Educators who are in the United States – and many of you who are not – will be well aware of the release of the grand jury’s decision on Monday night to not indict the police officer who killed 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. Sadly, the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white law enforcer was not in and of itself a remarkable event. But Brown’s death has become a touchstone or symbol of ongoing and systematic racial inequality in the United States and a tipping point for many Americans who feel outraged that the case is not at least being brought to trial. One of my colleagues here at Harvard is writing her dissertation on “the talk” that African American parents feel obliged to have with their sons about the unique dangers they will face out in the world because of the ways in which the majority population will perceive them. This kind of fear is a lived reality for many families here in the United States.
Why am I writing about Ferguson and not a host of other serious, real-world issues? I know that injustices are being enacted throughout the world on a daily basis, with Paul’s recent reporting on the plight of Syrian refugees being a case in point: see my recent blog post, Responding to injustice in the world. However, as an educator based at a school of education in the United States I feel duty bound to speak up about what is happening in Ferguson and to acknowledge the deep pain that many people are currently feeling, particularly those from the African American community. With so many US educators involved in Out of Eden Learn, keeping silent at this time would not seem right to me. That said, I hope that we can create a space within our Out of Eden Learn community to allow educators to share resources that could be applied to initiate conversations around other difficult topics and situations across many different contexts.
Some of you may have seen the resource-sharing that has coalesced around the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter, courtesy of an initiative by Marcia Chatelain at Georgetown University – as explained in her piece in The Atlantic. This response by educators is heartening, as was the large community meeting held yesterday at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: Ferguson seems to be galvanizing people to take action to make change happen. And as educators, we are in a unique position to make a difference. At the same time, I don’t want to pretend that taking on difficult topics in the classroom is easy for educators. Research by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, for example, suggests that many educators avoid discussing difficult topics such as contemporary race relations and other political issues in their classrooms. I am not going to lie: I tended to steer clear of them myself when I was a high school history teacher in England and Australia. By pooling resources and supporting one another, however, we can and should do this important work in ways that are appropriate to the specific teaching contexts in which we find ourselves and our own racial identities. (For those new to this blog, I myself am white.)
Here are some of the thoughts and questions I have related to Out of Eden Learn:
Incidents such as Ferguson focus the mind on the need for effective dialogue between young people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds – especially in the United States where de facto school segregation exists in most parts of the country and race is such a defining factor for people’s everyday experiences. We do not have a good sense of the racial and ethnic diversity of students within Out of Eden Learn: we can only get a general sense of what is going on from the school descriptions provided by educators. A question I now have is this: would it be appropriate for us to ask students (and educators) when they register to indicate their racial and/or ethnic identity as a way for us to make greater effort to put young people (and adults) in dialogue with one another? Or, given that we are trying to encourage young people to think in new ways about themselves and the world, would posing that question prime students to position themselves in particular ways within our space? These are questions that we need to ponder. Meanwhile, we believe that having young people exchange stories about one another’s lives within geographically and socio-economically diverse groups is a step in the right direction in terms of countering stereotyping and “othering”. In the much-quoted words of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we need to overcome “the danger of a single story”.
Talking about race
How might we leverage Paul’s walk and writing to initiate meaningful and nuanced conversations about race and social injustice? In The Eddy, Paul tackles these issues head-on in his account of meeting the Ghawarna: dark-skinned Jordanians who are genetically of African descent but who resolutely adopt an Arabic identity despite suffering ongoing discrimination. Digging into complex questions about identity and comparing experiences of race and culture in different geographic locales can help us to question the inevitability of what is happening with regards these issues in our own contexts. I especially like how Paul challenges the notion of fixed identities, while recognizing that how people think about themselves and how they are thought of by others have very important consequences. How can we have conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture in ways that feel safe and productive within an online space?
Recognizing the importance of historical perspective
Paul incorporates different layers of history into his writing: he often reflects on the story of our human species writ large, transcending historical narratives organized according to nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, etc. But he also refers to more immediate historical timeframes, such as the forced transportation of the Ghawarna from Africa to Jordan in the 12th and 19th centuries. I was just at the annual National Council for the Social Studies Conference, held here in Boston, where I attended a lunchtime session called Lessons From Ferguson. The panel called for educators to frame the situation in Ferguson within a broader historical context. Rather than focus on the specifics of what happened on that single day in August, we need to situate Michael Brown’s death within an ongoing story of institutionalized oppression and injustice – something that the African American community is indeed doing. As a former history teacher I am eager to think about how we might encourage young people in Out of Eden Learn to dig below the surface of what they are observing in the present day to ask questions about why things are as they are and, crucially, how things might and should be in the future.