During that period I spent most of my time working for a national organization called the Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky in the late 1930's. Local groups of religious congregations, labor unions and community groups would come together in different cities and contract with the IAF for training and staffing needs to help them build an organization to improve their neighborhoods and change the power dynamics of their cities.
I loved assisting people - who had never before been involved in public life - develop leadership skills and relationships across ethnic and neighborhood lines focused on common self-interests. Multi-ethnic organizations were able to get large amounts of affordable housing built, increase accessibility to jobs that paid a "living" wage with benefits, and successfully challenge discriminatory practices by banks and other institutions, along with gaining many other community improvements.
The most energizing experiences I had during that time were witnessing the growth of leaders. One day, at the groundbreaking of a one-hundred-and sixteen home development where farmworkers would be able to buy their own homes for the first time in their lives, one of our leaders, Guadupe Rosas (not her real name) spoke. She said:
Today is a great day! I will be able to own my first home, as will many others of us who have spent years working in the fields. This is a victory, but it is not the biggest victory for me. My biggest victory is that fact that my children have seen me negotiate as an equal with many of the officials present today -- politicians, bankers, government officials. My children have seen that by working together we can accomplish anything!
I witnessed many similar testimonies during my organizing career, and saw dramatic changes that people were making while in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and even seventies based on what they were learning through organizing - lessons like the fact that power could be built by reaching out to people different from ourselves; that the use of the "Iron Rule" ("Never do for others what they can do for themselves") could develop a strong , and effective system of mutual accountability; that power was not a "finite pie" - if I help you get some that doesn't mean that I have less - instead, it means that the entire "pie" gets bigger through increased opportunities for all.
After seeing these transformative experiences time and time again, I began to wonder about how much better people's lives, and the world, would be if these kinds of lessons were learned at a far earlier age. And I concluded that becoming a classroom teacher would be the best way for me to put those thoughts into action.
I'm now entering my twelfth year of teaching - primarily, though not exclusively, English Language Learners. In my first year, I had the privilege of teaching entire classes of Hmong refugees who came to Sacramento when the last refugee camp in Thailand was closed. How often can a high school teacher say he/she has an entire class of students who have never been in school before?
Beginning with those students, and continuing into today's classes with Central American refugees, I have become a better teacher, and a better person, from what I have learned from my students. I like to think that, in return, along with learning English, I have also helped them learn a few skills that they can utilize in becoming leaders in our communities today and tomorrow.
Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written eight books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes a weekly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners.