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.
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.