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One of the most important issues on the ballot this year is education.

Education determines whether young people will receive the academic instruction they need to lead healthy, fulfilling and aspirational lives. It determines whether our children go confidently in the direction of their dreams, or are waylaid by disappointment and discouragement. But in too many communities, young people of color, young people with disabilities and young people identifying as LGBTQIA are being pushed out of the classroom directly into the criminal justice system. In too many schools, police presence transforms the school environment from one that is conducive to learning, to one that is prone to harassment, intimidation, and criminalization.

This problem didn’t begin overnight and it will take years to correct it. Fortunately, in states across the country, grassroots organizations are fighting to ensure all children have a real shot at success. While education is always important, this election cycle, all voters should be education voters. That means we should all be voting for candidates who value and will work to ensure that all children have an opportunity to learn in safe, nurturing and accessible environments.

That is why the Communities for Just Schools Fund, a national collaborative that brings together the resources of philanthropy and the power of grassroots organizing, is proud to support and amplify the work of local partners. They are the people who are making change possible.

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Dream Defenders

The Dream Defenders have been organizing for education equity since April 2012 Trayvon Martin, a young African American teen was senselessly murdered while holding a bag of skittles in his hand. In the 10 years after Martin’s death, the Dream Defenders have created a space for young folks across Florida to participate in the political process. For instance, they recently held a GOTV texting party, encouraging young folk to participate in text banking. Their organizing work is central to the framework that led them to the creation of The Freedom Papers, an agenda to advance their vision of safety and security which includes a departure from prisons, deportation, and war – and embrace of healthcare, housing, jobs and movement for all.”

While their work is critical to the liberation of young folks, they face formidable resistance from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He passed the Stop WOKE Act, The Parental Rights in Education Act, and is known for re-opening Florida’s public schools during the height of the pandemic – all of which cater to his conservative constituents. More specifically, the Stop WOKE Act eliminates discussion around systematic oppressions such as racism, ableism, and sexism and allows for educators who have felt uncomfortable due to equity training to sue their employer.

The Dream Defenders has responded by encouraging young folk and communities of color to get out and vote in Florida. They are fighting for a world without prisons, policing, surveillance and punishment. Their transformative work spans to education as well, as they help their community reclaim their coins.” The phrase reclaiming your coins has both a historical and cultural significance to the Black community, mainly focusing on getting your money, resources, and time back. They are working with community members to navigate the student debt relief application and hosting conversations about what canceling student debt means.

Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) and Freedom, Inc.

In Wisconsin, the grassroots organizations Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), which organizes young people to build independent political power for social, racial, and economic justice; and Freedom, Inc., which , are working overtime to ensure young people have access to a high-quality and accessible education.

According to polls, education is one of the top three topics for Wisconsinites. LIT produced a voting guide to support voters in electing candidates who value education. It recognizes the importance for young people in this and future elections. The group will host an  election watch party on November 8.

One of Freedom, Inc.’s many projects is the Community Power Coalition (FICPC), a coalition of WI organizations that engage Southeast Asian & Black populations towards political power building and action. This coalition focuses on civic engagement and in 2018, helped more than 100 people get to the polls during the midterm elections. The group recently hosted a Trunk or Treat event to celebrate Halloween but also organize their community on their Police Free Schools Campaign.

Access to Public Education is the Defining Issue This Election Cycle

Historically, education has been a hot topic during campaigns – from school funding to school choice, elections matter. Just a few votes can make the difference in whether there is police presence in a student’s school. Right now, the outcome of elections will determine whether Black and Brown students are able to learn and learn in ways that sustain and amplify their culture. LGBTQ+ youth’s visibility in schools is on the line in some gubernatorial elections. LGBTQ+ youth, Black and Brown youth, as well as low-income youth and those with disabilities need all people to be education voters. Otherwise, these groups fall prey to leaders and movements that refuse to see them, honor them or protect them.

From teacher strikes to the police free schools movement, grassroots organizing has long been the backbone of education reform. Now is no different; organizers are calling on community members to take action. Everyone can do something – whether that is speaking with neighbors, writing legislators, meeting with members of their local school board – to ensure schools are safe places where all children can thrive.

Erika Roberson is a policy fellow with Communities for Just Schools Fund.


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