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This is What Democracy Looks Like (from Arts Watch)

Kristen Engebretsen

This weekend I had the pleasure of experiencing my first authentic D.C. experience—the protest. I was drawn to the Save Our Schools March because I want to believe that America can still offer all students a quality PUBLIC education.

The Save Our Schools March (SOS) was a large umbrella event for anyone who is dissatisfied with our educational system. As a parent and an arts education advocate, my dissatisfaction has grown as our curriculum has dwindled. Cutting of subjects such as the arts, social studies, and science has been, to me, one of the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind.

So, on Friday my activism began with a screening of the film, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. It was great to watch this film in a room full of frustrated teachers.

There was booing when Arne Duncan said that the best thing that happened to New Orleans schools was Hurricane Katrina. There was hissing when Michelle Rhee bragged about her own private school experience. There was cheering when the teachers in the film spoke about public schools’ responsibility to educate the poorest and neediest of students.

I was thankful to meet the filmmakers and hear how their anger has turned into a work of art (the film) and launched a productive grassroots movement. At the end of the film I grabbed a blank piece of poster board to make my own protest sign for the next day’s rally and march.

The next morning, my daughter and I created a sign that read: “Keep Art in Public Schools.” I then lathered myself with sunscreen and headed out in the stifling D.C. weather, anxious to see what the SOS March would bring.

For the next two hours, I listened to teachers, parents, administrators, and other concerned citizens rant against current educational policies that are increasing economic and racial segregation and labeling schools as failures.

Speakers articulated solutions that would offer struggling schools more support, not more sanctions. Solutions that would empower teachers and principals to make curricular decisions. And solutions that would involve educators and community leaders directly in the process to reauthorize our federal educational policy.

I was humbled when I heard Jonathan Kozol evoke Martin Luther King, Jr., during his eloquent call for equality, including a dream of all students receiving a free, quality public education. I was floored by the honesty of superintendant John Kuhn from Texas when he asked congress, “Where is your merit pay? Your accountability?”

I cheered as Diane Ravitch told the crowd, “Carrots and sticks are for donkeys, not professionals.” And as Matt Damon took the stage to tell us about his own quality public education that instilled in him critical thinking, imagination, and curiosity, I proudly raised my “Keep Art in Public Schools” banner to protest the loss of these key skills in exchange for a high-stakes test.

As the rally reached its crux, the crowd spilled off the Ellipse and into the streets to march to the White House and back. And on this boiling hot day, I felt chills run down my back as the crowd swelled, banners waived, cars honked in support, and with one voice we began to call and respond: “Show me what democracy looks like! THIS is what democracy looks like!”

More so than the speeches, the rhetoric about education reform, or even the march itself, it was this chant that gave me hope for the future of our educational system. Because even if that system is broken, one thing remains untouched…our ability to say that it is broken. We can collectively stand up and disagree with the powers that be; we can even stand at the gates of the white house to shout it at the president.

As the march continued on past the white house and back to the Ellipse, it garnered attention from the throngs of tourists here in D.C. to see what our nation’s capital looks like. And now as local, I was proud to tell those tourists, “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

*Arts Watch is the bi-weekly cultural policy publication of Americans for the Arts, covering news in a variety of categories. Subscribe to Arts Watch or follow @artswatch on Twitter to receive up-to-the-minute news.

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