St. Louis Teach For America’s Brittany Packnett on Ferguson, the "belief gap," and the need for disruptive change that’s actually, well, disruptive.
EduShyster: I first heard about you last summer when I read something you wrote called Education Didn’t Save Mike Brown. I can’t help but wonder how that piece would have come across if someone else had written it—say, me.
Brittany Packnett: There is always an importance to the messenger, and maybe you’re right that I was able to get away with saying that as an African American and a native St. Louisan. I wrote that piece because I had a realization that this thing that I have dedicated my life to, and that so many people before me made their life’s work, was not enough to save Mike. That his diploma was not bulletproof. He was doing so many of the things we asked him to do—he persisted through high school and graduated, he was headed to a vocational program and making sure that he was doing something with his life to be a productive member of society. He wasn’t saved by those things. When I realized that, that was the moment when I understood that the role of those of us in the work of educational equity has to be greater than just what happens to kids in the classroom.
EduShyster: How much greater? I guess what I’m asking is how you raise big questions about structural inequality and racism without falling into the "belief gap."
Packnett: At the end of the day, we educate our kids in the context of their communities. If you’ve ever taught, you know that you can’t be a trusted teacher or an effective teacher if kids don’t believe you and don’t believe that you believe in them. Being honest with them about what’s happening in their communities, and being a willing and listening ear is a really important part of that. In Ferguson, that’s meant understanding that children are being affected by the context they’re in—not just because of Mike’s death but because of the protests that followed. You have so many young people who’ve said, "I finally need to go out there and make my voice heard." We’ve had seven police-involved shootings in St. Louis in the last seven months, which means that all around the city we’ve got students who know someone who was killed this way. When you have young people asking, "Am I next?" They carry that burden into the classroom, and if we pretend like that isn’t there, we can’t educate them effectively.
EduShyster: Your role as a leader of the protest movement in Ferguson hasn’t been without controversy because you’re also the executive director of St. Louis TFA. There’s been some pretty pointed criticism aimed in your direction, implying that TFA’s prominent role in the protests is somehow unfair and masks an agenda.
Packnett: If I’m honest with myself I can understand some of the distrust. I come from a long line of educators. Several of my aunts are educators, my mother is an educator, my father was an educator. So I understand how essential public education and justice in public education has been, not just in the American story but in the African American story. The perception that TFA is out here replacing really good people is coming from a place of desire to ensure that marginalized people don’t continue to lose the little bit that we worked so hard to win in the first place. So I think that the root of that fear is legitimate because there have been so many efforts throughout history to dismantle the gains that people of color have made in this country. But what I’ve come to realize about TFA is that we couldn’t be more serious about not being guilty of that. We don’t want what people say about us to be true, because we’re actually out in the world trying to make it a more equitable place. We can’t do that if we’re not equitable ourselves and if we’re not treating our communities equitably. That’s why I joined and that’s why I’m still here four and a half years later. It was my own set of values that got me out there in Ferguson on August 10 and pushed me to put my own feet next to young people who were sacrificing everything to make their voices heard. But the fact that TFA has consistently had my back is powerful. What I’ve seen in the past six months is a TFA that most people don’t believe exists—but I’m a living witness that it can and it does.
EduShyster: I’ve been critical of TFA for all kinds of reasons. But I would say that up near the top is what I view as the organization’s wholly inadequate theory of change, that you can do something about poverty without actually doing anything about poverty. But I keep hearing you talk about "disruptive change," which is, well, my kind of talk.
Packnett: The last 217 days in Ferguson have reinforced my belief that we can’t look at the world in an either/or way. We talk a lot about the necessity of systemic change, and that means operating in the halls of power, on task forces and commissions, and leveraging political power to push elected officials. But it means disruptive change because the kind of pressure that has come from the streets is what holds people accountable. If we were just protesting we wouldn’t be effective and if we were just working on policy we wouldn’t be effective. This moment of Ferguson has awakened so many people to injustices that exist right in their own backyard or right across town. So we hear a lot of our supporters saying that they got involved in education work because they knew that there was educational injustice, but that they weren’t aware of how pervasive injustice was across their community. It’s been an awakening, frankly, and they recognize that there is a way forward that can only involve good works from all kinds of people in every part of this city, and good intentions from people in every part of this city. I’ve actually seen quite a bit of discovery and understanding come from all of this.
EduShyster: After the shootings of police officers during a recent protest, there were calls to wrap things up on the ground. What’s your take on what happens next in Ferguson?
Packnett: I think that you’re going to continue to see that combination of disruptive change and systemic change. I think about somebody like my friend Kayla Reed. She’s twenty-five and she likes to tell people that on August 8th she was a pharmacy technician and was working part-time at a furniture store here in St. Louis County, and now she’s a field organizer for the Organization for Black Struggle. She’s an activist and a leader on the ground, and when you had that unfortunate incident where the two police officers were shot, Kayla was one of the people making sure that the protesters were safe. She can move a crowd and lead people in creative actions, but she’s also become deeply knowledgeable about policy and the structure of electoral politics in Missouri. I think you’re going to continue to see people like Kayla emerge as leaders. This has been described as a leader-less movement, but it’s actually a leader-ful movement.
EduShyster: One bittersweet reward of what’s been happening in the St. Louis area is that the Heartland is in the news all the time. I grew up about ninety miles away from you, in Springfield, IL, and one of my life’s missions is to abolish the use of the term "flyover country." Say I’m successful and get a whole lot of people to come to St. Louis. What do they absolutely have to see while they’re there?
Packnett: No one should come to St. Louis without going to the old courthouse where the Dred Scott trial took place. People need to understand that the roots of the effort to win justice run really deep here. They didn’t begin with Ferguson. They go back to when people here decided to use every tool at their disposal to fight for their personal freedom. The story of Dred middle name Scott is an intense one to be sure, and it could be seen as tragic because of the Supreme Court’s decision that Scott lacked personhood, but that’s the legacy of this city. Those are the shoulders that we stand on. Recognizing the place that we come from in St. Louis is necessary to forging the path ahead, which is why it’s so important to understand the story of justice here. And you can do that at the Old Courthouse.
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