Sunday, 30 November 2014

United we stand - Rosa Parks and communities of practice

When my friend @kaysoclearn asked me to write a piece for 'Lost Women', I immediately wondered what Rosa Parks had been like as a teacher.  In recent years, she has been rehabilitated as a powerful and intentional civil rights activist - something she's always been for black communities, whilst white commentators were rewriting her direct action as that of a tired old lady.  In fact, Rosa was 42 when she wouldn't stand up on the bus, not 'tired' but 'tired of standing up'.  Such is the racism of historical narrative.
We know about Rosa as a student.  Both before and after the bus protest, she went on courses at The Highlander Centre in Tennessee, an organisation which still exists and thrives to this day, though government bullying during the McCarthy years and beyond ensured that it never transmitted itself physically into branches outside Tennessee.  Have a look at the '21st Century Highlander' booklet on The Highlander Center website when you need an infusion of hope.  The photograph shows Rosa in 1957 with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, the singer and activist Pete Seeger and Charis, the daughter of Myles Horton, one of the Center's founders.  When I see that photograph I think as a mother: despite all the challenges faced in those times, what a wonderful place for that child to grow up. 

After 1955 Rosa herself was submitted to a public scrutiny she often found unbearable and at times she publicly regretted her act of protest, though she never gave up her work for equality.  Although her biographer Jeanne Theoharis refutes the liberal view of Rosa as 'gentle' (and consequently an unthreatening and upstanding symbol of revolt), it seems certain that, although strong-willed, Rosa was no extrovert.  Reflecting on her quiet potential for world-changing action resonates with much current thinking around leadership, inspired by Susan Cain and others:  the power of introverts and of distributed leadership that powers from the middle ground.  Whilst the public oratory of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X was also crucial in the struggle against oppression, Rosa's standfast action holds its own, giving hope to those of us who believe in a model of education which isn't just about the 'heroic' model of teaching. Rosa's action was intentional; in her social relations, her study at Highlander and her involvement with The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) she prepared herself to take the opportunity when it arose.  And she must have known that she could present an eminently respectable front to the struggle, having been aware of a similar 'bus protest' by 15 year old Claudette Colvin nine months previously. As Colvin was a pregnant 'child', she was not considered to be a suitable poster girl, although she was one of four women to testify in the court case which brought an end to segregation on Alabama's buses (if not bus stops).  Colvin later talked about feeling disappointed by this ("Like having my Christmas in January"), though not angry; she recognised the pragmatism of the decision.

So what can we learn about teaching from Rosa, who quite possibly never wrote a session plan in her life?  Firstly, that education was her means of strengthening courage, so that when the "equality gift" came along, she could seize the moment.  Long before Highlander, Rosa had taken every opportunity of education that came her way, however disrupted.  Her own autobiography (written for children) gives the impression of a thoughtful woman, who observed what was happening around her:  the casual racism of even the admired Miss White of Miss White's School for Girls, the sexism endemic wherever she lived and worked (including the NAACP), the structural separation of society into 'white world' and 'black world'. The model of education she encountered at Highlander was only one experience of many which fed her thinking.  Myles Horton saw the job of Highlander as "multiply(ing) leadership for radical social change" (Chang, 2013 p.712) and Rosa's leadership was honed by all her experiences.  

In today's UK teachers are subject to many kinds of CPD, including Initial Teacher Training, pathetically little of which actively promotes critical thinking, though it pays lip-service to 'criticality'.  Lower level Awarding Body qualifications dumb teaching down a little further with each iteration; University programmes struggle to see beyond the 'canon' of dead white male psychologists, writing in the 20th century.  Teacher training itself is constantly undermined by ideologies that see teaching as the 'delivery' of that knowledge which will transform learners into the means of economic production.  Is there any wonder that when 'equalities gifts' come along, most teachers don't feel confident to grasp them?  Education was a privilege in Rosa's early years; it is heartbreaking to see what it has sometimes become now it is a 'right'.

Secondly, although Rosa was very much alone when she took her stand, she was operating from a community of practice, which she knew would support and strengthen her.  Her husband, Raymond Parks, was also very much involved in the civil rights movement and, outside the long hours she worked as a seamstress, Rosa's life was centred around a community of activists with a common cause.  Rosa's own role in this community, before she became a figurehead of it, was as secretary of the local NAACP branch, and the only woman member.  She played a vital pioneering role amongst the sometimes greater belligerence of those around her; activist circles were not immune to misogyny though her battles in this arena are less publicly recorded.  

As teachers, we operate in classrooms which have a kind of intimacy and even loneliness when the door is closed; those of us who fight the sausage factory approach to education would be quickly exhausted if we didn't have our own communities of practice to draw on.  Rosa's act of courage brought much disadvantage to her and her family; she was sacked from her job after the bus protest and left Montgomery for Detroit in search of work once the court case was won.  But in later life the karma of her action sustained her financially and enabled her to develop a number of initiatives; she donated much of the money she earned from public speaking to the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation and other causes advancing the empowerment of young people.  Her friendship with neighbour Elaine Eason Steel led to the founding of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development in Detroit, which Ms Eason Steele runs to this day. 

Finally, Rosa's position as a leader of the civil rights movement is incontrovertible.  Modest she may have been, but she had a backbone of steel, having experienced oppression, discrimination and poverty to an extent that few people reading this can imagine.  From an early age, Rosa got herself organised.  It took her three attempts to be able to pass the voting test, despite her early experience of education but she did not quit.  In an age where people can mobilise themselves to queue for bargain TVs but not to exercise their democratic right of voting, Rosa's example is as powerful as it ever was.  As teachers, we are leaders too:  in the classroom (which does not mean being authoritarian) and - if we'll accept the challenge - within organisations which may well be moribund and subject to reactive leadership. Rosa is literally famous for standing up.  Maybe, as teachers, it is time to stand up too, instead of leaving it to others, for a pedagogy which is genuinely critical and transformational.

Lou Mycroft @TeachNorthern

Cain, Susan (2013) Quiet: the power of introverts in world that can't stop talking.  London.  Penguin.
Chang, Bo (2013) Education for Social Change:  Highlander education in the Appalachian Mountains and study circles in Sweden.  International journal of Lifelong Education.  32:6. 705-723.
Parks, Rosa (1992) Rosa Parks: My Story.  London.  Puffin.
Theoharis, Jeanne (2014) The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks.  Boston, US.  Beacon Press.


  1. Thanks for this Lou. It is fascinating and I learned a lot. The link to Pete Seeger made me think about one of my favourite songs 'The Manchester Rambler' about that great moment of critical activism, the Kinder Scout Trespass. Also, of course I am thinking about current activism in #Ferguson that I am witnessing on Twitter through @deray and @akacharleswade.
    I am even reflecting on the more minor acts of critical activism that I do myself- with a great variety of skill and success #nevertoooldtolearn

    1. Aagghh lost my reply!

      Researching Rosa was fascinating, I can totally recommend Jeanne Theoharis's book (and it was fortuitous for this blog that all the references are - not deliberately chosen but - written by women). I have 'The Manchester Rambler' in my head! And thanks for the #Ferguson follows.

      I truly believe that every critical action shifts the balance a little and no, we are #nevertooold to learn, change and revolt!