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Streetwise for Book Smarts

Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx

Celina Su

Publication Year: 2009

In Streetwise for Book Smarts, Celina Su examines the efforts of parents and students who sought to improve the quality of education in their local schools by working with grassroots organizations and taking matters into their own hands. In these organizations, everyday citizens pursued not only education reform but also democratic accountability and community empowerment. These groups had similar resources and operated in the same political context, yet their strategies and tactics were very different: while some focused on increasing state and city aid to their schools, others tried to change the way the schools themselves operated. Some coalitions sought accommodation with administrators and legislators; others did not.

The events Su describes began with a series of stabbings in Bronx high schools during the 2003-2004 school year. After this rash of violence, several grassroots groups cited the need for additional safety patrols. Mothers from one school spoke of how they had previously protested until they got extra officers, a fairly scarce resource in New York public schools, at their local elementary school. Others asserted that not all the safety patrol officers already in place were treating students humanely. Parent organizations and school officials battled over who was to blame for the school violence. Did a police presence solve the problem, or did it exacerbate the schools' violence-prone conditions? Members of different groups proposed and mobilized behind a range of remedies. These divergent responses shed light on the ways in which the choices made by each organization mattered.

By learning from Su's close observation of four activist groups in the Bronx, including Mothers on the Move and Sistas and Brothas United, we can better understand strategies that may ultimately lead to better and safer schools everywhere and help to revitalize American democracy.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-v

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pp. vii-ix

I want to thank the organizers and leaders at the case study social change organizations who so generously welcomed me into their world. In basement offi ces or fancy conference auditoriums, in the middle of a hailstorm or under highway overpasses on steaming hot black asphalt, I came to more fully appreciate the difficulty of their work: the long hours and last-minute ...

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Chapter One. A Kaleidoscope of People Power

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pp. 1-27

In the 2003–2004 school year, Bronx, New York, high schools reeled from a series of stabbings and violent attacks. A number of schools were labeled dangerous. In these schools, students waited in long lines to pass through metal detectors each morning, facing quite a few police offi cers along the way. Several Bronx-based social change organizations (SCOs), grassroots organizations ...

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Chapter Two. Public Education and Organizing in the Bronx

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pp. 28-45

A look at the social, political, and economic landscape in which the present study takes place helps to explain why the case study organizations have launched campaigns against racial and economic inequalities, for access to decent schooling and basic social services, and for more democratic governance. Further, since the struggles of these organizations are emblematic of those ...

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Chapter Three. Organizing the Organizations

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pp. 46-75

This chapter focuses on the nuts and bolts, or the tool kit, inspired by Saul Alinsky. Contemporary Alinsky-inspired social change organizations, such as the Industrial Areas and Gamaliel (a Chicago-based network of congregation-based community organizing groups) foundations, have de-veloped practices and frameworks quite different from those espoused by ...

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Chapter Four. Friends Forever

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pp. 77-105

Everyday activities are often unpredictable for any organizing group. Meetings are canceled at the last minute or simply fail to materialize for inexplicable reasons. At other times, constituents seem to appear out of nowhere, galvanized by a landlord’s misstep or a politician’s sudden announcement. In the context of community organizing, where little activity ...

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Chapter Five. Off the Charts

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pp. 106-135

In this chapter I examine social change organizations’ untold stories, contradictions, and other factors not easily labeled as activities, organizerleader relationships, or other key practices. In other words, I analyze patterns in the conspicuous, awkward silences that unfolded in my fi eldwork. It so happens that, more often than not, what was not being openly talked ...

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Chapter Six. What These Tools Can Build

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pp. 136-155

Social change organizations (SCOs) with similar missions pursue diver-gent political strategies, even when these organizations face a similar po-litical context and resource constraints, partly because their respective tool kits help to develop different strengths and capacities among leaders and In the present study, more specifi cally, the Alinskyite tool kit helped ...

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Chapter Seven. Favorite Hits

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pp. 156-185

Tool kits do more than help social change organizations (SCOs) in deciding on their approaches to issues of race and their capacities to infl uence different stages of the policy-making process. Their signifi cance is clearest in the SCOs’ embedded preferences for collaboration or confrontation, since the organizations tend to stick to their respective repertoires of ...

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Chapter Eight. Commitment and Commencement

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pp. 186-205

All of the social change organizations (SCOs) in the present study sowed and reaped rewards for their efforts in local education reform, and all of them received media attention for it. Outlets as varied as the New York Post, the New York Times, City Limits, the Christian Science Monitor, and National Public Radio chronicled various campaigns for greater funding, ...

Appendix A. Pounding the Pavement

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pp. 207-213

Appendix B. Interview Protocol and List of Interviewees

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pp. 215-216


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pp. 217-226


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pp. 227-238


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pp. 239-246

E-ISBN-13: 9780801459337
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801447259

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 726824316
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Streetwise for Book Smarts

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Subject Headings

  • School improvement programs -- New York (State) -- New York -- Case studies.
  • Educational change -- New York (State) -- New York -- Case studies.
  • Community organization -- New York (State) -- New York -- Case studies.
  • Nonprofit organizations -- New York (State) -- New York -- Case studies.
  • Social movements -- New York (State) -- New York -- Case studies.
  • Community and school -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Bronx (New York, N.Y.) -- Social conditions.
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