I always crack a joke with all of my students, from high school to graduate school, that I am fearful that after having class with me they will either feel ridiculously angry, ridiculously depressed or both. Continuing my unrest, I often tell them I fear them running out of class yelling “we’re all gonna die!” Even though this is more reflective of my irrational fear, I have to come to grips with something: these are serious times we’re living in. From the low-level extortion known as the Educational Teacher Performance Assessment (EdTPA), to the school-to-prison nexus, to other forms of structured state violence, it’s not all good in our respective locales.
In the same vein, I also do not want to offer a collective eulogy to colleges of education or the work of the scholar-activist. Instead, I think this current moment is like having a bare-knuckle fight with an adversary in a phone booth: there is little room for error and explicit, unfettered human will is the most precious resource at your disposal. While some may think this viewpoint to be extreme, I offer the collective educational narratives of New Orleans (chartering an entire district), Chicago (More than 150 school closures or turnarounds since 2004), and Philadelphia (almost 50 school closures in two years) provide the potential to be victorious in the conflict. Low-income and working class families of color are fighting for their collective lives in the aforementioned places. Because they are, we, as people who make the claim of “scholar activist” or “warrior scholar,” I think there are a few things we need to ponder moving forward. Again, the issue is not to offer a “how-to” guide. In order to support community-driven efforts through listening, engaging, and then our research, the following points suggest a return to the practice of the organizers, peacemakers and freedom fighters that come before us.
Be humble. This is often understated. If you are coming into a space where people are unfamiliar with you, do not assume you know anything about the conditions in that particular locale. Instead, operate with the understanding that you probably don’t know a damn thing. Because you don’t, the best you can do is introduce yourself, ask for permission to ask questions and be quiet afterwards.
Seek support and be willing to support. The unmitigated abuse of graduate students must effectively end. The façade of neoliberal, competition-based research is more prone to further exploit populations than it is to bring them equitable opportunities. If you know of a grad student that’s suffering, reach out to them. For grad students who are experiencing this dynamic, understand that there are those and those like you that will affirm your sanity. The simple practices of writing, eating and talking together as graduate students are critical for a healthy existence moving forward. The challenge is not to forget this when you become a faculty member.
Build political clarity. By political clarity, I mean the ability to analyze, understand, and move based on the work we do in solidarity with those experiencing injustice. If you are making the intentional effort to work with communities that are engaged in a fight for their right to quality education and to live free of persecution, you have engaged in a deeply political act. It is nothing to run from. It should be embraced. Struggle is not an empty verb. It is reflective of the real-life conditions that people engage along the lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Instead of a ‘lone-ranger’ mentality, we need to embrace one that is collective in nature, taking to heart the suggestions of Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Laura Pulido. In their lessons is the challenge of thinking about research beyond the accolades of the academy. For my own work, political clarity comes about through an intentional attempt to answer the questions “Why” and “For What?” To some, this may appear simplistic. In the end, however, these simple questions allow us to make the necessary informed decisions as to whether or not we will continue the insidious practice of research “on” communities. An intentional interruption to the White, Western-European colonial narrative is part and parcel of the political act centered in justice instead of personal gain.
As always, I hope this makes sense. If it doesn’t, I take full responsibility for my mistakes.
Dr. David Stovall is an associate professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois (Chicago) College of Education and associate professor of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois (Chicago) College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He recently was the guest speaker at the Civic House Alvin Gutman Public Scholar Lecture where he gave a lecture called “Justice On What Terms? Critical Consciousness and the Promise of Community Transformation.” You can find out more about him here: https://education.uic.edu/personnel/faculty/david-omotoso-stovall-phd
Views or opinions expressed in this blog belong to the post’s author and do not represent those of Civic House, its employees, or its partners, unless explicitly stated.