Darius Johnson, M.A.
Final Critical Reflection
I grew up in the South to a single teenage mother who raised four kids on a minimum
wage job. I am the first/only person in my family to go to college, let alone receive a college
degree. When I engage in work for education equity for disadvantaged students, it is more than
a professional endeavor, but about serving people I identify with. It also allows me to think
through who I am, but more importantly who I can and should be. I spent my summer working
with Eradication the School-to- Prison Pipeline Foundation, Inc in Miami, Florida. My internship
consisted of different interconnected parts that were all aimed at advancing education for
distressed, underprivileged, and disenfranchised youth and their families and communities (as
stated in my work plan).
Throughout the summer I participated weekly in the Positive Peer Leadership Mentoring
program. This allowed me to go into Turner Guilford Correctional Facility & Miami Dade
Juvenile Detention Center. I had the opportunity to mentor and learn from students about their
conceptualization of education equity. This is monumental because typically students who
reside in juvenile justice facilities are not brought to the table to engage in conversations
centered on education equity. My summer also consisted of meeting an array of community
leaders who work on the ground to give back to their communities. Gayle Flowers, a local
pastor in Liberty City, stood out the most because of her organic passion to serve.
I also had the privilege to develop a curriculum map for E-SToPP’s freedom school. This
is personally important to me because I serve as an exemplar that the educational system can
change the lives of poor students of color for the better. However, that may be true to a degree
because I am financially stable because of the educational system, but that is only part of the
story. Through my educational experience I continuously feel something is missing because I
don’t see myself in the curriculum. The educational system doesn’t for the most part teach, but
indoctrinates students into a particular culture (middle-class white American). Students are
essentially assessed by the manner in which they appropriate that culture. Developing the
curriculum map allowed me to research and access what it is that students of color need that
they are not already receiving. For me liberation should be the goal of the curriculum and it was
great constructing an educational experience centered on giving students the tools to be their
Over the summer I also had the opportunity to study and develop an infographic on
school discipline in Liberty City, attend a Bidder’s Conference to get a feel of grant writing, and
an array of other personal and professional enriching activities. The biggest lesson that I
learned is, it’s simple but very true, you much have passion if you are going to do education
equity work successfully. This road is long and hard as hell at times. Money and other frivolous
things can’t sustain this type of work. An example is going to the detention centers. There are
so many loops and things that can occur that prevents you from seeing the students and/or the
number of students you can see at a time. When you do see them they may not be interested
in participating or value your presence. But, passion is going to make you jump through those
hoops again the next day and continue the process of developing rapport with these students.
Since you don’t see immediate change it becomes difficult to negotiate if you are really making
a change. But, passion will keep you there for the long haul. These students have been
socialized not to value their own greatest and it becomes our duty to believe in them so much
they can’t help but to want better for their self.
The biggest challenge I see for E-SToPP is that we want to do what not a lot of others
will. We want to take a segment of the population that most of the country ignores and doesn’t
even know about and give them a fighting chance at a good life. When it comes to fund
allocation it is easier to make a case to invest in these kids who are trying, but they are in
underfunded schools. It becomes harder convince stake holders to invest resources, love, and
passion into students with felonies or other comparable stigmas. Structurally it becomes
complicated when it comes to securing funding, obtaining insurance, and other logistics that go
into sustaining a non-profit that serves youth that reside in juvenile justice facilities.
I feel my reflection is more personal and affective than it is professionally goal-oriented.
Part of that is intentional, but the other part is that what I took the most from my experience is
inspiration. Some scholars have argued that the most under-utilized human and natural
resource is inspiration. As I go back to finish working my doctoral work sitting on the
educational ivory tower I will go with a newfound respect for individuals who are on the
ground. When become a faculty member at a university I don’t want to limit my fight for
education equity to teaching it in class and publishing in journals. I am currently trying to
negotiate with myself how to move forward with my work in educational equity. It is a
conversation about what I can give. I feel similar to words spoken by the prominent rapper
Wale, “I am just a man, May not change the world. But let me inspire someone who can”.
Growing up as a poor person of color in the south, these readings touched me in a both educational and personal manner. Going to a public school segregated by both race and class I have experienced first-hand the violence of the Southern American educational system. I developed a natural desire to analyze the educational institution critically and also change it. In the readings Freire argues that after students develop a critical consciousness praxis allows for them to alter the structures in which marginalizes them.
Historically we have constructed a society in which institutions marginalize the poor, women, racial minorities, and ethnic minorities. The educational system is no different. We can see this historical process of marginalization if we look at a few select historical examples. In 1864 Congress made it illegal for Native Americans to be taught in their native languages. This is part of a larger historical process of imperialism that has violently indoctrinated minority students into an educational system that undermines any history that (de)normalizes whiteness. From 1893-1913 the size of school boards in the country’s 28 biggest cities was cut in half. This resulted in local immigrant communities losing control of their local schools. Local businessmen on school boards were replaced by members of the capitalist class. This is part of a larger pattern of the American educational system functioning under neoliberal policies.
We can go through a long historical analysis of ways in which the American educational system has worked to marginalized minorities. But, I cite a few examples to move us away from the utopian view of the educational system as an institution in place to better the life chances of all citizens. These examples allow us to conceptualize the academic imperialism that the American educational system embodies. These readings allowed me to reflect on the ways in which the educational system has been historically used as a tool violence towards marginalized groups and it seems America doesn’t learn from the past too well.
All of the readings speaks to the ways in which education can and has been used as a tool of marginalization. For bell hooks she talks about an education of liberation (which is understandable given she is greatly influenced by Freire). She argues that education is more than about developing a person for the work force, but about allowing students to be constructors of their own educational experience. She argues that the educational system is upheld by sexist, racist, and imperialist ideals. We must constantly challenge the structure. In reflecting upon hooks’ book the sections on language and class really stood out. hooks speaks about how we must use the language of our oppressor to communicate with him. However, blacks in America have altered American English in profound ways. Typically this is referred to as slang or ebonics. However, hooks argues that this broken form of English serves as a resistance to imperialism. Frantz Fanon says, “to speak a language is to appropriate a culture”. In the American educational system students are forced to appropriate the standard American English language. Through this process indigenous languages, black urban vernacular, and other tongues are marginalized. For me, we must construct the educational system in which students can use their true voice in their process of liberation.
Coming from a working poor background I was personally invested in hooks’ chapter on teaching and class. hooks says, “It only took me a short while to understand that class was more than just a question of money, that it shaped values, attitudes, social relations, and the biases that informed the way knowledge would be given and received”. The educational system is structured around capitalist middleclass norms. hooks continues to argue that, “values of those from materially privileged classes are imposed upon everyone via biased pedagogical strategies”. When this occurs we treat the bourgeois as experts and the poor as void of knowledge. However, individuals from poor and marginalized backgrounds have a worldview that can enhance the educational system.
Reflecting on the readings have me excited to start my work with E-SToPP and specifically the Positive Peer Leadership Mentoring program. The readings helped give me a theoretical framework that can aid me over the summer. The most useful component is from Freire when he speaks on not polarizing the educational experience. Where we must move away from teachers/professionals being seen as experts that are there to liberate students. Freire says liberation cannot be a gift. I feel well intentioned people such as myself go into these situations wanting to help. But, to help is a very paternalistic notion which Freire warns us of. The students who I will work with over the summer are the experts when it comes to their lived reality. It is not my job to help them progress through life positively, but rather the students and I construct mutual relationships built on honesty and in turn we will learn from each other.
The readings have me excited about working in the detention centers this summer. As a student who frequently got expelled (never was sent to a detention center) I understand the stigma that comes with individuals who are punished. Too often society gives individual explanations for why this occurs such as the students have poor behavior. But, rarely do we engage in a meaningful conversation on the ways in which both the educational and criminal justice system fails poor students and students of color. bell hooks talks about the way in which sexism, racism, and classism upholds the educational system. We can get a lot closer to finding solutions if we try to create structural explanations in understanding this populations experiences opposed to using individual ones. I am excited about meeting and learning with the students. I anticipate my reflection will be much more nuanced after learning with the students.
Educators, policy makers, politicians, and most individuals that work in some part of the educational institution are in a peculiar position. These individuals are beneficiaries of the educational system (given their relative privileged positions), but are called upon to offer critiques of the very system that they are products of. This positionality influences the way in which these individuals conceptualize the issues within the educational system. bell hooks (2014) says she didn’t think of herself as a professor and this allowed her the ability to offer a nuanced critique of what occurs in the classroom. Even myself as a success story largely due to the American educational system is locked into a mental framework in which I feel there is power in our educational system. Also, that this system constructed largely by my oppressor can be the key to my liberation. But, if the educational system is going to be structured as a tool of liberation we must grapple with the academic imperialism that is engrained in the educational system. I argue that students of color generally, black students specially, suffer from epistemological violence at the hands of our current educational system.
The current American educational system does not exist in a vacuum, in a fixed position in time, but rather is situated in a historical narrative of racial oppression. Blacks have been placed in opposition to modernity because of the imperialist project which encompasses, but not limited to, colonialism, the Atlantic slave-trade, and slavery. This project “drained societies of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” (Cesaire, 2001, p. 43). To justify this imperialist violence towards black bodies “the myth” was created which argued that blacks did not have the ability to be civilized and would be helpless without Western society. This myth has been preserved and renegotiated over time. The contemporary educational system must become structured in a manner to combat this feeling of “nobodiness” created from racial subjugation.
The American educational system still largely operates under “banking system” principles in which Paulo Freire warned about. Within the banking-system the educational institution treats students as if they are empty vessels waiting to receive knowledge. Knowledge takes the form of a gift that is graciously given from the informed teacher to a student who was before void of valuable information (Freire, 2000). Rather than allow students to become co-constructers of their educational experience, the educational institution creates a monopoly on knowledge by controlling what legitimate knowledge is, who has the ability to possess this knowledge, and the manner in which this knowledge can be transferred.
Bell hooks (2014) argues, the university is inflicted with biases that maintains white supremacy, imperialism, sexism, and racism have distorted education so that it is not about the exercise of freedom. I argue that K-12 schools suffer from the same ailments. Through epistemological violence the racist, sexist, and imperialist nuances of the educational system can go unchallenged. If knowledge can only be constructed by individuals with power in the system, then new voices are never heard and even if they are they are pushed to the side. Students of color become indoctrinated into a system in which heteronormative middle-class whiteness is the norm. Even if the educational system one day transpired to economic gain for these students, they are still influenced by the hegemonic power of mainstream American cultural ideals. Here I argue for an educational experience that humanizes all students and aids them in their struggle to recover their lost humanity. Students of color are fighting for more than freedom from hunger, but for freedom to create and to construct, freedom to wonder, and freedom to venture (Freire, 200). Through this we need to move away from the banking system of education to a reflexive system where both teachers and students are both constructors of knowledge.
A Brief History of Imperialism
The imperialist project which encompasses, but not limited to, colonialism, Atlantic slave-trade, and slavery drastically impaired the lives of all people of color. Imperialism is typically discussed in at least 4 manners: (1) economic expansion, (2) subjugation of others, (3) idea or a spirit, and (4) a discursive field of knowledge (Smith, 1999). I view imperialism as consisting of all four given that it is multifaceted. Depending on what form imperialism rears its ugly head determines the manner in which it could be conceptualized. Imperialism infringed upon the histories and trajectories of countless societies.
Imperialism was fueled by capitalism’s need for endless expansion (Wolfe, 1997). The desire for economic gain at the expense of other human bodies was at the heart of imperialism. Out of the dialectic of valuing capital over human life, but still needing to present yourself as a good humane society came the “myth”. The myth is an overarching belief that Africans specifically and people of color generally did not have the ability to be civilized (James, 1977). To be civilized is to be human. This myth disqualified blacks not solely from civilization, but from humanity itself (Smith, 1999). The educational system must take up the task of giving students of color the agency to realize their innate humanity and develop it fully.
This myth allowed for the marginalization of black bodies. Also, it created an ideology constructed around the notion that the Western world must attempt to “humanize” these others. Different mechanisms were incorporated to civilize black bodies, such as religion, language, Western education, and etc. Language and literary principles are important because to speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture (Fanon, 2008). To be bound by the restrictions of a language is to lose the autonomy to define your reality. This becomes extremely problematic when the language you use has been imposed upon you by your oppressor. In Teaching to Transgress hooks highlights how the statement, “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you” was powerful to her. She continues to argue that the English language in and of itself isn’t harmful, but the way in which oppressors have used it to marginalize the oppressed is. Within academic spaces we rarely see slang (black vernacular) used. hooks (2014) argues that Black English is used a resistance to white supremacy, but also forges spaces in which alternative epistemologies are created to challenge the dominant hegemonic worldview.
Education as form of Epistemological Violence
In 1933 Carter G. Woodson said, “The thought of’ the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies”. The optimism of our human spirit would like for us to believe that this is no longer the case. However, within this current banking system of education we treat students as empty vessels void of knowledge. The student is deprived of the opportunity to co-construct their educational experience using their cultural knowledge.
Vandana Shiva (1988) argues that contemporary science is reductionist and undergirds an economic system of exploitation. Science is geared towards the development of capital and all its other capacities are destroyed. Reductionist ideologies creates a monopoly on knowledge because it controls what type of knowledges are created and who the beneficiaries are. Shiva argues violence occurs because people become divided into experts and non-experts and non- experts become conceptualized as non-knowers. The current educational system operates from a very similar model. One in which we are training students to become workers in the economic market, so capitalist principles are the core of the system. Our educational model is reductionist because we simplify the educational system to a one size fits all and obscure the complex needs of students of color, the poor, and women. Through this process epistemological violence occurs because the experts’ shape what is knowledge, how knowledge can be created, and how can knowledge be transferred.
Education as a Form of Liberation
I argue that to move education away from committing epistemological violence it must be centered on liberating students. We must move away from a polarizing view of the classroom where the teacher is seen as knowledgeable and students are seen as empty vessels waiting to receive knowledge. Freire (2000) calls for a teacher-student with student-teachers dynamic. In this system everyone comes to class with meaningful knowledge. The dynamics of the class must be shaped in such a way all voices are not only heard, but are seen as legitimate contributions to the educational process. Freire argues that now students can call upon elements of their background awareness and reflect upon them. Within this problem-posing process students of color have the agency to critically assess their reality. Through this development of a critical consciousness praxis can later be incorporated to dismantle systemic structures.
We must transform the language that is incorporated in the educational system. Currently students of color are forced to master the language of their oppressor to prove fit to excel in the educational system. Alternative languages (e.g. black urban slang) are disregarded as educationally irrelevant. In this situation the key to educational success is appropriating the language of the oppressor. Defining what counted as literacy was a huge part of the imperialist project. Literacy once dealt with “having the ability to extract and encode from written text, but scholars have problematized this definition arguing that literacy is an ideology, with the construction and dissemination of conceptions as to what literacy is in relation to the interests of different communities” (Newman, 2005, pp. 399-400).
We see a shift in scholars from a more imperialist notion of literacy to a multiliteracy perspective. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis argue that given the altering social and technological contexts in which we learn and communicate we need a broader conceptualization of what constitutes literacy (2009). A multiliterary view allows us to view all forms of communication as literacy and moves us away from solely being tied to the imperialist view of literacy. If we treated student’s cultural language as legitimate forms of literacy they could use their own tongue in their journey of liberation. “Standard English is language of conquest and domination;in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear” (hooks, 2014. P.168). The Black English vernacular was constructed in process of resistance to white supremacy. It is fitting that this language be utilized in the educational system as a liberatory resource for Black students.
History is a great resource to highlight the importance of personal experience in the educational institution (Dewey, 2004). Too often students receive a Eurocentric historical perspective that works to marginalize their personal experiences. Teachers want students to appropriate and reproduce the subject matter, but do not always think about the way in which this knowledge develops the student as a social member. When history is framed in Eurocentric terms students of color are being socialized to uphold white supremacy, which future alienates them from their self. Culturally relevant historical accounts will benefit students of color because they can see people who look like them as agents of historical change and will also benefit white student because it will allow them to begin the process of disinvesting in white supremacy. Students should be able to learn about indigenous ideologies, Afrocentric methods, and feminist paradigms given these cultural resources will aid them in developing a critical consciousness that can be transfered to any field.
For education to become liberatory it must develop the whole student. This cannot occur if we continue treating students as void of knowledge. The educational space must be democratized in a manner in which students can co-construct their educational experience. Currently teachers give students knowledge as if it is a gift so that they can one day in turn be successful in the economic sector. However, if this is the sole goal of education then students are never allowed the opportunity to develop a “conscientization” (Freire, 2000). Without this critical consciousness students of color’s actions cannot be directed towards liberation because they have not gone through a reflexive process yet to understand their true condition.
To develop a liberatory education system we first have to move away from the banking system and understand that both teacher and student have meaningful knowledge to offer. Students must be able to learn a history that is empowering to their self. We must also educate the soul (hooks, 2014). This will entail remodeling the Eurocentric manner in which we construct history. History changes depending on who tells the story. We must allow students to develop the capacity to tell their story; to speak a true word (Freire, 2000). This true word should not have to come from the language of the oppressor. We must alter the language in the educational system. Language is attached to cultural practices, not intelligence. Speaking urban slang does not highlight literary deficiency, but represents a cultural understanding that most academics have not acquired. If the individuals we label as experts have not acquired this skill, then this ability must not be valid.
Students of color are not separated from history. But, currently live in a historical position that is influenced by slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. To offer a meaningful education we must attack the hegemonic ideals that were created and renegotiated from this violent history. The educational system can uphold its sexist, racist, and xenophobic structure with epistemological violence. The educational system dictates what knowledge is, who can produce knowledge, and how knowledge can be disseminated. Until we stop this violent process students of color are doomed with making due with an educational experience that devalues their culture, history, and soul.
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