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.

Our Power is Our People: Connie Wun

 

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Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?

I’m a Vietnamese, feminist of color research scholar who ended up getting a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley in 2014. I’m also the Founder and Director of Transformative Research, an institute that trains organizations and community groups in community-driven research and data analysis as well as works with agencies as a strategic partner on issues of racial/gender advocacy. In this capacity, I’ve worked with organizations such as Girls for Gender Equity in NYC and Monsoon: United Asian Women of Iowa to train their staff in community-driven qualitative research and data analysis. We’ve written and published reports and articles based upon our research for the purposes of community organizing, popular/political education, and advocacy. Through this work, I’ve also been asked to co-develop and facilitate local as well as national forums about the intersections of interpersonal, institutional/state, and structural violence for educators, students, community organizers, service providers, and policy advocates. I’ve recently been brought on by EducationTrust-West as an Education Equity fellow to help inform their work on racial and gender justice in education.

My current work is informed by my personal, political, and professional experiences. As a former Ethnic Studies and English high school teacher, advocate for sex workers, anti-sexual assault counselor, and community/student organizer, I hope to bring a particular lens to the field of education and educational settings. I think that because of my experiences and knowledge, I am acutely aware of racial and gender violence in its micro and macro forms. My political education began 20 years ago, when I attended the Asian Left Forum, Critical Resistance, and Color of Violence conferences and when I was a community advisor to the Prison Activist Resource Center. The education I received in these spaces from feminists of color and other radical scholar educators helped me to understand the things that I experienced as a first generation, poor-working class Vietnamese girl who was born in Oakland and raised throughout the Bay Area.

While I am fortunate to have had a handful of amazing high school teachers (including a white woman who helped me to fall in love with Toni Morrison and a Black male MacArthur Genius speech coach), it wasn’t until I was in these alternative educational settings that I became an active learner. In these spaces, I learned about the history of imperialism (its indefinite impacts upon myself and my family), the prison industrial complex and carceral state (their relationship to my communities and people I’d never meet), and complexities of intersectional violence (as they played out everywhere in my life). In time, I learned about how they were all connected.

My experiences with these various educational spaces informed my doctoral research on girls of color, violence and school discipline. They also informed how I understand the ways that racialized patriarchy plays out in K-16 education, namely the ways that mostly white liberal educators and some cis-gendered men of color scholars relate to cis, trans girls and women of color and our politics. I am acutely aware of the micro and macro aggressions that happen – consciously or unconsciously.

As an extension of this history and to pay it forward, I do this work because I am invested in the type of educational experiences and lessons that help more individuals to identify racialized gender violence as it structures society, its institutions, relationships, feelings, and politics. My work centers the experiences of cis and trans girls and women of color because I think we sit at the interstices of multiple forms of violence. And as Black feminist scholars and other women of color scholars have historically noted, our experiences with violence – including strategies for survival – can help others to understand violence much more complexly. It is these narratives and analyses that will help to develop more imaginative solutions or alternatives to the world that we have lived in and that exists as at the expense of communities of color. My goal is to help others to own our experiences with this world, to complicate and expand our understanding of its violence against our communities, and to galvanize support for our efforts to change things as they have been. It’s a lofty goal, but because of all the violence I’ve known, it is long overdue.

What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?

Anzaldúa, G. E. (1990). Making face, making soul: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists of color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.

Hartman, S.(1997). Scenes of subjection. New York: Oxford.

James, J. (1996). Resisting state violence: Radicalism, gender, and race in U.S. culture. Minneapolis: University Minnesota Press.

Meiners, E. R. (2007). Right to be hostile: Schools, prisons, and the making of public enemies. New York: Routledge.

Richie, B. (2012). Arrested justice black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. New York: New York University Press.

What are three things you love about what you do?

I love that I get to teach people what I was teaching my undergraduate and graduate students, but outside of the academy and with the purposes of advocacy, community organizing, and political education.

I love that people I train, especially young women of color researchers, are enthusiastic about research and learning theory. It is especially amazing when researchers ask for more readings on topics such as criminalization and colonialism so that they can better understand their communities and the data they have collected on contemporary political and social issues.

Most recently, as a feminist of color scholar, I am thrilled that I am able to use my different resources to support important projects and organizations as they work against the carcerality of schooling in the U.S., gender based violence in their communities, and structural violence at large. When I was in graduate school, one my advisors asked if I was planning to be either an activist or a scholar. I think that I’m proud to say that I’m able to do both in this lifetime and with such amazing groups of people.

What misconception about education would you like to correct?

Education happens everywhere. It is a dynamic, vulnerable, and humbling experience. I don’t know if I’d correct anything about “education,” but I would challenge educators and students to feel as though good education is a creative process. It is an emotionally   challenging experience. It requires introspection and limited defenses. In order to learn, one should be able to feel safe enough to do so. In my experience as an educator and learner, students, especially those that have experienced violence, have to feel safe enough to not know before they (or we) can begin the journey of owning our own expertise and to learn from others. I believe that traditional U.S. educational institutions – which are structures and sites of violence for many, especially gender non-conforming, cis/trans Black and poor, working class non-Black girls of color – have a difficult time selling themselves as “safe spaces” for learning. It then becomes the objective of critical educators to own and display their own humility and vulnerabilities to their students – to genuinely lead by example and to welcome the growing expertise of their students (without romanticizing them). As responsible educators, we should be able to own what we know, support our students with what they know, encourage everyone to learn more, and be willing to not know anything. Hopefully, that gets us to a feminist of color educational praxis.

 

Acting UP for Justice: FMFP in the Streets

 

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On a hot Sunday, July 9, hundreds gathered in front of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, blocks away from Baltimore’s Patterson Park.

Like in many cities across the United States, we gathered because the park, embedded in Baltimore’s Latinx community, continues to be targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. We rallied because we oppose not only these raids, but like national organization Mijente, we know our neighborhoods are stronger and safer without policing, borders, immigration bans, and ICE raids.

Reminded of the importance of taking care of our people and called to action by Mama Victory, local organizer and the mother of Victorious Swift the 19-year-old Baltimore art student killed in March weeks before his graduation, we headed to the park.

Core local organizers, including fierce leadership by young Black and Brown folks with The Baltimore Algebra Project, led the chants, and the local and national participants marched with signs like ICE-FREE BALTIMORE, We are VICTORIOUS and NO ICE RAIDS IN OUR COMMUNITIES.

With a federal administration that continues to champion white supremacist policies — immigration bans and border walls — our political moment is like too many before. Resistance isn’t futile, rather across the country, it is our only pathway, together.

Also notable, this march was the first time, and hopefully not the last, that the Free Minds Free People gathering ended with an action, and with delicious cupcakes and cakes, made by the amazing Christina “V” Villarreal.

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Our Power is in Our People: Dr. Laura Ramírez

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Laura co-leading a March for the Ayotzinapa parents and survivor -Victor Cortes and Antonio Zavala – when they visited Chicago in April, 2015.

  1. Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?

I am a mother of two Chicago public school students, and hold a doctorate in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I am also the co-founder of Justicia en Ayotzinapa Comité Chicago. For over 12 years, I have been actively involved in the fight to preserve public education in Chicago, including the 2011, 43 day sit-in for a library and Fieldhouse, known as “La Casita.” I have also organized transnationally to demand accountability from the Mexican government in the enforced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. A Spanish teacher by training, I have taught in Chicago area public schools and I have also been a youth worker. In my paid and unpaid work, I continue to share my knowledge with communities of of color to build our capacity to fight for our human and education rights. Additionally, I helped to pass the Chicago city council’s ordinance ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2009.

My work is grounded on the belief that in our society it is the duty of all people to hold our government and other state apparatus accountable by standing up against injustices and advocating for solutions to problems that plague our communities. I believe that education is a necessary tool for people to develop their full capacity and ability to think, as well as to love more fully. I know firsthand the power of transformation in the development of a critical consciousness.

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

What keeps me up is knowing that we continue to operate under a flawed and crumbling paradigm. The capitalist, gendered, patriarchal and racialized system that we exist under can no longer sustain life on this planet in a just and equitable way. We need to bring forth systems that not only respond to the present conditions but that also challenge and provide an alternative to the ways we have been taught to exist. Our public education system can and must be a potential site for this deconstruction and recreation of society – but only if we are able to liberate ourselves from the current purpose of education – simply as a site of hierarchal reproduction.

  1. What misconception about education would you like to correct?

The greatest misconception about the education system, especially in the United States, is that it serves the best interest of all. We know, through years of research and testimonies that the practices of schooling in the United States has actually aided in the colonization, dehumanization, and assimilation of young people of color and their families since its very inception in the 1830’s. The history of schooling in this country is one that has allowed for the economic self-sufficiency of a very few at the expense of the rest of our children. It is built on a paradigm of competition and of cementing the ideas of human beings as capital that can be sold and traded in the marketplace of degrees and titles. It has denied and erased most of our history and continues to brainwash us into believing that to “make it” means to be the best, which in essence means that our existence has been shaped by our ability to beat others at the empty game of academic attainment.

  1.      What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?

The most important books have been: Let Me Speak by Domitila Barrios de Chúngara, Pedagogy of Hope by Paolo Freire, Protean Literacy by Concha Delgado-Bernal, The Long Haul by Miles Horton and the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Aldous Huxley.

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Laura with the Comité Justicia en Ayotzinapa Chicago during the 43 hour hunger strike in Chicago, September 2015.

 

Resource Review: Don’t Be a Bystander: 6 Tips for Responding to Racist Attacks

by Brian Galaviz

As a public elementary and middle school counselor in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, Don’t Be a Bystander: 6 Tips for Responding to Racist Attacks has an important message for all educators, students and counselors.

In schools there is a focus, by some, on “bullying.” But too often, “bullying” is used as a sanitized term devoid of its often-underlying sentiments of whitesupremacist patriarchy. While it is vital to address harmful behaviors, it is just as important to name specific behaviors – homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, abelism, etc… If we simply label these behaviors as bullying, it is easy to turn away from the underlying discrimination. Using specific language potentially like islamophobia might cause discomfort, not only for the student causing harm, but also for school personnel. Educators may not feel qualified or ready to address these issues. However, it is our ethical obligation as protectors of safe spaces to name and address the root cause of violence. If students do not feel safe, learning is difficult if not impossible.

Another nugget of wisdom for those of us working and learning in schools is the value of resisting the urge to call police when bullying or other threats of harm occur in schools. In Chicago, the corruption within and harm caused by the Chicago Police Department is well documented. Will calling the police really make our communities safer? However, educators may not feel comfortable discussing the intersectionality of young people’s safety and the trauma caused by police. Yet the fact that many educators have family, friends and loved ones who are police officers is an unacknowledged tension and often a major barrier to addressing police violence against young people of color, mainly black and brown youth. Yet having open, honest, restorative conversations regarding police is essential to implementing creative, non-punitive responses to harm in schools.

I recommend watching and discussing: Don’t Be a Bystander: 6 Tips for Responding to Racist Attacks. 

Don’t Be a Bystander, running time approximately 4 minutes, is directed and produced by Lewis Wallace and Hope Dector, conceived by Mariame Kaba and Sarah Jaffe, with support from the Barnard Center for Research on Women. 

Brian, his partner Gloria Ortiz, and their son Diego. 

Brian Galaviz has been an educator for ten years in Chicago Public Schools. He has taught high school science and been a counselor in high school, elementary, and middle school, including in alternative settings for youth who have been pushed out of traditional schools. Both Brian and Gloria are fierce Chicago political and cultural workers!

 

Baton Rouge: Resisting & Building

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“We don’t want to reform the system because it was never made for us.”

This past July, Rethink was asked to join a cadre of folks in support of Baton Rouge youth activists to plan a protest in response to the murder of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police.   On Sunday July 10, The Wave youth and Rethink youth lead over 2000 people in a march through the streets of Baton Rouge demanding justice. The three founding members of The Wave are North Baton Rouge residents – Raheejah, Jeanette, and Myra –  who responded immediately to the murder of their neighbor and to the ongoing police brutality they see within Black communities with a call to action— “to unite communities and enact policy changes to stop discriminatory acts against minority individuals,” explained Raheejah Flowers.

Rethinkers lead chants as the youth told a crowd of thousands at the Baton Rouge State Capitol that they are tired—tired of their family and friends being murdered in the streets, tired of their schools failing them, tired of adults constantly telling them “no,” and tired of being tired. And with all of this on their hearts and minds, standing in front of a symbol of the broken system they aim to demolish and transform, they chanted together, “we gon’ be alright!”

“We don’t want to reform the system because it was never made for us,” said Rethinker Ashley Triggs during a WBOK interview following the protest. Rethinkers speak often about their duty to fight for their freedom, echoing the words of Assata Shakur that Rethinkers chant together each time they gather. Young people are fighting every day for their visions of freedom and liberation, and it is past time for adults to love and support them, follow their lead, and champion them as they realize their visions.

As part of their work to dismantle systems of oppression, Rethinkers have developed a 5ive Point Platform which focuses on five specific systems: mass media, education, criminal justice, food access and healthcare. The Platform lays bare the inequities that youth face in New Orleans, and cities like ours across the country, providing concrete demands from each system to reflect the humanity and dignity that young people deserve.

We choose to remind everyone that organizing and protest isn’t a fad. This is not simply a moment. We have a legacy of resistance at our backs.   The depth of our commitment to our own humanity lives in our bones.

Rethinkers and powerful youth all over are making moves to transform the world—and they know they have nothing to lose but their chains.

In love and in struggle

karen “kg” marshall
rethink | executive director
web: therethinkers.org