A few years ago, when having breakfast with a former instructor (now friend), I told her with excitement that I had stumbled across the concept of critical pedagogy. After 20 years of unknowingly serving as a critical pedagogue, I was super elated to learn there were other educators out there with a similar passion and commitment for asking tough questions about the location of power within practice. Only being in contact with other critical pedagogues by the literature, I thought I had finally found my educational community.
But, as I have come to meet other critical pedagogues through Twitter, I have found myself wrestling and questioning this new sense of community. It is this wrestling and the apparent shared struggle of aloneness that drew me to Paul Thomas’s piece about “The Other.”
The year I returned to pursue a doctorate, my first book was published. In this book, titled Empowerment Starts Here: Seven Principals for Empowering Urban Youth,” I talked about my Empowerment Framework, offering seven ways of engaging students as scholars and leaders. Each of the seven instructional objectives was grounded in student agency and the full recognition (and integration) of their complete personhood. It is this agency and celebration (quite different from tolerance) of personhood that makes a pedagogy guided by this framework a critical practice.
As educators, we are all interested in the cognitive development of our learners. And, some of us are even committed to their psychosocial development. But, very few people recognize students as political beings (as political products and actors in our global world). Very few are willing to strengthen students as agents of power.
Being highly influenced by John Dewey, in the Democracy of Education, I (as a former social studies teacher) was not interested in partisan conditioning (indoctrination). I didn’t care if students were democrats, republican, or held on to any other party affiliation. I cared more about them understanding the dynamics of power, learning how to be effective in a democratic process, and committing (in an ongoing way beyond the classroom) to thinking and acting critically in terms of their own advancement.
So when I stumbled across the readings of other critical educators (Freire, Gee, Giroux, Kincheloe, Ladson-Billings, and Street), I realized that I was not alone in my thinking. It was in that moment that I felt like I had finally found community.
Prior to that, I always felt different; like an outsider. My beginning career as an educator was in white progressive spaces. And while I am a progressive, my experiences as a black woman from a lower socioeconomic background demand that I acknowledge the critical tensions within progressive education—the location of unequal power; the redistribution of the status-quo; and the stigmatization of attitudes and behaviors that are not indicative of a white middle class.
Being the only black teacher (or being one of two), I had assumed that this othering, this lack of the critical, was cultural. And then halfway through my career, I stumbled into a minority majority space, where the majority (if not all) of my colleagues were black (although in one of those schools the administration was white… but that is a different reflection altogether). Even though the people looked like me and shared almost the same sociopolitical history, I was still the other. While there was a strong cultural flair to instruction, the critical was still missing. Again, there was the location of unequal power; the redistribution of the status-quo; and the stigmatization of attitudes and behaviors that are not indicative of a white middle class.
I have now come to understand that there is something distinctive about my practice which is influenced by critical tenets. Yes, I am a progressive. But, at the same time, I am unapologetic in regards to my womanhood, my blackness and my ways of being that have been influenced by familial (historical) socioeconomic oppression. For me, it is this being (of being progressive and unapologetic in all of my other qualifiers) that makes me a critical pedagogue.
But, I have found that the hybrid of my intersecting identities still creates aloneness (as so eloquently contextualized by Ricky Allen) even in the midst of other critical pedagogues. It calls to attention Thomas’s recognition of the second “othering” that exists within the community of critical pedagogues, creating a new construct worth considering—the other-other.
Being progressive and unapologetically female, black and culturalized by poverty gives me a unique perspective among the others who are typically white, male and of socioeconomic means. From my vantage point, I can see how our pursuit as critical pedagogues to fight against marginalization can and still does marginalize. Mainly because there is no one perfect construct of critical pedagogy; yet being full of passion, we want to plow through spaces that we perceive to be uncritical and unjust. Ironic that many of these critical pedagogues, those doing the plowing, have not dealt with their individual privilege and steadfast sense of entitlement, so as to think they should dominate conversations as the superior, all-knowing authority on critical practice… on where and how it shows up.
Thomas ends his first piece acknowledging the struggle of being just and critical with other critical pedagogues (including me). It is in the struggle that builds community and demands that we even question the struggle itself. In his second piece, he argues that we must always understand the other… even when we are the other!
I appreciate the challenge to remember the struggle… even the struggle within a community defined by a notion of being the other. In terms of critical pedagogy, we are not walking around having unnuanced/uncomplicated conversations about education. We are not drawn into cult like followings. We are willing to get messy because it is in the mess that we can discover the truth.
This is the on-going struggle and the community that Thomas celebrates. It is the one that gives me hope as I continue to make a mark on the community of critical pedagogues in a way that not only challenges the injustice abroad but the injustices within. Taking a seat at the table as the other-other is what I will continue to do. It is what empowerment starts here is all about.
It is the necessary struggle. It is my community.