I knew this fellow once, let’s call him Shawn, whose heart was in the right place. He was a documentary filmmaker and he decided to make a piece for TV about people who left high-paying jobs to go into teaching. It was useful,he explained to me, to understand why people would do such a wonderful and dramatic thing, how they changed, and the ins and outs of their challenging decision.
None of it sat well with me. I have a chip on my shoulder about career-changers who go into education to “save” kids and be “more fulfilled.” (My community is not your self-help/ missionary project. Please for the love of God, go back from whence you came from and save yourself, thank you very much). What about the people who don’t change?, I threw at Shawn. What about the people who do this work for the long haul, have been in it since the beginning, and don’t leave? What about their stories? What about their moments of recommitment — what about how they stay?
Shawn was good-humored about my annoyance. He may have patted me on the head. Not good TV, as it turns out. Viewers don’t watch TV about the boring, daily work of trying to make the world a better place.
It is the two-year anniversary of the Ferguson Uprising today, and I am thinking a lot about my choice to stay woke. I am employed in education, and work towards ending anti-racist oppression towards immigrants, blacks and other people of color by centering authentic love in policy and practice. At 24 years old I took a job as a middle-school teacher in the South Bronx. After about two years — during which I was regularly screamed at by my exhausted and overwhelmed principal, saw bugs crawl out of the shirt of my favorite student who was living in a homeless shelter, and had a young boy look me dead on and tell me that he knew he would end up in jail — I thought about leaving public school teaching. Instead, I joined a team of teachers to found a progressive school designed to create a space of love and rigorous learning for immigrant young people, many of whom had survived war, brutal immigration journeys and who were undocumented. Two years later, I again pondered a different career, but instead applied to graduate school. There were many early successes: I studied the sociology of race and racism under top scholars, and was trained as an anthropologist. My dissertation, nominated for several awards, discussed how newly-arrived immigrant youth experienced a sense of belonging in a diverse and multilingual high school.
And then came the failures. Ten years after I began my journey in K-12 teaching, I took a job in Hawai’i, where I encountered a style of racism that I didn’t know was possible. (Immigrants were called “cockroaches” and the entire state was out of compliance on key education resources for immigrant students). I designed a program for a local university to certify teachers of immigrants in culturally-sensitive, bilingual and anti-racist pedagogies. After years of work, the program wasn’t adopted and I left to return to NYC. Nothing I had worked for came to fruition. I knew that if I didn’t go back to NYC, I would leave the work entirely; I needed to be in a community of activists so that I could receive the support and nourishment I needed to continue in anti-racist education work. Then, came the mundane: hundreds of hours of teaching undergraduate students and in-service teachers, millions of words written in blogs and postings and research articles. From success to failure to the mundane, I have reached the following conclusion:
Staying woke ain’t for the faint of heart, you feel me?
I share this detailed and brutally honest personal account as a way to highlight the following: it is true that it is incredibly brave to leave a high-paying finance job to go into work that is about justice and civil rights. My goal is not to take that away from anyone. But in my experience, deciding to do the work is the easy part. It is the staying part that will take every ounce of you, the part you will revisit and question, the part that matters.
Several years ago I attended a conference on bilingual education. Talk aboutstaying woke. Bilingual educators and policy-makers have had centuries-long battle against the repression of languages other than English, usually languages spoken by brown and black folk and new immigrants. It never ends: from the early eradication of Native American languages, to a decades-old battle over Spanish-English bilingualism, to the recent protest of an Arabic-English bilingual school that opened in Brooklyn several years ago. As I sat in the conference, I noticed speakers saying the same weary things over and over: “As I said last year….”…”Ten years ago we faced the same….”… “And once again, let me argue….” These men and women were tired. They had said it all before. They were saying it again. They stayed woke, speakin’: communities and individuals have the right to express their hearts in the languages in which they feel more comfortable. Language is identity. Language is power. We will say it again.
To stay is to remain in the same place. Note: 1992: L.A. Uprising against policy brutality and murder. Note: 2014: Ferguson Uprising against policy brutality and murder. And note: 1965: Policy brutality towards the protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery. The facts are clear. The racists, they just keep on bein’ racist. In the face of this, to stay and persist takes courage. To repeat oneself takes humility. To sit in the same place and not move takes both the righteousness of a Zen Buddhist and — let’s be clear, more than a dose of half-cocked, wild eye lookin’, off-kiltered thinking and personality. When my students ask me how I stay, they accuse me of having some kind of Old Testament miracle faith that they don’t have. I tell them that they have got it all wrong. I have no faith that anything big will change, I tell them. I do not expect a different outcome, and I do the same thing over and over anyway. I do not believe that racists will stop being racist. Regardless, I design classes with syllabi featuring primarily scholars of color. (Perhaps one student will feel more empowered by seeing herself in the syllabi.) I conduct research, and write policy pieces advocating for better schooling for immigrant young people. (Every once in a while I write something good that goes viral, but mostly I get a few “likes” on facebook by people who are already in the choir, y’all feel me?) Sometimes working in civil rights is boring. Sometimes I march in the streets yell real loud because it feels good to be angry.
A decade and a half ago when I began to work in schools, I thought that the work my colleagues and I were doing was big and exciting and would change the education system. Today, K-12 public schools are in the worst shape that I have ever seen. There are changes: the school I helped found is flourishing. Last year, a group of activist teachers at the school refused to administer high-stakes testing on the grounds that the tests were inappropriate and caused immigrant students harm. It was a moment to celebrate. Because I didn’t leave, even when I wanted to, I got to know that this direct action against testing happened. I get to have the precious experience of witnessing life lived beyond the reaches of what seems possible, a life lived full. I get to show up for the beauty and artistry and dignity of my colleagues who throw everything they have — and all of who they are — at oppression. I receive notes from teachers who tell me that they see the world differently now. I get help a young person who escaped horrible conditions at home — or maybe just migrated here because their extended family resides here — feel safe during the school day.
My students ask me how to work on issues of justice and I tell them the following: pick one or two things. Choose your primary message: immigrant detention centers, or labor rights in the fashion industry, or plastic in the Northern Pacific. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the whole of it and the intersectionality of it, but discipline yourself and choose something to become an expert on. Learn everything you can about those things. Find things to say, and repeat those things. The discipline will be hard. Repeat, and repeat. Expect little, and dance uproariously when a moment of transformation occurs. What you are fighting for is your freedom. And guess what else? By staying, you are already free.
This article is dedicated to all my people who have stayed woke: Much love. Much strength. Much freedom.