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"We've graduated teachers who do amazing things with children," Oakes says. "You can go into some of the most devastated schools in this city, walk into a classroom and see wonderful interactions between children and teachers. They do it without the resources that they need, without the support they need, and they often have to break the rules," she says. "It's our job -- those of us who teach teachers, who work with the schools -- to fix these problems so that people who are well-prepared and committed can do the jobs they want to do."
For Oakes, fixing problems means working directly within inner-city communities, meeting with grassroots organizers to formulate strategies, and convening with downtown administrators. And it means lunching at the Getty Center with civic and business leaders and attending parties with Hollywood glitterati who profess an interest in school reform and who might be counted on to contribute to the ongoing work.
That ability to straddle many worlds has proven invaluable.
"Because Jeannie is not afraid to let her values shape her decisions about what she studies, her work resonates with those of us who share a vision of schools as places that can transform individual lives and communities," says Anne Wheelock, a Massachusetts policy analyst, researcher and student advocate. "I can't think of anyone else who has been as willing to share what she knows and to learn from people who are directly engaged in making change for the most vulnerable students."
In the end, Oakes says, it comes down to helping people act on their own behalf to create a just world.
"On the one hand, I think I am perceived as a very severe critic of education. But on the other, I see that so many people in the system really do want it to be better. If you can show educators a new way of thinking about something, they are brilliant at figuring out strategies to translate those ideas into action.
"My job is about pushing people, casting issues in a different light. It's about the constant struggle of ordinary people to make schools better than the larger society in which they exist.
"It's like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. It's a huge task," Oakes says. "But it is the task."
Judy Lin-Eftekhar is a senior writer for UCLA Magazine.