Book Notes & Thoughts: Educating Activist Allies

swalwell

“There’s something sticky about privileged people studying injustice while participating in institutions garner the more advantage.”

How you teach and where you teach can powerfully undermine or reinforce what you teach.”

As part of my Ideology & Curriculum course this spring, I read this book by Katy Swalwell. The following is a version of the reflection that I wrote for the course, plus my reading notes afterwards.

While other books this semester were difficult to read in the sense that I had little previous experience with the material, this book was like reading about my own schooling and teaching experience. I was a teacher who was indifferent to “diversity” initiatives at first, then slowly intrigued, now actively engaged. For me, it was as part of teacher professional development that I came to reflect on and challenge my understandings of race and privilege. For this reason, it was odd to read this book as I felt like I was both the student and the teacher at Kent Academy. The analysis that Swalwell presents was educational for me both in my understanding of myself and of social justice education with privileged students.

“If we are to interrupt the reproduction of an equal opportunities and outcomes, we must understand how poverty is not just about poor people but about the relationship between people of all classes” (p.12). This quote has two aspects that I thought connected to our class: finding opportunities for interruption (linking to Educating the “Right” Way) and the structural approach of binaries (Bernstein). In other words, you cannot understand poor people without also examining non-poor.

In her study of Liz Johnson and Vernon Sloan, Swalwell pays attention to their life history, their context, how they make sense of their work, and their work itself. I appreciate that she looks at both the curriculum that they teach and how it is taught. I was surprised that she did not address teacher gender dynamics, though she did talk about challenging Vernon to recognize the gender dynamics in his classroom.

Another thing that was missing that I was surprised Swalwell did not ask students about or comment on was LGBTQ issues or alliances that might have been present at the schools. I think this is a way that privileged students are more proximate to discrimination and might be an entry point for discussions.

A good reminder for our own class and my future teaching is Swalwell’s observation that “in both settings, dissenting views were never shut down; rather, both teachers framed agreement and adversity of opinion (even with their own ideas) as evidence of critical thinking and curiosity that should be celebrated, cultivated, and challenged” (p.85).

Notes from the book:

  • “The United States is among the wealthiest of nations in the world yet it struggles with a history of indigenous genocide, slavery, segregation, and increasingly high numbers of people living below the poverty line. It has also produced a fairly fixed class structure: a small yet extremely rich capitalist and corporate managerial class, an unstable middle class whose position is tied to training in technical skills for jobs with particular credentials, a large working class rapidly losing any former protections they may have had through unionization, a segment of this working class with little to no job security, and a thorough marginalized poor whose living conditions make it virtually impossible to acquire the skills and education needed for jobs to lift them out of poverty (Wright and Rogers, 2010).”
  • “rarely has capitalism itself been questioned”
  • net beneficiary of racial privilege is clearly whites, but privileged by capitalism less clear
  • “class distinctions create ‘unequal possibilities for flourishing and suffering’ (Sayer, 2005, p.218).”
  • Interesting idea – we’ve always had a market and parental choice for schools – now we just know how to sort them better? Better info? Sense more competition?
  • “If we are to interrupt the reproduction of an equal opportunities and outcomes, we must understand how poverty is not just about poor people but about the relationship between people of all classes” (p.12)
  • “Second, given that children from privilege communities are very likely to occupy positions of power as they grow older, ensuring that the students are exposed to a critical examination of society and encouraged to orient themselves towards justice is an important (though little understood) strategy in the larger project of interrupting injustice” (p.12)
  • to tell privileged students how they should think about their privilege and race is indoctrination and anti-democratic at its very core
  • “an interest in privileged students’ education represents a concern for them as participants in oppression given that an unjust society dehumanizes not only the marginalized but also those who benefit from its inequality (Freire, 2000; Luthar, 2003). Though benefiting from oppression clearly manifests itself in increased material and social power for tent beneficiaries of privilege, it also significantly hinders people’s ability to build fulfilling lives (Choules, 2007) and frequently produces feelings of alienation, meaninglessness, randomness, isolation, pain, and dysfunction.”
  • “Defining yourself, by what you are not” is empty (Tim Wise)
  • anti democratic to require social justice participation – interesting comment on our class’ dynamic around those with more privilege and less experience (p.13)
  • “Even if teachers (or parents) set out to challenge this conception by engaging in social justice pedagogy, privileged students may still find ways to “capitalize” on knowledge of injustice as a way to increase their marketability (Goodman, 2000a) … Though her study does not focus on privileged students, North (2009) expresses great concern for (and not a little frustration with) these students who incorporate their new critical literacy into what Lareau (2003) calls a “repeated performance of entitled selves” or Khan’s (2011) “ease” of the new elite that continues to legitimate the social order. Ultimately she worries that ‘teaching students the rules of a social system that already benefits them could have the unintentional effect of strengthening that very system’ (p.126). Social justice educators in communities of privilege thus face a difficult challenge as they struggle against norms of competitive individualism that encourage such interpretations of their pedagogy (Goodman, 2000b).” (p.25)
  • “In contrast with previous elite attitudes obsessed with pedigree, the new outlook is connected to an understanding of the world as naturally hierarchical based upon experiences rather than birthright; in other words, it is not who you are but what you have done that rightfully positions you at the top. When hierarchies are so naturalized, the connection between birth and experience is obfuscated. And when ease is privileged about entitlement, those who do not fit in tend to be those from marginalized backgrounds without the means to live in such a worldly fashion.” (p.50)
  • being taught to speak up vs. listening as an act for social justice (p.78)
  • “When I asked the quieter students why they did not often talk in class, they told me that they did not want to repeat what others had said. Importantly, several expressed a desire to learn how to be better listeners.”
  • Swalwell’s critiques of Liz’s teaching is really interesting: “students positioning themselves as the knowledgeable members of movements working on behalf of people who could not otherwise work for themselves”, students using Community Action field trips and the curriculum as resume building, program was “less about listening to the narratives of oppressed peoples and more about listening to the advice and wisdom of movement leaders” (p.80)
  • the idea of “seeding” ideas of social justice P.83
  • “Of course no respectable teacher would ever deprive a student of as good a quality education as possible, yet there’s something sticky about privileged people studying injustice while participating in institutions garner the more advantage.”
  • “Liz’s strategy for trying to balance the demands of a college preparatory education with a social justice pedagogy was to ground the rigorous reading and writing students did in content and questions related to issues of social justice. While this approach has strengths, it did little to problematize the fast track to an elite education as a good on which students inherently deserved to be. Of course no respectable teacher would ever deprive a student of as good a quality education as possible, yet there is something sticky about privileged people studying injustice while participating in institutions that garner them more advantage. Toward the end of the semester, Rachel told me that “I think [learning about injustice] can only help because we can reference it and sound really cool for saying it if people recognize it. Otherwise can help educate people on the things we learned about that maybe they didn’t have the opportunity to learn about. Or we just know it and that’s great for us. Either way there’s no downside to knowledge.”
  • “In nearly every interview, we butted up against the fundamental (and difficult) question that asked what kind of society we envision as educators and citizens” (p.85)
  • a good lesson for everyone in our class to be reminded of: “in both settings, dissenting views were never shut down; rather, both teachers friends agreement and adversity of opinion (even with their own ideas) as evidence of critical thinking and curiosity that should be celebrated, cultivated, and challenged” (p.85).
  • “what is more feasible to ask (and answer) for the study is how students responded in class and what that indicates about the capacity for conceptualizing acting on their social responsibilities in particular ways” (p.88).
  • “Because Activist Allies have made a connection between the oppression of marginalized groups and their own humanization, fighting injustice is not just about helping Others, but also about improving their own lives. Their privilege, and continue social construction by the complex interaction between structural forces an individual acts, is thus seen as a set of resources to be mobilized incorporation with the oppressed for the purposes of mutual transformation in societal improvement.” (p.100)
  • “A lot of what we learn is how to use your voice to help others” – student (p.102)
  • “Rather than presenting issues of injustice is primarily historical, abstract, or attributable to individual actions, teachers using Educating Activist Allies framework ask students to make connections between what they’re learning about long-standing structural inequalities with contemporary issues and their daily lives.” (p.111)
  • Three phases of O’Connell’s political compassion: 1. Perceive disasters through relational anthropology (those who suffer as valuable human beings within sociohistorical contexts), 2. Interpret social disasters through interruptions (ask why people suffer rather than what can be done), 3. Transforming social disasters through empowerment, humility, and solidarity. (p.113-115)
  • how you teach and where you teach can powerfully undermine or reinforce what you teach” (p.117)

This is all one big social justice experiment – we have no idea how it’s going to work out.

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2 thoughts on “Book Notes & Thoughts: Educating Activist Allies

  1. Pingback: Book Notes & Thoughts: Despite the Best of Intentions, by Lewis & Diamond | Julie Kallio

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