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COMM-ORG Papers 2006


Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice

By Jeannie Oakes & John Rogers with Martin Lipton

Available from Teachers College Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Jeff Pinzino

A group of students at Woodrow Wilson High School in southern California gather in a classroom to answer a question. "Why do students who look like us have such a hard time getting into college?" This is not a rhetorical question. They realize that their own college aspirations and maybe their classmates' depend on how precisely they can answer it. It's not the first time they've gotten together. The students have dedicated one of their school classes to answering that question for the last four years. They've talked to experts, read graduate-level theory, conducted research, and challenged each other to act on what they've learned. They're betting that a clear understanding of their condition will help them alter their destiny.

The students are learning to use one of the oldest and most powerful tools of social change: collective inquiry. They are part of a long line of groups throughout history who have used it -- from Socratic dialogues to religious orders to communist cells to freedom schools to feminist consciousness-raising groups, people across time and place have gathered around a question or an idea in small groups with hopes that knowledge can change the world.

The authors of Learning Power describe a number of rich examples of the transformative power of inquiry. They investigate the relationship between inquiry, organizing, and social change, an intersection that has been a blind spot for most mainstream organizing. The authors' integration of inquiry and organizing effortlessly moves against the grain of conventional organizing wisdom, which tends to see the two as competing strategies. The book puts into perspective the truism we all learned as schoolkids: knowledge is power.

The disdain that many organizers hold for inquiry belies their reliance on it in their work. Alinsky himself owes his methods to the University of Chicago School of Sociology as much as to John L. Lewis. What organizers tend to react against is the elitist element in academic thought, and this has often translated into anti-intellectualism on the part of organizers. In many cases, the reaction is justified, but as the book demonstrates, it need not preclude organizers from using inquiry as a tool for populist ends.

The authors do well in invoking the spirit of John Dewey. His legacy synthesizes the best in progressive education with the best in progressive democracy-building. For Dewey there is no contradiction between democracy and organizing, although the authors are right to point out that the state of the art of both has advanced since his writings.

Much of the strength of the book lies in good storytelling. Jeannie Oakes, John Rogers, and Martin Lipton, all of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA), are characters as well as authors, and each of the chapters share examples of their work in the field. In addition to the Futures project they helped facilitate with the Wilson high students described above, they tell of bringing together a group of justice-minded teachers called Teaching to Change Los Angeles. In one instance, the teachers used the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to engage their classes in a “public history project” to document ongoing segregation in L.A. area schools.

Even in the absence of organizing, the inquiry projects are imaginative and insightful. The Futures students participated in workshops with their parents to learn the unwritten rules of the college admissions game that most college-bound students learn from their parents at the kitchen table. They took summer seminars in the sociology of education for college credit. They had the IDEA research team hounding the school on their behalf to get them placed in A.P. courses. They presented original research to school administrators with recommendations to open up college prep opportunities for minority students, and they endured a backlash from parents of honors students who felt that broader access would water down the curriculum. As a reader, you want the students to succeed in changing the system, and feel the heartbreak when they don't. In the process, you get a sense of the real potential of inquiry, and it informs the later examples where inquiry is connected with organizing work.

After detailing the inquiry projects, the authors come to the conclusion that "exploring and understanding power were not the same as enacting power,” and thus begins their foray into education organizing. They share stories of Parent U-Turn, a group born of inquiry that began to flex its muscles in challenging changes to the school calendar. Another chapter features the state-level coalition work of the Educational Justice Collaborative, which was a factor in pushing California to settle a lawsuit ensuring greater educational equity throughout the state. In both of these cases, inquiry plays a much more prominent role than in traditional organizing campaigns, and the payoff is seen in more thoughtful, better prepared leaders who can talk about systemic inequality and have the data to back it up.

What misses with this book is inconsequential. The authors' prediction of a mass movement for education reform feels like wishful thinking, although I can only hope that history will prove me wrong. That any inquiry is framed to favor some conclusions and dismiss others is never directly considered, even though it's the slant of framed questions that makes inquiry a useful political tool. All in all, these are minor distractions from an otherwise compelling piece.

What's most memorable is the creativity with which the students, parents, and teachers described in the book are applying ideas to the world. They embody democracy in action: educated citizens claiming a voice in political life.

About the Reviewer: 

Jeff Pinzino has been a program officer at the Woods Fund of Chicago since 2002.  He manages grants in the program areas of Community Organizing and Public Policy Advocacy.  Jeff is vice-chair of the Chicago Capacity Building Initiative, a funders collaborative that aims to build the capacity of community organizing groups in the Chicago area.  Jeff also co-chairs the Community Building Task Force at the Donors Forum of Chicago.  Prior to working at the Woods Fund, Jeff worked as an organizer in Chicago neighborhoods for seven years, and has worked with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, and the Interfaith Youth Core.  Jeff was a founding member of the Stone Soup Cooperative. He can be contacted at