Press "Enter" to skip to content

blackwomanteacher | Posts

We Need to Say Afrocentricity More and Here’s Why

What do you know about Kwanzaa? Minimally, I hope you know that the week-long celebration honoring African-American history and culture begins the day after Christmas and ends on New Year’s Day. For details on its origin, I recommend this post on the blog Miss Higgi Says. What I want to highlight here are the seven principles of Kwanzaa, known as the Nguzo Saba:

1. Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

2. Kujichagulia (Self-determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.

3. Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.

4. Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

5. Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

6. Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

7. Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

In 2022, NAACP Newark instituted the Teacher Honor Roll, where we recognize educators for their commitment to centering Black History in the education of our children. This year we included a question on the submission form that asked the educators to explain how at least one principle of Kwanzaa is demonstrated in the teaching artifacts they submitted.

Imagine if these principles were instilled in our public education system, if it were the norm for teachers to consider them every time they planned a lesson. Being derived from various African harvest traditions, the implementation of the Nguzo Saba in schools would be an example of an Afrocentric curriculum and what Dr. Molefi Kete Asante names as a revolutionary pedagogy:

“[T]he purpose of education for the revolutionary pedagogist is to prepare students to live in an interconnected global world with personal dignity and respect for all other people as human beings with the same privileges that one seeks for oneself while preserving the earth for those who will come afterwards” (p. 9).

The Nguzo Saba represents African Diasporan cultural continuity–the acknowledgement that African ideas, concepts, and knowledge exist wherever African people are located, not solely on the African continent.

In his scholarship, Dr. Asante highlights the necessity of Afrocentricity for the education of Black children, which means centering Africans in our historical narratives as agents. Other education scholars as well emphasize teaching from students’ cultural frame of reference. Dr. Joyce E. King and Dr. Ellen E. Swartz define Heritage knowledge as a group’s cultural memory, an important concept that aligns with the Adinkra symbol Sankofa (to go back and fetch). To use Heritage knowledge as a foundation of one’s teaching practice is to foster a sense of belonging for students. Neoindigeneity, a term elucidated by Dr. Chris Emdin in his popular book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, refers to the cultural and spiritual connection of people of the Diaspora and plays a key role in reality pedagogy, “an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goal of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf” (p. 27).

While having the ability to recite the Nguzo Saba has its merits, living these principles is another matter. For Afrocentricity to have a resounding impact on our public education system, we will have to reorient the dominant way of thinking. Eurocentricity has us believing saying “I’m Black and I’m proud” is synonymous with saying anti-White. We see a parallel in the “All Lives Matter” retort to “Black Lives Matter.” This is because Eurocentric logic is inherently anti-Black and built on hatred and a myth of White racial superiority. It believes that in order to love oneself, you must denigrate others. Afrocentricity is not the flip side of the coin. Afrocentricity disrupts that way of thinking because it knows liberation is rooted in love, because to be self-determined does not take away from anyone else. Since education is a social institution as much as an academic one, we have a responsibility to socialize our children not in tolerance of one another but in love of one another. There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to value systems. Eurocentricity is embedded in the very foundation of the U.S. public education system; it’s time is up. Afrocentricity has the promise of deep intellectual development for all children, not only Black children.

This is not a new conversation, but it is important to highlight at this time because of a recently “decided” court case about school segregation in New Jersey. School desegregation efforts across the nation have shown that the law doesn’t change segregation; people have to want integration. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’s metaphors of the veil and double consciousness remain deeply rooted in U.S. society and anti-Blackness denies Black folx our humanity. Without other interventions to the socioeconomic sphere, such as affordable housing and housing integration as well as wealth gap redress/reparations, mass voluntary integration is dead on arrival. For those who are willing, the narrative of school integration cannot be one characterized by numerical representation and busing. We need remedies that address curriculum and pedagogy (teaching and learning). What could this look like? Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s Historically Responsive Literacy (HRL) framework is an example. Dr. Muhammad bases HRL on the history of Black literary societies of the 19th century and puts forward four goals for instructional design: identity development, skills development, intellectual development, and criticality–all in the context of joy. Imagine that! Centering joy in our children’s education, not for play play, but fa real real. 

To be clear, the U.S. public education system is working exactly the way it has been designed to work. And it is not the responsibility of the schools to teach Black children the entirety of their African culture. Nonetheless, making use of the ontology (ways of being), epistemology (ways of knowing), axiology (values), virtues (standards), and principles of an African worldview will engulf Black children in a way of life that is inherently in them and expose all children to different ways to be with the world, particularly if preserving life on this planet is an actual priority. Infusing the Nguzo Saba alone would change the operational aspects of schools–parent and family engagement, climate and culture, scheduling, meals–as well as curriculum (what gets taught), pedagogy (how “the what” gets taught), and assessment. Embracing Afrocentricity is a possibility for revolutionizing our public school system.

Leave a Comment

In No Uncertain Terms: Committing to the Use of Opportunity Gaps

“There was a time where my presence would not have been welcomed in different environments. And I acknowledge that and I embrace the advances that our society has made and will continue to make.”

–Acting Education Commissioner Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, Black woman
(State Board of Education Meeting, March 1, 2023

Dear Members of the NJ State Board of Education,

You all are currently considering the readoption of the state’s policy on education equity, formally known as New Jersey Administrative Code (NJAC) 6A:7 Managing for Equality and Equity in Education. First adopted in 2003, it is up for its third readoption.

Assistant Commissioner Dr. Christopher Irving of the Division of Field Support and Services in the NJ Department of Education (DOE) and his team have presented you with many proposed amendments and repeals over the last several months. The proposed amended definition of “equity” speaks to the elimination of disparate educational outcomes of NJ’s public school students through a focus on changing structural conditions to create and ensure opportunities for all students:

“Equity” means [when] all [groups of] students have the opportunity to master the goals of the curriculum [to approximately the same degree] in an educational environment that is fair, just, and impartial to all individuals. Equity focuses on [students’] consistent and systematic access for all students to [knowledge] curriculum, resources, instruction, and environments that sustain opportunities for excellent outcomes.

The roles of both the DOE and State Board of Education (SBOE) are to create structures so that localized solutions and practices can be shaped according to what the State deems as a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools.” Judged by these terms, this amended definition is stronger. All other proposed amendments and repeals should flow from this definition. They do not.

Of the numerous proposals that are inconsistent with this amended definition, I focus here on the DOE’s continued use of the term “achievement gap” as well as the way DOE staff crudely define the newly added term “opportunity gap.” My comments elucidate how centering achievement gaps perpetuates existing inequities and how achievement gap discourse (Center for Education Policy Research, 2020) is antithetical to equity. The work of achieving equity is not work done in neutrality; a liberal approach just will not do.

A Discussion of Inputs and Outputs: Getting It Right

I concur with professor emerita of education Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) that an “all-out focus on the ‘Achievement Gap’ moves us toward short-term solutions that are unlikely to address the long-term underlying problem” (p. 4). So I applaud the DOE’s addition of the term “opportunity gap” as this act seemingly reorients the DOE’s approach to public education.

Furthermore, urban teacher educator scholar Dr. H. Richard Milner (2012) poses a most important question: “…should we expand our emphases from an achievement gap problem to an opportunity gap problem that inherently places attention on educational practices and processes?” (p. 697). At Second Discussion, the DOE made it clear that the response to this question is “yes” as demonstrated in the Agency-initiated Changes section of the Comment/Response Form: “‘Opportunity gap’ represents inputs…. ‘Achievement gap’ represents the results…” (p. 39).

“Achievement Gap” No Longer Serves Our Purpose

Milner (2012) argues for a focus on inputs, namely educational practices and policies, in our quest for high academic and social achievement for all students. The outputs we seek are spoken to by vision and mission statements as well as strategic plans at the school, district, and state levels. It is our responsibility as educators to construct a set of experiences to foster these articulated outcomes. Achievement gap discourse forces a narrow focus on standardized test scores, one measure of student academic and social success. However, like how all learners will not follow the same trajectory after their formal primary and secondary education, they should not be expected to demonstrate proficiencies at the same markers.

Milner (2012) outlines many more problems with an achievement gap framework (p. 696): 

  • Undergirding issues that explain disparate educational outcomes among student groups go unchallenged;
  • Whiteness stands as the norm and the supreme as we’re tacitly looking for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) to be like their White counterparts;
  • Student, family, and educator deficits are the point of study rather than assets (which contradicts the DOE’s desire to reframe the code from an asset-based approach); and
  • Individuals and student groups are interrogated rather than oppressive systems, structures, policies, and practices.

These problems have shown up throughout the public discussions on NJAC 6A:7 held over the last several months but possibly the clearest examples occurred at Proposal Level. All of the problems are represented in Vice President Andrew Mulvihill’s commentary on the DOE’s use of “equitable educational opportunities”:

…I’m not comfortable with blaming discrimination as the cause of the achievement gap…While certainly it’s a factor, there’s no doubt, I don’t think it’s the root cause in my estimation. And, I think it’s simply our failure to run good schools in areas that serve minorities. And, I’m just not comfortable being part of a document that pushes that narrative. And, I don’t know that if it’s intentional or if it’s just kind of a throwaway comment, but I’m not comfortable with that. We’ve seen the charter schools that serve minorities are outperforming the state average. We see that Asians, who are terribly discriminated against, actually score better than Whites on standardized tests, so blaming the achievement gap on discrimination as much as it does here, I’m just not comfortable. (State Board of Education Meeting, March 1, 2023)

Here, I’d like to highlight Mulvihill’s lack of making a distinction among the histories of different groups of minoritized peoples in this country, which furthers the argument why people of color often should not be lumped together. Even in his emphasis of Asians outperforming Whites, Mulvihill has been trained–like us all–to always speak of educational achievement in terms of how Whites perform. And though Board Member Arcelio Aponte also has demonstrated a problematic adherence to the term, the way he speaks to the “complexity” of the achievement gap acknowledges the different lived experiences:

Certainly, each community has its own history, its own challenges. And therefore we need to address them and ensure those communities are getting the resources they need to be successful. (State Board of Education Meeting, March 1, 2023)

When we do not interrogate the ways in which we make and discuss comparisons between racialized groups, we allow implicit bias to govern our beliefs about student achievement, particularly that White students’ achievement is the standard. In a continued thought, we also are not interrogating Whiteness itself– we don’t question how those identified as White have been able to be “successful.” Until we move away from this, until we truly reckon with the role institutionalized oppression and discrimination have played in the structuring of this country, until we receive that the ideology of White supremacy is embedded in our education system, we will continue to merely tinker toward utopia. However, a shift to speaking about education inequities–and enacting policy–in terms of “opportunity gaps” will open space for the confrontation of the socioeconomic disparities that result in educational disparities.

How We Define Orients Our Thinking

During Second Discussion, Assistant Commissioner Irving defined “asset-based” as “using language in the positive” and “having a growth mindset,” but then he and his team define both “opportunity gap” and “achievement gap” as being “a result of membership in one or more of the protected categories.” As written, the definition puts the onus on the individual, citing their membership in a marginalized group as the cause of their lack of opportunity and success. “As a result of” speaks to cultural deficit theories. Rather, the lack of opportunity and success should be written as a result of institutional racism, oppression, and other forms of discrimination; make these the actors, i.e., the responsible parties.

The explanation of the proposed amendments is better written than the definition itself and is in alignment with my suggestion:

The Department proposes a definition for “opportunity gap” to mean the difference in academic performance among student groups due to differences in opportunities [emphasis added] that include, at a minimum, experiences impacted by the protected categories listed at N.J.A.C. 6A:7-1.1(a). “Opportunity gap” is an asset-based term that is oriented toward equitable educational opportunities that are regulated by this chapter (First Discussion Summary Memo, pp. 5-6).

All in all, in the proposed readoption of NJAC 6A:7, the DOE’s considerations of the assets BIPOC and economically challenged students bring to school as well as multiple ways to measure achievement are perfunctory at best; the staff remain all too comfortable presenting these students’ shortcomings through speak of the achievement gap

Final Words

To conclude, we need to move from “intentions” to “intentionality.” The stakeholders called on to craft the proposed readoption of NJAC 6A:7 may be “experts in the field of educational equity;” however, they clearly don’t come from a critical approach but rather a liberal approach. It seems the only thing they had to offer was the addition of the “opportunity gap” terminology without an understanding of the implications this term brings for the code in its entirety.

Adding the phrase “fair, just, and impartial to all individuals” to the code’s definition of “equity” would seem to anchor the DOE’s commitment to identifying discrimination as the basis of education inequities. Nevertheless, while “achievement gap” may have served a purpose at one time, possibly through the data disaggregation mandate of No Child Left Behind, continuing to center it demonstrates the DOE’s attachment to a liberal approach to education that perpetuates institutionalized racism and other oppressions.

I, and others, are calling on you, members of the SBOE, not to waver but to take a clear stance on equity.

Yours in Justice,

Dr. Leah Z. Owens


Center for Education Policy Research. (2020, December 4). Achievement gap discourse has a downside.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding  achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12.

Milner, IV, H. R. (2012). Beyond a test score: Explaining opportunity gaps in educational practice. Journal of Black Studies, 43(6), 693-718.

Leave a Comment

Call for a Moratorium on Instructional Staff Nonrenewals


Good evening President Haynes, Board Members, Superintendent Leon and Leadership Team.

First, I want to acknowledge the life and activism of our Ms. Wilhelmina Holder. Many things in this city will never be the same but particularly these school board meetings. May she rest in peace and power.

Tonight, my comments are focused on the recruitment and retention of teachers. From Tuesday’s Business Meeting, I heard a lot of great things. I heard about the multi-pronged approach of a teacher pipeline and bringing in retired teachers.

What I didn’t hear as a part of the long-term plan is the retention of the teachers we already have. I heard an approach that is coming from a space of equity but not necessarily a place of humanity.

To these ends, particularly concerning retention, I submit a resolution for a moratorium on instructional staff nonrenewals:

Whereas, we have a teacher shortage, period;

Whereas, nonrenewals affect non-tenured teachers and it takes time to develop teachers into effective practitioners; and

Whereas, instructional staff nonrenewals can be given for reasons including poor performance, reorganization, and economics, and these generic reasons, without any details, are what get listed on nonrenewal letters;

Therefore, be it resolved, that the Newark Board of Education decline to approve the instructional staff nonrenewals except in cases where the instructional staff have proven harmful to our children;

And further, be it resolved, that direct, clear support program be given to anyone issued a nonrenewal so that they have an opportunity for further professional development.

As you prepare for the Donaldson Hearings next month, I would suggest board members look to have answered questions that stem from the space of how the instructional staff member cared for students, how (if at all) they were notified of their lack of performance and then provided coaching to improve said performance.

Policy and programs can be written up and presented nicely. But sometimes folx spend more time on the aesthetics of the presentation than they do on the implementation. And the actualization of the policy or program doesn’t serve children, by way of their teachers in this case. So, again, for both the Board and those who will be preparing for Donaldson Hearings after the vote tonight, the key question, from a humanizing perspective: how has the teacher shown how they have cared for students? That’s what I would like to see this board and District focus on in determining whether an instructional staff should be nonrenewed.

Leave a Comment

Creating a Leader: Learning from Ms. Wilhelmina Holder

Prologue: Yesterday, a mass murder occurred at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, resulting in twenty-one people dead, 19 children and 2 adults. They were shot dead by an 18-year-old high school student who was from the community. Eleven days ago, another mass shooting occurred with 10 killed; this was in Buffalo, New York at a supermarket and the shooter, another 18-year-old, targeted Black folx. We, humanity, are suffering from great losses. We are in pain. And this is the context in which I write this post.

On Friday, May 20, 2022, a community celebrated the life of one Ms. Wilhelmina Holder–mother, activist, advocate, educator, friend. I knew of Ms. Holder before I knew her. A teacher-friend explained how he met her at his school, West Side, and that she told him about Abbott Leadership Institute (ALI). ALI held Saturday classes at Rutgers-Newark for parents and community members to teach them about policy, organizing, and advocacy in the space of education. Ms. Holder was an honor roll student of ALI, holding a close friendship with the director, Junius Williams.

I was a second- or third-year teacher (2006/2007) when I attended my first ALI class and remember being struck by the information presented about a pro-privatization school reform plan called Renaissance 2010 in Chicago. But even more striking was the power of the everyday Black folx sitting in that room. Newarkers. Smart and learning more. Leaders. This wasn’t the picture of inner city parents painted by Savage Inequalities, a book I had read in undergrad. In fact, it isn’t the story told by most of the literature about urban education reform. If not carefully curated, the syllabi of courses for prospective teachers can easily lead them to believe that they are the only hope for their students. ALI was framed by a critical pedagogical approach; it put the gross reality of Newark public schools in the context of power, leadership, and transformation. And it provided space for Ms. Holder, and others like her, to build on the strengths they brought to the table.

It did not take much time for me to come to admire and love Ms. Holder. As my elder, I knew she had earned the right to say anything she wanted, but her outspokenness I saw coming from a different place. I wanted to come from that place too–at the intersection of love, passion, commitment, knowledge, and experience. So, in February 2021, I answered a call put out by Kaleena Berryman–longtime assistant to Junius Williams turned ALI director upon his retirement–to get as many people as possible to nominate Ms. Holder for the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award–and she won!

I‘d like to share what I submitted:

Q: How has the Nominee “made a difference” in the lives of others, or in the community? Why is this work important?

A: Ms. Holder has assisted countless students and their families navigate the educational system so that they can discover success. She is one of the most civically-engaged people in the city of Newark, serving on numerous boards and councils as both a member and a leader of them. Her input and decision-making is always grounded in the real experiences of young people and families. Ms. Holder has also led the High School Academic Support Program which provides direct assistance, care, and love to high school students in their process of applying to college. Her expertise in this area is incomparable. Ms. Holder’s work is so important because it speaks to what we can accomplish as a community when we believe in each other and our young people especially.

Q: What are the Nominee’s major accomplishments?

A: Through Ms. Holder’s work in the High School Academic Support Program, she has helped graduating seniors secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. The Program also hosts on-the-spot college admissions nights, assisting hundreds of students to matriculate into college.

Q: Please respond to this in your own words. “This person should receive the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award because…”

A: Ms. Holder should receive the Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award because she gives of herself with no expectation of anything in return. Ms. Holder is a true definition of selflessness. We love her here in Newark and believe she deserves to be recognized by the world!

Ms. Holder’s obituary and news articles written about her passing (see here and here) outline well who she was and the life she lived. Extra touching are two memorializing pieces written by Kaleena. In the tribute printed on the homegoing program, Kaleena writes about Ms. Holder’s creation: “He was surely creating someone to do [H]is work, for over five decades, in schools and for children that would need His power and presence” and that “She needed to be able to mold others, just by being.” Both tributes speak to the dispositions (i.e., ways of being) forged in fire of a leader committed to education justice. Here, I highlight, from Kaleena’s poem “A tribute to Wilhelmina, OUR HOLDER,” some of those critical dispositions–those values, beliefs, and habits of mind that oriented Ms. Holder toward the just response to injustice.

1. Committing to a vision is a primary disposition to hold in the struggle for education justice. We’re instructed, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). Kaleena writes that Ms. Holder had an “unrelenting vision” (2) and “Decades of focus on freedom” (12). No one can articulate what we want for our children better than ourselves. Ms. Holder “held the flame / Of the highest expectations / The school system in her system / Our children, in her lap” (5-8).  

2. Speaking truth to power can, and must, occur from all positionalities–parents, teachers, students, community members. And even though we may envision ourselves in one lane, it is when we see ourselves as everyone, when we know the “I” is in “You,” that we can voice our concerns from a collective space. In the poem, Ms. Holder is described as “our Superintendent of Showdowns / Our Principal of Passion / Our Teacher of TELL THE TRUTH / Never ever holding back / Or holding her tongue” (29-33).

3. Sharing the power means dismissing the theory that power is a zero-sum game. Again, seeing the “I” in “You”–when “I” have power, “You” have power. Kaleena writes that “They held the titles, but Wilhelmina held the power” (23) because even when they thought their title entitled them to more power, Ms. Holder was quick to remind. Ms. Holder believed in intergenerational organizing; for those younger coming along with her, “she held us high / Held us close / In the highest regard / She encouraged us / And made us fearless / Through her example” (40-45).

4. Embracing an ethic of care defies the White supremacist logic that has programmed us to look out only for self. Instead of this oppressive logic, Ms. Holder “Fed us / From the flavor in her voice / And the chicken in her bag / And the presence of her integrity” (46-49), and she lovingly held “Tens of schools in the palm of her hands” (13). Care is a precursor to community. 

In her shift to a conclusionary call-to-action, Kaleena writes:

“What we must do

Is hold on too

Hold on to her memory

Her love

Her work

Her smile

Each other

Her children and grandchildren

Hold strong to her spirit and all that she left undone

Hold on to her legacy

Her memory

Her mission

All of which can be summed up as

HER LOVE” (54-67)

Yes, Ms. Holder, we’ll “hold on too”.

Leave a Comment

bell hooks Is for Everybody!

While grading response papers this fall semester, a few times I noted for students that bell hooks’s name is spelled using lowercase letters. I didn’t offer an explanation; I left that for them to discover on their own. But also, I didn’t know. I didn’t have a definite answer. I was in a classroom observing a student teacher when the notification popped up on my phone alerting me of her transition on Wednesday, December 15th. My immediate feelings were of sadness. Here’s another great loss. My mind also occupied a space of pride and appreciation because bell hooks will live on not only through her writings but also through her students and loved ones, just as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, W.E.B. DuBois and so many others have done. 

Many of the articles serving as obituaries used the explanation of bell hooks’s differently-spelled name in their headlines. reported a two-fold purpose: to honor her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and to draw attention to her ideas rather than her name. I guess that worked on me. bell hooks’s name definitely made me wonder, who was this person who dared to be different? And I was pulled into a world that–although I didn’t completely understand or wasn’t completely committed to–I knew somehow was significant to the project I had begun of education transformation through the leadership of teachers.

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom is the first book I owned by bell hooks and a chapter of which was assigned on the abovementioned course’s syllabus. In this recent re-reading, I pulled the following quote to use in a talk: “Professors who embrace the challenge of self-actualization will be better able to create pedagogical practices that engage students, providing them with ways of knowing that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply” (p. 22). This quote speaks to the book’s subtitle as well as the topic of my talk which was about critically evaluating our work as educators. Whether described as neoliberal, neoconservative, or neocolonial, global public education systems have career-readiness as a mainstay of their missions. hooks wrote and spoke of education having a liberatory purpose, having a purpose of overcoming oppression.

Seeing chapter titles in Teaching to Transgress such as “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process” and “Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning Without Limits” intrigued me–and made me uncomfortable. These were not words that usually came to mind when I thought about education and teaching. I had long earlier come to discover for myself the power of language during undergrad when I was drawn to study linguistics, sociolinguistics and Black vernacular more specifically. I have never felt like a “true” English major, or teacher for that matter, because I don’t have a love for literature. I have a love for structure, and how these structures both delimit and create. What I have come to commit to is a deliberate use of language in the process of re-constitution. This means diction, semantics, syntax, voice–power lies in what we say and how we say it.

A key point of the “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process” chapter is that thinking differently would lead to living differently. hooks discusses eros/eroticism as passion and a moving force, not merely existing in the sphere of sexuality. None of these ideas are welcomed in the traditional classroom, which reflects a White heteronormative capitalist patriarchal system. How can we transform if we’re told to stand still?

hooks also influenced my ability to name “a White heteronormative capitalist patriarchal system.” Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics gave me a foundational understanding of feminism and gave me the confidence to identify as a feminist (later Alice Walker would develop my understanding of intersectionality through the identity of womanist). hooks’s writing is profound without being esoteric; this book truly is for and can be understood by anyone. She provides a definition of feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (p. viii), making clear that being a feminist is not about being anti-male and that anyone, including men, can be feminists.

As a prominent cultural critic, bell hooks wrote regularly about race, gender, and class in society. Killing Rage: Ending Racism is a collection of her essays. And though published more than twenty-five years ago, the ideas explored ring true just as much today, particularly with critical race theory being debated in the political arena. A thread running through the chapters of this book is the central role White supremacy plays in maintaining the oppressive nature of our reality and how we must illuminate it every chance we get if we are to achieve a just and democratic society.

Rest in power bell hooks.

Leave a Comment

Roberto: I Am My Brother’s Keeper

You and I met three times. First, at Barringer High School where we served on the School Leadership Council. You were a Community Representative and I was a teacher there. We didn’t get to know each other well, but I had a positive impression of you as a young guy who advocated for the students. You say you remember me from then, but I don’t believe you.

We met again at New Jersey Communities United some six or seven years later. There, you were one of the Lead Organizers and I was working under your direction on the campaign for organizing the in-home childcare providers. We became work friends and comrades around the education struggle. You were supporting NSU and I was an active member of NEW Caucus.

Aside from the job, I got to know “Mr C,” which is what the Dynamic Dynasty dancers who would stop by the office called you. I was impressed you had a-whole-nother life as a manager of a dance team. You were a true mentor for young people.

Our friendship grew over those four years, but we didn’t get close until after I left NJCU. I wanted to start a new iteration of millennials organizing for political change, to move the spotlight on our leadership and interests. You were the first one I called, the only one I could have thought to call first, and you were down. That was the third time we met–and when you became my brother.

This past weekend I felt zapped. I nearly slept the day away, chalking it up to my cycle. Monday, I got back on the ball and Tuesday was even more productive. I drove downtown to pick up flyers for my new business. It happened to be on Clinton Street with the old NJCU office. It had been a very long time since I’d been on that narrow, one-way. I parked in front of the old building. It is now condos. The new downtown. On my way back to the car, I snapped a picture and sent it to you: “You’ve probably seen this already but this is my first time. So weird 😲”

I head over to a school to flyer the parking lot. I remember being on the campaign trail together. You were committed to me. Like so committed. Back in the car, I head up the Parkway to drop off some flyers at a friend’s house. I receive a call and then another and another. They say you are gone. I don’t–won’t accept it. It’s the worst joke you could ever play and I can’t wait to cuss you out. I don’t know what’s happened and I don’t know where you are. I get home. I get more details. It was this weekend. This weekend. I believe you were here. I believe you were fighting. I wish I could have given you all my energy. But I didn’t know.

You accepted me for who I was, let me be me, and listened to me talk about who I wanted to be. We would talk for hours from the personal to the political, seek advice, bounce ideas, figure shit out. 

You protected and cared for me. And now I feel less safe with you gone. 

Loving friendships provide us with a space to experience the joy of community in a relationship where we learn to process all our issues, to cope with differences and conflict while staying connected.

bell hooks, all about love

You constantly told me you loved me and trusted me. Maybe you did it more as a reminder for yourself that you had people who genuinely cared for you; I did my best to let you know I felt the same exact way. How much your friendship meant to me. That you were truly my brother. I have a fear that expressing difference will divide me from others. But I never felt that with you. Even in our differences, we still loved each other. 

My commitment is to carry your spirit with me everywhere I go. To hear your laughter, see your smile, and feel your hugs. To be present, to live in my truth to the fullest extent. To be everything you saw in me.


Celebrate and Critique / Critical Race Theory and Juneteenth

Yesterday, I celebrated Juneteenth partially by marching in POP’s (People’s Organization for Progress) annual march and rally for reparations, partially by volunteering to sort books for the Rotary Club of Newark’s Read 4 Life initiative, partially by coming through Nat Turner Park to support my sister-friend Sheila Montague’s business venture, and partially by living and breathing as my unapologetic blackwomanteacher self. Because we weren’t meant to survive, let alone thrive, every day that we do is a testimony to our humanity. I keep that at the forefront.

Standing on the street outside of Newark City Hall, I snapped a few pictures as the steps became populated with signs and t-shirts representing the many organizations that co-sponsored the event. Our attention was brought to the podium, the speaker and mic carried by Larry Hamm from the Lincoln statue on Springfield Ave and W Market Street no longer leading us in the call-and-response chants of “They stole us! They sold us! They owe us!” I looked for and spotted the newly installed statue of George Floyd to the right of the steps. At the same time this event acknowledged my power, it also triggered that critical voice in my mind. Why aren’t there at least double the amount of people out here considering the number of organizations being represented? Who’s going to be doing what, if anything, tomorrow to bring an end to this struggle? Are you here because it’s “the place to be”? And where are the children?

My best friend Millie sent me this TikTok video Friday night and I was like “Yaaaaassss!! All of this!” Lynae Vanee (@_lyneezy) breaks Juneteenth down, moving past what is now a national narrative of Union Army soldiers riding into Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 to inform the Black people there they were no longer enslaved. She instructs her audience on the underlying motivations of Abraham Lincoln and the Union–that taking away institutionalized slavery was the way to end the Civil War, since the Confederates did not accept a truce offered months earlier that would have allowed them to keep slavery. (Yup, watch the video ↑)

How do politics, policy, and law have an impact on our lived experiences? It’s understanding history and contemporary life through this lens (and others) that keeps me vigilant to the many ways people are oppressed and the many ways I can actively work toward liberation, particularly through teaching current and future teachers. To quote Eve Ewing on a podcast about examining freedom, “What are the tools I want to give people to look at contemporary life differently?”

One of these tools is critical race theory, which is under attack in one of the latest battles in the culture wars over public education. I say culture wars because, in agreement with others, many opponents of critical race theory tend to be misinformed about the concept itself and are instead responding to a threat to the ideology of White supremacy (read this NEPC newsletter and watch Marc Lamont Hill conduct this interview).

Critical race theory has roots in the legal field in the late 70s and was later applied in other disciplines, one example being education and namely by scholar Gloria Ladson-Bilings as one of the first in this field. Critical social theories look to explain power structures and differentials in society; critical race theory does this as well as looks to transform inequality, thus having an activist nature that other theories do not carry. It allows for an illumination, an adjustment of the light so that we can see in places we had previously found dark. Critical race theory supports an analysis like the one provided by Lynae Vanee. I used it in my dissertation to illuminate actions/behaviors of myself and others during the decade of organizing I chronicle for the purpose of drawing implications for creating a critical democratc public education.

Besides laws being proposed and passed not to teach critical race theory in public schools, states and districts are responding to the conversation in other ways. The Randolph Board of Education voted to remove all holiday names from the district calendar, instead just writing “Day Off,” after community members of the affluent NJ town packed the board meeting in protest to removing Columbus Day as a name on the district calendar. The board’s rationale for removing all the names was that it did not want to exclude or offend anyone. This action literally erases history and is akin to colorblindness–if we say we don’t see it then it’ll disappear. The atrocities at the foundation of the United States need to be acknowledged and addressed. We can move in a new direction by centering BIPoC’s histories and by enacting policies that will provide reparations for the harms done as well as create critical equity. Erasing history does not put different groups of people on the same starting grounds.

Dr. Greg Carr offers an authoritative critique of critical race theory. In a recent episode on In Class with Carr, with host Karen Hunter, Dr. Carr points out a severe limitation of critical race theory and why he doesn’t practice it–because the focus is on asking the dominant social structure to acknowledge your humanity:

And I get that. I’m not concerned with success within the dominant power structure–my own or others’. How would that be transformational? That reminds me of a critique I have of charter schools. The corporate charter school movement likens itself to the civil rights movement and preaches that it brings equality of opportunity to disenfranchised communities through education. But opportunity is still delivered within the system of the United States, within the system of White supremacy. How many charter schools center African “governance and ways of knowing,” as Dr. Carr would say?

Dr. Carr further critiques critical race theory as being bound by time and space–the contemporary and the United States–when the goal of liberation must be a function of knowledges that come before and outside of these boundaries imposed by Whiteness. He points out how even the 1619 Project starts “at the water,” as though Black people did not exist before slavery in the United States: 

The global imperialist social structure is threatened not by critical race theory itself but by a disruption to its hegemony, the threat of its power being overturned and rightfully restored to the melanated people of this planet. Again, I agree with Dr. Carr; critical race theory does center the United States and its history. If our work is to liberate humanity, we must have a broader perspective on anti-Blackness.

Studying Sylvia Winter’s work is helping me to broaden my perspective. Reading her work is not for the faint at heart, but once you pick up her rhythm, you can visualize the figures dancing in space before you. While I am thankful for critical race theory because it created an entry point for my understanding of our material condition as a result of war, enslavement, dispossession, violence, and the like, I am confident there are more places to look for each of us to discover the human condition as it has come to be and, more important, how to be an intervention in the current trajectory.

Leave a Comment

Politics of Respectability: Who Has the Ear of the Newark School Board?

We persist in our call for the resignation of Board President Josephine Garcia and tonight’s meeting provides further evidence as to why this demand should be met.

I applaud aspects of the Program & Instruction report–I’m looking forward to the “forthcoming” information on the teaching and learning presentation and, yes, tracking the strategic plan is a responsibility of the board, though that is not a new idea and should long have been a priority of every committee of this board. However, the Governance report underscores how this board falls short of authentic, critical civic participation.

NEED was an invited guest of the Governance committee, and several other board members made time to meet with this group as private citizens–though that’s a fine line to be walking when the purpose of the meeting is to discuss what is at least tangentially board business. Meanwhile, several other community organizations and individuals also took the time to express input to appointing a board member to a vacancy, not only after the board took action, but BEFORE the appointment was made. Not ONE of the individuals who submitted official letters of interest for the vacant seat was invited to speak to a committee or to the board.

Further, these same community organizations and individuals followed up their requests and comments at board meetings in written form to board members. One or two received a response; the vast majority were ignored. No one was invited to discuss their concerns or ideas further. No one was publicly thanked for illuminating how the public education system is rooted in oppression and inequity and for how our contributions are a reminder of how we must all actively fight oppression.

Even teachers are ignored. Nicole Sanderson has come before this board numerous times this school year with the simple request of turning on students’ access to Gmail so that teachers can communicate with students through Google Classroom, thus improving their learning conditions. Tonight, we finally heard something. But how many months later? No acknowledgement. No follow-up. No response. ALL teachers, residents, parents, and students deserve responses.

The praise from board members for NEED’s work around a proposed board vacancy policy plays into respectability politics in that you’ll respond to certain folx but not others as a function of the approach used and the relation of the people to the board members. NEED is constituted by folx who are not bringing a critical or abolitionist approach to education and who are intimately tied to the charter school sector and Teach for America through its political arm, Leadership for Educational Equity. Members also have personal relationships with board members.

I urge you to reflect on your actions and not intentionally or unintentionally pit members of the community against each other because some did it “the right way,” or position the participation of young people as a shield against justifiable critique of your silence regarding President Garcia calling public participation “bullshit.” It’s both/and–accountability and transformative policy.

The call for Josephine Garcia’s resignation is a call to open up a space for the transformative leadership needed for this school board.

Leave a Comment