Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Opposing US War in NJ Public Schools

It was an honor to be invited to provide a workshop on behalf of NJ Anti War Agenda at the MAPSO Freedom School December 8 Educator Conference entitled Family Separation, Then, Now and Future Resistance.  Our workshop was entitled “US Military Recruitment: Endless Wars and Family Separation and featured Lisa Davis, an antiwar and justice activist and member of Peoples Organization for Progress and Black is Black Coalition, Tahir Flournoy, Director of Street Opera and Bob Witanek (me), founder of NJ Antiwar Agenda.  The event took place at Colombia High School in Maplewood, NJ.


Lisa provided an overview of the cultural mechanisms being used to drive military recruitment of youth including the film industry which partners with the Defense Department, allowing script and plot review, in exchange for access to military scenes and equipment for settings purposes.

Tahir provided an account of how he organized Street Opera, which is a music and arts troupe, started at Arts High School in Newark, as a way to organize youth artistic support for and engagement in antiwar and other struggles.  Street Opera will present a showcase of the music and other 
performances being prepared in late January or possibly February 2019.  From the flier distributed on the topic at the event:

Street Opera Youth Performance Troupe Plans January Showcase
We have been rehearsing Wednesdays immediately after dismissal, but the ensemble is open to more members and we will arrange rehearsals during lunch.  You can also access the materials at this link and learn on your own or arrange for rehearsal times with members who have been attending the rehearsal sessions: http://goo.gl/rCexMU

We hope to hold the showcase in a room at Arts High School.  We want to invite parents and friends to see our first showcase.  We also invite more students to participate in the pieces we have begun working on as well as to sign up to perform vocal, instrumental, dance, and spoken word acts – pieces of a topical nature that highlight the legacy of struggle and the need to carry forward to improve our condition.  Vocalists, a piano accompanist will be available.

Reception featuring pizza and soda will be available after the performances.  If you are interested, please text Tahir ASAP:  862-754-6691

In the second of the two sessions we presented, a sampling of a Street Opera rehearsal featuring piano performance and lead vocals by Robert Colby-Witanek was provided.

The most important component of the morning session was the participation of 5 students from Colombia High School, all of whom are students of T.J. Whitaker, a founder of MAPSO Freedom School and one of the key organizers of the event who teaches English and Writing at Colombia High School.

The students seemed genuinely interested in the issue and possibly starting up some activities there at Colombia around the issues of US war and recruitment.  There also was serious interest in possibly initiating Street Opera efforts at Colombia HIgh School.  We discussed with them what activism was already in place including what groups were there - and who might be a good faculty member to advise if a new group or effort were to be started.  One of the students was an elected school board member and we discussed finding out exactly that are Colombia High School policies regarding military recruitment.  We did confirm that the military is recruiting at Colombia and is meeting students for recruitment purposes on the high school premises - which is fairly typical for high schools.

In between the workshops, I was able to speak to several high school teachers and they all told a common story - the military is all over NJ high schools, recruiting and several reported ROTC programs at their schools.  I spoke with high school teachers and staff from Franklin Township, Perth Amboy, Jersey City, Paterson, East Orange and Roselle, to name a few.  There was interest from all of them in the concept of connecting with antiwar students and helping to oppose recruitment,

One school counselor raised a challenging question, to which there is no perfect answer.  The question: What is the alternative given financial challenges the student and their family is facing, when the military is promising virtual worry free existence,  Of course we can raise skepticism about that recruiters tell and point out that no promises made are binding and if the order is to deploy - you are on your way to the front lines.

But the dismal economic options, with the difficulty of receiving scholarship and loans, the ridiculously high cost of higher education - unless we can offer a solution to those issues, suggesting to a student to turn down the recruiters is a hard sell.  I think the best answer, especially for a counselor, is to offer to work with the student to do a self assessment, to get a clear understanding why they are interested in the military, to help them identify their skills and assets and to help put all of their alternative options before them so they can at least make an informed choice.

NJ Anti War Agenda is going to proceed with the strategy of organizing high school students and teachers to resist war recruitment and build an anti-war movement.

As part of that we are reaching out to high school teachers around NJ to help assess the level of military recruitment going on and the potential for anti-war organizing and opposition to the recruiting.

Please click and complete the survey as soon as possible and also please forward to your colleagues who might also be interested.

We have a student survey as well and we ask all students who are in high school or will be within the next year to complete this survey:

The following is the list of suggested steps that we offered for teachers and students to work on these issues on the flier that we distributed at the MAPSO Freedom School event:

Suggested Actions for Countering War and Militarism in Schools

  • Engage in discussions among teachers and with students on the impact of war and US foreign policy on the community.
  • Teachers, parents, students let it be known of willingness to provide an alternative narrative to that of the recruiters and make written resources available to the students to resist recruitment pressures.
  • Teachers, students and parents should be aware of what the military recruitment rules of your district and should actively raise questions about such policies and refine them toward being more restrictive of military (and ultimately opposing) while providing space for recruiter challenging narrative within schools.
  • Conduct a survey of NJ schools about the prevalence of recruiters, analyzing disparities between focus on impoverished vs. wealthier school districts.
  • Organize discussions, education and develop curriculum on the impact of US war - on the planet and other peoples, on the US families with members participating in warfare, on the scarcity of funding to address the pressing community needs, like potable water, clean air, housing, fully funded education, disaster preparation, relief and rebuilding, meaningful livable labor with full benefits, national health care and many other needs.
  • Local, regional. statewide committees can form of students, faculty and administrators opposing war and war recruitment.
  • Antiwar and other issue based struggle of students and teachers should be encouraged and organized by faculty and students - an example Street Opera. Teachers who can serve as advisor to such groups can help in navigating district rules for student participation and organizing.
  • Coach students and help them and participate with them in how to organize meetings, protests, rallies - near high school site, and how to navigate school rules to advocate antiwar in front of school, in cafeteria, etc.  Teach organizing skills like event organizing, how to draft, print and then distribute fliers, banner and sign making, role play how to talk other students out of enlistment.