Healing Through Grassroots Social Justice Movements Created for Educators, by Educators

Farima Pour-Khorshid, assistant professor of Teacher Education, writes about Bay Area social justice movements in education and their impact as a researcher and educator.

T4SJ participants on stairs

Over the past seven years, I’ve felt honored to organize with the Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) in San Francisco. I initially heard about the T4SJ annual conference back in October of 2012 during a time that I was desperately searching for intellectual and emotional support in my practice. To give some context, I had just returned abruptly to California after living and teaching in Nicaragua for two years because my brother, Mazyar Pour-Khorshid Jr., died unexpectedly just after his twenty-fifth birthday. I was struggling with my mental health, and the pain of that tragedy felt all-encompassing. Yet, despite my grief, I started a PhD program and also returned to teach part-time in my Bay Area community two months later. I figured that the busier I was, the less time I had for depression. That year I remember crying regularly in my classroom during recesses, lunch breaks, and after school. The reality was that my teacher education program did not equip me with knowledge or resources to know how to cope through personal and second-hand trauma as a teacher and I felt overwhelmed.

Beyond my personal struggles, I was constantly reminded of my unhealed trauma from my K-12 schooling experiences within the same district that I was teaching in. I felt triggered each time I witnessed students of color being either spoken about or treated in dehumanizing ways. Mandatory district sponsored teacher professional development and school collaboration meetings added layers of frustration to my experience because I began to realize how my professional learning maintained white supremacy. I began to feel like I was part of the problem, because after all, I was an actor within a system that was fundamentally toxic and inequitable in its very design.

I attended the T4SJ annual conference in October of 2012 after having a conversation with a community-based educator at my school. I left the conference feeling so inspired by all of the teachers and organizers that I met, the radical workshop topics, social justice resources and by the collectivism that permeated every conversation and space I was part of throughout the day. I decided to sign up for a monthly drop-in meeting the following month. I attended and felt rejuvenated by the level of commitment that these educators demonstrated after a long school day as they learned about and critically analyzed a range of problematic issues within education. In so doing, they revealed an impressive depth of knowledge that I had been hungry for since I entered the profession.

My involvement within the organization allowed me to conceptualize my research as meaningfully embedded in my practice and in solidarity with other educators in the field. T4SJ shifted my purpose in my practice as a public school educator, my trajectory as a doctoral student, and my activism as a grassroots organizer. For example, the more I reflected on some of my own racialized and gendered traumatic experiences, the more I began to think about what healing could look like within our organization and across education spaces. I wondered about how T4SJ could offer support, and I proposed creating a racial affinity group within the organization, especially because I yearned for that kind of space in order to sustain myself in the field. Two other T4SJ comrades of color, Karen Zapata and Chela Delgado, joined me in this endeavor and led us to cultivate a sacred space named H.E.L.L.A., a racial affinity group to support critical educators of Color. Being that we are situated within the Bay Area, centering the word hella was an important identity signifier and served as our acronym for our group’s political and pedagogical commitments to healing, empowerment, love, liberation and action (H.E.L.L.A.). Our approach has been rooted in healing centered engagement, which was influenced by the work I was doing with my mentor, Dr. Shawn Ginwright and the Flourish Agenda team. Our approach to collective healing is grounded in the power of our counternarrives as we’ve engaged deeply in Testimonio as Radical Story-Telling and Creative Resistance for sustainability in our work.

My involvement and leadership within T4SJ over time led to my involvement in other grassroots activist collectives like the Bay Area chapter of the People’s Education Movement which our very own Dr. Patrick Camangian cofounded. I also became a board member within the national Education for Liberation Network, which organizes Free Minds Free People, a grassroots national conference that brings together teachers, young people, researchers, parents and community-based activists/educators from across the country to build a movement to develop and promote education as a tool for liberation.  Collectively, we see activism as a shared struggle for human being which is essentially the “struggle for the inalienable right of all people to human be—to be liberated from any project of violence that treats persons as property, persons as things, persons as disposable, or persons as in any other way less than fully human” (p. 247). This struggle is also connected to building movements to end the prison industrial complex in our schools, the movement for ethnic studies, healing justice and more.

All of the justice-oriented liberatory education collectives that I have been part of have supported and matured my politic of radical teacher learning and support. My scholarship is deeply rooted in and emergent from these relationships with educators and activists as we collectively navigate structural violence in and out of educational spaces. I think it is critical for educators and educational researchers, spanning any level of their career, to be involved in liberatory education organizations. We are teaching, organizing and researching through an apolitical, color evasive, neoliberal education climate which has negative implications on our socialization, pedagogy and sustainability in the field.

We cannot afford to ascribe to the dominant culture, and our integrity lies in the ways we push back against white supremacist ideologies embedded in everyday school policies, practices and interactions. This work cannot be done in isolation, coalitional resistance is and will continue to be our lifeline. However, there is a deep level of humility that must undergird our solidarity, which mustn’t be confused with charity or saviorism, because in the powerful words of Indigenous Australian activist and educator, Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

As we continue to engage in the labor of love of teaching, organizing and researching for social justice, let us not neglect the spiritual and emotional aspects of our lived experiences. Our mental health matters, especially in the face of structural violence and oppression. Collective healing is such an important form of activism that our world is in desperate need of and creating healing spaces is critical for our wellbeing and sustainability in our struggle for liberation because, in the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.

Research for Research’s Sake: The Value and Responsibility of Translating Research to Diverse Audiences

Desiree Zerquera, Assistant Professor in the School of Education, writes on the value and responsibility of translating research to diverse audiences. This post originally appeared on A Community of Higher Ed Scholars, the official blog of AERA Division J.

Desiree Zerquera, Assistant Professor in the School of Education

For the majority of us who identify as higher education scholars, we are in this field because through our own educational or professional experiences we saw problems in the way higher education is shaped and shapes others. We were called to scholarship as a way to examine these problems, find solutions and contribute to a vision of a better system of higher education. Our individual work is situated within the broader mission of the university, which has a commitment to serving the public good, achieved in large part through our research.

Traditional graduate school experience trains us to write for publication in academic journals, primarily read by academics. We are encouraged to present in the more prestigious conferences of our field, attended largely by other scholars. Further, the reward structures of academe value these types of contributions above all else. Despite efforts to resist these pressures, jobs need to be obtained, tenure and promotion need to be earned, and our value in the field needs to be recognized. Time being finite, these efforts come at the cost of other forms of engagement that speak to the very reason why we entered the field of higher education in the first place.

The problem, however, isn’t that we publish in academic journals and present at academic conferences. These are important spaces of knowledge dissemination. It is an invaluable part not just of academe but of our society as a whole—a space where ideas are shared and debated, where we can trace the contours of our collective imagination for how we see and address problems, and where research and scholarship can exist for the sake of their own existence.

The problem lies in the fact that much of the fruits of this knowledge gained stops within these spaces. Not everyone has access to these spaces, and not all voices are permitted to be amplified within them. As social scientists, we do not have the privilege to be so elitist so as to limit our knowledge to just one another.

There are a number of ways of translating our work for diverse audiences. Starting with the academic format we are socialized to communicate within as academics, journals and conferences that speak to policy- and practitioner-based audiences are valuable outlets. These spaces are important in fostering knowledge exchange around policy and practice. Just as important as the rigor reflected in our research are the ways we can utilize this work to inform change in our higher education system. Translation is needed to better connect our work to its own value within our respective fields. This can be a challenge, and require reshifting and reframing of our work, but we have an obligation to undertake this work.

Leveraging the public attention through blogs, op-eds, policy briefs, TED talks, keynote engagements, and social media are also promising and valuable ways of reaching broader audiences. Higher education scholars like Marybeth Gasman and Julian Vasquez Heilig often use these channels of influence to advocate for the higher education equity issues they research. This expands our audience reach to inform not just policy and practice, but also the public conscious around higher education.

As a field, we need to do more to develop and institute this value of translating our work. Faculty in higher education programs can incorporate assignments that have students write in various formats beyond just the traditional research paper. In my classroom, students read and write reports and op-eds. We workshop the process of discovering your voice to bridge ideas to public discourse. Further, faculty can also play a role in shaping reward systems. More value to these types of engagements needs to be added within the tenure and promotion (T&P) processes. Institutions like Loyola Marymount University have supplemented their traditional T&P requirements to account for public engagements as part of a measure of faculty’s contributions. Lastly, technology makes options like publicly-available webinars valuable outlets for communicating with administrative, practitioner and public audiences. The National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE) has embraced this through their Webcasts on Equity and Change (WOCE) series that brings together scholars and practitioners around relevant topics related to equity in higher education.

Being called to the work of higher education, our work cannot stop at just examining issues. We have the responsibility to communicate and engage with those who can put our research into action at the policy and practice level. Making our work more accessible and breaking down our complex ideas and higher education jargon is even more needed within our current anti-intellectual context that emphasizes 140-characters or less bits of information. As a field, we not only need to do better, but we have an obligation to do so to fulfill our commitment to contribute to improving higher education.

CRASE Going Public with It: Blogging and Advocacy for Social Justice

Huffington Post blogger and USF Assistant Professor Rick Ayers, from the Department of Teacher Education in the School of Education, led a three-hour blog writing workshop for CRASE where 14 faculty and staff from across the university  developed ideas for blog posts. During this workshop, faculty brainstormed ideas, started drafting their posts, and received feedback from peers. People wrote about a range of topics including human rights education, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign, advice to junior colleagues, art and identity, educational policy, fatherhood and race, and the Trump campaign. Faculty also shared some of their feedback about the event.

“I so appreciated having dedicated time to actually write a blog. I was able to get many ideas down and begin a blog that I have been meaning to write. I really appreciated sharing the blog drafts with my partners and hearing their ideas and perspectives. They gave great advice.”

“I loved hearing what others were working on and all the issues folks wanted to address in their own blogs I appreciated hearing different examples of blogs that Rick had done or had read. I loved hearing and reading different writing styles to expand my idea of how folks can actually write a blog.”

“It was great to have a space to write in. I loved the mix of advice and real-time pressure to write. I was surprised that I wrote something pretty coherent just in the 30 minutes allocated to write silently. This helped me see how much I can do in such a short period of time.”

Due to popular demand, Rick Ayers will offer another CRASE blog writing workshop on June 21st. More details and registration information here.

Scholars Speaking Collectively to Reframe the Public Debate

Kevin Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco discusses the importance of engaged scholarship and reflects on his experiences of working with communities of researchers.

Kevin Kumashiro
Kevin Kumashiro, Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco

A decade ago, to a packed general session of the International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice, one of my mentors, the late Eric Rofes, rattled the room with his claim that professors occupy an assimilationist profession: we get hired and promoted by writing journal articles that speak to a small group of colleagues, and we actually discourage scholarship that speaks outside of the ivory tower.  We need, he argued, to reframe the identity of the academic so that, central to our work is the goal of significantly impacting practice, policy, and public consciousness.  We need to be public, engaged scholars.

A decade before him, one of my grad school advisors, the fabulous Elizabeth Ellsworth, wrote an essay, “Claiming the Tenured Body,” that illuminated the ways in which academia values the singularity or uniqueness of our work rather than the dialogical nature of knowledge production and the potential of collective action.  Put in conversation with Rofes, her argument makes me wonder what it would look like if university researchers were to place more value on speaking collectively and publicly as scholars to impact the public sector.  

In education, where the rhetoric of so-called reforms contrasts starkly with the realities of what is actually happening in our nation’s schools, such intervention is desperately needed.  

I was living in Chicago at the time of the mayoral election that followed the announcement by Richard J. Daley, the longest serving mayor in Chicago history, that he would not be seeking re-election.  Throughout the fall of 2010 prospective candidates poured out, from career politicians to long-time community activists.  But as campaigns ensued, a notable lack of debate was happening about public schools.  Across the board, candidates seemed to be repeating the same narrative about what’s wrong – people aren’t trying hard enough – and what’s needed –more testing, more accountability, more consequences that differ little from blaming and punishing the victims of broken systems.

In January, as election day approached, a group of Chicago-area researchers came together to strategize a response.  We wanted to challenge the all-too-familiar rhetoric and to re-frame the public debate, that is, we wanted to steer the conversation away from scapegoating individuals to addressing the bigger picture of the systemic problems, and to insist that evidence and research be forefronted in these conversations.  We identified four broad visions, fleshed out with recommended actions, pledges for leaders, and resources for further inquiry, into a working document, Chicago School Reform: Myths, Realities, and New Visions (the statement was revised in 2015 and is available at www.createchicago.org).  The four visions were: Provide bold leadership that addresses difficult systemic problems and avoids scapegoating the “usual suspects”; develop and implement education policy and reform initiatives that are primarily research-driven, not market-driven; improve teaching and learning effectiveness by developing standards, curricula, and assessments that are skills-based, not sorting-based; and ensure the support, dignity, and human and civil rights of every student.

We recruited at least ten researchers in each area who made themselves available to educational leaders, public officials, and the media for elaboration and further dialogue about the accompanying myths and realities, and gathered almost 100 signatories, forming the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE).  Setting the stage was a statement of values concerning public education in a democracy, which emphasized that schools in a democracy should aim to prepare the next generation to be knowledgeable and informed citizens and residents; to be critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers; to be ready to contribute positively to communities and workplaces characterized by diversity; and to be healthy, happy, and able to support the well-being of others with compassion and courage.  We released the statement that March in a public forum with over 200 in attendance, where we highlighted both the work of researchers and the work of several organizations (of students, educators, parents, and community members) to advocate for research-based school reform.  The event and statement received some press coverage, but more importantly, it also led to additional initiatives, including research partnerships with the Chicago Teachers Union, forums for elected leaders, an ongoing series of research briefs and public events, and open letters on various policy issues.

When I moved to San Francisco a couple years ago, I again found myself in the midst of a community of scholars eager to act collectively and leverage our scholarship in order to reframe the public debate and impact educational policy.  We launched a new network last year, called CARE-ED (California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education), and as our first project, submitted in January 2015 an open letter to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of several hundred university-based researchers in California to raise concerns about the proposed federal teacher preparation regulations.  We also helped to gather over 2000 signatures from researchers across the United States to raise concerns and make recommendations about the place of testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Both letters have been covered by the media, and provide opportunities for educative conversations not only in public spaces but also within our professions.  

We are currently tackling our next project, and we look forward to continuing to explore the possibilities for improving education when we situate our work in broader social movements for equity and justice.

Kevin Kumashiro is dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education and author of Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture.  @kevinkumashiro