I teach a course focused on urban education and racial equity at Towson University. I have mostly white students, and so I try to embed them in the experience of working in Baltimore’s schools, which are mainly Black. Another thing that we do is read from multiple perspectives and hear from Black authors, community organizers, and teachers. Yesterday we were lucky to have D. Watkins visit our classroom. We also invited middle and high school students that we work with to attend this session as well. The collective conversation was amazing to watch, but mostly we listened and learned. Watch some of the video here:
The idea of equity is something that I have been hearing a of people talking about in schools and at the university. With the failure of policies like No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and Race to the Top to “fix schools” and solve intractable problems like the achievement gap, now educators have turned to equity as a possibility. Education leaders and educators themselves have begun to realize that academic achievement will not be resolved by curriculum or testing fixes, but what do we mean when we talk about equity?
Equity is different than equality. Equality is providing everyone the same thing. Equity is acknowledging the differences between people, and providing what they need to succeed. Equity is harder work, and forces us to examine historical and institutional nature of inequality. Once we engage in that process, we have to go along the journey of continually checking ourselves around the ways in which we contribute to and enact inequity in our every day so that we can interrupt it. Those of us who are white have an important role to play because so much of what we do reifies inequity. We are blind to it often, and until we go down the road of deep self-reflection, we cannot notice how we are contributing to inequity.
For the first time, my university, a predominantly white institution, began to open up a space for dialogue and reflection around equity in education. They spent the day on October 7th listening and learning about how to apply a racial equity lens. The whole day, which we entitled Envisioning Equity, allowed educators at public schools, universities, non-profits, community centers, to start to explore what equity can look like in classrooms, in whole schools, as part of discipline practices, in access to the arts. Here is a video one of my students made about the day. It is optimistic because they are hopeful about equity. I am a little more realistic in that I think this will take hard work, and some people will not be up for it, but I do believe it’s a start.
Lots of people are talking now about how to “do equity” in their schools. It is gaining traction because of a failure of schools over decades to meet the needs of students of color in schools, but equity is not easy. Equity is not a program to be implemented or a best practice to be mimicked in classrooms. It is a lens through which all school practices can be seen and worked on. From classroom teaching to analyzing school-wide data to implementing just and fair discipline practices, equity is a stance that educators can take to move away from the usual practices of implementing curriculum or complying with state mandates to thinking about what is good for children and what will best meet their needs. To that end, I gave a presentation to social studies teachers in suburban Maryland about how to think about this equity lens. Teachers in suburban schools especially need to understand the notion of equity well because their demographics are changing rapidly, and given that most teachers are white, they need shift their practice to do what is right for their students.
This spring I wrote an article describing a university-community partnership sponsored by a university office of civic engagement that tried to be conscious of the challenges of power inequities, differing goals, ways of operating. The university-community partnership described moved through these issues together, making differences explicit yet still remaining committed to a larger project and their collaboration. You can read the article, due out in Spring 2018 in the Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education, here: Community partnership.
Free Minds Free People, or FMFP, is a space where youth and adults can converge to discuss social justice and education for liberation. This year it was in Baltimore at Loyola University. FMFP is a space like no other, where folks come together to discuss praxis, the blending of theory and practice. Folks discussed the decolonization of schools and universities, ethnic studies, youth-led movements, and emancipatory teaching.
I was proud to be a member of the planning team and a presenter. But it was the youth of the Baltimore Algebra Project, who led the charge. Without them, the conference would not have come together. It was an impressive effort that should be a model for any conference on social justice. There were vegan meals, childcare, and safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community. There was art, music, and poetry. And there was a march in solidarity with immigrant communities facing raids and deportation by ICE.
My presentation was about how teachers are working in a classroom in the time of the Trump administration. It was a great collaboration between faculty and teachers. The well-attended workshop was an example of how folks can come together to reimagine educational spaces as well as form networks of support in a climate in which people committed to social justice are being targeted.
Kudos to the Algebra Project, and look out for Free Minds Free People 2019!
I will have an article coming out this year in the Urban Review that examines the impact of closing schools in Baltimore. School closings disproportionately impact low income Black communities. The piece was not just another research report on the damaging impact that school reform has on communities of color, however. It uses the frameworks of Critical Race Theory and Decolonizing methodologies to think about not only how this policy plays out to reify racism, but it is also a reflection on my own role as a white researcher. I worked with a community organization to do research on school closings, which was a great experience, but still fraught with the problems of race and power inequity. There is no escaping these issues. I continue to reflect, but also acknowledge that there is no end to racism, just continual recognition, reflection, and attempt to shift power from universities and white faculty to Black organizations and communities.
My students once again impressed me with this video, which they created at the end of the urban education course that I teach. This time, they did an artistic interpretation of the themes from the course. While there is much more work to do, this video marks progress on two main fronts: (1) Knowledge of historic and continued persistent school segregation and (2) An understanding of the opportunity gap that results from unequal opportunity.
Where does this work need to go? My students need to develop a deeper understanding of the education debt. Gloria Ladson-Billings explains that the education debt is different than a simple deficit, which refers to difference measured annually in things like test scores. Debt is over the long haul. It is long term inequality, transferred from previous generations and onto future generations. That debt translates quite literally into lost wages and lost accumulation of wealth. Students who do not get quality educational opportunity lose out financially.
Debt also implies that there is something owed. Although low income students and students of color are the ones that carry the debt, they are not the ones who owe. It is those of us who are privileged who owe, who need to lift the debt burden and provide educational opportunity to all. I want my students to understand that their success is due, in part, to the loss and limited opportunity that low income students and students of color have suffered. We need to go beyond recognition of the debt, to alleviating the debt.