Connecting people to ideas: Damien Sojoyner and Tariq Rahman on Schools, Prison, and Blackness in America

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We are thrilled repost a podcast from Anthropod, a series that makes current anthropology more accessible to wide audiences.

Particularly after this tumultuous week of immigration policies that both separated and held migrant families in makeshift captivity, it’s helpful to see the distinct yet connected logics and practices that enclose Black and Brown peoples.

In this episode AnthroPod travels to the Southern Califora Library to speak with Damien Sojoyner, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Recorded in November 2017, the conversation begins by addressing the library itself, which has served as an archival institution as well as community organizing space in Los Angeles since the 1970s. We also discuss Sojoyner’s recent book project, First Strike: Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles, which critiques the trope of the school-to-prison pipeline by examining public schools in California as sites of enclosure for various forms of Black life. Scaling out, Sojoyner reflects on the current political moment, including educational policies under the Donald Drumpf administration and the relevance of racial capitalism to contemporary race relations in the United States.

A reflection on violence, walkouts and protests, from Providence

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by Taliq Tillman

March 21, 2018

 

I was laying on my couch when I watched the recap of live footage from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. I watched helplessly and shed a tear knowing that that community lived through that experience. I took time to pray for them and then felt overwhelmingly helpless. I was a witness to something that had, at this point, become all too familiar, and there I was just sending my thoughts and prayers yet again. Again and again, our schools become crime scenes and hunting grounds. Again and again, students are subjected to terrorism while our nation bears witness and sends thoughts and prayers through glass screens, retreating to the complacent and comfortable silence.

The walkout on March 14th was more than a demonstration. It was a step towards change. My peers and I are letting everyone know that the silence is tiring, draining, and infuriating. We are letting our nation know that ‘silence’ is just another word for ‘acceptance’. We are letting our nation know that we will do everything in our power to prevent our school grounds from becoming crime scenes. This prevention begins with having the courage, tenacity and empathy to unite and use our voices. There is nothing more debilitating than simply being a witness and sitting idly by, while the faults of your nation cause tragedy. I speak for myself and my generation when I say that enough is enough.

We’re taught in school to look for patterns. In my computer science class we’re talking about examining patterns in order to work towards solutions. Gun violence, mass shootings and domestic terrorism in our country have yielded patterns that we are ready to analyze. We must begin to examine existing legislation and circumstances that have the capacity and tendency to curate mass shootings. We’re making a small step by starting with fighting for a ban on assault weapons as a measure of prevention. There should be no debate when it comes to banning these military style assault weapons, as they are designed to kill instantly, in numerous amounts, and have been used again and again in devastating mass school shootings, including the Parkland Massacre. This is a step in a longer journey of reducing gun violence that includes other measures such as banning bump stocks, calling for more comprehensive background checks and raising the age in which people can purchase firearms.

If our nation is so adamant about protecting our second amendment rights, we better be even more set on protecting our children and communities. I speak for my city and youth here when I say we have to be certain to deliver an intersectional message in our efforts to reduce gun violence. A message that includes all perspectives and supports the voices who have been fighting long before today. As we continue our battle we must put forth policy strategies that prevent gun violence, promote reform, safety, and accountability in policing. There are students who are scared to go to school. There are students who walk through their hallways making sure to take every step with caution, as to not fall victim to gun violence. There are too many adults who remain silent. Remain witnesses

The Providence Walkout to End Gun Violence on March 14th was the start of a longer journey towards transformation in moments of tragedy. We are aware that we must interact with our politicians and become civically engaged if we truly want to see sustainable change on a political level. The walkout served as the first time many Providence students actually went into their statehouse, which is a small step in fostering a relationship with our local politicians. The walkout meant more than missing school. It meant standing together, in solidarity, to discourage violence and promote safe schools, communities, and a safer country. Many of my peers echoed words that I will hold in my heart in our efforts. All of them spoke out to break the stagnation and silence that makes up our current government. We are doing everything in our power to shape the policies and world we want to see for ourselves and for our own children.

I am tired of watching. There is no debate or question when lives are taken over and over and over again. I care and know too much to be silent. There will be no more silence. I believe in myself, I believe in my peers and in the youth, to shape national narratives. To mold the future of our schools and our country. We’re doing this for our communities. We’re doing this for one another and We’re doing this because we have to.

 

A Reckoning With Ourselves in Service to The N’Jadakas aka Kilmongers in Our Classrooms

Aja D. Reynolds

 

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” – Junot Diaz

 

Black Panther reclaims the complicated identity of African diasporic people. It situates beautiful Black people and our various political imaginings in a place where we no longer have to run off to a fugitive space to remind ourselves we are not monsters. In Wakanda, Black Lives matter, kinda. N’Jadaka, first cousin of T’Challah, represents the most maginalized Black youth that walks into our classrooms with a chip on their shoulder. N’Jadaka reminds us of the work we have to be about if we truly believe #AllBlackLives Matter and our shortcomings in fulfilling our responsibilities to creating a transformative world.

There are already plenty of think pieces about Black Panther by some of the greatest Black writers and cultural analysts of our time. Many have already published nuanced interpretations that leave much to be thankful for in the now and much to desire in the future on and off screen. So I’ll use this space to hopefully encourage us to make more mirrors in our classrooms, while processing the connectedness that I and many others felt to N’Jadaka. Please note, I am intentionally choosing to call Erik Kilmonger by his given name throughout this article in recognition of his humanity.

Particularly as a lover of all things Afrofuturistic, I am often unsettled by the positioning of the Black Utopia as a radical existence that is either something that has already past or lives somewhere in the future. Just like the depiction in the movie, many of these imaginings implicate that Black Americans must be rescued for they know not who they are and where they are from. This leaves me and many Black Americans uncomfortable. Although others in the Black diaspora have also had to resist colonialism and slavery, we are still seen as the most distant and lost in the eyes of our African descendents, even in Wakanda, because white supremacy is global. For although Wakanda never experienced colonization and European influence in the ways it has disrupted the histories of other Black nations across the globe, Wakandians are still influenced by anti-Black sentiments of Black Americans. While I can attest to consistently searching for the deepest most parts of my roots that rest on distant lands, I know we are not inherently broken and without culture. Yet, it is an injustice to not recognize that our histories began long before slavery in the Americas. In the now, much of our anger is fueled by the persistence of bondage that forces too many of us to have to rely on movies produced by Hollywood to taste freedom in all its glory.

In my educational journey, I too have felt enraged from encountering limited Black narratives filled with depictions of suffering and pathologies, while experiencing structural racist realities. Yet, the most frustrating part to being awakened to the realness of oppression is not having the tools to resist. N’ Jadaka needs access to justice praxes (theory and practice) that not only teach us to dismantle oppression, but equips us to build the alternative in the meantime. The murder of his father left him to be educated by American institutions that taught him the use of violence to attain dominance, rather than “self-defense as an act of violence”. His academic journey unveils the trouble of schooling that Carter G. Woodson referred to as the “Miseducation of the Negro” (purchase book here http://www.africanbookstore.net/proddetail.asp?prod=the_mis-education. Woodson’s book is foundational to understanding Black education and critiques traditional schooling intentions to indoctrinate Black children into believing they are inferior. He warns that eurocentric schooling makes Black students , “…anxious to have everything the white man has even if it is harmful”. This concept contributed to N’Jadaka’s belief that using the same tactics his oppressors implemented would equip him to beat them at their own game.

So, yes, some of us found ourselves rooting for Kilmonger, hopeful that his defeat by T’Challah would not be the end for him, but rather a new beginning for them both to create a framework for dealing with the tensions in the diaspora, for a revolution that maybe contain both armed defense and the distribution of resources. My abolition lens saw a possibility for a transformative process in that N’Jadaka and T’Challah could reconcile the past by moving forward together, and that he would offer a Black American voice that had previously been excluded from the politics of Wakanda. This proclamation is essential to resisting antiblackness and in our quest for justice that we wrestle with alternative processes for holding one another accountable outside a politic of disposability. This means reckoning with the N’Jadakas sitting in our classrooms, that angrily expresses their disdain for being dehumanized, yet we become more concerned with policing their tone than affirming their realities. The angry Black American, whether boy, girl, or gender non-conforming, at every turn is deemed as inferior and lost. In the meantime some become destructive to everyone and everything around them in a search of finding a truth in a mystical world where they are beautiful, powerful and free. Loving ordinary people who aren’t “respectable” and perfect, and we must draw from our vibranium or cultural assets that lie in the communities where we live and work where our children can love the beautiful representations of Black Panther. Where is there room in our social justice praxis for Black anger and rage in the political landscape to dismantle oppressive structures and construct fugitive or sovereign homes? Most importantly, what is our responsibility as educators to nourish educational spaces where our children do not have to envision Wakanda as a place so distant? To paraphrase my mentor and good friend, David Stovall, how do we shift our justice discourse to aspire to to live for our communities rather than die?

Links to Additional Readings:

https://shadowandact.com/erik-killmonger-forgotten-wakanda

https://medium.com/@robyncspencer/black-feminist-meditations-on-the-women-of-wakanda-5cc79751d9cd

http://talynnkel.com/blog/2018/2/16/an-american-monster-in-wakanda

Aja D. Reynolds is an activist, artist and scholar in the Educational Policy Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the program coordinator at A Long Walk Home Inc., working with Black girls using art activism to address violence against women and girls. Aja has over 12 years of experience as an educator/youth worker.

Our power is our people: Eve Ewing

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Eve Ewing is a poet, sociologist, artist, changemaker, bibliophile, among many other wonderful roles, capacities, and values. She was one of the several generous cultural workers who donated work for our annual fundraiser. Ten lucky donors received copies of her book of poetry, Electric Arches, and we’re sure they are much better for it being in their lives. She took some time to tell us more about her and her work

 

1. Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?
My name is Eve, and I am a writer and sociologist from Chicago. I work at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, although I think it would be more accurate to say I work in whatever spaces and places where people are having conversations about art, black liberation, feminism, joy, afrofuturism, and Chicago.
I do a lot of different things depending on the day, but one mode in which I am trying to pursue educational transformation is as a writer. I wrote a book coming out this year about school closures and racism, called Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. The book represents my attempt to provide a cohesive framework for us to have a conversation about school closings and the impact they have on communities, a conversation that bridges the interests of policymakers, educators, organizers, and concerned citizens. I also write for public outlets and on social media about education policy issues and, more broadly, issues in Chicago that indirectly shape our students’ lives and experiences (like housing and gentrification(.
I also consider my artistic practices to be part of an educational project. I wrote a book of poetry called Electric Arches which is intended to invite people into a space of dreaming or imagining alternate realities for the city. I also co-wrote a play called No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks which is intended to be a community-accessible way of talking about artists as educators and active community members. That is a recurring theme in my work– the idea that a poet is, to quote Sesame Street, a person in your neighborhood! I co-organize an event called the Chicago Poetry Block Party which is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s a big block party that is designed to bring poetry into a neighborhood setting where people of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy it. I see cultural organizing as an important part of education organizing because it’s one way we can manifest our principles about what learning communities can and should look like: accessible, intergenerational, connected to lived experiences, joyful.
2. What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?
I actually don’t identify as an activist so much as an organizer, although I don’t feel strongly about what people call me since I know everyone has their own definitions. But I love talking about books so let’s get to that part.
So Much Reform, So Little Change, by Charles Payne. This book made me  understand early on that the over-simplified silver bullet solutions people come up with for education “reform” will always be woefully inadequate as long as they ignore the context in which the struggle is taking place.
 
To Teach: A Journey in Comics, by Bill Ayers. I just love this little book because when I started out teaching, it was the best representation (to me) of how I felt about the practice, and it made me feel really seen. It’s an accessible and celebratory book by a very kind mentor of mine.
 
Teaching to Transgress, by bell hooks. This was the first book I read that brought together an understanding of radical education with black feminism, and it basically blew up my whole world for that reason. It has so many fundamental truths about education in it and also introduces some important historical points about the history of black education in this country.
 
Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde. This book is not specifically about education but it helped to shape a lot of my worldview and sense of the possible and my general ethical stance.
 
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I return to this book over and over because of the passage where Douglass describes his experience of learning to read and write. I keep it in my heart at all times to remind me how radical black education is at its very heart, to remind me that reading and writing are insurgent acts, and to remind me of how my ancestors struggled and how my work is a continuation of that struggle.
3. What are three things you love about what you do?
I love reading so much. I can’t believe it’s my job to read. It’s a dream come true.
I love going around to different communities and just seeing kids and teachers in action. I love children so much. I love watching them learn, I love heir humor and their insights and their levity, and I love the thousand moments of innovation and understanding that make up a regular day in a a child’s life.
I love my city and how many people are determined to make it better. I love my comrades and how hard their work. I love that even when it all seems impossible, I am not alone.

Black Lives Matter Week of Action

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There’s much happening across Turtle Island this week, led, designed, and made into reality by teachers who are fighting for equity by teaching about Black Lives Matter.

Here is a list of resources and collectives’ links as they do the essential work of teaching about anti-black racism, Blackness as joy, spirit, and at the forefront of freedom. Follow the twitter handle @BLMAtSchool for more info throughout the week and the hashtag: #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool

With a deep bow, a kneel, and maybe even a raised fist for all the conscious teachers who engage in this necessary praxis. Our society is made better by an informed populace.

BLM at Schools 2018, curated by Chris Rogers @justmaybechris

From DC Area Educators:   

Facebook page for updates

NYC Educators for Black Lives Matter Calendar

Here’s a place to send youth-created work and updates

And you can still order one of those t-shirts features above here

Revisiting the Mexican American Studies court victory

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On August 22, 2017, Federal Judge Wallace Tashima ruled that the Arizona law banning Mexican American Studies was unconstitutional. Although delivered on a single day, this decision marked a watershed moment in a battle for ethnic studies that had been raging since the 2010 laws were enacted in reaction to the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. The struggle to reinstate this program has been championed by students who enrolled in the courses, teachers who designed and taught the curriculum, and community members. It’s been some months, and the central figures in the legal battles gathered recently to reflect on the struggle, the victories it wrought, as well as some of the damage sustained through struggle.

 

Below is an abridged version of that conversation with teachers Curtis Acosta and Rene Martinez, program director Sean Arce, and lead attorney Richard Martinez.

 

What is the significance of the court’s ruling?

Sean Arce:     I think it’s really further legitimized ethnic studies, Chicano studies. And then with Richard Martinez, his communication to California Latino School Board Association last night that this ethnic studies and Chicano studies can move forward. There are actions moving forward, they’re setting a policy and creating departments like these that are protected by the first and fourteenth amendment.

Richard Martinez:     There are a number of legal significance issues. One is we took away the impediments to Mexican-American studies and cleared the path for ethnic studies to grow across the country. And these court decisions will be an important precedent in stopping the inevitable movement to end ethnic studies, which will surface in other places but under the same kind of arguments. And I think that the other that happens as the resurgence occurs, they will continue to use code words. Judge Tashima’s ruling on the way that we used code words as evidence of racial bias. The judge saying I came to that conclusion on my own and then goes on to no end, that was further affirmed by all the work of Dr. Pitti. So I think that there’s significant importance in the use of code words, because we all know that means that’s a bias statement, a racially charged bias statement that the courts have been looking to embrace and here you have a decision that embraces it.

And then the third thing that I think that’s critical is that absent a legitimate pedagogical reason then it clearly implies the racial bias, both in the context of denying equal protection and in the context of the first amendment, the right to receive. So, it’s critical the school boards adopt these curriculums, they understand what they’re adopting, why they’re adopting it and then grow it. Mexican American Studies in TUSD you had 10 to 12 years to grow it.

One thing the court cases do, both the ninth circuit and Judge Tashima’s ultimate decision, is that it reverses that whole stream of losses that we had regarding bilingual education. And those decisions that looked at those propositions or those initiatives and said no that’s not the product of racial bias. That those were somehow political decisions outside of the racial context, I think everybody knew that wasn’t true.

 

 

What did you learn in the process of fighting this in the legal system, in the media, and in communities?

Curtis Acosta:     I think Richard hit on a real important point about needing to be diligent, needing to be exhaustive in what these actors, these racist actors are doing. And our collective was definitely on top of it, from you and the legal arm all the way to us in the classroom and making sure we knew what they were saying about us. And to be honest that’s not a fun part of the job, is to look at what they’re saying about you in the media, social media, and how they’re building their case, they’re narrative. You talked about the importance of us getting the narrative back last night during our talk. But that’s all part of it, understanding what the narrative is against you as well as the narrative that you know is in your heart and what you’re trying to do.

 

What does this mean for academic freedom?

Richard Martinez:    Not only being inclusive, but always being open ended, and evolving, and contemporary. So I think that even though there was attached a negative view about how you used to occupy America, or if you wrote a poem, if you used hip-hop, whatever. It came back to if you contextualize the state has no ability to take away the efficacy, the educational efficacy of what you are doing. Legally, that’s how you defend that because they have to be able to then deconstruct you, your program, your curriculum, your curriculum units. And in the absence of that, whether it was Kathy Hrabluk (Associate Superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education) or anyone else, they don’t have your expertise, they don’t know how to deconstruct Mexican-American studies or ethnic studies. They don’t even know what it is, all they know is they don’t like it.

 

 

What are the implications of this decision for what teachers can do? What should they be careful of?

Richard Martinez:    I think that many teachers agree with it, but in terms of making it a mandate on the school district it’s at the local level. They must develop a curriculum in this manner. Where I disagree or think the mistake is to assume one class anyway comes close to what was occurring in Mexican-American Studies. Much more comprehensive.

Sean Arce:        That’s not systemic. You’ve got classes here and there it’s not systemic.

Richard Martinez:     The other thing is I think it’s a mistake to make the classes compulsory. I think they should be voluntary, those who want to take them fine, those who don’t. Because to the extent you make them compulsory and thus those individuals are students and those parents and those families that don’t want their child, their student in that class, they become your enemy. And that’s I think a problem. You’re building in an enemy that’s going to attack that school board, that superintendent, that site administrator, that teacher.

Curtis Acosta:      Yeah there’s antagonism already built in.

Sean Arce:     But yeah, we have to be cautious. We have to be, what’s the word that I used Friday? We have to be strategic on how we do this shit. Alright, we’re going to make it mandatory, where are the teachers at? Where’s the teacher training?

Rene Martinez:     And then what do you do when the pushback happens? Do you change the curriculum or do you just like, you know?

Rene Martinez:     But I think we’re only beginning to feel what the implications are.

Curtis Acosta:      Yeah, I feel like, I felt this sense of end in the micro. Cause if we can’t escape the macro of where we’re at as a nation. What we did in the classroom is what we do everyday now. And we just do it in different ways. So it’s not like anything ended in that sense but this particular story has a beginning, a beautiful beginning. Has a beautiful growth period of us all growing together as maestros, and maestras, as friends, as compañeros. I mean we went from strangers to beyond any relationships that many people will ever understand because we were, for lack of a better word, we were in the fox hole together for a long, long time. And you just don’t give up on each other. And when you don’t give up on each other you create a different kind of bond, but it’s forever.

Sean Arce:     That’s why we do it, and we do it for our own personal children. On personal level, but the meaning behind it is for our entire community cause we know the history of our community. We know that anti-Mexican, anti-Raza, anti-Black, anti-different color in this country is real, man, and we engage in that. We stood up to that. And the reason why we did that is for our own children, but for all the children in our community.

 

Our Power is Our People: Melinda D. Anderson

 

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Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an activist, organizer, and/or advocate for education justice, freedom, and liberation?

My outlook on education justice is most informed by my experiences as a mother. As an education writer I spend a lot of time documenting and commenting on racial injustices and inequities in public education—as the mother of a Black public school student, this matters to me personally. So as I read the research and listen to scholars and experts, it’s all filtered through the prism of a Black mom with a Black son in public schools.

Every time I see a reference to how some aspect of education “disproportionately affects Black students” I know my child is part of that data set. Suspending Black children at a higher rate for mostly minor offenses is the symptom of a racist and unjust system. It’s also a real thing that happens in public schools to students who look like my child. The importance of anti-racist, culturally-relevant curriculum and pedagogy moves from theoretical to concrete when I observe how my child responds positively to these practices in the classroom. Consequently, that drives me to push, prod, and pressure educators to change.

That was the impetus behind #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. It was rewarding to create the hashtag as a tool for crowdsourcing resources. Teachers were able to talk with their students about what occurred in Charlottesville, and also examine white supremacy more deeply. Some teachers don’t consider anti-racism relevant to their syllabus. But Charlottesville is a forceful reminder that we have to address these issues in the classroom. That’s how we energize students to disrupt and resist—and create an America that’s more equitable and just.
What are three things you love about what you do?

Basically, I get paid to talk to smart people, share their insights, and watch readers reflect and respond. I also intentionally seek out opportunities to share the expertise and experiences of youth of color, educators of color, and scholars of color. As an education journalist, I believe my most important job is to turn an ear to those who are seldom heard and amplify their voices. That’s how I can do the greatest service and the most good.

What keeps you up at night or worries you (we hope everyone gets healthy sleep, of course)?

Educators must be willing to have these difficult and thorny conversations about racism and social justice. Refusing to engage with these crucial issues is refusing to acknowledge the humanity of children in your classrooms. It’s denying what Black, Latinx, Native, LGBTQ, Muslim, disabled, immigrant, and other marginalized students live each day. In ways both overt and subtle, perceptions, stereotypes, and biases follow educators and students into the classroom and have enormous implications for children’s education. Following the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer who killed him, I wrote a post titled, What Lessons Were Missing in Darren Wilson’s Classrooms? I felt it was necessary to probe what white children were learning—and not learning—in school that allowed a 28-year-old man to have such a shocking disregard for Black life and our humanity.

The current moment leaves me skeptical but hopeful about the prospect for change—with my hope bolstered by educators, activists, and organizers who vigorously challenge the dominant narratives and, to paraphrase social historian Dr. Lerone Bennett Jr., are revolutionaries in a system of oppression.
What misconception about education would you like to correct?

I want to see the words “achievement gap” placed in a box, encased in cement, and dropped into the depths of the deepest hole. The entire “achievement gap” conversation in education policymaking is anchored in the belief that Black children are deficient. And countless time, energy, and resources are spent trying to close this pervasive “gap” between Black children and the idealized student, otherwise known as white students. But who decided white achievement was the benchmark? Who determined what testing companies deem fundamental knowledge is the knowledge that Black children need to survive, thrive, and advance? It’s all a ruse, where the underachievement of white students compared to Asian students receives scarce attention, and the underachievement of Black children becomes the basis for charter schools, vouchers, and school closures—the core of education’s three-card monte game.

At Free Minds Free People in Baltimore in July, I was introduced to Freebrook Academy in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s a community school where the educational foundation is built on culture, social justice, and independent and critical thinking. This is what schooling can be when our children are seen through the lens of liberation,  rather than viewed from a place of lacking.

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Melinda D. Anderson is an education writer whose work has been published in The Washington Post, Vox Media, Ebony Magazine, and The Root. She is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, where her reporting brings context to the complicated and critical topics of race and racism in education. Consequently, her thoughtful and thought-provoking writing is among the most-read on TheAtlantic.com Education Channel.