also bring two or more to the cause.

Thats it: no charisma, no lengthy training, no book-learning: passion & compassion and the trustworthiness that causes others to take collective action. Families must connect and organize around their vision and dream for our schools. It's also at the core of the definition of a leader in our IDRA Family Leadership in Education model. The locus of this action is so far away from the bake sale, the parent convention and convention exhibitors you can't even see the marquee. Any questions?

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