Day 4 – The AERO Education Conference in Portland

The last day of the conference, with just a short morning session. I did not attend any of the workshops but was there for the final keynote by Linda Stout and her closing call out to the youth at the conference to have their moment to speak.

Linda told her story of being the daughter of poor white agricultural workers in North Carolina, and how she managed somehow to get an education and go on to become a grassroots organizer. An organizer who built and led an organization that brought people together across racial, gender and class lines to help over 40,000 people overcome the obstacles of racist Jim Crow laws and vote for the first time.

Linda is a Baby Boomer like me, representing a generation that fought the battles for civil rights, women’s rights, and for peace instead of war. From that experience, her wisdom is that a movement for educational change needs a full spectrum of efforts on at least four fronts. First, activism for profound structural change in the U.S. education system. Second, “reform” efforts by people working within that system to try to hold the line and support individuals as much as possible until structural change can happen. Third, providing educational alternatives to conventional public schools to demonstrate new models that public schools can adopt. Fourth, setting in motion a shift in consciousness and intention, some would say the spiritual aspect of change.

I find it interesting that AERO in general is about a community of alternative, mainly democratic type schools that encourage, support and share best practices with each other. That certainly seems consistent with AERO founder Jerry Mintz, who with his very casual tee-shirts, sort of rumpled look and twinkle in his eye, looks the part of some former Grateful Dead roadie. He is all about promoting, supporting and consulting with democratic schools.

That said, Jerry’s main staffer, Isaac Graves, is a different sort of character. He is a young prodigy of an organizer, having put together and run this yearly conference for the past eight years, the first when he was still a youth. Now as a young adult around our son Eric’s age, he stage managed this conference seemingly effortlessly, never once appearing frustrated or even stressed, always relaxed, happy and even joyful. Isaac’s staff are mostly young adults like himself, mostly interns I imagine.

Unlike Jerry I think, Isaac is all about building a movement for educational transformation. The keynoters he recruited for the conference reflected that, starting with his fellow Millennial Melia Dicker, a young activist who spoke about using the emerging social media of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to catalyze that movement. Then Riane Eisler, the elder states-person of the conference headliners, a Jew growing up in prewar Austria whose family experienced antisemitism and barely escaped the Nazi holocaust, later to live in Batista’s Cuba before coming to the United States. That experience as a young person informed her vision of cultural transformation from hierarchical ranking and control to an egalitarian circle of equals. Next Khalif Williams, a Gen-Xer who is now the director of an alternative school in Maine, but has worked many years as an advocate for humane education. And culminating with the synthesis provided by Linda Stout.

Though most of the keynoters were all about structural transformation, the range of conference workshops reflected that broader spectrum that includes inside-the-box reform, consciousness raising and hatching alternatives. Of the workshops I attended or heard about from others, I’d say the quality of the presentations and the time management and audio-visual skills of the presenters varied. But what was cool about that is that none of the people doing workshops were intimidated by their lack of these skills. If they had something to share they went for it, and attendees to their offering were generally accepting and supportive, despite any lack of polish. I don’t think there was any workshop I attended, even those where I did not get much from the content, where I did not encounter at least one very interesting person worth meeting and exploring some interesting common ground with.

The gestalt of the event was that of a ritual gathering of a community, not the endless boring business meetings that our hotel venue probably more routinely hosted. In fact, Melia, in the opening of her keynote, noted that she felt more like she was seeing the familiar faces at a family wedding than an organizational conference. Certainly the initial greetings between people who were seeing each other again after one or more years were more likely hugs than handshakes, and at the conclusion, hugs for newly met friends and comrades.

I suspect that Sally and I are now both hooked, and will be hard pressed not to attend next year’s conference, plus the related International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC, which attracts a lot of the same people), either next year in Puerto Rico or 2013 in Boulder CO. And after attending now three of these affairs, I am pretty determined to offer some sort of workshop of my own next time, though I’m not sure yet exactly what.

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