Changing Policy, Changing Lives: Angela Roman’s Fight for Underserved Young People

Angela 5

 

Angela Nikki Romans works relentlessly in actualizing the promise and possibilities of historically underserved young people. She invests in proliferating pathways of success traveling from cradle to classroom to college. Dismantling policies and disrupting practices that inhibit access, opportunity and resources, she is a catalyst for change on multiple fronts, spanning classrooms, school districts, municipal agencies and non-profit organizations.

 

Change as Groundswell

 

Angela’s commitment to educational reform evolved from over two decades working in myriad educational and political settings, first as a high school math and science teacher, then university admissions officer, school network manager, senior education advisor for the mayor’s office in Providence, Rhode Island, and her current position as principal associate. Each experience has made her ask of herself progressively tougher questions about her advocacy work. “Where do you start at the individual teacher level, the structural and policy level, to make sure that kids have the right opportunities to be able to succeed, and with the right support to be able to succeed?”

As a principal associate at The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Angela’s work centers on national policy research and reform initiatives to improve public education. Under the umbrella of school district redesign and leadership, Angela’s energies centralize around understanding “How districts shape themselves,” then involving diverse stakeholders willing to collaborate in creating “the right policies, supports and structures for students to have equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes.” To Angela, partnerships provide “the strongest and most sustainable way to support school districts” because “school districts can’t do it alone.” They need a web of “community-based organizations, higher education institutions, public agencies, all [working] together to support student outcomes of success.”

Angela’s current projects are a nationwide study of college readiness involving several urban school districts, improving disciplinary practices within and across schools, and increasing the number of college graduates. She is the Annenberg Institute lead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Readiness Indicators Systems (CRIS) Project, a multi-year collaborative project with four major urban school districts and an educational management organization aimed to generate and systematize indicators of college readiness. Its goal is to identify indicators of and replicate effective practices and policies in measuring college readiness at the student, school, and system levels, culminating in “the right policies and practices and support for individual students.” Another national project is building learning networks between school districts and CBOs (community based organizations) “to look at school district disparities constructively and look at alternatives to harmful school discipline practices.” In partnership with the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC), Angela is working to increase the number of local college graduates. Recently the CYC obtained a significant grant from Lumina Foundation (under the auspice of the Community Partnership for Attainment) to assist efforts in helping adults achieve high-quality post-secondary degrees.

Prior to her position as principal associate, Angela was the senior education advisor for the Mayor of Providence, RI, Angel Taveras. Working as a cabinet member of the mayor’s office afforded Angela an advantageous position to cultivate systemic change. “I took the job because with a mayor who has that type of governmental influence over schools [the mayor’s office appoints the school board and hires the school superintendent with approval from city council], there is a real opportunity for change-making…opportunities that are under-utilized and under-tapped.” As senior education advisor, Angela’s work gravitated around “being involved in and shaping a larger citywide conversation and notion of community accountability around education.” Her primary focus was on creating sustainable support systems for young people, doing so through assembling and aligning willing partners.

To initiate this change, Angela implemented a collective impact model (CMI), “a social change movement that is focused on community-wide, cross-sector engagement,” to generate “collective common goals that everyone agrees on, common metrics, and the notion of shared accountability.” Under Angela’s leadership, the existing Children’s and Youth Cabinet (CYC) was restructured, populating it with stakeholders representing diverse perspectives and resources. With over 120 individuals and 70 organizations brought together, she convened parents, residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, municipal and state agencies to champion their local schools. Angela deems CMI as an effective framework because it moves us “away from the notion that just the superintendent is accountable, or just the schools are accountable, or just the mayor is accountable. It is collective accountability across all the different stakeholders.”

During her first summer of employment in the mayor’s office, Angela convened a small workgroup from the CYC charged with collecting and examining previous reports and data, generating a set of citywide goals to move forward. For Angela, this collaborative approach to effecting change is “great work because it is changing the way we think about whose responsibility it is to improve outcomes for children and youth, helping organizations and institutions move away from a ‘siloed’ way of thinking to a collaborative way of thinking that is really trying to align our resources in ways that haven’t been done before.” This concerted approach to change “is an intentional and difficult shift, but one I believe we have to fundamentally make to move the needle considering we are failing thousands, millions of young people every year.” Further restructuring included creating small workgroups, an executive committee, and hiring a director.

 

Angela 3

 

Changing Possibilities through Changing Paradigms

 

Angela’s work to reform how historically underserved youth are serviced and supported is shared by her work in redefining them. To Angela, defining young people as “at risk” emphasizes the notion of problems prevailing over their potential, harbors negative social implications, and perpetuates detrimental political repercussions. For Angela, “It’s about what is at the forefront of your mind,” whether “you focus on the challenges young people face, or the assets that young people and communities have and how you build on those assets to make sure that young people reach their promise.” She contends that “What people tend to do when defining ‘at risk’ is to think about what are the factors that make students most likely to fail. To fail in their educational pursuits in being productive members of society in terms of economic outcomes, social outcomes, indicators around marriage and stability…And those are [typically attributed to] race, class, gender, parents’ educational background, contact with the justice system, use of drugs and alcohol…and tons of social behaviors…statistics correlated with students not doing well. If students have these factors, [the argument is] that these students are at risk to fail.”

In place of labeling students “at risk,” Angela articulates “a more proactive approach in saying that all students are ‘at promise.’” If “we really think about the notion of equity and the fact that we want strong opportunities and strong outcomes for all young people, then some young people need more support to get there. Because they have had fewer opportunities or different personalities or are in different environments, that just shows that they need more support to reach their promise. That’s the way I approach my work as an educator. In speaking about research and policy and working with school districts, and working with institutions, as well as individual young people, it’s how I define the dichotomy between ‘at risk’ and ‘at promise.’”

 

When the Personal Becomes Professional: Subjective Experience as Impetus for Social Change

 

Angela’s own academic experiences sensitized her to the challenges students “at promise” face, and the transformative difference that can be realized with help from committed stakeholders. Growing up in a single parent household, she credits good math and science teachers, some who were “particularly thoughtful women of color” for recognizing her interests and acuity, inspiring her and pushing her toward excellence. By attending a magnet high school specializing in math and science (in Atlanta, Ga) her senior year, she became a member of a thriving community of scholars of color, studying under “teachers who were pushing kids to do amazing research” in local universities. Angela regards this educational opportunity and setting as impactful. “My classmates were such an inspiration to me because, oh, you’re supposed to be this way. You’re supposed to be smart, accomplished, and competitive in a generative way.”

From an early age, Angela wanted to be an educator. An avid reader and enthusiastic student who was involved in engineering, science and math camps most summers, Angela was excited about learning new things, and the prospects of igniting students’ learning too. However, given the lackluster reception of the idea from her family, she felt the best decision was to channel her alacrity in math and science in pursuit of an engineering degree. “There were not that many engineers of color in the profession and that there were not a lot of women of color.” So “Being a woman of color going into engineering would be something that was a challenge, but also something that would be sought after…[I was told] you should be an engineer.” It was the career path advocated by her family. Fascinated by nature, biology, and physiology, she sought a way to merge these two interests, and decided to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. After talking with a student of color attending Harvard University, she applied and enrolled.

Attending Harvard University proved informative, both as a place to be tooled with means for professional success, and a place where she began her political and social awakening. Being in a competitive engineering program with fewer than thirty students, one of the few women and women of color in particular, and at times having professors of patriarchal orientation, made for a confluence of variables that at times made the pursuit of personal and professional success difficult and challenging.

Yet her experiences at Harvard yielded valuable lessons about paving, preparing and participating within a supportive village. Paying it forward, she worked in the admissions office as a way to continue increasing the number of students of color attending the university. “It’s important to be available to the young folks who are the first, or one of the first of their family, to aspire to a strong education, and get there, and how to get there.” She also learned the value and impact of supporting one another. Facing a dilemma of completing difficult cumulative projects to obtain the professionally advantageous BSc degree, or take an “easier” route and graduate with a BA, Angela had a hard decision to make. Then a classmate, a fellow senior and woman of color, implored her to choose the former when saying, “Angela, don’t leave me.” Her peer’s beseeching did more than influence her to complete the more challenging degree. Angela has been since impacted to invest in supporting students facing challenging intersections, especially those with few resources.

After obtaining a BS in biomedical engineering from Harvard University, the calling to teach resurrected with a strengthened volume, compelling Angela to return to Harvard and now obtain a Masters of Education. There she learned of education as a means to empower both individuals and communities, learning about educator Ted Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the constructivist approach to learning and education. The program advocated and promoted a “real inquiry based education for young people, that empower[s] young people, [one] that is relevant and creative, and generative, and really empower[s] teachers and educators to design schools in ways that are best for the community.” This epiphany fueled both her want to empower others and to be empowered as a teacher. Participating in such an educational program “started me thinking about what I really wanted to do and what really meant a lot to me.” It “really pushed me to think about [how to make to] a choice with my feet.”
Angela 8

 

Making a Difference in Urban Classrooms

 

Immediately after graduation, Angela sought opportunities to teach in urban high school settings. “I really wanted to teach Black kids. That was something that, graduating from a high school that was all Black, having lots of Black role models and mentors, it was really important to me to become a mentor and role model for Black kids. And to be a mentor and role model to kids who did not have a mentor or role model. That was critical for me.” She sought employment in schools that “availed teachers the power to create curriculum, and create school culture, and strong cultures of inquiry-based teaching.” One such school was Urban Academy in NYC, which she describes as “just an amazing place.” “Everything there was about students discovering their own knowledge and learning, shaped in a very strong Socratic way.” Her instructional facilitation supported students finding trends and patterns within the process of problem solving, such that “Once you see patterns, we can then create our own rules, or we can articulate what the rules are.” She did this in lieu of conventional direct transmission where a teacher may relay “this is how I solved the problem, now you solve fifteen more like it.” Consequently, “students understood a lot more math.” Science classes were thematic. Compared to just covering a textbook from cover to cover, Angela and colleagues taught courses in animal behavior, research methods, and the science of food, involving students in actual research. “I never gave a lecture.” After a year she returned to Boston and taught at Fenway High School, another small high school. Angela “focused on teachers and teacher-driven curriculum, culture, and more project-based learning, more than the traditional high school.” She situated teaching within a workshop model, and began a new venture in advising and mentoring students.

But after three years of teaching Angela felt incomplete because her support of students was primarily confined to classrooms. “I love being an educator and working with young people, but wasn’t sure the best way for me to do that was through running a classroom.” She explored harnessing her support on larger scales. Brown University afforded her a platform to do professional outreach and support of “at promise” students within post-secondary institutions.

 

Building Post-Secondary Bridges

 

For eleven years Angela worked as Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Minority Recruitment within the Office of Admissions at Brown University. Working in this office particularly allowed her to serve students “standing in the intersection between high school and college,” helping them navigate that transition, especially “for those who don’t have in their friends, families, and communities, a lot of people that have [previously] navigated that transition successfully.” Within her numerous positions, she targeted her work around recruitment and retention of underserved young people. Young people “who could, and should be succeeding in places like Brown, that would never have found them, if not for that person who either came to their high school, or emailed them, or encouraged their counselor to recommend people like them, or all those serendipitous things.” Angela forged “a culture in the admissions office of trying to look beyond some of the traditional markers for underrepresented students, looking to how we could really capture extraordinary potential, in ways that are measured beyond just test scores. Students who have been extraordinary leaders, students who have gone above and beyond their school community such as seeking out summer programs.” She helped to shift orientations toward assessing the potential success of underrepresented students. What resulted was an increased enrollment of students of color, particularly first-generation students.

Angela began to miss working within urban schools, and left Brown University to return working in them, this time as Network Manager for Diploma Plus. Diploma Plus is a non-profit organization which provides a competency-based education model focused on college and career readiness, targeting high school populations of predominantly over-aged and under-credited students. As Network Manager of schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Angela’s work on the frontline spanned (1) providing professional development to principals, teachers and staff, (2) forging and sustaining collaborations between schools and community based organizations and higher education institutions, (3) mentoring students directly, (4) advocating for policy reform and educational initiatives in support of these schools both at municipal and national levels, as well as (5) supporting the national organization on myriad educational and political fronts. “It really gave me an opportunity to return back to the small schools where I got my start as an educator, really thinking about creating small schools that were supportive of students, with a culture where teachers had an opportunity to shape the instruction and the design of the school, AND working with students who were the opposite in terms of the academic achievement spectrum to those I worked with at Brown, for whom school had not been a good experience and had not been successful, but were still seeking it out, sticking it out even though school had not served them well for many years.” Angela’s work also culminated in the opening of a new and successful DP high school in Boston.

 

Advocacy Beyond Office Hours

 

Angela’s work to make a difference extends beyond the office or work hours. “So much of the personal is professional for me.” She is involved and invested in several volunteer initiatives. For the past four years, Angela has chaired the board of a local non-profit organization, College Visions, which mentors and supports first generation high school students in their post-secondary pursuits. Its mission is “providing individualized support so students get into and through college.” In addition, Angela serves on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association, through which she interviews perspective students, and is a past board member of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She does volunteer work for the Rhode Island Black Storytellers. She is also called to speak at many functions and for numerous organizations. Angela has also received awards of recognition. The YWCA recognized her in 2013 as a Woman of Achievement. She also an Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellow. Angela continues to contribute to the educational field by writing articles. Recent articles include one she co-authored for The New Educator titled, “Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens,” and the Atlantic’s Quartz online publication titled “Americans Who Say ‘College isn’t for Everyone’ Never Mean Their Own Kids.”

Looking back on her career, Angela shares the following reflection. “I continue to be both exhausted and inspired by the work that I do to try as much as I can to improve the lives of young people in this society because so much of what we are doing is not working…and have been really focused on the systems, the ‘unsexy thing’ that we have to think about in making sure that there are big sweeping institutional changes because there are many things moving in directions that are not good for young people.”

Angela Nikki Romans is on a mission. It extends before attaining elaborate trappings or award-garnering recognition under bright stage lights. Where Angela lends her talents is in the junctions of neighborhoods and crevices of school systems where ostracized and high needs students are falling between the cracks, fading to black. It is within these obscure and unpopular yet over-populated spaces you will find Angela digging to make a difference. With her soul’s sleeves rolled up, Angela thatches hope, aerates opportunities, stakes possibilities, prunes budding talent. In all, she is working to harvest underserved young people’s academic, economic, and personal success.

 

Angela 1

(This article is also in digital and print format at http://www.magzter.com/US/Bronze-Magazine/Bronze-Magazine/Women’s-Interest/)

Advertisements

A Place to Belong: A Place to Become (Movie Review)

Montclair YWCA

I remember the lessons learned as both member and president of the local youth chapter of the National Council of Negro Women where I grew up. The strengthening of sisterhood through bringing divergent points of view into focus on a common goal. Learning the importance of outreach, of volunteering, to make a difference in the lives of others. Attending meetings that bridged the emerging ambition of young folk with the tempered sagacity of elders.  It was an organization where the variance in our hues and hair was neither asset nor liability. We were sisters.  It was an opportunity where our capacity and consciousness could grow and be harvested, not pitted in covetousness or competition. It was the space where we spread our wings, tested our steps, and built our dreams into edifices for future generations.

Meeting in that small community center room, it was a place for each of us to become.

In the documentary “A Place to Belong,” oral historian and filmmaker Allison Bonner Shillingford chronicles the lives of eight women members of the Montclair YWCA for African American women and girls from 1920-1965. Weaving them together, they become for the audience an historical, social and cultural tapestry.  What unfolds is a beauteous but hard-stitched textile.  Juxtaposed against the realities of racism via redlining, blockbusting and de facto segregation, we learn the many dreams of these members of the Great Migration, and what they and their families hoped to mine and actualize from moving to Montclair.  It is the textile through which we learn how involvement in numerous clubs, community events and summer camps claimed their hearts, cultivating sisterhood between them.  It is the textile through which we learn how gaining and applying leadership and collaboration skills becomes fodder and tools for later practice in these women’s’ personal and professional lives.  It is the textile through which we learn how women of color across decades, including multiple generations within the same families, deliberately came to the YWCA to garner and harness a sense of self- ownership, affirmation, empowerment and pride in themselves and one another.  In defiance of the enforced separation or hidden prejudice harbored within some of the people of the landscape, the landscape for them became promising and replete with possibility. The Montclair YWCA became their beacon, a blessing, the bonfire of sisterhood around which they assembled and grew together.  Because of their individual and collective experiences at the YWCA, they learned how to live their lives as counter-narratives to gender, racial and economic inequities.

Through hard-told truths, wit, fond recollections and even giggles, these women pioneers—Norma Jean Darden, Daisy Booker Douglas, Lauretta Brandice Freeman, Rosemary Allen Jones, Sandra Lang, Dorothy Hatchett Morton, Elberta Hayes Stones, and Lucie Coleman Walton—make us privy to private experiences, rendering them as public texts.  In so doing, we learn lessons of the resilience that harbors deep in heart and soul.

In attendance during the Q & A session were Allison Bonner Shillingford, executive producer and Director of the Montclair Historical Society Jane Mitchell Eliasof, and President of the Montclair Historical Society and project director Claudia Ocello.  Also in attendance were several relatives of the women from the movie, spanning several generations. The session began with one audience member inquiring about the genesis of the film. Jane commented that “there is a huge story that is not being told,” and thought it important that the story of the YWCA be captured, particularly since the renovation of the building where the YWCA was housed has little represented within it of this important history. Allison elaborated that finding former YWCA members was a challenge, but was finally successful, including the fortune of finding one member who was 100 years old at the time of her first interview. Then, several family members intimated their thankfulness for the film being created. Next, an audience member asked about the film’s availability, which Jane shared is for sale at the Montclair Historical Society.  Jane also shared that there were be several more group showings of the film throughout the year.  An audience member then asked how long did it take to make the film, in which Allison shared that it took 2 ½ years, initiated by Claudia contacting Columbia University to find someone who was an oral historian who would be interested in this project. Allison answered the higher calling.

(This movie review is also posted at the Montclair Film Festival Website, http://montclairfilmfest.org/2014/05/a-place-to-belong-finding-a-place-to-become/)

Parents are the Frontline of Their Children’s Academic Achievement: A Book Review of I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother by Suzette Clarke

 

 

 

 

I'm your teacher

 

 

 

Class is in session.

In her self-published book, I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother, Suzette Clarke ignites a controversial conversation about the “true source” of student failure. While finger-pointing has typically designated teachers, schools, standardized tests, and standards as the source of fault, Clarke turns the finger to a “culprit” more centrally located to students’ lives.  The parents.  A former middle school teacher and library media specialist of fifteen years, Clarke postulates lack of parental involvement and investment as most impactful on academic success, and that this factor must be considered before blame be placed solely and sorely on the shoulders of educational institutions and those who work within them.

I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother is a collection of expositions, vignettes, statistics, observations, and personal reflections based on the frontline of working in schools.  Clarke asserts parents’ attitudes about learning, orientations toward what support looks like, and understandings of obligations and responsibilities all play a role in how learning is supported, and not supported at home. Recounting hers and colleagues’ experiences, parental involvement has been staggeringly low.  Reflecting both on her own and colleagues’ experiences working in New York City schools, Clarke identifies several factors for why she thinks parental lack of both commitment and participation occurs on so large a scale.

Clarke asserts that some parents situate school as the primary officiator of their children’s success instead of themselves. “It seems they believe overseeing their children’s educational development is someone else’s responsibility.” However, she also contends that with pressing economic times many parents are pulled away from home, working long hours and multiple jobs, resulting in less possibility for them to be actively involved in monitoring children’s academic success closely.  “We have become a society of overwhelmed parents” who work “so much from the home that many depend on the system to develop and guide children.”

In other cases, Clarke contends that children “who fail have been given the power to fail by their parents,” and particularly those “who perform poorly or cause trouble in school do so because they have parents who are enablers. These parents do not do what is necessary to stem such behaviors.” Still in other cases parental failure of students is attributable to a lack of parents understanding their role to make sure students actively and responsibly participate in their own learning (completing tasks, fulfilling assignments, preparing for assessments). Being good intentioned, Clarke contends that such parents correlate being older as inherently being more responsible. She asserts that these expectations of autonomy, self-monitoring, and self-reliance are too much to handle, even for teenagers.

In all, Clarke suggests that at epidemic levels, “children are not getting the daily educational supervision they need at home in order to succeed at school.” Central to students performing successfully in school is parental establishment and enforcement of what she describes as an “educational tone in their home.” She emphasizes that parents must inaugurate high educational standards as soon as children commence school, and institute them every day until high school graduation.  She contends that if parents demonstrate concern for their children’s education and couple that with daily monitoring, then they will excel.  “Children who fail are not stupid. They are just unsupervised, undisciplined, unfocused, and out of practice.”

Clarke proclaims that there is “a distinct correlation between the concerned parent and the proactive student.” Students who do well are those who are “well trained, organized, disciplined, and motivated…They have parents who provide them with constant order, support, and guidance.” In the second half of her book, she then puts forth myriad suggestions for different ways parental involvement and commitment can be fully actualized.

For one, Clarke promotes reading at home as beneficially impactful on academic progress, while simultaneously honing an essential life skill. If parents “require reading time every day at home, reading scores would soar, and more students would become natural readers. Their overall knowledge, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, writing and spelling skills would improve.” As well, she purports avid readers as “more informed and are better communicators.”

Clarke suggests minimizing excessive showering children with gifts, especially those who are not successful in school, as it communicates values around material wealth over mental.  Indulgence in expensive gifts and trappings, in place of a consistent emotional involvement with child and school, endorses inappropriate school behavior and performance.

Parents reinforcing organization, such as the maintenance of an organized notebook, hold their children accountable in maintaining successful habits of mind and work. Frequent notebook checks are a way Clarke suggests parents can be kept abreast of a child’s progress. They can serve as a lens into any challenges or weaknesses his/her child is experiencing, and intervene. “If parents made sure their children maintained a constant level of organization and discipline, how can they fail?”

Clarke suggests that a mutually respectful partnership be established between parent and teacher. Parents of struggling students need to indulge less the blaming of teachers exclusively for their child’s poor performance. Instead, they should take the teachers’ input and advice and implement them into an action plan. She also admonishes parents to not be dissuaded by their child’s attitude toward a teacher, and not endorse their lack of successful performance just because they do not like a teacher. Parents must promote and uphold the expectation of the child to complete assigned work and excel on assessments, and not let a child’s excuse of “I don’t like the teacher” or “The teacher is out to get me” as justifiable eclipses of their potential.

Finally, Clarke suggests that supervision and activity are centripetal to academic success. From 3-6pm, students need activities that keep them engaged outside of school, and thus out of trouble. Examples include after school programs, play rehearsals, sports, language classes, tutoring, and when old enough, employment and volunteerism.

At the end of each chapter, Clarke asks parents pointed and poignant questions to reflect upon their involvement and investment in their child’s successes. They serve as prompts for parents to assess and reevaluate how they are supporting their child’s development. For example, a salient question she asks parents to consider is, “If a teacher has told you that your child is missing homework assignments, what new procedures have you implemented at home to ensure that all work is completed?” Such questions could serve as discussion starters during parent meetings, or as an opportunity for quiet reflection for individual parents.

In critique, there are some argumentative and structural elements of the book that need consideration. Argumentatively, the promotion of the idea of parental involvement proving pivotal to children’s successful formation academic habits and subsequent achievement is already established.  Repeating throughout the book that a lack of such investment has negative impact at times stifles its’ illuminative potential rather than augment it. All too brief and cursory descriptions of how and why parents are insufficiently participatory or absent from their children’s academic lives detract from us knowing and understanding what we as stakeholders cannot afford to repeat.  We need the nitty-gritty narratives alluded to by Clarke.  Accounts of specific families, detailing the different practices (or lack thereof) that negatively impact children creating and sustaining successful academic habits would amplify the argument and concretize what to avoid. Most importantly, providing in-depth case studies of parents who have implemented Clarke’s remedies effectively, yielding in children’s successful adoption and/or adaption of fruitful academic habits and achievement, would make the book complete.  Structurally, statistics and data from several diverse sources would provide readers a better understanding of the social, cultural, anthropological and historical milieu within which long-term academic efficacy and failure occur.

However, Clarke, as mother, educator, and advocate, puts her blood, sweat, and tears into initiating a much-needed conversation.  Her words and purpose push us into the arena, and provide an initial arsenal with which to begin the fight.  I’m Your Teacher, Not Your Mother offers food for thought regarding parents being the most essential agents of change in students’ academic development, progress, and success.

Class is dismissed. 

 

For more information, you can access Suzette’s website at http://imyourteachernotyourmother.com/.

 

 

Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Redux: Are We a Nation Rhetorically at War with Itself?

What do we as a nation think of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?   Here are recent posts from CNN’s website covering different aspects of the Trayvon Martin case.[1][2]

you know: what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racism.

P41: Caucasians are liars, murderers, thieves, rapists, sodomites, false witnesses, blasphemers, gluttons, idolaters, envious, lazy, swindlers, haters of GOD ALMIGHTY, and of the ORIGINAL BLACK MAN, BLACK WOMAN, AND CHILD.

Turbokorper: …there once was a community of thugs
…who were really good at pimpin’ and selling drugs
…we just move away,
…hopin’ they will stay,
…in the squalor, the crime and the bugs.

Lagergeld: Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.  This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

Kimip: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death, Big surprise there. They would only care if it was someone from corporate America that was shot and killed. 

Michwill: If you’re not a part of the black community you need to keep your opinions to yourself. We don’t comment on the priests that molest the white altar boys or all the pedophiles in your communities or even when the white husband decides to kill himself and the whole family!!

Justice Has Occurred: I just read some of Trayvon’s published tweets. He was an inmate waiting to happen. Putting him down now may have saved some lives…black and white.

Recent responses to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman dynamic have clearly plucked a raw nerve, suggesting that this case has repercussions and ripples extending beyond that fatal night.  In some respects, the case has us all examining our experience of race and ethnicity in this shared country, particularly around civil liberties, law enforcement, due process, interactions with other ethnic groups and the perceptions we believe others hold of us based on our own positionality.  This is a case that harnesses within both individuals and groups a pulsing plethora of emotions and positions: vulnerable, victimized, and vindicated.   It is hard to not take aspects of the case personally and be impacted by them.

But as suggested by the smattering of the comments above, there is an undercurrent that is surfacing.  That facts and aspects of the case are being chiseled into reactions that are then used as leverage to hurt and harm a stranger or unsuspecting group.  What particularly resonates with me are some of the personal attacks that people have hurled at one another.  It’s made for a charged atmosphere of hurt feelings and caustic retaliation, the flinging of accusations and assumed political agendas.

Yet I wonder about the impact of such flagrant and rampant personalization, how it is churning and festering within us as citizens of a shared nation, leading us into then maliciously attacking specific individuals and groups. To some degree, it is human nature to hurt when harmed (a scorned lover, a bullied child).  But to sharpen understandings of the case into weapons to inflict undue damage is making for unfortunate fallout.  A failing of compassion.  A missed opportunity to understand and be understood.

The inflation of the case whereby people are using it to insult, instigate, implicate, and inculcate fellow humans does nothing to further understanding the incident, the case, each other or us as a nation.  But what the hurling of such incendiary comments, abuse of facts from the case, and exploitation of stereotypes does is beg us to look into the mirror.  Why are we using this case to purposefully and deliberately disrobe, dismiss and denigrate?  Why are we fashioning the hurling of hurt? What benefit manifests from adding insult to injury?  What long-lasting good comes from using this case to leverage insults against fellow humans? What do any of us score, or even win?

Why are the branches attacking the body?

This is not to suggest anything against our right to free speech.  This does detract from the historical, social and cultural backdrop against which this case occurs.  But we can retain emotive clarity.  When I read such comments as those listed above, and see their growing proliferation like dandelion spawns in blistery winds, I wonder where else they will land.

And, like the nature of weeds, what potential for life they will begin to choke.


[1] Study: Republicans, whites more tired of Trayvon Martin coverage. CNN.com. April 5, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/04/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=ju_t4

[2] Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till? CNN.com. March 24th, 2012.  http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/24/trayvons-death-echoes-of-emmett-till/comment-page-3/#comments

From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

Early this morning I was drafting a guest blog post about what it is like to be a new wife and mother. The wife version I completed, and just when I was to start drafting the part about raising a son, I read several posts and articles about Trayvon Martin’s murder. And I read Sheree’s FB post that ignited my heart and fright. 

What a tragedy of life and travesty of justice.

I then heard my son crying and went to check on him. He drifted back to sleep, except for grabbing my thumb which he would not let go of even while sleeping. After reading of this event, it moves me even more that my son trusts me to comfort him, even in his sleep.

But I don’t trust the world to protect him. Or my husband.

I asked hubby while eating breakfast today to be careful, for he is someone’s son. And he is someone’s father.

George Zimmerman’s father advocated on his behalf, yet I wonder if George thought of the impact of his actions on Trayvon’s mother and father who would be affected by what he was about to do to their son. About the dangerous stereotype he was about to reinvigorate and perpetuate because of his skewed vigilantism (how can you claim self defense when you pursue someone despite the police dispatcher’s admonishment to not do so?). About the permission he took that was not his to take in the taking of life.

As he walks free. While many of us hold sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers tighter in our grasp.

It’s 2012, and black men continue to be a hunted endangered species.

I think I will be writing a different piece about what it is like to be a mother . . .

For the weeks and months to come, many will write about the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the travesty of justice they foresee as imminent.  The contemplations, discussions, and emotions will be broadened to encompass indignation toward Geraldo’s flippant “hoodie” defense (what happens when you dress a certain way), the desired resignation of the neophyte Sanford Chief of Police and examination of his department’s shoddy execution of investigation and due diligence, and musings over how long the slaying of a yet another Black youth will dwell in the nation’s conscious after mainstream media no longer broadcasts it.  Yet what’s begun to stir within me is an investigation of me, of the inner workings of the new intimate space within me called parent, of what I am responsible for doing in rearing my newborn son to endure (and survive) a current and post-Trayvon Martin era.

The excerpt above was the first of two Facebook posts I wrote emotively on March 19th after hearing about this young son’s death.  The holding of my own son, who arrived just a few short months ago, has suddenly become more intense, an honest reaction to a hellish circumstance.  But while my arms can for now shield his growing body, the eventuality is that he will outgrow them.  Although he will practice his first steps within the preparation, guidance, and sanctuary of my arms, the eventuality is that he will walk away from me into and within the world outside them.  If I have done my job well, he will be learned and equipped in how to stand on his own.  On his physical legs, yes. Yet I contemplate how best to support his standing with strategies for straddling his inherited duality; although he is spiritually and ancestrally a temple, he is a target socially, culturally, and historically.

The scrimmage fought between being a man-child of great potential and the caricature misinterpreted as being executable is a stark reality. It is alarming that prisons are built at a rate proportionate to students’ performance on elementary literacy tests, the notorious cradle-to-prison pipeline.  And many of us are now resorting (rightfully) to practicing with our sons how to interact with law enforcement (how to speak, how to posture, how not to exude being a “threat” or “menace”).  The gravity of protecting and harvesting a son (both my own and our collective) weighs on me.  I vacillate between which should “weigh” more—helping him to harness his holiness and hopes, or conduct regular drills with him on how to interface with the outer emboldened and armed law enforcement representatives and fanatics.  For this brief moment, I feel parenting duties prioritized to preserving his physical life, and once out of my arms’ reach how to effectively (ideally) do so on his own.  As my role as a parent daily unfolds, so does my quandary and question over what takes precedence in what to teach and educate.

Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, chronicles the epidemic lynching of yesteryear and its commercialization through postcards (yes, people could send well wishes to family on one side with the image of an incinerated and castrated body on the other).  Lynching, this cultural attitude legitimizing the denigration and objectification of black males and the abhorrent act manifesting from it, seems to be rearing its ugly head, with strange fruit again populating our nation’s fatigued trees (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and those  whose lives ended suspiciously as chronicled by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope” to name a few, regrettably).   Trayvon’s death eerily echoes and harkens back to this era, as Zimmerman’s 911 calls serve as the prelude to the semi-automated lynching he was about to conduct.  Or has the era ever left us?

This is my initial reaction as a parent.  To save my offspring  from harm.  To guard what is of my flesh, my incubation.  To prepare him for a hostile world.  We know the risks of bringing forth a man-child in this land of promise (though not always of promises kept).  He is a native son, born into the milieu of fear, flight, and fate that is disproportionately slated for our young men.  He will have to make strategic decisions in his navigations and negotiations as an invisible man in these states.  Therefore, I wonder how much I must teach my son how much his body is and is not his.  What places he can and cannot be (and at what times).  What he can and cannot wear.  How he can and cannot speak.  I feel the pressure of teaching him that daily he will have to walk and breathe in duality.  To know it is his right to live by his own construction, but that such living will intersect and conflict with, as well as disrupt, others’ construction of him (and how people may consequently act on those constructions regardless of his innocence or best intentions).

Though Trayvon’s parents did not will his son to be a sacrificial lamb or martyr (nor would any parent of their lamb), they took the risk to release their son into the world; an innocent who went into the world alone was returned to them in a body bag.  However, his life and death harnessed and galvanized an insurrection and reflection bigger than himself.

But I/we as parents must be and remain brave and bold.

My infant son’s favorite position is being perched on my shoulders.  There, he steadies himself, hands and forearms braced against my shoulders.  His routine is first to peer over my shoulders, then emboldened, begins his ritual of incessantly searching out the world around him. Rapidly rotating from side to side, his eyes and head venture then fixate.  Venture, and then fixate.  Quickly that shoulder’s geography becomes a bore, and like a rock climber ambitiously leaping to a new rock, so does he.   I catch and cradle his search, support his navigation, lest he lose balance and fall from pursuing and practicing his ambition.

But this is the point.  Instinctively, he trusts (and ideally all children trust in their guardians) I will support his ambitions and protect him in his pursuit of them.  Though in these recent weeks I feel intimidated by the possible taking of my son’s life by others armed myopia, faith reminds me that the most selfish thing I can now do is cage my son.  It is important to teach him what Jesse Washington dubs “the Black Code” of conduct (1) when having to deal with law enforcement representatives and in situations that challenge his life, but he was not born or purposed solely to fulfill his or anyone else’s fear.  I would be less than a parent to teach him to cage himself because of the cowardice and inner conflict harbored and festering in others.  He trusts me that while in my arms and upon my shoulders I will bolster his investigations of the world, and support him venturing into it.

The second post I wrote on March 19th is my ideal, my illustration, of how I am trying to raise my son.

After playing on our alphabet playmat, my son in exhaustion drifts to sleep. Resting his head on my thigh, he found his comfortable spot and relaxed. Both of us breathing heavy. Him as he descends into deep sleep. Me as I descend in thinking about Trayvon Martin. 

Will he grow from “native son” to “invisible man” (pun intended on Wright’s and Ellison’s seminal works)? Are sons and statistics interchangeable? Synonymous?

I am thinking on the world in which my son is born into, and what we will need to do to steel, strengthen, prepare and guard him. And also what we will need to instill in his imagination as chords for an (ideally) melodic world he will have to create.

And I wonder what fellow parents raising sons are wondering too . . .


(1) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNZGRWMd7msShtng3-UP3YcivEuw?docId=cf76e46b87df4e90bbf77cbbbabce150

This Woman’s Work: Blueprints for Being an Activist

Article for Bronze Magazine Anniversary Issue, November/December 2011

a woman sleeps as if
tomorrow a war will begin” –Vera Pavlova

For the 1st anniversary of Bronze Magazine (http://bronzemagonline.com), I wrote this article about the activism of women locally and internationally.  It highlights the involvement and investment of women in efforts spanning environmental issues, AIDS awareness, exposing governmental tyranny, educational advocacy, self- defense, and helping adolescents plan and prepare for the future.  But the writing of the article extends beyond telling about the impact of others.  I wrote it to also make a space for women to tell about the work they too are doing here and abroad.  To create an open space to share what each of us is doing to make a difference, move others from margin to center, contemplate a new world, and speak truth to power. 

I invite you to share at the end of this article the ways YOU are making a difference.

 

This morning I began drafting a blog about inspirational women, meditating on the living examples of goodness they harbor and promote.  Sister friends like Carla, Lisa, Kim, Karen, and Tonya balancing being employed while raising children, pursuing personal passions, and nurturing relationships. Deceased kindred such as my mother, aunt, and Eastern Star sisters who by bloodline and example exemplify what can become possible.  Their dreams pulse now in my blood.  Writers like Audre Lorde who used words as tools to instigate and liberate, playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy who pushed the envelope of drama by tooling it to shed light into our darknesses.

Yet, I indulge the guilty pleasure of watching the “Basketball Wives” and “Real Housewives” franchises, with a fascination of what will happen next.  Who will be the next woman to get a drink and then a fist thrown at her, a knife of venomous words plunged into her back, a secret put on blast, a reputation that gets her thrown under the bus?  But the actions and outcomes are cyclical.  After repetitiously seeing the cattiness, two-facedness, duplicitous fidelity, diabolical planning, sinister backstabbing, escalating emotional bullying and downright physical assault, a command for different is radiating from inside. I think I reached the saturation point of witnessing the broadcast of the basest aspect of womanhood, and the affirmation such shows get in the forms of high viewership and popularity.  But at the end of the hour, what can be culled as inspiration, a lesson, experience, strategy or new outlook that we can glean from watching women on “reality” shows to then employ and emulate in our life’s work?  There’s nothing new to learn.  So why are such shows so popular, despite the nullifying examples of trailblazing women like Suzanne Malveaux, Shirley Chisholm, Cathy Hughes, Rolonda Watts, Malkia Amala Cyril, Shirley Ceasar, Ursula Burns, Cicely Tyson, Carol Jenkins, Donna Brazile, and Oprah Winfrey?

I’ve reached critical mass.  A new reaction beside distaste and criticism has to occur.  Taking my own thoughts off the video editing floor, I am taking some time to reflect on the tenacity, resilience, spirituality, talent, sacrifice, perseverance, benevolence, insight, intelligence, ferocity, savvy, surrender and serenity harbored and offered by the phenomenal women who use breath other than to bait kindred for public entertainment.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

Marypat Hector, in her recent blog “Enough with the Basketball Wives, Let’s Talk About Girl Power!” identifies several young women under the age of 30 whose lives, while not regularly broadcast on a weekly show, demonstrate contributions that confirm what our hands can produce when devoted to creating change instead of slapping a woman in the face and decimating her worth.[1]  Through her efforts as Executive Director of the National Action Network and contributing writer to NewsOne, Tamika D. Mallory uses her life and access to media outlets to bring to light issues of violence within the African-American community. [2] Dominique Sharpton, Director of Membership for the National Action Network and thespian, employs her talents resulting in the near tripling of the organization’s membership from since 2008, producing her father’s syndicated radio show, organizing marches and rallies, and creating several venues and outlets for youth to express their artistic talents.[3]  CNN Hero, activist,  author, college student and black belt martial artist Dallas Jessup, after seeing in the news the abduction of a young girl, uses her life to train girls and women in self defense through self-produced training videos, and facilitating activism within communities worldwide through her non-profit organization Just Yell Fire.[4] Environmental activist and author Jordan Howard, after being a Green Ambassador at Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, employs her learning of the environment to galvanize others, using films to educate the masses about sustainable living, leading and organizing the Rise Above Plastics “Student Speaker Series” that trains fellow young adults in how to promote environmental awareness within their communities, and participating in various political and social forums to raise awareness.[5]  AIDS activist and living testimony Hydeia Broadbent devotes her life experience of being born with HIV to inform the consciousness of the world, doing so through several national television and radio shows, educational institutions, panel discussions as well as international forums.[6]

And I’d also like to add three friends who are phenomenal agents of change. Angela Romans, currently Senior Advisor on Education to the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has worked in several community-based organizations, public schools, institutions of higher education, and political capacities to avail post-secondary opportunities to under-represented youth. [7] Tiffany Gardner is founder and Executive Director of One World Foundation, whose mission is to “develop and place young leaders (18 to 25) from poor and under-represented backgrounds in human rights and development service projects and prepare them for leadership in both the public and private sectors.”[8]  Finally, school social worker and aspiring graduate student Tonetta Collins works tirelessly in her job and within the organization CEOKids of Atlanta,[9] describing her work within the organization as helping “middle schoolers connect what they are learning in school to real world professions . . . to realize their gifts and strengths at a time when their need for social acceptance becomes important and connect them to the possibilities.”

One-sentence descriptions of the activists mentioned here is an injustice to their selfless intentions and the impact of their work.  But, the point of naming each of these women and their contributions is to reclaim space polluted with exaggerated and bifurcating depictions of women:  we have media suggesting the “best” of women that is “worthy” of extensive broadcast is the banality of the actions of a select few.   Such is the purpose, nature, and success of the beast of media. These depictions are a concerted effort toward what Martha Lauzen in the documentary “Miss Representation” associates with symbolic annihilation.  Such depictions kill off a consciousness of what we are and can be other than what is harmfully exaggerated, intentionally manufactured and massively promulgated.  “You can’t be what you can’t see,” admonishes Marian Wright Edelman, which is the point of why some media images of women prevail over others.  Ask any of us to rattle off the names of “Basketball Wives” or “Real Housewives” cast women and it can be done in a heartbeat.  Ask us to name several contemporary female activists and HOW they pave roads for change, and we become mute, having first to do some research.

The women activists in this text counter such toxic messaging.  They are mirrors for us to see an affirmative reflection of ourselves, a counter portrayal illustrating purposeful uses of our breath in harnessing and improving others’ lives.  Mirrors that empower by deflecting the media’s transmission and instead position us to learn blueprints for making a difference locally and abroad.  The “reality show” wives are not extraordinary, nor are the scope and mission of these activists outside your own reach.

The message?  Contemplate how you ARE doing something to make the lives of others better.  Why is such reflection essential to our personal and collective existence?  Because the stakes are really high.  Consider the following statistics from the documentary “Miss Representation” that illustrates the disparity in the portrayal of women, and their actual presence in important media and political junctures:[10]

  • Only 16% of protagonists in films are female
  • Women comprise only 16% of all film writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors
  • Women own only 5.8% of all television stations and 6% of radio stations
  • Only 7% of directors and 10% of film writers are women
  • Women make up 51% of the U.S. population but only 17% of Congress
  • 34 women have ever served as governors in the United States, compared to 2,319 men
  • 67 countries worldwide have had female presidents or prime ministers, of which the United States is not one of them

In examining yourself, what are the ways YOU make a difference in households, schools, communities, and board rooms, regardless if the cameras are on our off?  And are you broadcasting how you make a difference in the lives of others?  Who knows the work you are doing, and using YOU as an exemplar to learn how to replicate and reproduce it?

Broadening the scope of women’s work worldwide, we recently received news of three remarkable women who do not spend their time pointing out flaws and blasting the past of cast members.  Instead, they present palms and hearts to other women as allies to prove themselves embraceable.  Use their voices for the protection of others. Offer themselves as sister kindred to create chains of solidarity.  Harness and promote others’ potential.  Their lives are proffered as a sacrificial proof of commitment.  While their stories have taken time to traverse the oceans (regrettably), Leymah Gbowee mobilizes Liberian women to save their country from 14 years of civil strife, Yemenite Tawakkul Karman protests for the rights of journalists and an end to governmental corruption, and  Liberian President Ellie Johnson Sirleaf works in private and public sectors to rebuild her beloved country.  They have, now with the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, arrived on the shores of our minds, and I hope garnering a growing consciousness for what WE can do as women across borders physical and mental.

Leymah Gbowee is no stranger to the afflictions of war.  She was no stranger to children conscripted as toy soldiers and catalysts for a war they did not create but would be responsible for exploitatively executing (literally).  Young girls and women’s bodies were commoditized and brutally raped as the spoils of war.  Hunger became the crown and shroud of too many Liberians, with starved children dropping as new food for flies.  Liberia’s history of strife between warmongering avaricious warlords and a corrupt political regime, and its consequences, were regrettably familiar.  Having had enough, she prayed for peace. While pregnant with her third child, she incubated perseverance and persistence, birthing them into a mobilization of women to “pray the devil back to hell.”[11]

Leymah’s first work was transcending assumptions of religious difference, moving beyond fears of diluting or soiling each another’s religious dispositions.  Armed with conviction, and with fellow women compatriots, she mobilized Liberian Christian and Muslim women to unite in the commerce of peace, forging a collective effort to pressure religious leaders to advocate for them.   These “Market Women,” the fodder for what would later become WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network), initially began protesting in white garments along roadsides of the presidential convoy so their need for peace would glare against the tinted windows.  Despite refusals of an audience, they continued to peacefully protest until gaining an audience with President Charles Taylor on April 23, 2003.  Stepping on fear and into faith, Leymah vocalized their position statement, presenting their entreaty for peace within their nation.

Following this presentation, peace talks between then President Taylor and warring factions convened in Accra, Ghana.  Assembling with Liberian women refugees already in Accra, together with the women of WIPNET they stood guard, daily vigilant to the need for peace in their country and attentively watching the warlords and President make progress to this end. After almost two months of posturing and jockeying for position, and seeing these men enjoy comforts of hospitality they did not enjoy while in the bushes, the women were fed up, and on July 21, 2003, they locked arms around the building where the talks were being held, asserting they will not allow the men to leave until the peace talks were taken seriously, and a treaty was reached.  Subsequently the talks changed in tone, content, and direction, and with eyes and pressure offered from the international world (the threat of funding to be cut off), change came.  Taylor was exiled to Nigeria, and a transitional government was installed.  WIPNET under Leymah’s efforts, knowing that the struggle for peace just began, returned working in their communities to promote the reconciliation of Liberia (such as forgiving the rebel soldiers), as well as educating their people about the candidates, laying the fodder for sister Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 to become the first woman elected President of Liberia.

I write about Leymah’s work in detail because I had never heard of her, this radical mission or the incredible accomplishments of these Liberia women, until the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize and then watching the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” in October.  Given this event occurred in 2003, not knowing this women’s work until eight years later sheds a glaring spotlight on my own myopia.  Saturated with too many colonizing lies.   You may have experienced the same.  The rallying of women who were stripped of all things but belief, makes the rallying of women over futile gossip and fabricated drama pale in comparison.  On the “Racialicious” Blog, a blog about the intersections of race and pop culture, guest contributor RVCBard writes about such colonization in his post “Fandom and its Hatred of Black Women Characters.”[12]  Both the author and several dozen respondents commiserated that the syndicated depictions of women of color lack multi-dimensionality, yet fans’ responses have been vitriol.  To this observation, RVCBard comments that “what gets overlooked is that the way these characters are hated [referencing such characters as Martha Jones, Tara Thornton, Guinevere, and Mercedes Jones] happens in a particularly racialized and gendered way that echoes a lot of stereotypes about Black women.”[13] I would add to this mix “reality” shows as well.  Why aren’t there reality shows about women activists?  It has to go beyond simply the suppositions of low ratings and lack of interest.

Again, this is why it is so important that the work you do to make change be made known, not for kudos, but as catalysts and models for others illustrating what can be done, and how.  It took an announcement for such work to get a blip on my radar.  I am sure I am not alone.  Imagine if we pipelined the work we were each doing to improve the community and world, this information would not be exceptional.  Maybe I/we need to develop better pipelines to disseminate such information and role models to one another, instead of allowing the media to spoon-feed us stereotypes and caricatures.

Speaking of pipelines, Leymah’s work was the precedent and ground-laying foundation for another of the Nobel Peace Prize sisters.  Kindred recipient and countrywoman Ellie Johnson Sirleaf, veteran in finance and political sectors, has grounded her life’s work in nation building. Out of ashes of political strife and economic exploitation, she has been instrumental in helping the phoenix of Liberia resurrect itself.  She has served in several professional and political capacities and women’s groups.  Over the span of four decades, she served as one of the founding members  of  the International Institute for Women in Political Leadership Liberia’s Minister of Finance, President of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI), Vice President of CITICORP’s Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank, Vice President for Equator Bank, and under the auspice of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) served as Assistant Administrator and Director of its Regional Bureau of Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.[14]   Even in exile she continued to work on initiatives to prosper Liberia, such as the Kormah Development and Investment Corporation, a venture capital vehicle for African entrepreneurs, and Measuagoon, a Liberian non-profit community development organization that helps war-devastated rural communities rebuild themselves (doing such things as in 2002 bringing improved sanitation to the Budumbura Camp, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana), and later subsidizing young girls’ education.[15]  In 2003, when Charles Taylor was exiled and the National Transitional Government of Liberia was formed, she served as Chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission, later culminating in her unprecedented inauguration on January 16, 2006 as the first female President of Liberia.  In this role, she continued her work to build her country by fostering relationships with regional partners and the international community, and attracting resources to rebuild Liberia’s infrastructure.  She has served on several peace-oriented, women-empowerment, transcontinental and international initiatives, and several advisory boards.

The Nobel Peace Prize trinity of transformation and advocacy is completed by Yemenite Tawakkul Karman.  Journalist and human rights advocate, she has taken the tools of her voice and beliefs to collect and rally her people.   The catalyst for her activism was the refusal of the government to intervene in the intentional displacement of 30 families expelled from their village so the land could be given to a tribal leader close to the president. [16]   To quote Karman, “They never responded to one of our demands.  It made it clear to me that this regime must fall.” Engaged in weekly protests since 2007, she established with compatriots a tent camp called “Change Square” in the heart of the capital city of Sanaa.[17] [18] Tawakkul’s work has been advocating for the rights of free press, heading such groups as “Women Journalists Without Chains.”  Additional advocacy entails demanding the release of political prisoners, unabashed protest against granting immunity to corrupt government officials of the current political regime, and being a parliament member of Al-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform).[19]  She is both the first Yemenite and Arab woman to receive the award.

An intersection shared by all three NPP peacemakers is that they are all mothers.  They harness motherhood as motivation for their activism, an impetus for improving the lives of all, especially children, so they may inherit a better world.   Interestingly enough, motherhood is also a commonality shared with their “reality wives” counterparts.  The difference? The former spend no time labeling potential comrades in struggle as “worthless,” “jumpoffs,” or “crazy.”  They do not use voice or venom to garner and manufacture divisiveness, alienate or create pariahs from potential allies.  These activists employ their energies and talents to fling fists not at one another over fabricated squabbles, but to the brick and mortar of oppression.  They use their talents to channel and forge new pathways and possibilities.  They neither agitate already festering wounds, nor manufacture confrontations that last across episodes and legacies.  Leymah demonstrates cunning ability to transcend potential religious barriers to unite Christian and Muslim women in a united front.  Tawakkul transcends religious, political, and gender barriers to unite the voices of Yemeni people into one.  President Sirleaf integrates various initiatives to unite a people torn by war into a country of prosperity.

We don’t have to act like Pavlovian dogs conditioned to respond as “trained” by the media. We can bolster and build instead of berate or resign ourselves to pre-determined corners.  Our national sheroes and three Nobel Peace Prize Women Warriors offer alternative routes and models for how to use our energies and resources to magnify ours’ and other’s talents to promote and harness them all for the greater good of both gender and world. “Miss Representation” closes with offering suggestions for how we can do such work . . .

  • Stop scrutinizing each other
  • Support media that champions accomplished women
  • Boycott media that objectifies and degrades women
  • Write your own stores and create your own media about powerful women in non-traditional roles
  • Be a mentor to others
  • May we all make empowering other women and girls a priority

I am hoping at the end of this blog you will take a moment to write and post the ways you ARE an agent of change.  This could be the pipeline that activates change in others.  Please share your blueprints, and pass them down to us.  After reading a draft of this article, my friend/brother/mentor John Jenkins shared with me its impact on him:

“I am inspired to use my mouth and mind to spread good positive stories of impact so that others gain the authority to do the same. And in this way we will begin to create the counter-narrative of who we are, who women are in this world.”

In tribute to the women mentioned, and to you, I share an original poem about the fortitude of women activists and the lessons they pass down.

What’s absent needs to be made present.

****************************************


 

The North Star (for All Women Warriors)

Women/compose the North Star/

visions from their minds endow its shine,

spin its beams wide from dreams, and give it

pulsation from ripening affirmations/

transmitting from the transcended to the transcending.

 

Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

clasped my hand,

hastening through muck and

dark with steeled steering

commanding, “Follow the North Star!”

 

They relay my hand to Ida B. Wells

who deposits pen into palm

to record and remind the world of

the law of lynching and lynching of the law

decreeing, “Write the North Star!”

 

She brought me to meet

Mary McCloud Bethune

who conferred my other hand with a degree/

with mind elevated, emancipated by education

declaring, “Teach others of the North Star!”

 

Then Zora Neale Hurston

visited on campus/

witnessing pen and degree advised

“Now chile, youz got th’ degree fo’ da mind,

Now ya need th’ degree of da spirit!”

Took me down to the muck,

shaking me all through

the Everglades, New Orleans, and the islands,

sprinkling dialects and roots on me,

and unleashing, “Conjure with the North Star!”

 

Then Septima Clark came forging through/

recruiting/opening Citizenship schools that

farm the word and grow the vote/

took me into crowded back rooms with adult kin

compelling, “Build a bridge for others to the North Star!”

 

She carried me West to Angela Davis

who on sidewalk and in classroom

vivified the intersections of politics, activism and

the responsibility of change/

escorting me from California to Cuba,

showing me light in prison of industry and prism of mind/

shot my arm straight into the sky

demanding, “Protest in the name of the North Star!”

 

Then we traipsed to the dance festival where

Judith Jamison and the troupe

were summoning the spirits.

The Black Swan, as principal, in principle

pulled me to her stage,

and sauntered, careened, strutted, sundered

my body into chanting limbs

proclaiming, “Dance in the name of the North Star!”

 

I pirouetted cross country back to the East

where Ntozake Shange recognized

who I was to be/

put a stage in my mouth/

sat me over roses to menstruate/

performing surgery on the art of me/

expunging mayhem/so it emote milk/

uttering, “Make language/for the North Star!”

 

Then my mother,

forger of road from heaven to earth

put her hand to her stomach

feeling for my hand back,

beckoning, “Now, come. Be the North Star!”

© TMY 2011

****************************************

It’s my sincere hope that this article/blogpost serve as a launching pad for others to become inspired by learning and familiarizing themselves about the work YOU do, to use YOU as a role model, and to contact YOU to contribute. If this blogpost does this, then the mission of writing this article has been fulfilled. To post your response, click the red “Response” button at the end of this blogpost.  A box will appear where you can type in your response.

Write a response in which you share about what organization (or movement)  you support, what communities you work within and support, the work you do, the impact you are trying to make, and contact information for more details.  Whether in your home or across the world, whether large or small scale, telling what you do MATTERS.  Amplifying your contributions to the audience hear helps us learn and grow.

Finally, please also support Bronze Magazine by purchasing a print or digital copy of the anniversary issue.  The founder and editor-in-chief, Shawn Chavis, created the magazine to invigorate and affirm fellow women and their work.  It is replete with information, insight, and inspiration. The site is  http://bit.ly/vtX9U6.

To read others’ responses, or to write your own, please click the red button below.  

To read previous posts scroll to bottom right side of page and click on title of choice.


[11] “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a documentary profiling Ms. Gbowee and the work of several women to bring peace to Liberia. http://praythedevilbacktohell.com/

Motherhood as an Act of Social Justice

As an expectant mother, I am ruminating on how I want to raise our child. Observing how my friends and family members raise their children, and culling from my own experiences, provides me a plethora of options.  Now I am just trying to shape ideas and options into a core and foundation. After having a profound discussion with Tiffany, an admired colleague and friend about her framework for motherhood, I begin  launching questions for my own exploration.  She detailed the facets of her motherhood as an act of social justice, framing it in historical, racial, economic and gender contexts.  Her insightful and incisive framework had me thinking for days.  I wondered if others conceptualized motherhood as an act of social justice, so I asked them.  Three peers, whom I grew up with from the old neighborhood, shared their insights and perspectives.  This post explores the ways these four women contemplate motherhood as an act of social justice, as well as my pondering. The goal of this post is not to provide an absolute singular definition, but a space for mothers and mothers-to-be to ponder, contemplate, and collaborate regarding the responsibilities, challenges, and questions each of use contemplate in defining and situating motherhood as an act of social justice.

 

Entering my fifth month of pregnancy.  Rife with questions and blank spaces, saturated with checklists and preparation, in awe of my body transforming and the life within it transforming me.  I am wondering about motherhood.  Among the well wishes, positive affirmation and advice, one admonition resonates.  Write a journal.  Record what you are experiencing.  But it’s been stop and start.  Like putting key in ignition and flicking it to turn over the engine.  The potential is there, yet getting the car engine to turn can be difficult.

The spark was ignited the past week chatting with Tiffany.  While catching up on old times and new ventures, Tiffany began detailing her newest happiness—that of raising her one year old son.  She is an accomplished woman, one who I admire professionally and personally.  She is a former corporate lawyer and director of human rights initiative in housing, and current founder and director of an international nonprofit organization.  Tiffany approaches life with a spiritual scope and thoughtfulness of her actions as having global implications.   She is together.  If you know Tiffany, you know she works with a high level of focus and devotion.   She is committed to changing the world by advocating the social and economic rights of people.  Through her organization, she empowers the young to be agents of social change.  When it comes to her work in human rights and activism, she brings margins to focus, margins to center.  She is deliberate in what she does so as to touch many, empowering them to touch eternity.

As our chat forged deeper into conversations about motherhood, Tiffany shared her journey on the road converging motherhood and professional duties.  She disclosed her battle in toggling her roles and responsibilities as a director while simultaneously being a new mother.  Wanting to balance her career choice with maternal responsibilities, she shared her joy and frustrations evolving from this duel of dual commitment.

Tiffany’s experience resonates with me.  I am at a crossroad in making a pivotal decision, whether to remain in the workforce and balance it with motherhood, or leave the workforce altogether.  My dilemma unfolds from mingling professional responsibilities with now making decisions on how to lovingly and fairly fulfill what I believe to be my maternal responsibilities.

But this known world of work is one I cherish.  My work as an educator fulfills me.  It completes me, a calling that I invest intellectually and spiritually in fulfilling.  Just this past July I trained several teachers in a local school district in classroom management strategies.  The joy came through several strands: (1) fostering a safe space for them to share frustrations and dilemmas, (2) build intimacy with colleagues as individuals and as a group, (3) introduce several strategies and support their practice of them, and (4) support them in building collegial relationships across classrooms and school buildings (PreK-12) to continue fostering their network of support after the training.  I share this example to say that the core of my world is in helping others help others.  And I invest a lot in positioning myself to do such work.  Fifteen years of schooling (from bachelors to doctorate) and ten years in the work force as teacher, assistant professor, instructional coach and now consultant.  But now, as did Tiffany, I now find myself deliberating how to toggle this old work world with the new commitment of motherhood, deliberating whether the two can meet, harmonize, and thrive.

During our conversation about work and motherhood, Tiffany introduced a premise that became the impetus for her decision to leave the workforce, and for me to write this post.  After toggling both responsibilities through working at home and part-time, she began contemplating whether the combining of these two worlds was aligned with her calling or possibly conflicting with it.  She resolved that the dual responsibilities positioned her to duel with her center.  She resolved to make the conscientious decision in leaving the workforce to raise her son.

Framing her decision through historical, racial, economic, and gender lenses, Tiffany gave sound rationale and justification for choosing to solely devote her time and efforts to motherhood.   Recount in the days of slavery when economics and racism minimally permitted Black women to raise children within intact nuclear families (or choose to stay at home to raise children), placed no value on their child rearing and instead bastardized it into a commodity, exploited and divested rightful income to sustain a household, and situated slave mothers to have to work in harsh agricultural conditions with babies in tow.  Yet despite the historical ashes a phoenix can still arise.  She shared that as a descendent of the African Diaspora she had a responsibility to remember how Black motherhood was displaced and disregarded.  She was real clear that because of historical afflictions and lack of choices, she now as a descendent, would pay homage to ancestors by doing what we were not allowed.

Tiffany also raised concerns about the duplicitous benefits of the feminist movement.  While rightfully advocating for equality, she also felt it positions women to take on what she identified as a fragmenting of self to prove one’s worth.  To her it situates women to do work as inexhaustible dynamos, obligating us to balance working and motherhood “for the cause” of economic and gender equality.  And considering the ethnic factor (are all women equated equal within a feminist movement?), she brought up that as a woman of color there is inequitable pressure to oblige this liberating banner yet contradictory harness.  She admonished me that as professional women we are in an advantageous position to make different choices in the rearing of our children than our ancestors—we actually have a choice in how we want to proceed.  Thus, we have a duty to make informed decisions in how we plan to raise the future for our children and raze obstacles to it.

Tiffany shared that raising a Black son takes on particular significance for her.  With the phenomena of the cradle to prison pipeline, and statistics about Black male incarceration, employment and educational experiences, Tiffany is mindful that black males face an uphill challenge to prosper within this country.  So she, as an agent of change, wants to ensure that her manchild knows a promise land. And so, she shared that she made a deliberate decision in how best to do that, by being readily available to commit to fighting on the frontline by being a stay-at-home mom.

It is these factors to which Tiffany attributes her motherhood as an act of social justice.

I am digesting Tiffany’s profound framework.  She impresses me on the clarity of her purpose and mission as a mother, unfettered by agendas not aligned to the promotion of her son from margin to center.  Her motherhood is aligned with her work ethic in emancipating others, with the focus now on making provisions to emancipate paths for her son.

At my own crossroads, there are things I know I want to enact; it is just now thinking through how to do them.  My own mother, a woman of accomplishment and deep thought, also left the workforce to raise me.  I admire her, and want my method of motherhood to model hers.  While not defining it as an act of social justice, she invested in me by making sure I was surrounded by books and resources,  pushed me to step into voids and created new things within them, and held me responsible for taking care of others. I think I manifest these expectations in my personal life and professional work, as I witnessed her doing as she raised me.  My quandary is whether I can merge these roads as well as she did, and how my friend Tiffany is resolute to fulfilling.

I also wondered if working moms share in similarly align their work as mothers, and what challenges they meet in fulfilling such a framework.  I wrote several of them on Facebook and through email, asking them to describe in what ways they define their raising of children as an act of social justice.   I wanted to know what factors and experiences inform their decisions, and the questions they ask themselves too.  The three shared here are my contemporaries. We grew up in the same neighborhood and attended many of the same schools.  From a generational perspective they offer insight in how they define motherhood as an act of social justice and confines within which they try to exercise it.

Marjorie, a school classmate who is an educator, shared how she frames her motherhood as an act of social justice by empowering her two daughters to thrive in cultivating their individuality, standing up for themselves, and availing herself as a guidepost when needed.  She disclosed that in raising them she has learned to discern their individuality, and in so doing, recognizes her responsibility to accept their distinctions and assist them to evolve into the individuals they choose to be.  She describes her parenting as both direct and intuitive, one that provides parameters on her daughters’ behavior (but does not limit their potential and interests), while simultaneously being responsive to the needs they tell and don’t tell.  As a Jewish woman raising bi-ethnic daughters (her husband is Puerto Rican), Marjorie also disclosed that she is conscious of how others may construct and stereotype her daughters, and that her work as a mother is to teach them how to counteract such constructs.  The raising of her daughters is to empower them not to allow themselves to be limited by others’ perceptions, instead to rise above myopic expectations others try to impose on them.  She also shared that her situating of motherhood as an act of social justice is one of affirming for her daughters the belief they can each stand on their own, and confirming for them that they can lean on her for alliance and reliance when needed.

Kamara, another school classmate, situates her motherhood as an unwavering act of being a teacher, protector, provider, and advocate.  She describes her experiences in raising a preteen son as teaching him to become the best decision maker possible, to discern which challenges command his attention and investment, because by her description he takes in everything as a challenge.  She describes him as being perceptive of what goes on around him, so her work has become to protect him by helping him decipher what to challenge and what not to challenge, what to follow and what not to follow, and what to participate in and not participate in as a leader.  She shared that her son has a keen awareness of worldly circumstances and events (citing such things as global warming, earthquakes, kidnapping, death, and plane crashes), and takes initiative to alleviate worldly woes. Her emphasis lays in providing him help and practice to make the best personal decisions as possible, as well as what and how to address worldly circumstances.  Motherhood as an act of social justice also means for Kamara being an advocate for her son in the NYC school system, actively advocating to insure the best educational and social experiences for him.

For my lifelong friend Carla, also a fellow educator, obtaining knowledge was a pivotal part of her growing up.  Her dad was Afrocentric, a scholarly and politically conscious role model who read voraciously.  In similar fashion, when asked of her defining of motherhood as an act of social justice, one responsibility she shared was the passing on of cultural history. Building a home library and taking him to libraries is one way she fulfilled this expectations for her son, now a college freshman for whom she has built savings to fully finance his college education.  She also situates motherhood as an act of social justice by sharing that it is all parents’ duty to raise children who commit to making the world better than inherited.  To this end, she shared that she preaches and teaches by example, showing her son that it is his duty to be involved in his community as evinced through her own work with parent associations, school leadership teams, and giving to charity.

In coming full circle, my peers were right about journaling.  It provides a landscape for you to see what you are thinking.  Writing is like a map that helps you chart direction.  I am in a valley contemplating the mountains that will be climbed and trails to be forged.  Right now, my motherhood is evolving.  The dilemma is the most sure thing. Emanating from Tiffany’s, Marjorie’s, Kamara’s and Carla’s insights are even more questions.

  • How can I balance duties I have to educators with the calling and new duty of educating a new life?
  • What framework shapes my motherhood to be an act of social justice?
  • How will I know what facets of our child’s personality to give parameters (and when), and which ones to give free reign (and when)?
  • What challenges will I have to help our child watch out for, and how will I teach him or her to discern them autonomously?
  • What are the experiences I should now have to emulate for our child?

As I sit and type, to my left are the four pictures our sonographer gave us to take home of the morning’s ultrasound.   I stare at the pictures as I try to write this conclusion. I see my baby’s growing body, its hands and legs and heart and brain.   I feel the constant kicks and stretches of my baby’s internal curiosity.  Our baby can hardly wait to meet the world.  I stroke my stomach to soothe it.  While not yet having answers, the one surety I have is that I am in good company to ask questions.

**********

You ever have a profound conversation that afterwards you are still thinking on what you discussed?  I hope this post piqued your curiosity and interest.  In what ways do you regard the raising of children as an act of social justice? Would love to hear from you . . .both as an expectant mother and out of genuine wanting to learn more from you.  You are welcomed to post a response.

The Principles of Effective Principals

A great mentor is one who asks you a question you never thought to ask yourself.  Here is a reflection on her question about what it is like to work with school principals (a work in progress).

 

My mentor Judith had us over for conversation and dinner a few months ago.  A question she asked me pierced our conversations of recent travels and ponderings of summer plans.  She asked what my experiences were like working with principals.  Judith has a gift for asking questions that perforate fronts, latch onto beliefs, and suck out the marrow of your truth.  My instant answer was recounting negative experiences I had with two principals while working at my previous job.  I went right into the “Woes is me” narrative of how difficult their intolerance and unkindness made it daunting and at times disheartening to do authentic work with their teachers and schools.  She listened patiently and then redirected, “I did not ask you that,” explaining the heart of her question was getting at what was I learning from working with principals.  The impact of not correctly answering the question, and the question itself, lingers.  Months later, an answer is evolving.

Now working two new consulting positions, Judith’s question has me thinking about the principles of these principals.   Looking back over the past school year, what am I learning about what principals value?  What am I learning about their standards, ethics, and the sources of both?  Veterans and newcomers, they have afforded an inner sanctum for me to study and train.  They give access to themselves.   They ask profound questions.  They are responsive as both professionals and as people.  They empower me as part of an evolving equation they are trying to create and solve.

Time together is valued.  The principals I now work with build into my schedule time for us to do extensive debriefs and have collaborative discussions.  They make sacrifices, whether it is part of the school day, or afterwards on a Friday afternoon.  There is a sense of urgency and importance about our relationship that they make the time for us to meet and talk.  Our meetings transcend my divulging observations and strategic support provided.  They are spent asking questions of each other, conferring or challenging observations, disclosing concerns, and intimating hopes for staff, students, and school.   I honor such assembly.  Time is at a premium for principals, but these have made exceptions for us to invest in one another that impress and enthrall me.

These school leaders are candidly transparent about their dilemmas.   While their skin is Teflon, it is not so tough so that they don’t allow vulnerabilities to surface.  They are leaders with vision and victory for their students as the vanguard of their leadership, and are so open to asking for input on how best to achieve the best for students.  They ask “deep questions.”  Their inquiries are driven less by checking on teacher compliance or to augmenting documentation to excess “bad” ones.  Their questions hover less around “Did the teachers do what I told them?”  More so around the premise “How can we support them as they support students?”   Their questions revolve in constellations of density and complexity.  They span issues of culturally relevant pedagogy, systems-based approaches to improving school culture, and empowering teachers as agents of change.  I am asked a lot about how can teacher disposition be shifted from a deficit-based orientation of urban students to one that is empowerment-driven.   How best can the connection between disposition and instruction be revealed and improved?  How can they as administrators support staff to build and create effective routines in classrooms and systems in schools?

These leaders allow and provide access to a high level of intimacy with their staff and themselves.   Building trusting relationships where people share themselves, their triumphs and trials, is rewarding albeit risky work.  I am sure it is not easy for principals to have their teachers’ classrooms and schools “put on blast,” exposed to what needs intervention and improvement.   But it is this trusting of me by principals to build relationships with teachers, and sharing the process of how I do that with them, that lends itself to building an intimate relationship invested in and shared between them as school leaders and me as consultant.  They learn from me that my goal is not to judge, but to understand.  Not to condemn, but to collaborate.  Not to enervate, but invigorate and shore up to innovate.  This orientation is for both their teachers and themselves as leaders.  And this orientation to working with them becomes the pipeline for principals and me to connect as professionals and as people.  It becomes the bridge to exchange detailed knowledge, build familiarity, share confidence in one another.

These principals situate school progress as an evolving equation.    This approach to consulting and coaching in schools does not have me working on the periphery (with the hope of access), but as an integrated variable in achieving a solution.  Previously, I have experienced waiting several hours onsite before the principal “sent” me to work with teachers, a principal allowing teachers to “blow off” scheduled coaching if they had something more important to do, and a host of other racial and professional indignities.  When shared with my superiors, their response was “Well, just go back and coach more.”  Currently, these leaders are trying to understand the variables at play, their relationship with one another, and what outcomes are possible based on the best configuration.  It is fascinating work.  At one school site, I worked specifically with the 10th grade teachers in improving classroom management.  The principal (newly installed this year) and I collaborated on how best to coach them, and together, situated the coaching where my weekly coaching would consist of 1) rotating observations and providing feedback to teachers, 2) doing inter-visitations with one struggling second-year teacher, 3) weekly PD meetings with the teachers as a team, 4) sharing out best practices of the team members.  Then, she asked for us to think of 1) how to share out what the 10th grade teachers learned, 2) how we could build the other grade levels to similar capacity, 3) empower grade level teams in behavioral management such that all discipline issues did not fall on the single dean, and 4) what support I could provide to achieve these goals.  In another school site, the principal and two Assistant Principals have involved me in their inquiry around how to understand teacher disposition and its impact on rigor and instruction, and what I could do to support such development and application.

What I begin to understand from these principals are some fundamental principles about working with people.  We make time for what we value.  Being vulnerable and inquisitive signals to others help needed in answering questions.  Intimacy is both a gift and a tool.  An invitation into solving bigger equations confirms peoples’ recognition of your skills and your capacity to both enhance and innovate.

Truths that I thank Judith for forcing me to ponder.