The Exploitation of Equity

Two years ago, when I posted this video, I was still in the honeymoon stage with the organization I now call THEYPOWER. I recorded it right before I joined the full-time team and saw what was behind the curtain.

The shirt I’m wearing in the video? I was so enthusiastic that I designed and purchased it with my own money. In the recording, I urged my network to join me in the fight for equity against Saint Louis Public Schools through the Better Budgets, Better Schools campaign.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my voice as a parent was being propped up by WEPOWER and its key funder, the Opportunity Trust, not in an effort of good faith to push for needed improvements in SLPS, but instead as a tool to carry out their true goal — to “burn it down.”

I had no idea that I was lending myself to them as a reasonable, REAL community member to subtly carry their message, filling a role in a routine play of the education privatization playbook.

As part of the Better Budgets, Better Schools campaign, I and other paid community members called for transparency in the District’s budgeting process. We wanted a dashboard and four community meetings per year among other things. The proposed dashboard would just so happen to be a “generous” in-kind donation by a member of Teach for America, the Opportunity Trust’s founder Eric Scroggins’ previous employer that also has well-documented ties to the charter school movement.

To my delight at the time, the District started to implement some of our demands and even created an ad hoc budget committee.

Then something really interesting happened. When the District hosted those four community meetings, very few members of the public or WEPOWER attended, not even the WEPOWER team members who pushed for them. Inside WEPOWER, the campaign was never really mentioned again.

I attended the meetings on my own because, as a parent, I truly cared, but no one in WEPOWER leadership made attending those meetings a priority because it was never about pushing for budget transparency in the first place.

What’s that word I’m looking for? … Oh yeah, “sham.”

Parent advocacy work coming from WEPOWER, Bridge 2 Hope, and the like only serves to undermine the District. All of the campaigns, protests, board meeting disruptions, newspaper articles, demand letters, etc., are not truly about the specific topics that parents and caregivers are riled up about. The parent voice is not really valued by the leadership of those organizations — it’s only manipulated to give the Saint Louis Public School district as much bad press as possible.

I now realize that the recruitment of community members with grievances, however legitimate, for use as spokespeople is just one of several well-worn tactics that education privatization advocates use to undermine public school districts across the country. As former privatization lobbyist Charles Siler related in the Washington Post earlier this year, “We would seek out people with sympathetic stories, families or individuals with sincere struggles. The goal was to find people with whom the general public could empathize.”

To make matters worse, whenever someone challenges what is being said by WEPOWER and the Opportunity Trust, these organizations quickly retreat behind their recruited community members, mostly women of color, propping them up and crying “equity and Black liberation!”

In the Washington Post interview, Siler continues, “Also, if we could ever find minority families willing to speak up about their struggles and desires for school privatization, we’d work to put their faces in as many places as possible. It’s one reason privatization advocates focused so heavily on promoting vouchers within the Navajo community recently in a bid to leverage their tribal identity to expand their state’s voucher program. In many ways, there’s an emphasis on playing identity politics to subvert actual equity efforts, especially when it comes to privatization.”

I have seen white women who are active in equity and inclusion efforts in the St. Louis region especially fall victim to this scheme, reacting to valid criticisms of WEPOWER and the Opportunity Trust with comments like, “You don’t trust Black women?” “The system is working for you, so your voice isn’t relevant here.” “You must be racist.” “You’re bringing up a conversation that is irrelevant/unproductive.” “You must be a conspiracy theorist.”

All of these accusations are top-of-the-line, professional-grade gaslighting.

These organizations recruit reasonable, impacted community members to speak for them. There’s nothing like a boots-on-the-ground, passionate momma sharing a personal connection story to make you feel like a monster for ever doubting her sponsor organization’s intentions.

I’ve shared before that during my time at WEPOWER, more than half our team of 11 were Teach for America (TFA) members, and all but two of us were newcomers to St. Louis. Only two of us were parents with school-aged children, and I was the only homeowner and parent with children attending SLPS on the team. So when questionable campaigns and policy solutions came from our organization, it was easy to have me defend.

Since I left WEPOWER, many friends and acquaintances of mine have told me they knew something was off about how WEPOWER was showing up, but they went along with it because I was a trusted voice they wanted to believe in. This still rings true with people I know who continue to work on the team and might be choosing to benefit from what WEPOWER offers them. I have watched those few trusted voices stand up in defense of special interest groups like WEPOWER, their funder the Opportunity Trust, and their collaborators at Eric Scroggins’ former employer, Teach for America. These critical voices cast just enough benefit of the doubt for WEPOWER and others to continue to be believed.

That benefit of the doubt engendered by those trusted voices gives cover to these privateer organizations as they inch closer to their victory of burning down our school district, only to replace it with something wholly unrecognizable.

They don’t deserve the benefit of buying our credibility. And yes, if you are squirming, I’m talking to you.

I’ll say this as many times as I need to: This whole operation is a setup. No, WEPOWER and The Opportunity Trust don’t deserve a seat at our table as we — the families and stakeholders of public schools and existing charter schools — work on improving education and developing a citywide plan so all children can benefit. No, they are not experts in education. (As a matter of fact, their leadership teams barely have ten years of education experience between them.)

This is a very lucrative business deal that they are willing to secure at all costs, especially at the cost of our children. $$

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Gloria Evans Nolan

Gloria Evans Nolan

42 Followers

Wife, mother of two, advocate for educational equity. My words are my own.