November 8, 2015

The Dialogue at a Harlem High School: "Hey! You're inside the building now!"

November 8, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


This reporter from Revolution/ has been running with a team going out in Harlem, spreading the word about the historic Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian on Revolution and Religion: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion. One of the key focuses of this work has been getting out to the youth. As the team wrote in their November 4, 2014 report: "The system tells these youth every day that they are nothing, that they can't do anything, don't count for anything. We need to really make the argument that this is for them; that they can count for something, they can be part of being emancipators of humanity." So this is the story of three days this past week of some concentrated work at one high school in Harlem where the team set out to make some breakthroughs among both students and the teachers.


A little background. There is a big park where students getting out of several different high schools come through after school. Revolutionaries have been doing lots of work here for many years, and most recently the Revolution Club was out here a lot building for October 22, the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Before this past week, the team had been at this park getting out hundreds of palm cards about the Dialogue. On Tuesday, the team made an assessment that there needed to be real efforts to get inside the school—to talk to the teachers and the students, with a focus on getting into classes to talk about the Dialogue and selling tickets, including blocks of tickets to both students and teachers.

Wednesday. In the morning the team is out at the park passing out palm cards, but some people on the team are also focusing on getting out the letter that calls on teachers to come to the Dialogue and bring their students. A student tells the team about a teacher she thinks would be interested in the Dialogue. A number of teachers take the letter—including several who stop and give their names. One teacher says they already know about the Dialogue and are going—they said they found out about it when they saw a flyer on the dean's desk. This was some indication the word was beginning to get around inside of the school.

In the afternoon, someone on the team follows up on this right away. The teacher who the student had directed us to was friendly, but didn't have too much to say—but then suggests we talk to another teacher who is the adviser to a school club. When the revolutionary goes to talk to her, there were about eight or nine students in the classroom and the adviser lets him talk to them. They are all pretty interested. One of them is familiar with the Revolution Club. He and two of his friends had the week before stopped at the table set up at the park. One had said, "We kept seeing you guys over here and we wanted to see what this is about." They read quotes from Bob Avakian and Cornel West on the displays and all three of them watched the video, "Bob Avakian, Legendary Freedom Fighter and Long Distance Runner." They all said they wanted to go and would have money on Monday. Then on Monday, one of them came by and put a dollar down on a ticket. The team member then went to talk to several other teachers.

The one who saw the flyer on the dean's desk teaches students who he said are having "trouble" and noted that these are kids that most need to be at the Dialogue, but are the ones who will have the hardest time getting there. He says they aren't "academically inclined" and thinks that they would have a hard time sitting though the program—and doesn't think there is any point in talking to them. But then the revolutionary says, let me try. The teacher says, OK, come back in an hour. So the revolutionary comes back and speaks to about 25 students. He starts off by talking about how fucked up the world is. He asks the students to raise their hands if they have been stopped and frisked by the police; if they know someone in prison; if they are concerned about the environment, the degradation of women. Lots of hands go up. He talks about BA as being someone who has spent the last 45 years dedicated to making revolution so that humanity can get beyond all this, for real. And he talks about Cornel, who identifies himself as revolutionary Christian and says people have to stand up to injustice and fight for a better world. The students are listening and the first response is from one young woman who jumps up and asks, "Can I bring my brother?"

Another teacher who had given his name in the morning says he likes Cornel West (was unfamiliar with BA) and is interested in getting kids to come but brings up that they can't afford the tickets. He also raises that he's concerned that because religion is involved that there might be static from parents. He is thinking of this from the standpoint of religion not being brought into the classroom. He wants the kids to go and is bringing up these issues, trying to figure out how it can happen. He also suggests another teacher for us to talk to, someone who he says is "a radical guy."

When the revolutionary talks to the radical teacher, he tells him about what happened with the kids who were really enthusiastic about coming to the Dialogue. If they come, he says, this will be a date they will remember, this can have a tremendous effect on these kids, on their thinking, on seeing things in a different way; they will be meeting people of great historical significance and this particular conversation is of great importance to figuring out how to get to a different world. The teacher seems to be turned on to this vision, inspired by what this could be. He knows about Cornel but nothing about BA. The revolutionary reports later that the thing in particular that moved him, and some of the other teachers as well, is that this was going to be a real dialogue, with back and forth between the two, that it is not a thing of "one-upmanship," where it's about who wins the argument in some competitive way, but that this is two people wrangling over these questions from the standpoint of freeing humanity.

The radical teacher is impressed by the Host Committee list, impressed by the range of people on it. But when he was asked about his students, he said he didn't think they would be the ones to go to this, at least he didn't see them going as a group. But he says that he will buy not only a ticket for himself, but also buy a $100 block of 10 tickets for the club students to go.

That night emails are sent to all these teachers, telling them more about the Dialogue, including a link to the BA Legendary Freedom Fighter video.

Thursday. Noche, from the Revolution Club, goes to a meeting of a school activity. On the way there, he runs into a young woman who he knows from being out in the park and she yells out to him, "Hey Noche, I see you're on the inside of the building now."

Noche asks her if she's coming to the Dialogue and she says, yeah my teacher has been talking about this—the teacher who had been talked to the day before—and he's offering extra credit for going. Noche asks her, "Are you going for the extra credit or because you want to go?" And she says, "To get the extra credit." Noche tells her more about the Dialogue, why it's something she's really got to be at and how "this is for people like you"—to which she says, "Oh, this is interesting, I do want to go to this" and she gives her name and email to stay in touch.

Noche then goes to the club and tells the adviser how the other teacher has offered to buy a block of tickets so that her students can go (she didn't know about this). She thinks this is great. But she says she is afraid some parents will not and that she would get in trouble if she talks to students about religion. She says she would like to see if she can get approval. She leaves to go talk to the assistant principal and comes back a little later saying that she has gotten the OK for this.

The student who put the $1 down on the ticket is in the room and he tells Noche, "If I tell people I'm going they will want to go too." So Noche talks to the adviser about having this student make an announcement about the Dialogue and help organize students to go.

Friday. Noche talks to another class in the school—a teacher who says he was in a meeting with some other teachers who had been talking about the Dialogue.

The three kids who had stopped by the table the week before and listened to the video  bought their tickets. A thing had been set up where students pay $2.50 for the subsidized tickets (the block tickets bought by the teacher). The teacher originally wanted it to just be $1 and we thought it should be $5, so we settled on $2.50. Part of this is getting the students to make some sort of commitment to this—making the point that this is a transformation, not a transaction—not just getting a free ticket.

The teacher who had committed to buying the block of tickets says that he doesn't want to buy 10 tickets if they aren't going to be used. He says we should go talk to the adviser first to see how many tickets she wants for the students. We go talk to her and at this point she is more enthusiastic about things and says that while there may not be 10 students from one particular school activity who want to go, she says she has a class with students who she thinks will want to go and that "the tickets will not be wasted." When the teacher who had said he would buy the block of tickets is told this, he buys the block of tickets.


This was three days in which the team was able to transform some things very quickly. Some territory has been seized—which has to really be built off of in this next week. The team has summed up—we can't just sit on these advances or we will lose them! We have to keep pushing things forward, consolidating and organizing people, solving problems that stand in the way of actually getting people to the Dialogue.

One thing that has been important this past week has been the pace and urgency with which the team carried out its work. They followed up on things quickly—like getting names in the morning and then following up on them a few hours later, then really pushing thing in terms of making arrangements to sell tickets and keep getting out to other teachers, students, talking to classes, etc. All this has conveyed to people something about how important this Dialogue actually is—and the urgency of more and more people getting involved in building for this historic event, getting the word out and not only coming themselves but getting others to come as well. In the course of these three days, things did change, you did start to feel things churn and there was a real buzz that began to develop, this time, not just on the outside in the park—but INSIDE the school as well. The students were talking about it. The teachers were talking about it. The teachers who wanted students to go were trying to work through the problems and obstacles that they were seeing. AND there was an exciting synergy between the teachers and students where the enthusiasm of the students was pushing the teachers, and the other way around as well.

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