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Center on History and Education

Teachers College, Columbia University

The Reimaginers: Education Activists and Promises of Change

The pandemic has dramatically changed how schools operate and renewed debates over what schools should do. While many teachers have gone to extraordinary lengths to engage students in remote instruction, the difficulty of the entire enterprise has laid bare the structural inequalities that define our educational system. Since then, corporate reformers and philanthropists have formed partnerships with different cities and states to "reimagine education." Yet often the "reimagining" was anything but imaginative. Instead, many have sought to use the current crises to further privatize education, minimize teachers’ autonomy in the classroom, and promote full-time computer based learning. 

At the Center, we started discussing how the past might inform genuine efforts to reimagine education. Who has offered alternative visions for education? What have they imagined? What would their ideas look like now? These conversations became even more pressing as law enforcement officers throughout the country continued to murder unarmed Black people with impunity. These murders remind us of the past activists who have challenged this historical violence and the society that allowed it to flourish. This moment also recalls their sweeping ideas for social transformation, including how they reimagined education. Today's new waves of grassroots organizing and sustained protest have drawn from this rich tradition of resistance to move radical ideas for change closer to the mainstream. For this reason, we return to those reimaginers who pushed the traditional boundaries of schooling to ask: how can transformative educational visions from the past help us truly reimagine schools?

Our limited web series, The Reimaginers: Education Activists and Promises of Change, explores this question through the activist efforts of Black, Latinx, and otherwise marginalized groups who theorized and enacted creative educational change. From the pedagogy of the Black Panthers' Oakland Community School to the Young Lords' community education programs to the inclusionary and liberatory visions of activists with disabilities, we explore these histories and their resonance in the present. Please check out our episodes below.

The Black Panthers' Oakland Community School


In this episode, Dr. Robert P. Robinson provides a brief history of the Black Panthers' Oakland Community School, and he shares how the schools' leaders developed innovative structures to create a learning environment that cultivated independent thinkers.

To read more about the Black Panthers' Oakland Community Schools, be sure to check out these resources:

Until the Revolution: Analyzing the Politics, Pedagogy, and Curriculum of the Oakland Community School by Robert P. Robinson

Black Panthers' Education Revolution from the University of California-Berkeley

Teach Freedom: Education for Liberation in the African-American Tradition Edited by Charles Payne and Carol Sills Strickland

Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California by Donna Murch

Black Power! The Movement, the Legacy from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library


Latinx Struggles for Educational Justice


In this video, Dr. Tatiana Cruz shares with us the ways in which court-ordered desegregation in Boston overlooked the needs of Latinx students and how grassroots organizing efforts fought for effective educational programs. To learn more about this history and other struggles for Latinx educational justice, check out the resources below:

"We Took 'Em On": The Latino Movement for Educational Justice in Boston, 1965-1980 by Tatiana Cruz

Boston Public Schools Desegregation Project from Northeastern University

Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

An American Language: The History of Spanish in the United States by Rosina Lozano 


The Young Lords: Radical Visions for Learning


In this episode, we talk with Dr. Johanna Fernández about the Young Lords, a political organization led predominately by poor and working-class Puerto Rican youth, who sought solutions for problems like garbage collection, the removal of lead paint from tenement walls, childcare, and more. Their efforts provide a radical way to reimagine education.

To learn more about the Young Lords, be sure to check out these sources:

The Young Lords: A Radical History by Johanna Fernández

Palante: Voices and Photographs of the Young Lords, 1969-1971 by the Young Lords Party

The Origins of Antibusing Politics in 1950s New York by Matthew F. Delmont

School Colors Podcast by Mark Winston Griffith Max Freedman


The Rolling Quads and Disability Studies



In the episode, Dr. Scot Danforth narrates the history of the Rolling Quads, a disability rights activist group that reimagined a more expansive and liberatory form of education for students with disabilities. He then shares how disability studies can help us reimagine education to be more inclusive and democratic.

To learn even more after the episode, be sure to check out these great resources.

Becoming the Rolling Quads: Disability Politics at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s by Scot Danforth

"Free Wheeling" Segment from "People in Motion, Ready to Live," featuring Ed Roberts.

We Won't Go Away a Documentary on the Disability Rights Movement

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht

"Nothing about Us without Us: 16 Moments in the Fight for Disability Rights" by Julia Carmel

Becoming a Great Inclusive Educator edited by Scot Danforth


CUNY and the Struggle for Open Admissions


In this episode, Dr. Stephen Brier traces CUNY's long history from the Free Academy in the 19th century to the what we today know as the CUNY system. He narrates the critical role student activists played in their demands for "open admissions" and how those demands represented a seismic shift in higher education.

To learn more about CUNY and open admissions, check out these resources:

1961-1969 The Creation of CUNY - Open Admissions Struggle by Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier

The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi

Interview with Kim Phillips-Fein from Public Book

"You Are Running a De Fact Segregated University": Racial Segregation and the City University of New York, 1961-1968 by Tahir H. Butt in The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North

What It Takes to Get Into New York City's Best Public Colleges by Lynnell Hancock and Meredith Kolodner

Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education by Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier


Head Start in the Mississippi Delta


In this episode, Dr. Crystal Sanders describes the violence and repression permeating Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century, including how Jim Crow limited the educational opportunities of Black Mississippians. She then narrates how growth of the Head Start program in the Mississippi Delta turned early childhood education into a "vehicle for liberation" and created meaningful jobs for Black mothers in the Delta.

To learn more about Head Start and the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, check out these resources:

A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle by Crystal Sanders

Child Development of Mississippi Runs Head Start Programs from SNCC Digital Gateway

Freedom Summer from SNCC Digital Gateway

Freedom Summer, A Documentary from PBS

The Freedom Schools: Student Activists in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement by Jon Hale