September 25 — 10:28 am, 2015

Fighting injustice, in the schools and in the church

eileen difranco Photo: Courtesy of Eileen DiFranco

Pope Francis has spent much of his time in the United States talking about injustice. Injustice, in all its forms, touches a place in my soul and forces me to act or write, even when others choose to ignore something that is so big, as the prophet Habakkuk said, “a runner can see it” while speeding by.

Injustice takes many guises and appears in many places: in the home, in churches, in nations, and in schools. It is writ large in the actions of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission, itself a symbol of taking away power from poor people of color when the state of Pennsylvania seized control of the city’s schools. Over the years, it has mostly comprised well-off professionals, some from outside the city, who are making decisions for the people of Philadelphia without their input and pretending that they care about the people’s best interests. The SRC is an embodiment of the sort of elitism and classism – and racism – that is destroying our country’s public schools.

As a center of power, the SRC has a lot in common with the Catholic bishops, a group of mostly White men in very comfortable circumstances, who make equally ignorant decisions about Catholic families without considering the real-life experiences of their flocks. Both groups need to be taken to task for actions that hurt vulnerable people. I relish taking these actions because from the time I was a little girl, I felt obliged to speak truth to power.

My activism was not born in the fight for justice in the public schools, but goes far back to the years I spent at Nativity Blessed Virgin Mary School in Port Richmond. At age 10, I learned that I could not be an altar server because I was a girl. I was smarter than all of the boys and knew the Latin responses far better than they did, but sadly, I lacked their “dangly parts.” The message I got was clear. Boys were better than girls.

Fortunately for me, I never learned to be the type of girl that the priests and nuns so carefully tried to form through their messages of feminine inferiority and docility. Their message backfired, and I never did become a demure, obedient, deferential Catholic lady who believed that the fathers, in whatever guise, knew best. Instead, the injustice that I experienced as a little girl produced a firebrand.

My activism was honed by my four years at Hallahan High School in Philadelphia. When I arrived in September 1966, Hallahan was completely integrated. I was blessed to attend school with large numbers of Black, Puerto Rican, and Chinese girls. It was at Hallahan where I first learned about racism and classism, which added to the injustice held over from elementary school.

Because of our large minority population, we were treated as a “ghetto” school and lacked the diversified course work and resources that were available at suburban girls’ high schools and my brothers’ high schools for boys. 

However, the racism I saw from the staff far outweighed the other -isms I experienced. When something went missing in school, the lockers of the Black girls were immediately searched. I later learned from a friend, whose father intervened, that the prefect of discipline actually called my African American sisters “Black bitches.”

In college, my activism continued. I protested the Vietnam War. And believe it or not, we organized to protest the fact that we had to wear dresses to class! We won that battle, but not without having my math professor, a nun, threaten to take away my scholarship when she found us planning our action in the stairwell.

My activism in public school began after I worked for a couple of years as a school nurse and suddenly realized that no one really seemed to be running the store. To those of us on the ground, each successive superintendent left the District worse off than before and magnified the racial and economic disparities in our city.

I recall walking into the offices of old District 5 during the tenure of David Hornbeck. The offices were located in a neighborhood amid terrible poverty. They were furnished with brand new expensive wood desks for the administrators. A large meeting room sported a gigantic table surrounded by 20 or so plush chairs and whiteboards. Multiply this expense by the 22 clusters that Hornbeck designed. I recall thinking at the time that I would have purchased my desk from Ikea so I could spend more money on the kids.

At the time I was working at Stetson Middle School in District 5. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was busy closing almost all of the Catholic schools in the area. I wrote articles condemning these closures in the Mt. Airy Times Express. If the laity is supposed to make all sorts of sacrifices to God and the church, why was the church not willing to make the same sort of sacrifice and keep schools open in this poverty-stricken area that had so little support?

Meanwhile, as Ralph Cipriano documented in articles in the National Catholic Reporter, then-Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua was spending large amounts of money to refurbish his mansion at the Shore and building a video room at the archdiocesan headquarters while crying poor and closing down parishes in vulnerable areas.

The SRC has public meetings where they allegedly listen to the concerns of the people who actually live in the city and attend the schools. In the late ’90s, Cardinal Bevilacqua orchestrated a grand plan where parishioners he clustered together were asked to decide which parishes would remain open and which would close, as if the decision belonged to them. Like the SRC, the archdiocese had no intention of ever listening to anyone and went on to close parishes all over the city, but most particularly those in poor areas.

Three years ago, the SRC did the same thing that the Archdiocese did, closing schools in areas with few other supports over the protests of the people who used them. Vast, hulking, vacant churches and schools now stud the poor areas of our city, reminding the people just how little the church and the state really care for them.

Like the Catholic Church, which for the last 20 years often appointed bishops who were chosen for their obedience to the company line rather than their pastoral ability, school administrations often appointed district superintendents and principals who were untalented, mean-spirited and egotistical because they were “yes” people. 

What I have learned from my activism both in the church and the world is that if you speak up, the powers really don’t know what to do with you and let you alone. The powers are surprised that anyone even notices their dark deeds because so many people don’t complain and feel as if they have no recourse to injustice.

Three years ago, I led a public protest with two other nurses for six months right outside of 440 N. Broad St., District headquarters, after the SRC cut nurses from vulnerable schools to save money. Nothing happened to me. My principal, a woman of integrity, never condemned me. I experienced no consequences from the SRC or from Superintendent William Hite. If I did, all of you readers would have heard about it instantly. Perhaps the powers knew this and left me alone.

Or course, activism does not immediately change the status quo. My patron saints, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were long dead by the time women finally got the right to vote. In the end, we might never know what our discrete little voice might do to change the rest of us, but since we are all connected, we must wait with faith and hope that things will change for the better. But this faith in the future does not mean that nothing happens.

The nurses’ six-month protest led to the formation of the group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a small but mighty group that challenges the SRC at every single meeting, calling them publicly to honesty and transparency. 

When the church silenced women and said that we could not even talk about women’s ordination, Roman Catholic Women Priests, of which I am a member, formed 13 years ago to ordain women to model a different kind of priesthood that preaches the equality of all people before God. The organization grows each year because, as Rabbi Gamalilel is quoted as saying in the Acts of the Apostles, “If something is of God, nothing can stop it.”

Or as Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Pope Francis has made the same point in his many remarks both here and in Rome. The world needs to be a better, more responsive place, where all people have a place at the table. It is up to all of us to make it so.

And so, I will spend my retirement doing my very small part to change the world.


Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a retired school nurse who proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 25 years.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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