A different type of school was in session at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in Ithaca on Saturday when over 100 people gathered at the elementary school to attend the second session of The People’s School.
This meeting of The People’s School — a social justice education group comprised of Ithaca community members, activists, and Cornell faculty and students — came following its original meeting at the end of January in Klarman Auditorium.
“At our first People’s School meeting, we said the time for stargazing … has passed,” said an organizer in the event’s opening remarks. “It’s time instead to look not up, but to look around. To look to each other for our politics and for our schooling. The People’s School is both.”
Another organizer agreed, saying that they “hope to build on the momentum of [their] last meeting and make The People’s School a sustained and shared effort to bridge theory and practice and to build the tools necessary to bring about a collective emancipation.”
Organizers of the event declined to give their names, with one organizer saying that to do so would be against the spirit of the People’s School, as “we are all teachers, we are all students and we are all organizers.”
In contrast to the group’s first meeting, which was just a week after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the second meeting was limited to focusing on the failures and effects of racial capitalism through the topics of education, creating community, labor, food, mass incarceration, immigration and housing.
Representatives from groups such as the Tompkins County Immigration Rights Coalition, Cornell EARS and the Ultimate Reentry Opportunity of Tompkins County led discussion sessions on topics ranging from disability rights and support in the Trump era to ways of enacting change through techniques used in the Theatre of the Oppressed.
Delmar Fears ’19 facilitated a discussion on behalf of Cornell’s Black Students United that focused on identifying and exploring ways of combatting what she called “distractory tactics.”
Fears explained that these are “tactics used to distract from the real issues of institutional white supremacy and anti-blackness, which are often used by white people and other people of color.”
A major distractory tactic Fears said she has seen recently used at Cornell is the debate over whether or not Cornell would achieve greater “diversity of thought” with an increased number of politically conservative faculty members. This debate has even come in a form of a Student Assembly resolution — which failed to pass by one vote.
“The major hot button topic at Cornell is the Cornell diversity of thought. I really feel like Cornell diversity of thought is a distractory tactic from achieving actual diversity on campus,” Fears said.
“We need more diverse faculty, but focusing on how Cornell donates money and using that to say we are more liberal-leaning isn’t going to be useful,” she added. “People go through their entire careers at Cornell without having a black professor and that’s an issue. That’s a bigger issue than worrying about conservative faculty.”
Cait McDonald, grad, attended Fears’ discussion and said she appreciated the ways it explored “clapbacks” to use when someone uses a distractory tactic.
“Right now, we often only notice and pay attention to overt racism and violence and not some of these distractory tactics,” McDonald said. “I thought it was very important to have a session on recognizing and calling attention to these tactics and then discussing pragmatic, applied methods of responding.”
McDonald also expressed gratitude to The People’s School for providing a place for the community to talk about serious societal issues.
“I think that in the current political climate, the fact that The People’s School provides a needed space and access to anyone who wants to be involved in learning how to destroy and combat things like institutional racism is really powerful,” McDonald said.
Eldred Harris ’94, a member of the Ithaca City School District’s Board of Education, co-facilitated a discussion on the negative long-term effects of inequality experienced in early childhood, specifically focusing on the ways these disparities might be combatted in the Ithaca community.
“When children are five, they come into the doors of the Ithaca city schools, and we have no control over what happens to them before that,” Harris said. “Of course there are early catapults that project one child in a more advanced way than another. We have to try to figure out how to adjust and socialize, because this early inconsistency is what overwhelms school districts.”
Harris also discussed the ways in which the histories of racism, sexism and capitalism in the United States affect different children’s experiences of early childhood and are representative of an “inherent instability in our entire system.”
“We live in a myth that this is one country and that may be true, but we’re a loosely tied together federation made of many disparate parts,” Harris said. “And those parts are not the same, they’ve never been the same and those cultures are not the same. How those parts are treated has never been the same,” Harris said.
“There’s this history we all seem to want to conveniently ignore. Our original sins in this country will continue to haunt us forever until we deal with them,” Harris added.
Kathleen Halton, a preschool teacher of 25 years at Enfield Elementary School, attended Harris’ discussion and said she appreciated Harris’ focus on the ways in which social activism and child education overlap.
While Ithaca High School may have advantaged and well-performing students, there are also students who are underachieving and are neglected, she said.
“All of the professors’ kids go to Ithaca High School and so they expect it to be a very high quality education. So Ithaca High School has two ‘schools.’ It has the Cornell family, who are all AP students, all headed straight to the Ivy League. And then it has this entire other population of students where there’s no expectation that they’re going to go anywhere,” Halton said.
Halton said that Cornell could play a much larger role in Ithaca community issues, specifically in Ithaca schools, attributing Cornell’s disinterest to when the University “shut down their education department,” which Halton said changed their interest in the ICSD dramatically.”
“Cornell used to care 30 years ago, when I was younger, and now they don’t care at all. They really don’t. They don’t care financially, they don’t care physically in terms of time and energy and they don’t care morally,” she said. “Cornell pays less to this community than any other Ivy League school in the country pays to the community that they inhabit.”
Another discussion facilitated by Lauren MacCarland, a member of Decarcerate Tompkins County, focused on ways to prevent the upcoming possible expansion of Tompkins County Jail, which will be decided upon later this spring.
MacCarland also described what mass incarceration in the Ithaca community looks like when broken down.
“In Ithaca, who is committing the crimes is not directly proportionate to who is actually arrested and processed and put in jail and entered into the system,” MacCarland said. “It’s not just about jails and prisons, it’s about a process that starts very early … starting from having heavy police presence at certain schools only.”
MacCarland said that this police presence “filters certain groups into the system more than other groups,” despite her belief that “white college students are probably way more likely to be doing drugs than your average person of color on the street,” she said.
MacCarland also stressed that while stopping the expansion of the jail was important, it was also a small symptom of a much broader societal issue.
“It’s not just about the jails, right? You have to address housing, you have to address education, you have to address jobs, you have to address all these other things,” MacCarland said. “The jails are just the tip of the iceberg of racism, of classism [and] of all of these factors that are contributing to this problem.”
While the community faces a much broader problem, jail reform is one tangible and solvable issue, MacCarland said.
“The problem is bigger and the solution is bigger, but this is one concrete thing that we as a community can do,” he said.
In all these sessions, awareness and a push toward reform were key, accomplished through the education the People’s School emphasizes.
“I do think that The People’s School is an important tool,” Fears said. “It’s not the be-all-end-all, but education is definitely an important aspect.”