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Activist Principals: Leading for Social Justice in Ciudad Juárez, Baltimore, and Brazil

by David Edward DeMatthews & Rebecca Tarlau - 2019

Background/Context: A growing interest in how principals address issues of social justice in schools has emerged with an emphasis on critically interrogating school practices, policies, curriculum, and instructional approaches. Yet, many injustices, which prompt calls for social justice, are created outside of the school by larger socioeconomic arrangements and require greater consideration and collaboration between schools and communities. Given the interrelatedness of schools and communities, this study explores the principal’s role in addressing social injustices through activism and utilizing the community’s resources and emerging political opportunities to promote social justice.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to examine how, if at all, do principals with social justice orientations engage in activism, particularly in relation to their school-community context and the networks and political opportunities that are available within and around the school.

Setting: Data were collected in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Baltimore, United States, and Ceará, Brazil.

Research Design: This qualitative multicase study used in-depth interviews and observations to explore the leadership actions of principals with social justice orientations.

Findings: Findings revealed the specific actions taken by principals to understand the social and political context in which they work. The principals in the study utilized their understanding of context to inform their avenues for organizing activity and how they lead to strategically position their schools as resources to support communities and families. Challenges to an activist approach to leadership were also identified, including (a) tensions associated with the multifaceted nature of social justice and the demands; (b) ethical obligations of being a principal within a system and needing to adhere to district policies and priorities; and (c) the unpredictability and uncertainty of outcomes in certain school-community contexts.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Major conclusions and recommendations for this study include the need to instill in principals a recognition that what happens in society impacts schools, and therefore, requires leadership to be attentive to community needs and activist-oriented. Preparing and supporting principals requires additional attention to how principals can lead for social justice with communities and in ways that are responsive to context. The potential constraints associated with being employed by a school district or connected to a social movement with predetermined priorities needs to be further explored and considered.


I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned with what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly& (Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)

While confined in a Birmingham jail for his leadership and activism in the U.S.s civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King stressed the interrelatedness between different communities and struggles for social justice. Kings words and activism draw our attention to the interrelatedness between struggles in schools and how they are fundamentally connected to struggles in communities (Anyon, 2014; Berliner, 2006). A growing interest in how principals address educational inequities has emerged (Cambron-McCabe & McCarthy, 2005; Furman, 2012). Yet, many injustices, which prompt calls for social justice leadership, are created by larger socioeconomic arrangements outside of the school and thus, require consideration of the interrelatedness of schools and communities. Given this interrelatedness, what is a principals role in addressing social injustices?

Contemporary conceptions of social justice locate responsibility in all individuals within communities and rebuke the heroic leader narrative. Yet some conceptions of social justice leadership present an assumption that principals can address educational injustices given available school resources (see Furman, 2012 for a review of literature). This assumption is problematic because principals (1) confront budgetary and staffing constraints; (2) have an ethical commitment to uphold federal, state, and district policies that may (in)advertently produce injustice; (3) can be fired or removed when ignoring or refusing to implement policies, shifting attention from district priorities, or offending powerful colleagues through their activism (Oakes & Rodgers, 2006; Oakes, Rodgers, Blasi, & Lipton, 2006); (4) must operate within district and state bureaucracies that may slow innovation or limit principal autonomy (Capper & Young, 2014; Theoharis, 2007); and (5) collaborate with parents and community that may hold perspectives that contradict equitable and democratic reforms or educator professional judgments based on educational research (Eyal, Berkovich, & Schwartz, 2011; Oplatka & Arar, 2016). Accordingly, principals are often gatekeepers to social justice because they feel caught in conflicting webs of loyalties between districts, teachers, and communities (Kelchtermans, Piot, & Ballet, 2011, p. 93).

Educational injustices, such as racial achievement and discipline gaps, segregation of students with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs), and Eurocentric curriculum, are also extremely difficult to change and may cause some principals to focus internally until these issues are addressed. Yet an internal focus fails to account for the ways educational injustices are products of larger societal and economic issues (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Recent attention has been given to the ways principals publicly and covertly resist forces that marginalize communities by (1) recognizing the ways material realities and injustices outside of the school limit the success of students, teachers, families and communities; and (2) strategically positioning themselves and their schools to engage in advocacy (Berkovich, 2014; Green, 2017; Hoffman, 2009; Ryan, 2016). These actions include developing alliances with families, community leaders, churches, grassroots and nongovernmental organizations, unions, social movements, and other civil society groups (Anderson, 2009; Ishimaru, 2013; Jordan & Wilson, 2015). These principals view schools not as abstract organizations to be managed but as communities defined by their centers of values, sentiments, and beliefs that foster the needed conditions for creating a sense of we from a collection of Is (Sergiovanni, 1994, p. 217).

In this article, we focus on the relationship between community organizing, educational change, and social justice leadership. We explore this relationship through a qualitative multicase study of how principals in Mexico, the United States, and Brazil reconcile and address injustices internal and external to their schools because we believe different contexts can teach us about how principals achieve social justice in schools and communities. The question we address is the following: How, if at all, do principals engage in activism and recognize and take advantage of the communitys resources and emerging political opportunities to promote social justice? We pay close attention to how principals identify and respond to circumstances that support or make principal activism difficult or risky. By interrogating the role of the principal in social change processes, our goal is to build on community organizing in education literature by identifying how principals can facilitate social change and activism in their communities.

What follows is a literature review concerning the intersection between social justice leadership, community organizing, and public education. We start by presenting our definition of social justice leadership. Next, we explore the literature on community organizing and public education with some thoughts about how this relates to school leadership. Then, we analyze how principals have been conceptualized in this literature and present our perspective on the role of principals in community organizing efforts and educational and community struggles. Following this section, we describe the methods used to conduct this study. Subsequently, we present three cases, findings concerning the relationship between school leadership and activism, and a discussion of how these findings speak to the existing literature. Finally, we provide concluding thoughts on the possibilities and challenges for activist principals in diverse sociopolitical contexts.



The concept of social justice is contested by scholars and practitioners because the term does not have a single meaning, is historically and contextually constituted by different groups, and is frequently used to describe a range of purposes of education, teaching, and leadership practices (Gewirtz & Cribb, 2002; Hytten & Bettez, 2011; Rizvi, 1998). Consequently, diverse groups often act in opposition to each other, but in the name of social justice (Boyles, Carusi, & Attick, 2009). Group interests as well as educational and social policies, societal and cultural norms, and current events shift meanings of social justice and raise tensions or conflicts for those seeking to create more equitable schools (Fraser, 1997; North, 2006). Some scholars are beginning to consider how educational leadership for social justice might include the contributions of youth, parents, and community members (Bertrand & Rodela, 2017; Ishimaru, 2017; Mansfield, 2014). For principals, social justice is especially complicated and contextually constituted because choosing to enact district or state policies geared toward closing racial achievement gaps (e.g., eliminating school social workers to hire more academic coaches or reading intervention specialists) may potentially justify spending fewer resources and attention on community-based social justice efforts given limited resources and time constraints (Bogotch, 2000; DeMatthews, 2016a; Ryan, 2016).

In this article, we conceptualize social justice as three interrelated facets: distributive, cultural, and associational. These facets are concerned with the equitable distribution of resources, cultural justice and recognition, and full participation of marginalized groups in decisions that impact their lives (Fraser, 1997; Fraser & Honneth, 2003; Gerwitz & Cribb, 2002; Young, 2011). In thinking about the relationship between schools and communities, these facets are useful because they highlight inequalities both inside and outside of the schools, including (1) the distribution of resources between schools and the economic inequalities within communities (Wang, 2016); (2) educator deficit thinking about racialized communities and police violence against these same groups (DeMatthews, 2016b); and (3) the lack of student and parent participation in schools and shallow forms of local democracy in certain communities (Arar, 2015). For associational justice, we use Andersons (2009) concept of authentic participation as involving broad inclusion, relevant participation, genuine local conditions and processes, coherence between means and ends of participation, and a focus on broader structural inequalities. In highlighting social justice as distributive, cultural, and associational, we can discuss the intersection of inequalities across schools and communities while reconsidering the important role of the principal and school leadership.


Broad-based social movements and community organizing strategies have brought about distributive, cultural, and associational justice in schools. For example, a Mexican-American social movement in the 1960s in Tucson, Arizona (De La Trinidad, 2008) and a Black Power movement in the 1970s in Chicago (Danns, 2002) led to culturally responsive hiring practices and curriculum. Shirley  analyzed how the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) (inspired by Saul Alinsky) organized working-class parents, teachers, and other local actors to develop a network of Alliance Schools in Texas that were part of a larger strategy for community social justice issues. In Brazil, the Citizen Schools transformed the traditional relationship between communities, the state, and education, allowing families to directly participate in defining educational goals (Gandin & Apple, 2002). Mediratta, Shah, and McAlister (2009) examined how community organizing groups, such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, successfully incorporated educational struggles into activism. In 2003, student activists who were members of Youth Organizing Communities (YOC) helped to transform their low-performing Los Angeles high school by incorporating Mexican-American studies courses, adding school counselors, and changing discipline practices (Oakes & Rogers, 2006). Cortez (2013) documented how a small group of mothers organized and participated in civil disobedience to bring attention to injustices in Chicago Public Schools. Welton and Freelon (2017) described the leadership strategies of parents and community organizers of color keep Chicago Public Schools from closing a neighborhood elementary school that was important to the community.1

In a comprehensive review of literature on community-school relationships, Schutz (2006) argued that the literature on schools and communities can be divided into school-centered discussions about how schools can draw on community resources to serve educational ends (e.g., Joyce Epstein, Comer Schools, Ladson-Billings Dreamkeepers [2008]) and community-centered debates on how schools can help communities organizing for broader social change (e.g., deliberative community forums, community development, local education funds, youth organizing). Schutz suggested public organizing for social change, based on Saul Alinskys theory of change and followed by groups such as ACORN, the Pacific Institute for Community Organizations (PICO), and the IAF, is the most effective model for achieving social justice:

Following Alinskys basic model, these groups choose specific, winnable issues that seem likely to energize their core constituencies. Wins on these issues show that the organizations can be effective, putting institutional powers on notice that their actions will be watched, and establishing that the community does, in fact, have the capacity to monitor and influence their decisions. (p. 717)

These organizing strategies are valuable in helping principals, teachers, parents and students make demands and change their schools and communities.

The main case study that Schutz utilized was Shirleys (1997) analysis of the IAFs educational organizing in Texas, in which principals/teachers and parents/community leaders joined together to battle for improved community conditions impacting children. Shirley applied social capital theory to argue that school reformers

must abandon purely internal reforms within the school and emphasize the many potential relationships which can be built (and rebuilt) between a school and its community. Those relationships must engage parents, whose collaboration has proven to be essential to students academic success, but they should extend beyond those family members who are immediately concerned with childrens learning to reach out to congregations, the business community, and to public officials such as the police, school board members, and city councilors. (p. 27)

Shirley provided a list of the specific tools that groups like IAF can teach principals to use in implementing social change: one-on-one house meetings, neighborhood walks, community assemblies, connecting with churches and grassroots organizations, and the formation of action teams.   

Community organizing groups hold important knowledge about power and political strategy that can help principals implement desired educational reforms or challenge status quo policies. Some scholars have focused on how community organizers can successfully run educational campaigns where schools are viewed as communities of teachers, parents, and students mobilized into a broad-based social movement with the help of experts in local organizations (Mediratta & Fruchter, 2003; Mediratta, Fruchter, & Lewis, 2002). Yet both Schutz (2006) and Shirley (1997) (at times) view principals as impediments, because principals are rarely trained to cultivate organizing initiatives, or even more problematically, are taught to engage communities in controlled, top-down, and unidirectional ways. Shirley argued that it takes talented organizing and patience to help urban principals to imagine alternative forces of school organizations and to initiate the innovations that might produce the rises in academic achievement they would like to create (p. 223).

Other scholars described the relationship between schools, community organizing, and social movements. Anyon (2014) wrote about the possibility of schools becoming a new center of social movement organizing that

puts urban education at the center of attempts to build a politically progressive movement. One theoretically strategic reason for the centrality of urban educators is that inside poverty-stricken city schools are the congealed result of economic and other social hardships impinging on urban families. (p. 11)

Rather than school communities looking towards organizers for help, Anyon viewed schools as a strategic sphere of action for community groups to mobilize for broader economic and social goals. She argued that economic and social justice policies should all be considered education policy. Anyon applied social movement literature and argued that movements grow slowly, developing roots and branches, over the years (2014, p. 128), which might include connecting with existing organizations and institutions (such as black churches), the creation of regional organizations, leadership development, youth involvement, the construction of new identities, innovative repertoires, and cross-class and cross-generational alliances. She also described steps to center educational change, including (1) student self-esteem and politicization; (2) working with the community; (3) acquiring community organizing skills; (4) collaboration between mainstream school reforms, community groups, and education organizers; (5) creating a power analysis and an issue campaign; and (6) regional and national convenings.

Anyons work also offers a list of actions to center schools in a new social movement, but as Schutz  noted, Anyon did not discuss how to develop the practical and scholarly expertise to follow her recommendations. Oakes and Rogers  attempted to overcome this limitation by documenting their attempts as educational scholars to engage in community organizing. They discussed initiatives in which professors and graduate students helped students and teachers become critical analyzers of their social reality. This follows the first of Anyons recommendation: helping students (and teachers) become politicized and critical social scientists. However, as Schutz  argued, this focus on standard practices of social scientists may have actually mis-educated some participants about the nature of social power while at least implicitly downplaying the efficacy of local knowledge (p. 10). This is different from the IAF model that Shirley (1997) researched in Texas because the goal was not to rely solely on professional organizers but to create the expertise in the school community (among principals, parents, teachers, students) to take action.

In summarizing this literature, we showed some distinct ways that the relationship between community organizing, social movements, and schools has been theorized and understood. On the one hand, Shirley and Schutz viewed schools as directly benefiting from community organizing, as principals, parents, teachers, and students learn how to map power relations and strategically fight for their educational demands. On the other hand, Oakes and Rogers, and to a lesser extent Anyon, argued for more of an equal partnership between schools and community groups, where principals contributed to social movement emergence and provided expertise, and community organizers shared knowledge about organizing strategies. This distinction between community organizing as a resource for school communities, as opposed to school communities and organizations as mutually reinforcing spaces for social movement emergence, is important as we examine the role of principals in this process.


Principals are important actors who can help to build (or oppose) the type of broad-based social movements discussed in the community-school literature. We are interested in the ways principals working with community organizing groups can achieve distributive, cultural, and associational justice. Principals who lead for social justice are often described as committed to their schools and communities; reflective of their own privilege, power, and prejudice; and engaged in ongoing critical interrogation, social analysis, and inquiry-based processes to examine policies and practices that (re)produce marginalization (Bogotch, 2014; Furman, 2012; Larson & Murtadha, 2002; Rapp, 2002; Shields, 2010). These principals are relationship-driven, morally grounded, spiritual, and interested in closing achievement gaps, but not as an all-or-nothing trade-off with social, emotional, developmental, and community aspects of education. Scholars have primarily documented how these leaders address injustices associated with the segregation of students with disabilities and English language learners (Theoharis, 2007; Theoharis & OToole, 2011), Eurocentric curriculum (Kose, 2007), and the marginalization of parents from communities of color in school governance and decision-making processes (Giles, Johnson, Brooks, & Jacobson, 2005; Zembylas & Iasonos, 2015). Most prioritized democratic and inclusive practices that engage communities in addressing educational inequities within schools (Ryan, 2006; Wasonga, 2010).

Fewer studies have looked at how principals look outward and engage in activism and organizing, although researchers are beginning to give more attention to these practices. For example, Khalifa (2012) studied the impact that a principals community leadership had on school-community relations and student outcomes. His findings suggested that principals are in a strategic position to engage in activism centered on community causes because of their visible role within communities and their relationships with families. A long history of black principals being involved in community organizing has been well-documented, particularly in racially segregated schools (Kaprinski, 2006; Lomotey, 1987; Morris, 1999; Walker, 2009; Walker & Byas, 2003). These studies document the importance of principal engagement with grassroots organizations and how they utilized their school resources and professional networks to address inequitable educational policies, as well as other community concerns. For example, Walker (2009) documented how black principals in Georgia created a covert network of principals that supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) legal efforts to challenge segregation. This covert work allowed principals to act as instructional leaders ensuring students had access to well-resourced classrooms with a critical and civically engaged curriculum to prepare them to press for racial justice in their communities.

Ryan (2016) found that some principals strategically pursued social justice and activist agendas within districts and communities because of the potential constraints and forms of resistance they confronted required them to do so. In a study of community-oriented principals serving predominantly Latino communities, Ishimaru (2013) showed how a small group of principals rejected top-down leadership approaches and enacted shared leadership aimed toward empowering parents and cultivating community-based leadership. One important finding was that not all principal organizing and activism were beyond the priorities of the district. Shared leadership approaches have aided principals in understanding family and community needs and placed them in a more knowledgeable position to utilize networks and professional expertise to support educational and community causes simultaneously (Sanders, 2014). In a more recent study of school leadership for community development, Green (2017) showed how principals positioned their schools as social brokers within communities, linked the schools to development projects, and helped teachers connect instruction to community realities. These studies suggest that principals, who are often directly confronted with bureaucratic district demands, can learn with parent and community leaders about their needs and then find ways to align district priorities with community priorities.


While we draw on this literature, our focus is on how principals can address distributive, cultural, and associational injustices through the types of community organizing efforts we have described. We start from the belief that the job of a principal is to reverse the traditional relationship between schools and communities where school priorities come before the community. Instead, we argue, the principal should be a facilitator of community organizing that works to reform the social and economic policies maintaining injustice in and around schools. We realize this is much easier said than done, because principals are not protected with tenure and are subject to ethical commitments to uphold policies and implement the school districts mission, which could (in)advertently work against community causes.

Nonetheless, we believe principals have multiple entry points to become involved in activism in their communities. Principals can take advantage of unfolding political opportunities to integrate students and teachers into organizing efforts, partner with local organizations that are already engaged in social justice struggles, and reframe education not as a path to individual career advancement but rather a collective attempt to transform communities. Principals need to see their schools as sites of struggle within a larger context, recognize discriminatory policies, and understand how marginalized people can at times feel powerless (Anderson, 2009). They can build alliances with other leaders (e.g., student leaders, superintendents, union leaders, community leaders) and behave strategically to avoid give-and-take politics, party lines, and other inauthentic equity traps.

Unfortunately, principals who engage in activism and organizing may confront challenges. For example, activist principals can be targeted by prosaic supervisors or powerful community members who disagree with their causes or find their interests threatened. Even among progressive peers, different visions of justice can surface, and different theories on the appropriate methods to achieve social change can create tensions. Thus, principals should understand context, predict potential conflicts and forms of resistance, and fully consider how circumstance and context direct the visibility or covertness of their advocacy, community engagement, and organizing approaches (DeMatthews, 2016b; Ryan, 2016; Walker, 2009).


Data used in this study comes from three larger qualitative ethnographic case studies conducted separately by each of the coauthors, which examined community-based leadership practices that promote distributive, cultural, and associational justice within schools and/or communities.2 Although it is unconventional to combine separate studies (see examples in Griffin & Reddick, 2011; Martinez & Welton, 2014), both authors utilized similar methods and recognized the benefits of comparing and contrasting principal experiences in different contexts. We each collected the data for the studies over a 12 year time period, coded data, and published manuscripts and conference papers (DeMatthews, 2018; DeMatthews, Edwards, & Rincones, 2016; Tarlau, 2013, 2015). After sharing our research and discussing findings, we concluded that a multicase study comparative research approach using a secondary analysis of data could illuminate new insights made possible by collaborating with a colleague in a different intellectual community and through comparing different contexts and leadership practices. We discussed theoretical aspects of our research, including meanings of social justice in education and community organizing. We realized our research provided relevant insights into a question we developed to guide our perspective on leadership: How if at all, do principals engage in activism and recognize and take advantage of the communitys resources and emerging political opportunities to promote social justice?


The first case was derived from data collected in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.3 This yearlong study concentrated on how one principal engaged families in the education of their children through adult education programs, volunteer and service work, and community activism. Data collection consisted of ongoing principal, teacher, and parent interviews (in Spanish and English) and extensive observations, field notes, and document collection. Observations typically lasted 35 hours and occurred about once a month.

The second case was derived from data collected in Baltimore, Maryland. Data collection began immediately following the funeral of Freddie Gray in April 2015 and the subsequent social unrest. Data collection included principal and teacher interviews as well as publicly available documents. The case specifically focused on how principals understood social unrest in Baltimore, the Black Lives Matter movement, police violence, and how principals perceived their role in the community during a time of social upheaval.

The final case was derived from data collected in Ceará, Brazil. The data collected was part of a multiyear study focused on the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) and the movements efforts to develop an alternative educational proposal for rural public schools. Data collection consisted of interviews with government officials, bureaucrats, teachers, principals and MST activists (in Portuguese) as well as extensive observations of classrooms, teacher training, and organizing activities consisting of hundreds of hours.


We used a qualitative multicase study approach (Yin, 2013), incorporating cases from Mexico, the United States, and Brazil. All interviews and field notes were transcribed and translated by the researchers prior to this study. The primary cases were developed through a multistep, collaborative data analysis process to answer our research question and better understand the social, economic, and political issues confronting each community and how each principal utilized or failed to utilize social movements, indigenous resources, political opportunities (McAdam, 1999), and framing to enhance their leadership. We began by systematically reviewing all previously collected data, which included rereading interview transcripts, field notes, and documents as well as reports, conference papers, and manuscripts. After we engaged in this comprehensive review process and felt immersed in the data, we rewrote draft cases to provide a chronological timeline of events, relevant context important to the study, and a description of the principals role as a leader and activist within the community. Next, we read each case together, provided feedback, engaged in a critical discussion, and decided to re-analyze data using inductive coding based on our perspective on the role of principals in community organizing efforts. Codes focused on how principals viewed their role in the community, the ways they engaged in activism, and the forms of resistance or challenges they identified. For example, we coded service provider when principals expressed the need to offer services for the community, versus social movement member when principals identified as part of a larger social movement. Some of the codes for the challenges that principals faced included lack of resources, student safety, and diverse political opinions. After reviewing codes, we redeveloped the cases and reviewed the three newly written cases together. We posed critical questions about the data, provided feedback and further analysis grounded in our mutual understandings of principals as potential facilitators of community organizing, and incorporated changes into three final cases. Finally, we compared similarities, differences, and patterns across cases and looked for emerging themes, common practices and challenges, how context supported or hindered social justice leadership, and lessons learned from each principals practice.



This case focused on the enactment of social justice leadership in Ciudad Juárez and explores how the schools leader, Mrs. Donna, identified, understood, and addressed the inside-of-school and outside-of-school barriers to student and community success.4 The context of this case, set within a coloniá (an unregulated settlement with substandard housing and physical infrastructure), is important to Mrs. Donnas enactment of leadership because student and community well-being was heavily impacted by (1) high proportions of adult illiteracy; (2) lack of access to quality public schools; (3) poverty; (4) domestic violence, gang/cartel violence, and the persistence of violent and nonviolent crime; (5) government malaise and corruption; and (6) a lack of community cohesion and solidarity (Hernandez & Grineski, 2012). In 2010, Juárez was named the worlds most violent city. Between 2007 and 2012, more than 9,000 murders were reported (Valencia & Chacon, 2013). Violence disrupted families and communities as children lost loved ones and parents lost employment opportunities as businesses closed or moved out of the city. Local and federal police struggled with violence and corruption, while the government largely ignored coloniás. Many families living in coloniás felt disconnected and suffered from a lack of hope or sense of agency over the material inequalities that impacted their lives.


This case is focused on how two Baltimore City Public School principals responded to police violence, protests, and civil disobedience that occurred after the death of Freddie Gray. On April 12, 2015, Baltimore police officers arrested a 25-year-old African-American man named Freddie Gray. Gray sustained injuries to his spine while being transported by police and died from his injuries. Spontaneous and planned protests occurred after his funeral and led to the arrest of more than 250 people. Buildings, civilian vehicles, and police cars were damaged or destroyed. Maryland Army National Guard troopers were deployed, a state of emergency and a citywide curfew were enacted, and school was canceled (Dance, 2015). Students and school-aged children played a role in protests, civil unrest, and vandalism. Numerous students were arrested and police and media alleged that students instigated some instances of vandalism and looting via social media. Police violence by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) was further documented in a Department of Justice Report (United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 2016) that described officers bullying, instigating, brutalizing, and violating the Constitutional rights of black teenagers. This is the context in which we explore how principals Williams and Monroe enacted leadership in their high schools.


This case emerged from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST), which is a social movement of landless rural workers who for the past 30 years have occupied land across Brazil and have won land access for more than 350,000 families (Wright & Wolford, 2003). After receiving land, the MST continued to organize contentious protests to pressure the government for access to public schools and health care, full citizenship rights, and other political, social economic, environmental, and cultural rights. The MST succeeded in establishing approximately 2,000 schools and educating more than 200,000 landless youth and has trained almost 4,000 educators (Tarlau, 2013). The MST also developed an alternative educational approach, what is known as Education of the Countryside, which is the right to schools based in rural traditions that encourage students to stay in the countryside and participate in constructing vibrant rural livelihoods.

In 2009, in the state of Ceará, the MST pressured the government to build four high schools in their agrarian communities because youth were forced to migrate to cities for access to education, thereby abandoning their rural communities. MST leadership won the right to participate in defining the schools curriculum and organizational structureand to choose principals. MST leadership believed principals would play a critical role in transforming the traditional relationship between school and community and, consequently, wanted these principals to come from the movements ranks. By 2011, all four principals (Julia Vela, Fatima Santos, Maria Pedra, Alma Pepe) were active members of the MST education sectora collective of activists inside the MST who organized around educational issues.


The main question we attempt to answer is how, if at all, these principals engaged in activism and recognized and took advantage of the communitys resources and emerging political opportunities. To answer this question, we split findings into three different sections: (1) how principals viewed their role in the community, (2) how they engaged in broader forms of social activism; and (3) and what challenges emerged to social justice leadership and connecting their schools with broader forms of social activism.


Case 1: Juárez, Mexico

Mrs. Donna is a bilingual Mexican-American female in her late forties who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. She did not have formal training on being a principal and described experiencing and witnessing the immense inequalities that existed for Mexican nationals, Mexican Americans, and people born just a few yards south of the Texas border in Juárezs coloniás. Before founding her school, she spent 20 years volunteering and teaching Bible study, consumer mathematics, reading, accounting, parenting, and English classes throughout Juárez. When Mrs. Donna began volunteering, she recognized a need for a new role for schools:

You walked into those schools, 40 to 45 kids in a small classroom, there isnt much going on& Most of the students leave the sixth grade unable to read& Not all the teachers cared& We saw a principal encourage them to go to work for their families, rather than attending junior high school& We just couldnt see ourselves spending hours and hours trying to help in a place that didnt even want their students to go on to junior high school.

She did not believe public schools could meet the multifaceted student and family needs. Many families moved to Juárez from rural Southern Mexico to work in maquilas (factories set up on a duty-free/tariff-free basis for assembly or production which often pay as little as $400 dollars a month) (Semuels, 2016), which made establishing a community difficult because they lacked long-term roots and access to elders. Her conversations with parents helped her appreciate their difficult situations. She concluded that her community had tremendous strength and that for children to overcome the odds of systemic poverty and the challenges of the coloniás, communities and families needed to work together with schools and take collective action.

Colegio Felipe Angeles (CFA) is free to families and includes resources such as books, uniforms, supplies, and 23 meals a day. The school received funds primarily through community-based fundraisers in Texas and through external grants. CFAs expenses are partially offset by a parent contract that requires each students family to volunteer 5 hours per week to work at the school. Parents run the schools main office, monitor common areas and the cafeteria, and support teachers, but also clean classrooms, bathrooms, hallways, and common spaces.

Mrs. Donnas actions and experiences within the coloniá shaped the ways she understood students and families and how she enacted leadership. She realized parents needed to understand the root causes of poverty and marginalization. These formative experiences provoked her to an important conclusion: Ultimately, parents and the community are the most important part of a childs education. It cannot be left up to the school. She helped to frame a belief that family empowerment was necessary to improve the community and school. CFA was founded based on these understandings. She summed up her leadership approach and CFAs mission together:

We arent here to teach to the test and we arent here to tell parents what to do&We arent here to give all the answers anyway, not that I have them&even if I did, its not important that I have the answers, its important that they do& that they are empowered to solve their own problems.

Mrs. Donnas ability to foster meaningful change was centered on what she believed most significantly impacted the academic and social development of students. Several broad themes emerged from an analysis of how she understood the community context in relation to the schools mission: (1) multiple and intersecting challenges limited students ability to reach their full potential, so the school needed to be a safe, caring, and supportive learning environment; (2) parents needed the capacity and will to support their childrens academic and social development, so the school needed to provide parents with meaningful experiences, supports, and learning opportunities; and (3) leadership was related to service, support, inclusivity, and challenging dominant belief systems, as well as encouraging parents to question the status quo. The school became a network to address these three educational leadership goals.

Case 2: Baltimore, United States

Principal Monroe is an African-American man in his early 40s who has worked in the district for more than a decade. Principal Williams is an African-American woman in her mid-40s who grew up in Baltimore and attended Baltimore schools. Both leaders went through traditional principal preparation programs and worked within 5 miles of the 2015 Baltimore riots. They reported how their students faced similar life circumstances as Freddie Gray. Baltimore was experiencing a significant spike in violent crimes, including murders (344 homicides in 2015) (Rector, 2016). In Freddie Grays neighborhood, 51.8% of the people were unemployed, 33% of the homes were vacant, and 7.4% of children had elevated blood-lead levels (Covert, 2015). Both principals were cognizant of the community injustices that impacted students and families and believed schools should be safe spaces where students and teachers discuss current events, community issues, and daily challenges associated with the city. Principal Williams said, In the black community, schools can be like churches. A safe place, a place to come together, to discuss our issues, and to act. Principal Monroe believed that the schools purpose was not just about getting kids to pass the test, but to prepare them for life&and when I say prepare them for life, I mean prepare them to be a black man or woman in America, in Baltimore. These comments reflected beliefs that schools were safe havens and places where communities come together to improve the lives of children and community.

Each principal recognized the importance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) social movement and was supportive of candid conversations about race, class, and discrimination, especially concerning marginalized communities in Baltimore. Principal Williams recognized BLM was not only about race, but also class: The way police treat me, as an educated black woman in a nice car, its not the same as how they treat our kids. These kids arent only black, but they are from this place that has such a negative stigma. Principal Monroe talked about BLM and the mass incarceration of black men, youth, and the school-to-prison pipeline:

I dont know the stats off-hand, but its horrible here. These boys are treated by the police as if they are dangerous, they get a criminal record by eighth grade, we fail them in schools, their community fails them. They are set up to fail, you know?

Their comments reflected how they connected BLM with the everyday struggle of students.

The principals were asked how, if at all, issues like mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, police violence, racism, and other community issues were addressed within the school. Both principals believed the issues were important to students social and emotional development and felt the school should facilitate learning opportunities, but neither school had curricula that enabled students to critically analyze contemporary society, nor did they partner with any grassroots community organizations or advocacy groups, such as Baltimore United for Change (BUC), the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, or local universities. Community guest speakers visited the schools, and field trips outside of the city gave students a different perspective and helped them recognize how marginalized they were in their own communities, but the principals agreed that most action was informal, impromptu, and developed by proactive teachers. Principal Monroe gave an example:

When you see a young man, and hes getting in trouble and making poor choices, you need to engage him in a dialogue. Like, help him understand the path hes on. You hope you can help him in a way that makes him change courses.

Principal Williams made similar comments about talking to boys about making the right decisions, but stressed mentoring girls as well, especially around issues of domestic violence, pregnancy, and gang membership. The schools shortcomings around formal, culturally relevant curricula as well as limited school-community partnerships may reflect the limited time and resources distributed to the schools, the geographic isolation of these schools within racially segregated and low-income communities, the realities of high-stakes accountability pressures in low-performing schools, and the multiple demands on principals.

Case 3, Ceará, Brazil

In the mid-2000s, the state officials in Ceará assumed rural schools would disappear as families migrated to cities; therefore, it was only necessary to invest in new schools in urban centers. A state education official said: The idea was that everyone would go to the peripheries of the cities and the countryside was going to disappear. The MSTs proposal for Education of the Countryside, or the right to schools located in the countryside with organizational, pedagogical, and curricular practices based on their rural realities, was in direct conflict with this vision.

Consequently, the four MST principals saw their job as supporting the Education of the Countryside proposal and integrating schools into the MSTs broader movement for agrarian reform. Principal Santos said,

When we arrived in the settlement we already had an idea of a different form of organization. We had to think about the educational model that could help us achieve our dreams. A school that could teach our youth to stay in the countryside and awaken in them the love for land and working the land with care, of producing on the land, surviving, without the need to migrate. We struggled for the right to a dignified life, housing, water, health, and for education. We began to ask ourselves, what kind of school do we have? What kind of school do we want? And with this idea we went to the capital and demanded it from the governor. [Emphasis added]

For Principal Santos, who grew up in a poor rural community with almost no opportunities to study, a school that supported the MSTs social vision of constructing sustainable small-farming communities in the countryside was critical. This is not simply a generic vision of transforming society, which is invoked by almost all educators and principals. Rather, Principal Santos advocated for a specific vision of rural development that required confronting unequal land ownership, the concentration of wealth, and economic development through agribusiness exports. Linking schools to concrete struggles over power and wealth is a critical component of her vision of leadership.


Case 1: Juárez, Mexico

Observational data documented how Mrs. Donna maintained a watchful eye over the schools culture and atmosphere. She consistently interacted with teachers, parents, and students during the school day and in after-school programs. When students did not comply with rules, she clarified, asked students to reflect, and guided them to restore fractured relationships that may have occurred from misconduct. She greeted visitors with a smile and frequently a hug. According to parents and teachers, her presence was not viewed as authoritarian. She participated in lessons, talked to students about their work, learned with teachers about how to improve instruction, and promoted the school in the community. When she interacted with parents, it was clear that she developed close relationships. She knew personal aspects of each family. She would ask how a sick family member was doing or how a high school-aged child was progressing in school. Parents described Mrs. Donna using the words friend, caring, counselor, teacher, and support. One parent called Mrs. Donna el pegamento, or the glue.

Mrs. Donna recognized some parenting issues within the community but did not place blame or maintain deficit perspectives of parents. Rather, she understood if parents needs were not met, they would personally struggle and be less able to support their children. When she talked about challenges within the coloniá she recognized that despair was a symptom of violence and poverty, not a root cause. In a conversation about leadership, she asked:

Do you listen to people? Do you really talk to them and hear their stories? Some of these women, theyve never been asked what they think. Theyve never told their story. Youd be amazed what you could learn about them, about their strength. Strength they dont even recognize.

Mrs. Donna believed too many parents, and especially women, had their voices silenced. She also believed that by engaging with and supporting parents, she could create a network of parents that could support each other. She said, We want them [parents and students] to be empowered to solve their own problems& We just want to show them a way that might be better for them.

Mrs. Donna engaged parents in an incremental approach to improving their life circumstances and understanding the local context in which they were marginalized. Parents had opportunities to choose the types of courses they took and how they partnered with the school. Several community-related issues gave rise to more intense community organizing and community service projects were part of the schools ongoing mission to engage the community. The school was the hub for engagement. All parents had opportunities to provide input in school decisions or to engage in community efforts, but only some felt empowered enough to meaningfully participate in school governance or take leadership roles. The school was continually working to bolster the development of parent leaders in the community. Mrs. Donnas approach tended to focus on smaller and immediate needs and typically did not direct parents to engage in advocacy on structural issues, nor did it seek to facilitate significant political change outside of the coloniá beyond short-term campaigns to have the city respond to infrastructure requests (e.g., fixing a road) or other government services.

Case 2: Baltimore, United States

Principal Monroe and Principal Williams believed the Baltimore riots were overdue because community-police tensions had been tenuous for decades. They acknowledged the appropriateness of BLM as a social movement and believed schools should engage students in critical discussions about racial justice. Yet both principals actions following the riots conformed to district priorities to limit engagement with BLM out of fears that students might be harmed in clashes with police. The district encouraged schools to have discussions with students, but emphasized student safety as a top priority. Principal Monroe said, We were told our community was in trouble and we needed to make sure our students were safe. So its our job to help them understand the laws, to tell them to stay in, and that they need to stay safe. Principal Williams shared a similar perspective: Our job, first and foremost, is to make sure everyone is safe& Unfortunately, if you are a principal here you know far too many students that have been killed& So its our job, as much as possible, to protect students. Both principals told teachers that while it was okay to talk about police violence, Freddie Gray, and other events, they should prioritize student safety. Principal Williams added, In a sense, I want to tell them to be mad, and protest, and keep protesting because I want change. However, if I did do that, and they went out there all pumped up, something really bad might happen.

Both principals were asked about their role in activism, especially concerning the community. Both said yes, principals should be engaged in activism, but with caveats. Principal Monroe said,

Sometimes our school does engage in activism. Our students have attended city council and school board meetings to protest. Theyve written letters& You know, in past years, students and teachers have walked out together because of school consolidations and closures. Activism, especially for teachers and students is not out of the question. However, as a principal, I work for the district. I need to be more careful& My mentor told me, as a principal, you need to pick your battles& So, in this case, with Freddie Gray, this is a battle I want to fight, but I know that I need to make sure all my students are safe first. It wasnt safe. So, I couldnt just say what I wanted to say. I had to be the voice of reason. I had to exercise control& Now, if you ask me what I would do if I was a teacher, or if I was in college, or a teenager, youd get a different answer.

Principal Williams shared:

Principals are activists, but sometimes you have to do these more quietly. You need to find partners& but more importantly, I think its not about what you do the day after the riots. Its about what you do every day. Im proud of what I do and Im so proud of all of our teachers. It isnt easy working here& We fight every day for our kids& When Cooper Anderson [CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper] leaves, I will be here. You know? This isnt something I just got into because I was in college and had free time& This is my life. Im committed to this place. So, if you ask me do I think principals are activists, they are in Baltimore&. The good ones [principals] at least are.

Principal Monroes statement reflected the tension between a principals formal responsibility to protect students and an activist-oriented desire to express frustrations with the status quo. Principal Williams believed her role as principal was already rooted in activism because of her commitment to educate students, support teachers, and maintain these efforts over time. Both statements highlight tensions between social justice leadership purposes and the reality of the principalship and working within a challenging district.

Both principals were critical of society and able to frame the marginalizing conditions associated with life in Baltimore, but felt unable to fully capitalize on the political opportunities that arose in their communities because of district constraints and safety. They used informal means to engage faculty and students in critical discussions about racial justice and safety. Teachers developed lessons to engage students in these topics, educators maintained open-door policies with students, and existing partnerships with community organizations were brought in to help address student and family needs. Principal Monroe found that some of his social studies and English teachers were co-planning a unit on Baltimore and racial injustice using history and literature. Both principals met with faculty after school to discuss student and community concerns, and the school became more reflective of their role in the community. Principal Janice stated, After [the riots], a lot more teachers felt empowered to connect with families, make sure people were okay, and find new ways to help the community& It was authentic and somewhat spontaneous. The principals took pride in their work and the school, prioritized student safety over participation in political protests, and believed their efforts working in urban Baltimore were impactful and meaningful. Most importantly, they believed that their activism was reflected in their sustained commitments to their school community.

Case 3: Ceará, Brazil

The Brazilian principals utilized their schools to engage students in actions for larger social and political changes. As Principal Brito explained, The pedagogy of the movement [MST] is humanization, educating for collectivity and solidarity . . . Education of the countryside is for the construction of social movements. Students and teachers continually participated in community struggles for water, paved roads, and other demands. All four principals framed leadership as solidarity, collectivity, and social struggle. The four principals, in coordination with the statewide MST education sector, organized a series of professional development opportunities in their schools, attempting to garner the support of the teachers for these broader goals.

The MST published a handbook for the teachers to read in local study groups. Handbook topics focused on issues beyond traditionally framed educational issues. For example, in 2011 the handbook included an analysis of the Brazilian political context, an overview of recent presidential elections, a summary of the interests of the dominant classes, and a discussion of challenges for the working classexplicitly political topics. During a weeklong training, teachers reflected on the handbook, participated in daily MST cultural performances, listened to panels on the theoretical foundations of Education of the Countryside, and discussed how to implement these pedagogies in their schools. Teacher training was Freirean in the sense that it was problem-posing in nature (Freire, 2000): principals and MST leaders asked community members to reflect on their experiences and relate these experiences to the global political and educational context.

The principals received permission to have three additional subjects during the school day: Organization of Work and Production Techniques; Projects, Studies, and Research; and Communal Social Practices. These topics of work, research, and collectivity represented three practices that were central to the MSTs larger goal to create a solidarity economy in the countryside based on cooperatives of small-scale agricultural producers. The incorporation of these new subjects within the school gave the principals and teachers flexibility to link student learning to the MSTs social vision.

The principals created an education collective consisting of teachers, parents, and students that oversaw their work in the schools. As Principal Alves said, An important part of the school is the school advisory board . . . I had the education collective legalized and recognized by the state. Rather than simply becoming a consulting body, the education collective in the community had real power over the pedagogical, organizational, and curricular decisions of the school. How the collective process unfolded can be identified in the writing of each schools mission statement. The school mission statement, referred to as a Pedagogical-Political Project (PPP), is a legal requirement for every school in Brazil, but the principals in these schools used the construction of the PPP as an opportunity to organize a 2-year long process of debate and discussion about the communities vision for the schools. The principals, teachers, community members, students, and local government officials were all part of this process, which took place through general assemblies and small group discussions. The MST education sector published three study booklets for school activist-leaders to engage communities in debates about educational purpose. An excerpt from one booklet stated, Like the booklet that came before and those that will come after, this text is alive, in movement, and should be utilized to animate the collective construction of an alternative education project for family farmers. Thus, one of the principals most important organizing interventions in the schools was establishing a collective, participatory form of governance.


Case 1: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

Mrs. Donna recognized the school could not entirely address the broad range of challenges confronting families. The extent of poverty in the coloniá and the communitys lack of resources coupled with the schools limited budget meant that prioritizing was an ongoing part of leadership. A related challenge was the significant and immediate needs of many families in the community. Some families lived in homes that were built of wooden pallets, tarp, and clay. A storm could easily wash out a road and several homes. No larger social movement surrounded the coloniá or supported the school. Few community organizations existed within the coloniá or offered support, especially because of perceptions of violence. Ms. Donna noted, People are afraid to come here. We cant get doctors or social workers or dentists. We cant get regular volunteers even, because they are afraid of the violence. Perceptions of fear made partnerships with community organizations in Juárez or in nearby El Paso almost impossible.

Many homes in the coloniá lacked access to electricity, and raw sewage often collected in the street. The community had no doctors offices or hospitals and lacked access to any form of healthy foods. The immediate needs of families and students often meant the school focused on providing immediate access to food, shelter, or health services rather than engaging in larger efforts connected to social movements. For example, Mrs. Donna and the school community pulled together a massive amount of resources to help a student suffering from brain cancer. Mrs. Donna said, At one point, thats all students and teachers were talking about, helping [this student]. In other instances, the school worked together to provide shelter for a family after an incident impacted their housing situation. Mrs. Donna recognized the focus on immediate needs as a challenge that slowed progress toward a more systemic approach to community building. However, she also saw importance in solving individual problems with families because she felt this work represented the foundation for larger, future efforts that might mobilize the community in more significant ways. She said, The small tasks we complete together are examples of the power of working together.

Case 2: Baltimore, United States

Both principals communicated that top-down demands were the most significant form of resistance or challenge to leading for social justice. Principal Williamss quote was representative of Principal Monroes comments reflecting these tensions: We arent given much resources and there isnt much time in the day to do all the things youd like to do. They acknowledged that working for the district meant they were ethically obliged to follow the policies and mandates of their supervisors. The districts agenda was not always aligned to the needs of the community. A lack of aligned priorities meant the principals had to prioritize student achievement as measured by standardized assessments and other compliance indicators. As Principal Williams stated, The work youd really want to do as a principal, sometimes, you dont get to do it because there are so many other things put on your plate. Principal Monroe similarly noted,

There are compliance lists you need to stay off of, school performance plans, staff and teacher evaluations, IEP meetings [for students receiving special education]& I probably receive more than 100 emails a day, many are from [the central office] and they need to be addressed right away.

The constant demand for responding to district priorities meant each principal could only focus so much on community issues. Failure to meet expectations could lead to their termination.

Both principals deeply believed in the schools mission to improve student achievement and recognized that some compliance mandates were meaningful. Yet they also recognized that given their limited time, it was extremely difficult to refocus the schools attention and resources on broader issues of social justice. Principal Williams explained, The schools are set up to provide instruction and people are rewarded for test scores& not to have an impact on the community in other ways. Thus, principals needed to make time and find resources, which was especially challenging considering teacher turnover, ongoing budget cuts, and a history of mistrust between the public schools and families. Principal Monroe described a feeling of guilt: I know we need to do more things to connect with families, but Im just drowning in paperwork and other duties. He added, Its hard to even plan to do more, because we lose several good teachers every year& So Im working on retaining good teachers and recruiting new ones and not the community piece. Both principals comments reflected that the Baltimore context would benefit from an activist-principal, but district and administrative school demands created significant obstacles for principals hoping to be activists.

Case 3: Ceará, Brazil

The principals in Ceará had confronted significant barriers in attempts to transform schools into vehicles for broader social change. The most obvious tension was with state officials, as they attempted to promote school reform aligned to ideals of a radical social movement, rather than implement state education policies promoting the dominant ideas of individualism, meritocracy, and competition. Principal Santos explained, one of the biggest hindrances we face is the state itself. Because Education of the Countryside in Ceará is a new thing. And anything that is new is difficult to accept . . . when we arrive there with our ideas and it is a big confrontation. For example, principals Vela, Santos, Pedra, and Pepe did not agree with the states grading and ranking processes, and they encouraged students to engage in learning processes that did not contribute to competition or preparation for an urban job market. The principals reported constant conflicts with state officials over conflicting social visions and their policy implications.

A more significant barrier confronted by the principals was encountered when parents themselves held social values misaligned to the MST. Each school community was unique, and sometimes, the parents disputed the MSTs vision for a collective, sustainable farming community. Principal Pedra explained,

The MST pedagogy is difficult to implement, we have big issues because our students communities all have different histories . . . Indigenous people have their own history, other communities have their desires, our biggest problem is with the communities from outside of the MST settlement who send their children to the schools.

Although Ceará built the four rural high schools in response to the MSTs mobilizations, the schools served communities beyond the MSTs own territories. Parents from other communities often critiqued the movements vision and demanded their children receive skills needed to leave rural areas to acquire urban jobs. When demands were contradictory to the MST, the four principals recognized these concerns and reconsidered what social justice meant. The MST promoted a participatory governance process, and thus, all community members had the right to express their values and beliefs. Nonetheless, while the principals were dedicated to including communities voices in the process, they were also vocally pushing for the MSTs vision of peasant agriculture, small farming, and food sovereignty. The constant conflicts that emerged during this participatory process illustrated a major tension of the principals activism: not all members of a community will have the same social vision or agree about how a process of social change should take place.


Many principals find themselves working in schools where inequities in educational opportunities and outcomes are created not only by unjust districts or state systems but also by larger socioeconomic arrangements. These circumstances prompted a group of educational leadership scholars to call for the development of socially just leaders who recognize inequalities, engage and empower communities through problem-posing and problem-solving activity, and act strategically and dialogically to bring about equity-oriented change (Furman, 2012; Theoharis, 2007). Yet social justice is complicated, multifaceted, and context specific. Social justice can mean different things to different people, which in turn creates constraints, resistance, and gridlock with regard to disrupting the status quo. We examined the work of principals with social justice orientations working in Mexico, the United States, and Brazil. Each principal recognized how larger socioeconomic arrangements outside of their schools marginalized their students. However, several factors influenced their perceptions of these injustices, the actions they felt they could and could not take, and their successes and shortcomings.

First, research on social justice leadership and activism emphasizes that principals should be visible leaders who understand the lived experiences within their communities and are willing to find ways to establish trust and an open dialogue (Khalifa, 2012). Our findings support these claims across each of the research sites. In Juárez, Mrs. Donna recognized that parents struggled with poverty and illiteracy and some felt trapped. In Baltimore, principals Williams and Monroe acknowledged the force of racism, police violence, and poverty and how students were frustrated and at-risk for delinquent behaviors. They stayed in their schools despite high staff turnover because of commitments to their communities. They believed dialogue helped students process the riots, poverty, police violence, and other issues in positive and productive ways. In Brazil, principals Vela, Santos, Pedra, and Pepe were members of a larger social movement concerned about the states emphasis on urbanization. These principals benefited from being members of the MST and in most cases, could shape the schools mission, curriculum, and learning in ways that led to community empowerment and positive self-identity. These findings reflect how principals can work to understand and address injustices stemming from larger socioeconomic arrangements and draw upon networks and partnerships to engage community.

Research on social justice leadership and activism also emphasizes that principals should understand the political context in which they work, consider how circumstances and context direct organizing activity and their ability to be visible, and confront injustices head-on or covertly (Anderson, 2009; Ryan, 2016). Our findings affirm these claims by revealing how principals benefit or are hindered by the systems within which they work. In Juárez, Mrs. Donna did not report any oversight or constraints from the local or state government and was free to organize and engage parents without any fear. She engaged students or families in ways that fostered the development of a network of mutual support, but a lack of resources and the immediate needs of families slowed progress toward a focus on the larger region that might address more systematic reasons for their poverty, such as supporting families in protesting the poor wages paid by maquilas or government policies that fail to reach impoverished coloniás across the city.5 Mrs. Donna could have engaged students and families in the larger region and national struggles through organizations within the city, but the schools focus was on immediate needs and providing parents and students with valuable workshops and educational experiences that allowed them to slowly transform their daily life.

The Baltimore principals worked in a high-turnover district that had a history of mistrust with the community. These principals struggled to balance the demands and constraints of the urban principalship, but fostered informal and impromptu actions and activities to engage students. The principals felt that formally partnering with Baltimores BLM movement would raise attention and anger police officers working in Baltimore high school. Their daily efforts to appease their supervisors and different constituencies seemed to constrain them from developing partnerships that were most likely available with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, the Baltimore City Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), historically black colleges in the city as well as local chapters of black fraternities and sororities, and churches and other nonprofits. These organizations and movements may have held knowledge, power, and resources that would have allowed principals to adapt curricula and empower students and parents. Perhaps, the district would have been in support of such partnerships had the principals explored the potential opportunities. These findings are in line with previous research that suggests principals need to be trained to identify community resources and engage in organizing (Anderson, 2009; Shirley, 1997).

Research on social justice leadership and activism has also emphasized the importance of strategy, positioning, recognition of constraints and forms of resistance, and finding ways to align school priorities with those of the district and community (Anderson, 2009; Ishimaru, 2013; Walker, 2009). Strategy, positioning, and resistance were evident in each case. In Baltimore, the principals did not necessarily worry about resistance from parents like in Brazil, but the realities of an already violent city brought to the brink of rioting created a sense of fear in connecting students to social movements. These principals prioritized student safety above organizing students. In Brazil, principals confronted parents who were not part of the MST or wanted their children to have access to higher education and urban jobs. The MST principals tried to persuade parents at times, but in other instances, they sought a middle ground. Some theoretical and prescriptive writings about social justice leadership and activism suggest a hardline approach where tradeoffs or negotiating are not acceptable and viewed as equivalent to maintaining the status quo at the expense of social justice. Our findings suggest that context is important and the multifaceted nature of social justice cannot be ignored when evaluating social justice leadership practice. For example, in Brazil, principals might try to manipulate parents who do not believe in the MSTs social movement, but in doing so they would minimize parents voice and the associational justice facet of social justice. In Baltimore, the principals had serious concerns grounded in the realities of life in Baltimore. Empowering students to protest in the streets might help students develop self-esteem and acquire organizing skills, but it seems unlikely that social justice in Baltimore would equate to exposing children to potentially violent situations. While it is easy to pass judgment from the ivory tower on these principals approaches or to identify avenues they might have taken, leading a school comes with numerous contextually specific demands, dilemmas, and difficult decisions where outcomes cannot be easily predicted. This complexity and unpredictability is inherent to social justice leadership and activism.


We believe public schools are interrelated with communities and cannot avoid engaging in activism because what happens in society impacts schools, but also because public schools are one of the few public spaces where marginalized people can congregate, connect, and access resources and education. We documented and critiqued some of the principals practices to highlight how we can achieve greater social justice in and through public schools. We do so appreciating the dedication, commitment, passion, skill, courage, and persistence these principals exhibit through difficult times. We hope our critique acknowledges how principals could be informed about family-community needs and assets because of their long-term service within districts and neighborhoods. Not only should principals appreciate families and the challenges they confront through their daily social interactions, but they also should take advantage of opportunities to utilize their professional knowledge of educational policies and networks to access and leverage available untapped resources within communities. While we welcome critique from scholars across disciplines to question our conceptualization of principal activism, we hope such conversations stimulate future research to inform principal preparation, principal standards, and the role of public education in the U.S. and around the world.

With regard to practice, we believe our study provides insights into how principals can engage in activism and community organizing. Our findings highlighted how recognizing injustices was important but insufficient in improving the lives of students and families. Principals need to move beyond recognition and toward co-constructing a school-community agenda supported by families, community organizing groups, and social movements. While considering context, principals might recognize that circumstances shift and ongoing critical reflection of ones leadership practices and values is crucial. In these instances, principals must rely upon their own reflection and the voices of community to consider new pathways and directions.

Additional research is needed to investigate how principals engage in activism and utilize social movements, indigenous resources, and political opportunities to improve communities while avoiding political tensions and pitfalls inherent to the principalship. This work is already happening with the development of school equity audits (Skrla, Scheurich, Garcia, & Nolly, 2004) and community audits and community mapping to identify potential sources for mobilization (Green, 2015). Principal preparation and professional development should strategically adopt these practices and develop and refine additional practices to address the complex challenges and demands placed on schools amid globalization and neoliberal education and social policies (Warren, Park, & Tieken, 2016). We hope researchers and practitioners consider these ideas and further outline an activist-principal agenda attentive to multiple conceptions of social justice, the importance of context, and the eradication of each marginalization condition that limits opportunities for children, families, and communities.


1. None of these studies offer a comprehensive understanding of the relationships that should exist between community organizers, social movements, and principals.

2. The first author is a former school administrator in the U.S. with a Ph.D. in education policy and leadership with a research agenda focused on urban education leadership in the U.S.; the second author is a community organizer with a Ph.D. in education and a research agenda focused on Latin American education, social movements, and critical pedagogy.

3. Pseudonyms were used for all principal and school names.

4. Mrs. Donna went by Señora or Mrs. and her first name rather than her last name. Her pseudonym reflects this fact.

5. The Catholic Archdiocese of Juárez labor and human rights group was engaged in ongoing demonstrations in the city. The Womens Human Rights Center based in the same state as Juárez, as well as the Ciudad Juárez Womens Roundtable, organized against femicide, violence against women, and sexual exploitation of disappeared women.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 4, 2019, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22589, Date Accessed: 11/24/2021 3:29:34 AM

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About the Author
  • David DeMatthews
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    DAVID EDWARD DEMATTHEWS is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. His research explores issues related to school leadership, urban education, community engagement, and social justice. Recent publications include: DeMatthews, D. E. (2018). Community engaged leadership for social justice: A critical approach in urban schools. New York, NY: Routledge. DeMatthews, D. E., Carey, R. L., Olivarez, A., Moussavi-Saeedi, K. (2017). Guilty as charged? Principals’ perspectives and enactment of suspension and the racial discipline gap. Educational Administration Quarterly, 53(4), 519–555.
  • Rebecca Tarlau
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    REBECCA TARLAU is an assistant professor of education and labor and employment at the Pennsylvania State University. Her ethnographic research agenda has three broad areas of focus: (1) Theories of the state and state-society relations; (2) Social movements, critical pedagogy, and learning; (3) Latin American education and development. Her scholarship engages in debates in the fields of political sociology, international and comparative education, adult education, critical pedagogy, global and transnational sociology, and social theory.
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