Forward Focus: Act Locally and Keep the Lights Turned Up

Like many of you, I’ve been dismayed at the recent barrage of executive orders, controversial nominees, and heated discourse on every news feed. At the same time, the amazing display of activism and civic engagement since the inauguration has been heartening. While none of us can go to every demonstration or contact our representatives constantly, the urge to act is strong.

So what do we do? As truly significant issues of democracy are at stake, how do we choose where to direct our energies to make a meaningful difference? When such questions come to mind, I recall the voice of the 11-year-old South African boy Nkosi Johnson, who was born with HIV and became famous for his memorable address at an international conference on AIDS in 2000. This wise young man urged those assembled to get busy – even in the face of scientific unknowns and the social stigma associated with the disease that would take his life less than a year later. He said, “Do all you can with what you have, in the time that you have, in the place you are.”

The members of AACTE and our professional colleagues can do a great deal. We just have to embrace the moment, assess our priorities, and focus on where we can have the greatest impact.

Focus on Campus – ‘The Place You Are’

College campuses are the crucible for debate and reflection on matters of democracy. Certainly since the Civil Rights movement, U.S. colleges and universities have been at the center of demonstrations and other forms of activism around social and political change, sometimes with steep costs for those involved.

Supporting students’ engagement in citizenship and advocacy is not always comfortable or easy, but it is critically important. We want to celebrate the courage of students’ convictions and aspirations. What’s more, as teacher educators, we must help our students recognize their key role in sustaining our democracy. They will educate the next generations of informed citizens, thus preparing the future electorate.

Students need our guidance and support as they develop the skills essential for responsible participation in a democracy. While we should take care to neither damper nor direct them, we should model engaged citizenship. Let students see us as an active part of the public discourse. Let them see us stand our ground; bring reason to the table; speak truth to power.

Focus on ‘What You Have’

What we have to offer is our professional knowledge base. We have amassed a body of research that has a lot to say about what works in education, including what policies are effective. When policy starts to creep (or leap) beyond the boundaries of what we know to be true, we have an obligation to point out the transgression. It is up to those who know better to set the record straight.

Yes, this means getting off campus, going to the school board meeting, putting ourselves in the hot seat. Our communities need us to say what is true, and our students need to see us use knowledge bravely and earnestly to benefit the larger community. We won’t stand for anyone telling us the lights are still on when we know they’ve been dimmed, and “alternative facts” will not prevail.

Focus on Networks

Although its effects may be far less visible on the ground, national-level engagement is valuable, too. Understand that when we contact our own members of Congress, we are really tapping the power of the local voice – and officials will pay more attention to their constituents than to any of us who attempt to advocate on their behalf from Washington. (This is why we send you AACTE Action Alerts and encourage you to engage your members of Congress back home and here in DC.)

For AACTE, banding together as a profession is at the heart of what we do. It’s an important complement to grassroots advocacy, helping unite and energize educators around common causes and providing a supportive team in the backfield to support your messages when you voice them locally. The leaders of our state chapters are practiced at this kind of activity (just look at their recent State Policy Statements), as are the Education Deans for Justice and Equity (whose statement “Public Education, Democracy, and the Role of the Federal Government: A Declaration of Principles” has garnered 234 signatures in just 3 weeks) and many other interest- and action-based groups.

Focus on the Local Community

Never forget the power of the grassroots. National-level organizing efforts can provide useful frameworks but can’t drive much progress or action on the ground. Most communities actually have the capacity to solve their problems; it’s just a matter of agreeing on priorities and rallying around them. This requires local-level partnerships and engagement across the community.

As AACTE Board Chair Jane Bray recently admonished us: Keep your eyes on your own plate. Go to that town council meeting; speak at the local rally; be an engaged partner in your state’s implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Truly, we can do this. We’ve been preparing for it all along. America’s colleges and universities, and especially their educator preparation programs, are the lynchpin of the American democratic tradition. Even surrounded by anxiety and uncertainty, borne of the November elections and growing both more frenzied and more vibrant in the last 3 weeks, we know what to do.


Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE