How & Why We Want to Change History Teaching

When the Woodrow Wilson Foundation says it wants to change the way American history is taught, it should be taken seriously. While plenty of folks talk and write about changing history pedagogy, few have the resources and platforms that the Foundation has to actually make things happen. And for the same reason, we should be equally critical of what they may try to do.

On Twitter, Lindsay Gibson dug into the report and offered up a number of keen insights and questions about what “Reimagining American History Education” is attempting to do. I want to raise two points that Gibson doesn’t delved too far into: how does teaching practice actually change and what are the ultimate goals of a history education? I want to elaborate on these a bit because they serve to highlight the gaping hole at the center of our our current discussions — what are the values that create our desire to have students learn American history?

The first question about the Foundation’s plan is, why do they think they will be able to significantly change the way teachers teach? Their plan in a nutshell:

The online platform will be paired with an expanded HistoryQuest Fellowship program to provide professional development for teachers as well as the new Buckley History Lab to research and develop new curriclum materials.

Woodrow Wilson Foundation is launching the WW American History Initiative, an interactive digital platform intended to make American history more interesting, relevant, and appreciated by learners… It will focus on learners and
teachers rather than schools, textbooks, curriculum supplements or revisions, and state regulations….Initially focused on high school students, the WW American History Initiative will wed games, videos, graphic novels, online discussion groups, and other interactive experiences with traditional primary source materials and artifacts.

These are laudable and much needed investments in history education, but will they actually make significant change to teaching practices across the country? Most probably not. Having just helped edit the 2019 edition of Review of Research in Education on “Changing Teaching Practice in P-20 Educational Settings,” I would characterize the Foundation’s effort as both providing new instructional materials and attempting to build teacher capacity to make changes. These are necessary parts of the change process, but woefully incomplete. As Cuban and Tyack noted, “To bring about improvement at the heart of education — classroom instruction…has proven to be the most difficult kind of reform” (p. 134) because it requires changes to cultural beliefs, institutional habits, entrenched interests, and the decentralized yet highly interdependent structure of school systems. Throughly, fundamentally changing how history is taught necessitates changing policies at school, district, and state levels; it means shifting public perceptions about why and how youth should learn history; and it includes new materials and professional development to effectively use them. Without the broader structural changes, we are likely to see a few minor, incremental changes in some classrooms.

But a deeper question persists, what are they trying to change teaching for? The Foundation lays out its goals for American history education as:

establishing the engaged and informed citizenry needed to preserve a democratic society;

reestablishing the common bonds that all Americans share in a time of deep national political, economic, and social divisions in which Americans’ differences overshadow our commonalities;

understanding the past in a time of profound, continuing, and accelerating change in order to make sense of a chaotic present and inchoate future, as history is both an anchor in a time when change assails us and a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring; and

educating a generation of Americans who think like historians, who know how to ask questions about the present and future rooted in the past, and to marshal the data to answer those questions.

How do they know that these are the problems arising from our current methods of history education? Apparently it is because 2 out of 3 Americans cannot pass the U.S. Naturalization Examination. The citizenship exam is a 100 question multiple choice test that does not ask its takers to engage in historical thinking, understand continuity and change over time, adore the common bonds of American identity, or require any kind of civic participation. Instead, the exam asks things like: “When was the Constitution written?” and “Name one American Indian tribe in the United States.”

There’s a profound disconnect between the naturalization exam and the goals of the American History Initiative. Will we know if the Foundation has been successful if the number of Americans who can pass the test increases? No, absolutely not. But the citizenship test provides a valuable political cover for this project. It should appeal to those who argue and make laws requiring students to pass the exam to graduate high school.

And this is part and parcel with the vague, value neutral aims of the Foundation: be informed, share civic bonds, study change and continuity, ask questions, and marshal data. Surely, these are all good and important things to be able to do, but for what purpose? To what ends?

Lendol Calder puts forward that “history is a form of moral deliberation kindled by the stories people tell”. American history, as taught in our schools, is a story we tell our youth about the purposes, pathways, and possibilites of this nation. If we are deeply dissatisfied with the results of this education, then we should first interrogate the implicit moral contents of our current history curriculum as opposed the way it is taught. We — educators and students alike — need to account for whose histories have been erased, whose visions of progress and righteous violence have been upheld. Our historical thinking must be set to a purpose and be employed as a means to participate in broader conversations about the nature of American society and its futures.

The recurrent “social studies wars” have left many afraid to lay down a purpose for history education beyond the generic notions of enhancing academic skills or strengthening democracy. We need to put this worry aside and strive for something more powerful — to equip our youth with the capacities of moral reasoning and concerted participation that might transform American society. We must change our teaching accordingly.

Who Will We Listen To When CPS Moves to Close More Schools?

In two weeks, nearly 27,000 Chicago freshmen will walk into their new CPS high schools for the first time.  When I taught at South Shore Community Academy, freshmen were my favorite and the first day was always memorable.  Freshmen have this uncanny blend of confidence and caution – simultaneously excited about what the future holds and uncertain about what is going on around them.  It’s an electric moment for students and teachers.  So much is possible.

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South Shore Community Academy “North Building”

But this year, CPS has made a significant change to how freshmen will arrive at that first day.  A new system named “GoCPS” was instituted in 2017 to match 8thgraders to high schools.  In short, GoCPS required all students to apply to high school, giving families the ability to select up to ten high schools to prioritize as their preferred choice.  The high schools would then review students’ applications and decide which to offer admission.  An algorithm designed by the software company SchoolMint would then match students to an offer from a high school, ideally one of their top ranked selections.

CPS’ goal with GoCPS was to streamline a system that was roundly criticized for being confusing, overly-complicated, and weighted towards those who knew how to navigate the bureaucracy.  The process was stressful to many families, so much so that it high school admission were often referred to as “The Hunger Games.” The results were also deeply inequitable, creating a small number of schools with an excess of students and resources while others struggled to provide the basics.

To an extent, GoCPS has simplified the high school admissions process, but it’s not at all clear that it has helped the district address the fundamental issue of providing an excellent education to all students.  The pressing question facing Janice Jackson, CPS CEO, is how to leverage GoCPS’ incremental improvement into real progress towards educational equity.

Jackson made this connection when speaking to WBEZ about the new system, saying, “We also have to make tough decisions in places where there are enough opportunities for students to be successful and parents have basically voted with their feet…The value of putting out this data is that it allows us to have a conversation with the community around a single source of truth.” By “voting with their feet,” meaning parents selecting which high schools students will attend or not attend, Jackson argues that we now have data about which schools are most desirable and a “single source of truth” to discuss what to do about undesirable high schools.

I want to pause to consider the phrase, “single source of truth.”  When a public official in powerful office asserts something to be the truth, we need to interrogate why.  What the GoCPS data tells us is which high schools are preferred among incoming-freshmen given the choice available to them.  It doesn’t tell how happy parents are with the district as a whole or how effective CPS high schools are.

Indeed, the first thing that pops out of the GoCPS data is a reaffirmation of something already widely known: there is fierce desire to attend the top selective enrollment high schools.  By dividing the number of offers each of these schools made by the number of students who ranked that school as 1st, 2nd, or 3rdchoice, we get a rough sense of acceptance rates:

  • Jones College Prep – 5.4%
  • Whitney Young – 6%
  • Walter Payton – 6.6%
  • Northside College Prep – 8.1%
  • Gwendolyn Brooks – 10.2%
  • Lindblom Math & Science – 13.5%
  • Lane Tech – 15.9%

Historically, these selective enrollment high schools over-represent white studentsand students from middle- and upper-income families relative to the district.  They also tend to under-enroll students with IEPs and English Learners.  As some of the highest performing schools in the state of Illinois, they play a significant role in perpetuating inequity by providing more and better opportunities to a disproportionately white and wealthy slice of Chicago.

This is the problem that Beatriz De Leon, executive director of Generation All, pinpoints when she asks if the GoCPS system might actually end up further stratifying our high schools.  She told the Tribune, “I think what this shows is these more vulnerable students, first of all, are choosing general education programs more, and they’re choosing and ending up matched to them more.  Does that mean that we are clustering these students in schools even more so than before?”This is a real possibility that requires close scrutiny because, despite best efforts to use algorithms in public policy to promote consistency and fairness, the results can lead to greater disparities and discrimination.

I suspect, though, that the “tough decisions” Jackson has in mind doesn’t refer to finding ways to make the level of resources available at selective enrollments available to all.  No, she is calling on the recent history of CPS school closings and foreshadowing more to come. As analyzed by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the GoCPS data reveal an excess of approximately 13,000 seats for high school freshmen.  That’s about 40% extra capacity for an incoming class of 27,000. This oversupply is unsustainable. It is at once extremely expensive and directly limiting to those schools with many empty desks.

Map of the CPS regions used for enrollment analysis

As a new confidential report commissioned by CPS clearly shows, these extra seats are heavily clustered in the African American neighborhoods of the South and West Sides.  In this blinkered rendering of the facts, many see echoes of the 2013 mass school closure when CPS shuttered 50 schools despite fierce protests from the Black communities where the vast majority of these schools were located.  The closures were framed as a clear imperative based on enrollment and utilization statistics – simply, the district could not afford to keep open schools with small student bodies. But as Eve Ewing argues, the closings “were the culmination of several generations of racist policy stacked on racist policy, each one disregarding, controlling, and displacing black children and families in new ways layered upon the callousness of the last.” And as so many of the protesters warned, the closures did not bring educational benefits to the children affected.

The same dynamic played out again this past year when CPS proposed to build a new high school in Englewood to replace four high schools that were under-enrolled and in poor condition. At public hearings, Englewood communities members turned out in large numbersto tell their neighborhood’s history and their personal stories as evidence that these schools should not be closed, but rather, given new investments of resources and support.  In February, the CPS Board voted to immediately close one of the high schools and phase out the other three while a new Englewood high school is built.

So in Jackson’s call to use the GoCPS data as a “single source of truth” in discussion with communities, I see the past beginning to replay itself.  One set of data about which high schools some families prefer is being preemptively positioned as the “truth” on par with, if not more true, than CPS’ long history of racism and the urgent voices of community members who know their neighborhoods best. This isn’t an issue of semantics, but instead, a question of who we will truly listen to and what kinds of evidence will we be persuaded by when it comes time to reckon with our district’s fundamental problems.

Image result for cps board of education

It is these fundamental problems that demand our attention more so than any tinkering towards minor improvements.  When CPS initiated GoCPS, it was indicating that it thinks the current high school system is basically adequate and that it primarily requires greater facilitation of parent choice to help identify and address issues. This ignores the basic, foundational problems of our inequitable system.  What we need is a broad public forum on difficult questions at CPS’ core: What kind of school system do we want for Chicago? How can we create an equitable, anti-racist system? How can we sustainably resource such a system? How will we ultimately define its success?

[This post was originally written in August 2018. CPS has since made the Area Regional Analysis publicly available and is hosting a series of public meetings about it.]

To Support Anti-Racist Education in Illinois, Revive the Amistad Commission

Teaching Hard History, image by Taylor Callery

According to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8% of American high school students can identify slavery as a cause of the Civil War. The report, which surveyed 1,000 high school students nationwide, did not break down results by state, but this should be a wakeup call for Illinois. Teaching about America’s history of racism, from slavery through the Civil War to the present, is essential to move towards a more united, equitable, and anti-racist society. We need the legislature to reinvigorate the Amistad Commission, which was founded in 2005 to support Illinois teachers with this work.

I was a high school history teacher and am now a professor who prepares future history teachers, both in Chicago. I was not at all surprised by the survey results because I have spent past eight years watching our social studies teachers struggle to teach about African American history and racism. I’ve had future teachers confess to me that they didn’t know enough to teach Black history, and I’ve watched a teacher in a widely respected school tell students that “Black people got the right to vote when white people decided it was time.” We can’t educate our students for a better future if teachers are mired in historical ignorance.

The Law Center’s report found that the most commonly used textbooks lack content about slavery, and that state educational standards generally fail to address slavery at all. This is how we end up with a U.S. history textbook from McGraw-Hill, one of the largest textbook publishers in the world, referring to slaves as immigrant “workers.” Our current education policies in Illinois do nothing to preempt these kinds of harmful mishaps. There are no statewide criteria to review classroom materials. The state social science standards do not address race explicitly, and future social studies teachers are not required to take courses on the history of any of the diverse people that make up Illinois.

Illinois tried to address these problems in the past. When the legislature founded the Amistad Commission, it’s purpose was to improve teaching about slavery and its enduring legacies. Made up of appointees from the governor and both parties, the commission was charged with developing curriculum guidelines, liaising with textbook publishers, and other projects that would better educate Illinois students about “the sad history of racism in this country, and the principles of human rights in a civilized society.”

But the Amistad Commission struggled to meet this goal. In its first years, the commission created nothing of note. A2009 audit found that the commission spent $98,000 on a catered event for 250 people and set aside another $10,000 for administrative costs with no tangible products to show.

African Women and the Origins of Mathematics, lesson plan by the DuSable Museum

When Dr. Carol Adams joined in 2013, the commission enjoyed a fruitful period of collaboration with the DuSable Museum that generated 15 excellent lesson plans covering African and African American history plus training events for teachers to use them. High quality resources like these are a pressing need for teachers across the state, and Dr. Adams’ leadership showed how it could be done in a very efficient, economical way.

Unfortunately, the Amistad Commission is now practically defunct, with all of its memberships lapsed. The governor and legislature must revive the Amistad Commission. This time the commission should be overseen by the State Board of Education, and the appointees should not be political. Instead, seats can be dedicated to historians, teachers, district administrators, cultural institution leaders, and high school students.

If we seek a more fair and just Illinois, we need to use every tool available. The Amistad Commission can again play this role for educators across the state.

To save Chicago Public Schools, we need a new Education Summit

Imagine 500 parents and educators in the UIC Forum cheering on the mayor as he announces a new future for Chicago Public Schools. I can’t. I am the parent of a CPS student as well as an education professor at Loyola, and it’s beyond me to picture any parents and teachers celebrating the district’s current leadership. It got even more difficult this week after the CPS Board voted to close multiple schools and phase out three high schools in Englewood.

But thirty years ago, Chicagoans did pack into the Forum and raucously applaud Harold Washington as he kicked off a year-long “Education Summit.”On the heels of a 19-day teacher strike stoking fears about that CPS would implode, the Summit was Washington’s last great initiative. A committee of 50, made up of cross-section of section of civic, business, and educational leaders, carried on the effort with meetings in every corner of the city. The Education Summit led to the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, which dramatically decentralized CPS by creating Local School Councils that allowed the public a direct hand in governing schools.

This change was short lived, as a 1995 law brought CPS back under mayoral control. This reversion has come along with improving academic outcomes for the district. Stanford professor Sean Reardon found that from 2009–2014, CPS students’ academic gains grew faster than 96% of all districts nationwide and was top among the 100 largest school districts. This has led many to assume that CPS must be controlled by the mayor in order to improve. There’s scant evidence to support this argument, and CPS’ history of mayoral control from 1837 to 1998 suggests something different.

What our schools need to continue their improvement is more meaningful engagement with the public because right now, CPS is suffering a crisis of public confidence. Despite recent academic improvements, the district lost 36,000 students since 2009, the vast majority of whom are African American. A number of their families moved to the suburbs in search of better options, but have largely found deeply segregated schools no better, if not worse off, than what they left.

And even more African American families will be set out in search of better options after yesterday’s decision to close National Teachers Academy, Harper, Hope, Robeson, and TEAM Englewood. While CPS claimed that they undertook extraordinary efforts to listen to these communities over the past few months, the process was marred by the direct involvement of individuals who have active business and political relationships with the district. Revelations like this threaten to delegitimize the entire system.

Moreover, familiar problems from CPS’ past have started to reemerged, including a teacher strike, a kickback scandal, and serious ethics violations. With the power so tightly held in city hall, residents have no choice but to become single-issue voters if they wish to see real change in the district.

We can no longer settle for a CPS that shirks its responsibility by pointing fingers at teachers, parents, and communities. To push our schools to even greater levels of sustainable success with long term stability, we must deepen democracy and grow public participation in the district. Families, community leaders, educators, and business executives must all feel they have a voice in the decision making. There are many proposals about how to do this, including an elected school board or re-empowering Local School Councils.

But we can’t pick any one idea without engaging all of CPS’ stakeholders. We need a new education summit to plot the path forward, one that weights participation by community reliance on our public schools. If I concentrate hard enough, I can even imagine myself standing to applaud the mayor for making it happen.

Make Sure You’re Connected: The Certain Disappointments of Arne Duncan’s New Project

“But for too many inner city kids, the path is marred by poverty, violence, broken social networks and schools that can’t keep up with the challenges in tough neighborhoods.”

This all sounds familiar: children identified by where they are from, not specifically, but generically and suggestively; a litany of obstacles presented by forces well beyond these children and not attributable to any one source; and schools unable to play the vitally redemptive role they are supposed to for such children.

And of course, it’s from a familiar figure, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. This diagnosis of the problems facing “inner city youth” comes from his March 17th announcement that Duncan is commencing a new project with the Emerson Collective. Duncan referred to it as a kind of “new deal” for “disconnected youth,” providing better public education and more job opportunities. Initially focused in Chicago, the project will:

“tap into an inventive set of resources to address systemic barriers to opportunity, including dynamic partnerships with community-based organizations, investing in entrepreneurs who can bring a new era of innovation and job growth to neglected neighborhoods, and collaborating with local leadership to scale the best solutions…”

Of course, it’s not clear what these projects are. Duncan and the Emerson Collective are providing themselves a wide berth to discover what they mean and how to go about doing it, a kind of luxury that comes with wealth and influence. But Duncan dropped clues about his thinking through his various media appearances.

“If we can provide the opportunity for young men and women to get paid, to get that training they need, for me that’s been the missing link here.”

Here he is isolating the issue of getting paid for job training, which is a key problem. It takes time and resources to learn new skills. If people in need can earn a salary to do this, then it’s much more likely that they will develop marketable skills. It is notable, though, that Duncan refers to “training” and not “education” or any kind of degree-attainment.

“This has to be private sector stepping up. Government can play a role, philanthropy can play a role…”

Now, if philanthropy’s role is to support people through job training, how exactly is the private sector stepping up? By hiring workers whose training has been paid for by a charitable foundation? And what role is government playing? What Duncan seems to be sketching is a philanthropy at the service of private business as much, if not more so, than youths living in poverty. The connection being offered is not just to those seeking a job to subsidized training, but to corporations seeking expanded labor markets and lower training costs. The problem is that Duncan is presenting an under-develop fraction of an idea, touting the principles he hopes to pursue through the work, not facets of an established project.

“Kids who have hope don’t pick up guns.”

This gets to Duncan’s underlying concept, the imagination that animates his entire endeavor. He believes that there are youths growing up in “inner cities” that, lacking any optimism about their future, turn to violence. But note who is the only person in this formulation — inner city kids. There are no adults of any kind, no gun manufacturers, no bankers working in the legacy of redlining, no employers screening resumes by name and address. As the ever insightful Ray Salazar articulated, Duncan ignores the complexity of the the situation, which makes Duncan sound “like a traveling salesman at their front door selling a new-found path to hope.”

Duncan is heading towards the front doors of inner city youth because it’s where his metaphor leads him. His target youth are “disconnected,” that is aged 16–24 and neither enrolled in school or employed. In this, Duncan is working from a Measure of America report that found 1 in 7 American youth to be disconnected. And similar to Duncan’s actor-less formulation of the problem, the Measure of America authors find that living in neighborhoods with high poverty, high adult unemployment, and low adult educational attainment are most closely associated with youth disconnection. As a work of academic research, this is all well done and useful as a way to characterize the social situation of many youth of color living in our major cities.

But “disconnected” is not a prescription for policy or programming. It is far too general, lacking any kind of analysis of how youth become “disconnected,” who does the “disconnecting,” and how they might be “reconnected.” Indeed, there’s nothing attributed to anyone here, expect to the youth who have ended up “disconnected” largely because of the neighborhood they live in. As such, it’s hard to parse “disconnected” from older, out-of-favor euphemisms like “at-risk,” “marginalized,” “disadvantaged,” “culturally deprived,” and others that have been inescapable tropes for social reformers over the past several decades. Each of these label performed the same conceptual operation — labeling and characterizing non-attributable difference, one without innate negative value that is nonetheless born out as negative experience by certain youth.

Duncan falls into this tradition, which is no surprise. He has always been a high functioning bureaucrat, not a visionary, perceptive policy maker, or social critic. He condemns and proposes to act against broad, impersonal social forces without any of the particular detail to plot a course of action to do much about it. So whole I hope many youths are helped by Duncan’s new project, I have deep doubts that they will be precisely because trying to “reconnect” youth does nothing to address the reasons they became “disconnected” in the first place.

The Fearless Civic Imagination of Chicago Youth — Charles Tocci

Friday night, directly on the heels of the Chicago Teachers Union “Day of Action,” the IIRON Student Network (ISN)organized an unexpected protest at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Such a raucous, public action at a nominally nonpolitical cultural institution like the CSO is a jolt. The typical setting for demonstrations are workplaces, municipal and government buildings, […]

via The Fearless Civic Imagination of Chicago Youth — Charles Tocci

The Fearless Civic Imagination of Chicago Youth


Friday night, directly on the heels of the Chicago Teachers Union “Day of Action,” the IIRON Student Network (ISN)organized an unexpected protest at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Such a raucous, public action at a nominally nonpolitical cultural institution like the CSO is a jolt. The typical setting for demonstrations are workplaces, municipal and government buildings, and sometimes even the homes of public figures. Occupying public spaces and marches, whether specifically mapped or roving, both have strong traditions in American activism.

But this was something else. Protests at cultural institutions usually take some event or some work of art as its target, yet ISN was there to push the state of Illinois to restart funding for Chicago State University. The reason for choosing the CSO was as imaginative as it was analytic. Two of the CSO’s large donors, Sam Zell and Ken Griffin, are also underwriters of Governor Bruce Rauner’s attempts to overhaul state government. In 2014, the real estate magnate Zell donated $17 million to the CSO; Griffin, who runs the Citadel hedge fund, has given to the CSO for over a decade. By demonstrating at the CSO and specifically calling out the connections between Zell and Griffin and the effects of the Rauner’s governing, the ISN re-opened a contentious political front — the philanthropy of the wealthy.

The industrial elite of the late-19th Century — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Sage, and so on — pioneered modern models of philanthropic giving. In the face of serious critique about how they created their wealth and how they used it to their own benefit, the great “Robber Barons” experimented with ways to best give their money while also protecting personal and business interests. This did not inure them from charges of self-interested giving, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s bromide, “no amount of charity in spending such fortunes [as Rockefeller’s] can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” But these criticism did prompt Rockefeller and his peers to create explicitly non-partisan avenues for their giving — places like foundations, universities, museums, libraries, and symphony orchestras.

This is not to suggest that these kinds of donations lack either political intent or influence, but rather their assiduous anti-political appearance make analyzing these activities much more difficult. Who could complain about a kind gift to the symphony? Why question generosity?

Certainly some still do, whether it is the many protests directed at the Gates Foundation’s wide ranging initiatives to promote social change or self-consciously, self-styled “disruptive” philanthropy emanating from Silicon Valley. The difference between these critical assessments of charity and Friday’s protest at the CSO lays in the ISN’s keen eye for the connectivity among political operations. Instead of focusing on a giving program, on a charitable foundation, or even an particular philanthropic field, these Chicago youth keyed on wealthy individuals supporting both the governor’s political agenda and historic cultural institutions. It was Sam Zell and Ken Griffin who were identified for their role in withholding funds from Chicago State University. These men were called out inside the same building where they have been so celebrated.

Such a bold move has the effect of piercing the nonpolitical persona of the CSO. No longer a just a hub for high culture, the orchestra has been tabbed as complicit in a contentious political effort bearing down disproportionately heavy on Chicago’s Black, Hispanic, poor, and young peoples. This redraws the political map. The CSO is now a site of demonstration conveniently located downtown, which is ironically opposed to its traditionally distant, discouraging relationship to many Chicago communities. What was inaccessible has been made immediate through activism.

And we can ask the question, where next? Which other institutions that have happily taken donations from Griffin, Rauner, Zell, and their ilk — which of these institutions will be the next protest site? Which, if any, might seek to downplay their connection to the governor’s backers?

In the short term, this seems unlikely. One protest does not upend the deeply established architecture of wealth, influence, and respectability. But the ISN’s insight into Chicago’s political geography helps us see something new: a landscape of power and money and a map to new sites of activism.