In my last post, I interviewed Brian Barnes, who made the case for stronger organizing of black leadership outside of the school system to hold schools accountable to local visions of youth development. In this post, I interview Ceasar McDowell, who held a position in an Alaskan school district where he was expected to do this type of organizing in first nation communities. Ceasar has continued to work at the intersection of education, community knowledge systems, and community planning and organizing. Here he shares some of his stories and learnings from his work in Alaska.
Leigh: Ceasar, you are now a professor and practitioner in Boston, but previously you lived in Kotzebue, Alaska. What were you doing there?
Ceasar: When I was 28 years old, I ended up working at a school in Kotzebue, first as director of student services and later as superintendent. My job was in part to organize parent groups to hold the school system accountable to the villages it serves. The community was predominantly Inupiaq and there were a lot of powerful first nation leaders and organizations in the community, but nothing connected to the school system. I was hired to build these connections so that the school was not just an isolated institution.
L: What were some of the first things you learned, especially as a newcomer to the community, that framed how you approached this work?
C: One thing I learned was that in order for a program to have legitimacy, it had to straddle youth and elderly leadership. Youth had to be involved, but so did parents as well as elders who were not parents of current students. Sometimes there was tension around how much voice youth could have in these communities, and elders were much more open to youth voices if they were connected to values of the community.
L: What type of values?
C: John Schaefer, former Chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, would tell new teachers in the area “if this is a place you can die in, then we can trust you with our children.” In other words, one prominent value that stuck out to me was long-term commitment to and a sense of responsibility toward the community.
L: So you got to Kotzebue, and jumped into to your new role as director of student services. What was your first project?
C: We developed a youth nationhood program across several villages in the area. We asked, how do young people see themselves not only as part of their village but as part of a larger Native community? We did this in response to the current political moment, in which Native groups in Alaska were fighting with the federal government over land claims. They were watching the failures of the lower 48 states, and did not want to end up with reservation system we have here.
As part of this program, the students studied history, and learned a lot from other leaders building new national identities rooted in native or marginalized communities. Miles Horton of the Highlander Center came to spend time with us, and we hosted a one week-long meeting attended by leaders from black communities, Native tribes, Latino groups, and Innuit groups. Students interviewed them and videotaped the discussions. Many of these leaders had never been in a room together until this moment.
We found many connections between these different movements. For instance, Native groups were organizing people around land claims with financing from the Community Action Programs, which were established by the black civil rights movement.
L: It sounds like the school was supporting the students in work that went far beyond the school’s immediate interests, and had very meaningful national and political relevance. In what other ways did the school system support the students’ development into becoming community leaders?
C: The students learned a lot through their participation in school government. An especially memorable event was the first statewide student council meeting in Sitka, Alaska. At the opening banquet, our school’s students noticed that they, the Inupiaq students, were not being served. The students left the banquet, got some food, and returned to the hotel to talk about it. They were angry about the discrimination, and were concerned that they would be ignored for the two days of the student council meeting.
L: What did you do?
C: I asked the students, “Do you have a political base?” The students then gathered Native students from other schools. The Native students skipped the official morning meetings to hold their own meeting, and when they finished they told me they had a plan. I said, “Good. As long as it’s legal, don’t tell me what it is.”
The next day was the election of new officers for the state student council, and the Native students won every seat. Lucy Jensen, a Native candidate from our district, won the presidency. The voting was proportional, and while there were more non-Native students, there were more Native villages, so their organizing led to easy success.
The non-Native students got upset, and resisted these results. They kicked all of the adults out of the room because they thought we had put them up to it (even though we didn’t know anything about it!). The students discussed it, and the Native students interestingly agreed to give up several positions. They kept President and Treasurer, and gave the other positions to non-Native students.
L: What a great organizing success. What happened when you got back to Kotzebue?
C: The night we arrived in Kotzebue, the superintendent called me into his office. He had heard about the elections from the State school board, and they wanted me to be fired for supposedly putting these kids up to their organizing. So he fired me. And then he asked me how I felt about applying for the job of associate superintendent.
Then he said, “Ok these young people have stepped up and now it’s the school’s responsibility to make sure they’re successful.” The first thing he did was to arrange for Lucy to go to Anchorage, meet with the student presidents of the other schools there, and then go to Juno to meet with the State school board. Her goal was to stitch things back together, to say that we want to do things collectively but that the Native students are serious about having a voice.
L: In creating your role, a position for someone to organize youth and community members to hold the school accountable, it seems that the school was letting itself be vulnerable to criticism and hurdles, knowing that in the long term this would allow them to better serve the community. That type of bravery, leaning into conflict, and development of organizing capacity seems like something we could use in a lot of public institutions. Any last thoughts?
C: Education needs to be in service to local communities and to the idea of inclusion and democratic practice. This is the primary struggle in education and when we meet that challenge we will have education that works for all students.
Ceasar McDowell is Professor of the Practice of Civic Design at MIT. He holds an Ed.D. (88) and M.Ed. (84) from Harvard. Ceasar’s current work is on the design for civic infrastructure in support democratic practice in demographically complex societies. He is also expanding his critical moments reflection methodology to identify, share and maintaining grassroots knowledge. His research and teaching interests also include the use of mass media and technology in promoting democracy and community-building, the education of urban students, the development and use of empathy in community work, civil rights history, peacemaking and conflict resolution. He was Director of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, the global civic engagement organization dropping knowledge international, Director of MIT’s former Center for Reflective Community Practice (renamed Co-Lab), co-founder of The Civil Rights Forum on Telecommunications Policy, and founding Board member of The Algebra Project.