Open Response to Dr. Ares on White Educators and Allies’ Responsibilities

In response to Emanuel AME Church Massacre Requires a Response – White Educators and Allies’ Responsibilities by Nancy Ares, published on June 23, 2015.

Dear Dr. Ares,

Thank you for asking for my feedback on the tragic and racially motivated killings in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The tone of your blog and how you framed the issues within the historical, educational, and social context of American life is heartfelt, critically aware, introspective, and self-reflective. I applaud your courage for being so direct, truthful, and comprehensive in your social commentary. As a white researcher and academic, your honesty and introspection are needed, to not only spark an honest debate on race, racism, and white privilege, but equally important, to challenge all educators to see that it is their social responsibility to engage their students, of all levels, in dialogue on the issues and problems that we face as people of diverse races, ethnicities, and socio-economic groups. We need a level of dialogue that would allow all students and people to come to a deeper understanding of our connectedness as humans, and of the things that divides us and prevent us from learning from, appreciating, and engaging on meaningful levels with all people. If our common humanity and connectedness are not affirmed in our dealings with “the other,” we would be harmed and suffer from the unfortunate actions of people, be they black, brown or white who are experiencing existential difficulties.

As a Caribbean woman who immigrated to the United States at the age of thirty one, who became a naturalized citizen, and who moved through the American higher education system, from Brooklyn College, to Columbia University, and to the University of Rochester, I find myself becoming a critical observer of the American society and educational system. As a black woman who worked as an educator in her native country, St Kitts-Nevis, for eleven years, I was painfully aware of the insidious and corrosive nature of racism in America, even though I was not mired in its painful effects. However, as a black student and as a college instructor, I, too, was touched by its reach, and not having lived within its stifling and paralyzing atmosphere, I am able to “insulate” myself from its crippling power, even as I try to understand the crippling and limiting effects it has on my African American brothers and sisters, many white colleagues, and on my students of all races, especially my African American students.

When I teach classes on diversity and race, politics, and world literature, I choose close textual reading, and I use in-depth discussions to get my students to engage with issues of race and racism, as explored by writers such as Martin Luther King, Gloria Naylor, Brent Staples, William Raspberry, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, and others. As a person who did not grow up immersed in the effects of racism and prejudice, I found that I was able to adopt an objective stance, a contemplative distance, that allowed my students and I to push the envelope in a constructive, safe, and meaningful way. My classes are always diverse with a “critical mass” of white American and European students, black (American, African, and Caribbean), Asian, and Middle Eastern students. Sure, there were times when the white students were defensive and said that it was time to “get over” and bury the racial issues rooted in the past. The black students felt that white society’s inability to acknowledge past wrongs were deeply entrenched, painful, and a barrier to social justice. But, in the end they acknowledged that the discussions and the readings were cathartic, transformative, and humanizing. By reading their reflective essays, I could see the shifts in their thinking as they engaged emotionally and intellectually with the writers.

Like you, I have been troubled by the deficit models used as lens to explain the difficulties of the Black family in America, as well as the educational difficulties of black and brown students in American schools. As a Caribbean American, I am often puzzled by the lack of self-efficacy and self-assertion exhibited by many of my African American students. And there have been times when because of where I am from, some black students do not identify with me or allow themselves to see the connection that would allow me to be their mentor. Still, I did need not give up on them, nor refrain from encouraging them to strive to realize their potential. As a black woman who received her early education under the British system and within the context of colonization and the local Caribbean experience, I was able to see education and self-development as a human right and not as social indoctrination, social engineering, or social reproduction even within the effects of colonization because my teachers were fellow villagers who took seriously their role of educating the young. Many African American children do not have the “village” connection with their teachers and cannot reconcile that disconnection to come to see that all knowledge and experiences can and should be critically engaged with, so that education and the exposure to white writers or the ideas of the “other”, and the absence of the black voice, experience or contributions do not become a threat to the self. As you have observed, White America has failed to see the depth of black and brown people’s funds of knowledge, their intelligence, and their contributions to humanity. It is so easy to drink from the intoxicating well of ethnocentrism and lose sight of the complexity of the human experience and one’s place in the diversity of life.

Self-awareness is crucial to the examination of experiences, whether white or black. In our engagement with knowledge and information, we must always strive for personal transformation, not reproduction. Students at all levels of the educational system must be led to question assumptions, suppositions, arguments, claims, information, and ideologies. Students must learn to identify fallacies, illogical thinking, to see hidden agendas, and manipulations. Students must be able to see the contingent nature of life, to understand plurality, relativism, and what constitute logical thinking, in order to move beyond dualistic thinking. Sadly, I do not think that the educational system is facilitating the thinking that would allow all students to deal with and appreciate the complexities of a heterogeneous society and world.

From my experience, the majority of students of all races want to have a deeper and more clarifying experience in education. They want to grapple with the difficult issues, the ideologies and beliefs and come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. They value the opportunities to see subjects, as inquiries into the human experience, to face difficult truths, and in doing so, to understand themselves and “the other” in the process. Students of all races, I believe, are reaching for a more liberating experience that a transformative education can bring. And as educators we have to have the moral courage to help young people of all races, religion, and socioeconomic levels, to see that it is only through an education that is centered in open dialogue that all people could see their common humanity and strive together to deal with our human nature and the human condition, all of which are difficult and complex experiences.

Like you, I believe that as an academic, I have an opportunity and a responsibility to work for social change. I agree with you that education is the key to effectuate change. If the young, white man who killed the nine black people in the AME church had a deeper understanding of the historical events that gave rise to Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, and America, he would have understood that his ideas, conceptions, and assumptions were wrong and that Blacks have as much of a right, as Whites, to be Americans, to strive, to participate, to govern, and to belong to America.

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

Brother to Brother: My Reaffirmation of Pride in Black Boys Post-George Zimmerman Trial

Like many Americans on Saturday July 13, 2013, my nerves got the best of me while awaiting the George Zimmerman verdict. When the verdict was announced, my heart dropped in aguish for Trayvon Martin’s family. I can only struggle to imagine the pain they are feeling. To have your child murdered and for there to be no consequences must be the most horrifying feeling a parent can go through.

For many Black boys and men, they share the same sentiments as I do, “I could have been Trayvon Martin”. I am writing this because I feel the emotions of many Black boys who are grappling with how to survive without being the victim of the threat called “racism”. To my brothers, it is important to reflect on the legacy of our ancestors. Movements to fight against injustice have been apart of history for centuries: From the revolts during the transatlantic slave trade, to the American civil rights movement, to the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa. Social movements and the quest for social change have always been a part of society. My brothers, you are a part of a contemporary movement in the fight for your own humanity. You have allies and aren’t alone. Stand with pride in this journey we call life. Never feel a sense of isolation because there is another Black boy who may be going through your same pain. Never feel discouraged or let someone make you feel as if your life does not have value. You are loved, and every Black boy is valued as a child of God. Remember that you have a purpose in life.

As a Black man of African descent born and raised in the United States, throughout my early development I was socialized on the experiences of Blacks in America. Resiliency was a phenomenological experience that I learned early on. There aren’t answers or solutions to every situation you may encounter while being a Black boy. You may desire to change or influence a racist person’s attitudes, which in turn maybe problematic. Keep in mind that no one is inherently born to be racist; racism is a taught behavior. Unfortunately, racism is part of the burden of being Black in America. Lastly, my brothers continue to persist and achieve despite white supremacy, sexism, poverty, and the continued assassination of Black manhood in America.

RIP Till, Diallo, Bell, Grant, King, Martin…..and all the Black boys and men who have been the victims of hate.

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.

Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators

Every year as a faculty member in an urban-focused, university-based teacher education program, I pose the following questions to the teacher certification candidates and certified teachers in my classes: What is your vision of social transformation, and how far are you willing to go in your capacity as classroom teachers to achieve it? Sadly, the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is the latest of a never-ending series of tragedies that underscores the urgency of these questions. As teacher educators, it is crucial that we seize this moment to encourage and support classroom teachers’ efforts to end white supremacist violence in the lives of youth of color.

Those who deny the permanence of white supremacy in America will surely concoct a litany of excuses and justifications for George Zimmerman, the man who has admitted to killing Trayvon Martin. As demonstrated time and time again, white supremacy is amazingly adept at defending itself by denying its very existence. Regardless of whatever preposterous defense may prevail on Zimmerman’s behalf, the details of Trayvon Martin’s final moments paint a clear picture of a young man who became yet another casualty of American society’s enduring, well-rehearsed, and unforgiving assault on black bodies. That advocates for redress on Trayvon’s behalf are forced to make the case for the obvious—America’s suspicion of and contempt for young black males—detracts time and energy better spent on strategizing our collective responses for justice. Consequently, I will not devote more time to asserting the obvious. Readers who want to debate the “merits” of the case against Zimmerman are encouraged to do so in other spaces.

What I hope to do in this blog entry is to engage fellow teacher educators in discussions of the roles that we can play in the aftermath of Trayvon’s death. The public outcry over Zimmerman’s audacity and the Sanford Police Department’s complicity has turned the murder of Trayvon Martin into a potentially powerful teachable moment. The following are strategies that teacher educators can use to help teacher certification candidates and certified teachers transform this tragedy into a springboard for critical thought and collective action.

1) Engage teachers in rigorous examinations of white supremacy. The gravity of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the subsequent silence that surrounded it cannot be fully grasped without a critical understanding of white supremacy as a systemic arrangement of power that has privileged the lives and interests of white Americans from this nation’s inception, and that continues to do so despite social and political struggles for racial equality. Framing the historical and systemic nature of white supremacist power in America is crucial for helping white educators—specifically those who bristle at critical analyses of white supremacy—to understand those analyses as critiques of oppressive systems of power, not as indictments of individual white people. A critical examination of white supremacy can also help teachers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand that while white supremacy privileges white people over racialized others, it can be reproduced by a multicultural cast of characters that aligns itself with white supremacist power structures (e.g., someone like George Zimmerman). In my experiences as a teacher educator, work in critical race theory by scholars like Gloria-Ladson Billings, William Tate, and Adrienne Dixson, analyses of privilege and power by Allan Johnson, and racialized examinations of white teachers by scholars like Christine Sleeter and Gary Howard, have been great resources for teachers who are learning to grapple with the realities and repercussions of white supremacy. A rigorous understanding of white supremacy is a prerequisite for teachers who want to stand against the white supremacist domination of youth of color.

2) Help teachers to connect youth of color to resources and strategies for negotiating white supremacist oppression, both individually and collectively. Learning to resist is not just a political undertaking—it is also a pedagogical act. As Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking work has taught all of us, just as the oppressed have to learn the terms of their oppression, they can also learn to create the conditions for their liberation. Teacher educators who are committed to social justice must find ways to support classroom teachers’ efforts to facilitate analyses of and resistance against white supremacy with youth of color. Continue reading “Teaching Trayvon Martin: Three Strategies for Teacher Educators”

It’s Elementary!

On the Monday evening of April 2, Warner’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) and Allies Special Interest Group screened the film It’s Elementary, shining light on how educators can address LGBTQ issues in the classroom. Throughout the movie and into the panel discussion, I began thinking about this idea of ‘teaching’ students about LGBTQ issues. As a Warner student, this topic was addressed in a number of my classes and in one case, a few of my fellow students asked the question, ‘Why do we need to bring this up with children?’ Beyond my own beliefs about social justice, eradication of oppression, tolerance and promotion of diversity, this question is important to deconstruct on a different level. This question is worded in such a way as to suggest that children are too young to learn about ‘sexuality.’ First, this implies that the heterosexuality that is reinforced in schools is not a ‘sexuality,’ yet somehow only homosexuality is a sexualized term. Second, the implication with this statement is that children are living independent of homosexuality and it is this implication that I challenge here.

Given reports that ten percent of the population will identify as LGBTQ, this means that one in every ten students in your classroom, one in every ten teachers, one in every ten administrators and staff and one in every ten people you meet on the street will in some way be a member of the queer community. So, if every one in ten students are queer, then does homosexuality not already exist in the classroom? This denial or simplistic view of children as asexual is not only inaccurate but is an erasure of the experiences of these queer students in particular. How can you as a teacher ignore ten percent of your students? Not only will ten percent of students be queer, but given the increase in gay and lesbian adoptions and family planning options, students who are heterosexual could be coming from a queer-headed household as well. Whether one wants to admit it or not, queer individuals and families have a growing presence in our schools.

It’s Elementary demonstrated that students, even in elementary school, are familiar with the topic of homosexuality and especially with the misinformation and stereotypes that the media portrays. In the film, students referenced afternoon talk shows and popular movies as their source of information about homosexuality. In terms of homosexuality in schools, even elementary students mentioned the ways in which words such ‘gay’ are used in a derogatory manner in the hallways on a regular basis. Therefore, students are very familiar with the topic and it is this permeation of anti-gay language in the hallways that especially makes it a school issue. Some may attempt to argue that ‘sexuality’ is a private matter, but when hateful speech is used to bully peers in the school environment, it becomes a school matter that educators have a responsibility to address.

At the panel discussion after the film screening, a panelist made the point that school administrators can sometimes demonstrate this denial of queer issues by implying that those issues do not exist here. This denial is a huge disservice to queer students, particularly those who are at risk for depression or dropping out of school. The avoidance of taboo topics in general places students at risk, all for the sake of adult and parent comfort. Some parents, administrators, and teachers seem to forget this concept that ten percent of the population is a part of the LGBTQ community. Therefore, the truth is that students are here and they are queer. So, we can either admit that they exist or contribute to the deafening silence of oppression.

Education the great divider: School choice in urban centers

Education in today’s society is a definitive indicator of an individual’s earning potential and social mobility. In light of this reality, parents are constantly searching for ways to provide their children with a quality education that would afford them a greater earning potential and the possibility of upward social mobility. Unfortunately, however, access to a quality education is not equally distributed across all strata of the society.

Bridging the divide between urban and suburban school districts

An Akron, Ohio woman recently made national headlines after she was charged and sentenced for defrauding the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn City Schools of over $30, 000 in her attempt to secure a better quality of education for her two daughters. A comparison of the Copley-Fairlawn City School District’s report card for academic year 2009-2010 to the Akron Public Schools’ report card for the same academic year indicates that Copley-Fairlawn students received better scores in two key achievement areas, reading and mathematics, while Akron students received comparably lower scores in these two achievement areas. Additionally, yearly progress in overall school accountability standards was met by Copley-Fairlawn compared to Akron Public Schools that failed to meet yearly progress.

The inequalities and inequities in the education system necessitate the continuation and expansion of school choice policies. Whether it is the existence of charter schools, voucher programs or urban-suburban programs, school choice policy is needed to allow urban parents opportunities to provide a quality public education for their children. Of course, Kelley Williams-Bolar (accused Akron parent) was found guilty for falsification of government document. But can we villainize her for trying to provide her daughters with an education that is unavailable to them in their home district—an education that is elusive in many urban areas, yet readily available to suburbanites? I am not suggesting here that the laws of the land be flouted. However, I am suggesting that adequate investments be made in school choice policies (eg. urban-suburban programs) that are continuously in danger of termination due to the lack of adequate funding. This should enable urban students, the majority of whom are of a lower socio-economic status, the opportunity to receive a quality public education.

Without attempting to litigate on the legality of Williams-Bolar’s action, it is prudent that we examine the gross inequity between these two neighboring school districts that prompted her to seek a quality education for her children outside of their struggling school district. The present hiatus between Akron and Copley-Fairlawn schools continue to disenfranchise many vulnerable children on the premise of their zip code, despite their parents paying local, state and federal taxes that generally fund schools. I am of the opinion that if Williams-Bolar could have afforded to send her children to a private school, she might have done so, or already voted with her feet for a more effective school district. Can some acts be avoided when one is stripped of choice? Poverty cannot be the reason for a poor education. I wonder what Horace Mann would say about this sad inequity?

References

Akron Public Schools (2010). 2009-2010 School Year Report Card.

Copley-Fairlawn City School District (2010). 2009-2010 School Year report Card.