Jonna Perrillo Speaks at the Fourth Educating Harlem Lecture ☆

Jonna Perrillo, Assistant Professor of English Education at University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity, was featured on Wednesday, February 5 at the fourth lecture in the Educating Harlem: Histories of Learning and Schooling in an American Community series.

In the lecture, Perrillo discussed what learning and schooling meant for Harlem in 1930-1980, focusing specifically on the complex relationship between teacher unionization and civil rights in New York City.  Starting in the 1920s, the school system in New York City was divided into two sections, schools for blacks and schools for whites. It was the time of school inequity that deeply involved race and civil rights. It was also the time of division within the teacher unions which sometimes clashed into each other due to different philosophies.

Jonna Perrillo (Photo credit: the University of Texas at El Paso)

Perrillo further pondered over the questions that provoked the teachers at the time. “What are teachers’ commitments to responding to injustice within schools? Should they align with parents or political district officials? Is it possible to align with both when the two are at odds with each other? And how should they protest injustice?” she said. “These aren’t just questions about how teachers think about race but about how they conceptualize professional advocacy and the best possible ways for improving the jobs and improving the schools.”

Perrillo often brought out examples from her book Uncivil Rights which she said she intended to be an exploration of how the few social movements, teacher unionism on one hand and African-American-led movement for school equity on the other, intersected. “Sometimes they did support each other and sometimes they actually worked in really oppositional ways,” she said. “So my goal was to trace that relationship and see the ways in which teachers learned from that experience.”

In a short interview, Perrillo said, “I got interested in unions because I wanted to privilege teachers’ voices whenever I wrote. I wanted to spend as much as I could with the kinds of things that teachers actually decided themselves and maybe even wrote themselves, and so my dissertation had been based on a bunch of journals in which teachers were published. And I just thought the union would be a really good archive into nonpublished teachers’ voices.”

With the often negative criticism directed at teachers unions, Perrillo said that there is still a necessity for teachers unions. She noted that while there were certainly bread and butter concerns and even the issue of protecting unqualified teachers, they were tiny part of teachers unions’ history. Yet, they are the things that public probably knows the best or thinks about first, she said.

Jonna Perrillo shows images to the audience during her lecture. (Photo credit: Barry Goldenberg)

“So I really wanted to uncover what else they do and why else they’re important,” said Perrillo. “And I think that their relationship with African American parents, with the role that they sometimes did play in equalizing schools or improving education in minority schools was really important. And I think if we don’t have unions, we don’t really have anything to take the place of that. So I’m by no means thinking that it’s perfect. I just think that work needs to happen, and it needs to happen in an organized fashion. And I actually think that unions have learned in recent years. I think the problem is that they’re politically insignificant. So to some degree, what they’ve learned really doesn’t matter because they don’t have the political power that they used to.”

Many often call out in dismay how our public school system has collapsed and does injustice to the students. With regard to the role of the unions in such context, Perrillo emphasized that the voices of the teachers and parents need to be heard, and she said that the recent 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike was one clear incident where those voices were heard and listened to.

“I think so much has to change. It’s hard to know where to begin. But I think one of the things we can say for sure is that teachers and parents both are really absent in the policy debates and really invisible in school reform right now,” said Perrillo.

While striking is not always an option and unions alone certainly cannot effect change, Perrillo said that unions do have a role to play in today’s public education: “One of the things that I also thought was heartening about the Chicago strikes was that it just made those people visible and their investment visible, and we need to see more of that.”

(Full lecture can be seen at

By Jamie Kim

Arts & Humanities Staff Writer