A Conversation on Youth and Cooperation
[Editor's note: this is the first of a two-part conversation between James Dunn and Len Krimerman that was originally recorded as an episode of the GEO podcast. Unfortunately, the recording quality was quite low, even by our standards, and we didn't feel comfortable subjecting listeners to it. So we're presenting the conversation in text form, below. Thanks to Rob Brown for doing the transcription.]
Josh: Alright, James, why don’t you introduce yourself to us and tell us a little bit about what you’re doing with the youth out in Minnesota?
James: Cool, absolutely. I am James Dunn, I am a resident of Northfield, Minnesota, which is a rural city out in southeastern Minnesota, about 45 minutes south of Minneapolis and St. Paul. We’re not quite a suburb. We’re just far enough away from the suburbs to where we are our own town, our own economy really based on two colleges. And that dictates a lot of the culture and politics and economics of what is done in Northfield and the political economy context.
Most specifically I work mostly through Young People’s Action Coalition, of which I am the co-director and co-main organizer between two of us who are the staff organizers of Young People’s Action Coalition. We work with high school students across Minnesota, mostly in the Twin Cities, southeastern Minnesota, and Northfield. And we do a lot of different fun things, but particularly our goal is to build an intersectional high school youth movement in Minnesota in particular, with “intersectional” meaning multiple issues. So we’re not just environmentalists, we’re not just feminists, not just anti-racists, we are all of these things.
And how do we bring together all of those things? And particularly, when we look at all of the different issues how do they intersect? How do they cross over? What commonalities do they have? And especially we tend to find they share root causes, they share common root causes. So how do we analyze problems to the extent we see they’re connected — see they share root causes — and then take action strategically against those root causes? So that’s really our goal. We want to do that with high school students in particular because we kind of see the need for rebuilding the left in general across the United States.
We’ve gone through many periods of the left being battered down and beaten back. So we see part of our project as a longterm investment into politicizing and helping high school students become leaders for organizing and social change in a really serious and a radical way, so that when they graduate high school they’re going to do one of three things. They’re either going to go into the workplace right away and there would be more of them to go radical if they know how to organize. Or they’re going to go to college. If they go to college it’s radical if they know how to organize. Or they’re going to stick around and organize with us, in which case they’re radical to organize high school students. So we see all of that as really beneficial for building the left in general, and that’s kind of the focus of that work. So that’s Young Peoples Action Coalition.
The other thing I do — I’ll try to make this brief — is general work in the solidarity economy. So in Northfield, we’re a rural economy. That means that we have an emphasis on land, which means food production. Rural areas are also usually the areas where extraction for energy, like mining and fracking things, tend to happen. We’re mostly surrounded by farms in Northfield so we do a lot of work with sustainable farming. We have a youth-run sustainable farm worker cooperative that fluctuates in its membership depending on who’s in Northfield at the time based on school and who wants to stick around for awhile, things like that. Some of us hold that down. We’re working on a composting curbside collection service worker cooperative in Northfield and trying to tie those together through a central organization that can help hold those co-ops accountable to progressive politics, social justice values, culture creation, and things like that.
So we kind of tie in our work in Young Peoples Action Coalition on general political youth organizing and education to the solidarity economy because it’s not hard to jump from, “Wow, the problems we’re facing are really rooted in capitalism. How do we build a different economy and political system?” Well, then we can jump to the solidarity economy and cooperatives in particular. So we tie all of this together and it looks different ways in different times. We’re excited we’re about to bring a whole crew of high school student leaders to the Cooperative Youth Council convergence in Hampton, Georgia in January. We’re really excited about that because that will be, for a lot of this current young people crew, their first exposure to the cooperative movement really in depth. So we’re really excited about that. I think I can leave it there for now.
Len: That’s very remarkable and great stuff. One question I had is how is your program related to the actual school system? Do your students get some sort of academic credit or is this all sort of a bit ‘over and above’ what they have to do in high school itself?
we’re not just environmentalists, we’re not just feminists, not just anti-racists, we are all of these things
James: Right. That’s a great question, and one that we found many unique ways to play with, ultimately. But on the whole, it’s mostly kind of ‘outside and above’. So most of our core team of high school student leaders, they have clubs that exist in their school, like social justice club or anti-racism club or environmental club. And those are technically school clubs and membership is not mandatory, it’s not like every student is part of it. It’s usually five to twenty, maybe thirty students per club. And our core team is leaders within those clubs who come together from multiple schools across the region. So we help with kids from this club from this school, with a couple kids from this club from this school. So our program is not sanctioned by the education system. The schools don’t know we exist, per se, as the Young Peoples Action Coalition, but the membership of it is rooted in the clubs and things in the schools.
We’ve also had a really unique relationship to charter schools in that I went to a charter school for the last two years of my school life, and so it was like, “Wow, this is great; I get to do everything I’ve always wanted to do in my education with this independent study”, and then a couple years later it’s like, “Oh... These are being used to privatize the education system. This is a lot more complicated.” So we have a unique relationship to several charter schools in that students will talk to their teachers, and they’ll bring us in and we’ll get to do whole sessions of 18 classes for the whole semester on climate justice or capitalism and social issues. So it’s a really interesting thing. Sometimes we work right within the school, especially charter schools that are a lot more open to that, where the students have some democracy, where the teachers have some democracy, and they’re like, “Heck yeah come do that; that sounds great.” But usually our work is outside the school system, perforating back into the school system. That’s the short version.
Len: Well let me segue a little bit into what I saw as a possible way of closing the gap. I’ll back up from that a bit because what I’ve seen for the most part within the cooperative movement, and solidarity economy movement, and all of its different varieties, is somewhat of a reluctance to do any organizing or recruiting or even, sort of, education within the public school system. And as a result, students wind up, after high school or even college for that matter, knowing absolutely nothing about what’s been happening and some of the emerging victories that the cooperative movement, worker cooperative movement, solidarity economy movement, have made. And they probably couldn’t identify any particular enterprise within them. And so if we are really going to make a major difference, that has to be altered. Because if you’re just turning out students who never have heard of this, and also are basically just lectured to maybe 80% of the time and not given any opportunity to find their own pattern of learning and develop a way to bring that into their education, people are not going to be ready for or attracted to these alternative economic initiatives.
Len: I began reading — basically because I felt it sounded like something interesting; I didn’t know much about it — a lot of stuff about participatory action research driven by students, and high school students in many cases. And these projects have happened mostly in urban settings on one coast or another coast and so on. Also in Colorado, also in New Mexico, and it did take different forms but the basic idea is that the teacher’s there not to teach but to facilitate, to develop the agency and the guts and creativity of the students.
I had a really neat experience last week. I go almost always to a Thanksgiving celebration sort of in the west of Connecticut where I meet people that I used to hang out with in New York and New Haven some 20 or 25, 30 years ago. And one of them, a fellow named Rich Burness, he and his wife have been teaching in one particular town in the public school system for — I would think — over three decades. His wife came in I think a little after he started the program. And the program is basically a preschool on the Summerhill model within the public school system. And every time before this time, Rich has sort of said, “Oh it’s just tough going. Every time they send in a new administrator they want to cut the program, and we keep fighting for our life,” and so on. This time was different. This time he told me that he, and some other project in Wisconsin, and some fairly large state initiative in New Hampshire had been singled out and they’re about to receive some sort of appreciation and grant for developing these programs and keeping them sustainable over two or three — in his case three — decades.
Len: So I asked him what’s this program in New Hampshire. He mentioned some things and so I did a little bit of research about that. And low and behold, you have videos of kids in junior high as well as in high school saying, “This is great. I can learn whatever I want,” and then we decide how to bring in the so-called basics. We want math, then we bring it into what we actually are loving to do and want to do. One student said, “Well, I got a whole year off to develop my project, and I check in every so often with the teacher, and so on. But basically it was up to me to figure out what to do,” and so on. And those are exactly the kinds of students you want to see exposed to the cooperative model. And it’s happening.
And so I think it’s there if we can only link up our solidarity economy initiatives and our cooperative initiatives to places like this that already recognize and appreciate the need for young people to have their own sense of learning and their own way to figure things out and work together collectively, but also have what one of the people who knows about this is calling a ‘radical collective imagination’. Beautiful term. So that’s one of the things that I’m going to be looking into more and more, writing about, and seeing if we can’t make some sort of connection between these participatory action things.
Participatory action research goes back 10, 20, 30 years ago. They were doing it at Highlander at one time. So it’s not unknown, but this is different because in most of those cases you have a sociologist or someone trained who works with the community and it’s sort of a shared relationship. But in these youth participatory actions, it’s mostly the youth who are in charge. They may get some support, some guidance, but they don’t have to so it goes just a bit more in the right [laughter] — I think — the right direction. At any rate, it seems to me — I’ll finish on this note — that the sanctuary movement is turning out to be something along the same lines as participatory action research. I’ve been in contact with a group called Cosecha, which means “harvest”.
James: Oh yeah, I gotcha. For sure.
Len: You know them?
James: Yep the new immigrant movement. Absolutely!
Len: Yeah, and they’re national and they’re having trainings and so forth. And I was inspired by their principles which include the idea that — as they put it — we won’t be dancing with either the Democrats or Republicans. They’re not going to depend on the political parties to get what they think they need and deserve, and the legitimacy and dignity that the immigrant populations merit. And I think there’s a general sense of leaving behind or detaching ourselves from the institutions that have undermined our own agency. That’s happening with youth participatory action research, and it’s also happening I think with the efforts to create all sorts of sanctuaries either within states and they have a governor who is refusing to have his state invaded by ISIS and so on — I mean ICE... same thing. So that’s my feeling, that the Trump election is actually prodding people to see that the institutions that permitted him to win the election, that have manufactured a consciousness within us as educators and students, those institutions should be set aside. And we need to develop other ones that are detached from them in some cases. That will be done not so much by forming entirely new things outside, but by demanding that the institutions permit this as an option and give that option plenty of support. So that’s basically my rap on how I think these various movements are what I call ‘seeds of separation’. It’s not so much that we want to take over the American national institutions as we want to detach ourselves from them, and that can read in many different ways.
James: Yeah, that’s all awesome. I totally agree. I know I’m personally less familiar with the exact logistics of participatory action research, and I’m now definitely going to study that more. This fits the general scope of part of our organizing with Young Peoples Action Coalition. There are so many realms that you touched on that this is all relevant to. And one them is about how much do we act to change the existing institutions to be what we want them and need them to be, versus how much do we detach and forget them and build completely new things?
I think education is one of these systems where we have to grapple with this especially. Because there’s room for both in education to me, whereas with militaries and police I’d rather scrap those and build something totally different as opposed to reform them. But education is the realm where the current route that a lot of people push as “education reform” is about privatizing schools which isn’t actually what we want. So we need to wage movements and organizing within the public school system.
So one of our general things that we’re trying to move towards is we’re meeting young people where they’re at with the issues they care about. The hot things are racism, and feminism, and the environment, and ultimately a lot of things. But usually the cutting edge of what high school students especially are thinking about is a critique of capitalism but it’s not “we need the solidarity economy, we need to democratize our institutions.” So we’re trying to bridge that so-called gap from oppression issues to the economic system that is inherently going to keep doing this, and to how do we get out of it. So what we see is this combination of what’s the push within education that we want to make? What do we want to organize the students and teachers and parents around to win? And this isn’t fleshed out yet.
We’re really moving towards this slowly within our core crew who we’re working with right now, but we really want to move towards what ends up being demands to democratizing schools or making cooperative schools instead. In particular, the other components that come to mind would definitely be participatory research, in general popular education, teaching that’s oriented toward learning styles, community schools where adults can come and take classes. There’s a lot of structures already based on this, and it’s sort of project-based learning. Generally smaller classes and more teachers. There’s a lot of demand for ending standardized testing. There’s a lot of demand for things like, “Do we want to get rid of that, do we want to get rid of this?” But on the whole we want to demand democratically controlled schools by the community, parents, teachers, and students.
We have to democratize the banks; we have to democratize workplaces. We have to democratize the government itself.
And what’s the style of teaching? Well, participatory action research, I think, is a great model for that. So how do we help get students to those demands? Because that’s what we want to organize around. And how much do we just build new charter schools that do that? Which I don’t think its bad, its just complicated. I went to a school that was independent study and project-based, and that was the perfect thing for me. I’m all about it. That’s a great model for certain kids at least. So it’s not like I’m against that, but it’s kind of in the realm of most students are in the public education system in most cities, most states, and all that. But how do we meet people there? How do we work with the existing teachers and unions to actually wage a struggle for a whole model of democratic schools, participatory education, smaller classes, the whole model of ‘schools we deserve’ (which is kind of a term that came out of the Chicago teachers strike in 2012)? How do we put forward that whole model and get students and teachers and parents to organize around that? That’s what’s kind of severing the link between capitalism and oppression and the education system. That’s very much our goal of where we want to be headed.
And we really see that as if we could wage that struggle within schools and be a part of that, that’s going to produce a whole generation of people who are like, “I want to democratize everything”. This isn’t just about schools. We have to democratize the banks; we have to democratize workplaces. We have to democratize the government itself. So that’s very much that link we see there. We need to not just tell people about co-ops in schools, we need to have people have hands-on experience of democracy and fighting for that democracy in schools so that they can then bring that into workplaces and even into unions in general, democratizing unions, participatory budgeting within the cities, participatory decision making within the cities. There are all these realms of democracy where, for us, we really see if we can catalyze this at the level of student leaders, we hope to catalyze that on the level of a movement for democratization in general, because it’s bigger than just democracy. That’s just the jargon we use for it. But that’s just some of the thoughts that were coming off of that. And I think the participatory action research is 100% in that model of what are the schools we deserve, that we need to start organizing around. And sometimes with the organizing, we don’t need to fight someone for it. Sometimes we actually sit down with the administration and they say, “Hey, that’s a great idea that looks really good. Let’s do that.” So not everything has to be a fight even though we think that fighting can lead to further commitment, further politicization and analysis. But it’s like we just want the right model. So all of these different routes get to this is the model of education we want that hopefully can lead people into the solidarity economy and all that. It’s exciting stuff to say the least.
Len: How long have you been working with the youth organization that you’re with?
James: I think this is maybe technically our fourth year working within the school-year calendar. We started more or less three and a half years ago as a group of high school students. I think I was the only one that was into co-ops, but we came together around the idea of, “Hey, you’re an environmentalist, and you’re for gay rights, and you’re for immigration, but we should all talk about these issues together and take action together.” So we came around the idea of building an intersectional youth movement itself. But it took two years to learn how to actually organize, and then a few of us stuck around post-high school to really commit to that organizing. So this year is our first school year really having this core team of student activist leaders from multiple schools strategizing together, learning together. These are the folks that we’re taking to the cooperative youth convergence in January who will get that first taste of ‘if we democratize the workplaces’, well we hope that out of that we can have a conversation about what if we democratize the schools. So we’re really fresh at this. Ultimately, we’ve been doing it for about three and a half years, maybe four, but this is the first year where it’s been really serious and we’re doing what we wanted to. So it’s really exciting. Hopefully we can do another podcast after a year and see how much we’ve built toward this democratizing schools/ solidarity economy vision and the young peoples’ movement, but right now we’re just at the verge of that.
Go to the GEO front page
James Dunn, Len Krimerman (2017). The Kids are Alright, Part 1: A Conversation on Youth and Cooperation. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/kids-are-alright