The Radical Imagination of Black Educators: Past and Future Directions for the Education Justice Movement

This fall we find ourselves in a confluence of crises: the economic crisis hurting households across the country, the dangers of re-opening during COVID-19, police brutality on the streets and in schools, massive dislocation of families due to climate wildfires, and now Trump’s White House is trying to punish educators for teaching about the history of racial injustice and white supremacy that continues in our country.

On September 30th, Schott hosted a wide-ranging discussion among Black educators and advocates on how we can both navigate the present moment and also reimagine the future of teaching and learning. What can we learn from the liberation struggles of the past to inform and inspire our current work? What are students, parents, educators, and community members doing right now that we should support and defend? Speakers included:

  • Karen “kg” Marshall, Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink)

  • Dr. Richard Benson, Spelman College historian of Black Education

  • Dr. Khalilah Harris, Center for American Progress, #WeBuildEDU  

  • Jesse Hagopian, Teacher, #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool

  • Dr. Leah Austin (moderator), Schott Foundation for Public Education

Moderator Dr. Austin began the conversation with some introductory framing to help us better understand the history that led us to this moment. The dynamic tension that runs through the history of public education in the United States is one of change from above and change from below: between policymakers unwilling or unable to provide an opportunity to learn to all children, and the movements that see education as central to the liberation that must be achieved by any means necessary. “As Black people, since we’ve been brought to this country we’ve been constantly imagining and reimagining our education,” Dr. Austin said.

Khalilah Harris reminded us that in this moment of crisis we shouldn’t limit ourselves to tinkering around the edges of policy reform, like an extra educator here or more tutoring there. “It really starts with us taking a step back and first rethinking what we believe ‘school’ to be, Harris said. The task at hand demands that we critically examine and decolonize the education system we see before us, to construct a bolder vision that’s rooted in the lived experiences of marginalized people, that’s accountable to the communities the schools reside in, and that recognizes how some of the most important learning in a child’s life happens outside the schoolhouse doors.

Dr. Richard Benson discussed how in the years directly following the end of the Civil War, Black Americans threw themselves into the construction of a new civilization essentially from scratch, with education and public schools as the beating heart of the project. “We have to see what was,” he said, “in order to see the possibilities of the next phase of education in 21st century Black life.” 

Karen Marshall centered the question, “education toward what?” Even beyond the official curriculum, because schooling exists within the current economic system children are implicitly taught to be obedient, passive, and productive workers, and even well-meaning educators are forced into disciplinarian roles. One of the things Marshall does at Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools is throw back the curtain and make these larger structural imperatives visible to students, so they can both understand and resist them. “We also need Black educators to be radicals themselves,” she said. “If we’re reimagining education as a space that can be liberatory for the folks being educated, it also has to be a space where all the educators have a liberatory practice.”

Jesse Hagopian continued that train of thought, pointing out the “fixation on ranking and sorting kids, with grades and high-stakes standardized testing” is a holdover from early 20th-century eugenicists. He emphasized the need to reorganize education to address and solve crises like mass incarceration, sexual assault, and systemic poverty. “We have social catastrophes that education has to have a say about.” Part of that could come from interdisciplinary curriculum arrangements, in which a social problem is examined and through that examination students would develop math, research, writing, history, and public speaking skills. Hagopian also recounted his involvement organizing the first Black Lives Matter in School Day in Seattle as a way to help build solidarity and awareness among fellow educators and to show up for the Black students they teach and serve.

This is only a small slice of everything discussed in the conversation — watch the full livestream above to hear it all! And then pledge to organize with students, educators, families and communities to make these radical visions a reality.

Like what you've read?

Then don't miss a thing. Join the thousands of students, parents, educators, and activists who already receive our latest updates and resources!