Two Perspectives on Fighting Structural Racism

The following pieces are two perspectives and recent narratives on the ways that race and racial justice have informed the work of the Caucus of Working Educators for the last year.  

Caucus of Working Educators Centralizes Race in our Social Justice Analysis

Ismael Jimenez (Caucus of Working Educators, Kensington CAPA)

This past spring, Caucus Member and UPenn Ph.D. Candidate Rhiannon Maton facilitated an Inquiry to Action (ItAG) group to think about the connection between structural racism and the work of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE). The ItAG was run as a research study for Rhiannon’s doctoral dissertation.

The ItAG was made up of several members of WE, including myself, who came together to participate in dialogue surrounding race within the caucus. We thought it was important to think about race because of how much race frames the conversation about education consciously and unconsciously. After meeting for an intensive seven sessions, our group developed actions to be utilized within the Caucus of Working Educators and the larger education community in Philadelphia.

One of the actions that our group developed was a professional development session for other teachers and educator allies. We developed and facilitated over five professional development sessions that got people thinking more deeply about the effects of structural racism on education. Along with other members of our ItAG group, I participated in facilitating sessions at Central High School's citywide professional development day, the Teacher Lead Philly Summer Institute, as well as within my own school with my fellow staff-members during the beginning of the school year. I also plan to facilitate sessions surrounding structural racism at as many education gatherings as possible in the upcoming year.

Although race is an extremely difficult subject to dialogue about with others, I find that dialogue is a fruitful and an effective organizing tool.  to utilize in bringing others Our conversations brought people together into the work of building a network of racially conscious educators who are dedicated to speaking honestly about the current racial reality that taints our understanding of ourselves and each other.

What is Structural Racism?

According to Lawrence and Keleher (2004), Structural Racism is the normalization and legitimization of an array of entrenched dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color which reinforce existent racially developed societal structures. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. This definition reflects the distribution of material and symbolic advantage and disadvantage along racial lines while acknowledging the realignment of socio-political institutions developed throughout time to maintain continuity of racialized  power systems.

What brought us together to do this work?

Our inquiry group was motivated to think about the effect of structural racism on education, our schools, and our organizing practice because of the continued deficits of a truly informed racial analysis being purposefully applied to understanding issues related to teaching and learning.Over the last 30 years, there has been a concerted effort in America to roll back gains achieved during the Civil Rights Movement like the ending of the enforcement clause of the Voting Rights Act and desegregation requirements within the School District of Philadelphia. Our society can no longer simply assume that racial progress is a natural occurrence without it necessitating purposeful struggle.

Schools in Philadelphia represent a microcosm of the nation’s failure overall orientation toward failing to confront structural racism in our nation. This failure to confront structural racism is demonstrated by the increase of racially isolated schools and the creation of new learning networks that reinforce structures of racism.  With this knowledge at the forefront of constructing a viable analysis in order to build a sustainable collective movement, Any sustainable movement to transform education in Philadelphia a truly transformative program needs to be centered on race.

The Caucus of Working Educators has already began the work of providing a space to discuss and develop actions that take on surrounding structural racism. We have done this by:

  • We have done this first by engaging in the ItAG group to think about the connections between structural racism and our organization.
  • We have done this by creating a racial justice committee involving community members, parents, college professors, and teachers in Philadelphia.
  • SAnd we have done this by seeking out input from various individuals and organizations that already perform work surrounding structural racism. I am no way naive about the difficulty of changing patterns that have existed and reinforce structural racism, but the need to face our collective demon is obvious and evident.

I believe that in order to systematically create the conditions for transformation in our society, it is necessary to address the root causes of racism. This means recognizing those things that continue to restrict real progress in our society and those things which inspired past historical collective action and have created lasting change in our society. I contend that race exists at the intersection of all social issues affecting the American political economy, including issues ranging from class to gender. My contention is derived from an historical analysis of past and present social movements dedicated to addressing social justice concerns.

The strategy of addressing surface problems from neoliberal deform to resisting school closings simply continues to be an exercise of futility due to the issue of race as a driving motivation for the ability of our society to exploit people of color being neglected. This neglect in recognizing race as central to the problems in education creates the space for the majority of Americans to be shielded from the treatment of marginalization our children face.

Racism does not simply function as individual manifestations of overt bigoted diatribes, but as a structural force that informs our collective perceptions of each other, while preventing substantive modification to the socio-economic status quo tied to race. Therefore, the need to address structural racism through many angles is necessary for movement toward a more racially equitable society.

So, what can we do about it?

After meeting for an intensive seven sessions, our group developed actions to be utilized within the Caucus of Working Educators and the larger education community in Philadelphia.

One of the actions that our group developed was a professional development session for other teachers and educator allies. We developed and facilitated over five professional development sessions that got people thinking more deeply about the effects of structural racism on education. Along with other members of our ItAG group, I participated in facilitating sessions at Central High School's citywide professional development day, the Teacher Lead Philly Summer Institute, as well as within my own school with my fellow staff-members during the beginning of the school year. I also plan to facilitate sessions surrounding structural racism at as many education gatherings as possible in the upcoming year.



Making Racial Justice a Launching Point

Shira Cohen (Caucus of Working Educators Supporting Member, Wissahickon Charter School)

As the 2015-2016 school year begins, students, families and educators feel the crisis in Philadelphia’s public education system acutely  This September, the district, whose numbers surpass 130,000 students, will open without full staffs and resource bases. In this era of continued neighborhood racialized and economic segregation, a majority of students attending Philadelphia’s schools are young people of color whose educational opportunities continue to experience the de-funding of public education; divestment against sustained growth; school closures; and systematic attacks against students, families, and teachers.  

Simultaneously across the nation, social and racial justice leaders have continued to amplify stories of police abuse against people of color, the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration, and constructed segregation around access to space and systems.  #BlackLivesMatter, founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, has uplifted the movement to dismantle the systems that sustain white supremacy and institutional racism in the public and private sectors of American life.  In order to effectively engage with educational justice movements in our own community, we must move to centralize discussions and actions around understanding and dismantling racism at individual and structural levels in our work.

For the last several months, conversations around racial justice have driven the work of the Caucus of Working Educators.  We have attended marches, rallies, and meetings as individuals and as organizations in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial and Economic Justice.  Nine of our members participated in a research study led by Rhiannon Maton examining the significance of racial justice for our organizing work in the Caucus. An inquiry to action group oriented around social justice unionism met in May with a focus on the racial demographics of caucus membership, meetings and work.  Caucus members have led workshops on dismantling racism at personal, school-based, and organizational levels.  A book series this past summer included twelve texts that focused specifically on the impacts and realities of structural racism, movements to dismantle it, and radical activist work in our current times in education systems and additional social institutions.  In these varied spaces, we dissect how structural racism informs organizing practices; how building leadership of people of color must be central to the work of organizing that is rooted in communities of color; and how individuals must do their own personal work of targeting their own racism that can uphold the institutional structures at play.  

Now, where are we going with this work?  

On August 23, leaders in Caucus and the Teacher Action Group gathered for a retreat to continue the organizing and movement building work of these organizations’ visions.  Throughout the day, we thought and moved around the eight point plan developed by early founders of TAG National; brainstormed forms of leadership and action at varying levels of the movement for educational justice; read and discussed the introduction to What’s Race Got to Do with It, (ed. Bree Picower and Edwin Mayorga); and developed plans for continuing to galvanize the Opt-Outmovement, build the base of support for our movement, and create spaces for work around radical pedagogy. As an organization, the Caucus is striving to, centering race and racial justice in our organizing, and in our members’ personal and professional lives. We are striving to continue to grow joy and empowerment in our schools and classrooms.  

This work comes to a head this year as we begin to think about what’s coming for a larger movement, the specific organizations to which we ally ourselves and work, and our own ongoing work as individuals.  In order for our movement to intersect fully with a national push for racial justice, our personal understandings of privilege, power, and race must continue to evolve.  This work occurs on our own, in small group conversations, larger mobilization spaces, and in meetings to plan for campaigns and actions. This work also takes place, in our critical analysis of the public education system where we breathe, live, teach, and learn.   



Lawrence, K., & Keleher, T. (2004, October 20). Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities/POVERTY OUTCOMES/Structural Racism. Lecture presented at Race and Public Policy Conference in Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation., Berkeley.


SRC Comments: Diane Payne

From the SRC Meeting on Thursday, September 17th, 2015:

I am speaking today on SRC resolutions 2, 3 and 7 pertaining to adding a facilities location for Belmont Elementary Charter School, Boys Latin Charter School and Tacony Academy Charter School.  These schools will now operate in two locations instead of one. 

Question 1: Are seats being added to these schools?  If so, how is this possible as a resolution?

Question 2: If you wish to review a charter school’s application, where and/or how can you find this information online?  I couldn’t locate their approved applications on the SDP website or on the individual school’s website. 

Lastly a statement about 2 things Dr. Hite said in his September 15th Notebook interview about the new school year:

On the question of teachers trusting Dr. Hite and the last SRC meeting, Dr. Hite mentioned that he heard from retired teachers at the last SRC meeting following that with “let’s be clear, I meet with teachers and I hear from teachers.” 

Regarding that statement, it was not just retirees who spoke at that meeting.  Also, implied in that statement is that what you hear from teachers differs from what you hear from “retirees.”  Since data is such a strong and important presence in our district, I would suggest that before making implications or statements about what teachers feel, think or need, you do an independent survey that protects their autonomy so they can speak freely.  I too speak with teachers in various ways and find the exact opposite to be true.  The retirees who speak do in fact represent the views of those working in the classrooms. 

When questioned on privatization, I take issue with the comment that it is silly to think the school district’s plans are to privatize.  I find the use of the word silly offensive to the speakers who bring genuine care and concern to these meetings. 

In addition to being offensive, it is a distortion of what is happening on the ground.  This district has been closing, turning around, transforming, out-sourcing, renaissancing and laying off for years now, both before you got here and also very much under your leadership.  All of these actions are actions that support the privatization of our public schools.  As a Broad graduate, would you not agree that it is also the mission of the very institution that you attended?  It is not silly, it is real.  

Diane Payne is a retired School District of Philadelphia teacher. 


Working Educators Endorse Kristin Combs, Philly Teacher, for City Council

[Update: Meet Kristin and learn more about her platform and campaign strategy at a House Party Meet & Greet in Germantown on Saturday, Oct. 3 (6-7:30pm) hosted by WE member Kelley CollingsClick here for more info & to RSVP]

IMG_20150919_125512.jpgThe Caucus of Working Educators has endorsed Kristin Combs, Green Party candidate, for Philadelphia City Council At-Large. 

An active member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the PFT's Caucus of Working Educators, Kristin is a dedicated teacher at Penn Treaty High School.

"Working alongside Ms. Combs in a school that had a unique set of challenges, I watched how she committed to her students on both academic and personal levels. There really wasn't anything she was unwilling to do to ensure that students had all of the opportunities they needed to reach their fullest potential. Adding that she is an active participant in a variety of educator and community groups demonstrates her commitment to doing all that she can do to make the world a better place for under served populations," said Regina Hastings, a colleague of Kristin's at Penn Treaty.

Kristin motivation for running is centered in having experienced the worst of how are students have been neglected, having previously taught at Vaux High School, before it was closed by the SRC along with 23 other schools in 2013.

She has vowed to take a teacher's salary if elected and donate the rest of her salary to organizations committed to helping our public school students.


Kristin's advocacy for her students and their families has also been apparent in her campaign being involved in many actions for raising the minimum wage and unionizing workers.

"Green Party candidate Kristin Combs is the only candidate running for City Council who has pledged to take a worker's wage and immediately introduce binding legislation for a $15 minimum wage in Philadelphia. Unchallenged one-party rule has produced the poorest large city in America. From Seattle to Philly, we need independent working class politicians willing to take on big business and Harrisburg," said Kate Goodman, lead organizer for 15 Now Philadelphia.

Another key piece of Kristin's platform is spreading awareness and strongly defending parents' right to opt out of the harm of standardized testing she has seen first hand. Kristin is leading by example and teaching everyone about the kind of well rounded education that all of our students need and deserve.

"As an educator, Kristin Combs knows standardized test scores are not a true measure of a student's intellectual ability. An advocate for engaging, challenging, student-centered teaching Kristin forged a close working relationship with Opt Out Philly over the past year. I've been impressed by Kristin's dedication to ensuring parents are aware of their legal rights to opt their children out of standardized tests. Because of Kristin's activism and her commitment to creative, innovative approaches to learning, I am proud to support her run for City Council." said Alison McDowell from the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.


In the November election, Philadelphia voters can choose five candidates for City Council At-Large. Five candidates will be elected from the Democratic Party. In addition, the two highest vote-getters from all other minority political parties will also be elected and take their place on City Council. Traditionally, that has always been two Republicans.

Instead of using all five votes for Democrats (who are virtually certain to be elected), Kristin is asking for one of your five votes on November 4th. The goal is for one of these minority party seats to instead go to the Green Party and help build a much needed third party movement in our city. 

Working Educators has already endorsed two strong education advocates for City Council At-Large in Derek Green and Helen Gym. We hope you will support a third very worthy advocate for us all by voting for and helping to elect teacher and PFT member Kristin Combs for City Council At-Large!

Connect with the Combs 4 City Council Campaign:


Opt Out Philly to take part in National Parent Strike on Sept. 17

Opt Out Philly will be a part of the National Parent’s Strike. It’s not just a day it’s a national movement for parents to take back public education one test score at a time!


On Thursday, September 17, Opt Out Philly is participating in the National Parents Strike by asking parents, teachers and community members to do the following:

  • Wear Red
  • Submit your Refusal letters to your child’s school
  • Change your profile pic to that of your children or an Opt Out image
  • Use the following hashtags when you Tweet or share on social media: #optoutphilly #phillyparentstrike #welovephillyteachers #weloveourteachers #weloveourchildren and #nationalparentstrike

A press conference will be held in front of the School District of Philadelphia at 440 North Broad Street between 4:45 pm and 5:30 pm.

Last year, parents opted out at nearly twenty schools in the Philadelphia School District, in suburban districts like Quakertown, Lower Merion, Abington, and Lower Moreland, and in several of the state’s cyber charter schools.

"There is a strong correlation between standardized test scores and household income. It is simply unethical for Pennsylvania to spend $58.3 million annually on high-stakes tests that punish students living in poverty, English Language Learners, and special needs students. We want joy and curiosity, not compliance and discipline." Alison McDowell, parent of a Philadelphia School District 8th grader.

Parents are especially alarmed by how these tests affect English Language Learners and children with IEPs. Further, parents are heeding the warning of educators and researchers that the obsession with standardized testing is simply being used to label kids, teachers, and schools as failures.

“I am opposed to these tests being used simply to sort and separate students, rather than help them learn,” said Robin Roberts, School District of Philadelphia parent. “My child is more than a score.”

Parent leader Tonya Bah who has children at Wagner Middle School and Widener Memorial School says, “We, as parents and students, deserve to know our rights. We are here to break the code of silence surrounding standardized testing in Philadelphia. Every parent has a right to opt their child out of the test. Every student has a right to refuse the test.”


For more information, please visit the Opt Out Philly Blog, Facebook, or call 267-283-8273 (Tamara Anderson).


Defend Public Education During Back-to-School Night

At back-to-school night this year, we need to remind our city we are still fighting for fully funded schools. This letter from a Central High School teacher has tips for how to host a "What's NOT Back to School" Night at your school:


[Photo from Central's 'What's NOT Back to School' Action last year.]

Dear fellow PFT & WE Caucus members,

As we begin yet another year of less than adequate funding for Philadelphia’s school children, it becomes imperative that we continue to tell the narrative. Class sizes are still too large, schools still lack fundamental staff such as NTAs, counselors, and nurses (now add substitute teachers into the mix), and basic supplies such as copy paper and textbooks are still lacking. 

At the same time, the Caucus is now embarking upon its listening campaign for the internal PFT elections. The one platform issue I would like to see included is that we become a PRO-ACTIVE union, not a RE-ACTIVE one. We shouldn’t simply wait for one slight after the other being to be lobbed at us by corporate reformers, Harrisburg and the SRC – only to reactively challenge them in court. We need to get in front of the train wreck and take the fight TO THEM.

It is in that spirit that we at Central High School have decided to launch our second annual “What’s NOT Back-to-School” rally this year. Central staff will be lining the sidewalk prior to Back-to-School night this Thursday evening, informing parents of these attacks on public education. 

The highlight of our rally will be a “Professional Development Textbook Resale Fundraiser” that we hope will raise over $1000 in order to buy much needed supplies for our school. Teachers are encouraged to donate their District-purchased Driven By Data books from this year (retail value $36.00) and Charlotte Danielson’s Enhancing Professional Practice (retail value $29.95) for resale through various online textbook buyback programs (click here). How DARE the district pay over $60 per teacher on corporate reform textbook garbage while our schools go without basic supplies.

When austerity has become the new norm, it’s vital to show that we’re still fighting for fully funded schools. I hope that you feel emboldened and choose to follow Central’s example by hosting your own Back-to-School rally and PD Textbook Resale Fundraiser. Feel free to use the flyers and press releases I have come up with. They are all in .doc format so that they can be easily adapted to suit your school’s needs.

In solidarity,

George Bezanis
WE Caucus member
PFT Building Representative
Central High School

P.S. Here are all the docs you need to get started:

What's NOT Back to School Night- Flyer for Parents: PDF / google docs

What's NOT Back to School Night- Press Release: PDF / google docs

What's NOT Back to School Night- Poster Ideas & Mailbox Inserts: PDF / google docs



Our Listening Campaign & Bid for Union Leadership


From Left: Amy Roat, Yaasiyn Muhammad, Ismael Jimenez, Kelley Collings.

[UPDATE: Read about the launch of our Listening Campaign in The Notebook, The Examiner, and Raging Chicken Press.]

We are thrilled to announce our first-ever citywide listening campaign!

Over the next several months, the campaign will ask the 11,000 rank and file members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) to weigh in about what they need most from the district and the union so  they can best serve the students of Philadelphia in the city’s public schools.

The campaign will develop a platform and slate for the Caucus of Working Educators to run for  internal PFT executive leadership. At Wednesday’s meeting, four “officer candidates” were presented to the Caucus membership. These candidates come recommended by the Elections Committee of the Caucus, who worked over the summer to organize the campaign and begin identifying candidates. They are not yet slated in any particular order.

  • Kelley Collings is a math teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences with fourteen years teaching in the School District of Philadelphia.
  • Ismael Jimenez is a history teacher at Kensington CAPA, with seven years teaching in SDP.
  • Yaasiyn Muhammad is a history teacher at Central High School, with seven years teaching in SDP.
  • Amy Roat is an ESOL teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, with thirteen years teaching in SDP and twenty years experience as a teacher.

Over the course of the campaign, we will organize listening sessions around the city, to reach every school building and neighborhood, with these four candidates at the center of the work.

“We are not coming to you with a set agenda or platform,” Collings said to the crowd at Wednesday’s meeting. “Instead we are listening to all PFT members across the city and building a platform that reflects our collective vision for the schools Philadelphia’s students deserve.”

We will be presenting the final slate to the Caucus membership for confirmation at our annual convention on November 14th. According to PFT bylaws, internal elections will take place between January and April of 2016.



Why are Philly parents opting out of standardized testing?

Philadelphia parents talk about why they decided to opt their children out of the PSSA and Keystone tests.

Watch the video here


Testing is ruining public education.

You have the power to stop it.

Get all the information you need to opt out of the PSSA and Keystone tests in the Opt Out Organizing Toolkit

Like the Opt Out Philly facebook page



Parents Speak Out: The new PSSA and Keystone scores are ‘loaded guns’ aimed at our kids


Parent activists call new PSSA and Keystone cut scores “loaded guns” that rob schools of resources and kick the school-to-prison pipeline into overdrive. Parents are intensifying organizing efforts to increase opt out rates during the 2015-2016 school year.

Philadelphia parents are urging students and families across the city to refuse PSSA and Keystone standardized tests by legally “opting out”. Families across PA are outraged by significant drops in PSSA scores and similar projections for yet-to-be-released Keystones scores. Administrators claim more ‘rigorous’ standards are the cause, but parents see it as setting the bar out of reach for the students who are most at risk.


“It is calculated and predetermined that kids who are raised in poverty, who have english-language differences or special education needs, don’t pass these tests,” explains Philadelphia public school parent Robin Roberts. “It’s orchestrated. It has nothing to do with the kids or the teachers.”

Parent Tonya Bah maintains, “The Keystone state exams are ‘loaded guns’ aimed at taking any shred of opportunity from our children and their future, while widening the gap between the haves and have not’s.” A new law requires students to pass the Keystone exams in order to graduate. The drop in scores will prevent students from graduating, increase drop-outs, and wreck havoc at schools. “If high school students do not pass the Literature, Biology, and Algebra exams they will be denied high school diplomas,” explains Bah, who was instrumental in getting 171 families to opt of out the PSSA’s at one of her children’s schools.

“Those tests determine the number of jail cells that are built. I don’t want my children or any other child to feel like there’s anything built for them but success,” says Shakeda Gaines, Philadelphia public school parent and Member at Large of the Philadelphia Home and School Association.


The pattern of introducing “more rigorous” tests, followed by a huge drop in performance and subsequent implementation of punitive measures against schools, students, and teachers is one that has played out in other states -- most recently New York and New Jersey. In both states, drops in test scores led to massive parent-led opt out mobilizations.



Opt Out Philly – a coalition of parents, teachers, and students formed last year to organize opt out campaigns at local schools across the city and suburbs – is intensifying outreach efforts targeting community events, street fairs, and back-to-school events to inform parents about their legal right to opt their children out of the test. Movement leaders expect opt out rates to soar during the 2015-2016 school year.

More information can be found at: 


Opt Out Philly members include: the Caucus of Working Educators of the PFT, Action United, Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Parents United for Public Education, Asian Americans United, Philadelphia Student Union, Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, and Teacher Action Group.


Opt Out today! 
For more info:

Community Power Survey: 3-5 Minutes to Build Grassroots Power!

There's never been a more exciting time to be a member of the Caucus of Working Educators. We've built a base of educators, parents, and community members that have taken Opt Out to the streets, fought to Reclaim our PD, and brought together almost 200 people from around the city to discuss racial justice and education for this summer's book clubs-- and that's just this summer!

But this has only happened because individuals have come together to share their knowledge, skills, and passion with one another. Jane McAlevey, who visited us in April, explained that as we build relationships with one another, we begin to recognize collective resources --personal relationships, social networks, and knowledge--which can be mobilized to build power and transform our communities.

As the next step in building power, we've created a survey that will allow us to better understand and map our collective power across the city. 

Please take 3-5 minutes to fill out this Power Survey (especially if you're in an all-day 'Driven by Data' PD!). We want all WE supporters to take this, no matter what your role or involvement so far:

Just to get you interested, here's our starting map of all Philadelphia public schools. Yellow dots are elementary schools, orange are middle schools, and blue are high schools:

If you have any questions, or would like to learn more about power mapping, please email to get in touch.



State of Emergency Book Share

In Philadelphia, teachers must beg, borrow, and (hopefully not) steal books and materials to start the school year. Until the Pennsylvania legislature, releases a budget that fairly funds public education in our state, City Council releases funds they have allocated for schools, and the SRC prioritizes teachers and students over administrators and data, our students will go without many of the materials they need to learn effectively.

WE members have been hearing from teachers across the district about desperate lack of supplies. This spreadsheet is an emergency response to post books that are needed to start classes, and any surplus books that may be hiding in book closets around the city or nearby suburbs:

Please take a look to see if you have anything to offer, and if you know of someone in need make sure they post here as well.


Then contact your State legislators [] to demand and end to starvation budgets in Philly!