Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Remarks on attending Jan 20th Obama Inauguration


(The power of two million strong testifies to the new patriotism.)

I know. My $5 button proclaims it: “I Was There!” My point: there was actually one thing of far greater significance than the inauguration of President Obama. Yes, his taking the oath of office was clearly a triumph of our democratic principles, and most certain one of enormous historic proportion. But greater still, was the crowd. More precisely, it was the size and the dimensions of that awesomely respectful mass of humanity. We assembled in the bitter cold to bear historic witness to our extraordinary collective achievement. The police and the press now estimate by satellite counting that we numbered 1.8 million. (NASA or NSA satellites?) I argue we were well over 2 million. Mind you, there was not one single arrest! What does that tell us?

We must take full measure. Truth be told, the greatest significance was not the massive number, it was the complexion and complexity of that mass of humanity. Racial integration does not even begin to give full measure of that assemblage. It was rainbow, beyond rainbow, beyond rainbow. We were somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, all two million of us, laughing and crying tears of joy and thanksgiving.

When in all the history of humankind has there been such a large public assembly, that integrated, and yet so entirely peaceable. Again, not one single arrest! What does that tell us?

Never mind the stereotypical photos black and white, young and old all standing joyfully together. Yes, we were represent’n. Folks traveled from every geographical point within and well beyond our national boundaries. I saw people in wheelchairs and others with walkers braving the crowd. I spoke with grandparents from the Georgia Sea Islands who had stood since the dawning hours with their adult children and their obedient grandchildren. We shared personal narratives with each other and with the attentive companion family from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I observed folks wrapped in expensive furs standing unabashedly unafraid beside folks wrapped in rags. I witnessed individuals wearing yumulkas standing unperturbed alongside others wearing checkered middle-eastern scarves. Everyone was shivering in sub-freezing weather. Bright sunlight beamed through the frigid morning haze. Sometimes the glare made the magatrons near impossible to view. No one complained. Everyone was mindful of each other’s material and spatial needs in that densely packed crowd. Miraculously no one shoved, no one fought. There was no crowd rage. What does that tell us?

Actually the scariest part came after the swearing in and after the inaugural speech, when everyone anxiously realized the challenge to exit safely. One false move by one individual could easily have caused a massive panic attack. Hundreds, if not thousands would have been trampled, maimed or killed in a massive panic attack. We were not having it. What does that tell us?

It tells us all that President Obama is absolutely correct. “This is not about me. It is about all of you.” We two million proved him correct. Beyond our wildest imagining, we overcame all our doubts and fears. We collectively organized ourselves into a working coalition of majorities and minorities to elect the first American President of African descent. We democratically mobilized a mass movement and raised unimaginable sums of wealth from the people. We utilized the collective genius of those masses to work the new tools of cyber space and got out the vote. We amassed more than 2 million for the Inaugural.

President Obama, is the coolest, calmest, most collected political leader of our time precisely because of those two million folks standing together before him. We came together not just to show our respect and appreciation for President Obama. We came to show respect to and appreciation of each other. That is what gives this duly elected president the confidence to fearlessly lead us through these perilous times. The most stunning fact of all those inaugural festivities, was that we displayed our pride and our profound love for our democratic republic. We reclaimed our patriotism for our system and in our public selves. The world must take full measure: the reality of that peaceable assemblage is far more powerful than the megatons in our military arsenal.

Now we must now use the power of our collective numbers to keep our elective representatives accountable and true to our nation’s best nature. Now that we have all experienced the audacity of hope, we must summon the vigilance and the courage to make certain that they never forget “to keep it real.”

Larry Aaronson
"Lonesome Death" (letter to editor, New Yorker)

David Simon’s piece in “The Lonesome Death” of William Zantzinger (1/26/09) was too kind and considerate to my former schoolmate, and too harsh on Bob Dylan, my favorite songwriter. All through his high school years at Sidwell Friends School Billy Zantzinger had a reputation as being “rich greaser.” He drank, drove cars and fought to excess. He was a mean spirited young man and arrogant to a fault. Back then DC was pretty much a Jim Crow town. Most of us high school students of privilege accepted the entitlement and racial ascriptions of our whiteness without much question. But we knew a bully when we heard one. We recognized that Black folks were victims of discrimination. Sadly most of us remained passive bystanders.

In fact the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is one of the truly great American folk songs, and served as a great parable for the emerging civil rights movement. Yes, Mr. Dylan took poetic license with some of the historic facts of the criminal case, but he should not be accused of distorting the historical truth of this gruesome crime. The basic facts are that a very drunk and boisterous Zantzinger hurled much more than racial epitaphs at Mrs. Caroll at the Emerson Hotel. He smacked her several times with his toy cane because she was too slow to serve him more booze. The police report stated that Zantzinger had been drinking heavily and had been partying hard all that night. He had already verbally and physically abused several other hotel workers. His intent may not have been murder, but his actions showed fearless recklessness. That was classic Billy Zantzinger.
Today Mr. Zantzinger could have been tried for violating Mrs. Carroll's civil rights, even if the murder charges were lowered or dropped. That was then, this is now.

Dylan's provocative song was a powerful statement about the gross class and race inequalities existing then in our criminal court systems. Five years later, when I played Dylan's song to my high school students at Cardozo High School (Washington, DC), they had no problem parsing his meaning, even if his gravelly voice irritated them. They were the sons and daughters of welfare mothers and domestics. They knew well what time it was. They were amazed that a white boy would and could right such a powerful song, much less that a white teacher would play it for them in their high school classroom.

Billy's defense lawyers convinced the jury that Hattie Carroll was a very sick woman with well-documented cardiac disease. She died of a stroke and was not "slain by a cane." The jury believed the defense because Billy’s family did have close ties "in the politics of Maryland." His dad had been a state rep for one term. That was the least of their connections. They were affluent from real estate and tobacco, mostly along the eastern shore. They used their “high offices relations” to move the trial out of Baltimore to the far more racially biased eastern shore of Maryland, where a largely all white jury’s sympathies were clearly against the victim and the prosecution.

Honestly, I was astonished to read that Billy acknowledged to Mr. Simon that “I caused that woman death. I’m responsible. Me talking does nothing for that woman or her family.” Nice sentiment Billy.
How does that explain his persistent racist behavior years later? The Washington Post Sunday Magazine (citing the Maryland Independent report) reported in 1991 that Billy continued to collect rent from tenant farmers on old properties that he lost in bankruptcy court. He even went to court to sue for past-due rent. He won. Dylan’s chorus lyrics to his ballad remains true today: “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, Bury the rag deep in your face, For now is the time for your tears.”

Larry Aaronson, (SFS 1958)
Somerville, MA.
432 Norfolk St (1H)
Somerville, MA. 02143

Letter to Cambridge Chronicle regarding teaching social justice in Cambridge Public Schools

Writing in Perspective (1/1/09) Peter Wilson asked the question, “What is social justice?” He posits a rhetorical question, wondering why we should teach social justice to our children in our public schools? Mr. Wilson then posits his ideological perspective: “social justice is a left-wing political goal, not a universal goal.” I take great exception to this statement. I would reply that social justice is embedded in our Declaration of Independence, enshrined in our federal and state constitutions, and spelled out in our Bill of Rights. There is hardly a more universal goal in our democratic government. That is precisely what I as a progressive educator taught all my students in all my social studies classes at CRLS for the past 31 years. I am proud to say that (to use Mr. Wilson’s own words) I taught my students to fight injustice to establish a just society. That was one of Thomas Jefferson’s most compelling arguments for using property taxes for public schools.

Mr. Wilson’s op-ed piece presents a weak and flawed perspective for American conservative ideology. He makes gross and inaccurate generalizations about liberal politicians and educators by setting them up as straw horses. He wants to argue against social engineering by state and federal government that he fears requires an expansion of government power that is the anathema to small government. Fair and clear enough. I wholly disagree both with his premise and his conclusions.  

Of course progressive educators must imbue their students with academic rigor. Students cannot intelligently think critically and understand deeply about the history of American democracy and our republic’s long march to equal justice and liberty for all if they are not skilled readers who can parse classic literature and history. Progressive educators would never preclude teaching the fundamentals. Students must learn to correctly compute complex mathematics and compose compelling essays based on rules of evidence. They need to be literate in the humanities and arts. They all need to be literate in geography, the general sciences and to be able to fully grasp the scientific method of inquiry. This all should be part and parcel of any pedagogical practice regardless of ideology: progressive, liberal, or conservative. That may be stating the obvious, but it is hardly sufficient.

Great schools and great educators are those that teach their students how to determine where equality, liberty and justice reside in the historical ironies and social paradoxes of our complex body politic. They must be taught the fundamentals of making good, well-reasoned judgment confronting difficult complex and often contradictory value and goals. Great schools and teachers help students develop the mindfulness, compassion and civility that makes our republic more humane, most especially when confronting the perilous conditions of our present situation. We need students who can both study for the biology AP’s and volunteer for the soup kitchens. It is not an either/or choice. I would submit to think otherwise is precisely the erroneous kind of polemical thought that has so woefully marginalized conservative politics in our recent electoral cycle.

The not so hidden subtext of Mr. Wilson’s piece is a rant against progressive education, which he rightly observes is welcomed practice in much of CPSD programs and policies. He deplores this reality, accusing all progressive pedagogy of foolishly embracing a “nanny state.” Mr. Wilson is ideologically incorrect and historically inaccurate. The ideology and practice of progressive politicians and educators is far more complex and varied than Mr. Wilson’s simplistic depictions.

Administrators and practicioners in both CPSD and in CRLS in particular are currently making great strides in executing this delicate balancing act of teaching rigor and compassion while facing the challenges of fiscal constraints and expanding social and economic needs. We some have “outcomes” that measures this achievement.

When I retired from teaching at CRLS in June of ’07, I helped establish a new private, non-profit foundation “Social Justice Works: The Aaronson Fund” --sjwtheaaronsonfund.org. *(Mr Wilson incorrectly states that SJW is a CRLS program.) SJW’s goal is to recognize and reward CRLS graduates that currently work in the public sector for social justice. We celebrate the fact that hundreds of CRLS alumni have made sustained commitments working in public schools, housing, safety, health, law, etc. and they are doing so across the globe. SJW is currently building an internet network helping connect these graduates, most all whom state their indebtedness to the progressive education they received at CPSD. Yes they can, and Yes, they have! These grads make our city and our schools mighty proud.

For the most recent and inspiring example, I refer Chronicle readers and all Cantabridgians to this week’s (1/1/09) CR article by recent CRLS graduate Stephanie Guirand (CRLS ‘05) “Giving tribute to a friend after he died.” Stephanie is currently an undergraduate student at UConn. Though she carries a demanding academic load, and like so many of her peers is facing financial hardships of mounting college tuition, she took time to organize a committee of CRLS graduates to give witness to the death of their dear friend and CRLS alumni Wolf Jules (’05), himself a prince of peace. He took his own life. Stephanie has organized a city-wide campaign and put on a recent forum at City Hall to address issues of homophobia in the local Caribbean-American community. This organizing effort was accomplished entirely by these young people. They have all courageously stepped up to the plate, brought together elected officials and health care advocates to testified and bear witness to these troubling and complex issues. I submit to your readers that teaching social justice works. It works for us all.

Larry Aaronson
432 Norfolk Street (1H)
Somerville MA. 02143


Hotel Marlowe, Cambridge MA. Sept 19, 2008.

Baruches Achem. Praise the Lord. It is accomplished! The first year of Social Justice Works has just rounded out our first year. And what a year it has been. I would be more than remiss if I failed to take this opportunity to thank my entire steering committee for everything that they have done for this worthy foundation. Everyone of our contributors and supporters should know that we have incurred almost no administrative costs. Except for an all-too brief hire of an administrative assistant, the entire event planning operation was executed by nine non-paid volunteers. Social Justice Works would not have been organized and today’s event could not have been executed without their contributions of immense time, energy, thought, and even money. I could not have nor would I have accomplished this undertaking without their generous and gracious contributions. Please give it up for this incredible team. Our two co-chairs, Ray Shurtleff and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, and the “executive committee” of Joyce and Seacia Pavao, Les Kimbrough, Marion Gillon, Phyllis Bretholtz, and Sarabinh Levy Brightman-Stang. It is critically important to appreciate how these good folks so perfectly represent the vision and goal of what SJW is all about. We are a progressive educational foundation designed to acknowledge and promote the living legacy of progressive education. This team of nine consists of teacher colleagues, parents, and former students. We are 3 retired teachers, 2 active community organizers, 1 working mom, 1 retired school administrator and a current administrators at the DOE, and a former student, now a professional photographer, and “ace” computer specialists. Former students designed and constructed our brochure and webpage, our excel spread sheet of over 850 names. All of this work has been entirely donated. Former students donated their time to be DJ’s and help us with security. Formers students and teacher colleagues, and many parents gave us invaluable advice and encouragement. Everyone is giving back to what was given to them. We are all blessed by these gifts.

I would also be terribly remiss if I failed to express my enormous appreciation and love for Howard Zinn and all that he has brought to this vision and to our mission. We are blessed and deeply honored to have this living, vibrant legend grace us with his presence. Mind you it is no accident that we selected Howard Zinn to be our keynote speaker, and this documentary film to inspire our contributors. Yes, headlining Howard Zinn as our keynote speaker ensures a large enthusiastic crowd. God love him, Howie has star power. He is our progressive icon. But we have a far more authentic reason for bring Howard Zinn to this Awards Dinner.

"A Peoples’ History of the United States" has been my signature text for every one of my history courses since the day I began teaching at The Pilot School. That was 1981 and Howie’s book had just been published. My choice was a no-brainer. My first year of teaching in DC transformed me into a militant teacher activist. Howard is one of the earliest historians of the civil rights movement in the South in the 60’s. His book SNCC: The New Abolitionists is a classic. I was in DC SNCC. Howard Zinn gave new political understanding and legitimacy to our social justice movement. I considered myself to be a progressive educator. I was a history teacher that promoted the importance of social justice in the history of American Democracy as my Over-Arching Understanding goal. Howard’s book provided the revisionist approach to teaching and understanding the struggle of the American people that built our democracy.

Truth be told, I had no idea of the power of this book. Almost on day one of my teaching 33-year career at Pilot and Rindge, a certain young 14-year-old 9th grader walked into my class, passed by my desk and looked over at the grey cover of the People’s History book that sat on my desk and announced “Oh yeah, that’s my baby sitter!” I looked totally puzzled and told this upstart that that was impossible. He was a 60-something year old professor at BU. He insisted he was right. I persisted that he must be wrong, and handed him one of my two copies to take home to ask his mother whether he knew what he was talking about, and report back to me with the book in hand. His very first homework assignment. His mom called me up totally excited at the amazing serendipity of it all. The mom was Nancy Carlsson Paige, and the kid was her eldest son Kyle Damon. We became family. Our Pilot school progressive community building had begun and have remained so ever since. The rest is now history!

More dramatic, parents started calling me up to report that because of me and that damn book, they were constantly arguing with their kids. Not about the TV, the telephone, the car, but about that “bastard Christopher Columbus… and his genocide, and how we have to question our history books and re-examine the evidence.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Years later returning students continue telling us how important our progressive teaching and in particular A People’s History was to their awaking political and social consciousness. It is not accident that two CRLS grads made tribute to Howard and the book in their Oscar winning screen play. Graduates kept reporting how they decided to practice our history teaching in their professional lives. They have dedicated their working lives to promoting and defending social justice. It is the measure of how they self assess their successes and failures, and how they plot their self-correction in the trajectory of their lives.

This is why we proclaim with this Awards Dinner that Teaching Social Justice Works. That book and this film produced by two CRLS graduates of our progressive school and parenting proclaims it. That message could not be more important. I submit to you that there are threatening forces in full operation determined to undermine everything that progressive education has accomplished. Most especially the standardized testing movement and all that it politically represents is a systematic attempt to not only de-legitimize and dismantle the public sector and privatize as much as they can about public schooling, it is also a concerted effort to depoliticize progressive history teaching and demonize the politics of social justice teaching.
But we know better, and having this knowledge is why we are here today to honor these three outstanding students. You will hear about their visions of social justice and learn all about the wonderful things these three have accomplished. They are the concrete evidence that teaching social justice works. They are replicating our lessons! And their projects are designed to continue replicating the dream. I promise you will be inspired and reinvigorated. But I would also be remiss if I did not direct you to the all too brief description of the other outstanding 20 applicants and their amazing social justice work.

I submit that these 22 applicants are only the tip of a widespread mass movement of progressive community organizers that were produced here in Cambridge. They are new heroes. They have emerged from our classrooms and are accomplishing extraordinary things in the most embattled of conditions and circumstances, in some of the most resource and asset deprived communities. You need only to have watched the madness of the Republican Convention of last month and heard the mockery made of community organizing to glimpse what these greedy, self-absorbed politicians intend.

These marvelous graduates of CRLS constitute our warriors battling for social justice in every nook and cranny of our national fabric. They must be acknowledged. Their work must be recognized. We must celebrated them. We must support them and their work. This is our proud, our very proud legacy. Their lives and their dedicated labor is the powerful testimony that Teaching Social Justice Works. Progressive education must be defended and supported. This legacy must be defended and supported. That is our next assignment. That is our mission to accomplish. Thank you.

Larry Aaronson


Greetings and "Heads Up!"

Greetings, Friends and Supporters of Social Justice Works: The Aaronson Fund.
SJW is a work in progress. 
Given these perilous economic times SJW: The Aaronson Fund is shifting priorities from direct fund-raising to enhancing our visibility and building our social network, connecting our dedicated CRLS social justice workers (alum) with one another and to our SJW Foundation, friends and supporters. Yes the times are perilous, but embedded within these grave challenges lie great opportunities and potential for radical restructuring and restoration. 
One step towards this is the establishment of my new blog "Social Justice Works" with links to our webpage, sjwtheaaronsonfund.org. The blog begins as a "heads-up, you all!! These are brief remarks and speeches and I have written promoting and publicizing SJW,  and also op ed pieces and letters-to-the-editors in various publications that relate to the issues of promoting and defending social justice work in our immediate community. Read on, and talk back. Peace and justice is the journey.