We, the Executive Board of the Critical Educators for Social Justice (CESJ) special interest group (SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), stand in solidarity with communities working to challenge racism. Based on recent grand juries failure to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and as educators committed to equity and justice, we feel a responsibility to take a formal stance against the anti-blackness that plagues our schools, justice system, and society. The events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York provide two examples of blatant racial injustice woven into the fabric of the United States. Even since the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, we have seen multiple cases of unarmed Black youth shot and killed by the police, including twelve-year-old Tamir Rice.
Our SIG has, at its heart and in our mission, a commitment to “the struggle for social justice, human rights, and democracy in education for diverse communities.” This includes a challenge to the ongoing and systemic racial oppression that we see in Ferguson and beyond. As critical education scholars, we must recognize the socializing message of this callous disregard of Black lives. We have a responsibility to reframe the discussion and illuminate that #BlackLivesMatter. We cannot afford to stay silent.
We also recognize that the academy itself perpetuates messages of racism and other forms of structural oppression of marginalized groups. We are all implicated. We urge the academic community to use their tools of power and privilege to speak and act out against continued injustices in our nation. From writing and teaching, to organizing and marching in the streets, there are many ways to voice our opposition. We believe that education is a critical component of speaking truth to power and working to dismantle oppressive systems and structures. As our CESJ mission states, “we believe that education, as a form of critical understanding, plays a crucial role in transforming society.”
Building on the ideological and political intervention the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as on the public solidarity statements from several faculty at Smith College and Portland State University, we commit to the following and encourage our communities to:
The Executive Board of the Critical Educators for Social Justice SIG
Rita Kohli, Ph.D., Co-Chair
University of California, Riverside
Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Ph.D, Co-Chair
Michigan State University
Bianca Baldridge, Ph.D. Communications Co-Chair
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Katy Swalwell, Ph.D., Communications Co-Chair
Iowa State University
Keisha Green, Ph.D., Fiscal Co-Chair
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
La Mont Terry, Ph.D., Fiscal Co-Chair
Nicholas Hartlep, Ph.D., Program Co-Chair
Illinois State University
Cleveland Hayes, Ph.D., Program Co-Chair
University of La Verne
For the past two weeks, I’ve been wondering what exactly I want to say in this post. I’ve psyched myself into thinking that this is a big deal for me. I am, at least in the field in which we work, a “nobody”. I have done nothing of note. I have neither won any prestigious awards nor published in any journals or books. I have not earned any fellowships. As a matter of fact, were it not for my advisor willing to take a risk on me as a student, I would not even be continuing my education - at least not in this formal sense.
Needless to say, writing this has made me nervous because I have perceived it, rightly or wrongly, at my first shot at finally doing what I have always wanted to do: be heard. And now, in my first moment of triumph, I find myself, poetically, at a loss for words - or at least having trouble in finding the right words. Ironically enough, I think that “finding the right words” perfectly encapsulates my evolving concern with the way that justice is spoken about.
Anger served as a key motivation for coming back to grad school. I was angry that my student’s brilliance would not be recognized because it could not be quantified on any state test. I was angry because I succeeded in a system built to foster talents like mine while my older brother, eternally wiser than I could ever wish to be, was deemed a failure by unfair measures and, after serving 8 years in the military, was discarded with no assistance, job prospects or preparation for reentering the education system. I was angry that while my younger brother made it into all his dream schools, he was barred entry because of finances. I was angry that my sister was being provided a criminally bad education and that nothing was being done to change that. Most of all, I was angry because unless I or one of my siblings succeeded in this education and financial system, my parents would never have the better life they were promised when they moved to this country.
I am not alone in using anger as my motivation. I would venture to guess that most people do. The anger in the room at the Critical Educators for Social Justice group meeting in Philadelphia this year seemed palpable. We spoke in terms of “sides” and “battles”. We spoke about what we had to do to “win this fight”. I listened in on conversations about finding allies and ignoring those who push against you. In much of the writing about social justice in education, authors use the same violent, military metaphors.
When we speak about justice with such vitriol, what are we really talking about? The answer seems to be vengeance.
When we use terms such as “warrior”, “the right side”, “battlefield”, and “war”, we fall into the trap that education is a place where there should be winners and losers. We too quickly equate ideas and forces with actual people and in doing so strip them of their humanity.
This language of violence and battle implies a lack of love or, at the very least, a lack of confidence in the power of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Especially within the field of education, we need to move away from framing anything we do in terms of battle, in terms of winners and losers, and especially in terms of vengeance. I am not claiming that every idea has some intrinsic value or that everyone should be allowed to do what they want, but every opinion must be heard. I think peoples’ default response to this claim would be to bring up hate speech and the terrible effects it has on people, both emotionally and physically - but even hate speech contains value in that we learn from it examples of how far the human spirit can lean in the direction of evil, how easily corruptible we are and provides opportunities to show how far the human spirit can lean in the other direction in response. There are lessons to be learned from all speech and all examples and if we truly claim to be seekers of justice, then we should also, as educators, model what that justice looks like.
Far too often, I find myself speaking in terms of battle, war, and violence. At times, I yearn for debate and argument because I want to show “the other side” how much smarter I am. I want to embarrass them through logic and I want them to submit to my ideals. Other times, I want the opposition to win because I want something to fight against. I fear that if I don’t have something to fight against, then my life will have no purpose. And occasionally, I want to fight to silence the people who disagree with me. Still, is it just to silence any voice or does that set an unwanted precedent?
We should be careful, then, to not make the mistake of attempting to silence the voice of others as our voices grow stronger. We cannot brush aside the opinions and thoughts of those who disagree with us. We cannot mock them or treat them as an enemy or speak of them as though they were ignorant. There is a sense to their thoughts. For example, I used to feel intense anger when I argued with my father about politics. He would speak to me about my youth and tell me that I would eventually change my mind as I grew older. He would tell me, and at times still does, to worry about nothing but making enough money. That money should be not the only but at least a principal guide in all my career decisions. I felt like he didn’t understand me and was not listening to my thoughts. I came to realize that while he may or may not truly listen to me, I never really truly attempted to listen to him, at least not what lay behind his words. He lived through a time of dictatorship and disaster in Central America. He saw groups come in and promise democracy and power for them only to rescind on those promises and promote their own well being at the expense of the people. His world is one where money equals power and choice - two things that were actively taken from him for most of his life. When I came to understand this, I was able to better understand and communicate with him when we spoke about politics and the future and solutions. We should focus not on our differences but on our similarities and start our search for justice from that place of compassion, cooperation and love.
I think many of us, myself included, simply want to be heard, to have a voice in the matter - and I think that is no different for those people whom we are so used to considering our enemies.
This is not easy and I do not claim to have it figured out. I reside as far from my own ideals as any other person, and it is still difficult for me to not think or write in terms of vengeance. But we must at least try to think and write and live by words of love, acceptance, compassion, and, most of all, forgiveness. We must be careful with the words we use and not allow our anger or our flesh memory to get the better of us. I would never suggest that we should forget and move on without dealing with the past, but rather that we should forgive and learn, the same way we as educators or parents would want our students or children to act if some ill befell them due to another.
The power of words is that they create feelings and stir actions and if we do not rectify the way we speak and write we will only succeed in creating a world where we constantly hate one another. We should seek to build alliances across ideology and resist the temptation to stick to any dogma.
I believe James Baldwin said it best when writing to his nephew on the centennial of emancipation; “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it”. Acceptance, cooperation, and understanding are key, especially in our roles as educators. If we simply seek retribution, that will only lead to another group seeking more vengeance on us. Revolution is cyclical by definition – what we need is evolution and the acceptance of the idea that we can all move forward together as humanity.
Daniel Vivas is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. His work revolves around redefining justice using teachers' and students' voices. Originally from Miami, Daniel was a public school teacher for several years in New York City.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We invited Dave Stovall to write a post for The Scholactivist because of his longtime activism and scholarship related to social justice. In 2014, the CESJ SIG honored him with its Scholar Activist Award at the AERA Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.
I always crack a joke with all of my students, from high school to graduate school, that I am fearful that after having class with me they will either feel ridiculously angry, ridiculously depressed or both. Continuing my unrest, I often tell them I fear them running out of class yelling, “We’re all gonna die!”
Even though this is more reflective of my irrational fear, I have to come to grips with something: these are serious times we’re living in. From the low-level extortion known as the Educational Teacher Performance Assessment (EdTPA), to the school-to-prison pipeline, to other forms of structured state violence, it’s not all good in our respective locales.
In the same vein, I also do not want to offer a collective eulogy to colleges of education or the work of the scholar-activist. Instead, I think this current moment is like having a bare-knuckle fight with an adversary in a phone booth: there is little room for error and explicit, unfettered human will is the most precious resource at your disposal. While some may think this viewpoint to be extreme, I offer the collective educational narratives of New Orleans (chartering an entire district), Chicago (150-plus school closures or turnarounds since 2004), and Philadelphia (almost 50 school closures in two years) to provide the potential to be victorious in the conflict. Low-income/working class families of color are fighting for their collective lives in the aforementioned places.
Because they are, as people who make the claim of “scholar activist” or “warrior scholar,” I think there are a few things we need to ponder moving forward. Again, the issue is not to offer a “how-to” guide. In order to support community-driven efforts through listening, engaging, and then our research, the following points suggest a return to the practice of the organizers, peacemakers and freedom fighters that come before us.
Be humble. This is often understated. If you are coming into a space where people are unfamiliar with you, do not assume you know anything about the conditions in that particular locale. Instead, operate with the understanding that you probably don’t know a damn thing. Because you don’t, the best you can do is introduce yourself, ask for permission to ask questions and be quiet afterwards.
Seek support and be willing to support. The unmitigated abuse of graduate students must effectively end. The façade of neoliberal, competition-based research is more prone to further exploit populations than it is to bring them equitable opportunities. If you know of a grad student that’s suffering, reach out to them. For grad students who are experiencing this dynamic, understand that there are those and those like you that will affirm your sanity. The simple practices of writing, eating and talking together as graduate students are critical for a healthy existence moving forward. The challenge is not to forget this when you become a faculty member.
Build political clarity. By political clarity, I mean the ability to analyze, understand, and move based on the work we do in solidarity with those experiencing injustice. If you are making the intentional effort to work with communities that are engaged in a fight for their right to quality education and to live free of persecution, you have engaged in a deeply political act. It is nothing to run from. It should be embraced. Struggle is not an empty verb. It is reflective of the real-life conditions that people engage along the lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Instead of a ‘lone-ranger’ mentality, we need to embrace one that is collective in nature, taking to heart the suggestions of Audre Lourde, Gloria Anzaldua, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Laura Pulido. In their lessons is the challenge of thinking about research beyond the accolades of the academy. For my own work, political clarity comes about through an intentional attempt to answer the questions “Why” and “For What?” To some, this may appear simplistic. In the end, however, these simple questions allow us to make the necessary informed decisions as to whether or not we will continue the insidious practice of research “on” communities. An intentional interruption to the White, Western-European colonial narrative is part and parcel of the political act centered in justice instead of personal gain.
As always, I hope this makes sense. If it doesn’t, I take full responsibility for my mistakes.
Check out Dr. Stovall's interview "The Facts and Failures of Education" with The Nation.
David Omotoso Stovall, Ph.D. is an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois - Chicago. His "scholactivist" work centers around critical race theory, school-community relationships, youth culture, and the relationship between housing and K-12 schooling. He has been an active member of the CESJ SIG for many years. For more information about Dr. Stovall's research and activism, please see his UIC College of Education bio page.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We invited Beth to write the inaugural post for The Scholactivist because her dissertation, "Raising Citizens or Raising Test Scores? Teach For America and “No Excuses” Charter Schools in Post-Katrina School Reform” was honored with the 2014 CESJ SIG's Outstanding Dissertation Award. Her work represents the newest wave of scholars hoping to link their research and their activism in powerful ways. As a recent PhD graduate, Beth writes about her attempts to code switch among her "many voices" - an experience that will ring true for many of us. Please read her full post and take a moment to share your own stories about using your "many voices" in the comments section below.
MY MANY VOICES
II originally came to academia not because I necessarily wanted to be an academic but because I was angry and confused. After about eight years working in public education, it had become increasingly clear to me that schooling for low-income, students of color had become a numbers game. Standardized tests, ostensibly developed as a proxy by which to measure student learning, seemed to have become the purpose for schooling itself. I could not understand how seemingly well-intentioned people were willing to trust in and play along. I returned to graduate school in hopes of developing the language and framework to understand and speak to this problem and to hopefully gain the credentials that would allow me to be heard by people who are making policy decisions.
For context, I first entered the field of education through the organization Teach For America (TFA). I applied for TFA in 2002 because as a college student, TFA recruiters convinced me that they would prepare me to be a highly effective teacher in a school and district that greatly needed the expertise of people like me; inexperienced, untrained, recent college graduates. I was young, disturbed about the education inequities I had recently been made aware of in a college course, and looking for something meaningful to do after graduation.
Over my two years in TFA in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I developed a number of lasting concerns. While this was before the charterization of urban school districts and prior to TFA’s conjoining with market based reforms, there was intensive pressure in these early years of NCLB, to produce test scores at any cost. These pressures came from the school in which I worked but even more so from TFA, whose training focused primarily on classroom management, assessment, and an ideology that conflated my students’ test scores, my own self-worth, and the rhetoric of social justice. It was difficult to implement these pedagogies while still developing meaningful relationships and honoring my students’ culture, identity, and humanity. I grew wary as I watched a number of my peers misrepresent or inflate their students’ successes in ways that seemed both conscious and subconscious.
Through my subsequent experiences working in schools and in my graduate studies, I came to realize that TFA is not only an ineffective Band-Aid effort, but is also deeply implicated and central to the neoliberal overhaul of public education that all but suffocates the social justice and democratic purposes of schooling. The organization has done an unparalleled job of recruiting recent college graduates, capitalizing on these grads’ passions for ending educational inequity, and training them to believe that market-based policies and pedagogies that increase test scores are in service of social justice.
I realized that I had a particular privilege and responsibility, as a former TFA teacher, to speak out and investigate further. In my dissertation study, I spent a year researching TFA affiliated, “No Excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, a city that has become, since Hurricane Katrina, an experimental laboratory for market-based policies and a campground for TFA teachers to develop.
Throughout my research, I met a number of people who, like me, had deep concerns about neoliberalism, market-based reform, and the role of TFA. As a graduate student, I had organized a number of film screenings to encourage public debate about current trends in education reform. I wanted to do something similar on a national scale specific to people’s growing concerns about TFA. Along with my friend and colleague Kerry Kretchmar, we decided to hold the “Organizing Resistance to TFA and their Role in Privatization” at the biannual Free Minds Free People conference, a national event convened by the Education for Liberation Network. We invited parents and activists Ashana Bigard and Ruth Idakula, veteran teacher Stephanie Anders, and TFA affiliates Hannah Sadtler, Derek Roguski, Hannah Price, and Rebecca Radding, most of whom I had met through my research in New Orleans to collaborate in organizing the event. We hoped to bring together the voices of all of those who were concerned, raise public awareness, and hopefully shift the conversation in the media. [For media coverage of this event, check out Valerie Strauss' blog in the Washington Post, this article in Popular Resistance, an article in The Progressive's Public School Shakedown series about the TFA Truth Squad, and this Truthout report. For updates on the group's work and additional resources, check out the Resistance to TFA Facebook page.]
I learned a lot through this process that I will continue to reflect on. In simplest of terms, I learned that I had, in fact, learned the academic language too well. As scholars, we have been trained to speak with authority, construct soundproof arguments, reference empirical research, and show up with a structured agenda. Those with whom I collaborated helped me to realize that this language, in fact, silences people, disenfranchises the voices and experiences of those who are most deeply affected by neoliberal reform, and ultimately limits the potential impact of an event. Instead, they reminded me of what I had known intuitively before enrolling in graduate school and in fact came to graduate school to explore. Relationships matter, relationships take time, people appreciate and connect more to stories than data, and are more able to engage in conversation when everyone is using language that everyone can access. As a scholar activist, I want to push the academy to shift their language to that which is accessible to everyone, and in the meantime, I will continue to learn how to code-switch between the multiple communities with whom I engage.
I have just moved to North Carolina for my first faculty position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Elementary Education at North Carolina State University. I am excited about my new position and the promise of continuing to explore my research interests. I am also anxious about how I will balance the publishing requirements of a tenure track position with my commitment to publishing for mass consumption and the community collaboration that fuels and fulfills me. I am committed to continuing to work alongside the incredible and inspiring people I have met in New Orleans, but I also hope that I will begin to develop connections and learn from the many people who are working to challenge the issues that ail my new state, one which has waged a war on public education, assaulted voting rights, and continues to contribute to the school to prison pipeline by being one of two states that prosecutes 16 and 17 year olds as adults.
I am still finding my many voices. I can only imagine that this will become increasingly more challenging as the pressures of the academy intensify and as I engage with more people. I hope to do this by continuing to stay connected to and work alongside those who are most directly affected by educational policy decisions; teachers, parents, and students. I hope that in doing this I will not lose the voice that feels the most natural for me to speak about the things that concern me the most; educational equity and social justice.
Beth Sondel is an Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 and has been a CESJ SIG member for several years. She is pictured above protesting at the Wisconsin state capitol against Governor Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill that effectively stripped public sector unions of their right to collectively bargain in the spring of 2011.
To help build community and connections among our members, we are starting a monthly "Member Spotlight" feature called THE SCHOLACTIVIST. In addition to a short bio, we will ask the member to write a short essay related to social justice and critical education. We have such a great community of over 500 scholars, researchers, educators, and activists that this is sure to be an interesting read. Please check back in November for our first official feature.
Who are scholactivists? They are scholars concerned with linking their critical research with social justice activism. The authors of the essays found here are all members of the CESJ SIG.