Emanuel AME Church Massacre Requires a Response – White Educators and Allies’ Responsibilities

In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.
In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. Source: http://www.wjla.com/articles/2015/06/black-churches-targeted-because-of-importance-to-community-114888.html#ixzz3dtialzML

In the face of the tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, another in a too-long line of such racially based attacks, what can we do? Tragedies like these have me question the value of my work at Warner, and force me to evaluate where I am and what I am doing. As an education researcher and a member of the faculty, I know I have responsibility to respond to events like the terrorist attack in Charleston, SC. We know a lot about racism (and other isms), violence, and White supremacy at Warner – more than a few of us study these and related issues and teach about them; some of us experience them on a daily basis. Recent abuses by police officers that are being made visible with digital and social media are the most obvious, but there are many, many more avenues through which brutality is used on Black and Brown people and communities. We know that there are multiple levels at which racism operates (individual, institutional, societal). We know that violence is seen in many forms as well, in terms of inadequate education, health care, housing, and access to jobs; media images that cast Black and Brown people as one-dimensional, dangerous, and pitiable; and the too-tight coupling of schooling and prisons through criminalization of Black and Brown children and young people. Here, I’m hoping to add to conversations that don’t shy away from the realities of White supremacy and White privilege, that don’t try to shield White people from considering our parts in this awful moment in history, and that call what is happening what it is – racially based violence that shows how much hatred, shame, fear, and guilt exists in our country and society.

As a social and cultural foundations teacher (teaching “diversity” courses), a White researcher, and a White woman, emotional, visceral responses by many White people to such events are familiar. There is the denial that one is racist or complicit in the systemic racism that structures our schools and other institutions. There is guilt that paralyzes us into thinking that we can’t do anything of substance. There is despair at the enormity of the problem, leading to another form of paralysis. As an instructor, I know I have the responsibility to help students move past these feelings to a place where spaces of possibility are visible. For many of us at Warner, the delicate dance of avoiding raising students’ defenses while engaging in difficult dialogue that forces awareness is a constant act in teaching. Today, though, the reaction on my mind is something that prevents dialogue in culturally mixed classrooms (and other forums like community action groups, dinner tables, bars) from happening at all – the feeling that we don’t have authority to speak, as we are (privileged) White people. This kind of reaction paralyzes not only our learning, but our work as allies, as partners in dialogue and action.

I looked back at a 2012 Warner Blog post by my colleague, Professor Ed Brockenbrough, in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. His suggestions for what teacher educators can/should do to work against White supremacy are sound, practical, and still timely. I’d like to offer, humbly, some additional thoughts for schools of education in general, and myself, White colleagues, and White allies committed to racial and social justice:

  • Push beyond the boundaries to understanding that stem from growing up White and living in a society that is racist. Things like re-segregation of schools and neighborhoods militate against person-to-person interaction across races/ethnicities (see Frankenburg & Orfield’s 2014 seminal work). The invisibility of White privilege and institutional racism also shields people from recognizing White supremacy and endemic racism in our society (see Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, on critical race theory in education). The US history we are taught in schools leaves out much of the history of Black and Brown people in this country and virtually all of the history of White oppression, genocide, and racism. The existence of an assumed ‘normal,’ ‘average’ (White) person, family, and community isn’t questioned. The lack of understanding in the larger White world as to what leads to these abominations is astonishing to me. The depth of the ignorance takes my breath away. Just imagine how Black and Brown people may find this flabbergasting (but not surprising). I’m not slamming White people, though many may feel that way. Still, I am NOT giving us a pass. The claims that, “I’m not racist,” and “Not all White people are racists” are largely true, but they mask the larger, historical, structural nature of institutions like schools, policing, universities, and jails/prisons. We are responsible for educating ourselves.
  • Recognize White supremacy and White privilege as the foundations of education. When I first started teaching social and cultural foundations courses, I assigned readings on social class, race, ability, and gender early in the semester, saving the more “difficult” readings on White privilege for later. I hoped that White students would be better prepared to address issues so close to home, that their defenses wouldn’t be triggered so easily. I hoped that students of color would feel affirmed in that these foundations of education were made visible and the subject of critical analysis. Over the years I have switched that order, starting the semester with White privilege and institutional racism. Rather than leaving these foundations of education invisible, I find that acknowledging them with my students and then moving on to their effects changes their understanding of how schools work. Sometimes inequities seem less daunting when their sources are made visible. Work by Allan Johnson on power and privilege; Margaret LeCompte and Kathleen deMarrais on the structures of schooling; Peggy McIntosch on White privilege; and Bryan Brayboy, Tara Yosso, and Dolores Delgado Bernal on forms of critical race theory have all been well received in my classes due to their combination of theory and practice. White students seem more receptive and students of color seem less apprehensive when these foundations of education are the starting point.
  • Assume and recognize the asset- and resource-rich nature of Black and Brown communities. We are bombarded with negative images of Black and Brown people. Media of all types – newspapers, online news sources, television, movies – beat the drum of deficit, danger, dysfunction, and despair as the only images of people and communities of color. Deficit assumptions also ground way too much social science research, too. For example, classic deficit-based studies by Moynihan (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” 1965; “The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City,” 1963)[1] have a long and still-present legacy in social science research. A recent headline in the University of Rochester’s daily online news feed announced that, “Stress in low-income families can affect children’s learning.” This is an example of the language that is insidious in the way it positions families living in poverty (aka Black and Brown families) as dysfunctional. Sure, stress leads to higher levels of cortisol and of course that is bad. But what about middle and high-income families that are stressful (distant caregivers, instability, etc., factors the authors list for the families they studied)? The silence about middle and high income (aka White families) is deafening and paints poverty as inevitably leading to dysfunction. As a White ally and researcher, I am more interested in understanding how families living under stress – poverty as the main example, along with racism – thrive, succeed, and achieve good health and wellbeing. The silence about those aspects of families is also deafening, but in a different way. That way is dangerous, a form of symbolic violence, and unnecessary. More recent work by Tyrone Howard (“HowDoes It Feel to be a Problem? Black Male Students, Schools, and Learning in Enhancing the Knowledge Base to Disrupt Deficit Frameworks, 2004), and Michael Rodriguez and Diana Morrobel (“A Review of Latino Youth Development Research and a Call for an Asset Orientation,” 2001) paint a different picture that positions Black and Brown as more fully human and as amazingly resilient in the face of oppression. These are the kinds of readings I find more useful in my classes and my research, and the kinds of assumptions that foster understanding, solidarity, action, and hope.
  • Engage in discussions of race that are wide-ranging and fraught, trusting those involved to help moderate a civil discussion. The scariest response I see when issues of White privilege and White supremacy are brought up is silence. Paulo Freire, a giant in liberatory pedagogy, saw dialogue as a humanizing act, essential in pedagogical settings that seek to uncover systems of privilege and to move together to action. My students have taught me that they are willing and imminently able to help navigate tense discussions. The most recent course evaluations in one course, Diversity and Equity in Education in a Global Context, had several students challenging me to be less careful in leading discussions, to allow the class to tackle the really touchy, uncomfortable, and “third rail” topics. My instinct has been to protect people’s feelings, to retreat to more academic discourse, or to squelch angry exchanges. I really thought I was taking risks and being somewhat courageous, but my students are saying no, let us go deeper, let us feel more, hurt more, struggle more so we can learn more. As a White educator, I know I am often afforded more leeway than educators of color in leading these discussions; my responsibility is to leverage that positioning into more and more difficult and honest exchanges. Dissent and grappling with ideas are critical to learning and teaching about thorny issues. While my example here is from classrooms, I have found similar dynamics in work with communities of color here in Rochester. This is not new information – dialogue and dissent as foundational for learning have been known for centuries. Still, we are seeing a resurgence of overt racism and a legislative context in which attacking central constitutional and human rights (voting; rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) is a daily occurrence.
  • Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest AME church in the south. It is referred to as "Mother Emanuel".  Emanuel has one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. Source: Charleston City Paper http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/TheBattery/archives/2015/06/19/heres-how-you-can-donate-directly-to-help-emanuel-ame-church.
    Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is the oldest AME church in the south. It is referred to as “Mother Emanuel”. Emanuel has one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. Source: Charleston City Paper http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/TheBattery/archives/2015/06/19/heres-how-you-can-donate-directly-to-help-emanuel-ame-church.

    Counteract the re-segregation of our society and develop cross-cultural competencies. Reading widely and from outlets that publish work by scholars of color, watching videos, and having guest speakers in class are all powerful parts of teaching about diversity and equity. Nothing can replace face-to-face interaction, though. Numerous Warner instructors engage students in fieldwork as parts of our courses, not to mention student teaching, and counseling and administrator internships. A note of caution from my own experience: I remember supporting a doctoral student at another university in assigning master’s students, almost all White, to “urban” field placements. This student was deeply committed to racial and social justice, considered her self a knowledgeable ally, and recognized the power of human relationships. She asked about sending students to welfare offices, hospitals, homeless shelters, and the like. The shock on her face when I suggested community centers, churches, and recreation centers was stunning. To be frank, I had only recently encountered work by Gonzalez and Moll (2001) on funds of knowledge (practices, networks, assets, resources developed in communities as they negotiate stress and oppression) that made me recognize the dangers in placements where people of color are positioned as needing help, as broken, and in need of “redemption.” Seeing my students and graduate assistants’ (as well as my own) successes in learning and relationship building based on asset-based, resource-rich knowledge of Black and Brown people and communities affirms the need for humility and for entering communities as learners rather than redeemers.

As educators and researchers, we have opportunities to foster critical changes our schools and society. Further, being White, to my mind, brings particular responsibilities if we want to be active allies and participants in combatting racism, White supremacy, and continuing inequity and violence. Some of those responsibilities include being humble, knowing that we don’t/can’t know some very important things, recognizing the nature of racism in the US institutions, accepting that White supremacy and White privilege affect us and not just people of color, and entering communities as learners. I am very interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

[1] See http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2011/11/moynihan_report_a_critique_by_herbert_gans.html and http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ101853 for critiques of Moynihan’s reports.

Warner School Student Emerald Amory-Williams Offers an Open Response to Dr. Ares

We Know Better: Response to Zupan Op-Ed, November 2012

Dean Mark Zupan of the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business is rightly deeply concerned about the state of education in the Rochester City School District. (See guest essay by Zupan in Democrat and Chonicle, 11/24/2012.) However, I respectfully disagree with the proposal he makes: vouchers for students and families to use at any school that they choose, public or private.

As a researcher and teacher of education, I argue that there is much more to this story than costs or whether higher spending will lead to improvements. The high per-pupil-spending in the RCSD is easy to critique, especially in light of the long term outcomes we know about – educationally indefensible graduation rates, differential education provided to particular groups of students (i.e., students with disabilities, students of color), and general lack of preparation for college and work. However, if we put that spending in context, we see a more detailed picture. Rochester ranks in the top ten nationally in districts serving students living in poverty. Along with poverty come all the social, economic, environmental and educational problems we know about but have a hard time generating the political will to address. Couture (2007) writes, “The lack of one resource, in this case economic capital, can lead to deficiencies in other resources, specifically social and educational…poor and minority students who find themselves in many inner city public schools are often the recipients of inadequate education … This may be a matter of racism, but it also seems to be an issue of economics, which certainly play out in racist societies” (p. 3).1

Simply looking at per-pupil expenditures ignores the larger contexts. The New York Supreme Court recognized these facts in their 2005 decision in Coalition for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, holding that the State’s school funding system was unconstitutional, depriving NYC students of their constitutional right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education. The City was awarded additional monies because of the economic disparities between their communities and those in other parts of the State. Similar disparities between RCSD schools and their suburban counterparts exist, with Rochester communities being blocked from access to resources and opportunities. These disparities pose large challenges to District schools and families. Professional, committed teachers and administrators struggle in this context that hobbles them with standardized curricula and testing while they work to be responsive to the students and families they serve in a system of schooling designed for the White middle class.

Kozol notes that, in many urban areas, “The city turns repeatedly to outside agencies – including religious charities, health organizations, medical schools and educational foundations – soliciting help in much the way that African and Latin American nations beg for grants from agencies like AID.”2 Cristo Rey, the network of Catholic schools that Zupan points to as a model for urban education, is an example of a religious organization seeking to improve education for “economically disadvantaged” students. The Jesuit Alumni Network subsidizes the schools. They serve only students who are economically disadvantaged. The curriculum (initially developed by the first group of teachers but modified as the student body changed) is a college preparatory one with high academic standards and extended days and school years. They have an impressive record – 90% of their graduates go to post-secondary schools (Cristo Rey website). However, there are four areas of concern that research studies have highlighted:

1) Paying for a Cristo Rey education: This is the most troubling and, to me, unethical aspect – Through contractual agreements with local businesses, students are required to participate in the Corporate Internship Program (CIP) one day each week. 74% of the cost of their tuition is paid through the CIP.3 They work in entry-level clerical jobs, with their pay going to the school. While work experiences certainly help students prepare for some aspects of life after high school (though they are limited to entry-level positions), requiring students to work at low wages to pay for their education is hugely problematic. As one student noted in an interview, “If this CIP is such a good thing, why isn’t it at [other schools]? We have to earn the right to be educated every day. Those students have the right to be there every day” (p. 13). Indeed, students are penalized for missing work, but not school. Teachers who questioned the program were fired. Thus, while teachers and students are distressed, the companies that hire student/workers are happy, and the CIP program is profitable.

2) Limited admissions: The admission requirements have been exclusionary from the beginning as non-readers, students with severe disabilities, and those involved in gangs were declined admission. As time has passed, teachers have grown increasingly concerned because the student body grows more and more elite, with higher motivation for school, higher test scores, and more operating at or above grade level. As a result, rather than educating all students with limited access to college preparatory curricula, a central goal for the Network according to their publications, Cristo Rey schools exclude students whom they assume will not succeed in their system.

3) Avoiding teachers unions: In a review of the 2008 book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism4, Louise Bol notes ~20 characteristics of schools, including Cristo Rey, that adopted what the book’s author calls paternalistic education. The list includes the elimination or decreased power of local teachers’ unions, along with using “unconventional channels to recruit committed teachers.” Like other such efforts, the protections and benefits unions offer teachers are sidestepped, giving increased control of hiring, evaluation, and firing to administration. While the role of teacher unions is a contentious one, the scope of which is beyond this essay, the relationship or lack of one between Cristo Rey schools and unions is troubling.

4) Assimilationist practices: Paternalistic education involves, among other things, rigorous curriculum, specific performance outcomes, creating college-going cultures; strict attendance rules, and teaching students how to walk, shake hands, speak ‘appropriately’ (as in white middle class style): “These paternalistic schools go beyond teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance.”5 We know from a well-established body of work that, when students’ cultural and social identities are denigrated or ignored, healthy physical, psychosocial, and academic development suffers. This seems like a very high cost to expect students to pay.

Overall, this model of schooling does what many educators and education researchers know and fear – it undercuts public schooling, limits access to education to those who are seen as potentially successful when given the financial help (or in this case, the ‘right’ to work as cheap labor), requires teachers to work longer hours for less pay with less job security, and narrows what counts as “appropriate” student behavior, thereby continuing the marginalization of students who are ‘different’ from an assumed norm. We know that this approach does not work, with substantial evidence from many parts of the country. I don’t in any way mean to make excuses for the state of education in the RCSD – again, it is educationally indefensible – but this model has known negative consequences. We can do much better, especially in working with families, communities, teachers, counselors and administrators as partners in improvement rather than problems to avoid.

1 Couture, B.A. (2007). A Freirean critique of the Cristo Rey Network’s transformation: Assimilation or liberation? Proquest Dissertations And Theses 2007. Section 0112, Part 0533 109 pages; [Ph.D. dissertation]. United States — Illinois: Loyola University Chicago; 2007. Publication Number: AAT 3295451.
2 Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in American schools. New York: Harper Perennial.
3 http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2006/10/pdf/extended_learning_report.pdf
4 Bol, L. (2008). Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 22, 2008
5 Whitman, D. (2009). Appeal to authority: The new paternalism in urban schools. The Education Digest, 74(7), 55-61.

A call for collective reflection: Keeping the dream alive

Blooming dandelionIn browsing websites over the weekend and on MLK Day, I was struck with how many people posted quotes and called for action. It seems that a collective reflection, in writing, by Warner community members may be an opportunity to consider how it is that we, as a community, incorporate aspects of Dr. King’s commitment and work in our own teaching, learning and action. Below are two questions that seem germane. Please respond as you see fit.

“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967

Each of us should look in the mirror and ask the question, “What are you doing to keep the dream alive?”
We could extend this to also answer the question, “What are we as the Warner community, doing to keep the dream alive?”

Overhauling low-performing schools via federal turnaround programs: What’s around that corner? And who is there?

iStock_000005455527XSmallQuoting a story from the Associated Press. Dec. 3, 2009:

“…federal officials have an incentive in the turnaround program, which gives money to states for school districts to overhaul the lowest-performing schools. Districts will have to compete for grants. Applications for the money, made available Thursday to states, should result in a list of about 1,200 schools that states have been targeted for turnaround, the Education Department said, adding that the eventual goal is 5,000 schools.

To get the money, a district must do one of four things:

-Fire the principal and at least half the staff and reopen the school with new personnel.

-Turn a school over to a charter school operator or other management organization.

-Close the school and send students to higher-achieving schools in the district.

-Replace only the principal and take other steps to change how the school operates.

A special focus will be on fixing middle schools and high schools, especially “dropout factories” where two in five kids don’t make it to graduation.”

I experience a lot of competing ideas and emotions about approaches such as this. On one hand, we know that there are schools that are failing our children in multiple ways. Those schools should not exist, and we have been negligent for decades in allowing so many children, youth and families to be discarded and scarred. On the other hand, the criteria for being deemed a ‘failed’ school are very narrow, as many education scholars, including Warner faculty, have demonstrated through rigorous research and work in schools. How do we balance the very real and urgent need to step in to stop the harm and long-term damage being done to children and youth, while also recognizing and acting on the complexity of power, cultural practices, history, economics, and politics (not to mention the nature of knowledge in current societies) that course through schools and classrooms?

I for one am pretty skeptical about schooling as it exists today in general, but that is too big a fish to fry in this conversation. The central issue right now in light of this government action, I think, is that we (educators, education researchers, education advocates) need to insert ourselves into the conversation about what constitutes a failure. Failure is achieved, just as success is. The requirements outlined by the federal Department of Education seem to ignore the fact that schools are situated in sociopolitical and economic contexts that impact very directly what they are able to do and what they are asked to do. Without also attending to those larger contexts, heavy-handed actions like those above can end up ‘blaming the victim’ and masking the sources of problems and the potential solutions (e.g., connecting schools, communities, and civic institutions in substantive, truly collaborative and respectful partnerships).

Further, if this line of action is followed (which seems very likely), what are the criteria for the new regime that is brought into a school? Will they have to be responsive to local neighborhoods, cultural and social communities, and economic conditions? Who will decide on the actions taken and the subsequent staffing and management of the school? To whom is the new regime accountable and it what ways? From where does the curriculum originate and to whose interests does it speak? What about pedagogical approaches in light of the population of the school?

Maybe some of these questions are addressed in the guidelines the Department of Education is laying out, but my fear is, given past history, many such details are not addressed, especially regarding relations of power that have created ‘failing’ schools in the first place. A related fear is that this will not really result in meaningful change that enriches educational experiences and life chances. Instead, it will result in our government supporting an entrenched system that will continue to produce failure for the same groups it has marginalized for way too long.