Letter to Biden-Harris Transition Team: From NY Community Education Council District 8

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December 7, 2020

Dear President-Elect Biden, Vice-President-Elect Harris, and Future First Lady Biden,  

The District 8  Community Education Council in the heart of the South and Southeast Bronx congratulates you on your historic win to become the President, Vice-President, and First Lady of the United States. We are ecstatic at not only the prospect of a return to normalcy and respectability, but at the opportunity to finally make education more equitable. We believe the best way to achieve this is to bring to the table the neediest and the most vulnerable amongst us, as you and your team select our next United States Secretary of Education. Our voices have been locked out of such important decisions that directly affect us and our children for far too long.  

To put it in perspective for you, District 8 has schools in the 14th and 15th Congressional Districts that will be represented by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Ritchie Torres respectively during your administration. As you well know, the 15th Congressional District is the poorest Congressional District in the United States and the 14th is not much richer, as the Bronx is incredibly poor. Out of 1.4 million people who live in the Bronx, 400,000 people live in poverty or in abject poverty. We all know that poverty has many negative implications educationally, socially, economically, and politically. We are the people who are constantly left behind on every front every time. 

No one knows better than you that the Coronavirus Pandemic has revealed the grossest  inequities that exist in our America in healthcare, in education, in housing, and in every aspect of American life. The two districts mentioned above were the hardest hit during the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic and continue to be hit hard by this second wave in terms of community spread, hospitalizations and deaths. Our District 8 schools staff, under the leadership of Superintendent Erika Tobia, have been  handing out food to families from food pantries besides trying to educate our children both remotely and in the hybrid format. This tells you how desperate our situation is. So many of our families do not have devices and do not have internet services in order for their children to learn properly remotely. So many of our families are facing eviction, as we don’t tend to be homeowners. So many of us have lost our low-wage jobs. We are hungry, unemployed, about to lose our homes and our children can’t get the education they deserve in order to make their way out of this suffocating existence of being poor and underserved, even ignored, and overlooked. The District 8 Community Education Council has decided that enough is truly enough and something must be done. We have included in this package the resolution we passed to explain in more depth why we want to sit with you, your team, and your United States Education Secretary candidates. If anything is going to change, we believe that change will begin with a top-notch education for both our children and ourselves.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, the D8 CEC is counting on your administration to put the United States decisively and firmly on a trajectory that will forever raise it out of the huts of its shameful history of racism, classism, and exclusion. “Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/…/Leaving behind nights of terror and fear,” the USA must rise and must be ushered “into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear” by the young man from Scranton who understands the plight of average folks and marginalized peoples, thus making of America an oasis of prosperity and inclusion for Main Street from coast to coast and in every nook of this great nation of ours.

During the Obama-Biden administration, many of us spoke to that administration about the fight for America’s soul. The battle will have just begun under the Biden-Harris administration, and like a war hero, you must find ways to vanquish the enemies of the America that we (your administration and the 80,000,000 people who voted for you) seek to bring into existence. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and many of us in the fight for education have often uttered that “the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of equity in education.” The truth is one of America’s problems from the time of its foundation has always been simultaneously that of the color line, that of class and that of education. And sadly, it remains so today, more than ever. But more than ever today, we, in underserved communities, must ensure that when this storm passes that we will be in a better position than before. For us, it is as simple as the basic human instinct for survival and self-preservation. 

In underserved communities, like the one we live and serve in as education councilmembers, we understand that education is our lifeline and the lifelines of our children, should we be able to uplift our communities and offer our children a more prosperous future. We also know that in order to do that, we must be welcomed to the table of education policy-making as equal partners. Contrary to popular opinion, inclusion will not begin when equity will be achieved. For, in the biggest of paradoxes, any attempt at equity without marginalized communities at the table to decide what that equity looks like will result in levels of inequity that will surpass the present levels of inequity. The reason for that is quite simple. Bureaucrats and politicians who provide solutions without the participation of the people who suffer from the said problems usually provide solutions for problems that do not exist, while the existing problems never find a solution. Because in our community we are so tired of the pretense of problem-solving attempts, we are coming to you to invite ourselves to the table of decision-making. Simply put, we want a say in the decisions that will impact our lives, the education of our children and their lives for decades to come. We believe that parents and students across the nation should have a voice in the selection of the next United States Secretary of Education. 

For our part, we would like to engage with you on the question of education and what improvements we are looking forward to in order to give our children a 21st century education, because we know whatever is decided at the federal level will have implications at the local level. We would like to enumerate for you the qualities, the pedagogical philosophies, the world view, the professional history, and the body of work the next United States Secretary of Education needs to have espoused and performed in order to qualify to lead innovations in the education of our children and young adults. The United States have lagged behind other developed nations in education for far too long. Deep Changes are needed. We would further like to hear out the candidates you have on your short list so that we can share with you our thoughts on how well they meet the standards we have in terms of the profile of an education secretary who would best meet our needs in an underserved community. And finally, we would like to recommend to you our best fit. Whether in the end you select our choice, we will at least have given you an idea of additional qualifications you should be looking for in our next secretary of education.

Years ago, many of us had countless conversations with Former President Obama about what community schools should look like and how they should operate in order for them to truly work for communities like ours. We spent years inviting Former President Obama to the Bronx for an education summit that would have begun this conversation in a meaningful way – because we, as a nation, spend a lot of time talking about education to say and do exactly nothing. That in itself needs to change. You should know that the District 8 Community Education Council always prefers to demonstrate. We don’t like to just complain. We also like to provide solutions. Included in this package are two examples of two school and community projects that we are developing to show you what we mean when we talk about how community schools should operate in underserved communities in order to produce the best outcomes. Our Superintendent Dr. Erika Tobia understands this concept perfectly well, which is why she conceived these two projects with the voices of her parents at her leadership table. We want to discuss this with you because we would like the support of your administration in the form of funding to pilot these two projects. In District 8 the motto is “Educate (Educ8), Motivate (Motiv8), and Elevate

(Elev8) not just our students, but our families and communities. We know that education in underserved communities, more than anywhere else, has to be student, family and community centered in order to have the impact that is the purpose of education: to free people from the shackles of their limitations and raise them above those limitations into better futures and better lives.  

Beyond having a voice in the selection of the next United States Secretary of Education, discussing our two projects with you and receiving funding to pilot them, we would like to invite you to the Bronx for an education summit because it is our objective to firmly place the Bronx in the center of the education discussion and every discussion that has to do with the development of the poorest people in these United States of America – because we can do so much better as a nation if we would give our neediest and most vulnerable the tools and the opportunities to improve their situations. 

We are eagerly looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you for reading. We wish you the best in the next four years. We are praying for you and your team. Moreover, we are here for you –  to lend you our support, our best ideas, and our best work. Happy Holidays!!! Please stay safe and healthy. 

In Solidarity and Purpose
Warmest regards,

Farah Despeignes, President
Eduardo H. Hernandez, PhD, Vice President, BPA                                
Darlene Martinez, 2nd Vice President        
Aurora Ronda, Recording Secretary                                        
Sean Turner, Treasurer      
Michael Beltzer                    
Gerald J. Cannon, IEP
Latoya Coleman                          
Lourdes Jibodh, BPA
Fabian Wander

Resolution: November 25, 2020

DISTRICT 8 COMMUNITY EDUCATION COUNCIL (D8 CEC)

Resolution in support of:

Giving Parents, Students and Education Stakeholders a Real Input in the Selection of the US Secretary of Education and the NYC Chancellor of Education

Whereas, it has been demonstrated over and over again in the last thirty or more years that the voices of the people and specifically of parents and students and more specifically of poor parents and students and black and brown parents and students do not matter in the making of education policy – from the punitive practice of closing underserved schools instead of rehabilitating them to falsely presenting charter schools as saviors of public education, to overcrowding school buildings with unnecessary co-locations, to the unwillingness to build  or repair school buildings while building prisons, to curricula that are not representative of our diversity or academic needs, to the archaic delivery of education services that do not reflect the need to pivot instruction to 21st century ideals and needs – as evidenced by our inability to provide stellar remote education and our inability to provide every student with an internet ready device, to the heavy and often debilitating police presence in our schools, to the dissonant intersection of government agencies in our schools, to the opaque and incoherent bureaucracy that dictates school policies and initiatives and ignores the pleas of parents and students, to the criminalization of students – specifically black and brown boys, to using our schools as a pipeline to jails and prisons, to weaponizing government agencies, including ACS, against poor parents, to the pitting of different communities against one another in an endless struggle for resources and opportunities for their children, to the farce of a non-existent fight for equity – as evidenced by the lack of structures and systems to actualize equity, to the pretense of equitable funding, to the systemic suppression of dissent at every level and on every front, etc. etc. – the blatant disregard for parent and student voices is palatable, brutal and no longer tolerable. And,

Whereas, the Coronavirus Pandemic has exposed the depth of inequity in our education system and the profundity of how little our voices matter and how much we are treated like infants and as disposable – from the non-binding resolutions of Community Education Councils, to well-choreographed discussions that go nowhere, to the structural disconnect among parent organizations within the DOE, to the undemocratic ways that parent leaders are elected, to the lack of opportunities for “elected” parent leaders to interact with other elected officials and effect policy – while  taking the same oath,  to the lack of transparency in DOE affairs, to the lack of communication and conversations before a policy is imposed, to the downright gaslighting and ghosting of parents and students, to the lack of access to our constituents – while  other elected officials and charter schools have plenty of access, to the lack of language access for our immigrant parents as a standard at  every meeting, etc. etc. – it is clear that the well scripted and the well-choreographed mirage of parent, student and community voices in education is unsustainable and needs revising. And,

Whereas, poor communities and poor black and brown communities – who have suffered the most during this pandemic  and before this pandemic – be it on the health front, on the economic front, or the education front – cannot afford to go back to normal after this pandemic – as that would mean further annihilation and isolation for us. Therefore,

Be it resolved that the District 8 Community Education Council will support in every way possible every initiative that will enable parents, students, and community education stakeholders to have a real seat at the table and a real voice in education policy. And,

Be it further resolved that the  District 8 Community Education Council will itself engage the Biden Transition Team and every player on the national stage (such as the Senate and the House of Representatives) who has a say in education policy to advocate for parent and student voices in the selection of the next United States Secretary of Education. Moving forward, the US Secretary of education must not only be accountable to the President of the United States, but also to parents, students, and educators. Education is a service and should not be politicized and its direction should be based on community need and not the whims of politics and politicians. And,

Be it further resolved that the District 8 Community Education Council will also engage the Governor, the State Senate, the State Assembly, the Mayor, the City Council, and every player on the local stage who has a say in education policy to advocate for parent and student voices in the selection of the next New York City Chancellor of Education. Moving forward, the New York City Chancellor of Education must not only be accountable to the Mayor of New York City, but also to parents, students, and educators. As stated before, education is a service and should not be politicized and its direction should be based on community need and not the whims of politics and politicians.      

Roll Call

NAMEAPPROVEDISAPPROVEABSTAIN
Farah DespeignesX  
Eduardo H. Hernandez  X  
Darlene Martinez  X  
Aurora Ronda  X  
Sean Turner  X  
Michael Beltzer  N/A- AbsentN/A- AbsentN/A- Absent
Gerald J. CannonX  
Latoya Coleman  X  
Lourdes Jibodh  X  
Fabian Wander  X  

 The District 8 Community Partnerships
Operation F.I.S.H. Project Action Plan

Mission: The District 8 Community Partnerships Operation F.I.S.H. seeks to (as per the District 8 motto) educate, motivate, and elevate our students, their families, and our district through a comprehensive emphasis on personal health and community health, which includes classes and activities on nutrition, community and family gardening, spiritual health, mental health, physical health and creating social and economic opportunities around health and food. The acronym F.I.S.H. concretely stands for food, innovation, sustainability, and health. Our desire is to lift our district out of some of its ailments into a “can do” attitude cloaked into self-empowerment, self-reliance and advocacy around food justice, health justice, environmental justice, and economic justice.

Goals: District 8 will educate our students and the community on the history and the current state of the Bronx in relations to health in all its aspects. District 8 will teach students and the community how to discard unhealthy habits and adopt healthy lifestyles. District 8 will teach students and the community how to create social hubs and economic opportunities around food and health. District 8 will teach students and the community about civic engagement and public advocacy, using components of Operation F.I.S.H. District 8 will facilitate the development of a community health plan by our students and community that can be utilized by the city, the state and the federal government to improve community health and community health education in some of the poorest and most underserved communities in the city, the state and the nation for the purpose of getting those communities to uplift themselves.

Objectives: District 8 will achieve its goals through the reading/viewing of relevant texts/films by creating both school and community book/film clubs. District 8 will present community talks on related topics through webinars, townhalls podcasts and media partnerships. District 8 will form several partnerships (with relevant community organizations, such as the Bronx River Alliance, GeoAg, FAN4Kids, Lifestyle/Lifespan, Grow NYC, and government agencies) in order to access the tools and the resources that will enable us to have the necessary conversations, activate the community and take measurable action that will make a difference. District 8 will initiate advocacy campaigns that will require our students and community to write letters, become presenters and panelists on the issues in diverse spaces, network and build coalitions, and construct community apparatuses that will sustain their work.

Topics:

  • History of Health in the Bronx
  • Current State of Health in the Bronx
  • The Intersection of Poverty, Health and Political Powerlessness
  • The Intersection of Agriculture, Economic Empowerment and Political empowerment
  • The Intersection of Nutrition, Physical Fitness, Mental Health, and Spiritual Health
  • Taking a Look at Models of Comprehensive Community Health Plans
  • How Do We Develop a District 8 Comprehensive Community Health Plan?
  • Planning, Strategies, Tactics & Measurable Progress
  • Building Partnerships and Coalitions
  • Taking Action & Being Heard
  • Earned Media Attention

Operation F.I.S.H. Graphic Organizer

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