We Can Build a Better World for Our Students, But Teachers Can’t Do It...

Opinion | Leadership

We Can Build a Better World for Our Students, But Teachers Can’t Do It Alone.

By Corey Winchester     Dec 15, 2022

We Can Build a Better World for Our Students, But Teachers Can’t Do It Alone.

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

In 2017, one of my former students gifted me a copy of Angela Davis’ book, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement”. I loved this gift because it spoke to how my students and I cultivated a learning environment where we could explore the possibilities of justice and liberation through studying history. Davis’ book was an inspiration to read then because it encouraged a type of worldbuilding, or imagining, exploring and working towards possibilities of justice and liberation. Worldbuilding is genuinely what inspires my work as an educator.

In the years since reading Davis’ book, I’ve come to understand that the struggle of worldbuilding for educational justice, much like social movements, is long and constant. Coalitions of individuals and communities committed to educational justice have been fighting for generations for policies, practices, and spaces crucial to the success of our schools today, including the development of ethnic studies classes, free breakfast programs, gender-inclusive spaces or equitable school funding. At the same time, those holding conservative, racist, homophobic and transphobic ideologies have done everything they can to hamper these efforts at the local, state, and national levels.

At this point in my career, I know this struggle is real and will most likely continue for decades to come, but how can those with various levels of power and influence who are committed to worldbuilding for educational justice cultivate and hold spaces that foster generative, sustainable change?

I Am Not Alone

Around this time last year, I wrote about being tired as an educator. There were a lot of reasons for my exhaustion then that are still manifesting now, namely the fact that movements for educational justice are still under attack. Republican-led legislatures have successfully passed laws denying educators the ability to have historically factual and honest conversations about race and racism in our country. We’ve witnessed at least 16 states adopt legislation that denies LGBTQ+ youth the ability to feel safe and accepted in schools, going as far in some cases to prohibit their participation in sports. We’re also seeing more insidious and implicit attacks as well, from decredentializing the teacher profession to privatizing public schools.

It seems like the odds aren’t in our favor. However, I have to remind myself that the issues we face today are just new manifestations of historical issues in education. The way that individuals and communities before me combatted English-only education, Native American boarding schools and Jim Crow era segregation can teach us about how to remain vigilant during these struggles now.

In these moments, I also remember that I am not alone in this work and there are people just like me advocating for change in our education system.

In October 2022, I participated in a Convening for Culturally Sustaining and Relevant Education (CSRE), hosted by the Spencer Foundation in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. During my time, I was fortunate to work with education scholars and theorists like Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, whose work I admired from afar and with whom I never thought I would have the opportunity to collaborate. Over the course of two days, our group of roughly 50 researchers, scholars and practitioners came together to collaborate, brainstorm and discuss the types of worlds we can build that can keep us moving in this struggle for educational justice.

In the next few months, we’re hoping to find ways to move those ideas from our imaginations to our reality. The invitation to be in this space was truly special. Advocating for educational justice as a K-12 classroom educator can be daunting and attempting to adjust the levers of power at the school and district level presents challenges. Fortunately, there is power in the collective, and we just have to remember that we can build worlds for educational justice together.

Being in the Room Where It Happens

I learned from my time at the CSRE that community and collaboration are key in worldbuilding for educationally just spaces. The Hamilton fanatic in me was just happy to be in the room where change was happening, and it also inspired me to continue to struggle in the spirit of Davis’ work, in community with others.

We must ensure that we’re not only invited to be in the room where things happen but also manifest those spaces ourselves. It’s just one of the ways that we can continue pushing in this struggle for educational justice, and from my experience, there are a few ways to do this:

  1. Build and Nurture Your Village: When I attended the CSRE, I met Dr. Tim San Pedro, who took the time to write personalized thank-you notes to those he engaged with during our time together, including me. Because of that thoughtful act, we made it a point to continue supporting each other’s work. This month, we are working on teams to submit Vision Grants to the Spencer Foundation to continue worldbuilding together. Cultivating those relationships over time is essential to being in the room and making space to mobilize for educational justice. Continue to be in community with one another, especially with people outside of your sphere of influence. Make convenings, meetings and spaces for dialogue a priority so that we can authentically engage beyond the borders drawn by institutions that silo us.
  2. Tell Your Story: Storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of human learning and being able to tell my story has been central to my work as a teacher over the years. This past November, I had the opportunity to speak at a Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill about efforts to support and strengthen the educator pipeline through initiatives that focus on recruiting and retaining educators of color. That experience reminded me that folks do want to hear what we have to say as educators and that individuals and communities support our work, despite continual efforts against it. With that, we have to create more opportunities for us to listen and hear one another’s stories. Our stories and voices matter and they are important avenues for engagement in the struggle for educational justice.
  3. Speak Up and Show Out: My invitation to speak at the congressional hearing happened because I said “yes” when the opportunity presented itself. None of this would have happened without collaboration with organizations like the Spencer Foundation, Teach Plus and The Education Trust. All of these organizations share common values and a commitment to community and collaboration to advance educationally just spaces. Supporting organizations like these by engaging with their mission and initiatives helps get our voices heard and our energy articulated under common causes and goals.
  4. Center Our Young People: Worldbuilding could not happen without our students. My former student Jazmin Garcia gifted me the book that continues to inspire my work today. Young people have been central to the struggle for educational justice and they will continue to be. They are coming to the table and elevating their voices with tremendous ideas, agency and visions for the world they want to live in. I have many young people to thank, from all those who have been in my classroom to those I’ve worked with in student organizations like Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR). They have pushed us all to do better and it is important to ensure that we are seeing and honoring their voices.

At the end of the day, this struggle for educational justice can’t be lifted by educators or students alone. This movement requires collective commitment from policymakers and legislators to administrative staff and community leaders to build the rooms where worldbuilding can happen.

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