Organizing 3.0, leveraging the “internet of things” in mobilizing communities across 710 square miles
Date: March 4, 2012
The National Coalition for Literacy interviewed Sean Abajian, a campaign organizer from SaveAdultEd.org, to get the big picture on what happened and what advocates were doing to save adult education in Los Angeles, CA. Our questions and Sean’s responses follow.
Tell us a little bit about the adult education program in L.A. and the literacy rates there.
The Los Angeles Unified School District Adult Education program serves 350,000 students in 30 Adult and Occupational schools, which meets only a fraction of the vast need. Los Angeles has the highest rate of undereducated adults of any major metropolitan area in the United States. Half of all Angelenos have low literacy skills, and 3.8 million adults don’t read well enough to read a job application. (Source: L.A. Workforce Literacy Project)
LAUSD’s Adult Education classes date back to 1887 starting with ESL and citizenship classes. One of our flagship schools, Evans Adult School, was actually founded during the Great Depression in 1937. How is that in this current economic crisis, which has been particularly devastating to our working-class communities, we are faced with the elimination of these essential programs? Adult Education programs have historically provided pathways to better futures. We need the expansion of these programs, not their elimination!
Adult Education in LAUSD uses only about 2% of LAUSD’s total budget, and yet serves 37% of total LAUSD enrollment—we have a model program!
For those of us who just now learned of the proposal to eliminate adult education in L.A., explain what happened. How did advocates respond?
We learned the last week of school before Winter Break that the School Board voted on a preliminary budget for 2012-13, in which they eliminated 100% of Adult Education. Initially there was a great deal of shock. To some this came as no surprise, because we have seen in recent years the alarming trend in which over 50 California school districts shut down their Adult Education programs.
While it took time to get through that initial shock, over Winter Break key conversations kept moving things in the right direction. Since the School Board decided to do something unprecedented, we decided that our response should be even more unprecedented. Matthew Kogan, Chair of Adult Education in United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), shared his vision of blue signs posted far and wide throughout the community, stating:
We set up a website with the name SaveAdultEd.org and a dedicated phone system to connect constituents with their elected representatives. With help of many others, we were able to launch our campaign. The thousands of blue signs that can now be seen throughout Los Angeles in small businesses, bakeries, coffee shops, gas stations encouraging people to call the telephone number and visit the website are a reminder of this initial success. Here is an example from Patra Burgers Restaurant (featured in Jamie Olivers Food Revolution):
What campaign strategies have you used successfully so far?
We also discussed over Winter Break the need for a petition drive. Two years ago Adult Education teachers, students and community members successfully mobilized to prevent the closure of Adult Schools based in leased sites, which the LAUSD School Board had scheduled for closure. It was then that leaders such as Gabriel Sanchez and Blanca Perez, now President of United Adult Students, led a powerful fight in which 20,000 petition signatures were collected. The leased sites were saved, and we had a sweet taste of victory.
We determined that, this time, we could get at least 100,000 signatures with our entire citywide program on the chopping block. On January 20 at the Adult Education Committee of UTLA meeting, the petition drive was launched. And in just two weeks a massive grassroots effort involving teachers, students, community members and Adult School staff resulted in collecting 220,000 signatures!
Adult School students have shared countless stories of collecting signatures from family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, even strangers on the street. A wonderful side effect of the petition drive is that hundreds of thousands of people are talking about the importance of Adult Education!
We set up a Word Press blog, SaveAdultEd.org, as a central source of information for people spread across the 710 square miles that make us LAUSD’s geographical area. We’ve had some amazing students and teachers create videos which we’ve posted there, and we’ve also collected photos people send in a Flickr slideshow embedded in the site:
We’ve made information available for people participating in our letter writing campaign and Neighborhood Council campaign. Our Letters of Support section gives tips for groups contacting leaders for Letters of Support and the section also serves as a historical archive of our campaign, with the letters from Congressman Sherman, California Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlarkson, California Senator Curren Price, Councilmembers Richard Alarcon, Dennis P. Zine, Paul Koretz, the National Coalition for Literacy, and many others, as the list keeps growing daily.
Something I’ve been very proud to be a part of was in building the bilingual phone system in which we’ve connected thousands of constituents with their elected officials so they can communicate the importance of saving our Adult Education program. David Lyell, UTLA Secretary, provided some much needed resources to make this phone system a reality. In the first week, we overwhelmed LAUSD School Board members with an unprecedented 1,400 calls, 560 of which went to Board President Monica Garcia’s office:
Having saturated the school board, we switched most calls over to California legislators. And by the end of week two over 2000 calls had been placed to Sacramento, with Assembly Speaker John A. Perez getting the highest number.
In the first month of our SaveAdultEd campaign we had over 1.25 million seconds of constituents’ calls (or 2 solid weeks of nonstop calling).
By having the system in Spanish as well as English, we have been able to do more unprecedented outreach in the community on the issue of Adult Education. The system was set up so that we can see how many calls are made to each elected official, but also how many calls are made from each school community, and furthermore breaking that down into Spanish and English callers.
A key component of the phone system has been the flyer that accompanies it. Over 15,000 copies have been passed out at community meetings across L.A. which have then been photocopied and distributed widely throughout the school district. The flyer shows the simple three-step process for making the calls, after which the caller is connected to their elected official:
- Select English or Spanish
- Select Adult School or Occupational School
- Select the name of your school
In this way, we have harnessed the power of the internet, on which the system is based, to make every single cell phone, regardless of whether it’s a smart phone or not, into a political tool. As such, we’ve leveraged the “internet of things” to mobilize communities across the expanse of 710 square miles.
More unprecedented acts include the numbers of people we’ve had coming to local school site rallies as well as the citywide rallies outside the LAUSD school board on February 9 and February 14. Adult Education is no stranger to rallies, but what makes these unprecedented is both the thousands of people at the rallies, and the fact that so many of them were Adult Students and their family members. For a lot of the participants it was their first time to attend a protest in support of public education.
How did you get so many people to participate in the rallies? What inspired them to action?
Thanks to a growing coalition of teachers, the United Adult Students and community groups, we’ve been able to outreach in our communities like never before. Adult School student leaders like Blanca Perez and Evelyn Escalante and their well organized team of Adult School student leaders representing Adult Schools across Los Angeles in combination with teachers and community members we’ve been able to provide time and space for people to express their anger and frustration at the cutting away of the few remaining public services in working class and poor communities.
Were there other advocacy groups that inspired the SaveAdultEd.org campaign? If so, tell us about it.
California DREAMERS have been a great source of inspiration, particularly in the use of the phone system. In Fall 2012, the California Dream Act landed on Governor Brown’s desk, along with many other pieces of legislation. The Governor vowed that he would not sign all of them into law, and many groups, like the Coalition for the Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), quickly mobilized their networks to call the Governor’s office so he could keep a tally of how much support each bill had. Very quickly, on Facebook and in mass emails, DREAMERS spread the word of how to place a call to the Governor’s office and essentially vote in support of the California Dream Act. It was a 4 or 5 step process to navigate through the Governor’s phone system, and the DREAMERS made it very easy by listing the number to press at each step, and in that way there was no need to listen to the entire menu.
With our SaveAdultEd system, we created a flyer in English and Spanish, inspired by the DREAMERS, that makes it an easy three-step process to connect with your elected official.
Certainly Occupy Wall Street, and closer to home, Occupy LA, has inspired us and enabled us to believe that we can go out into the streets and reclaim our cities from corporate interests. There was even an OccupyLAUSD movement led by social justice educator Jose Lara who will be guest-blogging later on this week.
Other groups, who’ve inspired the SaveAdultEd Campaign, include the Southern California Immigration Coalition (SCIC), which was one of the first Community Based Organizations to endorse the SaveAdultEd Campaign. The SCIC has successfully mobilized to influence and change policies in the Los Angeles Police Department regarding the confiscation of undocumented immigrants’ vehicles.
What are some of the challenges the campaign has faced so far?
Some of the biggest challenges include coalition building among groups that have historically been in oppositional relationship with each other. But what the LAUSD School Board has successfully done by threatening to eliminate our program is to unite all these groups, as we are all in the same boat now, pushing together towards the same goal of saving our Adult Education program.
So far, we’ve had many victories because our communities are mobilized. We’re building pressure on our school board to provide strong and creative leadership. The funding is there, we just need leaders to work hard to access it. We also need our leaders to prioritize how funding is used: Shockingly, in December the School Board voted to spend $99 million on installing wireless internet and other miscellaneous IT upgrades.
We now have a database of 220,000 names and addresses from our petition drive, and we are working with elected officials and Community Based Organizations that support us to carry out voter registration drives. Apathy is a thing of the past. People are itching to hit the polling booths. Gone are the days of incumbent school board members running unopposed. To quote Adult School student I met recently, “We’re going to support those who support us.”
We are grateful to L.A. Councilmembers Jan Perry and Ed Reyes for proposing a resolution in support of Adult Education which will come before the City Council for a vote later this month.
And if the money isn’t there?
We’re moving forward with our support of the Millionaire’s tax. As of March 1st MoveOn.org has endorsed the Millionaires Tax of 2012.
Other sources of revenue under consideration include putting on the ballot a voter initiative to transfer LAUSD School Bond funds to LAUSD General Fund. Developers might not like the idea, but community members keep asking why we are building new schools (a new school is opened each month) while we are sending pink slips to thousands of teachers and talking about closing programs like Adult Education!
We’re also grateful that elected officials like Congresswoman Hahn who just days ago wrote this to a constituent: “…I strongly support funding for education, including Adult Education. Please rest assured that I will keep your views in mind as Congress moves forward with this important issue.“ Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funds are an important source of funding for Adult Education and we need more funding going forward.
What recommendations do you have for others who are grappling with cuts to adult education programs at the local or state levels?
Yes, we can fight back. Yes, we are moving beyond what Naomi Klein calls the “Shock Doctrine”, and mobilizing into action. Yes, we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. If our current leaders won’t provide the necessary leadership that the times call for then we will vote them out and replace them.
We’d love to connect with you. Please write us at: SaveAdultEdNow@gmail.com. If your organization hasn’t done so already, please consider writing a letter in support of Adult Education to The LAUSD School Board at:
Los Angeles Unified School District
Board of Education
333 South Beaudry Avenue, 24th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90017
And please send us a copy for our online archive. Our fax # is (323) 844-0110.
We’d gladly return the favor!
Do you see potential for a national movement to preserve and expand adult education programs in local communities?
Absolutely! People and organizations across the country and some from abroad have reached out to us, and we can see that the tide is turning in our favor. We need to grow regional and national coalitions!
Sean C. Abajian, Organizer, SaveAdultEd Campaign
Sean C. Abajian is a campaign organizer and digital strategist with the SaveAdultEd.org Campaign. He is a guest blogger in the discussion series “Cut the Excuses, Not Education! How SaveAdultEd.org Is Fighting the Proposal to Eliminate Adult Education in L.A.” See the full discussion schedule online. Participate by posting your comments and questions in the box below and signing SaveAdultEd.org’s petition.
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Save the Date for these Webinars. Sean Abajian will be a panelist in Advocacy Strategies for Challenging Times:
- Using Social Media for Grassroots Advocacy: March 21, 2012, 2:00 pm ET
- Advocacy Strategies for Challenging Times: Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 4:00 pm ET
Going to COABE? Join us at these sessions.
» LAUSD has $700+ Million in Reserves, but Still Plans to Close Adult Schools? » Adult Education Empowers Environmental Activist to Lead Successful Campaign to Shut Down Toxic Plant » On Adult Education's Critical Role in Social Justice » Si se puede! Organizing Our Community in Adult Education » Education for the 99%: How the Top 1% is Destroying Public Education and What We Must Do to Stop It