Montessori for Social Justice: You might think it would go without saying.
After all, in many ways Maria Montessori fought for social justice from the very beginning. Before the first Casa dei Bambini in 1907, Montessori was already widely known as an advocate for social reform and the rights of children, and as an early feminist, speaking at national and international women’s conferences in 1896, 1899, and 1908. She spoke about and advocated for equal pay, equal social status, and voting rights for women, and for the rights of all children, but especially children with disabilities. Her book Education and Peace collects a career’s worth of speeches and writings about education as a force for social change which could bring about a more peaceful world, with just relations throughout humanity.
But Montessori’s vision of justice was always a vision of a future just world, brought about by a change in our relations to children. “The child is both the hope and promise of mankind” is a vision and a mission, but not an action plan for immediate change. “If you want peace, work for education, but be prepared to wait”, Montessori might have said. In 1961, Pope Paul VI made a more urgent appeal: “If you want peace, work for justice.” And the social justice movement of the early 21st century says, “if you want justice, why not start today?”
Montessori for Social Justice
Montessori for Social Justice (MSJ) grew out of the public Montessori world, although it has extended its vision as it has grown. MSJ began with the work of Mira Debs, Montessori parent, Rhodes scholar, and Yale Ph.D. candidate currently writing a book about public Montessori. During her dissertation field work, Debs told me, she kept running into people equally passionate about public Montessori, who wanted to connect. At Montessori conferences, she said, there would always be a lot of Montessori public people in the room at the end of the session, looking for ways to keep the conversation going.
Debs started MSJ as an email list and a Facebook page to facilitate communication after the 2013 International Montessori Congress in Portland, Oregon. Montessori Madman Daniel Peter-Lipstein suggested the group organize a conference of its own. City Garden Montessori Charter School in St. Louis, Missouri, hosted the 1st Public Montessori UnConference in June 2014, and the website Montessori for Social Justice was launched soon thereafter.
That first gathering was organized around public Montessori, recalling the Montessori Public Schools Consortium from the 90s. But already at the conference, the mission of those gathered began to at once broaden and refine in the direction of social justice. Attendees working in public programs, by their very nature, were often — although not always — already serving communities of poverty and of color, providing an educational model much more readily available to the privileged, and confronting issues of racism and inequity. But could private school teachers be included? Surely racism, sexism, and inequity don’t stop at the private school door. Could Montessori be seen as a force for social justice, wherever it is practiced? Could Montessori, even, take a close look at itself?
At the 2nd Public Montessori UnConference at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, the (at times challenging) conversation around mission continued. Ultimately, a Steering Committee was formed, and a clear set of goals was adopted, firmly centering the organization in its social justice mission, in line, after all, with the name of the original group. This year’s event, the Montessori for Social Justice Conference 2016, June 23-26 at Tobin Montessori School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, puts the mission in the tagline: Building the Public Montessori Movement and Advancing Educational Equity.
The Conference features an optional free workshop, Understanding Structural Racism, from Crossroads Anti-Racism, and a day full of workshops and presentations on racism, classism, anti-bias, diversity, LGBTQ students, and English language learners among many others. The American Montessori Society (AMS) has been a generous supporter of the Conference, sponsoring Friday’s anti-racism workshop, funding ten travel vouchers for public Montessori teachers, and providing one free conference registration for each Massachusetts public (including charter) Montessori school. MSJ itself still has Montessorian of Color scholarships available for, naturally, Montessorians of color who would not otherwise be able to attend. Registration available here. Video links from previous gatherings here. Hope to see you there!