Among the many ear-to-the-ground indicators surfacing at the annual Yale School of Management (SOM) Educational Leadership Conference April 6-7 were recurring references to the importance of community organizing at the state, county, city, and school district levels: This can be the key to activating people’s voices – and votes.


With the Hartford Board of Education election coming up this fall – and the historically low voter participation levels (well below 10 percent) – attention to community organizing could make a real difference.


As well, the work of the Blue Hills Civic Association to gain community interest and involvement in the Weaver High School redesign is yet another crucial, local example of how listening and learning can inform everyone at the table.  But first there has to be a table!


At the Yale conference, when Pastor William McCullough of the Faith Acts for Education organization described his work in Bridgeport, he noted that among more than 500 parents and community members engaged, 97 percent got registered to vote.  “There are times when you can’t change mindset,” he advised, “so then you have to mobilize.”


Pahara Institute Founder and CEO Kim Smith opened the Yale meeting with the admonition that our society needs to specify who we are talking about empowering – and attend to the central issues, like poverty and the sustainability of strong teachers.


Later, Executive Vice President Derrell Bradford of 50can closed the Yale conference with the statement that the failures to serve children, whether by policy, politics, or partisanship, are a national disgrace.


A common point of emphasis throughout the conference sessions concerned the seismic clash between disempowerment through systemic racism, and ineffectual (vague, verbose, and gone-with-the-wind) statements about empowerment.  The point was, it’s not enough to look good on paper.  Related points regarding the benefits of community organizing included these:


  • CT State Board of Education Member Erik Clemons bemoaned the fact that, as an African American, his “face” is desired at the table – but not necessarily his voice. Those in power need to consider relinquishing some of their comfort so that those who are most vulnerable have some hope, he reflected.  By way of listening, he added, “You need to ask the people who are suffering what they
  • Families and other stakeholders deserve a clear reading of what their city and districts will do budget-wise, school by school, so that they can be empowered. Otherwise, even public officials will both be confused as to what to do … and have no meaningful seat at the table to find out.
  • As CEO Smith put it, binary thinking (‘I’m right, you’re wrong’, etc.) doesn’t work.   Be open-minded enough to consider both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son about American racism and its lack of resolution … and the J.D. Vance Hillbilly Elegy concerning the mortality rates of rural whites.
  • Pastor McCullough, among others, also argued for broad confrontation of issues: jobs, housing, minimum wage, quality of life. “Schools are a huge driver of where people want to live,” he said, but they alone cannot solve society’s problems.  In 90-minute lunches informing stakeholders – including 30 church leaders, he said, he has been able to build relationships and forge activism.

Here is our previous article about the Yale conference deliberations; our series will continue with an examination of how incomprehensible budgets are disempowering.