Equity Work is a safe way to describe the work I do in schools. In reality, though, my work is Anti-Oppression work. It is Anti-Racist work; it sees and dismantles White Supremacy in our classrooms, schools, and networks. These words make educators, funders, and leaders uncomfortable (at the very least) and scared, angry and defensive at the worst. But what happens if we stop using these words (or never start using them?) This article helps explain why we need to say WHITE SUPREMACY if we want to undo systemic racism in our schools and society.
You emailed on November 15, and since you reached out to me, I would like to respond truthfully and frankly. I hope that you will take the time to read my response to your email.
I want you to know that I am one of the TFA alumni that wrote a counter-narrative for the book edited by T.J. Brewer and K. deMarrais; the book that was purposefully discredited by TFA. The book that TFA publicly claimed was “misconceptions” of a few corps members. By doing this, TFA attempted to shame and silence dissension of corps members.
I want you to know that I was a teacher with a M.A. in teaching with 3 years of experience before I joined the corps. I want you to know that I now have a Ph.D. in education and teach in a Critical Pedagogy graduate program.
I want you to understand that while I share your mission, we strongly disagree on what an “excellent education” is. I want you to understand as a working class and first generation college student, I don’t care if I am representative of the students we teach, or that I added to TFA’s diversity of the corps. My identity didn’t mean I was free of internalized oppression and not oppressing students of the same background as me.
No I will not contribute to an organization that, although has changed, still continues to oppress students, communities, corps members, and public education (see S. Matsui’s book and the research of T. White). Instead, I will work tirelessly to partner with teachers to use critical pedagogy in their classrooms and schools; to encourage the development of Equity Literacy in all schools; to eliminate dehumanizing practices like behavior narration, no-nonsense nurturing, compliance driven methods (“silent hallways” and “enter the class silently and complete your Do Now), SLANT, and strict dress codes that sexualize and shame bodies. TFA may not explicitly condone all of these methods, but they align with schools that do. These methods do not “Liberate;” they are the opposite of liberation.
Lastly, I am offended by your strategic and over-use of people of color on your promotional materials (see below). I wish, instead, that it was your picture on the email from you. It would be much more accurate and personal. Even when I click on the link under your signature that says “Visit my campaign page” it does not show your picture (on your own campaign page). This is misleading.
Thank you for your time and I am available for any sincere dialogue on these issues.
Amber Kim, ATL 2001
- I am often offered money, praise, and other rewards for going into communities and organizations and saying things that people of color in those communities have been saying, sometimes for generations, and often at their personal, physical, and professional peril.
- I was able to build a career out of doing social justice work without being seen as self-absorbed and self-serving. Rather, I’m often seen as brave for doing work for which many people of color are criticized, demeaned, targeted with violence, fired, and de-professionalized.
- It’s one thing to do racial justice work, and it’s something else altogether to be doing racial justice work while experiencing the weight of racism. One major difference is that I can, if I choose, retreat from racial justice work when it feels hard or inconvenient, while people of color cannot retreat from racism.
- I am often credited for ideas, concepts, and frameworks related to social justice that are not original to me even when I say they are not original to me.
- I can be seen by many people as a change agent or activist simply by writing essays or books about racism, by teaching courses about racism at a university, by speaking at plush diversity conferences, or by doing cultural competence or diversity consulting, regardless of whether I do any racial justice work for which I am not financially compensated and regardless of how I spend the rest of my time.
- I have the option of softening my racial justice message for particular types of audiences if doing so will help me sell more books or have a higher likelihood of being hired as a facilitator or consultant, and I can do so without making my parents or sister or niece and nephew, who are white, vulnerable to racism.
Never assume that every critic is a hater. Not everyone is hating on you. Some people are telling you truth.
Despite the fact that I am very critical of TFA’s mission, approach, and how it responds to criticism from alum and concerned stakeholders, I still believe that because I am an alum (ATL 2001), I am TFA. Furthermore, there are many like me that are TFA, in some way, but are also very critical of TFA and its impact. We are trying to tell the truth about TFA and challenge TFA’s dominant narrative. We are leaders working for education equity by researching, writing, publishing, organizing, and facilitating community and political action; yet, because we are critical of TFA and the reform movement, we are silenced by TFA and called “Haters” and “Traitors.” We are not applauded in One Day, the alumni magazine, or placed on countless panels at TFA events (like golden boy Michael Johnston). Instead, we are refuted, minimized, and deemed as enemies of the cause (i.e. an excellent education for all children). Our work and our empirical research findings are characterized by TFA and its supporters as invalid and “misconceptions” that are “no longer true.” Furthermore, we are never given space–physical or otherwise–to be critical of and vocal about the mistakes we believe our organization is making and the harm that it is doing to students, communities, corps members and education reform in general. There are never any sessions or sanctioned spaces for leaders like us, and we are TFA too!
This February, though, at TFA’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington DC, I will be facilitating a sanctioned space for critics of TFA. The “Critics Not Haters” brunch will be held on Sunday, February 7 from 9 to 11am. All critical Summit participants are welcome to come and process their experiences at the Summit as well as critique TFA in general. This brunch came about after several deep conversations with TFA National staff. I requested space for all TFA alums, including critical alums, to collaborate and discuss perspectives that are important to them. This brunch is a space for TFA critics to build community, make connections, and hear numerous TFA counter-stories.
In case you’re wondering about my lens and critical perspective on TFA, I have published my counternarrative in the book, Teach for America Counter-narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out. I have reviewed and promoted Sarah Matsui’s book, Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America. I have also written about my disappointment and anger with TFA’s public response which sought to minimize and discredit the counternarratives of people who had the courage to speak truth to power, Opposite of Equity: TFA Attempts Narrative Control.
In addition to these pieces, it is important for me to state that I am very critical of how TFA has constructed, promoted, and empowered a very narrow, hegemonic definition of an “excellent education.” I am critical of the fact that TFA (often covertly) proclaims that an excellent education for all children is simply the content of the education that has historically been provided to and reserved for affluent, White children rather than an education that prepares students to challenge the deep injustices that undergird our society. I believe that TFA (covertly and overtly) pushes its corps members to deliver–unapologetically and uncritically–that kind of “rigorous,” “No Excuses” education to the students they serve while in TFA. Then, because of their (limited) experience in TFA, corps members go on to promote, teach in, lead, and create “No Excuses” schools where it is normal to hear “Voices off!” commanded or to see black and brown students marching in straight, silent lines to class. Schools where teachers are armed with their copies of Teach Like a Champion and equipped with robotic and patronizing “behavior narration” in order to improve test scores. Test score equity, though, is NOT equity when the means and methods used to achieve equal test scores are dehumanizing and rely on controlling the bodies, voices, and minds of other people’s children. In his video Education for Liberation Wisdom Amouzou (a TFA alum and former STRIVE teacher) explains why these No Excuses school are not equity-driven:
“When I see a system that might produce great data but fundamentally disempowers my students; when I see a system in which my students will graduate conformists instead of transformative, it is very much undermining what we are doing [in terms of educating for EQUITY]. We assume that access to a college education is enough to uproot systems of oppression; It simply isn’t. It is fundamentally a low expectation of what education can be.”
TFA’s creation of this definition of excellence may have been unintentional or even well-intentioned; TFA’s promotion of and alliance with these methods and No Excuses Charters (no matter how covert), however, is intentional and consistent. TFA tries to appear neutral and denies any formal connection, but the ties between TFA and the reform movement are evident and strong. TFA does not take any responsibility for the test-score obsessed, compliance-driven machine it has put in motion, nor does it own the harm that it does to students and the communities it purports to serve. So, yes, TFA makes me think critically. It makes me angry, makes me sad, makes me fight, makes me speak out, but it does not make me a hater.
For more information on Amber, visit www.amberkkim.com .
Bravo Wisdom Gillchrist Amouzou! Thanks for showing us that true education equity is about teaching students to be transformative resisters–able to see, understand, deal with, respond to, and redress oppression. And to do all that, Wisdom shows us that students must know themselves, their assets, and the strengths of their communities. They must form deep reciprocal relationships with their peers and educators. Relationships rooted in being authentically known not steeped in compliance, assimilation, and judgment of character. Furthermore, students must have educators that are not afraid to let go of overly simplified notions of “excellence” and give students power and voice.
“We assume that access to a college education is enough to uproot systems of oppression; It simply isn’t. It is fundamentally a low expectation of what education can be.”
Wisdom has worked for a high performing Charter Network (see the shirts students are wearing) and has recently created a video that states: “When I see a system that might produce GREAT DATA but fundamentally disempowers my students; when I see a system in which my students will graduate CONFORMISTS instead of TRANSFORMATIVE, it is very much UNDERMINING what we are doing [in terms of educating for EQUITY]. We assume that access to a college education is enough to uproot systems of oppression; IT SIMPLY ISN’T. It is fundamentally a LOW EXPECTATION of what EDUCATION CAN BE.”
Wisdom also explains the lies of compliance: “We tell students that if they can essentially shut up, walk in a straight silent line and sit down in class and listen long enough to see a return on our investment in May (when they take that standardized test), they will achieve their dreams–they will find LIBERATION for their community. And to me it is a HOAX. It doesn’t take into account what it means to be SYSTEMATICALLY OPPRESSED.”
He describes the pain of an education that ignores the oppression that students have faced and will face in college and beyond: “It does a great deal of VIOLENCE to your consciousness to constantly see inequity in your community and never be given the tools to either comprehend that pain or address that pain, to HEAL that pain.”
Wisdom calls for an excellent education that is not rooted in merely test-score equity and access to college. He calls for an excellent education that also develops students with a positive socio-cultural identity and equity literacy (the ability to see, respond to, and redress inequity and oppression). It is not an easy task, but you can watch the process unfold with Wisdom and his students: Education for Liberation VIDEO
Teach for America (TFA) purports to be a “force for good” in education—an organization that works tirelessly to end educational inequity, yet there are a growing number of TFA alumni, public school teachers and students, and education researchers who are organizing and speaking out against TFA. Why? How can a “good” force working for social justice in education be bad? What is the fuller truth about TFA?
A fuller truth about any person, place, or organization is always layered and full of edges, curves, contradictions, and intersections. A fuller truth allows for this complexity and the dissonance it creates. A simplified truth, in contrast, is a partial truth. It is a more comfortable, vague, and “catchy” truth, but it is a distortion. To distort the truth—and consequently the reality of a problem or an organization—does not require animus or the telling of lies; instead, one only needs to massively underrepresent or marginalize wider facts and dissenting perspectives and enthusiastically promote one’s simplified and partial version of the truth to iconic status in a way that obscures those facts and differing perspectives.
TFA may not be deliberately lying and intending harm, but TFA’s narrative about itself as an organization–the problems in education, the solutions to inequity, TFA’s impact on achievement, students, corps members, and communities—is a simplified and enthusiastically, intentionally, well-promoted version of the truth. In fact, TFA is on college campuses, in government offices, meeting with funders, and in the ears of charter school networks and thousands of current corps members speaking its version of truth–a distorted, partial truth. To fight inequity, though, people need to know a fuller more accurate truth, and this can only be known if suffering is allowed to speak and if it is heard. Hearing stories of hurt that run counter to TFA’s version of the truth, though, is difficult when suffering does not have nearly the budget that TFA has to amplify its voice.
This is where Sarah Matsui and her recently released book, Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America: Moving from Idealism to Hope (2015, Peter Lang), comes in to play. Sarah let suffering speak and amplified the counternarratives of corps members in the hopes of helping people—including TFA—hear and know a fuller more complex and problematic truth about TFA. In allowing suffering to speak, Sarah not only amplifies the experiences and feelings of the 26 corps members in her study, she validates the thousands of corps members who have felt the shame, guilt, anxiety, depression, indoctrination, and pressure that TFA pushed on them. I am one of those thousands. As a TFA alumni who has recently published my own counternarrative in the book Teach for America Counter-Narrative: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, I was anxious to see how the stories of the 26 Philly corps members compared with my own and helped to convey a more fuller truth.
Sarah’s book is not so much a call for an end TFA, but, instead, it is a call to everyone—TFA staff members, TFA corps members, districts officials, parents, students, public school teachers—to pick up the rock that is TFA, to turn it over and examine all the crevices, bumps, and sides, and to know the full truth about TFA. This is a book of hope not doom because only when people of all different backgrounds and from all different positions, know the full truth can healing and change begin.
Most powerful for me is how Sarah’s investigation doesn’t solely or only focus on the typically described downfalls of TFA and its approach. There are already many pieces written about the impact (or lack thereof) TFA has on student achievement data, the destabilizing effects of the 2 year commitment, and the problems with creating leaders (not teachers) by recruiting leaders (not teachers) to teach our most marginalized youth. Sarah’s book has a different focus entirely, and therefore, her book is very different from other TFA critiques.
Sarah, a former corps member and TFA staff member, began her research driven by the desire to understand the intense depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse of the corps members around her. Her research, at first, had only one purpose: to inform TFA and to drive interventions that would support her fellow corps members and alum. After engaging in the qualitative research process, though, she began to see commonalities in the counternarratives. Sarah took note of how the stories of corps members by TFA were drastically different than the stories from corps members in TFA. She also noticed how very few of those counternarratives of critical corps members ever surfaced; their stories of suffering were ignored, marginalized, or shamed into silence. Sarah then distanced herself from TFA and committed herself to learning from and amplifying the stories (counternarratives) of corps members.
So what can we learn from the counternarratives in Teach for America? One of the most important things that Sarah uncovered in her research is what is causing the painful counternarratives of corps members—the TFA Script. TFA’s Script (referred to as the TFA Kool-Aid) is its version of the truth about itself and educational inequity in the U.S. The book describes TFA’s Script as “…the stuff that sounds good and draws people to invest their funds, their resources, and themselves in TFA” (p. 23), but Sarah weaves together evidence that this script is an oversimplified, not-connected-to-reality version of the truth that negatively impacts teachers, learners, and leaders.
For those who live and operate within reach of this TFA script, they begin to believe that excellent teaching is “nothing elusive” and that hard work of TFA corps members (and subsequently their students) can overcome the effects of poverty and the racism and classism that caused the inappropriately termed “achievement gap” in the U.S. Therefore, when corps member (and subsequently their students) fail at leveling the field in a sustained and pervasive way, they blame themselves for not working hard enough to succeed. Believing this myth of meritocracy that the TFA script narrates burns out many of our TFA corps members and students; Sarah documents how corps members become physically and mentally exhausted and sick; they become anxious and plagued with guilt and shame; they try to cope with dangerous drinking habits and by abusing drugs. In short, besides the horrible effects this TFA script has on our marginalized and underserved students, schools, and communities, the TFA script destroys our human resources needed for fighting systemic inequity.
The truth about TFA is complex so, yes, there are corps members that seemingly succeed. They end up leaving the TFA corps believing that there is “nothing elusive” to ensuring “one day” all children receive an excellent education. They whole-heartedly buy that “working hard” leads to “getting smart” and ending the “achievement gap.” I wonder if this is even more dangerous than burning our human resources? When meritocracy and the words of TFA’s founder, Wendy Kopp, resonate in the hearts of corps members, those same corps members head out into the world post-TFA to spread this partial and toxic truth. They end up opening “No excuses” charter schools or writing legislation that punishes teachers that do not end educational inequity through working hard and making children work harder.
The truth about TFA is not simple and requires all of us to examining the uncomfortable, messy, and painful parts of TFA. If enough of us know the truth, though, then there is hope. Hope for healing, hope for change, and hope that we can construct a more complicated and nuanced narrative to fight educational inequity. There is so much to learn from the counternarratives in Teach for America, as long as they are heard. This book amplifies those counternarratives. Some may chide Matsui for dwelling on the “problem of TFA” and not being solution-orientated enough. I, however, will stand firmly beside Sarah and know that solutions can only come after we take the time (and entire books) to examine all sides of TFA; we must let suffering speak and hear truth.
This photo gives new meaning to teaching children & teens to be “college ready.” In addition to academic mastery and skills, our students need to develop critical consciousness and to prepare for transformative resistance. High SAT scores are not enough! We need to help all students Pre-K to Grade 12 develop equity literacy (the ability to recognize, respond to, and redress inequity and oppression). Perhaps, then, our kids could effectively face, respond to, and correct for such oppression.
Please don’t confuse teaching equity literacy with lowering standards or with culturally responsive teaching. Developing students who are transformational resisters is actually raising the bar and requires all students to be critical, reflective, courageous thinkers that understand history, sociology, current events, perspective-taking, and rhetoric. Oppression and privilege are real and daily experiences for our students and children. Students must be prepared to challenges these injustices that undergird our society, only then will they be college and life ready.
For another example of the injustices our kids face in college: watch this video of the OU SAE racist chant. This, too, is a part of the college/university experience in America and we must get students ready to challenge it!
For help developing equity literacy in your school leaders, staff, and students, please visit amberkkim.com and check out these resources:
Teaching Tolerance Publications
Recently TFA wrote a public response addressing the publication of the book Teach for America Counter Narratives. As one of the contributing authors, I viewed TFA’s response as an attempt to minimize and shame our stories and to be the opposite of equity work. In recent days, though, what has really bothered me about TFA’s response is that it tried to position the counter narratives as merely 20 out of 50,000 and imply that our voices are truly a minority perspective. TFA wrote:
“…a small group of former corps members involved in the book Teach For America Counter-Narratives have chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we operate.” and “We’re proud of our work, and we continue to be inspired by all that our 50,000 corps members and alumni are doing to make a difference for kids. These corps members and alumni have 50,000 individual stories about Teach For America. This book contains 20 of them. Below are 20 more individual stories—a small sampling of the thousands of corps members, alumni, students, and local partners who value their experience with TFA”
I am here to publicly state that our counter-narratives are significantly more common than TFA admits. We are not just 20! Furthermore, our stories reflect how TFA currently operates–not how they operated in the past. While I know there are many TFA alumni that feel good about their time spent in the TFA corps, there are thousands of corps members that feel traumatized (including primary and secondary trauma) and feel their TFA service hurt already vulnerable children, schools, communities, and the entire public education system in the United States. What’s more is that because TFA constantly surveys its alum, TFA must know the negative impact it has but finds the cost to its teachers (corps members) an acceptable price to pay–they are a “tolerable risk.”
Although there is no big study (because those are very expensive and political) to prove it, there are two recently published books, several articles, and many informal blog posts that begin to describe the hurt and costs to corps members, students, and communities. I am currently a lecturer in a graduate education program that serves current TFA corps members and I am an education consultant that coaches a number of TFA / post-TFA teachers in schools. Many of the TFA teachers I work with report increased and sometimes debilitating depression/anxiety and disclose intensely abusing alcohol and drugs to cope. Many corps members describe feeling like TFA takes advantage of them and that they are at odds with the way TFA trains them to teach/manage students. These corps members also report feeling unsafe, unheard, and “blamed” when they try to report to TFA what they think and feel. And this is happening now, not in the past, but, rather, this summer and school year!
Given the evidence above and the known immense amount of private and government funding that TFA receives, there is a need for an impartial wide-scale study of current and post-service TFA teachers. In addition to studying TFA’s impact on students, we must study the rates of substance abuse pre-during-post TFA, the change over time in anxiety and depression, and the experience of trauma (both primary and secondary) of TFA teachers in the corps.
When we find the courage to let suffering speak, we will know the truth behind TFA, not the truth TFA wants us to believe. Armed with the truth, America will then be able to decide if all the hurt is an acceptable cost.
For more information on what to do next, please visit amberkkim.com and read:
We Have the Power, written by T. Jameson Brewer, author of the TFA Counter Narratives book and David Greene.
“Work hard, No excuses” rhetoric is supposed to stand in contrast to the racist and classist belief that has dominated U.S. Schools for centuries: the belief that poor children of color can’t/shouldn’t learn and therefore we mustn’t put forth effort or resources to educate them. It also stands in contrast to the racist and classist belief that poor children of color have very difficult lives and, therefore, it would be cruel of us to expect much from them. To oppose these unjust racist/classist beliefs that widen the achievement gap, many schools have adopted the mantra WORK HARD and show GRIT.
When we teach that “Hard Work = Success” (i.e. hard work is the most important ingredient for success), we also inadvertently teach that not being successful is always the result of NOT working hard (i.e. being lazy). This is a very dangerous, and untrue message, particularly for people of color. It is this kind of rhetoric that puts all the blame for “failure to achieve” on the individual (and her/his teacher). No blame is assigned to (and no resources are provided to combat) the systemic and pervasive racism in the U.S. Johnson (2006) explains the frustration and disillusionment that people of color feel when they believe in the myth of hard work in America. He writes, “It especially galls middle-class black who believed what whites told them, that if they did everything right–if they went to school and worked hard and made something of themselves–race would no longer be an issue. But they soon discovered, and they learn anew every day, that nothing seems to protect them from their vulnerability to white racism.” Institutionalized racism can block success and achievement even when people work hard and be nice.
Since the “Achievement Gap” in U.S. schools is a result of racism and classism, it should not and cannot be undone by merely forcing kids to “work hard.” Demanding that the only solution is for students to pull themselves up by their boot straps when systemic racism and classism makes their boots so impossibly heavy while, at the same time, makes other children’s boots extremely light is unjust. Instead, we–as educators– should also be working very hard to lighten the boots of the oppressed and challenge the status quo.
Please read the following pieces to understand what’s wrong with grit:
Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, oppression, and difference. Power, privilege and difference,, 12-40.