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Reflections after 22 days on hunger strike

by Martin Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2009 at 8:08 PM

Where are we now and where are we headed are two of the questions we are facing in this education crisis, one that if not addressed soon and courageously, will bring about devastation to our communities, especially those communities of color and in low-income neighborhoods.

It's been 22 days since I began this hunger strike. And while many people joke about the fact that a person my size on such a hunger fast may turn out to be the best thing for me, there is no denying that the sacrifice thus made has and is continuing to take a toll. I am, as I try to write this, the weakest I have ever felt. I am no longer able to do the things that I once took for granted, like reading or watching films and television, which in my profession as a filmmaker, I must do constantly. I am no longer able to carry on a conversation for long moments without starting to forget if what I am about say, or as is the case now, about to type, has been done and said before already. Not having that one thing that was once strongest in you is the worse form of vulnerability one can have. It is, nonetheless, a necessary consequence when considering what it is that we are all fighting for. But what is that thing that drives these brave women and men, teachers and activists all, to risk so much for the chance to gain so little or even nothing at all? Is it their jobs? Is it their egos perhaps? Is it really the children? The answer: No, No and YES!

I have, for the past 22 days, sat and stood by teachers who have put the interests of their students above and beyond what others in more affluent schools and neighborhoods ever would. They have taken to the streets, slept on cold slabs of concrete and have withstood the temptation of eating delicious food in community potluck settings because they believe in something their own employers, like LAUSD Superintendent Cortinez, doesnt seem to understand or comprehend. To him, this strike is a complete waste of time, as he has publicly stated. Since when is standing up for something so important as the future of our youth a waste of time? The issue is not just local, I grant him that. It's state. It's national. But it's also HIS job to go out and beg if need be to find the funds. I wonder, how many times has Mr. Cortinez visited Sacramento in the past few days, weeks, months or years? How many meetings has he had with the Secretary of Education, members of both houses of Congress, the President or even the Superintendent of Schools for the State of California? How many fundraisers has he coordinated, other than the ones he has attended? How much of the thousands of dollars that he has collected from speaking engagements in other school districts did he give back to the general fund or donate to a charity, like the United Way, whom the school board is planning on asking soon to fund after school programs?

No Mr. Cortinez, this is not a complete waste of time. Call it what you will, but this action, this small sample of a greater movement is partially, if not wholly responsible for the reversal of your decision to rescind the notices. You made up your mind once to dismiss an entire generation of teachers at LAUSD and yet you magically changed your mind after looking at things over. Its like that incident at the June 9 LAUSD board meeting when we all discovered that the district's attorney admitted to have made an error in not paying attention to a looming deadline to renew a contract. You would think that her salary, which is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, would afford her an assistant to look over those dates and numbers. In fact, I bet the district was billed for those very same services not rendered separately by her law firm. Its unfortunately, Mr. Cortinez, that you insist upon vilifying and undermining the progress already made by so few but faithful.

As for the school board, what can I say except to remind them that they were elected to their posts and entrusted to protect and serve the best interests of the children in their district and the greater LAUSD. Your job, dear madams and sirs, is not to do what you voted to do at the last meeting. In that same meeting, you voted to lease a lot that will pay back the district a total of $13M over the next 66 years. Thats approximately $197,000 per year and for what: to build housing for an apartment complex that would house district employees. According to the presentation, LAUSD personnel would only pay, and Im trying not to laugh here, $500 (give or take a few dollars) for a 3 bedroom, 2 bad apartment. Are you kidding me? Seriously? When asked by Dr. Vladovic where the company was planning to make its profit, there was no response from the presenter. Whats more, Ms. Canter argued for this strenuously because, according to her, this would improve and beautify the neighborhood. Im sorry, but since when is it the responsibility of the School Board to beautify the neighborhood? Isnt that the citys responsibility? Shouldnt we be spending money improving education, not improving the surrounding landscape? Is an apartment complex really going to improve the already decaying morale of students and parents? Wouldnt it be best to spend bond money to improve decrepit schools first before building more schools that will not be occupied by students because there are no teachers? Most of the already constructed schools are empty, and many of them are now being leased to corporations to turn them into charter programs. Why are we building these facilities for them when we can be improving the ones we already have first.

What we need is a complete overhaul of this education system and put the needs of the students first so that we can tackle other problems associated with a lack of education. What we need is courage and faith. We need a school board willing to make the hard decisions that address the issues now instead of making decisions that may or may not arise tomorrow. Some members of the board claim that turning in a budget that reflects a 3-year period instead of 1 is the reason why they cannot spend the stimulus money now to save our teachers and reduce class size. Yet everyone knows that every year they turn in and adopt a new budget that accurately reflects the needs of that year. I am not nave to think that hard times lay ahead. I know we are in a financial crisis. But I also know that in such times we have pulled together as one to face those challenges. All we ask, all our teachers ask, is for LAUSD to spend the stimulus money now and give us all one year to move the masses and demand that our government meet its obligation to those whose future hangs in the balance. Lets send a message to the school board that they are not alone and that if they vote to fix the damage they have already done, that we will start, right here, right now, to improve and fix it.

As day 22 comes close to an end, I can only hope that the LAUSD act responsibly and courageously not just for our kids sake, but for our own, for some day we are going to depend on their support to sustain us through our late years.

And so, the question I ask everyone as I write this one and final blog is, "what wouldnt you do for your children?" Come and join us at 3rd and Beaudry every night at 6PM. Bring a tent, a sleeping bag and your children to send a message this whole week that enough is enough. As parents, teachers, as human beings, lets stand as one and fight for what is our solemn duty, responsibility and privilege to defend: our children's future.

In solidarity and struggle,
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