The 2016 Montessori for Social Justice Conference — third of its name — was not like other Montessori conferences you may have been to. Different. Powerful. Hard to put your finger on — something electric in the air.
Part of it was the people there, and where they were coming from. Out of 133 registrants (double last year’s attendance, which was double the year before), 100 or so came from schools. The rest were from public Montessori organizations such as NCMPS and Montessori Partnerships for Georgia (profiled here), state and national organizations (AMS and the Ohio Montessori Alliance), colleges and universities (Yale, University of Ottawa, and more), or Montessori professionals or parents. Of the 50 schools represented, two-thirds were public charters, district, or magnet schools, but private schools were represented as well. Add to this diversity the highest concentration of Montessorians of color most of us have ever seen at a Montessori event: 15 in the group photo, something like 33 in all, 20 25% of attendees (by a somewhat unscientific count).
And why were they there? To learn, of course. To connect, as always. But more than that: this group was there to take action.
The Friday Crossroads Antiracism workshop (free, sponsored by AMS), optional but heavily attended, set the tone. Crossroads Antiracism Organization and Training has worked to dismantle systemic racism and build antiracist diversity in institutions since 1986, working with states, counties, cities, school districts, non-profits and more.
Friday’s workshop explored power relationships and privilege in society, structural racism as distinct from individual prejudice, and the ways institutions and systems build and maintain structural inequity. Participants brainstormed a wide range of structures that create barriers constraining less privileged (female, non-white, poor, queer, etc.) people’s access to Montessori. The idea of privilege was not new to most people in the room, but Montessori giving itself a critical self-examination? That was different.
Friday night’s convening session offered another departure from larger Montessori conference norms: carrying over an element of the first two MSJ events, conference leaders opened the schedule to participant-facilitated “Open Space” workshops, meeting parallel to scheduled events, in a time slot of their own, or as informal mealtime gatherings. Montessorians of Color, a Queer Lunch Table, Restorative Justice, and Sex Education for Adolescents were among the many offerings.
Saturday kicked off with an inspirational meditation on grace from Darcell Butler of City Garden Montessori School, a public charter in St. Louis, Missouri. Charged with emotion from Butler’s presentation, participants dispersed into a day of workshops. Saturday’s offerings ran the gamut of social justice issues: racism, classism, support for English language learners in reading and math, support for low-income families and children experiencing poverty-driven trauma, and the history and diversity of public Montessori. Of course one could only attend a handful of the workshops, but the energy in the rooms I was in, and in the halls between talks, was intense. The day closed with dinner (the food was great, and diverse in its response to dietary preferences, throughout), heartfelt thanks and testimonials, singing, and energetic planning for next year’s event.
So what made it different?
First, the people. The representation, the diversity, and the sense of mission and purpose they brought gave the event a buzz that’s hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it.
Second, the structure and the content. The open and inclusive format matched the tone and substance of the material, and for the most part, things went well and conflicts worked themselves out — or were worked out with directness and honesty all around.
As for the workshop topics themselves, consider this. Taking the 2016 AMS National Conference as a benchmark, Saturday’s Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch Lecture from Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and hailed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “America’s Mandela”) certainly put social justice at the top of the bill. But beyond that, by my count at most eight of the 133 workshops featured “social justice” topics: five on public schools, one on diversity, one on culturally responsive education, and one on Native American culture. This isn’t a criticism of AMS — let’s remember that they have provided travel sponsorships and funding for complimentary registrations for the 2015 and 2016 MSJ Conferences, and their underwriting of this year’s Crossroads workshop. Looking back through NAMTA’s and AMI-USA’s events doesn’t show much more.
So this event met an unmet need — fed a hunger, slaked a thirst. There is a pent-up energy, motivation, and drive in the Montessori movement. For years we’ve been drawn to, and worked in, Montessori with a mission for social justice and peace. But it’s sometimes been hard to translate that drive in to action. For those of us in private schools for the affluent or even the middle class, we’ve had to express that mission with financial aid, service projects, and the knowledge that children of privilege deserve progressive education, too. (Not to mention the leverage effect: just, peaceful children of privilege will grow up to be just, peaceful adults with a lot of influence in the world.)
Those of us in public schools have been at times hampered by a system which resists our ideology of free children and human development, and which, come to find out, is as embedded in structural inequity as any other institution in society.
But the Montessori for Social Justice conversation empowers people to act, and act today. People went home from this conference with tools to start working with and within Montessori to dismantle racism and oppression right away.
Partly because of the sense of mission, no doubt party because of the size of the group, there was an excitement in the air, and a feeling of being part of something big, right at the beginning — a movement. It might have felt a lot like the early days of Montessori, at her first lectures and training courses. This is something real, something different, something powerful. MSJ is helping to lead the movement in the 21st century towards the long-unfulfilled promise of changing the world.