- Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?
I’m Whitney! A fan of cats, Bronx born and raised, Mother Earth loving, slightly nerdy but still trying to keep it cool Black girl. I am an organizer-healer-scholar-youth-worker-educational-justice-prison-abolitionist-fighter. And my work is a tad unconventional! Right now, I work between two coasts, Los Angeles and New York City.
In LA, I work closely with an organization called the Youth Justice Coalition, which is a direct-action organizing space to address issues of mass incarceration. We operate within a community-center called Chuco’s Justice Center, which is home to host of organizations, groups from our surrounding communities of Inglewood and South Central, and is also the space for our high school, FREE LA! (Fighting for the Revolution to Empower and Education Los Angeles). Our high school serves young people who are system-impacted, young parents, neighborhood affiliated, and many other intersectional identities that often get cuffs instead of diplomas in the City of LA. I’ve worked as a teacher here, a community organizer, the Board Chair, and an overall supporter of the work!
In my NYC work, I am Co-Founder of Sweet River, a small team of women of color working at the cross section of education, prison abolition, cultural work, and restorative and transformative justice. (We are still growing, so no website yet, but coming soon!). Currently, Sweet River partners with a Brooklyn public school in implementing racial-justice focused restorative justice (through a Brooklyn Community Fund initiative), while also providing trainings, program support, and workshops on transformative justice, peer mediation, abolitionist education, and restorative practices. We are proud to be a team led by women of color in a current moment where funding is opening up for “restorative practices,” but is often not trickling down to people of color led organizations, grassroots based institutions, or spaces led by system-impacted individuals.
The last component of my work (yes, I swear I get sleep, 8 hours if I can, here is why ), involves being a PhD student. I’m in the last phase of doctoral studies at The Graduate Center at The City University of New York. I write, think about, and do research on transformative justice and Black radical imagination. Through my student status, I use research as a movement tool, collaborating with organizers and young people to do research on issues of women’s incarceration, restorative practices in Bronx public schools, and housing rights for tenants in El Barrio. (Here are some of the incredible organizations I’ve worked with: Community Connections for Youth, New Settlement Parent Action Committee, Movement for Justice en El Barrio).
I do all of this work – weaving between schools, organizations, and coasts – because I believe that justice work is the greatest type of education. Learning, questioning, thinking, and imagining is what education should be, and it’s critical to reclaim that. Plus, I think we can do this reclamation creatively, with radical joy, and in the most intersectional way possible. (Or maybe I just don’t like working 9-5, who knows!) Educational spaces in all their forms, as institutions, are intertwined intimately with histories of power, colonialism, prison and punishment – and our duty is to always work to undo and abolish these so the next generations can get a little bit more free.
- What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?
There are so many books! … In addition to conversations, experiences, travel, tending to my own feelings with constructive criticism, mistakes, challenges, and people, all of which have been critical to my work and human-ness. While, there are a billion books, I’m leaving off the list, here are some key ones, accompanied with links to movements that embody the spirit of each book:
- Women Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A book that has taken me almost five years to go through because each paragraph, line, word is something that speaks right into my spirit, that I need to sit with, savor, mull over, and dream about. Written by a storyteller psychologist, this book is about the inner worlds, fires, and process of women (defined in the broadest way). About what it means to “run with wolves” – to accept, cultivate, nurture our wildish nature. It helped me think about how to be an education activist that is unapologetic, brave, and wild. Sadie Nash Leadership Project is an organization I worked for that celebrated women in a truly authentic way.
- Octavia Butler books, specifically: the Earthseed Series and Wildseed. Because both of these remind us of our past and our future. Cause Octavia Butler is an oracle. Because justice work is science fiction in that it is creating another world that does not yet exist. Plus, imagination is key! These folks in Durham, a land collective and a circle trainer are bringing Butler’s work to life.
- Robin Kelley’s book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. I love this book. And return to it, always. Kelley writes that social movements are places for dreaming and places where new ideas, intellect and thought develop. This speaks to me – maybe because I’m a scholar (gasp, can’t believe I admitted that!), but also because more than anything, being in movements for justice has been my greatest education. And I think it is critical that as educational activists and organizers, we remember that campaigns, policy battles, program implementation – that there is an undercurrent beneath all of these that is about learning, exploding narrow boxes, erasing borders, and expanding boundaries of what can be possible. Thank you to this book for reminding me of that. Shoutout to my movement family at H.O.L.L.A! who embody Black radical imagination in action.
- Nikki Jones, Between Good and Ghetto. I read this once, and that’s all it took for it to stick with me. A book where I saw my own experience laid in the pages. A book that is a wee bit academic, but also crystal clear about the relationship between gender, sexuality, race, skin color, education, and criminalization. A beautiful and hard project that gives words to something many people live, know, understand. A New Way of Life in Los Angeles supports women in some of the hardest moments of their journeys.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I’ll admit, I’m reading this currently and haven’t yet finished. But wow. This. Book Here. Incredible. Many stories, examples, and threads of wisdom that uplift a plain and simple truth: the natural world – the planet – nature – animals – trees … all of this energy that gives to us everyday, and it is our responsibility, in the most practical and spiritual sense, to return that energy, to pay it forward. May we all remember water is life.
- What are three things you love about what you do?
- The relationships. My friends, my chosen family, my peers, my partners, my peoples. In movement I feel the whole spectrum of emotions – love, anger, resentment, celebration, inspiration, silliness, excited, fearful, courageous – everything! And we feel them together. And we get up, everyday and work to hold space for one another. Relationships are more important than any action, policy, or program.
- Learning to live out freedom. To be in a space where I get to live out the values of equity, and sharing space, and taking action to create change. In my work and in my life I get to constantly think about and try to practice what it means to get free. Sounds corny, but life becomes way more fun when you understand that the boxes that confine us can and should often be broken down.
- Young people! I love working alongside and in partnership with young folks. They hold space for each other and for me in ways that are challenging, hopeful, hilarious, silly, and loving. The wisdom they carry is infinite, I think that their ability to quickly cut through the rules and respectability that adults get hung up on – well, it allows for space for us to learn together, be our most authentic selves, and engage in transformative, healing, change-oriented work. There are countless young people – especially young women (shoutout to Alba, Gloria, and Maritza!) – that have pushed me to be the best version of myself, and I think there is a lesson in intergenerational learning that let’s us all reflect on better ways to honor everyone’s voice, at all stages of their life. Because freedom really, really is a lifelong struggle.