From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.

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Think Small
by Tina Trujillo

The midterms are upon us. Voting is without a doubt a bare-minimum civic responsibility for anyone in the United States who is eligible, but I can’t stop thinking about what we can do in the days after. If we want to save what’s left of our fading democracy, we must strengthen the common good.

Words mirror and shape values, and our words suggest that our democracy is in real danger. Even before the fateful election two years ago, I’d been noticing that Americans’ everyday language divulged the degree to which many of us cherish individual gain and exclusivity.

This was and is true particularly when we speak about schooling. I hear parents talk about needing the best school for their child because their child is exceptional. Their neighborhood public school won’t make them competitive enough for the most selective schools or the most lucrative jobs. I have witnessed moms, usually white and middle-class, repeatedly justify their choice to choose private or home schooling because the local school — the racially, socioeconomically diverse alternative — isn’t sufficiently safe or rigorous for their special children. By elementary school, students have figured out that the goal of their learning, of their time together, is to score high on tests which, so many believe, show how smart and good they are. Education, a public good, has become a private means to individual economic gain, not common civic benefit.

Indeed, few of our pronouns suggest that we see schooling as serving shared aims. Parents fight for what they want in a school or classroom or teacher for my child, not everyone’s children. Privileged families fret that resources won’t go to our child, but be squandered on those kids with all the intractable problems. And so students see themselves in atomized ways: it’s them against their classmates, their peers, even their friends. They don’t feel interconnected. They go to school to prop up themselves, not their community, not society. School is for winning a good job, not becoming a good citizen.

Our nouns, too, trumpet what we’ve come to believe about democracy. Taxes are something to avoid because they encroach on individual liberty. We are taxpayers, not citizens. Welfare is a bad word, not a tool of support for the least privileged members of society. Integrated government schools are what we settle for when we can’t choose more elite — segregated — ones: charter schools are fine for other people’s kids, the poor ones, often the children of color, but not our own. Teachers’ unions are part of the failing public school monopoly that needs to be dismantled, not collective safeguards against autocratic leaders who abuse their power, discriminate, and thwart professional and collaborative working conditions. We name the heads of our school systems CEOs and listen as they talk of maximizing their return on investment and advertise their success nurturing and educating our children in points. Our schools are a marketplace, full of competition and strict accountability for measurable results, not a microcosmic public sphere where young people learn to cooperate, where they practice democracy.

Many of my graduate students have no idea what I mean the first time I utter the term common good.

In an environment of scarcity and increasing economic inequality, we’ve accepted that it’s us versus them. That we’re in a race. That there aren’t enough goods to go around, so we ought to toughen up our individual selves and not concern ourselves with others.

This is how democracies wither.

But we can resist. It’s daunting, no doubt, so we can take small steps. For now, let’s use some different words.

Rather than encouraging children to ask how they can be the best in the class, on the team, in the school band, ask how the whole group is doing. Ask who among their peers they think could use more help. Encourage principals to honor the most democratic teachers, not the ones whose students get the highest scores. Let student council do more than plan parties — let it be a space where students share their voices with the knowledge that others are actually listening.

Encourage teachers to talk to our children about why they go to school, to remind them that they’re there at least in part to become responsible citizens, members of a collective, not just high achievers. Some of our youth are losing sleep, terrified about where they rank, how they measure up, whether they will ever belong. Tell them why they belong. Tell them why they matter to the group. Tell them why we all need them.

Encourage superintendents and other school-system leaders to dispense with private-sector jargon and replace the language of competition with language that emphasizes their own civic responsibilities to students, teachers, and communities.

Teach children terms like public and universal access. Ask them how public goods can promote fairness and equity. Cheer for government employees when asked to name role models. Celebrate the public nature of parks, sidewalks, sewers, schools, and roads. Give our kids space to say how it feels to be left out of a community, to name what it’s like to be excluded. And remind them that we’re on a team, that we all do better when our community thrives. They are, after all, our future voters.

Let’s see what our small words can do.

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Take action today:

Find candidates who will redistribute long overdue resources to the least advantaged members of society. Listen to their words: they’ll let you know if they truly value the common good. And then vote for the laws and policies that will bolster not just private interests but our whole democracy.

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Dr. Tina Trujillo is an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, the Faculty Director of the Principal Leadership Institute, and a Fellow at the National Education Policy Center. Her research and teaching focus on federal and state education policy, the politics of school reform, and democratic educational governance.