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Equity & Diversity Opinion

It’s Time to Move Beyond Buzzwords and Radically Re-imagine Schools

By Jamilah Pitts — June 16, 2020 5 min read
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Educators have to move beyond the buzzwords and trends circulating today if we are seeking to truly transform schools. The terms “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” simply are not enough. And I fear now that the radicalism tied to anti-racist work is being watered down. Educational trendy buzzwords pave a destructive road for the commodification of otherwise transformative action. This era of “trendiness” is a distraction from the truth of how we got here: intentionally crafted systems of oppression that have sustained inequity in this country. Trends and buzzwords are lukewarm substitutes that may lead to temporary and surface-level shifts but will not lead to unequivocal, long-lasting, systematic change.

The lynching of Black bodies, the rioting, and the increasing number of Black deaths due to COVID-19 still, always, and once again point to racism and a long, deliberate history of systematic oppression and destruction. As the great author James Baldwin explained, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” Therefore, the steps that we must all seek to take, the work that we must teach our children to do and hold our neighbors accountable for doing, is the lifelong and generational work of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and intersectional justice.

“Intersectionality,” a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, acknowledges the multiple and overlapping forms of oppression that an individual can experience at once. Poor, Black, queer women, for example, experience oppression stemming from racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Understanding anti-racism is crucial and essential in order to destroy and dismantle racist systems. In order to ensure effective transformation and liberation, however, schools ought to consider an approach to justice that seeks to eradicate all forms of oppression. The police killings of Black women and men and the disproportionate numbers of Black deaths linked to coronavirus are profound, historic, and are tied to deliberate and calculated structures that have long been set up to destroy Black life; thus, our responses as educators must be premeditated and deliberate. We must dig in beyond an embrace of what feels like a trendy moment.

In my work with schools, the question often arises around where to begin. My answer remains the same: Peel back the layers, understand and study how racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression work, identify how they impact school systems and your schools, and then respond from that place. Without an understanding of how racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression are perpetuated, many educators are exhausted by their frustrated attempts to combat the many problems that plague their schools that serve predominantly poor Black and Brown students. Educator and author Bettina L. Love refers to this as “radical dreaming” or “radically reimagining” schools so that educators and school leaders do more than just create a space where Black students merely survive.

Educators might begin by implementing the models of excellence that Black educators, leaders, and thinkers have employed historically to achieve liberation through education. In her book, Cultivating Genius, Gholdy Muhammad writes that the Black Literary Societies of the 1800s should be a model for how educators approach literacy instruction for Black and Brown students. The Freedom Schools (free schools established for Black students in the 1960s in order to prepare Black students to advance the goals of the civil rights movement) are models of what it means to educate for liberation. The Freedom Schools, still in existence today, offer a model on how to cultivate the excellence and genius that already exist in our children in order to prepare them to be active participants in a society designed to destroy them.

Additionally, educators should also research and read about the ideas and practices of Black educators and thinkers, such as Mary McLeod Bethune; Anna Julia Cooper; Carter G. Woodson, the author of The Mis-Education of the Negro; and activist and organizer Ella Baker, to develop an understanding of how to effectively teach Black children. This is essential, especially for White teachers of Black and Brown students. Historical models and examples exist on how to critically and effectively teach children of color in a world that seeks to dehumanize them. Educators have to be willing to study educational and liberatory practices that depart from White dominance and honor Black excellence and beauty. This is a part of what I imagine Carrie Mae Weems, the visual artist, meant when she said there are “other models by which to live.”

It is not possible for educators today, particularly educators of Black and Brown children to naively believe that White, patriarchal, and classist approaches to educating our children will yield anything different, or any good thing for that matter. To believe that the master’s tools will dismantle the master’s house, the late writer and activist Audre Lorde reminds us, is foolish. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game,” she cautions, “but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Educators must also acknowledge the roles of Black wellness and Black joy in the resistance. Resistance work is traumatic for the oppressed, so wellness and joy must also be prioritized. For Black people, wellness and joy and anti-oppression and resistance are not mutually exclusive concepts. This is how we have survived. But people should not have to die in order to incite change. Our Black and Brown children have to be reminded of their right to be here, their beauty, their right to dream, and their right to care for themselves.

What is clear is that we cannot return to normalcy. We cannot rush through trends and buzzwords that make it seem like we are creating immediate change to get to some kind of “finish line.” There has to be a complete shift that recognizes that to teach well is to emancipate, heal, resist, and love our children entirely. Schools nurture our children, and so we must do better.

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