The American Education Research Association’s (AERA) annual meeting was noticeably different for me this year. After watching our country start rolling back civil rights at an alarming rate, and seeing so much unabashed racism drive our national dialogue, I went to AERA with hopes of feeling empowered. The conference did not disappoint me.
Today began bright and early at 8:15 a.m. at a panel discussion “College Curriculum at the Crossroads: Women of Color Reflect and Resist.” According to the description: “With increased interest in issues of equity and access, there remains a dearth of scholarship focused on the complexities of women of color’s experiences.” The seven panelists were diverse in race, age, academic credentials, and surprisingly, gender too. (One panelist was an African American male, who spoke poignantly about being an advocate and ally across race and gender.) Although they taught at colleges and universities as geographically diverse as Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, and Georgia, it was significant that none of the panelists were from Minority Serving Institutions.
The panelists each spoke about how difficult it was to be a woman of color in primarily white institutions as they navigated dissertations, teaching evaluations, publishing, and facing tenure review. With remarkable honesty, they talked about what it was like to center issues of racism while standing in front of a classroom and staring into the eyes of a majority of young white faces. When they left the classroom, they stared into the faces of white male colleagues who didn’t take them seriously as academics. As one panelist, Ebony Pope from the University of Oklahoma, declared: “As Black women walk into white classrooms, we are subjected to the terms and expectations of operating in whiteness – and to the judgment of whiteness. This includes teaching and learning in the right white ways that seek to invalidate our existence and disrupt the acknowledgement of one another’s existence.”
Panelist Marelsie Velazquez, also from The University of Oklahoma, likewise noted: “To teach in Predominantly White Institutions is to contemplate and internalize feelings of isolation, not only in the halls of academia and faculty meetings, but in the lack of curriculum interventions that would place us, our ideas, and histories, within larger curriculum meetings. Who we are and what we teach in always in question.”
Bridget Turner Kelly, from Loyola University in Chicago, agreed that: “Isolation often compounds essentialism as female faculty of color, often the only people of color in their program, department or college, are asked to teach the diversity ‘add-on’ that is perceived as not core to the academic mission.” Perhaps it was not surprising then, when the next panelist, Altheria Caldera, from Texas A&M – Commerce reflected before she began her prepared talk: “It’s just a powerful experience being surrounded by other academic women of color. That in itself doesn’t happen very often.”
Although I knew that sexism and racism have not been totally eliminated at Minority Serving Institutions, I was acutely aware that my experience working at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions affords me the privilege of listening to, learning from, and being immersed in the lives of academic women of color on a daily basis. Over the last three years I have been able to travel to and meet faculty and students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Asian American and Pacific Islanders Institutions (AANAPISIs) across the country and one of the most profound parts of these experiences has been seeing women of color at the center rather than the margins. I was happy for the panelists that — even for this brief ninety- minute session – they were surrounded by allies.
At the same time, however, there was an elephant in the room. The panelists were told that the session would be a roundtable. Instead, they sat in a straight line, behind a row of desks, while a mere eight audience members sat awkwardly in stray chairs in front of them. While I was very honored to be there I was also reminded why academic conferences are often not very powerful sites of social activism. Yes, AERA is a huge conference, with a phone-book size program of concurrent events, but still: Why did only eight people choose this session? Why weren’t we sitting in a roundtable? Forget the roundtable, why weren’t we even sitting next to each other? Why weren’t we looking each other in the eye?
The next panel I went to, immediately afterwards, was as different as night and day. The discussion was titled: “Linking Knowledge to Action Through Youth Participatory Action Research to Reduce Latino/a Educational Disparities.” While the discussants at this session were also from a PWI (The University of Arizona), their work was intricately “linked” to a marginalized and minoritized community. Their commitment to using youth participatory action research (YPAR) as the cornerstone of their own academic research mirrored many of the same methodologies that I have witnessed at MSIs. The community and the college worked together to produce new knowledge, and advocate for social justice, in a genuine partnership.
Indeed, the very organization of the session reflected the ethos of re-centering the voices of people of color. While it was only slightly larger than the previous session I attended – there were about 12 attendees –the organizers immediately asked everyone to put their chairs in an intimate circle. One of the organizers then began by reminding us that we were sitting on Indigenous Land. [The conference took place in San Antonio, Texas]. Next, she then led us all in a common reading of “In Lak’ech: You Are My Other Me,” a Mayan law and greeting:
Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.
This was an unusual and very emotionally moving experience for an academic conference, that was followed by an even more unlikely event. We went around the circle and shared our first names only, and what we felt we were each “bringing” to the discussion. To be clear: this was not about listing our qualifications and expertise. This was about a common interest in being challenged, in collaboration, and scaling good ideas. This was about honoring the coming together of the group, and making sure that everyone was listening and felt represented. I was reminded of my visit to Stone Child College, a TCU in Montana, where we began our “business” meeting with the college President listening to stories from a Tribal elder.
Although the larger discussion at this panel was about research methodology, typically dry descriptions of theory and numbers were grounded in beautiful illustrations of students’ community maps. The presenters explained that they worked with Mexican American youth living in poverty to help them design and create their own maps of their neighborhoods, including places that symbolized college-going resources and college-going barriers. Resources, for example, included out-of-school time youth centers, library and schools, while barriers included high density of graffiti, vendors of alcohol, tobacco, and drug paraphernalia in their community.
As we talked about the maps, terms such as “homelessness” were redefined as “houselessness.” In other words, not having a house does not necessarily prevent someone from having a family, a community, and a lineage. Breaking from a deficit perspective, the presenters honored the fact that the young people they worked with – though poor, Latino/a and perhaps undocumented – had dignity, agency, and precious knowledge. At the end of their mapping, youth created new spaces in their communities, literally opening new avenues of access to college.
Thinking of mapping, after these two AERA sessions, I went to explore San Antonio. I visited the Alamo and visited a Mexican marketplace. I marveled at foods I had never tasted, and watched as families settled in to watch the upcoming Fiesta parade. Aside from being very humid, it was a near perfect experience. A mingling of cultures combined with a strong sense of ethnic pride permeated the city.
I wish I could end this here. But something else happened today. I got back to my hotel room, turned on the television and saw Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania (my home state) to mark his first 100 days as president. Every word out his mouth was one of hatred and divisiveness. As he talked about securing the border, and keeping all the “bad people” out, he outdid his own record of fear mongering warning that people who cross the border illegally will be in direct danger of being deported “back where they belong,” or put in jail.
Trump then read a poem called “The Snake” by Al Wilson, wherein a woman shows compassion for a hurt snake, bringing him into her home and giving him sustenance, only to be bitten mercilessly and mocked by the snake for being so gullible:
“I saved you,” cried that woman
“And you’ve bit me even, why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
The moral of the story being that certain people will always be bad to the core, that we shouldn’t try to help other people, and that if we do, we have only ourselves to blame for being so stupid. Trump told the story with great relish, savoring the anticipation of the moment when the snake is once again vilified and the old lady humiliated.
As I tearfully watched his supporters stand, cheer, and chant “build the wall,” I was reminded that I began the day reciting In Lak’ech with a group of total strangers at an academic conference. If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself. What would our future look like if all Americans could say these words with the same conviction that Trump and his supporters brag about eradicating the enemy by any means necessary?
I didn’t leave AERA with the answer, but, as I’d hoped, I did leave feeling more empowered to keep fighting for social justice – inside the academy and out. I also left feeling more grateful than ever to be representing the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, where I do not have to travel to a national conference to gain wisdom from, and hear about the first-hand experiences of academics of color.
Alice E. Ginsberg is Assistant Director for Research at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She also teaches urban education and teacher research in Penn’s Teach for America masters program.