How Can School Governance Be a Model for Democracy?
By Eve L. Ewing and Jonathan Collins
Crown Family School Assistant Professor Eve L. Ewing and her guest, Jonathan Collins, Assistant Professor of Education and International and Public Affairs at Brown University, discuss public meetings and how we can reshape democratic spaces. They specifically discuss school board meetings, and how these can become more accessible and empowering for all people in a democracy.
We'd like to thank Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music and the College, who composed the music.
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Announcer: Welcome to the UChicago Crown Family School Podcast, presented by the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. In this episode, Crown Family School Assistant Professor Eve L. Ewing discusses public meetings and how to shape democratic spaces, and specifically how school board meetings can become more accessible and empowering for all people in a democracy with Jonathan Collins, Assistant Professor of Education and International and Public Affairs at Brown University.
Eve: Hi, this is Eve Ewing. I’m a professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago, and I’m so excited to be on our podcast today. A little bit about me. I’m a qualitative sociologist of education. And today I’m really excited to be in conversation with Jonathan Collins to talk about public meetings and how we can reshape democratic spaces, specifically how school board meetings can become more accessible and empowering for all people in a democracy.
Jonathan Collins is a professor of education at Brown University where he also holds courtesy appointments in political science and international and public affairs, and his research examines how democratic processes can improve educational experiences of students in low income and minoritized communities. And his research also examines the ways in which people of color, especially Black people, engage with American democracy. Dr. Collins, how are you?
Jonathan: I’m doing well, Professor Ewing. It’s an incredible honor to be here with you.
Eve: Oh, great. Tell me something exciting that’s happening to you this week.
Jonathan: [Laughs.] So actually today I was just in a middle school in the Providence area that I’ve been doing some field research. This is our second year. One of my new kind of democratic innovation initiative projects has gotten off of the ground, and so we were in the middle school today trying to get students excited about having direct say over how like some additional kind of supplemental funding is gonna be spent in the school. So they’re talking about how the food sucks, and oh, we need to straighten up the bathrooms, and really getting into kind of being involved in a democratic process, so it was exciting.
Eve: Well, that’s a kind of cool, basically a capsule of your research that we’re gonna dig into, is exactly that question, the intersection of how we think about how young people can participate in democratic processes and how democratic processes can support young people.
But before we get to that, I want to start off with just a little bit of like personal background. How did you get interested in your area of research?
Jonathan: Well, there are kind of two pathways. There’s the school part and then there’s the board meeting part. And so the school part comes from my own educational experience. I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. It’s a small city outside of Memphis. And pretty racially divided town. And before I started high school I essentially experienced school re-segregation. So there were these two schools that were segregated during the Jim Crow era. They built a bridge connecting the schools—
Eve: A literal bridge? A literal bridge.
Jonathan: Yeah, a literal bridge.
Jonathan: Connecting these two schools together. And then my parents went to the integrated school. And then before I started high school they separated the two schools again.
Jonathan: One became an all honors AP academic magnet school and then the other was the traditional public school. All the Black kids went to the traditional public, the white kids went to the magnet, and then here we go. And so over the course of my high school experience, my high school, I went to the traditional school, it got…it got Blacker and Blacker, and by the time I graduated it was about like 90% Black. And you look across the street and it’s all white kids. And the cultures were extremely different.
And what really mattered was the investment from the district, and how the district treated us. The policies that were imposed on us were radically different. And so I think that was kind of my introduction to education politics from just seeing how a school district can treat a school when the kids are Black versus when they’re white. The board meeting part came from being a graduate student.
And I got interested in local politics. My then girlfriend, now wife, we were living in an apartment, and somebody broke into her car. And we had to figure out something to do about that. But I didn’t want to call the cops because we had a homeless problem in the area, so I knew getting the cops involved had a particular kind of pathway involved.
Eve: Like just criminalizing un-housed people who lived in your community.
Jonathan: Exactly. And I didn’t really want to get down with that, but I wanted to do something, so I started going to some of the neighborhood council meetings. They had like a safety committee, and like a planning and development committee and all that stuff. So I wanted to see what people were saying, politically, around this kind of stuff. So I started going to meetings, and then I eventually went for a seat on the board. And then I finally sat on the board and for the first like six months I’m—now keep in mind I’m a whole doctoral student. I’ve taken doctoral level courses on urban politics and local politics, I’ve read the literature on local government and how local and state government works, I’ve presented at conferences—
Eve: And where was this at the time? Where were you?
Jonathan: I went to UCLA.
And so I’m going to the community meeting, to the regular council meetings, and eventually decide to run for a seat, and then I sit on the board, and for like the first six months I don’t say anything.
Jonathan: And it’s not because I don’t have any ideas. It’s just I don’t know parliamentary procedure.
Jonathan: I didn’t know Robert’s Rules of Order, I didn’t know the acronyms, the language. It felt like I was completely isolated. And again, as someone trying to study this at a graduate level—
Eve: Right, you were like wait a minute, I’m supposed to be something of an expert here, but I actually don’t even know how to participate in this process.
Jonathan: At all. Completely clueless. So I had to go back, read the Robert’s Rules of Order book, read more about parliamentary procedure, spend time talking to the committee’s parliamentarian to just get a sense of how to even make a motion to get involved in conversations. And then from there I realized like okay, there’s a lot of discretion that you hold when you sit on a board and you know how these rules work. But then again the people who were actually coming to the meetings and speaking out, they were usually just the people who also had this understanding of how the rules worked—
Jonathan: I was like well, why don’t we change the structure of these things? And so for me I started developing projects around well, what happens if we move away from this process, if we structure it differently, if we make it more participatory, if we have… you read the original language and it’s supposed to be about public deliberation. This is why you—
Jonathan: —we come together and you have these conversations, and it’s open, and it’s collaborative, and it’s public. Well, when you come to an actual meeting, it’s esoteric language, acronyms, and parliamentary procedure. That’s not the democratic ideal to me. And so like—
Jonathan: —what can we do to get us there?
Eve: It’s so interesting that you share that because it sounds like you experienced something that probably a lot of people experience in different ways. You were directly affected by an issue, you wanted to, participate in the supposedly democratic process, to make decisions around that issue. You had at least two forms of expertise. You had the technical expertise from your doctoral studies in kind of urban policy and you had lived expertise from someone who, actually your partner’s car being broken into. And yet this…the structure itself was a barrier to your participation.
And there are probably so many people who experience that in different types of ways, even though you yourself were bringing, to a certain extent, quite a bit of privilege to the situation. People who don’t necessarily have those privileges, who themselves, the thing that is supposed to facilitate participation is actually becoming a barrier to participation. So that’s…that’s really powerful. Now did you—it’s fascinating to me that you experienced this thing and your next step was like I’m gonna run for the seat, 'cause not everyone thinks that way. Were you involved in, like, student government and things like that when you were a kid?
Jonathan: No. And my family was not political at all. It was weird getting to college and having friends who would talk about “we would talk about politics at the dinner table.” That was not the—
Eve: I [wasn’t] too.
Jonathan: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s crazy. Like I remember…I remember in high school my—my parents didn’t talk about politics at all, and our social studies teacher, she wanted to get us talking about politics a little bit, so she put up a bulletin board of “these are going to be the presidential nominees for the 2008 election.” It was like Hillary Clinton and…what’s the guy with—I’m trying to think of his—
Eve: Not Barack Obama.
Jonathan: No. There was no Barack Obama on the list at all.
Eve: Oh, okay.
Jonathan: There was literally no Barack Obama on the list at all. This was like 2007.
Jonathan: So I didn’t even hear about Obama until I went to college and when he came…he gave a speech at downtown Atlanta, and some kid came in and was like, “Hey, I just heard this dude Barack Obama speak, and I’m telling you, he’s gonna be like the next president.” I’m just thinking like, but he sounds like a Black dude.
Eve: Right. [Laughs.]
Jonathan: So I don’t know what you’re talking about. But anyways, I’m going down an aside here, but no, like not—no political family whatsoever.
Jonathan: —I think I started to realize…I started having questions with kids who were from places where they, their family, they had family members who were in politics and involved in politics, and they had been kind of thinking about this and asking questions about it, and of course reading things.
And so I remember reading whether it was “Dreams of My Father,” and Obama’s whole like journey into thinking about politics, or reading stuff from like Stokely Carmichael, and how he was thinking about Black radical politics. It was just—people, I think people thought Stokely was really just talking about his whole politics was all about creating this kind of national campaign, but he actually did a lot for local politics. He wrote a lot, very deeply about civil society and changing the dynamics in communities. And so when I started reading about how intentional people were, it changed the way I looked at the city I grew up in. I was like oh, maybe a lot of this stuff is by design.
Eve: Right, so maybe it’s not an accident, actually.
Jonathan: Like oh, this is why they built baseball fields instead of basketball courts.
Jonathan: And started to ban 15-year-olds from walking at the mall during certain times on the weekends. Like oh, these things are by design. There’s a particular thing happening at work. This is why they separate these schools that were desegregated—
Eve: Right, right.
Jonathan: —during the Jim Crow era.
Eve: Right. What’s really powerful about that is it sounds like it gave you a new lens to look back at your own experiences and see them differently, and as you said, to understand how they were by design and not incidental. And so my early interest in education policy came from those experiences of living and seeing educational inequality all around you.
I went to a high school that was a brand new high school in the city of Chicago that had cost millions and millions of dollars to build, and we had an Olympic size swimming pool, and we had a brand new theatre, and brand new gym and all those things, and my brother --same household, same family, he went to a different high school with more students of color, and closer to our neighborhood, right, closer to where we actually lived, where he didn’t feel safe at school.
Where sometimes there were chains on the bathroom door like it was “Lean on Me,” right? It was not a safe or supportive environment. And…and whereas for me, to access the educational opportunities that I was able to be exposed to I had to travel, first an hour, and then my family moved further away, and then subsequently like 90 minutes or almost two hours sometimes to get to school on public transportation. And so it’s interesting how so many of us have those early experiences.
And for those who are listening to this on audio, they can’t see that you have on the Morehouse hoodie, and so, I was wondering also how that informed your kind of political development in not only an HBCU, but specifically a historically Black men’s college and how that of shaped your political development.
Jonathan: It was huge because Morehouse was a very transformational experience for me. I described my high school, and it sounds very similar to your brother’s high school experience. I mean, I remember we had this big riot on campus, and they rushed half the city’s police force onto the campus to break up fights, and, I mean, my first day my freshman year in the gym there were like four or five fights. And I just felt like…and I just felt like this was a school where they had just doubled down on policing and control.
Jonathan: And what do you do when kids are sent that signal that they’re here to be controlled?
Eve: Right, right.
Jonathan: They’re gonna resist that. But Morehouse was different in this way where, like, just the culture and the expectations that students had for themselves It was just different being in this environment where Black men, these Black men were so focused on a particular kind of achievement.
And…and it was being a part of this legacy. And we had something we wanted to attach ourselves to versus my high school, the way that they depicted us, the way that they created this narrative around us, you almost want to disassociate yourself. It’s a legacy you don’t want to be a part of. Morehouse was a—
Eve: Right, right.
Jonathan: the legacy I wanted to be attached to. I wanted to—we had this saying: You want to grow tall enough to wear the crown that Lady Morehouse holds above your head. And so—[laughs]—yeah, it’s like that. That was like really, really, like cool to me. I’d never felt anything like that before.
And a part of it was not only, being sharp academically, but it was being involved in your community. So, I was working in schools pretty much every year. I worked in a middle school, I worked in a high school, I worked in an alternative school.
And, we were constantly on this quest to figure out how we could take our training in the classroom and use that to=improve our society. It was like an obligation. It wasn’t a hobby. And—
Jonathan: —I definitely wanted to carry that with me. And I don’t think I would have gotten that if I had gone somewhere else.
Eve: I think that that’s really meaningful because the word that you used when you talked about your school, your high school, is that word of control. —I teach a class called Race in American Public Schools, and I think something that I want to instill into my students right away is to understand how much of the history of public schooling in the United States is about exacting control, exerting control.
Eve: Specifically, over Black students as well as Native students, as well as other students of color. And it sounds really moving to me that once you were able to move into this kind of affirming Black space that you were able to see yourself as an intellectual, as a creative force, as a political force, and not just seen in this environmental, or educational context as somebody to be controlled, right, to be curtailed.
I also want to know, for people who can’t see you, that you’re talking about your school was re-segregated. Professor Collins is not an elderly man, okay?
Eve: So we’re talking about like maybe 2007, 2006, right—
Eve: —that you’re in high school, so this is…this is thoroughly in the 21st century, I want our listeners to know. But right now some of the research that you’re doing, \is really trying to emulate that, a similar transformation in mindset and experiences for some of the young people you’re working with. So you’re doing a project right now called Democracy Speaks. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that.
Jonathan: Democracy Speaks is this book project that essentially encapsulates all the work that I’ve been trying to do for the last few years, and it’s a combination of some survey experimental work, like just pulling small levers to see, how these seemingly small nudges towards a more participatory democracy and towards a local school board that really champions public deliberation, how useful people feel, especially targeting people of color.
And so, I came into the democratic theory space and this democratic innovation space with empirical literature around it a little bit, I wouldn’t say dissatisfied, but, it just kind of seemed like wow, like this local democracy stuff is great, but it just seems like it only works for white people.
Jonathan: I would be reading like Bob Putnam’s work on social capital, and it’s great. It’s like people building—
Eve: “Bowling Alone” is the classic book that people may be familiar with from him, Robert Putnam.
Jonathan: Right. And it’s all about, “Well, there used to be this golden era where people were borrowing eggs and milk from the neighbors,” and building strong civic ties from that, and using that to have this kind of civic infrastructure that probably surpasses the infrastructure that government provides, and that was becoming this kind of strong link between active participation at the civic level, but transferring to political participation. And so, it’s this kind of grand old American story that you just never hear told in Black communities.
Jonathan: And I think there are reasons.…I think about your work, where you’re really having to show us how these institutions have been so, so, so proactive in almost kind of undercutting the capacity for civil society to develop and strengthen, and how you still see beautiful elements of civil society develop in Black communities despite—
Eve: Right. In spite of. Right, despite. Right.
Jonathan: But you’re showing us that it’s possible. And so, I want to know what does it have to look like for an institution to really be committed to creating, or really being all in on democratic innovation and community where people are Black or Brown. And so I do a lot of over sampling in my surveys to try to see what happens, to see if there are racial differences. But then I also look at some case studies to see, how urban cities have actually used public dialogue to work through some big policy reforms that actually advance the educational experiences of Black and Brown kids.
Eve: So why do public meetings matter so much for democracy? I mean, especially in a digitized world where people might say oh, you know, maybe online discourse replaces some of what public meetings used to accomplish. Or maybe online discourse is so toxic that people actually have very little desire to engage with one another in public meetings. But, make a case, on why public meetings are so important.
Jonathan: Oh, public meetings are…they are these things that hide in plain sight, and they’re, and just purely in theory very, very, very accessible. And they provide this opportunity. Look, what if democracy is about accountability and responsiveness, right? Leaders responding to the preferences and the demands of the public. What part of governmental society helps us do that better than a public meeting? You know, an election, this is representation based, so you’ve got to run a campaign—
Jonathan: —you’ve got to get people who share your ideology, and then you’ve got to vote based off of your preferences. And then you look at, the difference between, you know, a school board and Congress, for instance. I’ve never been to the capital.
Jonathan: I’m never seen members of Congress deliberate over a policy. And I’m someone who, I track actual bills. I track—
Eve: Right, right. You’re a wonk. You care about this stuff. But you don’t get to see it in person.
Jonathan: Never seen it in person, never see it in action. And you meet a member of Congress, do you actually get to have this kind of back and forth conversation about a specific policy?
Eve: Right. Rarely.
Jonathan: But with a school board meeting people can show up and they can at least try to force the issue. They sign up for public comment and they can address their concerns, and depending—and what I try to argue in the book, too, is, those board members can use their own discretion to engage with people in kind of serious ways. I’ve been studying this one district in Southern California. I built—this is one of the districts I built this survey experiment around. And they just decided that they were gonna embed into the structure of their meetings response to public comment.
So, every time people come and give public comment, immediately after the board and the superintendent, they produce this kind of aggregate response. And it’s simple. It doesn’t solve all the problems, but at least it allows people to feel like they can come and be heard, and it creates this opportunity for discourse. And then the big thing here is that I think it allows us to solve some of the idiosyncratic problems.
Jonathan: So there’s all this conversation about, mask mandates, CRT, but the district I’m studying, they had a lot of students show up at one meeting because there was this dress code that was unfair. So this is Southern California, and they decided to ban tank tops.
Eve: Oh, no! [Laughs.]
Jonathan: Who does that affect more?
Eve: Right, right.
Jonathan: So you had female students showing up saying look, this is Southern California and tank tops are a pretty consistent, steady part of our wardrobe.
Eve: Necessary…necessary part of life to be…to be comfortable, to be physically comfortable at school.
Jonathan: What else are you going to wear? You know?
Jonathan: And so they even had male friends come and give similar testimonies about how like this is clearly a gender specific, a gender targeted, and a gender biased, policy. And then you’d get a school board member talking about how this person used to have long hair in high school, and wear heavy metal t-shirts, and if this person was being judged by the kind of clothing that they were wearing when they were a student …you would have looked at them very differently as well. And so it was something—
Eve: Mmm, mm-hmm.
Jonathan: —that kind of helped to move things along. But we can’t solve—and this is just a low level problem.
Eve: Right, right.
Jonathan: There are some high level, non-ideological problems, like what do we do when kids are reading at like a third grade level and they’re in high school? We need to have a discourse around what are the obstacles to student learning here.
Jonathan: Like what can we do to better support you. And school board meetings were not having those conversations because people are having conversations about these other things that often have nothing to do with the educational experience, especially for the kids that have the most at stake.
Jonathan: But school board meetings could be these spaces. Like they could be these spaces where people actually saw some of these complex problems, because they’re not that complex.
Eve: Right, right.
Jonathan: They just need conversation and dialogue.
Eve: And conversation and dialogue at a local level held by the people who are most implicated by, or, who are most affected by the policies at hand.
Eve: You know, if there are any aspiring researchers listening, I think that oftentimes when you are a researcher it’s really tempting to just be reactive to what’s popular.
And you and I have something in common, which is that both of us started researching something that was really important to us, that we were passionate about, that other people didn’t necessarily get, and then it turns out we were a little bit ahead of the times, right? So for me it was school closures, which turned out to be a huge issue, and for you it’s school board meetings. And so, now they’ve been thrust in the headlines across the country. School board meetings have become very contentious, very chaotic. And we know that sometimes the headlines don’t capture everything. You know, there used to be this show on MTV called “MTV Diary,” and it would be like a day in the life of a—do you remember this show?
Jonathan: Roll back.
Eve: Yes, right. I took it way back. It would be like the day in the life of a celebrity, so like the day in the life of Alicia Keys or Destiny’s Child. And at the beginning of the show the celebrity would go, “You think you know—
Jonathan: But you have no idea. [Laughs.]
Eve: —but you have no idea.” [Laughs.] So I want to hear, for people who are just following the headlines about school boards, what are they wrong about? What are they missing? What are we missing in the media? Give us, the, you think you know, but you have no idea about school board meetings that maybe the narrative is missing right now. Take us a little deeper.
Jonathan: I think what we’re seeing now, the discussion around school board meetings, we see a lot of the…the theatre, and a lot of that theatre is around like hatred and disagreement. And it’s really aiming one way. It’s like you have these white suburban conservatives that are showing up at meetings and hijacking them, and there’s physical fights, and there all these kind of things happening that the media is picking up. But what you’re not picking up is the…the counter to the counter. I was watching—‘cause this is what I do sometimes. I just watch recordings of these meetings.
I’m watching this one meeting and this student gets up—it’s a Black girl—who gives one of the most emotionally moving speeches I’ve ever heard, and she’s talking about why the school should ban a series of books because of the teacher’s use of the N word in class—
Jonathan: —creating this kind of environment that sent that message to other students that it was okay. And so, if you weren’t even persuaded by the kind of larger discussion on the issue, the way that she was able to sort of break it down I felt like was, this is the kind of thing we should be talking about more, like how some of these students are using these meetings as spaces to make really, really thoughtful and compelling arguments for the policy direction that their school districts should take.
And, we think about how this generation is so much better than ours, and I think you can find evidence in school board meetings that that is the case. They’re showing up, they’re voicing concerns about whether it’s resistance to book bans, support for critical race theory in the teaching of institutional racism. We always hear about the backlash. And being thoughtful about how the push to remove mask mandates puts not only the students themselves, the individual students at risk, but their peers, and their teachers, and the staff, and the people that they care about and they love.
And so I think…you think that you’re gonna just see vitriol and madness when you look at a school board meeting, but I think you’ll also see this level of kind of intellectualism and this level of expression that we can all learn from.
And I think you’ll also see this level of mundane discourse that shows you that a lot of things that we’re seeing in the media is also just completely overblown. I mean, there are these moments where there is this eloquence and this beauty, and then there are also these moments where there are these weird, quirky—
Jonathan: Boring, watching paint dry. I was watching this meeting once, and this guy shows up to the meeting to give public comment because he wanted to complain about the hours of operation for the middle school tennis court.
Jonathan: It kind of—
Eve: But hey, that’s his issue. That’s local democracy at work.
Eve: That is his niche issue, man. I mean…
Jonathan: Yeah, I’m gonna need these nets up.
Jonathan: I need this gate unlocked past 4:00.
Jonathan: ‘Cause I’m trying to work on my backhand.
Eve: Right, it’s not even…it’s not even like an educational—but this goes to the core of I think a place where both of our research intersects, which is that’s not an educational issue, but it is, right, because schools represent more than schools within communities. So for this person this is like his recreational access.
I really am compelled by what you’re saying about the student testimony. I think about a big issue with our school board here was, as is happening across the country, a big, big question about whether we want to have security resource officers, SROs, in schools, right, or police in schools.
Eve: And something that’s very powerful is that a lot of students were testifying about the ways that police in their schools made them feel unsafe, and it was really important because everybody else, all the adults in the meeting were talking about student safety as kind of like a cudgel, an abstract concept that they could wield against each other—well, you don’t care about student safety, you don’t care about student safety.
And then the students actually got to speak up and be like hey, can I share my narrative. I’m an actual human being. I’m right here to speak for myself. And, you know, oftentimes in our culture when we talk about democracy a lot of what we hear is vote, vote, vote, don’t boo, vote. And to me when I hear that I always think, what about young people, what about undocumented people, what about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, right?
And so it’s really important also to think about meetings as a place where those who perhaps do not have formal opportunities to shape policy get this other way of speaking up. But be that as it may, I think a lot of people, when they think about meetings, they think of either the “Parks & Rec” vision of a meeting where, like, a few people, or the guy who shows up and it’s, you know, it’s very boring, a guy shows up and complains about the tennis court thing. Or the opposite scenario.
In my research I write about meetings where people are actually discussing something incredibly important, but they get the sense that a decision has already been made and that their comments actually don’t matter. And earlier you mentioned that, part of your research is figuring out what are the nudges, to use your term, that can just make meetings better. So help us. How can we have better public meetings, based on your research findings? What can we do?
Jonathan: Well, I think the response to public comment that I mentioned earlier, that I’ve been studying in this one district, is really useful. And I’ve been trying to encourage as many district leaders as possible to just implement this simple reform. Just provide a portion of your meeting that’s dedicated strictly to just responding to public comment. And what I’ve been also literally experimenting with is the, the restructure of a meeting to allow for what we call in the democracy innovation space many publics.
And so why just have a meeting in this traditional meeting space where people sit in an audience and then the board members are upfront? Like, let’s have tables where we can put people in small groups, and they can have a small group discussion that then feeds into, the larger agenda that is discussed during the actual meeting. So there’s this.
There’s the use of committee meetings also in more generative ways, and just actually recording those meetings and making those more publicly available and transparent. Randomizing the selection of who gets to serve on a committee as opposed to only selecting people who honestly tend to be aligned politically with the people who serve in certain positions. Increasing student voice. You see some school boards will have a student representative on the board, or maybe two, and they’re typically non-voting. So actually creating spaces for students to be on committees and boards, and then serve in a voting capacity.
Relocating meetings. This was also a somewhat popular innovation strategy that I noticed from my dissertation research, was some boards would actually relocate their meetings to different spaces, whether it’s like the city hall, 'cause it’s a bigger space and more centrally located. Some boards would go and have meetings at actual individual schools, and so it would be more accessible to students and also to parents, especially if they had the meetings right after school, so kids are there, but then you also have parents who can maybe get around the working hour schedule. Having meetings at night, 'cause so many of the urban school districts, like—
Eve: That’s a huge one.
Jonathan: Why do you have a meeting at 11:00 a.m.?
Eve: No, that’s Chicago. We have our meetings weekday, weekday mornings at, right, like just the absolute middle of the workday. Weekday mornings at like 10:00 a.m., you know, early in the day. And then also to sign up for public comment there’s…it…the signup for public comment releases on a certain day several days before, and you have to—like I remember, , setting my alarm to sit there with my finger hovering over the mouse to be the first one to sign up, for public comment. So that’s a huge one, just having meetings at night.
Jonathan: Yeah. And then I think something that comes really from your work is when you have special meetings around things like school closures, don’t have just one single one-off meeting that determines the fate of a school. There needs to be an entire series, a longer process that has malleability to it, real voice distributed, real power distributed, real estate distributed. And then, opportunity to have control over real resources. And so—
Jonathan: —I’ve been doing work on participatory budgeting initiatives and thinking about and conceptualizing this idea of what I’m calling participatory redistribution.
And it’s this notion of actually saying okay, we want to have governments facilitate this redistribution of funds. But we see this happen so consistently in education particularly, because most states have gone through some sort of school finance reform to now where you’ll look and you’ll see that your urban districts are usually spending just as much if not more per pupil than some of your suburban districts. And obviously it’s a point of contention—
Eve: And people don’t realize that, I think. A lot of people don’t know that that’s a case.
Jonathan: No. I get students who, the first thing that they want to do is talk about like school finance reform and inequality in property taxes. And I’m like well, that’s not the case everywhere anymore. You’ll see, the more you dig into it, it’s really state by state, and a lot of states do have these somewhat progressive funding reform structures in place. And so the money is being kind of redistributed, in a way, but there’s no element of empowerment that’s happening at the point of redistribution.
And so how can we think about ways to use that as opportunity for engagement, empowerment, and really having folks who look like you and me at the forefront of determining the use of resources.
Eve: Yeah, that’s really powerful. And I think you’re bringing up a point, which is it’s not just about the resources that are there, but who has a hand in deciding how resources are allocated.
Eve: And also the uncomfortable thing behind some of what you’re saying is I think sometimes people who are in charge of these processes are not genuinely comfortable with the idea of distributed power. And so some of your nudges are nudges, and some of your nudges are actually pretty big, right, and would actually require people to think differently about who has expertise in schools, who gets to decide what a good school is and what a good school isn’t, and how that should be assessed, and who gets to set the agenda for the way a district should go. So I think that’s really powerful, and I think that it’s an opportunity for schools to be places where we model the way democracy can work, right, as opposed to being the absolute worst undemocratic spaces.
My last two questions are much easier and more chill, but thank you for taking us into a little bit of a deep dive into your work. The first thing is that if people really want to learn more and think more about the themes that inform your work, where can they go? Obviously you are working on your book right now. We’re very excited. Hoping that you’ll finish it. We should look for it on bookshelves soon. Is the title gonna be “Democracy Speaks,” do you think?
Jonathan: It is. As of now the title is going to be “Democracy Speaks.” Hoping to have it on bookshelves within the next year fingers, yes, fingers—
Eve: Yeah, I’m crossing my fingers and crossing my toes. So everybody needs to look out for that. But other than your own work, which we should look for—and I’ll do an unapologetic plug for my book, since you brought it up, which is about school closures, and a lot of it is about meetings. If you want to read a lot of depressing transcripts of school closure meetings, you can read them in my book, which is called “Ghosts in the Schoolyard.” But other than those, tell us a little bit more about where we can go to learn about the themes that inform your work.
Jonathan: Sure. So I have my own research initiative that I’ve started at Brown called Paved Research, P-A-V-E-D, like a paved road. And this is where…this is kind of a one stop shop link to all my projects, so you can read more about the Democracy Speaks project, you can read more about the Community Decides project, which is what I was talking about at the very beginning, heading into middle schools, and some of the school board innovation projects that we’re working on, too, trying to do national surveys of school board members, trying to do focus groups with school board leaders to figure out like some of the strategies that they’re pursuing to be more discursive, more participatory, especially in districts that are serving low-income minoritized folks. So yeah, pavedresearch.com is the website link. There’s also my personal website, jonathanecollins.com.
And I’m open to just ideas, too. If there’s like something cool that you would like to see us take on as a project or explore, some interesting question you have about work that my team and I are doing, love to hear your suggestions.
Eve: That’s great. And it’s Collins with two Ls, so people should check that out. And lastly, what is next for you and your work? What are you excited about right now in terms of new directions?
Jonathan: Well, I think the thing that I’m excited the most about is just being able to scale up. I want to make sure that I’m precise, operating at different levels. What I’m really excited about is my work coming together that’s happening at multiple levels, because the Democracy Speaks project is more so about how we can think more critically about engagement at school board meetings, at the district level.
The Community Decides project is more so about innovating at the school level, the individual school level. And then I’m a part of this project called Connecting Classrooms to Congress, which is more so about within the classroom level -- how can we use deliberations between students and their member of Congress to increase civics education.
And so I’m excited about kind of pulling it all together and being able to offer something coherent about how democracy can be useful, the classroom level, at the school level, and nationally, and really, again, push back against this narrative that, I think the key to a functioning multiracial society is thinking about democratic innovation, particularly in spaces where you have lots of Black and Brown folks. If we really want to get this thing rolling the way it needs to roll, I think that’s the missing piece to the puzzle.
Eve: Yeah, that’s so cool. I was thinking that we just need you to come give like a workshop to the Chicago Public School board because I think that everything you’re talking about is what I always wanted to be the takeaway from “Ghosts in the Schoolyard,” which is our city is very undemocratic and—we don’t even have an elected school board. We have an appointed school board. Our city is very undemocratic, and how can we use schools as the places to practice democracy.
And I feel you have some of the answers of how that happens, so we’ll have to keep thinking. I know this won’t be our last conversation—but I hope we can talk again soon.
Well, thank you so much. I am really inspired by your work, grateful for your work, and I appreciate that you are asking tough questions to help us think critically about what it really looks like to shape truly democratic spaces at all levels, and how to model, walk the walk and talk the talk in terms of really showing young people and adults what democracy looks like in schools. So thank you so much. I’m Eve Ewing. I’m a professor at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, and I’m so grateful that I got to speak with Brown University’s Jonathan Collins today. Jonathan, thank you so much.
Jonathan: Thank you, Dr. Ewing. This was a pleasure.
Announcer: The Crown Family School thanks Eve Ewing and Jonathan Collins for this conversation and Augusta Read Thomas, UChicago University Professor in the Department of Music, who composed the music. If you would like to learn more about the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, please visit us at crownschool dot uchicago dot e-d-u.
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