Mark R. Warren

(The content on this page is ported over from the historical version of the book website. To see the site in its original form, go here)


In low-income communities across the country, parents, young people and educators are finding new ways to work together to improve quality and address equity in public education. They are joining community organizing groups in building a new movement committed to transforming public education and working for social justice. Rather than being passive victims of an unjust system, through community organizing parents and young people are becoming active change agents in their schools and communities.

A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reformtakes an in-depth look at this growing movement. Based on six case studies from across the country, this collaborative effort produced new understandings of the processes through which organizing groups build relationships and power among parents, students, educators, and other community members to create change in schools and communities.

Match is a product of the Community Organizing and School Reform project, a national research project, conducted by a collaborative of faculty and graduate students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In addition to the publication of the book, the project has also produced a series of teaching casesabout sites featured in the book, and a number of related publications. The project also ran the National Community Organizing and School Reform Conference in March, 2012, for which materials and videos are available.

The Book

The central product from this national research study is the book A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform, from Oxford University Press. Purchase the book through the links to the right.

Book Description

The persistent failure of public schooling in low-income communities constitutes one of our nation’s most pressing civil rights and social justice issues. Many school reformers recognize that poverty, racism, and a lack of power held by these communities undermine children’s education and development, but few know what to do about it. A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform argues that community organizing represents a fresh and promising approach to school reform as part of a broader agenda to build power for low-income communities and address the profound social inequalities that affect the education of children.

Based on a comprehensive national study, the book presents rich and compelling case studies of prominent organizing efforts in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, San Jose, and the Mississippi Delta. The authors show how organizing groups build the participation and leadership of parents and students so they can become powerful actors in school improvement efforts. They also identify promising ways to overcome divisions and create the collaborations between educators and community residents required for deep and sustainable school reform. Identifying the key processes that create strong connections between schools and communities, Warren, Mapp, and their collaborators show how community organizing builds powerful relationships that lead to the transformational change necessary to advance educational equity and a robust democracy.


“Civil rights activists in the 1960s insisted in the face of terror and death that national citizenship granted in the 14th Amendment meant something. That seminal work inspired organizing groups, active agents in an historic and on-going process, to bond with and bridge across racial, faith, gender, immigrant, and youth communities to reshape the narrative about the promise of citizenship. A Match on Dry Grass draws on these organizing traditions in the work to right ‘the wrong this day done’ in the nation’s public schools. All of us doing that work will benefit from reading this book.”
— Robert Moses, Founder of the Algebra Project

“This is an important book for anyone interested in fundamental and sustainable school reform. Community organizing as described in A Match on Dry Grass creates new relationships, new community leadership, and new political power focused on doing what is right for kids. These are potent sources of support for true systemic change and an essential dimension to transforming our schools for the long haul.”
— Andres A. Alonso, Chief Executive Officer, Baltimore City Public Schools

“In a context of top-down school reform preoccupied with changing administrative policies, the stories of bottom-up, community organizing initiatives in A Match on Dry Grass read like a breath of fresh air. Who better to spearhead educational reform than the young people, parents, teachers, and neighborhood residents who are committed to bringing about change in their communities? Simultaneously analytical yet full of practical organizing techniques, this important volume offers a provocative mosaic of not only what is possible, but what people are actually doing. A Match on Dry Grass’s on-the-ground view of community organizing for school reform is must reading for those who see how important quality public education is for building a strong democracy.”
— Patricia Hill Collins, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland

“For too long we have been waiting for Presidents, Governors and other self-declared superheroes to save our schools while overlooking the power and potential of local communities. This detailed study on community organizing for educational change in school districts and communities throughout the United States serves as a poignant lesson to those who are genuinely concerned about promoting educational change and a powerful reminder of what is possible when those with the most at stake take action to compel schools to improve.”
— Pedro A. Noguera, Professor of Education, New York University

“A Match on Dry Grass locates the problems of public education as residing squarely in unequal power relations in a socially and economically stratified society. The diverse and engaging accounts of successful organizing efforts show that relational power develops where community organizing becomes a way of life without which sustained progressive educational change is neither possible nor desirable. This book is a treasure that I plan to reference again and again.”
— Angela Valenzuela, Professor of Educational Policy and Planning, University of Texas-Austin, and author of Subtractive Schooling and Leaving Children Behind 

The Conference

Thank you to all who attended the 2012 National
Community Organizing and School Reform Conference
Friday, March 23 – Saturday, March 24, 2012
Harvard Graduate School of Education

The Community Organizing and School Reform Conference brought together community organizers, education researchers, youth, educators, funders and other stakeholders to discuss the contributions of community organizing to school improvement and equitable education policy. The conference provided an opportunity to discuss the role of community organizing in the current policy context, learn about new research and practice in the field, build relationships within and across stakeholder groups, and build capacity to advance the work of community organizing and school reform.

Buy the Book

The conference was put together by Mark Warren, Karen Mapp, and the Community Organizing and School Reform project in connection with the publication of their new book, A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform. Based on a comprehensive national study, the book presents rich and compelling case studies of prominent organizing efforts in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, San Jose, and the Mississippi Delta. It argues that community organizing represents a fresh and promising approach to school reform as part of a broader agenda to build power for low-income communities and address the profound social inequalities that affect the education of children.

Speakers and workshop leaders included:
Shawn Ginwright, San Francisco State University
Kathy Hoover-Dempsey, Vanderbilt University
Leroy Johnson, Southern Echo
Alberto Retana, Los Angeles Community Coalition
Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Maisie Chin, Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE)
Ernesto Cortes Jr., Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)
Mark Warren, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Penny Bender Sebring, Chicago Consortium on School Research
Karen Mapp, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Julio Cammarota, University of Arizona
Helen Beattie, Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together
John Jackson, Schott Foundation
Ricardo Martinez, Padres y Jovenes Unidos
Caron Atlas, Arts and Democracy Project
Hiro Yoshikawa, Harvard Graduate School of Education
and many more…

This conference was co-sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Hazen Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and Communities for Public Education Reform 

 Organizing Sites

At the core of this project are six qualitative case studies of community organizing groups engaged in improving education. All six are what we term “strong” organizing groups, in that they have been able to marshal significant resources towards their education work, have sustained this work for a number of years, and have achieved significant accomplishments.

These organizations span the country—from California to Colorado, Mississippi to New York. They organize in urban and rural areas, with people of diverse ethnicities, races, and countries of origin. They draw on varied organizing traditions, and have distinctly different structures. But they all share a commitment to building power with marginalized communities, and to transforming the culture and practice of public education and civic engagement. We believe these cases represent some of the most significant organizing initiatives for education reform in the United States today.

The six cases are the following:

  • Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in New York City

  • Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago

  • Southern Echo in the Mississippi Delta

  • Padres y Jovenes Unidos in Denver

  • One LA – IAF in Los Angeles

  • People Acting in Community Together (PACT) in San Jose, California.

Each is featured in its own chapter of our book, A Match on Dry Grass, and many are further explored in the Related Publications section of this site.

Click on the photos to the left to learn a bit more about each of these groups, and find links to their websites.



Book Overview


Lessons Learned


Based on a cross-case analysis of six community organizing sites across the country, we have developed a framework for understanding how strong forms of community organizing work for equity-oriented education reform. The image to the right is a visual representation of this framework. The tree offers an apt metaphor for community organizing, which is at its core a process of growth and development, and one with deep roots in traditions, histories, and local communities. Explore the framework by clicking on various parts of the image.

Organizing, in our view, is more than a set of techniques that bring individuals together behind some cause. Rather, we argue, strong forms of organizing draw from historic traditions, like those of Saul Alinsky or the civil rights movement. They sink deep roots in communities by connecting to people’s shared histories, traditions and identities.  They build upon these nascent connections by creating broader relationships, expanding people’s sense of community and shared fate and building the power to create change in public education. They nevertheless prove adept at responding to local context. Organizing groups grow and develop their reform agendas in response both to deeply held community values and the opportunities and constraints in the larger environment. We emphasize that organizing groups pursue education reform as part of a broader process where parents, young people and other residents of low-income communities develop the power to influence the social and political processes that determine their fate. That is why we call community organizing transformational work.

About Us

Mark R. Warren is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and an affiliate of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. He received his PhD in sociology from Harvard University in 1995. Warren is the author of Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton University Press), which has been critically received as a foundational contribution to the study of community organizing in its modern form. Warren is coeditor of a book on social capital-based strategies for combating poverty,Social Capital and Poor Communities (Russell Sage Foundation Press) and the author of Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice (Oxford University Press). Warren has also published a lead article in the Harvard Educational Review on the relationship between community development and school improvement, entitled “Communities and Schools: A New View of Urban Education Reform.”

Karen L. Mapp is a Lecturer on Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She received her Doctorate in Education from Harvard in 1999. Mapp is an educator with extensive professional and research experience in family-school-community partnerships. Karen is co-author of the widely read Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships (New Press, 2007). She has served as Deputy Superintendent for Family and Community Engagement in Boston Public Schools. Karen consults widely with school districts and educational systems across the U.S.

The Community Organizing and School Reform project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, led by Mark R. Warren and Karen L. Mapp, consists of Keith Catone, Roy Cervantes, Connie K. Chung, Cynthia Gordon, Soo Hong, Ann Ishimaru, Paul Kuttner, Meredith Mira, Thomas Nikundiwe, Soojin Oh, Kenneth Russell, Amanda Taylor, Mara Tieken, Anita Wadhwa, and Helen Westmoreland. These project members are (or were) all students at Harvard University. 


The Match project was undertaken as a unique, collaborative effort among faculty members and graduate students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Mark Warren and Karen Mapp, the faculty members, provided overall leadership; however, sixteen graduate students participated in all phases of the project, from initial design to analysis and writing. Moreover, All decisions were made as a collective. In other words, we sought to imbue our research methods with some of the principles of community organizing.

Teams of two to three doctoral students formed case study research teams and they were empowered to enter the field and shape a research process authentic to each locality. They spent a year traveling to the research sites, interviewing participants, observing activities in schools and communities, and collecting relevant documents like organizational reports, newspaper articles and statistics on school performance. The teams analyzed their data and wrote up the case chapters in this book.

But teams did not operate on their own. We set up a dynamic process where case teams constantly reported back to the faculty leaders and the other case teams. Every step of the process occurred in dialogue with the entire research project. Findings and analysis were shared across the entire project in order to stimulate deeper analysis of each case and of the project as a whole.

We believe our collaborative approach created a rich and rigorous research process. This approach was particularly relevant to our goals. By empowering each case team to respond authentically to local context, we were able to develop richly detailed and contextually grounded case studies of each organizing group. By pursuing a common research design across the cases and by working together on the overall analysis, we were able to identify the similarities and differences in the way groups organize for education reform.