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TFA’s Response to my Rejection (and of course, my response back!)

So recently, TFA offered me $1000, and I declined the money. My friend from TFA who relayed the offer yesterday responded to my blog post. Below is his reply, and mine, in the full spirit of transparency.

Hi Hannah,

I hope all is well! I’m reaching out because I was deeply disappointed to read your blog post today. Regardless of the tenor of the online conversation, you and I have always maintained excellent working relations, predicated on our shared desire to operate in the best interest of kids at all times. I have great respect for your passion and dedication. It was your passion and dedication to elevate student voices that sparked the idea, during our an initial conversation in the fall, to bring students themselves on USC campus to share their own voices. I remain as dedicated to that idea and excited about its potential to empower students as leaders in education.

I believe that true change will come from student leadership and that’s why I hoped to support you and the EdEmpowered Conference this Spring. After reading your blog, I am sadden that, what could have been a moment of true collaboration for and with students, feels like another moment of division among adults. My hope was to help the conference in any way to elevate student’s voices as the central focus. The only request that I made to accompany that support was that we keep the distraction of online attacks out of the equation. The contribution was offered in the spirit of two organizations with shared goals maximizing our collective energies and resources for a common purpose. The education conversation has become increasingly polarized by a host of issues. It is time that adults, such as you and I, move our personal agendas aside and truly empower students to advocate for students.

As key advocates of USC’s Ed Month, having in the past co-sponsored numerous events, including one hosted by our Founder and former CEO Wendy Kopp, TFA remains available to help the conference move forward- especially if local student’s voices are central.

All the best,

[omitted for privacy]

(P.S. Thank you for respecting my anonymity online; but I do ask that in the spirit of full transparency that you place this correspondence on your blog- THNAKS!)

Hi [omitted for privacy],

I hope all is well with you as well!

I want to be clear. I did genuinely appreciate your support for this event. After you called me the first time, I decided to share with you the materials I shared with everyone else that I had reached out to for support, because I have faith that you really do care about students’ voices, and I deeply respect your passion for this event’s mission. That has not changed one bit, and I appreciate you saying what you did because it really rings true for me.

The reason I am upset, however, is because originally I had asked for your support, as an individual. I made clear from the beginning that my request was for individual donations from personal supporters of the event. Yesterday when you called me with the offer, I was confused because I was under the impression that donations would be coming from people in your networks who you shared it with, as this has been been the method by which I have been asking friends of mine to help spread awareness and raise funds for the event. It wasn’t until you talked about taking off the #resistTFA content on the EmpowerED website and you mentioned the organization a couple times that I realized the money would be coming, with strings attached, from TFA itself, despite my previous requests. At this point, I felt powerless, censored, and manipulated by an organization that wanted to put their name on my event, once again despite my previous requests. I was very taken aback and confused by the whole thing. And while technical reasons do make it difficult to take money from TFA, I will reiterate my reasons for refusing funds from TFA.

I did it essentially to honor student voice.

A lot of TFA staff people talk about working together for the sake of students and setting aside personal agenda. All my life, I have been the kind of person who believes in that idea. But this isn’t about interference with an agenda; it’s about my values. I cannot morally accept funds from an organization that I resist because I value the experiences and voices of my fellow student organizers. I cannot work with an organization that is hurting public education in the same communities that students on the EmpowerED core team call home. I cannot work with an org that is simultaneously in the way of what I am trying to achieve, which is to honor student voice, and of what EmpowerED students are trying to achieve, which is educational justice for their communities.

In fact, the high school student representing the Newark Students Union just spoke up last week about the NSU’s stance against having TFA in their schools because they see the org as a threat to educational justice in their community. The student representatives from Chicago have also had a history of resisting Teach for America as a force that was undermining their community schools. So in the spirit of solidarity with those students and other students in the student power movement, I refuse to affiliate with an organization that so many students are actively fighting against. I choose instead to value their stories.

TFA may have sponsored past EdMonth events, but this EdMonth event will not be one of them. Because the conversation is shifting and EmpowerED will be unprecedented in its ability to unite students who say enough to top-down corporate education reforms that were made without their voice.

So while I understand and appreciate that you as an individual believe so much in the power of student voice, I cannot say the same for Teach for America. These are my reasons for declining this partnership.

Thank you.

Best,

Hannah Nguyen

For the record, I am tired of the “adults need to work together for kids” rhetoric because it negates the very core of grassroots organizing, power struggles, and collective liberation.
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Today, I was offered $1,000. By Teach for America.

ImageAnd I’m turning it down. Here’s why:

As you all may know, I’ve been very busy recently putting together a student-led education conference for youth in LA called EmpowerED: Los Angeles Student Power 2014. I’m incredibly excited for this event, but have been struggling to raise money to fly in student organizers from all over the country. So I’ve been running a crowd-funding campaign to get the funds to make this personal dream of mine come true. Right now, I am a little less than $1000 short of my goal.

Let’s backtrack to a few months ago, when the ideas were still brewing in my mind. I knew that I wanted to provide a space for students to elevate their student voices and organize together for educational justice, but I wasn’t quite sure how at the time. Also during this time, my organization, Students United for Public Education, an entirely student-led, grassroots organization that defends public ed and believes in elevating student/community voice in the struggle for #edujustice (not #edreform), had just launched its first campaign: Students Resisting Teach for America.

After I started participating in the #resistTFA campaign a few months back, TFA folks started to reach out to me to speak with me about the campaign. They were all very respectful, very amicable, and very open to my ideas. We formed friendships, despite our differences in opinions about TFA, based on our mutual passion for education.

Like I always say, I don’t automatically hate everyone in TFA. I know there are genuinely passionate and caring individuals in the organization; I’m even friends with a few of them. With them, I shared my story, my reasons for doing the work that I do, and what I fight for in education, which included my vision for elevating student voice through the EmpowerED conference, a vision that is now coming true by the end of March!

And just a few weeks ago, one of the people I spoke to from TFA a few months back reached out to me, told me they (for privacy reasons) heard about my conference, and were very excited that my vision I had shared with them months ago was actually coming true! They offered their support in any way possible, and I was grateful…

…but careful. I trusted them, but I couldn’t trust the organization they was a part of. I told them that right now, my biggest problem was funding, but I could not (for paperwork reasons) and would not accept funds from any organization (in my mind: especially not TFA). Support had to come individually, from people who were personally standing by the cause. I shared with them information that I had shared with all of my friends/colleagues who I had reached out to in the past to help me spread the word and raise funds through my crowd-funding campaign. To be honest, I didn’t think much would come of it. Crowd-funding has been very exhausting, and I’ve reached out to so many people, with very little outcomes. Needless to say, I was in a desperate position as an organizer.

Now today, I get a call that I will be getting $1000, enough to meet my goal for the EmpowerED conference. I was ecstatic.

But then I was told that I had to take off the embedded SUPE facebook page on the EmpowerED website, because there were posts about #resistTFA there. And that’s when I realized that this money had strings attached, as it would be, despite my previous requests for individual donations, coming from the organization itself, an organization that I resist for very deeply personal, complex, and unique reasons.

I am ashamed to say that I was tempted. Of course, I was tempted. This money, as dirty as it was, would save me so much time and energy trying to raise the remaining $1000 on my own, or trying to make my event work with $1000 less than I intended. I was in a desperate position, but I ultimately decided, a few minutes after talking to them and thinking it through, that I could not accept the money. 

I refuse to accept money from a corporation that is funded by those who contribute to the destabilization of so many communities. These communities are home to the students who will be featured at EmpowerED, students who have made history by coming together with their peers and fighting back against injustices like school closings, high stakes testing, budget cuts, and charter expansion, all of which TFA has had either a direct or indirect role in causing/perpetuating.

How could I take their money? This money was Walton, Gates, and Broad money. This money was made off of the backs of workers and poor communities. This money was behind the oppression of my people.

So, no. I will not be accepting $1000 from Teach for America.

Because I cannot be bought.

If you are an individual who supports student voice in education, please make a donation to EmpowerED 2014. We have to take care of our own. This money will be going directly to a truly grassroots, student-led event that will revolutionize education through the student power movement. Not the corporate, top-down education reform movement.

Thank you.

Peace, love, and lots of power,

Hannah Nguyen

So many dimensions… so much to consider

As I’m currently out of the country, finding time to really type out my thoughts on one topic has been tough. I’ve mostly been reading an eclectic selection of articles. While I do have several drafts saved on a myriad of topics that all have to do with education, it’s hard to know where to begin. They’re all intertwined and you simply can’t talk about one without bringing up the other.

The complexity of education is definitely overwhelming but also very humbling. It reminds me to take a step back, consider every detail, and always, always, always remember the students.

And it reminds me to keep going. The journey will be challenging, but rewarding. There is much to be learned and much to be taught and much to be done on my part. I’m only barely starting.

This is more of a personal post, I guess, to remind myself of the many things I have to continue to keep in mind as I move forward. Feel free to add any things you feel would be helpful to consider. 

  • Poverty and economic inequality (root cause and/or effect?)
  • Common Core 
  • NCLB & RttT
  • Teacher unions
  • Teacher evaluations
  • Teaching as a profession
  • Ed rheeform/rephorm/deform & corporate, privatized agenda
  • Reinventing education
  • Student voice and power (must be considered throughout all discussion…how is the best way to go about this?)
  • Socioeconomic ramifications of certain policies (budget cuts, funding issues)
  • Involvement of community members, parents, etc…
  • Civic education

Imagining Learning – Donate Today!

“If we can’t even give our students a voice, how can we expect to give them an education?” –Daniel Kao

Image

Creative artwork that expresses the collective voice of the students at a Listening Session, hosted by Imagining Learning

Finally. A movement worth giving to. 

Imagining Learning is an unprecedented movement in education with (what I believe is) a game-changing vision. It is built on the principle and power of LISTENING, which is something so familiar to all of us, yet so absent when it comes to complicated and pressing issues like education.

Students have stories, ideas, and sentiments to share about their education. They need to feel like they matter. They need to be heard. Imagine the tremendous change that could come about, if we stopped to listen to them and collaborate with them to come up with productive solutions for our education system. Imagine how much more MOTIVATED students would be if they knew their stories and ideas and passion could make a difference.

Through their Listening Sessions, Imagining Learning is finally building a safe and trustworthy environment for students to voice their wisdom about education and participate in discussion and decision making. Their collective voice will then come to life through artistic expression and later presented to the leaders of our country so that there can be more productive communication around education that will lead to positive change!

This is SUCH a valuable opportunity that needs YOUR HELP today! There’s only TEN days left to donate to this amazing cause. Your money will directly fund listening sessions, which have already been requested in over 40 different locations in the US. Please help make this opportunity available for as many students as possible. This is the change we need! 

If you can’t donate at this time, PLEASE share the link with your friends and family! Thank you!

Further suggested reading

1. “To Give Students An Education, Give Them A Voice.” on Cooperative Catalyst

  • Every single sentence of that post spoke volumes to me, and it is definitely worth a read.
  • Some noteworthy quotes:
  1. “Students can no longer be treated as products of a factory line, because industries are no longer interested in pools of homogeneous workers.”
  2. “It’s nearly impossible to bring inspiring academic education to students when their basic human needs are not met. Every human has a need for relationship, trust, communication, and love.”
  3. “How would your high school experience be different if your teachers told you, “I am here to share the lessons I’ve learned so that you don’t have to make the mistakes that I did. You were born to change the world, so let me help you do that.” at the beginning of the school year?”

2. “How Can We Fix Education? Listen To Young People.” on GOOD

  • More on Listening Sessions, by the founders of Imagining Learning! Amazing article, definitely worth the read.
  • Some noteworthy quotes:
  1. “Listening seems a simple act, but it requires a deep caring, a complete absence of agenda, and a delight in hearing from young people. Creating a space for the purity of youth voices to emerge is a sacred act and we should approach it as such.”
  2. We work with teens, ages 13 to 19-years-old, and ask questions based on the word “HOW?”—How would you create a learning journey for yourself and others that you would love? How do you want to learn? How would you make a school no one wants to drop out of?
  3. Indeed, the first thing we usually hear at the end of a Listening Session is, “Thank you for listening, no one ever asks us what we think.”