(Beyond) Breaking Points: Reclaiming Our Lives in Our City
Elizabeth Bishop, Ph.D.
This special issue of Theory, Research and Action in Urban Education (TRAUE) came together in Spring 2021, writing 15 months into COVID-19 pandemic life in New York City. We were writing during the earliest days of vaccination, of deep exhaustion and anxiety and grief. We began drafting the words in this special issue on the precipice of “post-pandemic” doublespeak in a United States where public health was being irrevocably fractured by anti-science conspiracies.
Grounded in the CUNY Graduate Center Urban Education program but writing from different corners of remote life across the U.S., we published out of the mud of a moment that called for profound recalibration to bloom back our city for the betterment of our people. As writers, the moment forced us to reframe our scholarship to better understand how the many intersecting forms of privilege operating in our cities, our bodies, our institutions, our labors and our studies protected a (false notion of) safety that is intellectually lazy in its most benign forms and lethal in its most violent forms – moralistic policing of our bodies, discourses, calendars, videos and inboxes. We wrote to reclaim our power against surveillance capital and neoliberal micromanagement online.
In this unparalleled moment, six of us from the “Public Knowledge and Publishing” seminar took over this journal. We knew we wanted to push the parameters of what an academic journal looked and felt like, even while recognizing the ways in which TRAUE has always pushed boundaries to allow for fresh air, refracting new ideas, illuminating new light. For us to go further in this moment called for us to become limitless as writers, to confront the world of lockdown, to be both forced and freed to reframe our approach to nearly everything.
To be clear, publishing October 2021, this is not a “post-pandemic” world. The Director-General of the World Health Organization suggests we won’t be there anytime soon as long as much of the world is denied access to vaccination. As I write, people around the planet are reeling from the impacts of this virus. There are vaccine deserts across countries. Millions have lost their lives. Fully vaxxed individuals are contracting the breakthrough Delta Variant. We are not yet safe.
In this last year and a half, the fields of public education and youth development have been in a fresh state of reckoning. Since March 2020, I’ve been talking about the idea of “compassionate urgency” as a grounding way to frame the routes for rapid response to our ailing colleagues and communities based on solidarity and consent. And although clients and constituents are the first in focus for nonprofits just as students are for schools, the truth is that labor is deeply suffering (this was true before COVID-19 but has been exacerbated by it). Youth workers and teachers, particularly in large municipal systems like in New York but also across suburban and rural U.S, have been stretched thin in ways that are rarely discussed in any depth. Why not?
As articulated by one of the writers in this issue during a class discussion, “The question many workers are asking themselves is ‘Do we have enough gas in the tank?’” We may find that the answer is no. We may have broken down on the side of the road. Calls for repair. The systems we work within have not centered our healing as workers while they have talked about healing our constituent communities. The truth is that such a holistic model is the only strategy that will bring lasting change. When we take breaks, we are reminded how desperately we need more breaks. Consider how you answer when youth, colleagues, bosses ask you how you are. It is long past time for radical honesty anchored in empathy, listening, care, rest. When the pandemic first hit there were calls for radical shifts, about the planet hitting reset, about not going back into institutions that systematize breaking us down. More than a year later, what have we learned?
One thing we learned is that teachers and youth workers showed up for communities day in and day out all these months. Teachers have often been bastardized across the mainstream press in a United States where some portion of the population prides itself on its anti-vax populist backlash. Yet teachers and youth workers were the ones who time and again showed up for youth and families when school systems failed and local agencies broke down. Teachers and youth workers got food, technology, mental health access, wellness checks, scholarships and so much more into the lives of young people and their families. I know teachers who went on evening home visits to check on their students with disabilities. I know teachers whose one-on-one outreach is the only reason their Dreamer students are enrolled in college right now. I know youth workers who personally opened offices on weekends to provide a safe space for youth organizers to mobilize against the increase in gun violence that tracked with the earliest days of the pandemic. I know youth workers who came together with young people to celebrate Black joy in the face of anti-Black racist violence at the hands of the police. Such efforts were true before COVID-19 but were exponentially more vital in this moment. How have those workers been acknowledged? How have their efforts been uplifted?
To paraphrase another contributor from these fiery class conversations, we the writers as workers refuse any longer to justify our existences to the keepers of inequity, we refuse to contextualize our embodied histories of oppression to once again comfort a (false notion of a) normative centrist narrative that inevitably re-centers experiences of #everyonebesidesus. A call to interrupt the trappings of power/knowledge. We will no longer be complicit in our own pain. Until the comfort of Black and brown women is centered, until the comfort of Indigenous communities is centered, until the comfort of refugees and immigrants is centered, until the comfort of queer, trans* and gender expansive people is centered, we must be intersectional deconstructionists and abolitionists in every environment we inhabit – to escape the structures that claim commitments to our rights as scholars and workers while policing our bodies, sometimes endangering our lives and our livelihoods.
We have reached breaking point upon breaking point. The sound of shattering glass. The burnout is real. Screens are degrading our eyes. Big tech is stealing our anonymity. Scarcity economic models attempt to deflate us. Relaxation is a necessity. Rest is political. Let the computer collect dust for a day, a month, possibly forever. Moving life beyond the boundaries of blue light technologies will be crucial to the social service and educational entities that positively impact youth and families. Always again a humanizing pedagogy. It is vital for the workers who run these spaces to be seen in their full humanity if there is to be any real community care, retention, longevity. But what conditions are actually necessary for their wellbeing? Whose priorities get prioritized?
Writing into, through and beyond COVID-19 brought psychic chaos and emotional heaviness. It is still present. Working, educating, loving in this moment requires drawing from a sea of positivity to imagine a world revitalized – not “back” to any of the inertia of educational-non-profit industrial complex operations. There is no need to pump blood back into antiquated systems, no reason to blow life back into the political bodies of obstructionist bureaucracies. There is a real need to rectify harm. To heal. To be radically honest. There is a need to make space to dream, to prototype what is possible, not just what the market or the mayor allows. This issue is an organized flow state, how to not get pulled down, how to keep going high no matter how low the opposition – to learn from practices by which oppressed peoples have continuously and forever resisted, to become unwritten while understanding that we are built in traditions of resistance.
Reconsider the earlier question of gas in your tank. The guiding light of the writing herein is life with a view toward the aspirational, with renewable fuel in the tank to take us out beyond the breaking points. If we don’t run on clean energy, we shouldn’t run at all. We won’t sustain. This issue runs on action beyond hope. Action full of hope. Hope alone cannot transform us, as Paulo Freire taught. Full of hope, we can call for, design for and activate our world – by building labor power, by forming coalition between public educators and youth workers, by interrupting racist testing mechanisms. Will we finally choose to understand who are the front line staff, the part time workers, the substitute teachers? Who are these essential workers and why are they treated as disposable?
In the papers in this special issue, so much of what I just outlined is unpacked, exploded, challenged, documented, poetically confronted. Chanira Rojas opens up the journal documenting the silent plight of youth worker burnout and the resilience of staff throughout the pandemic. Lydia Villaronga picks up poetic questions of pedagogy to offer a meditation on care as radical praxis across learning communities. Fatima Sherif calls out the complicity of systems designed to maintain inequity, tracing racist U.S. histories to contemporary policies and practices. Daniel Jerome uncovers the forgotten stories of youth from transfer schools and complicates packaged formulas for high school graduation. Brian Mercado closes the journal with a dynamic analysis of the relationships between policy and discourse in the policing of immigrant youth in schools. All of the authors call for a reframing of our languages, our pedagogies, our perspectives toward our communities of care in ways that could activate real change. To quote the guru Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz quoting the guru Spike Lee “Are you about it or are you ABOUT it?”