Community Activist, You’re Not

Community activists live inside of communities. Organizers come in from the outside.”

There appears to be significant confusion about community activism, so let me shine a light on the inconsistencies that may be shielded from the undiscerning eye.

Often, certain “activists” disguise themselves as community activists by relying on confusion, false data, and misinformation to protect their own interests. They believe that labor and collective bargaining rights of volunteering adults trump the rights of children and communities at all costs. They will fight for a member who they know is detrimental to students because that person’s job or contract is more important than the intellectual and spiritual safety of our children.

collective bargaining rights of volunteering adults dont trump the rights of children

To be a community activist, one must put his/her own preferences in their back pocket and sit on them. In our city today, there are many folks who incessantly wave the community activist banner, yet readily refuse to acknowledge that what they promote doesn’t serve the best interests of our communities.

To help people avoid any further confusion, I am going to provide a brief guide to help errant folks who yearn to be something they are not.

  • If you steadfastly defend policies or people who are detrimental to the education of our communities, know that you are not a community activist.
  • If you tout the union line and choose the interest of labor over the interest of the children you purport to care about, you are not a community activist.
  • If you unequivocally stand against policies that best serve children and communities-like full site selection for every adult in the school-you are not a community activist.
  • If you tell teachers to not tutor children or write college recommendation letters for students because you are angry about your contract (or lack thereof), you are not a community activist.
  • If you swoop into neighborhoods from lofty perches and towers, espousing your community activism while calling decade-long failing schools “gems” and desirable places, you are likely honoring the status quo and protecting the jobs of adults, not fighting for the very lives of children.
  • If you aren’t honoring the Africanness of your Black students or if you are actively encouraging them to use education to escape their communities, well, you get the picture.
  • If you live outside of our communities and shout down Black and Brown parents who are demanding school choice, or if you ignore parents’ pleas for urgency in action to ensure their hopes and aspirations are educated at higher levels, you are not a community activist.
  • If you take a troll-like stance in the way of families having more choices than the usual; perpetually failing schools in their neighborhood or criteria-based schools, you are not only a false community activist, you may be an adversary to the community. Just because you are black does not mean you are Black. And just because you are loud and active or traverse a community from time-to-time, does not make you a community activist.
  • If you champion the opt out of yearly standardized testing movement, while opting your own child into test-based magnet or private schools, and/or if you secure tutors to prep your child for ACT/SAT exams, you aren’t a community activist. You, sir/ma’am are an active hypocrite.

I am not anti-union

Please do not be confused, I am not anti-union.   I was a former dues-paying, card-holding, small red calendar-in-my-bag-swag-carrying union member. I also served on my school’s union Building Committee (John P. Turner MS) until I grew too weary of the committee’s lack of focus on the liberation of children. I totally recognize the reasons for unions and the historic lack of good faith that districts and management have generated. As educators, we are indebted to some of the hard fought wins from union members of yesteryear. My maternal grandmother would roll over in her grave if she knew I was saying anything ill of unions, but one cannot side with children and unions at the same time, all of the time. And, not all causes fought for by our teachers’ union have been found to benefit our children and communities.

Certain caucuses give me cautious optimism and tentative hope in their desire to make intersecting and deeply rooted social justice issues central to their actions, policies, and strategies. However, if the best interests of children aren’t at the root cause of their work, then they won’t truly be about social justice issues and will eat around the edges until they lose their way like others. Today, we even have some historic civil rights organizations parroting union mantras and dogma, failing to remember that we are only here to fight for the causes of our children.

Black families need not wait any longer

I know community activism when I see and hear it. I grew up surrounded by unabashed and unapologetic community activists. Their unyielding love for their community and their sacrifices for the children they served is forever imprinted in my brain. It is easy for me to see self-serving interests masquerading as community-serving. The hypocrisy of politicians who pose as community activists, yet boldly and arrogantly refuse school choice for our communities is alarming. These same “activists” ensure that they can exercise unfettered school choice for their own, yet demand that other families wait-despite the fact that my people have been waiting since they left plantations or participated in the Great Migration. Community activists would fight to ensure that Black families need not wait any longer. Far too often, our teachers’ unions are as focused on protecting the rights of children as police unions are.

Don’t get me wrong, one can be a union activist and community activist at the same time, but, from my experience, that is as challenging as finding an okapi in Cobbs Creek. It is okay to be an activist of your choice. The world, I am certain, needs all types of activism. Just don’t trick yourself into believing that your actions always jointly align to the priorities of our community’s children and to the interests of your adult membership.  I was raised to believe the needs of our community’s children trump just about everything. And, when you actively side against our community’s interests, you are not a community activist. Be aware of what you are not. Be comfortable in the skin that you are not in.

Sorry, Mom-Mom.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


    • Thank you. I have enjoyed conversing with people and learning and contributing to the dialogue. Thank you!

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