Tuesday, February 17, 2009


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

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