Alice E. Ginsberg, Ph.D. is the author of Gender in Urban Education: Strategies for Student Achievement (2005) and Gender and Educational Philanthropy (2007) and is currently an independent education consultant.
Raquel Rios, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Real World Professional Development, a communications and professional development platform for educators and students to engage in a creative dialogue on diversity, community and spiritual awareness.
Alice E. Ginsberg: Before I respond to the questions, I’d like to honor the practice of a friend and colleague of mine who teaches education and women’s studies. She starts the semester by asking students to write a short autobiography. Then, towards the end of the semester she has them do the same assignment with the goal of seeing in what ways their perspective might have changed as a result of the readings, discussions and assignments. I think this is a wonderful idea because it helps them to become more reflective about what they are learning. An explicit part of her pedagogy is that schools should be places that promote equity and social change, and therefore education should cause students to question (not necessarily change) their own belief systems. Therefore, I’d like to share a few relevant details about my life.
As a white middle-class daughter of two academics, the idea that I would go to college was a forgone conclusion rather than a hopeful possibility. While most of my friends were applying to Ivy League colleges, I decided that I wanted to go to Temple University, a low-cost state school in Philadelphia, near where I grew up. I already knew that I wanted to attend a college that had both a diverse student body and a diverse faculty. Temple was located in a predominantly African American neighborhood that, in the early 1980’s, had yet to be gentrified in any way. I will always remember taking my first women’s studies class with African American writer and activist Sonia Sanchez. It was electric. For her the feminist and civil rights movements were up close and personal, and she made it a point to emphasize in her classes that we needed to go beyond the academic/activist divide. It was there and then that I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to become one of the first generation of women to actually major in women’s studies. It was my passion and would remain so to date.
While at Temple, I constantly talked with my best friend from grade school who was also majoring in women’s studies; she attended Barnard College in New York City. I marveled at the fact that she was reading all about postmodernism, post-structuralism and French Feminist Theory, while I was struggling my way through Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, and Gloria Anduluza. Even in a city as diverse as New York, most of her classmates were white and middle class, and much of what she learned in women’s studies explicitly prepared her to be a “leader” rather than what Kendall would call an “ally.” My education, on the other hand, focused much more on the goals of self-reflection and coalition building.
After graduating from Temple I took a variety of jobs at non-profit organizations, and eventually became a graduate teaching assistant for Antioch University’s Comparative Women’s Studies Program in Europe. In this program, undergraduates from colleges all across the United States spent four months traveling together in the Netherlands, Germany, (then) Yugoslavia, and England. We met with feminist groups in each of these countries and learned about their unique struggles and achievements, sharing and comparing. When we got to Germany, however, those of us in the group that were Jewish felt unexpectedly uncomfortable.
When we met with women’s groups, we wanted to know how they had experienced, or learned about the Holocaust, and how they saw this history fitting into their current work as feminist activists. What was their outreach to Jewish women? The majority of women in the Antioch group, who were not Jewish, told us that these kinds of questions were not a good idea. In their view, we were guests, and should not bring up such an uncomfortable issue. Unfortunately, disagreement over how to talk about anti-Semitism as it relates to women’s studies ultimately became the divide of our small group.
After the Antioch program was over, I was somewhat disillusioned with the whole concept of women’s studies. I believed it was premised on the fact that “women” were a coherent, identifiable group that agreed on more ideals than disagreed. I came to understand that one could be in an oppressed group and still be an oppressor; that one could lack certain privileges while owning others.
Another relevant anecdote is regarding the first book review I wrote. It was about lesbian rights, lesbian teachers, and addressing homophobia in education. I felt a little uncomfortable doing this, as I was in a heterosexual relationship at the time. Even though I wanted to be an ally to gays and lesbians, I also felt there was something disingenuous about letting readers, and editors too, assume that because I wrote about lesbian issues, I was myself a lesbian. I wasn’t sure that, while claiming the privileges of a heterosexual relationship, I could also be a true ally to gays and lesbians.
Currently, I am married with two sons living in a three-story house in an eclectic urban neighborhood, with “good” public schools, and holding a Ph.D. in “Education, Culture and Society” from the University of Pennsylvania. All of my work centers around issues of gender, education and social justice, however, I am adamant that one can only think about gender within the larger context of race, class, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, disability, and other cultural differences and inequities. I am well aware that the feminist movement has a long history of excluding and marginalizing the experiences of women who are not white and middle class. Things are changing for sure, but we still have a long way to go. Indeed, I have always had trouble with the term “women of color” because it suggests that being white is the norm, and that everyone else is lumped into one category of difference, of “other.”
Through my work in some of the poorest public schools in the country, I have seen the ways in which middle class white girls and working-class black girls often have a hard time finding common ground. Likewise, gay and straight students often do not see eye to eye. While all of these girls are subject to unfair sexual harassment and inequality of opportunity, the ways in which these events play out in their lives can be, and usually are, very different.
When I directed a three-year professional development program for teachers in the School District of Philadelphia called Gender Awareness Through Education (GATE), I found that well-meaning teachers were confused as to how to define words like gender equity, gender bias, gender awareness, gender studies, women’s studies and feminist studies. Did the vision of equity mean treating all students as if they were exactly the same? Did it mean teaching to their (perceived or real, socialized or genetic) differences? Did it mean simply calling attention to gender issues and letting students take it from there? Was feminist pedagogy appropriate at the K-12 level, and, if so, what would teachers interested in this pedagogy do differently? Last but not least, was the ever present question as to the role of male teachers who wanted to address gender, and what to do about discrimination and prejudice against male students? Was gender a synonym for women and girls? It was not uncommon when I entered an urban school to help teachers think more critically about gender inequalities, that teachers told me “It is African American boys that I am most worried about.”
Two books that I have written, Gender in Urban Education and Gender and Educational Philanthropy look closely at these issues and suggested concrete strategies for teachers and educational administrators interested in gender equity. Part of this work included thinking about new ways to assess whether money allocated to gender equity is money well spent. Who was it reaching? Was this “elitism” to target money for white girls over African American boys? In my most recent book, The Evolution of American Women’s Studies, twelve long-time women’s studies scholars reflect upon the ways in which the field has changed in the last forty years – including questions as to whether it should be its own discipline, to what extent men should be involved, and what we should call it (e.g., many women’s studies programs have changed their name to the more inclusive, and more neutral gender studies). One of the contributors to this book, Ann Russo, Director of the Women’s and Gender studies program at DePaul University, wrote: “The recognition that our work within Women’s Studies may be complicit in, at the same time that it is resistant to, oppression dislodges a simply formulation of us/them – oppressed/oppressor, victim/perpetrator, powerless/powerful.” She underscores the need to be more reflective and introspective about our own “identity, location, actions in relationship to and complicity in systems of oppression and privilege.
Some of the contributors to the book and I will be giving a workshop about addressing these intersections at NWSA’s annual conference in Atlanta in November. This year’s theme is Difficult Dialogues and we will examine just these kinds of issues. As you can see, participating in these difficult dialogues is part of my work and I look forward to them. All of my personal and professional experiences are relevant to this dialogue revolving around Francis Kendall’s writing on building authentic relationships across race, class and gender. So, let’s continue on to answer these questions directly.
Alice, my first question for you is this. According to Kendall, alliances for social justice across race, class and gender come with a degree of risk. The risks are different for both parties and depend a great deal on levels of privilege. Starting with alliances for social justice across gender, since this is your area of expertise, what do you think are some of the risks involved in working across gender for social justice? Do you think these are similar risks with regards to alliances across race and class? If so, how? If not, how are they different?
Let me start off by saying, that social justice is not something that is magnanimously “granted” or quietly “claimed”; in most cases it is something that takes many years, undergoes many different triumphs and setbacks, and, perhaps most importantly, is rarely the achievement of one individual. I believe alliances across gender, race and class are critical, and, at the same time, always need to be critically re-examined in our work for social justice. Kendall has done a wonderful job of outlining some of the risks inherent in these kinds of alliances – especially when you are in a more privileged position than those you are creating alliances with. Some of the passages that stood out most strikingly for me included the following:
“This type of alliance requires a great deal of self-examination on our part as well as the willingness to go against the people who share our privilege and with whom we are expected to group ourselves.”
“When a white person “gets it” and begins to speak honestly about racism and the supremacy of whiteness and how they play out in the organization, she or he becomes a threat to other white people and is seen as a potential danger to maintaining the status quo.”
“Allies understand that emotional safety is not a realistic expectation if we take our alliance seriously. For those with privilege, the goal is, to quote David Tulin yet again, ‘to become comfortable with the uncomfortable and uncomfortable with the too comfortable.’”
I believe that these alliances undoubtedly require us to discuss issues, which are uncomfortable or even downright contentious – such as me being a Jew and visiting Dachau. Personally, such alliances often mean that we might alienate members of our own cultural group(s), and risk having to share, or lose entirely, some of the privileges we benefit from. This is a lot to think about.
Yet, I am willing to take this risk because I feel strongly that we cannot eliminate one form of oppression without looking carefully at all forms of oppression. They are interlocking systems that must be examined in their entirety. When we allow African Americans to be treated as second-class citizens, we pave the way for treating poor people, lesbian, and women in similar manners. We, as a society, often use similar justifications for exclusion and marginalization across difference.
Raquel Rios: First of all, I’d like to thank you, Alice for participating in this dialogue. It is a new experience for me as well, creating a dialogue in a written format in order to explore some of the complex issues involved in building relationships for social justice work. I appreciate that you decided to share some relevant personal experiences to start. This gave me a sense of who you are, your background and your perspective on life in general. Therefore I will do the same.
My grandparents were born in Puerto Rico and immigrated to this country in search of a better life. My grandmother was an orphan raised by Catholic nuns and who played the piano quite well. At the age of thirty, she was sent to New York by the monastery to live with a family in Brooklyn that agreed to provide her with piano lessons and in exchange for room and board; she agreed to become the family maid. Unfortunately, shortly after her arrival, she realized that piano lessons were never part of the arrangement and my grandmother never continued her study of piano. When she met my grandfather, she left the “host” family to start her own life, which began in Harlem in the projects, the only affordable apartment they could find. After years of marriage and four children, my grandfather returned to Puerto Rico and left my grandmother to raise the children on her own which she did miraculously with the help of public assistance. She spent her free time serving the community through the church and sang in the choir. For this service, all of her children attended private Catholic school and received a strict and focused upbringing. My mother was the youngest.
My mother married young to a man born from the only other Puerto Rican family living in that section of the projects at the time. Years later, my father, became an engineer and my mother found her calling much later in life as a social worker. My parents and step parents raised me to value three things: education, hard work and God. I attended several high schools in search of a good fit. I was accepted to Bronx High School of Science but left there when I was awarded a scholarship to attend Phillips Exeter Academy. After a year of living in a wealthy New Hampshire boarding school, I experienced an identity crisis so I decided to return home to be closer to family.
I graduated from New York University with a BA in foreign language education. As a sophomore, I had taken the opportunity to spend a year abroad in Spain, which greatly impacted my perspective on language and culture and the values inherent in American society. Upon graduation, I began teaching Spanish. Throughout my teaching career, I was constantly harassed by colleagues and students alike to take a stand on issues regarding the hidden meanings behind race, class, culture and language and I realized that the context of school (especially as a language teacher) was a natural, but explosive intersection of all of these variables and yet none of these issues were ever explicitly addressed in curriculum and practice in a holistic way. I completed a Masters degree from a city college and left teaching to engage in research and to explore ways I could integrate my socio-political observations into my work. I worked for several educational organizations full and part time while married and raising my son. I learned quickly that the world of education was much larger than I had ever suspected, the political climate in New York was intense particularly surrounding bilingual education. I realized that my education to date ill prepared me for the work I needed to do to get really involved in bigger issues.
When my second child was born, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program on-line. After thoroughly researching the local schools and understanding the on-site time commitment required of doctoral students, I felt overwhelmingly disheartened. It was at this time that TUI University, primarily geared towards educating military officials (I later learned) had begun to advertise a Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership. Even though the tuition was still quite high, I would be able to be at home with my newborn and five year old son as well as go back to work when the time came. I completed a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership with honors and because of the flexibility of the program; I was able to engage in the research that would integrate my passion for social justice and critical pedagogy in education.
After graduation and two long years of intensive searching, I realized that I was not going to find a job in a higher education institution. The fact is I was never once invited to interview for a faculty position. I had fallen through the cracks at this stage of my career and I was devastated, to say the least. In retrospect I realize that it was the first time “the system” did not work for me and thus a new awareness was born. Through this adversity, I learned to walk with humility and compassion for folks who work very hard with little or no just reward.
I launched my blog, Real World Educators for Action Learning in 2005 but really began writing seriously on it in 2007. Through this blog I came in contact with a bright, social justice advocate, Shadia Alvarez, who gave me the opportunity to consult with her small school in the South Bronx. There I started working with zeal and began designing curriculum. Real World was officially born.
The purpose of Real World is to create an ongoing, creative forum in which diverse educators and students examine real issues that impact how we see and interact with the world. Critical dialogue about real life issues has never been at the forefront of education discourse and praxis and while “social justice” initiatives have historically been about improving “outcomes” for disenfranchised and marginalized student populations, I believe that middle and upper class privileged groups are in equal need of dialogue for holistic change. Ultimately, looking back at my own personal experience, spanning public and private, cross country and abroad, I see that there is a significant disconnect between what is being taught and learned in schools and our communal needs. It is my hope that in this commitment to engage and reengage in a public dialogue that transcends diverse perspectives, we can begin to make individual and collective action for change.
Alice, you have asked me to answer the same question I posed to you and I am glad because it really resonates with a lot of people – the notion of risk.
Raquel, what do you think are the primary risks of forming such alliances across race, class and gender?
One of the primary risks of forming such alliances across race, class and gender etc. is the risk of vulnerability. I find that the greatest vulnerability for those of us who do not belong to a privileged group is that of livelihood. Survival is one of the most powerful human basic needs and forming alliances across race, class and gender really puts into question our fundamental belief system about survival. Many individuals and groups, especially within the context of a capitalistic and patriarchal society, begin to adopt a polarized perspective of lack vs. abundance. Individuals and groups that have historically been victimized by oppression often see the world through the filter of scarcity, or the fear of lack. This simply means that if a person is concerned with their basic needs, it is difficult for them to engage in an alliance across privilege because they will constantly feel dependent and needy on the relationship for personal gain. This relationship can be within the context of an organization. If there is a threat to the individual’s job stability, the “alliance” to the issue of social justice will often take back seat. If the person is coming from a position of privilege, speaking up and fighting for an issue of social justice is less risky. The level of risk involved will often dictate how each behaves facing adversity.
A real life example of this type of risk is when I was working for an educational organization several years ago. The team was disgruntled and often discussed compensation and the overwhelming and unequal distribution of projects across the team. We were all in agreement that the company took advantage of the team and that we needed to collectively advocate for redistribution of projects and travel as well as stronger professional support and recognition. However, as we continued speaking to each other and getting to know one another, I started learning more about the team members. I learned that some depended on the salary for their livelihood while others were in a completely different boat. One young and enthusiastic team member announced that her parents had just purchased her an apartment in an extremely expensive section of the city. She shared she had to cover the mortgage of course, but with her parents’ hefty down payment, the payments were going to be minimal. In addition to the fact that this colleague had no student loans to be concerned with, I realized that her level of vulnerability was drastically different from my own and that I had to think twice about our “mutual” enthusiasm to confront the administration with our complaints.
Consequently, I believe alliances across race, class and gender must address the issue of livelihood and both parties need to understand that there is no work that is done for free when basic needs are not being met. This cannot be taken for granted and it is not about giving money or giving charity, but rather making a commitment to open doors through the alliance that would otherwise be closed. For an alliance across class, the open door might very well be a work related recommendation or contract where as in an alliance across race, the door might be access to a community that otherwise would not welcome an outsider so to speak. We need to ask ourselves: How do we level the playing field in an alliance so that both parties are equally valued and free to work for the greater cause?
When Gandhi first started working in South Africa, he was offered a salary for his public work. As a relatively new barrister, he was not making any money but had already started creating a formidable reputation for himself. Gandhi refused to take a salary for his public work but asked the soon to be Natal Indian Congress that they provide him with judicial cases with which to earn an honest living and that that the public work must remain a service he would offer free to the community. They agreed and within the first several weeks, Gandhi received enough cases that he was able to take care of himself and his family and continue his public service free of charge.
Similarly, I work as a consultant and publish materials. If I am not hired or no one purchases my materials, I don’t have the funds to produce the Real World journal, which is a not-for-profit experience that comes out of my earnings. This journal is my public service and commitment to publishing student and teacher artwork and writing on diversity and community. I know that this journal does impact those who generally don’t have a voice and I hope to be able to continue offering the experience.
These real life stories are relevant. People of privilege often put “social justice” and “change” work into the category of “public work,” “volunteer work” or “community service” from the comforts of a steady income or financial freedom. This in many ways presents great risk to individuals and groups who don’t have financial flexibility and freedom that are equally committed but are consequently left out. This dynamic makes advocacy and activism a luxury for the privileged.
Alice, what is your definition of change agent? Do you consider yourself a change agent? Why or why not?
I definitely consider myself a change agent. The ways that I work for social justice are primarily through my writing, which takes diverse forms e.g., books, articles, commentaries, book reviews, poetry, curriculum guides, program evaluations and the like. Although my books are published by academic presses, and most (though certainly not all) of my articles are published in academic journals, I strive to write in such a manner as to be accessible to a larger readership. I interweave political observations with concrete strategies for change, with personal stories and anecdotes. Sometimes this means revealing more about myself than I’d like but one of the first tenants of feminist pedagogy is that the personal is political. This is in large part what drew me to women’s studies — the idea that learning needs to be authentic and relevant, and somehow tied to real strategies for change and evolution.
I see myself as a change agent even with my family and children. For example, my younger son Nicholas, who is 10 years old, told me a story about how he was on a field trip with his summer camp and as they were walking down an urban avenue, a car full of young men went by and they started propositioning the female counselors. According to my son, the younger children in the group were perplexed as to what was going on, and the counselors quieted their concerns simply by saying “It’s complicated.” My son, who knew exactly what was going on, later said to me: “Mom, while it was happening I just felt so proud that I had a mother who was working to change these kinds of things.” This was a great and unexpected compliment. Both my sons (my oldest is fourteen) know how important feminism is to me, as are other forms of justice and equity.
I am especially pleased that my family lives in an urban environment where my children experience diversity all the time. I have not only chosen to live in a diverse community, but my sons and I discuss the impact of racism all the time. For example, we talk about the fact that many of the middle-class white children at my younger son’s neighborhood elementary school leave the school in fifth grade to go to a magnet school, leaving the school with a disproportionate number of African American children in the upper grades.
Raquel, is there a particular forum in which you feel more or less comfortable working for change and social justice? If so, why?
Much like you, Alice, I have always been an avid writer. Writing, like the arts, is a visceral experience and therefore speaks to the universal, which I believe is essential in working for change and social justice. I suppose I always felt free in the written form and have excelled in this area, whether through experience or talent, I will never know – but the point is, that writing and publishing my work is my most comfortable forum. I also believe that truly working for change and social justice is a commitment to be vulnerable and share personal lived experiences strategically so that what you communicate resonates with both the self and with others on many levels. That is why most academic writing is void of this transformational element required in change work — it does not always honor the human experience outside of a very predetermined context. For this reason, I tend to support creative literary forums for change.
I also feel very comfortable working in schools with teachers and students. All types of schools. The school environment is so alive and invigorating and really touches every fiber of my being. As a professional development specialist and consultant, I have worked with various sized groups of teachers and students ranging from 2 to 125 in a variety of settings. I must say that the larger groups can be at first a little daunting but I am a firm believer of breaking larger groups down into smaller groups, which helps foster intimate dialogue and exploration of the material. I have worked in (and attended) private and public schools as well as not-for-profit organizations and corporate environments in Spain. While not all of my work focused explicitly on social justice, my presence has always embodied change and agency.
Ultimately, I believe that I am most comfortable in a forum that changes organically in response to the context and the need.
Alice, have you experienced alliances with people across race, gender or class? If so, what was your motivation? How did the alliance initiate? What were some of the rewards and challenges with this alliance? If not, why do you think this has not been part of your life and are you interested in making this happen? What is your motivation?
I must say that after reading Kendall’s chapter on alliances, I did pause to consider what alliances I have experienced – both personally and professionally. I realized that in many ways my work has been more targeted towards “alliances with issues,” than with “individuals.” This is not to say that I have not worked closely with people of color, and individuals from different class backgrounds over the course of my career. Nor is it to say that I haven’t formed close friendships across such differential identities and experiences.
As I look honestly at this question, however, I realize that writing is the forum in which I feel most comfortable working for social change. I am currently working on several book projects, including a book of dialogues among feminist academics and activists. I bring this project up because I am constantly getting emails from my co-editor about different activist protests and meetings that I don’t have the time (or motivation) to attend. I am thinking now that, while there is no reason to belittle the impact of my writing as a valid forum for working towards social justice, it is not the only route. In other words, I realize that I may need to reconsider the need for my participation in other avenues of change.
Raquel, as you think back on your own education, in what ways, if at all, were you encouraged to “question the facts”? What impact did this have?
When I was graduating from 6th grade, my teacher wrote in my autograph book, “Who is going to ask me Who, What, When, How and Why?” This fabulous teacher saw and embraced a precocious child. My first teacher, however, was my mother and to this day, I credit her for encouraging me to question the facts. My mother was always engaged in exploring some issue or another transforming family gatherings into a loud and boisterous debate. A good example of her teaching happened that same year the end of 6th grade. I attended school with a pretty diverse group of kids many of whom were Jewish. Several of my best friends were Jewish and one friend Chinese. We were in the honors class and at the end of the year we received our report cards with our placement for the following year. My Jewish friends who lived close to me were placed in a high performing junior high school located close by but in a predominantly Jewish section of our community and me and my Chinese friend were placed in the lower performing school in the opposite direction. When my mother approached the teacher, a Jewish lady herself, she said that she would vouch for me as her niece or something like that. While my mother believed that my teacher was well intentioned, she did not leave it at that. She took me with her to the office of the high performing school. She explained the situation and wanted the change to be made. She was told that the reason the Jewish students had been enrolled in that school was because they wanted to study Hebrew, which was not offered at the other school. So, my mother replied matter-of-factly, “Oh, then that’s perfect because we have always wanted our daughter to learn Hebrew.” The secretary stared at my mother in a long silence and made the change. That first year, my Jewish best friend and myself were assigned to Spanish class. Ha!
This story might not be the one people would expect to hear about educational experiences, but it is a critical part of my education especially when reflecting upon your question. The impact of my “informal education” was enormous and I am forever grateful for it.
I will add that throughout my entire formal educational experience all the way through a masters program, I was never exposed to any critical pedagogy in the field of education. In fact, it was not until I was engaged in independent research for my doctorate that I stumbled across critical educators starting with Paolo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – which was the first book that truly offered me a new paradigm.
Alice, Kendall discusses many strategies with regards to building relationships across privilege. Do any of these strategies resonate with your personal and professional experience? Is there a strategy you would like to add?
The strategies that were most powerful for me when reading this chapter included the following:
“Before identifying yourself as an ally, you should spend a lot of time examining how your life is influenced by having white privilege and what being an ally means to you.”
“We also need to communicate clearly about our boundaries in terms of time and commitment, actions and behavior.”
“Authentic cross-race relationships… require paying serious attention to nuances of behavior that we might otherwise take for granted.”
“I must consistently ask myself what it means to be white in this specific situation. How would I be viewed if I were of color? Would I be listened to? “
“Sharing the lead is very different from taking the lead.”
“For many of us, this means exploring and owning our dual roles as oppressor and oppressed…”
I especially agree with Kendall that it is important for everyone to recognize that we each share some privileges while being excluded from others – e.g., no one is singly an oppressor or only a victim of oppression. I would also like to emphasize the importance of her point that before getting into such alliances we need to consider the strength and boundaries of our commitment. In my work at many non-profit organizations I have found that such organizations need to “follow the money” in order to survive. In other words, the issues they choose to commit themselves to often change as the social and political climate changes. This is not meant to be a criticism, just a sad observation.
Moreover, Kendall speaks eloquently of the need to pay attention to “nuances of behavior that we might otherwise take for granted.” She tells a wonderful story about being invited to a black person’s home and not understanding the courage it took for that invitation to be issued to a white woman. As Kendall suggests, we must ask ourselves whether the same actions would have the same meaning in a different context (e.g., if we were black instead of white, gay instead of straight). This makes me think of the irony of the recent arrest of African American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, for breaking into his own house!
I also agree that we often don’t even realize that our gender, race, or class helps to form our interpretations. We don’t necessarily “speak the same language” as other cultural groups, which I mean both literally and figuratively.
As to what strategies I would add, I am thinking specifically now of strategies for the classroom. I am very drawn to the work of Rosamond S. King an artist and professor of English at Brooklyn College. In Radical Teacher #83, she suggests that radical teachers should, among other strategies: 1) always teach at least one text you disagree with; 2) Assign a “cultural response paper” that students write after going to an event about any culture other than their own; 3) have students interview someone with at least a thirty year age difference; 4) challenge students’ ideologies by asking them to support them with facts; 5) question facts; 6) teach texts written by and about whomever your students despise, and from wherever your country is waging war; 7) encourage service learning; and 8) discuss not only the texts, but also how they were produced, marketed, and distributed. I think these are all great ideas, many of which I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
Raquel, in what ways do you agree or disagree with the statement that “all knowledge is political”?
When I taught a course at Manhattanville College called Teaching Literacy Skills in Middle School through Collaborative Study of Social Identity I was determined to practice an exploratory and liberatory approach. The class was primarily going to be about critically examining the relationship between literacy and social identity in order to determine which methods are best suited for teaching literacy at the middle school level. Towards this aim, we did a lot of bubble mapping and brainstorming of terms and words that in any other context might have been considered elementary. In one of the first sessions we explored the words literacy juxtaposed with the word identity. The large paper that I had tacked up on the board was beginning to fill with a variety of words that came to the mind of the students. Imagine the words that can enter your mind when you think of literacy. Reading and writing are the basic first words but then your mind expands, you might begin to include words like: context, meaning, communication, comprehension, skills, illiteracy, standards, vocabulary, text, print, media and so on. And rightly so because literacy starts somewhere but gradually begins to take on greater meaning. We did the same for identity and the same occurred.
After several minutes of this exercise I asked them to reflect on all of the words written on the board and to think about the relationship between the two – literacy and identity. The class was comprised of teachers who had returned to school for a master’s degree and frankly I thought the task was relatively simple. But I was wrong. They started feeling frustrated and annoyed with me. Finally, one student asked why I didn’t just tell them what the relationship was. At that moment, I found myself at a critical crossroads in my teaching. I doubted my approach and questioned whether I was actually teaching them. I knew that if I had just told them or started my session with a lecture first (which I had planned for them the end of the week), I would be assured of their comfort and assured of the outcome. But I did not. I decided to continue on in spite of the resistance and trust the process. I had them link words and talk it through; I bombarded them with more questions and told them that only they could offer the class with answers. Finally, the group began to identify relationships between the two words and several of the students created statements articulating the relationship. These organic statements became the foundation for the rest of the course and I believe that the experience and discomfort was worthwhile for them and for myself. Throughout the course, I reminded them of that experience and the outcomes and they felt completely confident in their own understanding of the challenges and benefits of “critical pedagogy.”
I share this anecdote in response to the question because I believe that this story communicates that yes, all knowledge is political and by its very nature, the mode in which we choose to exchange knowledge is also political. The words that I chose to present to the class were based on criteria that I determined to be relevant to their learning experience. The approach that I chose to present the information was also based on criteria that I determined was important and valuable for the class. Making choices, these criteria are a political act.
Knowledge, like literacy can be simply understood at the surface. You might say — knowledge is information. But with further examination, you find that knowledge is knowing and knowing is understanding and understanding is meaning and so on. Therefore, the term knowledge becomes a more complex term that connotes understanding of what a person or group of individuals deems to be “truth.” What a group or an individual deems to be “truth” about the world, what a group classifies as “experience” or “scholarship” all suggest that there is a filter, or criteria that is decided upon and accepted by an individual or society. Once there is a criteria, or a standard for “truth” then there is power because who or what entity determines this criteria? Politics is all about relationships and decision-making and therefore politics is also about power. Clearly, all knowledge is political when broken down in this way.
Alice, I have one clarifying question for you. You mentioned that your “work in some of the poorest schools in the country, you have seen ways in which middle class white girls and working class black girls often have hard time finding common ground… While all of these girls are subject to unfair sexual harassment and inequality of opportunity, the ways in which these events play out in their lives can be and usually are very different.”
In these poor public schools, are middle class white girls and working class black girls in the same classes? What has been the context for your observation of their struggle to find common ground? Have you had any experience observing these relationships across race/class in a wealthy public school? Private school? If so, has there been any difference in their ability to find common ground? Finally, which do you believe race, class or gender take the dominant role in forming common ground?
I mistakenly implied that the middle class white girls and working class black girls I observed were in the same schools. I didn’t word it carefully enough. What I meant to say was that, given the range of schools I have worked in and visited, I have seen two very different systems of education at work for white middle class girls and working class/poor black girls. You are right to imply that they don’t often come into physical contact with each other – given the way neighborhood public schools are still segregated by race and class. I could talk more about these different experiences if you wish, but I don’t think that is your question. It is worth noting that much of the early and most touted research on gender equity in education was based on equity between middle-class white girls and boys. It did not pay adequate attention to the impact of race and class in both the curriculum and in teachers’ (often) unexamined attitudes. In response to your last question, however, I would definitely say that it is not productive to isolate or privilege race, class, or gender. They need to be examined contextually, as differences become more or less salient in different social and material contexts. Moreover I see racism, classism and sexism as interlocking systems of oppression and inequity. You really can’t talk about one without at least paying attention to the others.
Raquel, I have one clarifying question for you. You note that: “Throughout my entire formal educational experience all the way through a masters program, I was never exposed to any critical pedagogy in the field of education. In fact, it was not until I was engaged in independent research for my doctorate that I stumbled across critical educators starting with Paolo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – which was the first book that truly offered me a new paradigm.”
Why do you think you were not exposed to any critical pedagogy before stumbling on it yourself? Do you think this is the case for most pre-service teachers? Too what extent do you think policies like “No Child Left Behind” make it even harder for teachers to “take risks” in the classroom? Also, I too am a big fan of Freire. Could you say a little bit about how reading his work changed the way you thought about teaching and learning?
Critical pedagogy is a critique of the status quo in that it implies students (and teacher) need to critically examine the power relations embedded in knowledge and the transfer of knowledge, similar to the argument I made earlier with regards to all knowledge being political. This implies that the role of the teacher in not to impart knowledge, but to create the conditions in which students are able to explore the meaning of the world around them starting from their own unique perspective. An important component of this pedagogy is that the students themselves are participants in their education as a vehicle to understand more deeply the conditions of their lives and to acquire the academic skills to ultimately be a part of the solution to injustice (Gutstein, 2003). I believe that one of the primary goals of critical pedagogy is student agency, which I have defined over the years as being simply the belief that that one is able to make a difference in the world.
Reading Freire was like finding a new language. He was able to articulate what was -up to that point in my life- a very abstract and intuitive notion on my part about the nature of literacy and knowledge. His work validates all “lived experience” as being crucial to our understanding of knowledge, power relations and agency. The idea that educators must learn from the students continues to impact my work today because it completely transforms the role of teacher. My recent work and research in the area of spiritual intelligence is intricately related to this concept in that we are beginning to expand our understanding of “lived experience” to include the spiritual realm which is intuition. This holistic approach gets us closer to truth.
Critical pedagogy creates fear within the institution because it has always been explicitly about examining power relations with the goal of liberating both the oppressed and the oppressor – that means liberating the human being from the “system” or an unconscious way of doing things. A student in the course that I taught at Manhattanville College wrote in her reflection that she was completely against critical pedagogy because she couldn’t understand why any teacher would want to anger the students by bringing up issues of inequity. Furthermore she felt that any proponent of critical pedagogy was looking for an uprising or a revolution. I was very pleased when I read her reflection because even though she was “against” critical pedagogy, she clearly understood that critical pedagogy is revolutionary. Eventually, my hope is that she will realize that a revolution of the mind and spirit does not necessarily result in a violent uprising.
No Child Left Behind nourishes this fear and it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers to take risks. NCLB also moves funding away from programs and initiatives that work for increased awareness and critical thinking. Educational leaders are more concerned with standards and getting kids to pass tests, which drives instruction. When conducting research for my dissertation on the impact of teaching literacy for social justice on student achievement, I found that teachers don’t prioritize initiatives that they are not sure will positively impact reading and writing skills as determined by standardized test scores. For this reason, people who work to promote this work in schools experience resistance. My study indicated, however that social justice curriculum positively impacts student agency and student engagement, especially for the African American boys who continue to be the largest at-risk group in public schools across the country.
Finally, Alice, could you share some reflections of having participated in this dialogue?
After reading Kendall’s work and participating in this dialogue starting with my own personal history, I think the thing that stands out most for me is the need to form more alliances with actual individuals, while still continuing to reach large numbers of people through my writing. Although my writing has not been sheltered from attack, it is obviously much more comfortable for me to write about change in the safety and comfort of my own (middle-class) home. I may need to rethink this.
This dialogue has also drawn me back to an amazing book I recently reviewed for Feminist Teacher called Shut Out: Low Income Mothers and Higher Education in Post-Welfare America. This collection takes a remarkably candid look at the ways in which the welfare system keeps poor women poor, and makes it almost impossible for them to get a higher education while taking care of a family and fulfilling the requirements needed to continue to get greatly needed monetary assistance. It made me think that even as I chose to go to a state school while most of my friends were going to more “prestigious colleges,” many women never get the opportunity to go to college at all. This is not about individual discrimination or laziness; it is about systemic failures and the need for systemic change.
Raquel Rios: First and foremost, I will say that conducting a dialogue rather than an interview in which there is the opportunity for both parties to ask thought-provoking questions is invaluable. How often do we experience a real conversation between two diverse people and not have one person hide behind questions or formality? This dialogue expanded a period of two weeks in which Alice and myself had ample time to engage in this discussion thoughtfully. This pass of time and the ensuing back and forth correspondence towards its publication has offered me a greater understanding about the nature of relationship building rooted in a mutual commitment for change and heightening awareness. As a result of this dialogue, I feel a strong regard for Alice and her work and have been honored by her grace in return. The fact that Alice and I have agreed to participate in this public dialogue at the start of our relationship in order to build common ground for future collaboration is an act of faith and trust in the organic process of relationship building for the purpose of change. There was no other purpose beyond this dialogue, only to engage in this step and this step alone has made all the difference.
This concludes the first Real World on-line dialogue. If you are interested in participating in this dialogue by responding to or posing questions to Dr. Alice E. Ginsberg or Dr. Raquel Rios, please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be reviewed for publication.