Journalist Martin (Do It Anyway) delivers a remarkably candid and perceptive account of her decision to enroll her daughter in a majority Black public school in Oakland, Calif. With a “1 out of 10 rating” on GreatSchools.org, Emerson Elementary was not on the radar of other white parents in Martin’s racially diverse, gentrifying neighborhood. Yet, on Martin’s school tours, which included a private school whose social justice mission was belied by its carefully selected student body, Emerson stood out for its authenticity. In brisk, immersive chapters, Martin chronicles how she and her husband came to make their decision and her daughter’s first three years at Emerson, and delves into conflicting viewpoints over school integration and the best ways to measure school performance, tensions between Emerson’s Black immigrant and Black American families, and the role of public education in fostering democracy, among other topics. Ultimately, her family came to embrace Emerson, “a school with strong muscles for crises” that showed its resilience by coping better with the Covid-19 pandemic than more highly rated public schools. Vividly documenting school fund-raisers, contentious school board meetings, school drop offs, and back-to-school nights, Martin challenges preconceptions about American education and race relations today. Readers will be inspired and enlightened. Agent: Kari Stuart, ICM Partners. (Aug.)
A Lit Hub Nonfiction Books You Should Read this Summer
One of the Top Five Books I Want to Read This Year for CEO of TEDWomen Pat Mitchell
"An honest, searching, and progressive book that will spark debate."—Kirkus
“Martin chronicles her efforts to narrow the space between her progressive principles and her behavior…a compelling account of the benefits of diverse, integrated schools.”—Conor P. Williams, Washington Post
"In a vivid, meticulously-reported and unflinchingly honest way, Martin describes choosing a school for her eldest daughter in progressive Oakland and navigating both unconscious and explicit biases that force her to confront her privileges and fight against them. In the end, she concludes that the main barriers to true integration in public schools are well-meaning white mothers—without finger-pointing or absolving herself as a white savior."—Oprah Daily
“Martin brings to her perspective on her daughter's education a self-reflection that goes well beyond her one daughter and their one family, or even their one school, placing instead the story of her white family in the racial history of the U.S. and the gross disparities seen in the American public education system. This reflection...is what allows Learning in Public to live up to its title."—Shelf Awareness
“This is the story of what school segregation, a nationally important issue, looks like through the lens of one family’s experience.” —Lit Hub
“Correcting the harmful legacies of racism in America is generational work. Learning in Public invites us to walk the long road of this process in beloved community. Courtney refuses to settle for the comfort and false certainty of simple answers and static moralizing. Instead, she insists on the painful discomfort and joyful awakening of transformation that’s possible when we live into the biggest questions we have through the most personal choices we make.” —Mia Birdsong, author of How We Show Up
“Writing with equal passion as a journalist and a mother, Courtney Martin interrogates the history and the moral contradictions of “elite parenting,” gentrification, and school choice. She lives the question of how to chart a new way forward with her daughter in their neighborhood. This is a kind of modeling our society needs – as openly messy as the work of remaking our world.”—Krista Tippett, host of On Being and author of Becoming Wise
"Learning In Public by Courtney Martin rules and I hope you read it."—Garrett Bucks, The White Pages
“Courtney Martin reveals the tensions that progressive parents grapple with when choosing schools for their children in a limited market for “good” schools. She inspires us to ask necessary questions about race, class, and education in a country that has not yet achieved justice for all.”—Dr. Dena Simmons, Founder of LiberatED and author White Rules for Black People
“White parents want to be instruments of change, yet don’t want our own children to 'suffer.' We want to raise anti-racists, yet segregate our kids in 'good' schools dominated by families that look like us. Courtney Martin wrestles with all of these hopes and conundrums in ways that are personal, heartfelt and, especially now, profoundly necessary.”—Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex
“If you have ever wondered what school choice means for white families who profess racial justice and understand that, in the United States, with whom we learn is as important as what we learn, then this is a book for you. Courtney Martin understands that the choices white families make about how and with whom their children live and learn is a way to share in the doing of justice across racial divides. Honest, human, real and necessary, Learning in Public is a triumph.”—Noliwe Rooks, author of Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education
“There is so much love in these pages. Courtney’s capacity to empathize with and challenge White parents’ notions of what is best for our children and our communities is what makes this book so compelling and necessary right now. She’s a master at calling out our bullshit while still calling us together.”—Whitney Kimball Coe, Vice President at Center for Rural Strategies
“Is it possible to integrate with integrity? To advance justice one school choice at a time? Courtney Martin the writer asks such questions. Courtney Martin the mother, neighbor, and citizen lives them. Learning in Public is a powerful, unflinching chronicle of responsibility-taking: what it feels like, what it costs, what it makes possible.”—Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University and author, Become America
“I'm so grateful to Courtney Martin for writing Learning In Public, for so many reasons. For one, I now have the book to hand to my White parent friends when they start talking about what school they're going to choose for their kids. Two, Courtney shows White people in particular how to walk the walk and talk the talk—and how neither process is easy, orderly, or what we expect—and hope—it will be. Three, she reminds us that being a "good parent" and a "good citizen" isn't about knowing all the answers, or being the smartest one in the room. It's about being willing to not know. To be curious, to listen, to try, to fail, and to accept that morality is messy. With Learning in Public, Courtney offers the kind of radically vulnerable intelligence that we can all use much more of.” —Kate Schatz, New York Times bestselling author of Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide
Drawing on firsthand experience, Martin (Do It Anyways) explores the issue of school choice among wealthy white parents in Oakland, CA. She felt torn between sending her children to a local school, where students were mostly Black and brown and standardized test scores were low, and a top-ranked, predominantly white school. Martin, a wealthy white parent herself, begins this book by examining her own internal struggle: Though she wanted to give her children the best opportunities, she also wanted to stay true to her beliefs about the importance of integrated schools. Later, she explores teacher strikes, contentious school mergers, budget cuts, and the impact of COVID-19. She describes members of the Oakland school community in vivid detail, creating an especially interesting cast of characters for a nonfiction work. Martin's musings sometimes read as self-involved, but the narrative will resonate with like-minded (particularly white) parents in similar economic situations. VERDICT The author's choice to share her own story is laudable, and her work effectively unpacks the ways white Americans engage in racist and economically disadvantaging structures. It is, by design, a largely one-sided narrative, but one that many readers, especially parents of young children, will appreciate.—Sarah Schroeder, Univ. of Washington Bothell
A feminist activist explores the benefits of White parents enrolling their children in predominantly Black public schools.
Martin, the author of Do It Anyways: The New Generation of Activists and other socially conscious works of nonfiction, chronicles how she and her husband, both White, moved to Oakland, California, the “second most racially diverse city in the nation,” and bought a house in a “cohousing community.” Due to their relative privilege, she and her husband were able to choose where to send their young daughters to school—the operative word being choose, an option not available to many people. Regardless, Martin, an educated, progressive, well-meaning person, did her research. She learned that the closest public school was Emerson Elementary, rated “failing” and made up largely of Black students—while the other schools both public and private in the area were predominantly White, higher rated, and characterized by long waiting lists for admission. Essentially, the author is seeking answers to some fundamental questions regarding education—e.g., what are Whites parents afraid of, and what does that choice say about them? For Martin, it became a vital personal journey: “It was as if the universe dared me both to give up altogether on this quest for the White moral life, which felt like frivolous intellectual bullshit in the face of my kid’s real needs, and simultaneously to double down.” Studies show that integration helps all students, Black and White, notes the author—though she was also careful not to make an “experiment” of her daughters. Ultimately, she writes, “I suspect that White economically privileged and well-intentioned people have shirked our moral responsibility to the common good for decades under the cover of responsible parenting.” Though the White guilt is sometimes overly pronounced, Martin offers a welcome contribution to an important conversation that should continue as we strive for sustained social change.
An honest, searching, and progressive book that will spark debate.