Professor Emerita at Lesley University, author, activist
“You get the feeling, change is possible and you are part of it.”
“Nancy is the author of five books and numerous articles and op eds on media and technology, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms, and education reform. Her most recent book is called Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids. Nancy has received many awards for her leadership and advocacy in early childhood and peace education. She is an advocate for education policies and practices that promote social justice and the well being of all children.”
She is a senior advisor to the DEY (Defending the Early Years) Project.
For more information on Nancy, visit her website.
In this conversation, Nancy talks about the roots of her own activism and the day her son, actor Matt Damon, decided to speak out for education.
I have been a teacher-educator at the graduate school level really for my whole career. It’s work that I always felt inspired by and really loved, but I got to a point, after about 30 or 33 years, where I’ve been increasingly a public speaker in a lot of venues. So my speaking life was increasing so much that I wasn’t able to continue teaching. Also, I wanted to devote more of myself to the early childhood ed reform issues that were and are of increasing concern.
Along with other early childhood educators, I started Defending the Early Years with the goal of becoming a voice for the early childhood community in this climate of heavy testing, early academic pressure, and privatization. We’ve been doing many valuable activities and projects for almost three years. It’s often very challenging given what’s happening in education these days, but it’s also very rewarding.
How would you describe these times in education?
I describe these times as tragic in the history of U.S. education, period. It appears that there’s such a lineup of forces of money and power that we will probably lose public education. And that maybe it will be privatized. I see it being increasingly privatized. Maybe we’ll end up with some kind of a functioning hybrid, but I kind of doubt it. I think that the institution of public education is a cornerstone of democracy. Without it, I have a hard time envisioning a really democratic and vibrant and healthy society, and especially one where there’s equity.
You make it sound inevitable.
It’s looking that way to me. But, I’m an activist. I see more and more that there are things happening all over the country in little brushfires with people starting to organize and stand up, and sometimes larger actions like we’ve seen in Chicago and other major cities. And students walking out of testing like in Garfield [High School in Seattle]. These are really brave actions people are taking. But very soon, it’s got to coordinate into a national resistance to privatizing education, or it’s just going to be too late.
I asked you about inevitability because you’re so engaged in trying to prevent that. Do you feel that there is some hope, then?
I do, I do, but the only way I think there is hope is for myself and everyone else who feels able, to speak out. And you know, I keep saying to all the teachers I know, Why aren’t you all getting more active? And they say, We’re overburdened, we’re overstressed, we’ve been disempowered — and it’s interesting to me, because there are other times in history when people felt that way but they took action. They went into the streets. They said, This isn’t all right, we have to turn this around. But for some reason, teachers aren’t doing that yet, or maybe they aren’t able to do it, I don’t know.
What are you seeing that gives you the most hope?
It’s really the individual actions I see happening all over the country in increasing numbers, and thankfully now, we have alternative ways of getting news. Because if we didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be seeing anything. People are sending me videos almost every day of teachers standing up and saying, We’re not going to do testing. And students getting organized at the high school level; it’s really inspiring and exciting, so I take heart from that. Because you never know. If you look at U.S. history, we’ve had social change movements that come from the bottom, and they always gained momentum slowly over time, and then there was a tipping point. We never know when that will be. Hope is there; hope is looking at history.
I was very close friends with Howard Zinn. We were neighbors, and he was my best friend, actually, for like 35 years. He and I were political comrades, and we always got together and we talked politics, and he gave me pep talks every other day. Partly [the reason] I’m more discouraged now is that he’s not around to give me a pep talk. Every time I started sinking, I would call him, and he had the same line, but it worked every time, about the things I’m saying to you right now. That ordinary people can bring about social change, and they do it by recognizing the injustice that they’re living with, and they have to act. And they can and they do. And when you look at U.S. history, you see that they act. I miss Howie, because I know I could be calling him, and he would be acting with us on education, now, I know he would. He would, because he would see it as a larger social justice issue.
Where did your own passion for social justice come from?
I don’t know. I always wonder about that, because I didn’t learn it at home, and no one else in my family has it. My family’s very conservative. We didn’t talk politics at home, really. But my father was a progressive educator, and he was a strong person in determining how my sister and I were raised. My ability to think and become a moral person, all these things probably were supported by that really progressive parenting that my folks did. And I ended up thinking about justice issues, which I cared about even as a girl, in the sense that even when I was a child, I always cared about the underdog. I felt a lot of compassion for anyone who was in a position of being hurt and tried to help them. But then I came of age in the sixties. I think that was hugely influential in connecting what would be — let’s say a personality impulse towards justice– connecting it up with more scholarly ideas or political ideas that were in the environment and really easy to access at that time. That really influenced me and kind of jolted me into being a social justice activist at the end of the sixties.
Did your father have a reaction to that?
Yes. He didn’t know what had happened to his daughter. (Laughs) I have to say, the feminist movement was taking over then, and I became actually a very vocal feminist. As I realized the incredible gender inequities in the society, I was really obsessed for a while with realizing what those were. My entry into politics and social justice came through feminism. And my father tried to talk to me. It was very upsetting for him, because he really couldn’t understand. I mean, I did get a divorce, because I didn’t agree on feminist issues with my husband. I was very young, I was only like 24, 25, and I was pushing out from one way of thinking to a new way of thinking, like so many other people, at that time. My father tried to understand what I was thinking; he actually started subscribing to Ms. Magazine and reading it. He was trying very hard to stay connected to me and to understand what I could possibly be thinking.
Did your mother share his concern?
My mother was a very different kind of person. She was a very eccentric woman and a great musician, pianist, artist. She was a much more artistic and eccentric kind of person; she wasn’t very grounded. She was creating a lot. Like an artist, she would forget us sometimes, turn around and do her own thing. But thankfully, like I said, I think I got enough of the grounding from my dad. I wasn’t really too insecure as a kid.
When did your son Matt [Damon], decide to be publicly vocal about education?
He and his brother Kyle have always valued the education they got in Cambridge, and when it came time for that first SOS March [Save Our Schools, Washington DC, July 30, 2011], some of the leaders approached me to ask if he would speak. I have a long term agreement with Matt that I don’t ask him for anything, because it interferes, it really does interfere with the mother-son relationship we have. If I start asking him for things, then he starts feeling that he’s got to give me some kind of an answer that I want, and that I have a certain expectation. We just started to see very early on that it wouldn’t be healthy for us, for me to ask him for things. So it was breaking my own law to ask him to do that; I cared that much.
I was getting pressure for sure from people in Save Our Schools, but I thought they were right, that nobody would pay attention, unless you had a big name there. And I think it was probably true. I knew all that was true. So I decided it was worth it. It turned out that it was okay, but it was not an easy thing to go through with us in terms of our relationship, and I’ve never done it again because it came too close to the things I’d always feared, that he would start feeling conflicted about going.
He cared about those [education] issues so much, but he was making a film in Vancouver; he had three daughters and Lucy, his wife, was pregnant. And one of the girls was very sick. And it was right at the time he was supposed to shoot all day. I don’t know if you know how hard people who make films work, but it’s unbelievable. They’re sometimes shooting twelve hours, fourteen hours, sixteen hours, it’s ridiculous. And then he was going to get on an overnight flight — there was not a direct flight — and he was going to have to fly from Vancouver to get there to speak that next morning, and it was crazy. I finally said, You know what? This is too much for you, Mathew. As his mother, I said, This is too much. We’re going to tell them you can’t be there. You’re not getting any sleep, one of your kids is sick, you’re shooting all day and you’re going to have to be up half the night. It’s not right. I’m going to tell them you can’t come.
And then later he called me. I was already there [at the conference]. And he said, “I’m going to come. I’ve decided; Lucy and I decided together, and I’m going to come.” He said, “So I wrote a speech. Will you listen and tell me if it’s okay?” I sat on this bench [outside the conference] and listened to that speech, and it just made me cry. I couldn’t believe he wrote it. He says, “Is this okay or should I change it?” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? That’s the most beautiful speech, don’t change a word of it.” Somebody came up to me after the march and said, “I just want to know one thing. Did he write that?” That’s how well he knows education. He wrote that whole thing.
He was very glad that he did that. SOS was a very moving and powerful experience for him, and he was really glad, he felt he made the right decision. I don’t think he’s ever spoken at a political rally before. And I saw his face; I think when he got up there and saw that crowd and realized that what he was saying was important to them.
This sounds like kind of a turning point.
Yeah, it was. It was really significant. It turns out, looking back, that it was a very significant experience and one that happened in a very beautiful and right way. Whenever I get together with Matt, which is often, we talk education. He cares enormously about what’s happening, and he understands what’s happening. He’s all in now on his own.
I think he got in touch with what it means to be an activist, for the first time. Because you can’t quite describe the energy of activism until you experience it. But if you’re an activist or you’ve been in activist situations, it’s very powerful and transformative. You get the feeling that change is possible and you’re part of it. It was very powerful for me and for him.
[The way you talk about activism] makes me think of this Derek Bell line: “Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.”
That’s so great. And that’s really what we all have to be thinking, because what Howard Zinn always said to me is that you can’t see ahead. There have been many times in history when there was a tipping point that wasn’t foreseen. The Berlin Wall, changes in the Soviet Union — you can’t tell when massive social change, political change is going to occur. So that’s why you have to do something that’s right in the moment, and the rest is going to go however it goes.
View video of Matt Damon’s July 30, 2011, speech, here.