JCPS superintendent: cool, calm and CLOUT

For the uninitiated, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together, or CLOUT, approaches community activism with persistence … at times uncomfortable persistence.

CLOUT, a coalition of church members from a diverse range of Louisville congregations, holds regular meetings to listen to concerns. From there, they’ll organize sessions with lawmakers and the like to effort change on specific social justice issues.

For the last few years, unfair pay day loan practices, affordable housing and the “school to prison pipeline” have been prime targets.

Once a year, the group holds its signature event, the Nehemiah Action Assembly. A couple thousand CLOUT members fill seats as politicians or other officials take the stage so CLOUT leadership can press them for quantifiable change. (This is where the uncomfortable piece comes in.) The 2012 assembly took place Thursday night at Memorial Auditorium.

Here are the ground rules:

1. CLOUT leaders ask their guests to commit to a recommendation the group has devised. (Say, for instance, finding a funding source for Louisville’s long-unfunded affordable housing trust fund.)
2. One minute for response is allowed, but a “yes” or “no” answer must be extracted before the request is put to rest.
3. A scorecard marks each answer in a “yes” or “no” column.
4. The audience can’t applaud as the guest walks on stage (adding to the tension of it all). Nor can the guest hold the mic, keeping CLOUT in control. (As one CLOUT leader put it, “We’re here tonight for action … We’re not here to be lectured by our guest on what they cannot do.”)
5. Designated floor crews signal for applause or silence.

The effectiveness of this assembly is debatable. It certainly results in promises from leaders, as well as bundles citizens’ voices on important matters. Testimony from individuals stuck in difficult situations, like a single mom in need of affordable housing who’s bounced around on the housing authority’s wait list for years, helps highlight the issue.

But the procedural wheels behind changing laws and government systems barely move with a promise, even if it is said in front of 1,700 people. Commitments often break under the weight of bureaucracy. Last year, Mayor Greg Fischer attended the assembly and promised to find a dedicated source of revenue to finally pump money into the affordable housing trust fund. That didn’t happen.

Some perceive the approach as a bit combative. Fischer being one.

See this C-J article for a greater explanation on that. He and Councilman Jim King did not accept the invitation to partake in Thursday night’s assembly. Neither did Rep. Larry Clark (D-Okolona) for the third year in a row. For each no-show, CLOUT paraded out empty chairs with bright orange and gold signs,the missing guest’s name typed in bold.

One official who took the stage? JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, a woman who certainly isn’t one to leap into the spotlight. CLOUT seeks two changes within JCPS, one being improvements and clarification on school bullying rules and punishments.

Secondly, they’d like JCPS to address the adverse impact the district’s school discipline procedures have on African-American and special needs students, a story LEO covered in February.

CLOUT wants JCPS to adopt a restorative practice model of discipline (a blend of community service and counseling for bad behavior), rather than the stringent “zero tolerance” code of conduct that leans heavily on suspensions.

When asked if she would “support a process to revise the JCPS code of conduct to reflect the use of restorative practices in the JCPS, as part of a next round of revisions of the code?” She stated, “Yes.”

Out burst thunderous applause.

CLOUT met with Hargens several times before the meeting, negotiating commitments she felt comfortable with, including site visits to other restorative practice schools.

Still, a point of contention came when CLOUT’s co-president, Chris Kolb, asked if she would implement a multi-school pilot project using restorative practices by August 2012.

Hargens, who many in the school system credit for her methodical, data-driven approach to reform, responded that first she wants to see proof restorative practice successfully decreases suspensions. Then, she’ll encourage, not necessarily require schools to partake.

Kolb pressed one more time, asking that she secure four schools as pilots.

Hargens, a longtime teacher dressed this evening in a conservative, gray suit, didn’t miss a beat. It seems years of taming petulance in the classroom has groomed her well for citizen frustration.

“We encourage our students to think critically. You want me to think critically. I want the schools to hear the information to be able to give them an opportunity to think critically about it also. And if you’re right that the evidence is there, and I have no reason to believe that you haven’t done your homework, then won’t they be rationally persuaded to do it?”

How can you say no to that?

Kolb marked her commitment as a “yes.”

5 Comments

  1. Phil N. Ferrill
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Just as a practical matter, I’m not sure how low income people are supposed to get anything from the government without being combative.

  2. Rev. Cindy Weber
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Two points: One, the people who are sleeping out by the river and in shelters and on the floors of relatives, and the kids who are terrified to go to school because of bullying are a lot more uncomfortable than anyone who attended the Assembly last night. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that organizations who use direct action tactics don’t create tension, but rather reveal it. Thousands of families in our community live under constant tension–CLOUT brings that tension to the surface to be dealt with.

    And two, to check out the effectiveness of CLOUT’s Assemblies, see http://www.cloutky.org/page2/page2.html. CLOUT has changed the fabric of this city and state. One Nehemiah Assembly at a time.

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