Schools, Libraries, and Our Charity

Schools, Libraries, and Our Charity

As one of the "spirited Brooklynites" who spent last weekend running (and even helping to organize) the Brooklyn PTA 5K Fun Run for Public Schools, and then Biking the Branches in support of the Brooklyn Public Library, I completely agree with Liza Featherstone's critique in this article: that we must not come to view our schools and libraries as "charities," but as fundamental public institutions that we have a duty to robustly (and more equally) support with our tax dollars. AND that we are not doing so. AND especially not in the case of NYC's public libraries. AND that this is a real shortcoming of the budget that Mayor de Blasio put forward this week (which cuts the expense budget of the 3 library systems $10 million from last year, and includes only a scant & largely illusory increase of capital funding).

For what it's worth, though, I do think events like the PTA 5K, and Bike the Branches -- and even more participatory budgeting (PBNYC) -- can be a fundamental part of efforts to "fight privatization, not revel in it," as Featherstone rightly demands.

We spent much of yesterday, at both events (and especially Bike the Branches), talking about and organizing for public resources, and for changes in those public institutions that make them stronger and fairer.

The "Invest in Libraries" campaign taking place this year is stronger and better than ever. I've been impressed with their work -- which was evident at each branch, and at the closing ceremony -- to mobilize a huge public that already patronizes, reads at, computes at, attends programs at, volunteers at, nurtures, loves, needs and cares for its libraries to step up and become an advocacy force to demand sufficient funding for them. It'd be nice if this wasn't necessary. But it is necessary. Public library users must become public library advocates ... and that means acting as public library stewards.

That's one thing I love so much about "participatory budgeting." It’s not just that we get to decide how to "spend our money." It’s that it calls out the sense of shared, collective stewardship of our public institutions (schools, libraries, parks, streets, etc) that is, simply, the fundamental but oft-neglected bedroom of democratic governance. And in addition to demanding adequate public resources, it calls out a debate on how we make those institutions more fair and equal (which, quite plainly, they too often are not). You can feel that sense of shared stewardship -- sometimes, following Billy Bragg, I like to call it "organized compassion" -- at every PBNYC neighborhood assembly, delegate meeting, project expo, and poll-site.

And you could feel that spirit yesterday too, at the Brooklyn PTA 5K, when you talked to the school-based teams, but especially because it is one of the only events where PTAs come together across school lines, and think about how the funds should be distributed (we have a formula that values equality, need, and participation). And at Bike the Branches, where we spent a lot of time underscoring Featherstone's critique of the de Blasio Administration budget's shortcoming on public libraries, and organizing for the next 6 weeks of getting the funding that they urgently need.

There are dangers that events like this (and, far more, many other fundraisers that are completely disinterested in these questions). But done right, they can be part of strengthening the spirit & muscle that genuine democracy demands.