Follow the Power: Who Controls the Conversation Around Reform?

Recently, a former student called me to vent about the rules of married life and how these rules don’t match the vision that she has for herself as a change agent.  As she talked about drowning in externally imposed expectations about being a married woman (sounding like a feminist just as much as sounding like a change agent), I found myself intrigued.  Going beyond my role as her teacher/mentor, the social scientist in me was activated and I secretly wondered: Where did these rules come from? Who ultimately made them?

A couple of years ago, I met a pocket constitution carrier.  She said that there were others (like her) who love the U.S. Constitution so much that they carry it (in booklet form) in their pocket. While different, I did not think it was odd.  For me, it represented an admirable level of commitment to a set of beliefs.  But recently these same pocket carrying constitutioners, in there strict adherence to what it purports, have been so bothered by a trumped up notion (no pun intended) of an “anchor baby” that they now want to change the route to birth right citizenship… and therefore, change the constitution.  With this counter-intuitive shift, I pondered, what actually does a love for the constitution mean and is strict adherence to it situational instead of being absolute?  As I listened to their argument, I wondered: Who has the right to determine when the rules should be changed and for what reason?

This summer, a journalist was kicked out of one of Donald Trump’s press conferences. It was argued that the journalist wasn’t following the protocols of journalism.  As argued by Trump, the reporter was acting like an activist.  In that the journalist was asking Trump about his views on immigration reform, a key platform piece for Trump, I couldn’t understand why this reporter’s questioning was being interpreted as activism.  Was it because the reporter himself was an immigrant?  And, does this alone (this relatedness to the subject matter) automates someone as an advocate?  In the end, I wondered: Who has the authority to interpret when rules are being broken?

John Gaventa argued that rules are tools of power.  In his discussion of covert power (alongside of his conversation around overt power and latent power), Gaventa said there are mechanisms that keep some people at the decision making table while at the same time keeping other people out.  Just as sanctions and force have this function, so do rules.  Rules as a mechanism, created by the people at the table, can serve to give table mates an advantage while disadvantaging those not invited to the party.

In a piece written by Andre Perry, black lives matter as an education agenda was exposed as another strategy for maintaining unequal distributions of power.  Perry argues that black faces and black movements are leveraged as a means to promote static efforts of sameness on both sides of the education debate:  on the reform side (as in corporate reformers) and on the resistance side (as in traditional school advocates).  And on each side, there is the presumption of authority in the right to direct black lives matter advocates in their efforts.  Further argued that in many of these organizations and their campaigns, black lives are not in the driver’s seat; instead, they become the face to a pre-established agenda.

Perry’s reflection was the perfect link between the questioning of rule construction and the construction of schooling as a conglomeration of rules.  When we stand boldly in one “clique” (framed by Perry), do we delve closely and interrogate the designers of our platform?  Do we disclose the locus of control in the narrative, in the battle, in the posturing of self-righteousness?

In short, who is there behind the curtain determining the values in which we are consuming and purporting?  As Perry argues, it’s not black folks (not traditionally speaking), or even better, for the sake of my reflection here in this post, it’s not people with little to no social capital.

In terms of who gets the right to live happily as a married woman (while still carrying out a feminist identity); who gets the right to be an American born citizen (while still having parents who are not); who gets the right to be a journalist (while still being an activist); and who gets the right to drive the black lives matter movement as an education agenda (while being independent and free of “outside” control)…. these are all questions of power.  As challenged by their parenthetical content, they remind us that the ability to make the rules, to interpret the rules and to change the rules all stem from a position of control.

As of late, I have come to see the conversation around education (about reform and resistance) as a debacle by and for those who have a seat at the table. And frankly, I see it as distraction, a stratagem if you will, that does absolutely nothing at disrupting traditional distributions of power.  It makes me pay attention to when I am leveraged for an agenda… and when I am discarded, because I no longer serve the status quo (as though I ever did in the first place).  Through it all, I ask myself, where is the power?

I wonder what the black lives matter as an education movement would look like if more of us were willing to question the location of power.  You know the saying, “Follow the money?”  Well, what would happen if we would follow the power?  What would we think about our allyship and advocacy if we found that at the end of the day, it is by and for the same people who have historically held the advantage?


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