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I Realized Good Teaching Is Organizing When My Community Asked Me To Show Up, And I Was Ready

by Matt Hamilton

I was recently leading a section of the English Methods course that I teach at Eastern Michigan University, and in the context of our discussion around culturally-sustaining literature (we were reading from Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen alongside Rudine Sims Bishop, among others), a preservice teacher shared a story:

She was a parent in an affluent, mostly white, and somewhat (vocally) conservative district. The district had made the decision to read I Am Jazz for the National Day of School and Community Readings, a day designated by the Human Rights Campaign for communities to read Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’ picture book together. The school district asked all K-5 teachers to read the book to their classes, and, unfortunately, as we often see in communities across the country, some families and community members raised objectives to young children hearing a story about a transgender girl and her journey toward happiness.

It turns out my student was one of the outraged parents. She reflected for our class on how upset she was at the time that the district made the decision to read the book without consulting families, and with such little notice and information, and how she challenged the district, asking for a meeting with the principal and even attending the community event on a Saturday to stay informed and voice her disappointment.

She shared with us that she attended the event, but did not end up voicing her disappointment. Instead, she listened. She heard stories from high school students who are LGBTQ+, from teachers, and from local organizers who offered varying perspectives on why we need diverse stories and support for LGBTQ+ young people. In a miraculous turn of events, she listened, and she learned. And she kept showing up to community events, and kept learning, and eventually joined the district DEI committee. Now, a few years later, she is telling this story in my classroom, and I interrupted her and said:

“That… that was my event. I worked so hard on that.”

At the time of this conflict, I had been teaching in the very district where she was a parent, and I was the advisor for a number of clubs including the social justice club which was responsible for a lot of the LGBTQ+ advocacy work in the district and community. We had had a really successful year up to that point, leading staff PDs, growing the group participation and brand, running several really impactful social media campaigns. The student leaders were really awesome and had grown into their work in unique and exciting ways. As I look back, that’s one of the organizing lessons I take from the experience: if we are learning and growing together, we’re always building power, even if we don’t know exactly what we’re building toward.

In many ways, the I Am Jazz event derailed a lot of the plans the club had for the year, which included school-wide drop-in discussions, intersectional advocacy, and broader community activism. But, as I’ve learned since, possibilities emerge alongside challenges, the people in the room have the answer, and trust is built through authentic listening and critical connection (paraphrased from the principles of emergent strategy in adrienne maree brown’s amazing book, Emergent Strategy).

Because we had been building trust and collective energy, we were called on to support the community event. My high school students led and collaborated to host community organizers and health experts, school leadership, families, and K-12 students at a celebration of LGBTQ+ identities that really was special. We read the book together, hosted a panel, gave away gifts, and even led a parade. It was a needed moment of positivity and hope, an opportunity for a giant collective hug, and a bright rainbow billboard to the community that said “we’re here. We’re not going anywhere.”

As my English methods student and I told our separate but connected stories that day at EMU, I told my preservice teaching students that I wasn’t sharing in an attempt to brag or celebrate myself, but rather to help them understand the role a classroom teacher can take in organizing for justice. What I learned from this experience is that all of the things that we already want to do as educators enables us to be strong and valuable community organizers, and when we begin to step into the larger community of organizing and learn from others who are doing the work, we expand not only our networks and opportunities but also our perception and vision for who we are and what we do as educators.

I was a part of that event because I was already doing the work. While my goal was advising a club and holding a safe space for LGBTQ+ young people (and it was all that), it was also making myself known and planting seeds. I was a part of that event because three parents saw me and knew I could be an ally for the work they wanted to do in their community, for their kids. I brought experts and organizers into the space because I had already spent time building relationships with folks that I wanted to learn from in the community and across our state, because I had traveled for professional development and because I had connected my students to resources and groups where they could be active and visible members of their community.

Most importantly, I had spent my own time building relationships with community organizers who taught me frameworks, shared invitations, and wrapped their arms around my students when the time came. Never have I been more convinced that teachers are organizers and organizers are teachers than when the community I was teaching in tried to question my students’ humanity and we needed to get together and work for better. Community leaders showed up and offered care, counseling, and support for my students and myself, and we wrote demands and took over board meetings and threw rallies and hosted parties and made change visible.

And the best part about it all? The part that really proves to me that showing up in, for, and alongside a community can build sustainable power? The work is still ongoing in that community. The same parents that reached out to me, the same community members who organized alongside my students and me, even some of the same students who were inspired by our initial work are still working to build towards liberation.

While I didn’t learn about organizing from Everyday Advocacy, EA does offer guiding principles which can help us learn how to be in community with organizers and respond to the pressures of standing up alongside student activists. I learned directly from my co-conspirators in organizing from being in spaces where I glimpsed intersectional joy and collective liberation, where diversity was truly celebrated and individual stories were held in all of their complicated glory among the collective dream that included us all. And I believe that every teacher, who is also a community member and citizen and human and above all, an organizer, has that opportunity, too.

Matt Hamilton (he/they) is an educator and community member living in Ypsilanti, MI. Matt spent seven years as a high school ELA teacher, and two more as a middle school social studies teacher, while along the way advising many student groups and organizing for intersectional liberation alongside colleagues, community members, and out-of-school educators and activists. Currently, Matt teaches part-time at Eastern Michigan University and works full-time as the program director for the Michigan Learning Channel, a statewide PBS effort to bring educational media-driven learning and media creation to K-12 classrooms and community spaces across Michigan. Matt gets excited about youth voice and power, interdisciplinary project-based learning, decolonizing through food, and spending as much time as possible either exploring outside or watching Disney movies with his family.

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