DIY.EDU: Community Education Outside the Classroom

Article by Josh Ramos and Chris Smith

When Josh first pitched the idea for a series of interviews to highlight initiatives that combat educational disparities, it struck me just how deep the two of us are into careers as educators. Neither of us were overachievers in school, and yet here we were: two teachers looking for more homework. We met at our Jesuit high school, both attended Jesuit colleges where we studied English and literature. Neither of us were top of our classes, but we had bonded over our love of poetry, reading, and writing. Now I teach English and history in a private middle school, and Josh is a special education and sociology teacher in a charter high school.

From an early stage, we both recognized education as a tool of liberation and empowerment. School was important not for its traditions or its structure, but because it provided the tools needed to understand the world, to communicate ideas effectively, and to challenge the status quo. When Josh was expelled, it had nothing to do with his relationship to learning. Despite an apparent abundance of resources from guidance counselors, a school psychologist, and an academic mentorship program, the institution lacked the necessary components to reach a student of his particular needs in his particular situation. This happens in all academic institutions from District 75 schools to Ivy League colleges. Neither of us needed the institution to tell us that education would be our primary weapon in a battle against social injustice.

As classroom teachers, Josh and I both subscribe to a pedagogy that centers empathy and social awareness. Modeling responsible community engagement and passionate exploration goes a long way toward empowering students to address the issues that affect them directly. However, despite thousands of dedicated teachers across the city, structural issues remain that cannot be tackled from within the classroom. When children lack the necessary resources to succeed in school, their uneven education can follow them into adulthood, creating a generational cycle of adults unequipped to foster the necessary learning conditions for their own children. This has never been more apparent than through the struggle of the education system to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic with remote learning. Across the nation, school systems have varied in their responses to how to continue education. While some private schools with smaller populations continue to meet in person or use a hybrid method, other schools catering to marginalized populations, such as native people on reservations, have been unable to meet in person or remotely due to lack of technological access

Daunting as this might sound, it highlights the importance of community support for education and for programs which can help fill the gaps left by our schools. When folks take it upon themselves to encourage their friends and families to value education, learning can quickly work its way into the character of a neighborhood and change the way citizens interact with their socio-political reality. After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police reignited the conversation regarding the institutional racism ever present throughout all facets of society, education has become a hot bed for reform, civil activism, and decolonizing of school systems. Three initiatives that Josh and I decided to highlight in this educational series operating outside the traditional school structure are the volunteer organization Norwood Community Library, the literacy based non-profit Start Lighthouse, and the consultancy and social entrepreneurship school Basecamp

The variety of the projects is originally how they caught our eye. Norwood Community Library is a free book exchange in the Bronx, a notorious book store desert. Started by a Fordham University undergraduate alum, the project aims to bring books to the Norwood section of the Bronx as well as teaming with our mutual aid organizations to provide free services to the Bronx residents. Start Lighthouse aims to work with elementary aged students to develop their literacy skills and community activism skills to work towards empowering their communities and futures on their own. Basecamp runs workshops with nonprofits and schools, and helps students develop in-community problem solving regarding issues the students choose. 

Starting tomorrow, over three weeks we will be releasing interviews with each initiative to highlight the benefits that these programs hold for the educational community outside of the classroom. It is our hope not only to highlight the necessary work that must be done outside of the educational system to ensure that we continue to elevate, but also inspire others to give back to their community in any way they deem possible. Whether donating time, funds, or developing their own community ideas, investment in educational programs and the community around us is a clear cut way to work against the injustice that is rampant throughout society.


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