“Until we can change how we are together, until we can alter our social forms, we don’t really have a hope of changing political reality”: an interview with David Brazil

To preface this interview , I have been thinking about paradigms of education that take place outside of academia in response to difficulties certain humanities programs at my institution have been facing at the hands of corporate-style hierarchal administration. Although not a degree-oriented educational project, I have been inspired by the work happening at the Bay Area Public School and wanted to take some time to think about the possibility of non-hierarchal community education more generally. I was also recently revisiting your beautiful book The Ordinary in conversation with a close friend, and although you wrote this book before the Bay Area Public School began, I am struck by how the book and the long section “Economy”  might relate to radical community education.

-Garin Hay 

Garin Hay: First, can you briefly explain what the Bay Area Public School is: about the history of this project, how it is organized and funded, who is welcome to attend or teach classes, and concerning the variety of work being done at The Omni?

David Brazil: The Bay Area Public School (BAPS to its friends) is a free, horizontally-organized and volunteer-run school that has been in operation since 2012.  It emerged directly out of Occupy Oakland and its aftermath, when many of us were wondering what kind of activism we could do in light of the police repression of the camp at Oscar Grant Plaza.  At first we were nomadic; then we acquired a space at 2141 Broadway. At present we are one of the founding collectives of the Omni Commons social center at 4799 Shattuck Avenue in Oakland.

The organizing of BAPS has evolved along with the project, and currently takes the form of an organizing committee which meets every week to discuss class proposals and work out logistics for running the School.  We administer a scheduling website, promote classes via social media, coordinate with the folks who are teaching the classes, put on special events, and liaise with the larger Omni community in order to share space effectively.  Anyone who’s interested in helping with this work is totally welcome to come — we’d be glad to see you at one of our meetings!

It was an early and fundamental decision of the School that all our classes would be free of charge and free of solicitation.  No passing of the hat, no donation box.  Since we started paying rent on a permanent space in 2013, we have depended on a community tithing model to pay our expenses.  We ask community members who support the project to pay $20 a month to sustain it.  At 2141 Broadway, our expenses were $1000, so we called this group the Fab Fifty — if fifty people paid $20 a month we’d have our rent.  Since we moved to the Omni we changed the name of this group because it seemed to mislead people into thinking that we already HAD the fifty people we needed, whereas actually we never have.  The School has always been totally month-to-month on its rent, and although we’ve managed to keep the doors open for almost two years, it’s always been on a shoestring.  We’ve always had a bit of a difficulty in communicating to people that community financial support is essential to this project, because we don’t want to keep rattling the cup for donations.  It’s a balance we’re still working to strike.

Our mascot, by the way, is Publia Pigeon, so we changed the name of the Fab Fifty to the Flock — Publia’s posse.  Anyone reading this who supports free community education and organizing is hereby encouraged to join!

Public School classes are always open to everybody.  Anyone is welcome to propose a class at bayareapublicschool.org — the organizing committee vets such proposals to make sure they’re in line with the general mission of the School and then figures out how to schedule it.  It’s getting a little tricky — we have twenty-four classes meeting just this week! — but we’ve managed so far.

As for the larger Omni Commons project, there’s so much going on there that it’s hard to even keep it all in my head.  There are ten collectives operating there at present, including a hacker space, a community print studio, a worker-owned collective bookstore & cafe, a dance troupe, a publishing company, and on and on.  We hosted Critical Resistance’s yearly fundraiser & just put on Alette in Oakland, a three-day symposium celebrating the life and work of Alice Notley.  And we’ve only been in the space since July!  So there’s a lot more to come.

GH: What has your role in the Bay Area Public School been? What drove you personally to become involved in community educational organizing? Have you had educational experiences in academia, and how do your educational goals compare or contrast with what you see operating in the academy?

DB: I’m one of the founding members of the Bay Area Public School and have put in a lot of organizing and administrative work.  I’ve also helped run events and proposed different classes, especially language classes which I love.  I want the Public School to be a great alternative educational institution like the ones we all admire — Black Mountain, Naropa, New College, to name a few.  And since so many poets have always been involved in BAPS organizing, it seems appropriate that there should be the study of languages.  (Right now we have ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, French, Italian, Arabic, and Latin.)

My first experience working with a free school was when I was living in Ithaca, NY, in the deep dark heart of the Bush years.  After the second election, I felt very despairing, and tried to figure out what I could practically do in my little spot on the globe.  And I thought, until we can change how we are together, until we can alter our social forms, we don’t really have a hope of changing political reality.  I wrote a little manifesto about this in 2005 and when I reread it I realize I laid out a lot of the thinking that has been with me for the past decade.

My own experience in academia only goes as far as my BA in English from SUNY-Binghamton.  That kind of school wasn’t the place for me.  As for goals, I’ve written in the past about the subtraction of telos (or end) from our educational practice as somehow essential to its character.  It doesn’t know where it’s going and is therefore permitted to find its way somewhere more interesting than intention could ever yield.  I connect this with my experience as an artist, where intuitive openness and productive negativity have always been the most crucial guides.


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