A Step Forward in Equality

by Siya Patel, Features Editor
photo courtesy of Joana Chacon

After reading Dr. Bettina Love’s book “We Want To Do More Than Survive,” English teacher Joanna Chacon decided to start a book club. Her club soon grew from a couple of South teachers to a full-blown conference with nearly 10,000 participants from all 50 states and over 24 countries.

“As I was reading Dr. Love’s book, my conception of anti-racism started to form. As citizens in this country, we don’t really understand the concept of assimilation versus segregationist versus antiracist. Most of us are assimilationists and some of us are between assimilationists and antiracist. That’s where I was,” she said.

In her book, Love describes how the current education system forces BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) students into an “educational survival complex,” in which their identities are attacked, forcing them to focus on survival rather than their education. Her solution, coined abolitionist teaching, is a pedagogical change, including modified teacher training and curriculum, that embraces all students’ full identities.  

The conference, centered around “We Want To Do More Than Survive,” took place from August 8 to 13. South teachers, led by Chacon, were behind the event from start to finish. In response to the hypervisibility of racism and racial violence this spring, Chacon created a coalition committed to infusing the education system with abolitionist and antiracist work. 

The event was divided into several sessions led by educators, ranging from English & Antiracism to Unions & Antiracism. Along with the sessions, Love presented the keynote address, which was followed by a roundtable, including former English teacher Dr. Kandice Sumner and North Principal Henry Turner.  

Chacon said her experience with abolitionist teaching and training inspired her to take action. In her classroom, for instance, she teaches both trials and triumphs of historically oppressed communities.

“I love people who don’t see boundaries and don’t see limits. She just had the idea,” Katani Sumner, METCO Engagement Specialist, English teacher, Director of Legacy Scholars and Black Student Union advisor said. “Sometimes when you have a great idea, and you present it in a way that’s tangible, people will galvanize and support you.”

While the conference was directed toward educators, seniors Imani Fonfield and Carrie Ryter facilitated a student session to discuss students’ role in creating “home spaces” and advocating for abolitionist teaching. Home spaces are ideally a place where all students, regardless of race, can feel loved and supported in a school environment. Fonfield and Ryter interviewed Love as part of the session, which had over 100 participants. 

“We raised awareness around the recent lynchings. We’ve already protested. Okay. What’s next? And so this was the next step for me; it was bringing that power and that awareness into a school context,” Fonfield said.

 Senior Emily Ball, who attended the student session, said that it underscored the importance of teenagers assuming an active role in change.

“Now more than ever, us young people need to stand together and realize that we’re all brilliant, capable and passionate enough to change the way that things are currently being run,” she said.

Fonfield said she was inspired to get involved with the conference by Love’s passion.

“It was powerful for me to see a Black female educator do her thing, and that’s what her passion is,” she said. “As a Black student, I’m looking up to someone I consider a real model. I don’t consider her a role model, she’s not playing any sort of role.”

English teacher Dr. Jasmine Lellock said the South-backed conference is a commitment to BIPOC students. 

“I know that my students have talked to me in the past about not always feeling supported at South,” she said. “The fact that we’re taking the lead on this is important because it shows to our students that we care and we want to help make a difference.”

Fonfield said that she appreciates community members — like those involved in the conference — who put themselves on the line for Black students. 

“It’s powerful for me because it doesn’t feel like I or the other Black students at South have to survive a fire, then turn around and fight it,” she said. “There are people who are willing to take on the fight, who are willing to be co-conspirators and are willing to sacrifice and invest a part of themselves, for something bigger than themselves.”

Senior Elianna Kruskal said that the event alone will not be enough to change racist structures.  

“We’re going to have to work for it, we can’t just say ‘Oh this one event with a couple teachers and now it’ll just magically happen.’ It’s going to require work, discomfort, and it’s going to involve throwing things out that have been in place for a long time,” they said.

Lellock said that the coronavirus-necessitated changes of switching to a new form of education provide ample opportunity to integrate abolitionist teaching. 

“We’re in a moment where we can actually make systemic changes that make a difference and are more anti-racist and don’t just replicate the old systems that maybe didn’t work so well,” she said. “It’s a perfect storm where we can actually do something.”

Chacon said she’s optimistic that the conference’s momentum will persist. 

“If we do let it fizzle away, we are essentially abdicating our responsibility and putting it on [students’] shoulders because whatever we don’t do as adults, as the teachers in the room, we are passing on to the next generation to figure out,” she said. “It’s going to take hard work and we’re going to have to apply pressure and work closely with every department across the district to turn the tide, but there is enough invested to really change the culture at this school and anti-racism in the whole school system.”

Kandice said the movement in favor of abolitionist teaching has been active for a long time, and this conference was a huge step in the right direction. 

“It’ll be around long after we’re retired, but it’s something that’ll just keep evolving and growing into whatever the next generation needs it to be,” she said. “The beautiful thing about the book and the movement is that it’s not new, but we’re just new to it.”