#EduColor: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Written on 15 May 2017, 01:00pm under Homegrown

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Integrity. Decency. Solidarity. These are the qualities that brought me to what is now commonly known as the EduColor Movement. Before this group had dozens of invited members, thousands of newsletter subscribers, many thousands of loyal followers on Facebook and Twitter, and millions of impressions on its Twitter hashtag, it was a handful of people who came together on email. Many of us – like myself – worked in education spaces where the subject of race and racism was ignored and raising these subjects was professionally risky. EduColor was a safe space: to share, laugh, and lament. It was a space where we could be our whole, passionate, justice-filled selves.

In 2013, I traveled to New York City, and while there carved out time to meet the teacher-blogger from NYC who had conceived EduColor. It was in its infancy—it was literally five of us on email: myself, Liz Dwyer, Xian Franzinger Barrett, Sabrina Stevens, and the founder Jose Vilson. Fierce and fearless and unapologetic in our drive to bring justice and equity to educational spaces. In the subsequent months and years, we attended conferences and met educators seeking what EduColor offered. People like Rafranz Davis. They were welcomed into the tent. We met people online—frequently on Twitter—and we saw they shared our battles. What we were experiencing as people of color in education was pervasive. We created a space for affinity and uplift and unending support. We boosted each other. We rallied behind each other’s triumphs. We dried each other’s tears. We used social media to organize and bring credibility to discussions about racial and cultural literacy in educational spaces.

It was good. And EduColor accomplishments are notable: speaking out on harsh and racially disparate discipline, tackling Jordan Davis or Ferguson and Mike Brown in classrooms, speaking out when NYC teachers wore “Thank You NYPD” t-shirts, and organizing against a Virginia school district that wanted to charge Black teens with felonies for a senior prank. There are many more examples of this coalition – this collective – coming together to spark discussion and take action on educational injustices. I’ve always been deeply proud and humbled to be a part of a grassroots activist space that intentionally set out to be a haven from the dysfunctional, marginalizing, hostile spaces so many of us worked within.

But regrettably, EduColor Movement has replicated the same institutional behaviors. On Saturday, I resigned from EduColor. I sent a letter to the general membership explaining how EduColor has become a collective without a collective soul for me. I spoke my truth, though in the intervening days more questions have surfaced. So for those sincerely interested in knowing what I’ve experienced, please read on.

From the beginning, the founder’s drive and devotion contributed to this movement. I’ve always respected his hustle and ingenuity. I also respected his wisdom in knowing that growing a collective is not a solitary enterprise. From its original days—when the handful of us included three Black women and two men of color—EduColor’s resourcefulness, fuel, and fire has mostly come from women of color. The collective was built and grown with the time, energy, passions, and unpaid labor of women of color. But disappointingly, as EduColor expanded, what the founder has called “growing pains” in all candor was individuals grasping for social capital and ego gratification—with myself and another woman of color as the collateral damage.

EduColor became known for its ability to prod others to have difficult and crucial conversations. But we abdicated our duty to do the same within the EduColor collective. An ill-defined advisory committee—of which I was a member—remained silent as the founder made unilateral decisions, including decisions that silenced and marginalized women of color in leadership. EduColor has now lost two dedicated members within months. The loss of Rusul Alrubail, a loyal EduColor member who sat on the advisory team, symbolizes the harmful impact of steamrolling over peers and disregarding consensus. And I emphasize impact—because regardless of one’s intentions, two women of color walked away from interactions feeling erased and disrespected by the group’s founder. And once that’s brought to your attention, and you fail to reflect and readjust, the only conclusion can be that this is intentional. That it’s not a flaw in leadership style, but a feature.

As things turned bad, I challenged my fellow advisory members to be the leadership team the collective deserved—to hold each other accountable, to lead with integrity, to adopt norms and bylaws and a democratic construct to guide the group’s operations. I owned my part in not speaking up when I should have – and I committed to do better. And all of this was met mostly with silence. Everyone in EduColor is a volunteer – and people have busy lives, myself included. Additionally, there are any number of reasons for why people can be silent in online spaces. But when “leaders” remain mostly silent in the midst of misogynoir and sexism it’s not normal – and when peers remain silent on this matter and willingly engage online at other times, the busyness of life is a convenient excuse—what’s being practiced is selective silence and a lack of conviction. I stepped out to challenge the group’s status quo. In service of a stronger, more just EduColor, I directly and unflinchingly challenged the founder and our processes – and the reward was becoming his target.

As the ugly surfaced, he intentionally ignored my inquiries in group discussions. My work in the group – on our monthly chats and in other ways – was intentionally overlooked and disregarded. And when I sparked a discussion about the erasure of women of color as it relates to press coverage of the movement—and a scholar subsequently published a blog post recognizing EduColor women of color – myself (and others) were accused on a general membership communication list of “overshadowing” the male founder. With the founder’s tacit endorsement. Through his public and less visible actions, I was reduced to a detractor, when I’ve always been a builder and edifier – and I was cast as divisive, when I’ve always been explicit and transparent with both my rejoicing of and critiques of this movement. The sincerity of communication I shared with others was not shown to me.

With all of this, it should come as no surprise that I resigned. Who would want to stay in such a space? I’ve lost faith in the founder. I’ve lost faith in the advisory committee. I’ve lost faith that me beating a solo drum for a democratically operated and controlled group is the path forward for EduColor, especially when silence has been the most dominant element within the space for much too long. But some faith remains—that EduColor members who truly believe in just social movements will bring your fierceness, fearlessness, and unapologetic drive and energy to righting what is wrong within the EduColor movement. Not only through norms, bylaws, and structures that I championed – but through empathy and compassion, and being present for and to each other.

With love. Salute.

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Reminiscent of Groundhog Day, some education discussions just seem to resurface, again and again. The state of teacher education is one of those.

In April, I had the privilege of speaking at the annual American Educational Research Association conference, where I participated in a presidential session that aimed to challenge the public and policy discourses surrounding teacher education—by featuring the work of four equity-minded teacher educators and scholars from across the country: Elizabeth M. Dutro, University of Colorado Boulder; Antero Garcia, Colorado State University; Bettina L. Love, University of Georgia; and Bree Picower, Montclair State University.

I offered some thoughts on the future of teacher education. Here’s what I said.

Good morning.

As a writer, I enjoy metaphors. They allow for creativity, and nuance, and imagery. Metaphors can make complicated concepts more accessible, and add depth to your writing. And successful metaphors conjure up mental pictures that are vivid – and sometimes unforgettable.

So I’d like to invite you to think of teacher education not as a beleaguered system that deals with the study of teaching … and the learning process … and its application – but rather as a much-maligned reptile.

Teacher education – like crocodiles – generally suffers from bad press. Although revered in some quarters, the mere mention of teacher education – like crocodiles – can evoke negative sentiments. And over time, the prevailing narrative surrounding teacher education becomes so ingrained in our minds – like crocodiles – that some begin to call for drastic measures, even elimination.

But metaphors can be tricky. Basically, not all metaphors are created equal. The best ones not only enhance our understanding of the topic at hand, they help us grasp associations and characteristics we might have overlooked.

The photojournals from Antero, Bettina, Bree, and Elizabeth offer a strong and powerful image for teacher education’s future. So perhaps it’s helpful for us all to think of teacher education not as a crocodile, but rather as a system on the brink of a revolution.

What I see in the pictorial displays – and what I hear in the video and audio – is a promising and underutilized path – a strategy that can effectively disrupt the hegemonic whiteness that supports the current system of teacher education, and that informs how pre-service teachers are currently prepared and inducted into the profession.

And it’s the perfect time – considering the magnitude of demographic changes now underway. A few years ago, AACTE conducted a comprehensive analysis of data collected from nearly all of its more than 800 teacher preparation program members. The findings are startling, but not surprising: classrooms are growing more racially and ethnically diverse, while those leading classrooms remain predominately white.

According to the data, 82 percent of bachelor’s degrees in education are awarded to white students. Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American teaching candidates were each in the single digits. This is contrasted against the rapidly changing racial and ethnic makeup of public school students – more than half of public school students today are non-white, and according to the Census Bureau, by around 2020, non-white children will make up more than half of Americans under the age of 18.

Against this shifting landscape, we have teacher educators like our presenters who are upending the model for teacher education. With laser-like precision, they are demonstrating how equity and social justice and excellence can work in harmony – and be elevated to an imperative. Through their work and scholarship, the aim is not to reform teacher education, but to revolutionize it – not to tweak, but to transform.

Author, historian, and journalist Lerone Bennett, Jr. – a shrewd observer of American society and its racial injustices – had a piercing take on the teaching profession that immediately comes to mind as I reflect on the presenters’ journals. The photojournals capture the lives and the work of teacher educators as liberators. Any discussion on teacher education and scholarship that fails to include the intersection of race, culture, and opportunity cannot build a road map to the future.

Allowing for the trends I noted, for the foreseeable future, the teachers in our public schools will be primarily white and middle-class. And because of widespread housing and school segregation, they themselves will have likely lived in primarily white neighborhoods and attended primarily white schools.

Today, these prospective teachers enter preparation programs and complete their schooling without ever having their ingrained and widely-accepted beliefs about the students they’ll be teaching challenged or even questioned. And let’s be frank – it’s not just white teachers. The same applies to aspiring teachers of color as well. Because as people of color we also can internalize ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that mire us in our own oppression.

The quarterly magazine Rethinking Schools incisively describes the work that must be embraced in teacher education. Changing the dominant narrative requires changing the way that teacher educators teach – which the photojournals illustrate – as well as changing the way that teacher education research and scholarship is used to inform policymakers and the public.

To influence and sway opinion means writing not to impress and dazzle your colleagues – who already have an established interest in the topic – but writing clear and readable materials for a general audience. It means producing works – in written or other formats – that challenge established thinking and practices – and therefore have the capacity to generate new visions and directions. And that doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your work – as evidenced by the work of our presenters, which is rigorous and insightful.

What I see in their pursuits is what all education research should be: fresh and inviting, with a real-world connection that underscores its relevance and validity.

Teacher education needs to show that you have some skin in the game. Countless time, energy, and resources are spent trying to improve the field of teaching to meet the needs of a growing, diverse student populace – and no one wants to speak the words “race” or “culture” or “racism.” That’s a shell-game and not a solution.

In my research for this session, I came across a piece in the journal “Teaching Education” written by Cheryl Matias, an assistant professor in urban teacher education at University of Colorado Denver. True to form, it seemed to have caused quite a firestorm, because the article expressed some seldom-heard, and for too many, difficult-to-accept truths.

In the journal, she describes whiteness as a disease —emphasizing that a colorblind society is impossible in the United States. She stresses that we can’t even begin to address the education debt – commonly referred to as the racial achievement gap – without addressing the underlying maladies of racism and whiteness. And she calls on schools of education to own and prioritize this work before teaching novices land in classrooms.

I found her words very illuminating – and for me it encapsulates the real test ahead for schools of education.

Teacher education programs must actively engage preservice teachers in the work of unpacking and reassembling how race, ethnicity, culture, language, and social class manifest in schools, in their students’ lives, and in the communities in which they are privileged to teach. And I reiterate – privileged. Because as a parent, I turn my most-prized and treasured asset over to teachers every day.

Teacher education can recreate what teaching practice looks like, re-envisioning the role of teachers and schools in historically marginalized communities. You have the tools and the means to create schools where social, political and economic equality is fostered and nurtured and grown.

Can you enthusiastically and openly move in this direction? The presenters here today show me it’s possible. Let’s make it permanent.

Thank you.

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History reveals a long-standing tradition of student activism in education. Young people, often high school students, mobilizing and organizing their peers to create change. Courageous youth leaders demanding that those most affected by education policy and politics have their voices heard and respected. My interest in student activism predates my latest piece in The Atlantic. With a wave of protests rolling across college campuses, however, it’s timely to revisit the other student activists spearheading movements.

More than 50 years later movements for racial and educational justice are once again building momentum. A surge of student activism has swept across academia in recent weeks as black students and their allies forcefully call attention to racist climates on American college campuses. And even as some college-student leaders cite the Black Lives Matter social-justice movement as their inspiration, what’s happening in higher education is being matched by younger peers. High-school youth are flexing their collective muscles for equity: fighting budget cuts and out-of-school suspensions as they take on racial issues and academic offerings.

2012 paper on youth and social movements, a collaboration between Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation and Harvard University’s Berkman Center, found young people to be powerful agents for social change, crediting undocumented-youth sit-ins for convincing President Obama to grant DREAMers a reprieve from deportation in 2012. The paper’s author writes of youth activists primed to “call out or identify systems of oppression, speak up, and mobilize their peers.”

Read more.

(Photo: Liz Hafalia, San Francisco Chronicle)

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The concepts contained in words like ‘freedom,’, ‘justice,’ ‘democracy’ are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.
–James Baldwin, “The Crusade of Indignation

Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced slavery as a “cruel war against human nature.” Mind you this rousing language was written by a man who owned slaves. Anyway, Jefferson’s paragraph on slavery never made it into the final Declaration of Independence because slave-owning delegates from the South and delegates with business ties to the slave trade from the North debated Jefferson’s passage and stripped this language.

Let’s just stipulate for the record that America’s Independence Day – celebrating “freedom” and “democracy” – is rife with hypocrisy and cowardly logic. Frederick Douglass peeped it and called it out in 1852. All of this history is an interesting sidebar to fully grasping what occurred last weekend as a room of about 7,000 educators in Florida tried to reconcile their principles with their practices.

The nation’s largest teachers union on July 3 unanimously approved a measure to combat institutional racism, “taking a historically bold stand against racism and hate.” Channeling the country’s Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, it was a powerful moment of righteousness and justice. But like Baldwin noted, true justice requires “enormous…individual effort” and like the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the NEA delegates on July 4, 2015 came up short.

First up was an item calling on NEA to “support…efforts to remove the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy from public schools and public spaces.” The ensuing debate reminded me of a game of Twister. Clutching and grabbing at any excuse not to ban the Confederate flag and racist symbols that glorify slavery and oppression – while looking desperately for a comfortable and steady position to land.

Some of those in attendance, and some watching online, had profound observations. Like Baldwin’s essay, so clear and uncomplicated.

After about a two hour debate “and other symbols of the Confederacy” was stricken from the item. A great public school for every student is the Association’s vision – though if you’re one of the thousands of Black students forced to attend a school honoring racist leaders, it might not be so great. Oh well.

Over the next couple days the assembled educators flirted between flashes of consciousness and backpedaling from / equivocating on actions that would show their institutional racism vote signaled a new way of thinking and doing. Based on the NEA’s elected representatives who gathered in Orlando, the jury is out on whether the union can “move to confront racism” and “demand changes to policies, programs, and practices that condone or ignore unequal treatment,” as cited on NEAToday.org.

What appears obvious is that NEA members have an opportunity to put some teeth to anti-racism work or leave it untouched on the plate. Over a year ago I challenged educators to step up and address racial injustice. It’s still your move.