Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of poverty in the US. Schools in the town are facing meltdown, with budget cuts which are leading to the sacking of school counsellors and support staff and the closing of neighbourhood public schools and their replacement by state-funded private charter schools. The cuts are generated by the Pennsylvania state government which is spending billions on building prisons and on tax cuts for the rich. A staggering 11% of the Philadelphia schools budget is spent on servicing debt. Unlike in most school districts in the US, the schools are run by an unelected board called the Schools Reform Commission (SRC), consisting of five members, two appointed by the mayor of Philadelphia and three by the governor of Pennsylvania. One of the strongest voices in the defence of public schools has come from the students. Teachersolidarity interviewed Hiram Rivera, who is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU)

TS:  How did you build this very powerful high school student movement in Philadelphia?

HR:  Philly has a long history of campaigning by high school students. In 1995 some students got together to form PSU because they wanted more from their education. The education they were receiving wasn't high quality enough. At the beginning students from magnet* schools were organising but soon after they realised they had to include neighbourhood schools – so they moved to build chapters in these schools, which are primarily made up of students of colour, in particular African-American. Now we organise in schools and let them know what's happening in the school district. We hold political education workshops – after school or during lunchtime. In those workshops we focus on issues like distribution of wealth, racism, sexism and schools as a form of social control. Then we organise school based campaigns as well on everything from facility issues like locks on toilet doors to training school police officers.

TS:  Hang on, what are school police officers?

HR:  Philadelphia schools have their own police force – they have arresting powers and can issue citations, the only difference between them and regular police is that they're not armed. Five years ago we started a campaign because students in one of our chapter schools had a bad relationship with the police. Police in the US have historically been used to control communities of color. Today in schools and communities there is a lot of tension between police and students because of racist policing practices and school policies like zero tolerance. We needed to train police in how to work with young people, so we organised workshops in schools to help officers improve their treatment of students and respect the students.

TS:  How do you train your organisers?

HR: Well we use professional trainers so that the organisers can work with the students to understand the current context in the city but also what's happening at the state and national level. We look at issues like privatisation – how it plays out at the national level, the politics behind it, the militarisation of schools all those kinds of issues.

TS:  What kinds of strategy and tactics do you use to pursue the struggle, have you find innovative ways to fight?

HR:  You know young people can get tired of the same old stuff: marches, rallies, shouting, that kind of thing. So we've done things like for instance we incorporated more street theatre, we were looking for more creative ways to protest school closures. We partnered with a theatre group and they showed the students how to disguise themselves as zombies and then they performed dance outside the education office where they were discussing school closure. We wanted to say 'you're killing education'. Another time we partnered with other youth organisations in the city. There was a big conference of wealthy people in the Union League where they were discussing privatisations. The Gates foundation was there and the Walton Foundation. So the students created a huge Piñata to represent the Philadelphia Schools and filled it with candy - those chocolate coins covered in gold foil – and then they acted out roles. For instance, the Gates foundation whacked the Piñata to get the money out.

We also look at how to use social media more effectively. To build up for the walkout last May where 3,000 students left class we did all the usual things - had meetings, flyers, face to face – but we also created a hashtag and for weeks sent round stats and data on instagram – we used twitter, facebook, and youtube. So in the end the walkout could not be missed. and the majority learned about it through social media - this is where it's at for young people. Right now we're working with a local arts organisation – learning things like puppet making, poster making – looking at the history of posters from social movements throughout the world. The idea is to get people more organised – so we've had a music programme, where youth produced songs and music videos about campaigns that they run. And then of course we do direct action – like sit-ins and occupations.

TS:  What's your feeling about teachers' strikes and how they can affect the community?

HR:  Well at the moment that’s a challenge in Philly because there is a law that prevents the teachers from striking without losing their certification. But we are very supportive of teachers who strike in defense of not only the integrity of their profession, but to ensure that their students receive the education they deserve. We have been having discussions in the hope that one day more teachers will join us in the streets. We think it's important to create knowledge around that so that people understand what is it all about. We discuss how we play a role as students to educate parents for instance. If there were a strike we could find local groups to partner with to let people know why we're engaging in the strike. We could find alternative spaces where learning could continue, like open up schools somewhere else – so that students can participate and we can teach and learn together. The Chicago Teachers Union serves as an excellent example of how it can be done.

TS:  How can teachers and teachers' unions take initiatives to stand with the kids in the public schools?

HR: There’s always been an underlying tension rooted in the experience of parents and grandparents of our urban communities. It is in the best interest of the institution of the union to continue to make efforts towards repairing the relationship with community. One important step would be for the union leadership of today to acknowledge the historic role of unions in that damage that was done and atone for mistakes made yesterday. And to be fair we have seen many efforts made towards healing. They must stand with the community on issues that have nothing to do with teacher contracts but everything to do with the lives of their student’s families and communities. We’ve seen steps made towards standing with students against criminalization and over police of public schools by echoing the call for an end to the School To Prison Pipeline and supporting the development of positive alternatives to school discipline. They must too stand with the community over issues like gentrification for example, which go hand in hand with the privatization of public schools. Using the resources and institutional power of the teachers union to stand with the community would go a long way continuing to show the community that it’s call for support from students and parents is reciprocal and that our struggles are tied together beyond the school. This, I believe, will create a new chapter in the history of the union’s relationship with the community. One rooted in authentic solidarity between teachers, parents, and students. 

For teachers on a personal level, given for example the emphasis on high stakes testing, it's very difficult to build relationships with all their students. There are a lot of people in the community who know how to work with “hard to reach” students. Teachers should work with those people, bring them into the classroom even to find out the best ways. Every student union chapter has a teacher sponsor. Those teachers must talk to other teachers and let them know who we are. And then some teachers have gone on neighbourhood tours with the community. More teachers should come visit and see where we live. Students in the community see that and it shows the intention. We need for teachers and students to see one another as allies because they're the two most powerful groups in this fight against privatisation because they are the ones living it. It's because they would be so powerful together that they're often pitted against one another.

TS:  You mentioned teacher sponsors, how do you stop them taking over and telling the students what to do and not to do?

HR:  Well first the sponsors are identified by students. And most of them are happy just to provide a space and to be present. Sometimes they are intrusive and then the students will talk to them afterwards about the importance of youth leadership. And it can be hard for the sponsors, after all the number one adversaries of students has traditionally been teachers because those are the people with whom you have the most profound relationships and often you spend more time with your teacher than with your parent . So we say to teachers “you're more than welcome to chime in – but you have to commit to allowing the students to work things out and then promote what they're deciding to the other teachers.”

TS:  At teachersolidarity we report struggles of school students all over the world when we get wind of them. Not just in the North in Greece and Spain for instance but in the South as well – in Chile and Togo. Do you think there is a role for international solidarity?

HR:  Absolutely there is a role for international solidarity. For example we're trying to bring someone from Chile to speak to the Philly students. Privatisation is part of the neo-liberal agenda. It crosses borders, it's a global assault and resistance to it must also be global. It's important for students to see that we're not alone in Philly. When they see that's it's happening in other states and in other countries it's very clear that it's not just a new Philly that's being built but a new world, that doesn't include them. And when they see what's happening in Chile for example, students facing police they ask – why can't we do that? How come young people can risk being arrested in other countries? It broadens their horizons. They want to travel to these places, yet most young people don't even see the other side of Philly, let alone the world. International solidarity is extremely necessary, we need a global movement.

There are differences when it comes to the organizing done in the US and internationally. One difference is there is a disconnect between college and high school students’ campaigns. We want them to move into college and continue their work – but the majority of young people have no hope - they see college as unobtainable. The other big difference here is the high proliferation of non-profit organisations. A lot of movements like ours are led by non-profits that are funded by philanthropic foundations, so there are a number of limitations on what you can do by way of a specific outlining of what the funding can be used for or having to take cautious approaches to action because you're afraid of losing your funding. In other countries people are not paid organisers, so they are able to push much harder, they're only accountable to themselves and each other. It's a big problem because when we're attacking for instance privatisation, often the arrow points back at a certain group of philanthropists, so we have to pick secondary targets. This means that you can never tackle the roots of the neo-liberal project – if you were to attack those foundations it would make the rest uneasy – and might jeopardise your funding. These particular foundations have free rein and it impacts movements like our own – which are driven by NGOs greatly. Our philanthropic partners don’t want to create a sense of dependency on them but we often times can’t do the work without them. And since we know we can’t continue to view them as our only source of survival, then we need to figure out how we resolve that issue.

* Magnet schools are schools which select for high ability