Centering Black Women’s Scholarship in Cultivating Anti-Racist Teaching


Key Points 

  • Understanding the foundations and doing deep work with the scholarship behind Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education (CRSE) is pivotal to implementation in the classroom.
  • Pairing theory with student voice and deepening the commitment to CRSE is the key to actualizing anti-racist work in schools.

Key Scholars

  • Gloria Ladson-Billings
  • Paulo Freire
  • bell hooks
  • Chris Emdin
  • Bettina Love
  • Gholdy Mohammed

We sat down with Keturah Proctor, RE-Center Racial Justice Strategist and Coach, who has over 20 years of experience in education advocating for students through an Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist lens. She curated the series “Cultivating a Practice of Anti-Racism through Pedagogy” and we spoke with her about its creation and its first time implementation early this year.

What activated you to curate and facilitate the series?

The series itself started just as thoughts in my head and connections. I noticed that folx were engaged in social justice and racial equity work, in schools primarily, and they were very passionate about this work - and I'm using air quotes for "this work". But I kept seeing that almost no one could make the connection   in the New York State Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education framework. So, when I would say 'Oh, so you're a fan of Dr. Ladson Billing's work?' and they would stare at me and say no, they like the framework. They weren't recognizing that the framework is based on the scholarship of a Black woman. And that was upsetting to me. We have folx holding up this framework, which is a beautiful piece of work, but not necessarily linking back the origination of some of the foundational understandings. And so, my experience with people in DEI and social justice and racial equity work, especially in schools, was that the ideas in the CRSE framework were a new phenomenon. I did not want to be complicit in that. And so every time I could, I was elevating and making connections to scholarship. People tend to be more familiar with some of the more contemporary folx and buzz books like White Fragility and How to be An Anti-Racist. And there's so much scholarship and resources that we've neglected, and I don't understand why we're not rooting this work in scholarship. 

And it's not about praising the written word, right, and so I'm very careful that this is not an act of white supremacy culture, but I am very clear that Black and Brown folx have been in this work in many different ways. People have really dedicated their life to scholarship, to be able to make a change in that respect. And so when I bring it back to schools, to teachers who are wanting to make changes in their classrooms, but who can not articulate the reason why or have nothing concrete to back up their feelings with, that really was the origin of asking, Where's the scholarship? Where does it come in? Everyone is comfortable with a very performative way in which they go about their DEI work. Scholarship is never mentioned. It's often, let's change all the flags in the hallways, let’s change the books out in the classroom libraries, have a speaker come in twice a year. No one talks about scholarship.

Who did you design the series for? Who was the ideal participant for this series?

It's for teachers, for building and district leaders, social workers and psychologists, it's for teaching assistants, it's for the clerical staff. It's for anyone who is connected to schools. When we think about instructional practices, the routines and things that we have set in place for kids, the expectations that we have for young people - if we're saying we want to disrupt and dismantle, what are we actually disrupting? What are we dismantling? And if you can say that out loud, but you don't recognize that your own pedagogy, your own way of doing and being with young people, is absolutely perpetuating the things that you want to disrupt and dismantle, it's already broken. And so in order to interrupt that, how about we dig down to the origin as to why you or pedagogy, your practices, may be the barrier.  

And I'm being critical of my own self. Even in designing the series, I needed to challenge so many things that I knew to be true about my own instructional practices. Because I was able to name the areas in which I have grown over the years. For example, lining up young people based on gender binaries, a boy’s line and a girl’s line is something that teachers inherently do, but it is so damaging and completely unnecessary. It's what we've all been programmed to know to be true about elementary school. I wanted to begin with challenging some of the things that are inherent in any school in the country. And being able to connect it to scholarship is absolutely important because we always talk about Piaget and Vygotsky. We talk about a bunch of white men who have made an imprint on education and we hold that up but, who is not being held up? So [the series] was designed with all this in mind.

So you've spoken about how the series was grounded in scholarship. Who were those wisdom guides, and why did you choose to focus on them?

After undergrad, I got a job as a new teacher, and for Christmas a friend sent me Pedagogy of the Oppressed saying 'You would love this book. It's completely what you've been saying for the last four years.' And then I was like, Oh my goodness, how did I not read this? How am I just finding out about this, right? So I say that to say, most wisdom guides really started with Freire. I go back to that text often for clarity, for reassurance, for validation, for connectedness - and also recognizing that in moments it can be problematic, such as the gender rigidity. And then from there, obviously, bell hooks, and you could see there's a natural progression of the iteration of the work. hooks for me is everything and then from there, Gloria Ladson Billings. Those theorists serve as the foundation and then other articles and pieces of scholarship are added in. 

I love getting people to really dig into Pedagogy of the Oppressed purposefully, because what I like about it is that it never specifies a specific type of injustice. For example, we were in a session and the assignment was for folx to read excerpts from the book, and we were going to unpack and one person said, you know, it's just, it's just another racial piece, and so she was kind of getting hung up on the race part. And I had to say, ‘Actually, he doesn't talk about race.’ You could insert any -ism. But [the text] talks about humanization and dehumanization, oppressed and oppressor, but he never gives the context, which I think is amazing. That's why I really do hold on to that text because you can read it at any moment, and it's applicable. And, again, I acknowledge that it is not perfect, but it does serve as a layer of foundation that many others pull on for their own scholarship. 

And then of course, hooks. I don't understand why bell hooks isn't required reading for any person walking into schools. Her work should be a course within itself. And then Dr. Ladson Billings, who I believe needs to be uplifted more because we see direct evidence of her scholarship in so many resources. And then we moved on to some more contemporary folks, which was really helpful, like Chris Emdin, Bettina Love, Gholdy Mohammed. So that's kind of the continuum of the wisdom that the series was built upon.  We wanted to elevate the scholarship of Black and Brown people so that they could be regularly spoken about as much as we are taught to know Vygotsky, Piaget, and Dewey. People rattle off those names readily and in such high esteem. Why are we not also rattling off bell hooks with high esteem and regard? So [the texts in the series] really should just be the basis for understanding for anyone who's walking into K12 spaces.

As the series went on, what surprised you most?

People read! People were commuting or tuning in from their cars or with their kids, and everything in life was happening, but they still read! And each week, it wasn't like 10 pages - we were reading like 93 pages. Folx actually read the texts and came with their books tagged up and shared in the space and that was magical. The way people were able to interact was really, really amazing. The slides were all prepared and everything was ready for each meeting, but we didn't really need them because the folx were able to hold the session and it felt good. 

The series ended up being a smaller group of folks who showed up consistently. How did that impact the space?

Oh, it went from course to community. It went from something very structured to still having shape, but defined by the folx on the ground. We'd see a couple of people not come back or some people had conflicts and they could only join for a certain amount of time, but it became who it needed to be. Those who remained were right. However, I will say those who weren't able to attend the sessions still had access to all of the information and we'd get emails like, I couldn't come because of this and that, but I did the reading. They'd say, ‘I looked at this article, I looked at the slides’, and they'd send paragraphs of their own thoughts. So, they were still interacting and that's amazing. But it went from being a course to real community where it was just our time. And I looked forward to that time. It was a great group of people.

Can you tell me about the practice of truth statements?

So "the work". People will say 'I feel so passionate about this work. I'm so deeply connected.' And I will say, Why? What is your declaration? Why do you care? Why are you so passionate? Folx don't have the words to say how they feel. And so when in situations where tensions might feel high, to not be able to know what you stand on and what your truth is, it doesn't feel great. You have to actually be able to say your declaration. What do you ultimately declare about who you are and what you believe? And what is it that you stand on? What is your truth? And so that's where that came from. In the series, people were interacting with the text, taking what they've learned from the session, and then adding to their statements and then revising, and adding more and omitting and so that they were interacting with having to explore how they actually feel their connection to the work, saying the words, and naming it. So [truth statements] were a way to get people to use what they have in terms of the text and the scholarship to be able to give more to the foundation to what folx were feeling and to help contextualize it. If you're connected to something, you have that grounding and you can walk in that and be able to make the outward declaration.

That all sounds so powerful. And that was coming through in the feedback forms. Folx were expressing deep gratitude and wanting to continue the space when the series ended. Have you thought about what a part two experience could be?

So interestingly enough, I'm still in a dream space about that. So I know that part two will continue to uplift the scholarship of Black and Brown folx. I'm clear about that. But in part two, I want student voice - something where we're bridging the pedagogical pieces and our practices to where the kids are in this. If we just sit in the theory space, that's not helpful. We need to hear from the young voices. Where are the young people in this because they also are a source of scholarship, living scholarship, right in the moment. They are the actual true source of the scholarship and of the actual real work. So I want student voice to live somewhere in part two. How? I don't know yet, but I know students must be in the space. We have to ask, What do we learn from young people and how do we connect them to the scholarship of others? What are we seeing in our actual everyday lives, our work with young people in schools? And then how do we bring all of those pieces together? That's really what I'm seeing.

For educators hoping to cultivate their own practice of anti racism, what advice or guidance do you have for them?

This is more than feelings work. If you're actually committed to the work of this, it's a lot of things. It's studying. It's a real commitment to learning, it's a real commitment to being embedded in scholarship. And it's a commitment to action. A commitment to doing. It's also a commitment to listening. It's a commitment to being reflective. It's a commitment to personal accountability. It's a commitment to naming that we all have work to do. It's not just how you feel. It's not just feelings work. It's not as simple as I really, really care about you as a person and I just want you to do better. Yes AND how do you actualize that, right? What does that mean? So that it doesn't turn into saviorism. We’ve still got to learn some things. And again, that comes in many different shapes. The scholarship piece I felt was something that was most missing. Because the scholarship of the folks who have been doing this work for decades, decades, decades, is beautiful work. It's rich work and very much applicable today. So the work that was done 50-60 years ago is absolutely applicable. You really need it. Scholarship matters. That's what I would say, I encourage folx to go read and really elevate the scholarship and the wisdom of Black and Brown folx who've been doing this work, Black and Brown queer folks who've been doing this work. I think that that has to be first. Get your readers on!

Any final thoughts you want to share?

This work is coming under fire in so many ways and it's a vulnerable place for people and people's livelihoods are attached. So I think it's even more important to be grounded in the scholarship so that you can connect it back to something else outside of just one's personal opinion. And for those of us who work in K-12 spaces who are doing this work daily, that's very necessary. It's another way to shore up who you are and what you believe in in a way that's rooted in something bigger than us.

Keturah is a Black, cis, non-disabled woman.