Jackson-Chicago Restorative Justice Teachers’ Exchange

by Shanti Elliott and Carol Redfield-Mims, with Suzanne Amra, Maryam Bilal, Jereece M. Brown, Gael Byrnes, Martria Clifton, Kassandra Cosby, Olivia Cote, Shauna Davis, Roshunda Harris-Allen, Nicol Hemphill, Jacqueline McClendon-Griffin, and David Stieber

“People in Mississippi are good at doing things that have never been done.”

  • Jackson Historian Mr. Franklin Figgers

“To know where you are as an individual and as part of a collective group, you have to know from where you came.”

  • Chicago teacher Ms. Jereece Brown

In the fall of 2017, 14 teachers from Jackson, Mississippi and Chicago, Illinois began meeting to share stories of their cities and classrooms. They were preparing to participate in an annual meeting of educators focused on equity in education, called the North Dakota Study Group because it began in 1972 in North Dakota.  This year the Study Group meeting would be held in Jackson, hub of ongoing collective work for liberation and democracy, where the fight for fully funded, vibrant schools is understood to be a continuation of the Civil Rights work led by Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Bob Moses and other Mississippi leaders.

The North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) invites you to Jackson, Mississippi, a singular place in the African American struggle for emancipation.  Rich historic sites in Jackson celebrate the courage, creativity and perseverance of activists who were part of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Movement.  Jackson leaders of today are no less challenged by policies that condone violence, white supremacy, police brutality, and lack of access to healthcare, housing, jobs, and more.  Of particular concern for NDSG will be access to the emancipation that can occur through education, including our own emancipation from racism. https://ndsg2018.weebly.com/

The teachers of Jackson and Chicago, two cities joined by a common legacy of Black resistance to systemic racism, sought to build conversation and relationship between their students in the months leading up to the Jackson NDSG meeting.  A Jackson teacher described her goal in participating, “to partner with schools doing the work of transforming our schools as a place for cooperative learning and students to benefit from these new opportunities.” A Chicago teacher noted,

The first thing that comes to mind is my students’ family connections to Mississippi, and the history of migration from Mississippi to Chicago. We could learn about each others’ family histories, migration and non-migration – comparing and contrasting life and social justice issues between the two communities. A project could take form through many angles – by reading literature/art of each community, by researching family histories and migration trends, analyzing the impact of individual choices and the impact of the environment, etc. I am in charge of initiating our first year-end “capstone” project, and I see a collaboration as a unique learning experience that that provides leadership and collaborative possibilities for students in both locations

(Teacher application, Jackson-Chicago Teachers’ Exchange, Fall 2017).

In Jackson and in Chicago, public schools are under-funded, over-tested, and racked by the broader economic and social issues of their cities. The schools are also full of curious students, visionary teachers, and committed family members who teach and learn in powerful ways that are disregarded by the deficit narrative about public education, and especially public education in Jackson and Chicago.  They share a vibrant history and current reality of communities who organize social change around love for and protection of young people. So, while teachers were interested in building relationships between their classrooms, they also shared a vision for dignity in schools, authentic community-based learning, and social justice.

For the first several months, meetings were held online and by telephone, so that participants could learn about each other’s interests and teaching approaches, and share challenges each teacher experienced in their own contexts.  The teachers taught diverse subjects and grade levels, but quickly found that they shared a commitment to restorative practices as a support for improving relationships between students and between students and teachers.

Over the course of the year, the Jackson teachers traveled around the country deepening their understanding of restorative justice. They brought back to JPS new methods and perspectives and led peace circle training for students, teachers, and parents in the district.  Meanwhile, Chicago teachers practiced restorative justice in their contexts, with the support of professional learning offered by youth leaders of VOYCE (Voices of Youth in Chicago Education).  The teachers from the two cities talked periodically, sharing new learning, questions, and applications in their schools.  In one public example of the teachers’ exchange,  Jackson teacher Dr. Roshunda Allen and Chicago teacher Mr. David Stieber connected in a Facebook Live chat to discuss educational issues impacting educators in Jackson and in Chicago.  For instance, they reflected on the racial disparities underlying current public attention to gun violence in schools: “gun violence has been impacting communities of color for years but it is only now after a shooting at a white school that everyone seems to care.”  The educators’ dialogue emboldened them to develop an analysis of the impact of systemic injustice on their students and bring it to a more public stage, to promote education that values the lives and believes in the dreams of all students.

To prepare for the Study Group meeting, teachers steeped themselves in Civil Rights history as well as current realities.  With the rest of NDSG, they read I’ve Got the Light of FreedomJackson Rising, A Different Kind of Takeover for JPS, and other Readings.  They came to the February 15-18, 2018 Study Group meeting in Jackson primed, as NDSG’s invitation urged, to think about personal experiences in relation to a legacy of white supremacy in this country and to engage in conversations about education based in equity and justice.  NDSG Jackson Host and Institute for Democratic Education in America Director Albert Sykes challenged participants to ask, “How do we put ourselves in the story?  It’s not about coming to Jackson,” he said, “it’s about sinking in to Jackson. Not a drive-by, but a serious focus on race, on equity. If we can see what’s happening, we can know where we are.”

In February 2018, educators from all over the country came to Jackson with questions about national education policy and practice paired with intentional inquiry into the city’s local context: How can we learn to be in this place fully and respectfully?  How does my being here help me learn more about myself and my world? How does it impact my students when I follow Ella Baker’s lead, and sit at the feet of people who stood up when pushed down? What does a grassroots approach to change look like in education and in politics?

Participants of the meeting visited the Civil Rights Museum and the NAACP, mourned Medgar Evers and the thousands of victims of white supremacist violence, and at the venerable
HBCU Tougaloo College, sat together in conversation about approaches to education that combat racism and grow what keynote speaker Ms. Rukia Lumumba called “collective genius.”  She sparked questions for educators: Why hasn’t it been part of my education, to vision and dream? Who is served by my obedience to the accountability systems that are in place in my area? Why do I perpetuate approaches to education that don’t ground students and teachers in their capacities to collectively, boldly, creatively vision?

The Study Group focused on challenges to equity in education, in a context where the state has condemned Jackson students to what Mr. Albert Sykes names, “a sharecropper’s education.”  Local leaders situated the vulnerabilities of the school system.  They noted that the threatened state takeover of the schools stemmed from the fact that “Jackson never healed the gaping wound of slavery and Jim Crow.”  They also emphasized the resilience and resourcefulness of the people of Mississippi, whose work led to the Voting Rights Act and other critical social advances.  In the 1960s, local leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer took on the national Democratic Party though they couldn’t vote themselves. Dignity and collective power was embedded in the buildings like the building NDSG met in, home to CORE, NAACP, SNCC, and many local Civil Rights organizations. We were in, they made it clear, sacred space.

At Tougaloo, the Jackson and Chicago teachers held a fishbowl conversation, surrounded by NDSG colleagues from all over the country.  Chicago teacher Ms. Martria Clifton talked about the importance of students sharing stories, being able to say: “Here’s who I am, where I’m from. Here’s what’s going on in our schools.”   Jackson teacher Ms. Olivia Cote responded, “we need to create the space for students to explore their identity and be proud of their identity. To share with students who look like them in another area is a way to build their identities up.”  The teachers shared approaches to community-based civic engagement: Teachers and students researching their communities, oral histories, studying statistics through histories of local housing, and restorative practices in the classroom and community.

NDSG colleagues sat in a circle around the teachers.  They listened closely, then offered observations and support:

“This is a critical platform for building dialogue.”

“How are you building trust amongst yourselves? When educators take the time to do this, it models relationship-building for your students.”

“A seed has been planted. Protect it.  People try to trample on seeds before they have a chance to grow.”

“Unlike the vertical power structures that organize many of our institutions, this is horizontal development – teachers unfolding the lives and the wisdom of teachers.”

“Create the conditions of a no-whine zone. That’s what we’re not doing. Hold up the work of a child with each other.”

In her reflection on the Jackson-Chicago Teachers’ Exchange, Chicago teacher Ms. Shauna Davis wrote, “By exposing and encouraging students to have conversations with a different population than they are used to, we are helping them learn and grow into productive global citizens.  We are empowering them to take chances and get to know people, no matter how big or small the difference is.”  She emphasizes that supporting students’ development as global citizens requires that educators engage in a particular kind of preparation, one that is deeply reflective and influenced by community-based processes:

I am developing my practice as a culturally sustaining educator.  I am learning how to actively communicate with adults and students about race and injustices that are happening in the world.  Living in a large city, we are constantly observing injustices on people of color.  Students and adults need opportunities to discuss what is happening to us and our students.  I am learning through NDSG how to hold and lead these conversations, as well as sharing this information with colleagues so that they can have these conversations with their students too. Through NDSG I am gaining confidence in my abilities and a supportive community (networking) to become a leader in my school community.

We look forward to continuing the Teachers’ Exchange, where educators share their learning with one another and with their students, and invite students into the process of learning about the history, issues, challenges, and connections with the other city.

* The Jackson-Chicago Teacher Exchange is supported by the Mississippi Association of Educators and Chicago Public School’s Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement.


Free Yesica: What You Can Do

Free Yesica site


Yesica was separated from her family at 19 and deported to El Salvador, where she was stalked, attacked and forced to flee.  Attempting to reunite with her family in Illinois, Yesica was apprehended and has been held in Texas jails for 2 years. Now her deportation is imminent. If she is deported she will be killed by the gang members who killed her father and targeted her.

Call and write your Senator:


Illinois:Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth

Other States: Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121/ https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact

Click here for call script: https://bit.ly/2LtMmlN

Click here for sample letter: https://bit.ly/2J320H5

Sign and circulate petition: https://bit.ly/2J1ByJX

Participate  in FAMILIES BELONG TOGETHER action for Yesica:

June 21 @ 12 pm, Federal Plaza

More details on Yesica’s story here: https://bit.ly/2GY1vx3

ICE aids and abets femicide in Central America

“A lot of people believe they are free because they are not detained or imprisoned, but they’re locked inside their hearts and minds.”

 –Yesica, 22, detained by ICE since 2016

I first heard the word “gaslighting” in reference to Trump, throwing off scrutiny by denigrating those who question his actions. Like many, once I knew the word I could start identifying countless big and small ways I have let myself be duped, belittled, and lied to, by people close to me as well as by public leaders.  I have subordinated my own understanding and knowledge to the claims of authorities.

Women are becoming more vocal about how we have not only been harassed, assaulted, and kept down.  We also need to confront the ways we feed oppression with our own silence and self-doubt.

Our timidity has not only made us more vulnerable in our personal and professional spaces, it has also kept us from challenging the growth of violent anti-woman, anti-family systems that are targeting Black and Brown people.  The prison industrial complex, including the immigrant surveillance, detention, and deportation system managed by ICE, has fattened uncontrollably —  while white women like me, who are not targeted, wonder how such rampant injustice can be happening in our democratic nation.

By now, we know the patterns of abuse associated with domestic violence: isolation, threats to children, intimidation.  As analysis that accompanies the wheel of power and control emphasizes, too often the police and prison system perpetuate this abuse rather than preventing or protecting women from it.  Systems of violence are not only physical; they are carried out through silences, lies, and distortions. ICE’s response to questions about taking an 18 month old baby from its mother, for example: “ICE’s ‘concern always is the health and well-being of that child.’”

For the past two years I have been part of a campaign to release Yesica Jovel from detention in Texas and to lift her order of deportation.  In El Salvador, her father was killed for trying to protect her from M-13, and once he was gone, she was tracked down and raped.  She will be killed if she is deported. Our government knows all this, and will deport her anyway.  It also knows that ICE routinely abuses immigrants in detention.  I have come to the conclusion that our justice system is a vast taxpayer-financed extension of the fists of the gangs that are hunting down our beloved Yesica.

Jeff Sessions’ most recent policy decision confirms this analysis: in a classic gaslighting move, he is targeting protections for women fleeing domestic violence, blaming women for creating an immigration system “overloaded with fake claims.”  Women, expose the gaslighting. Stop the abusers. Demand that ICE free Yesica, stop separating families, and respect the lives and well-being of women.










Yesica, now age 22, a survivor of sexual assault, torture and the murder of her father, a policeman, seeks asylum and unification with her family in Evanston, Illinois. In detention in Texas, she faces imminent deportation to El Salvador, despite the merits of her case.


  • The asylum case of Yesica’s mother and two younger brothers is in process in the Chicago immigration court and has a 2020 call date. The family lives in a church in Evanston. This church is an “Immigrant Welcoming Congregation” making a commitment to advocate for immigrant justice.
  • In El Salvador, Yesica’s family had been repeatedly accosted and threatened by the gang members of M-13, culminating in the murder of the father in the presence of his family in a public space in their town.
  • Her father had defied the gang’s demands and often assisted his neighbors. Notably, her father refused to hand Yesica over to the gang when they demanded she be turned over. When the gang murdered her father, gang members indicated that Yesica was next to be killed.
  • In response, the family fled. Upon entering the U.S., Yesica’s family was apprehended and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 19 years old at the time, Yesica was separated from her mother Juana, and her two younger brothers, then 15 and 7. ICE agents coerced Yesica into agreeing to deportation, while her mother and brothers were sent to Chicago to enter the asylum process.
  • When Yesica was deported to El Salvador in 2015, she was immediately at risk. Without the protection of her family, she went into hiding. She was pursued and threatened by gang members, which included sexual assault and violence at the hands of her uncle.
  • After a year of trying to hide and knowing that she could soon be killed, Yesica decided to flee on her own.
  • Seeking to be reunited with her family, Yesica made her way through more torment, imprisonment, and terror on the long journey through Mexico.
  • Yesica was again detained at the border and incarcerated in Texas. She lost an immediate motion for asylum and to be reunited with her family already in the asylum process in Chicago. She was ordered deported.
  • When she was finally able to contact her mother, the community in Evanston rallied to find legal and legislative help to appeal her lost asylum case. She had not realized that she had the right to appeal and the judge had never issued her a written finding.
  • Eventually the case was heard and she was again ordered deported solely based on the fact that it was her second entry.  The judge denied that he had the ability to use discretion in her case. Her lawyer won her a stay of removal until that case could be properly reviewed by allowing her a hearing on the merits of the case. Despite arguments that her death was virtually certain if she was returned to El Salvador, the case was denied with no consideration given to the specific merits made by her lawyer because she crossed the border twice, legally deemed a felony.  
  • In addition to the court case, multiple appeals have been submitted to ICE, including a request for a change of detention location and court venue to Chicago so she could be in proximity to her family.
  • A legislator from her family’s district, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, repeatedly petitioned ICE in Houston to allow the change of venue but was categorically denied, again on the basis of the felony for crossing the border twice— not based on the merits of the case, including documented terrorization and severe threat to her life by the gang known world-wide for its extreme violence as well as the presence of a supportive family and community in Chicago.
  • Most recently, Matt Nickson, a Houston-area attorney, committed to submitting an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals. He has worked hard on her case for months pro bono. Despite this, mistakes in the Immigration Judge’s argument, and Yesica’s solid asylum case, the BIA denied the appeal, setting in motion Yesica’s imminent deportation.
  • Matt Nickson has submitted an appeal to the BIA’s decision and Petition for Review to the 5th Court. The Petition for Review will take about a year to litigate.  To prevent Yesica’s deportation before this litigation, Mr. Nickson filed Stays to both ICE and the 5th Circuit Court. The 5th Circuit Court denied the Stay.
  • In addition to the dedicated work of Mr. Nickson, in recent weeks, National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) lawyers have provided vital legal advice, especially to the legislators who have written, called, and met with ICE officials to try to win Yesica’s release.  Rep. Jan Schakowsky has taken the lead; Senator Durbin and Senator Duckworth as well as Representative Luis Gutierrez and Mike Quigley from Illinois and Rep. Lee from Texas are also in communication with ICE on behalf of Yesica.
  • Yesica is not a public safety or national security threat. She is a kind, intelligent young woman who wants to be a productive member of American society and to work to support her family. She has a strong welcoming community in Evanston poised to offer her many possibilities to restart a life free from fear. The dire alternative for Yesica is returning to a country ravaged by violence, where she will be tortured and killed.
  • Yesica has no criminal history and has been detained for over 400 days. She is a sexual assault and torture survivor who is severely depressed and needs medical treatment right away.  
  • Yesica’s family is supported by the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants or ICDI (provides living expenses including medical and social services) and the faith community of Lake Street Church (provides housing and community support) in Evanston, Illinois.
  • Her family members are active members of St. Nicholas Catholic parish, also in Evanston. Juana, Yesica’s mother, takes English classes and has recently been allowed to apply for a work permit. She checks in with immigration officers weekly. Every member of this loving family has been deeply traumatized, and the separation and worry about their beloved daughter makes it impossible for them to heal.
  • Over 100 calls have been made to the Houston ICE Office and over 1,600 petition signatures have been submitted to ICE demanding a stop to her deportation. 


Media stories on Yesica: Private prisons boom in Texas and across America under Trump’s immigration crackdown

Legislators, advocates rally to support Salvadoran family split apart at U.S.-Mexico border



Dr. Shanti Elliott is an educator who has worked on immigration justice issues all her life. She is a Board Member of the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, Steering Committee member of Chicago Women Take Action, and member of the Peace and Justice Committee at Lake Street Church of Evanston.

Contact: shanti.k.elliott@gmail.com/(847) 208-8708

Matthew Paul Nickson is Yesica’s pro bono attorney and Project Manager and General Counsel at Nickson Industrial Warehouses, Inc.

Contact: mpnickson@gmail.com/(713) 204-3247

Cinthya Rodriguez is the Immigration Organizer for the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN). CRLN is an interfaith network of in the state of Illinois whose mission is to promote peace, social justice, and human rights in our hemisphere.

Contact: carodriguez2194@gmail.com/(773) 964-6252/ @CRLN_LA

Hope Sanford is a nurse and member of Migrant Rights Collective in Houston. She frequently visits, corresponds with, and advocates for Yesica and other immigrants detained in Texas prisons.

Contact: hopesnopes@gmail.com/(281) 714-1454



A confused labyrinth
of smoky stars
entangles my hopes,
which are nearly faded
― Federico García Lorca



Last night I walked a labyrinth with my friend Ana. We were in a dark church hall, lit only by candles. Ana wept as she saw her daughter’s name YESICA written lovingly along a curve of the path. The youth of Lake Street Church, where Ana’s family lives, had created an Easter labyrinth. Yesica’s name was part of the labyrinth, surrounded by candles, and Ana walks the labyrinth and places her candle there, too.

Yesica, twenty-two years old, has been imprisoned for two years – or three, if you count the year in El Salvador hiding from the gangs that killed her father as he tried to protect her from them, and that now want to kill her. Today, after making the perilous journey through El Salvador and Mexico alone, then sitting in a Texas prison for 2 years while trying to navigate the immigration court system, Yesica received our government’s final answer to her appeal: DENIED. The Immigration Court system acknowledges that Yesica was tortured and has grounds to fear for her life — but it maintains that she could be safe somewhere in El Salvador. So, we will deport her.

Despite the fact that Yesica’s surviving family is in asylum proceedings in Chicago, desperate for her to join them in an Alternatives to Detention program. Despite the fact that a single young woman in El Salvador separated from the protection of family will be targeted for rape, torture, and murder.  Despite the fact that Yesica’s imprisonment and deportation violate both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980.

Accompanying Yesica and her family through the labyrinth of the U.S. immigration system, receiving news of one denial after another, no matter how many or how competent our lawyers are, I see that this is a maze perfectly designed to block, delay, confuse, exhaust, humiliate, abuse, torment.  It is a long, cruel way to a dead end.  The immigration system that has met Yesica has nothing to do with freedom and justice, the heart of our country’s values. The detention and deportation machine is a betrayal of all we hold dear.

Last night we walked a labyrinth of sorrow, mystery, and prayer.  Our hearts hurt. But Yesica, Ana — and the hundreds of people in Texas and Illinois and across the country who have walked lovingly with this immigrant family — know that in America we can prevail even in the most awful times.  We will not give up.

Here’s a petition for Yesica’s release.  Please join me in demanding that our elected officials stop our government’s practice of separating families NOW.


“I never learned about race in school:” unlearning the lies of silence

with respect and gratitude for my students and my co-teacher Marcus Campbell

 What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it–at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

  • James Baldwin

It is December, and I just finished reading this semester’s batch of students’ racial autobiographies.  Another three hundred pages of traveling alongside young people as they revisit childhood friendships and separations and peel through layers of assumptions, reactions, and values.

In this teacher preparation class, I soak up the school memories and the questions about priorities that emerge when students have time to reflect.  I see Jean, Ron, Molly, and the rest of my students, honoring what was in their hearts when they were small:  who am I to you?  who gets to say what is true?  I listen to them mourning the child they were, who sat in classroom after classroom, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, without being known, without knowing themselves.  I witness my Black student Terra’s genius in naming the feeling of being unwelcome in the moment that it’s impacting her, and confronting her white peers who yet again have pushed her away.

I am moved, frustrated, elated, angry, galvanized.  Where do I go with all these feelings my students’ words have stirred in me?

Because as I read, reflect, write responses, I am experiencing a bit of what they experienced.

As a lifelong teacher, I have read millions of pages of young people’s stories, thoughts, wonderings, and worries. At a 9th grade retreat I sat in the back of the room with Devon as he entered high school, listening to his new classmates’ narratives of their struggles and joys. Devon affirmed each student with a short, shining rap that exuded respect.  I read Marisol’s poem about caring for her father, drunk, abusive, and brilliant; she expressed in images of glass and wood how her 16 year-old life is thick with contradictions.  Each student I taught has become part of me; I feel their spoken and written words, their journeys, their faces, etched into me at a cellular level.

My students have politicized me. My Asian-American student Leslie’s conversations and reading and reflection lead her to the conclusion that her education failed her: it withheld the tools to build a healthy vision of the future.  In her racial autobiography, she notes that her schools could have helped her find and draw and compare maps for navigating the most important relationships in her life — but instead, the school structures and instruction funneled her attention to tests and grades.  She is angry with herself for allowing herself to be duped. Over and over and over:

In school, all the classes were supposedly unbiased and fact-based, so there was no arguing against what was taught, since it was the “truth”. Confederates were the enemy, Martin Luther King was the leader of the whole civil rights movement, suffrage solved all problems, we were justified in fighting in Vietnam. As a scientist, facts are the end all be all, and to be told that my lessons were statements of past facts meant I never even thought to think critically about the history of the American people or the current state of our society. I wonder if that is the reason why I did not understand my personal identity as a person of color, but as the White identity I developed growing up. It strikes me as ironic that my high school – meant to be one of the best in the Capital Region — was one that initiated no discussion on diversity and identity, let alone social justice. A high school that in making history “uncolored” and “unbiased” (which in all honesty, can it ever be?), completely stripped its students of awareness and critical thinking.

As I follow Leslie’s analytical process, I’m angry, too.  No, I’m enraged.  I know from my own experience that self-blame will keep her in a cage of confusion, instead of identifying the system that has manufactured the lies and the silence, and targeting it, to break free.

In her racial autobiography, Terra demands that teachers take responsibility for our complicity with toxic hypocrisy: when we profess values we don’t enact, it’s worse than not teaching them.  “Critical thinking” that lives only on paper, in limited contexts, sucks the life out of truth.

Terra connects the educational theory she read in our class to her own school experience:

My school was not known for individualism. It was known for scholarship and discipline. It was clearly known that people who worked there had power and authority over what we did, how we talked, what we wore, and when we were allowed to do things. It was a very clear power imbalance between teachers and students. It didn’t help that the teachers were white and 99% of the students were Black. When I think about my experience now, I get so angry because these white teachers who claimed to care about us so much didn’t care to remove this imbalance of power. I don’t think it’s unintentional that my white classmates say they loved to learn and were taught to question ideas and form their sense of self, and my school did not. Yet somehow, I became one of those roses that grew out of the crack, and so did many of my classmates. However, it seemed like my white teachers in high school did not know how to cater to students who defeated all odds; instead, it seemed like they wanted to stunt our growth by holding on to their power.  In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledged that some teachers have a “banking” concept of education where students receive, file, and store deposits of education, and they don’t develop critical consciousness or critically consider reality. This is the framework of my high school, which is probably why our teachers always complained that we needed to be critical thinkers in our papers, but did not implement it in the curriculum. That’s why most of us did not know how to do that.

I am struck by my students’ sense of betrayal.  The people appointed to be their guides colluded in a cover-up that suffocated independent thought and real feeling.  Their intentions were good, but the teachers did real harm when they refused to question the systems they were perpetuating.  The vast majority of my students say their teachers helped to create a culture of competition, obedience, and worry.  And disempowerment, as my Latino student Rudy points out:

My high school suffered from high [turnover] rates – as much as 25% of teachers every year. Every year, I was disappointed to return to my school only to find out some of my favorite new teachers had moved on to better-paying jobs farther out to the suburbs. It was devastating. It was a symptom of many problems my community faced, including lack of funding and, in my opinion, collective action. There’s no doubt students cared about the negligent care our schools received. But action was rare, for we merely brushed off our hopes due to what seemed like a system unlikely to ever change. Our teachers came and went, and we cherished those who stayed. I now question the intentionality of those who left quickly; were we just a careless step to launch your career? I think it’s important to realize that when a teacher enters a school, they’re also entering a community. They adopt a responsibility to work alongside the community, especially disenfranchised communities.

Rudy urges us to learn and share the skills of collective action that address the systematic disinvestment in African-American and Latino communities and the violent neglect of schools in low-income neighborhoods.  The tools of change – becoming conscious individually and powerful collectively — are in the community, not outside of it.  It can be scary for my students to question the authority they were educated to obey, but when they focus on following the leadership of people in marginalized communities, they learn resistance practices that strengthen and heal.

Teaching is not science or history; it is not writing; it is not the transactions of the classroom.  It is a relationship.  Rudy is calling for teachers to use their heads and their hearts, to take seriously the students before them.  This means shaking up the lies and hypocrisy; it means challenging the silence around the history and perpetuation of white supremacy and learning how to create a counternarrative: “work alongside the community.”


Recovering from “the anesthesia of power:” Conflict and healing in dialogue

For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society.  Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.

  • Audre Lorde

“You don’t buy it, do you?” I said to my co-teacher. “Nope.” I was smiling anxiously.  He was not smiling. “And I do. I’m trying to train myself not to, but I still do.” We had just showed a video that highlighted a racial conflict, and a student had blamed it on “white entitlement.”  My co-teacher asked our class, “where do you think entitlement comes from?”  The first response to his question came from Leann, a 23 year-old white woman: “Ignorance.” In the video, we saw that a white woman’s words were causing pain to First Nations people.  I believed, and Leann believed, that the white woman didn’t know she was causing pain.  My co-teacher did not believe this.

This difference created an opening for me to explore how racist complicity can form and spread within and between white people.  I am a white female teacher, and my co-teacher is a Black male.  By analyzing my own response to a moment in my teaching through the lens of what Mab Segrest calls an “anesthetic aesthetic,” I want to learn about emotions and historical consciousness in anti-racist pedagogy.  I center this inquiry around a graduate education classroom discussion of a moment of conflict, where strong emotions, rooted in histories of trauma, re-shape a context that is raced white.  We were considering the video of an interchange in a context that may register as neutral to a white audience, but that evokes a history of oppression to First Nations people in the space.

“Stop talking!”

On June 30, during Canada Day festivities, First Nations women leaders held a press conference, to demand that the government prioritize its investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Indigenous leaders emphasize that extreme violence targeting Indigenous women meets with public indifference, continuing the legacy of settler colonialism and ongoing systemic racism.  In the news clip that we showed in class, a white female reporter asks, “How can he be blamed? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he [Justin Trudeau] an improvement over Stephen Harper?”

The Elders leading the press conference quiet the reporter: “you don’t know how to communicate;” and demand that she change her tone.  One of the leaders, Ms. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, reminds the assembled reporters that they are guests in this space and they must speak with respect.  She observes that racist behaviors in the room are continuous with a history of racism in the Americas: “You haven’t changed, because you haven’t started your own healing journeys!”  A white male reporter speaks up, promising to speak respectfully.  His question: Are things better now than under Stephen Harper?

Ms. Wabano-Iahtail observes that the reporters are playing out the customary patterns of white fragility: the white man defends the white woman’s right to her question. “Who,” she asks, “defends our rights? 524 years of genocide; who has stood up for us?”

The reporters continue to push for a narrative of progress.  They don’t acknowledge the wracking pain of the people in the space with them, who have seen their daughters killed and their mothers and grandmothers for generation after generation erased, belittled, colonized.  The trauma of oppression is present in this room, active in this moment.  The Elders cut off the reporters: “No! Stop talking! This press conference is over!”

Ignorance as oppression

After watching the video of this anguishing interchange, our class processed what we had seen and heard, taking note of the importance of tone and place and historic relations between white people and Indigenous people in North America.  Students had just read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they were paying close attention to humanization and dehumanization, both within the press conference and within themselves as they watched.

We sought to discuss the people, words, and history in the video with respect, conscious that we were watching the video out of context.  We were trying to counter the conventional emotional distance of the classroom with our personal responses of outrage and love.  Expressing strong emotion in a setting like a university classroom, where the unspoken norm is coldly intellectual can feel awkward, unnatural.  But Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s rebuke to the reporters made us realize that a response that avoided touching the historic and present trauma of the First Nations community would be racist.  She traced out a boundary that had been invisible to the white reporters, and that forced us as listeners to pause and reflect.

When students broke into small discussion groups, I checked in with my co-teacher about Leann’s comment that entitlement comes from ignorance. The video had been upsetting; it had reminded him of other press conferences he had watched on TV over the years, where Black people on either side of the microphone had been publically disrespected.  These memories had been painful.  Then, when hurtful behavior was ascribed to ignorance, no one had spoken up to challenge what this really meant.

Though we start our class with readings that help us talk about the difference between intent and impact, I, like many of my white students, am still ready to see racist attitudes as emerging from ignorance.  “I’m not sure how to get through this block,” I said to my co-teacher. “My default response is still to assume ignorance.” I have acted, spoken, and thought out of ignorance countless times.  I have made a habit of dismissing the impact of other white people’s behavior by calling it unaware.

From thinking to thinking-and-feeling

I am learning to resist the gravitational pull of my assumptions.  This means fighting my natural response; it means believing others’ experience more than my own judgment.  Since my mind doesn’t want to do this, I have to tell it that it doesn’t really know.  An emotional lurch quickens the process. Conflict, grief, anger – the feelings that are hardest to face fling me past my limits.

It’s only when I force myself to listen to the pain of a person like Ms. Wabano-Iahtail, when I force myself to remember the historical, generational, lifelong, constant trauma that Latina/o, African American, Native American, Asian American, and Middle Eastern people carry, that I’m able to shift my perspective and realize that attributing racist acts to ignorance has the impact of minimizing their suffering.  The Indigenous Elders’ repeated command, “Stop!” helped me to stop.

When I stop and push myself through a slower thinking-and-feeling process, I realize that people who come from historically targeted backgrounds have inherited a pain that flares acutely when it meets racism.  When the racism is denied, questioned, or ignored, the pain spreads.  In the press conference my class watched, the focus was on the excruciating issue of violence against Indigenous women, and the government’s inadequate response. The reporter’s question about whether matters had improved under Justin Trudeau’s government passed over the trauma the Native leaders were feeling, voicing, and acting on, regarding this issue and related matters of residential schools, the Indian Act, and so many other ways in which the genocidal history of white supremacy has continued to impact First Nations people in Canada.  As I think this through, I begin to hear the disrespect in the reporter’s question, the dehumanization it allows and perpetuates.  This takes me a long time.

The colonialist mentality, a Black student in our class pointed out, still dominates, prescribing not only policy but interchanges like the one we were watching.  “I don’t know if it sounded this way to you,” he said, “but to my ears it sounded like the reporters were saying, ‘haven’t we done enough for you?’”

I recognized it once he said it, but I hadn’t articulated it. I had watched the news clip many times by the time I showed it in class, and I felt troubled and confused.  Moments like this make me question my own responses.  How did my student hear a colonialist message that I didn’t? Why is my co-teacher pained by watching scenes like this in a way that I am not?  Why do I accept ignorance as justification for racist behavior?  Why am I ok with my own confusion? What’s wrong with me?

Amnesia, anesthesia, contradiction

In her essay “Of Soul and White Folk,” Mab Segrest talks about the “anesthetic aesthetic” that blocks dominant culture people from pain, awareness of their own responsibility in systemic violence, and their own consciousness.  She studies the emotional atrophy of slave-owning white people, as an example of white numbness in the face of violence against people of color.  “Necessary to the slave system was the masters’ blocked sensation of its pain, an aesthetic that left him insensible not only to the fellow human beings he enslaves, but to the testimony of his senses that might have contradicted ideologies of slavery.”

Inner contradiction, denial, and systemic violence blunt our feeling capacities and our health: “the affective void from which feelings and perceptions have been blocked in oneself and cast onto Others is the space where addictions arise.”  The damage of disconnection and distance, Segrest says, isn’t just direct, physical, or historical. It is hardwired in white people like me and there is much in white supremacy culture that maintains it.

Recovering our human connectedness through focused inner work and outer action helps us to heal ourselves and our world. “Action expands perceptions because it shifts and enlarges our point of view and our capacity and motivation to process bigger chunks of reality.”  Though we have inherited a destructive disease, white people can reverse the racism that “encodes itself in our consciousness, closing the doors of our perception.”  We become more whole as we sit with the pain that we have for so long pushed away.  We can reclaim our souls, planting our mental and social processes within the affective life of feeling, respect, and mutual responsibility.