TFA Wants My Money: Why I said “NO!”

On November 15, 2016 I received an email from Kevin Huffman (you can read it at the end), a TFA National Board member. He was asking me to donate and said: Visit my campaign page! Here is my response. I tell him what I perceive to be the problem with and the solution for Teach for America.

 

Dear Kevin,

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.

Sincerely,

Amber Kim, ATL 2001


To my fellow alumni,
 
We joined Teach For America for different reasons and had different experiences, but we all emerged bound by a shared vision: an education system that serves all children. We’ve learned many lessons over the years and are approaching this goal from a wide range of roles and sectors, but our collective impact is real.
 
I’ve now experienced Teach For America from many angles. I taught bilingual first and second grade. I worked at summer institutes helping new corps members prepare. I joined the staff full-time to focus on growing the Teach For America network. My daughter was taught by a brilliant corps member. And, as a state education commissioner, I saw corps members and alumni lead critical change in my state’s largest cities.
 
For me, the uniquely unsettling election season deepened my belief in the value of national service, the need to support young people who roll up their sleeves and do the hard work, and the importance of building strong, diverse, local communities. I’m proud that Teach For America has grown and evolved over the last three decades. I’m proud that we continue to compel tens of thousands of young people to apply for the chance to work in our highest need schools. I’m proud that the corps looks more like the country today, with a much higher percentage of teachers of color and teachers from low-income backgrounds than the teaching force at large. 
 
No matter where life has taken us, each of us plays a role in creating a better future for kids. With two weeks left to go in the Alumni Challenge, I ask you to fuel this fight with a financial contribution. Every dollar donated to a region by November 29th will be matched.
 
Many of us make a small gift each year to our alma maters as a point of pride and responsibility to the next generation. I hope you will consider doing the same for Teach For America—and to double the impact of that gift by giving today.
 
Together, we can grow and strengthen the movement.
 
With gratitude,
 
Kevin Huffman (Houston ’92)
Teach For America National Board
Former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education

TFA Critic NOT a Hater

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.

IT_hater

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 .

 

 

 

 

 

Education for Liberation, Not Assimilation

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 reciprocScreen Shot 2015-12-08 at 10.02.32 AMal 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

 

 

The Truth about TFA: a book review of Learning from Counternarratives in Teach for America by S. Matsui

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.

Let Suffering Speak: TFA counter narratives are numerous and now

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.”

front coverAlthough 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.

What’s Wrong with “Grit”?

“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:

Teaching Kids ‘Grit’ is All the Rage. Here’s What’s Wrong With It.

Why ‘Grit’ Will Never Be the Key to Overcoming Poverty and Racism

More Thoughts on “Grit” and the Sloganification of Education Reform

Is ‘Grit’ Racist?

I Swear: On “Grit,” Adult Hypocrisy, and Privilege

References

Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, oppression, and difference. Power, privilege and difference,, 12-40.

Opposite of Equity: TFA Attempts Narrative Control

It is never ok to control the narrative of someone else’s trauma or oppression–not as an individual, not as an organization.  Furthermore, it is not ever ok for White, affluent, Ivy-League-connected people of power (particularly those who claim to be “equity-driven”) to attempt to silence and shame the narratives of those who have been marginalized. Therefore, Teach for America, it is NOT OK–as an organization or as individuals–to minimize and marginalize the counter-narratives written in Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak up and Speak Out.  If you are a change agent and committed to ending systemic and institutional inequity in this nation (this is the claim of TFA plastered on its website), then please learn more about the role of dominant and counter-narratives (they are foundational to racial, gender, class, and LGTBQ equity work) and LISTEN to the counter-narratives.

Dominant and Counter-Narratives

“There’s really no such thing as the `voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Arundhati Roy

There are dominant voices, the voices of power and privilege, the voices of those with resources. They are amplified and believed. Stanley (2007) describes dominant (master) narratives as scripts that dictate how things work and how stories are framed.  This includes how problems are defined (like problems of equity) and the best ways to solve them. The dominant narrative is created by the dominant culture that has privilege, access, and power in society.The dominant narrative tells the experience and the perspective of the dominant culture as truth. Most importantly, the dominant narrative is used and perpetuated by the dominant culture (at times unintentionally/subconsciously) to maintain its dominance and power.

Counter-narratives, on the other hand, deconstruct the perspective and script of the dominant culture that is deemed “normal” and “right.” Counter-narratives present alternatives to the dominant discourse (Stanley 2007). They seek to entirely reframe how problems are defined and solved, often finding that the framing of the problem is problematic. Counter-narratives are born out of the experiences of people and groups that do not fit and are critical of the dominant narrative.  They are the voices of those who are often silenced and marginalized.

Equity work at its core involves listening to, validating, and amplifying the voices of those who are systemically suppressed and institutionally ignored. Therefore, when TFA posted this response on its website, I felt more confident then ever that my counter-narrative,“Perpetuating, Committing, and Cultivating Racism: The Real Movement Behind TFA” was very accurate–in essence TFA had just validated with its response that it perpetuates the status quo. TFA’s response was attempting to suppress the counter-narrative.

In its attempt to control the overall narrative by minimizing our counter-narratives, TFA labeled our perspectives as “misconceptions” and stated that we, the authors, have “chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we [TFA] operate.”  This strategic wording asserts that our TFA experiences (conceptions)–what we thoughtfully described as happening/happened–are wrong (mis).  Furthermore, TFA framed our counter-narratives as choices instead of accepting them as valid perspectives.  By stating that the authors of the counter-narratives “chose” to focus on the past, TFA seeks to blame us and shame us. Lastly, TFA seeks to negate our perspectives by declaring that our main criticisms are no longer “how we operate” and, therefore, our counter-narratives are not valid.

 

In a final bold move, TFA posted 20 narratives of TFA alumni that exemplify the dominant TFA narrative.  While I do not think TFA should take them down (it is always good to have multiple perspectives), I do think it is interesting to consider their role and purpose. The dominant narrative that “TFA is a solution to educational inequity” is well established (and well-funded).  Our counter-narratives were published to show other perspectives, to make the dominant narrative about TFA and education reform more complex, nuanced, and to amplify the voices that–until now–have not been heard.  Similarly, when Fredrick Douglass wrote his [counter] narrative, The Narrative of a Slave, it would have been very curious if a counter, counter-narrative was published: a narrative of a slave owner that described how slavery was working well for those in power. Forgive me if you find my example hyperbolic, but the point is the dominant narrative is already dominant…is it not possible to make room for another narrative? If not, why? What is the cost to those in power?

TFA must examine the ways its current incarnation sustains and promotes the status quo and the supremacy of the dominant culture.   I truly wish TFA could have written a response that noted that:

  • The counter-narratives are valid perspectives of corps members, and all voices deserve a chance to be heard.
  • TFA undoubtedly will not agree with every criticism, but TFA is committed to social justice and education equity and, therefore, will consider the emergent themes thoughtfully.
  • TFA values all of the leaders it “creates,” including the ones who are critical of TFA, for they help the organization and society challenge injustice.

Until TFA can write a response that does not try to minimize the counter-narratives and control the narrative about education reform and justice, TFA will run opposite to equity work–work that extinguishes the dominative narrative running through our minds, hearts, communities, schools, and systems.  In attempting narrative control, TFA actually perpetuates the dominant oppressive narrative it claims to fight; TFA becomes the voice that seeks to control and silence those of us who dare scream out for true justice.

www.amberkkim.com

References

Stanley, C. A. (2007). When counter narratives meet master narratives in the journal editorial-review process.   Educational Researcher, 36(1), 14-24.

Wasted Time on Whiteness

This spring in an education graduate course I co-teach, we required students to read about whiteness and the need for critical pedagogy.  I teach my students about the need for critical discussions about race and racism with white students in white classrooms and white schools.  Amanda Lewis, encourages an intense examination of whiteness for teachers and white students. She writes:

“It is crucial that Whites learn more not only about the reality of racial inequality, but also about their own role in its reproduction.”

In the responses to the assigned readings, though, one student (the only student of color in my class) wrote candidly that she is “….sick and tired of centering white people’s experiences, even for the benefit of my own liberation….I am more focused on the process of liberation for people of color, how we have internalized constructs of whiteness to the detriment of our own mental, emotional, economic, and political well-being. I’m more concerned with how people of color think through their own liberation and dismantling the barriers to dismantling white structured systems of power that we emulate and perpetuate, including those barriers that we construct ourselves as a result of internalized oppression and generational trauma.”

What follows is guest blogger Lisa M. Calderón’s entire essay.  To say it is “powerful” (which it probably is for most white people including white, anti-racist educators) is an insult because it is not new or powerful or profound for those who live this reality every day.  Instead, it is honest and gives a glimpse into the tired, wasted time spent on centering “whites” not only in our society, but even in the anti-racist movement.  It is a reminder (especially for those of us who prepare and work with educators) of the need for differentiated and relevant anti-racist teacher preparation and professional development.


My journal on the whiteness essays begins with my fatigue about talking about whiteness. The critical pedagogy focusing on whiteness by necessity focuses on white people and what they need to change in order to make our society more equitable for people of color. Living my entire life as a woman of color in a culture of whiteness, I’m pretty sick and tired of centering white people’s experiences, even for the benefit of my own liberation. However, what is even more psychologically taxing is knowing that the examination of whiteness is still necessary due to the structural inequities that have been weaved into every social, political, economic, and educational institution since the inception of this artificially created country called the United States of America.

My scholarship focus on whiteness commenced during my years as a law student who could not get my head around why many of my professors omitted mentioning issues of race even when the cases involved discrimination and segregation. For example, in my property law class discussions of redlining, or restricting people of color home ownership to less desirable parts of cities focused on the use of restrictive covenants for homeowners associations. Even though we were all aware the cases we were studying involved Black families moving into White neighborhoods, the discussions were devoid of any basic race analysis. I felt that I had fallen through the rabbit hole and entered a parallel universe where race was a central issue in denying people the right to choose where they live, but that any references to race were essentially cleansed from the classroom to give us the appearance that we were all neutral arbiters – societies future lawyers. The psychological schism, the concept of twoness articulated by WEB DuBois, was in full force throughout my law school experience and about crushed any idealization I had had about becoming a lawyer.

However, one saving grace was that I was permitted to make the study of the legal aspects of whiteness the focus of my third year jurisprudence seminar. By examining the work of Black legal scholars Derek Bell and Cheryl Harris I was able to put the concept of whiteness into a legal conceptualization framework demonstrating that whiteness was not only a illegally created fiction, but was a property right where Whites could sue for damages if violated. For example, most people believe that the case of Plessy versus Ferguson, involving a 7/8 white and 1/8 Black man who was denied a seat on the White only railroad car, resulted in a Supreme Court decision making segregation or “separate but equal” the law of the land, which is true. However, what most people don’t know is that Plessy stood for something much more insidious: that whiteness is a property right that could be codified in the law and intended to permanently advantage White people.

If you read the actual ruling it is astonishing not only from the perspective of the Black NAACP lawyer who argued the case in 1896 before the all White male Supreme Court, that whiteness is the most valuable property in America since it is the golden key that unlocks the door of opportunity:

How much would it be worth to a young man entering upon the practice of law, to be regarded as a white man rather than a colored one? Six-sevenths of the population are white. Nineteen-twentieths of the property of the country is owned by white people. Ninety-nine hundredths of the business opportunities are in the control of white people. . . . Probably most white persons if given a choice, would prefer death to life in the United States as colored persons. Under these conditions, is it possible to conclude that the reputation of being white is not property? Indeed, is it not the most valuable sort of property, being the master-key that unlocks the golden door of opportunity? Albion Tourgee, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). What was even more remarkable was at the Supreme Court agreed with him that whiteness is a property right which is valuable but that only White people could possess it:

If he be a white man and assigned to a colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so called property. Upon the other hand, if he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Further because of the “one drop rule” where one drop of Black blood theoretically made someone Black, Plessy could not be afforded the privilege of whiteness. Having this legal framework for whiteness was very important to me because it moved the conversation from the attitudes, values and beliefs that white people have about their inherent superiority over people of color through both implicit bias and explicit preferences, but moved whiteness into a legal structural framework. In other words, it moved the problem away from individuals and toward an examination of how our society has been structured from its inception through property law as the basis from which all other laws in the American justice system originate.

To that end, I’m no longer interested in whether individual white people change. They are not the focus of my life even when they try to be. I am focused on structural change that will have the most impact on dismantling oppressive institutions. I could care less if white people change. I am more focused on the process of liberation for people of color, how we have internalized constructs of whiteness to the detriment of our own mental, emotional, economic, and political well-being. I’m more concerned with how people of color think through their own liberation and dismantling the barriers to dismantling white structured systems of power that we emulate and perpetuate, including those barriers that we construct ourselves as a result of internalized oppression and generational trauma.

Ricky Lee Allen’s essay on whiteness and critical pedagogy covered a lot of the ground that I can relate to including being fixated on the notion of dismantling whiteness, Whites learning to be allies for people of color and their own humanity, how educational systems perpetuate systems of White supremacy, validating scientific knowledge over other forms of collective community knowledge, and applying a race based lens to critical pedagogy rather exclusively focused Marxist notions of class. However, the centrality of the essay, as well as the other required essays [and blogs], focused on White people’s process and conceptualization of whiteness. While I think this approach is necessary for mostly white educators and people of color who may have not been exposed to concepts of whiteness in a critical pedagogy framework, for me it is time wasted from considering how people of color need our own frameworks and our own scholarship to further the mental pathways and facilitate the structural shifts necessary to realize our own self-determination. It’s time taken away for developing new skills for ourselves and undoing internalized oppressive messages that we are in barded with every single day from the time we are born. We need to be freed from being constrained by the analysis of White antiracists or progressives who truly believe they are acting in her own best interests without realizing that the more time we spend hearing about what White people think about themselves affords us less time to focus on centralizing what, why and how we think about our histories, our current struggles and preparing our future liberation warriors.

As America returns to becoming a brown nation from an artificially constructed White one, we people of color must be prepared to manage and share power effectively because we are increasingly both the oppressed and the oppressor. In that context we need both Paulo Freire and WEB DuBois’ radical analysis, alongside women of color activists and scholars to create new liberatory frameworks for sharing power responsibly given how wounded and traumatized we have been by the imposition of European colonialism. We don’t need White people to love us and have compassion for us as much as we need to love ourselves. Once that self-love happens, really deeply and completely, and is regenerated across generations, there will no longer be a need to focus on whether White people stop acting out of their White privilege or not, because by then we will be free.


Lisa M. Calderón is the Director of the Community Reentry Project in Denver where she supervises six staff who work on behalf of formerly incarcerated persons for their successful transition back into the community.  She is an adjunct faculty member for CU Denver’s Ethnic Studies department. She has taught in academia for over ten years in the areas of Women’s Studies, Sociology, and Criminal Justice. She holds a Master’s degree, law degree, and is currently working on her doctorate in education.
As a former legal director of a battered women’s program, Lisa is qualified as an expert witness on issues of domestic violence and victim advocacy, and her opinions have been profiled in the media. Lisa has over 20 years of facilitation experience in the areas of antiracism education, critical race theory, gender equity, and ethical communication.
As an active community member, Lisa is involved with several community-based initiatives to create more opportunities for low-income women, youth of color, and formerly incarcerated persons.  She serves on the State Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Council, is the co-chair of Denver’s Racial and Gender Disparities Committee, and is the Co-Chair of the Colorado Latino Forum-Denver Chapter. She has obtained several awards for inspirational leadership.
For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students, please visit:

Inconsistent Message: TFA, Clint Smith, & Compliance-Driven Charters

TFA sent out this Clint Smith TedTalk to alum today and, at the same time, TFA continues to place large numbers of corps members in schools like KIPP, STRIVE, BES, promote compliance driven behavior management strategies, and tells its corps members to “Teach like a champion.” If TFA placed corps members in these high performing charter networks while also explicitly critiquing these models as schools that are “unjust” and part of the “broken” and “racist” education system, perhaps I would be more understanding. However, TFA places its best and brightest (and its corps members of color) into these schools calling them “excellent” schools providing “excellent educations.” TFA aligns with and supports these charter networks in covert and overt ways. Clint Smith, in contrast, describes his parents as armoring he and his siblings in advice on how to act and be, but “….. not because they thought it would make us better….but simply because they wanted to keep us alive.” Making clear that the rules of White society (and, therefore, the schools lead by White leaders with almost exclusively White teachers serving students of color) are not “excellent” he remarks how sad these ways are because he asks, “What does it do to a child to grow up knowing you cannot simply be a child?” knowing, “….you are not afforded the luxury of making a mistake?”

When TFA supports (explicitly or implicitly), and without public critique, high performing schools that are compliance-driven and demand “100% everyday–No excuses!” what does that cost our children of color? These schools claim to be ending inequity and helping students access the dominant culture (in essence keeping them alive) but they do not offer the explicit critique of society or transparency about power and privilege that Clint Smith’s parent did; instead, they often offer the dominant culture as something that is “better” and “right.” In aligning itself with high performing charters and district schools that indoctrinate, what is TFA teaching its corps members about education equity and, in turn, what is TFA teaching our most marginalized children?

Please, TFA, please consider the ways in which you do not critique these kinds of high performing charters and district schools. Please, TFA, please stop aligning with schools that silence and standardize our children of color and that do not allow our children of color to be children.

For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com

TFA’s Rigged Question

TFA Survey Item 1: One day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

Strongly Agree,   Agree,   Neutral,   Disagree,   Strongly Disagree

Not another TFA survey!

Not another TFA survey!

What is this question asking? Is it asking whether or not I believe that all children can learn? Is it asking whether all children deserve an excellent education? What is an excellent education according to TFA anyhow?

It would seem important to define the term before asking if I agree with the statement. I think, though, that this question is asking if I believe in TFA and its vision statement. Well, TFA, here is my answer:

Dear TeachForAmerica,

I hope that one day all children in this nation will have access to an excellent education, but, truthfully, I fear that they will not.  Please read on to understand my dilemma in answering your rigged survey question.

Excellent Education or a Biased Education?

An excellent education is one that not only prepares students to succeed in an unjust and biased (read: racist, classist, sexist, and heteronormative) education system and society, but also teaches the knowledge and develops the skills/mindsets needed to challenge the injustices that undergird our schools and society. An excellent education ensures academic achievement, but it also must ensure positive, racial (and cultural/linguistic) identity and a critical consciousness. I do not think TFA or any high-performing charter network is providing or advocating for the opportunity to attain that kind of excellent education.

Instead of an excellent education, TFA and high performing (compliance-based) charter schools are hyper-focused on ensuring that One day, Black and Brown children living in poverty will have access to a rigorous “White” education: an education that validates, legitimizes, and perpetuates White, male, heterosexual, English-as-a-first-language superiority and dominance.

This kind of  test-score-producing (but identity-shattering) education cannot be transmitted the same way to poor students of color as it is transmitted to White, middle class students because they are deemed so “behind.” Therefore, non-dominant culture students must work harder and longer. They are forced to sit straighter and stand in lines. They must wear collared shirts and khaki pants. They must stay silent, track the teacher, and give 100%, everyday. To top it all off, our students of color must remain kind, determined, zestful, and gritty (code words for compliant) while working twice as hard to sadly assimilate into a society that will not reward them for their college degrees or khakis.  Our non-dominant culture kids learn all too late that meritocracy is a myth and they were asked to work twice as hard for half as much as their White, affluent counterparts. Racism is real.

All children or all Black and Brown children?

While TFA and “No Excuses” charter networks focus on giving Black and Brown students what White kids already have, no one is focused on providing White children a critical, anti-biased excellent education. Amanda Lewis wrote,

“Education that is critical, multicultural, and focused on racial justice cannot be reserved only for students of color. We must ask ourselves, can much change if the educational experiences of White middle-class children do not undergo some transformations?”

Lewis is right; and if TFA truly wants to ensure that all children attain an excellent education, perhaps it needs a corps of teachers to go into White suburban schools to teach counter-narratives, challenge White privilege, cultivate critical consciousness, and develop positive, anti-biased White racial identities.

Outsized Influence

Lastly, since inception, TFA has been an out-sized actor in the education reform movement. With people like Senator Michael Johnston and networks like KIPP, there is an increased culture of standardization, accountability, and compliance. For teachers and students, schools have become anxious places where worth is based on a test score. It seems that in solving one problem—inequity in test scores—TFA has created other problems in American Education and so an “excellent education for all” may have become even more out of reach.

So TFA, how do I answer your question? If I answer “Strongly Agree” to try and show I believe in students and the fact that they deserve an excellent education you will think I support your organization, its vision, and its methodology, and I do NOT. If I answer “Strongly Disagree” to try and show you that I do not think you, as an organization, or us, as a society, are on the right track in our efforts to end educational inequity, you will think I have given up. But that is not the case either. I just believe that the problem is more complex and deeper than your definition or solution. Finally, I will not pick neutral because neutral does not exist; one is either on the side of equity or on the side of oppression.

When it comes to this rigged question, TFA,  I will not pick one of your options; instead, I will send you this response. Likewise, children should not have to choose between under-resourced, low-expectation-holding schools—OR—high performing, “rigorous” but compliance-driven, status-quo-perpetuating schools. Until a truly just option exists, I will keep fighting so that one day all children will have an excellent, anti-biased, critical education.

Solutions

For examples of schools that aim for academic results AND positive racial identities/and critical consciousness, see June Jordan School for Equity and MET West (a Big Picture School) where students develop equity literacy and pursue social justice.  Also check out the Zinn Education Project.  These are all schools/projects that are working to ensure truly excellent educations for all.  If you know of more, please comments and leave the name/website.

Welcome

http://www.bigpicture.org/2008/10/metwest/

Fieldston Lower School

About

Amber K. Kim, Ph.D.

ATL 2001

For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com

*I would like to thank one of my graduate students, also a TFA corps member, for the inspiration for this blog post.  Let me know if you want me to add your name.