Transcription of the episode “Abolitionist education: Creating liberatory spaces (Part One)”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. This is the first of a two part interview. We’ll post the second part next week. Our guest is Dr. Edwin Mayorga, Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies and the Program in Latin American and Latino Studies at Swarthmore College. Dr. Mayorga is founder and co-researcher of “Education in Our Barrios” project. He is co-editor of the volume “What’s Race Got To Do With It: How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality,” now in its second edition. Welcome, Edwin!

Edwin M: [00:00:38] Hi. Glad to be here. Thanks.

Amy H-L: [00:00:42] What is abolitionist education?

Edwin M: [00:00:47] So I think abolitionist education is. Well, let me start by saying what it’s not. I think there’s this misconception that abolitionist education is solely this kind of extreme, you know, burning down of every single thing that we have known. And I center my understanding of abolitionist education, abolitionist teaching, around the idea of, of what’s possible and what we, what I think ultimately our children, our communities deserve. And that I think is ultimately freedom or liberation, a kind of capacity and ability to be sovereign, to be self-determined in this world. And so. I think for me, it’s it’s also going back to what one of my teachers, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, has spoken about as freedom as a place. And how does an education that is bent towards the. organization and creation of freedom as a place, that’s my question often, is what does that look like? What can it look like? And in many ways, what has it already looked like when we think historically about different ways that people have innovated and sought to use education or to work through education as a means for liberation for both individual and collective liberation.

Jon M: [00:02:20] So when you talk about freedom as a place. What does that mean in practice? How, if you’re looking at that in a school or as a way of thinking, what is that?

Edwin M: [00:02:29] Sure. I think the, in some ways I feel like it’s not that complex in the sense that it’s about, ultimately,  it’s about relationships. It’s relationships between people, but it’s also relationships to this earth, to the inanimate objects, the tools with which, you know, people-made tools as well as the natural world. And that in that kind of relational perspective, freedom is a collective pursuit to allow each thing to live. Colloquially, you know, the way we talk about being our best selves, or wanting to, to be our best selves. We can’t possibly be our best selves, both collectively or individually, if we’re not all free.

And I think to me, then it’s creating classrooms where one that is the vision and mission of the classroom. And that I think it would be presumptuous to assume that you could come into it knowing exactly what everything is going to look like. Because I think what freedom means to us is an ongoing kind of iterative process, right. We continually define and redefine what our freedom, what freedom, means, I think, but that the classroom is the place to ask that question. And to explore that question and to change ourselves and change each other and change our relationships to continually, sometimes incrementally and then at other moments like in big leaps and bounds, to work towards freedom for everyone in this classroom. I know both of you are, are Deweyans. And I too am a Deweyan. And you know, for me, when Dewey is talking about school and education not being preparation for life but life itself, that, to me, is abolitionist liberatory education. That freedom is a place and that our classrooms are places where that freedom can be built. It’s not preparation to be free, but actually about the work of getting free.

Jon M: [00:04:44] So you talk about critical racial ethnic studies. What does that mean? And how does that relate to what you were just saying?

Edwin M: [00:04:54] I think it has everything to do with it. Primarily, and this, you know, speaking personally in the multiple ways that I see myself as an educator and activist, a parent, a scholar, a community member, a friend, a brother in all of those avenues that are aspects that define me, the influence and impact of critical racial and ethnic studies. And I would say even more specifically, Black radical traditions, Black feminist traditions, Indigenous theories, US Latinx based theories and hemispheric global theories in particular have influenced my thinking.

As to what critical racial and ethnic studies enlivens in us as to how we think about freedom, liberation, learning, teaching, social change transformation. I also think the important work that critical racial and ethnic studies does is, you know, similar to, are you familiar with the Sankofa bird?

Jon M: [00:06:00] Yes.

Edwin M: [00:06:01] You know, the Sankofa bird…

Amy H-L: [00:06:03] Would you explain to our listeners.

Jon M: [00:06:04] Yes, that’s a good idea.

Edwin M: [00:06:06] So my understanding, right, and, you know, in African traditions, the idea of the Sankofa bird is that image of the bird that’s looking backwards but the rest of the body is moving in in the other direction. It’s a kind of linear, drawings are linear two dimensional things, but I think about it in multidimensionality, but part of it is this idea of moving, I kind of am hesitant to say progress, but I’m like moving in a direction and perhaps moving towards that long arc of freedom. But at the same time, looking back to our histories, right. Sankofa referring to the notion of going out and fetching it, right. Like retrieving, it’s a kind of process of retrieving our histories, reconnecting ourselves to our histories. In my own research, I talk about that as remembering, which is a direct act of resistance to the kinds of erasure and what I described as dismemberment that we experienced, particularly as BIPOC, Black, Iindigenous and People of Color in this country. And globally that we experience this kind of rupture from our own histories by intention. And so the Sankofa bird to me is this kind of active resistance to that, or as a kind of symbol of that kind of practice of looking back and retrieving. And that’s what I think, to me, critical racial and ethnic studies also affords us. It inspires us to be focused on liberation, at the same time,retrieving the kinds of things that have been taken away from us and that Bettina Love and others in the Black radical traditions have described as spirit murdering. Our spirits have been murdered. And in order for us to recuperate, to heal from those kinds of multi-generational or inter-generational traumas, the work of retrieving is so, so vital from my perspective, and from the traditions of critical racial, ethnic studies.

Amy H-L: [00:08:03] What does it mean to decolonize education and how does it relate to re-membering?

Edwin M: [00:08:11] I feel like that’s a big catch word, that one and abolitionist. I feel like in these last few months of the pandemic, everybody’s doing it now, all of a sudden, which causes me a lot of consternation actually, because the question of decolonizing our syllabis, decolonizing our curriculum, decolonizing our food, the wonderful Indigenous scholar, Eve Tuck, and her comrade, our comrade, K. Wayne Yang, have eloquently articulated that decolonization is first and foremost not a metaphor. It’s a practice. It’s an ongoing set of events that are specifically focused on mapping the ways in which coloniality has and continues to circulate throughout our lives, in our bodies, in our teaching, in our classrooms, in our societies. And to, I think, again, not to be repetitive, but decolonization is also a practice of retrieval, of reconnecting ourselves to those histories that coloniality hinges upon erasing.

And that work again is not metaphorical. It is about reading, planning, dialogue, dancing, singing that create these kinds of rippling echoes of who we are and where we are going. To not only, again, I think I’m in a moment in my life and in this pandemic where I’m really focusing not to be pollyannish, but to be what Cornell West described as audaciously hopeful. I’m really focusing on joy and hope. And so with decolonization. I think really focusing not on the …yes, it is about the process of de-centering colonial Western or Eurocentric ways of doing things, but I’m really more interested in what is being centered instead. Rather than what we’re busy de-centering. And so it’s there. I think to me, when we’re looking, you know, I’m a college professor, but I was also a second grade teacher, a fourth grade teacher. And in each of those instances, what I was looking at is not just inclusiveness, which we in education have spent a long time, particularly in the traditions of multicultural education.

It kind of flattened out the politics, the edge of multicultural education. I think what’s flattened out in order for it to survive in some way, to the point that it got watered down to focus only on inclusion, right. Like we’re going to include other voices. But where I’m at right now at this point in my career as an educator and as an activist and as a parent is to think about, I’m not talking about including, I’m talking about centering something else, right. Centering our stories, centering the stories of others. And that I think is where I’m kind of at right now, but it’s an ongoing process.

Amy H-L: [00:11:29] So it sounds as though it’s the colonized that need to center their own cultures, their own traditions. What’s the role for the colonizers?

Edwin M: [00:11:43] I think, you know, to me, and I think this is true of abolition too, because I don’t want us to get it twisted and suggest that abolition and decolonization are the exact same thing, because I think at some point they are two distinct projects twos that you know, bound up in each other’ pursuits. But that said, I think the colonizer, I think the first step to me is helping the colonizer to come to a point where they accept responsibility or accept culpability in this larger historical process in which our entire world has been shaped and reshaped and has continued to be shaped. Step one is to recognize and understand it and to accept responsibility for it. And I think as we go through, I mean, it’s not, I’m not a stage theorist, you know, we don’t go from one stage to the other. I think these are overlapping and sometimes recursive and like we circle back and move forward. We stumble around. But as we are engaging in that process of accepting responsibility, I think then the colonizer needs to think about what steps they are going to take, one, to make amends for that and to engage in them, their areas of influence, whatever that might be, to push further the conversation around, one, the return of land, how are we going to repatriate the land? Or what would that look like? And what would communities look like? I think again, with decolonization, similar to abolition, there’s fears that it’s like just, they just wanted to dismantle everything and just get rid of people. Far from it. I think it’s more about thinking about a different possibility, a different kind of otherwise world and otherwise relationship. And so for me, decolonization is first and foremost about, you know, as we’re retrieving our histories to also be thinking about a kind of future that is not land ownership dependent, that our relationship to the land is a completely different one. It’s one that is again, a kind of retrieval to Indigenous and other ways of knowing kind of folk ways of understanding what the land is that preceded  and this kind of enclosure of land and kind of monetization of land and so tied to land and this knowledge again, and history and storytelling.

And so how again does the colonizer participate? And I would say invite to be not allies, but rather accomplices to the kind of work. Another word that I use is a acompanando, right, accompanying. How can the colonizer accompany the colonized in this process of retrieval or repatriation of land, of redistribution, of power and resources and decision-making right. That those kinds of decision-making and even our ways of governance are kind of built on a different foundation, right. A set of foundations that center, the colonized, the histories, and the, and the voices and the needs of the colonized. And inviting them, you know, I don’t think of it as trying to eliminate anyone. What we’re trying to do is help facilitate a re-orientation for everyone to what matters, to what’s important and how are we going to live together and live freely. 

Jon M: [00:15:27] So I want to follow up a little bit on that.  I’m not even sure exactly what the question is, but I’ll take a stab at it. People are colonizers, but that is not the sole extent of their identity, certainly. And I’ve thought a lot about how do we mesh the issues, like, for example, the 99%, the kind of issues that Bernie Sanders was bringing up with the issues of, you know, BIPOC people being very directly and more immediately oppressed than, than people of non-color in the United States or elsewhere. But in a sense, everybody has elements to which they are both colonizers and colonized. I’d be really interested in have you thought about ways of sort of bringing the various strands of this together so that we’re centering people who’ve been most directly oppressed, but we’re also recognizing that the white coal miner in Appalachia and Bill Gates don’t have a whole lot in common other than their skin color.

Edwin M: [00:16:41] Yeah Right. Um, this is the question I think, or it’s the question that I think for me has been primarily as an activist and as an educator, but primarily as an activist, I think is a lot of what I’ve been grappling with for quite some time now. And I would say in my activism with the New York Collective of Radical Educators, NYCORE, that was where a lot of our work ended up turning to, specifically with the question of, as our book that Bree Picower, and I have have co-edited. It’s in the most recent edition, which is to ask what’s race got to do with these kinds of, you know what we are describing as like neoliberal or kind of capitalist-oriented educational reform policies, or educational reform strategies. I think that’s where I kind of come at your question, Jon, where that question actually kind of emerged when Occupy Wall Street began. The question of race and, you know, we weren’t using the language of BIPOC then, but we were using, you know, the language of People of Color. And where the struggles of People of Color are situated in relation to the calls of the 99% and Occupy Wall Street and the working class. In our kind of search and my personal explorations, a lot of it sits, goes back to Cedric Robinson’s work around racial capitalism. And to me, the understanding or the perspective that the ways in which race and capitalism produce a certain kind of set of living conditions as well as identities and bodies, even though our identities are not by any means singular. And I’m not trying to suggest that, but I think that the racial and the ways that race and capital shape us and shape our trajectories cannot be understood without the other one being considered.

So for example, we cannot consider the class politics of the coal miner and Bill Gates without also contending with the ways in which whiteness operate in their lives. It certainly by no means is the same because of the way class and economic conditions kind of modify or articulate the ways we live. But whiteness is always there as well, right. So it’s a kind of, I’m not trying to suggest I’m hedging, but I’m actually asking us to expand our view in such a way that sees them as a both, and that these things are operating in ways that sometimes are parallel and actually amplify one another. And then there are other moments where it actually contradicts one another.

You know, as we look at this election, this most recent national election, to think about the ways in which the Republican party and specifically 45 was trying to frame that they are the voice of working people and everyday Americans, to me, was an interesting and smart strategy. I don’t agree with it, but it was certainly an interesting and smart strategy. And I think it, it left open, right, and this is where I think the voice of Bernie Sanders was absent at this at the end of this election cycle, where the kind of working class anti-racist politics that we that can and should, from my perspective embrace, were kind of left on the sideline. And yet, you know, we need to ask ourselves, well, who are the people that made this Biden presidency or President Elect Biden possible? If not for working Black people and specifically working Black women. I think again, that’s where we, uh, you know, both in national and local politics, I think that’s where we really dropped the ball on the progressive side of things, where we really are kind of in the weeds. And we kind of spin our wheels in terms of gaining really good traction on how to talk about these issues at once.

I feel as though I have been impressed by the fact that even just kind of the notion of racial justice has entered our national conversation. I feel like in these last few elections, even during the Obama administration, racial justice, as explicitly as we saw it in people’s platforms, it certainly wasn’t there, but of course, you know, how deep was that going remains to be seen, but I remain hopeful that, particularly as movements like Black Lives Matter continue into this next presidency, that those conversations I think will continue to be pushed in ways that I hope are bringing us to seeing in this kind of expansive view that I’m talking about.

Amy H-L: [00:22:21] How would this racial capitalist lens manifest in the classroom?

Edwin M: [00:22:29] Well, that’s a tough one now. Always with the tough questions, Amy. To me, I think it comes back to racial and ethnic studies, and I think in the classroom,  again, and this is actually part of my critique of racial and ethnic studies, is that historically we have focused on, so focused on race and culture and ethnicity, that the role of capital actually has been absent or kind of diminished. But if we, you know, I’m a big fan of the late Clyde Woods, who was a black geographer and he talked about one, he talked about a blues epistemology, but he also talked about plantation economies, right, and that being a prime example of racial capitalism. And so in the classroom, I think it’s actually quite natural to have a conversation with seventh and eighth graders, for example, around plantation economies and inviting them to actually think about in what ways do we still see the echoes or the remnants or the explicit uses of a kind of plantation economic logic in our world today. 

If we’re looking at the internet and the explosion of Tik-Tok, for example, Tik- Tok provides a space for a lot of creative, young people, particularly creative, young People of Color, to put out some really interesting new, innovative dances or ways of expressing themselves. And there was a New York Times article, I  think it was in the Times, talking about the dance, the Renegade, this was like spring of 2019. Even my ten-year-old knew about the Renegade and like his whole school was doing it. But the part of that story that goes ignored is that the person who created it was this young Black woman. But for a long time, she didn’t get the credit for the creation of the dance, because there was a more famous Tik ToK white woman who added an ending to it. And that version with the ending becomes the thing that gets all of the likes and the views and all of that. And so there’s all this attribution to that person. And that, to me, Is a conversation you can have with young people about our intellectual, you know, we’re still in a capitalist economy. And so it’s like our intellectual and creative property and how that gets exploited in both racial and economic ways. Um, and so who is actually benefiting and who’s being exploited, I think are just, you know, to give a concrete example of racial capitalism at work. So the fruits of people’s labor and using that as a way to actually look back and see plantation economies, the farm workers’ movements of California, for example, or even locally to Long Island.

And there was an organization, you know, some years ago. I don’t know if it’s still in operation, called the Workplace Project, which was working with day laborers in the Long Island farm agricultural scene as well as the construction sector. And even then, I remember when I was student teaching in a fifth grade classroom in Manhattan, we actually invited the Workplace Project to come and share a little bit about the work that they did because we were studying the US Mexican border. And so I think there again, like seeing both labor and race continually bound to one another, those are kinds of conversations that I think we should be having. And that I absolutely think that young people of various ages can digest and wrestle with, you know, I think what it might mean for a six or seven year old to talk about race and labor is going to be different from what an eighth grader, a 14, 15 year old is talking about, but I think some variation of that kind of conversation can still be had in those different kinds of classrooms.

Jon M: [00:26:27] As you’re talking about what can go on in a classroom, in say, an abolitionist classroom, you’ve talked about the Kensington Health Sciences Academy as an example of a kind of school that you’re talking about, where this exists, I gather, on a school-wide level. Can you talk a little bit about it and why you see it as a model for other schools?

Edwin M: [00:26:49] Yeah, so Kensington Health Sciences Academy is a small high school in the Kensington neighborhood here in Philadelphia, where I reside now. I’m doing a lot of my work in activism here, research as well. And it’s an inspiring place, I think precisely because it focuses on relationships. What they, the school themselves, talk about as a critically conscious community, and consciousness there means both a kind of awareness and consciousness of the larger global issues that shape us, right, including racial capitalism and its impact, but also a kind of critical awareness of each other, what, I believe her name is Kathleen Lynch. I know Lynch is the last name of this scholar from Dublin who talks about affective justice and the idea really of thinking about a kind of critical awareness of the emotional conditions in which we live, that a kind of social justice that is divorced of affactive justice is not really just at all. And so what I see at Kensington Health Sciences is that kind of affective love and care. You know, we talk about Nel Noddings and a kind of ethic of care, an approach to care that I think is, is very present there.

But I also think is that care is also not divorced of community. And this is a predominant Latinx community, both multi-generational Puerto Rican as well more recent arrival immigrant communities, as well as Black African-American communities and Afro-Caribbean communities that make up the school students and family population, as well as some of the teachers and staff members. Again, they’re focused on relationships on an awareness, on a kind of participatory collaborative spirit that to me are hallmarks of what I see as working towards freedom as a place.

In what ways do people lift each other up? They annually now for the last couple years have had this conference called Critically Conscious Communities and present at these conferences are parents, students, community members, community partners, activist organizations, holding workshops, listening to each other, talking about those things.

It’s also a really kind of joyful celebratory place. I follow them on Instagram. It’s interesting to learn about schools through Instagram and what kind of curated image they communicate. But I think what’s admirable at KHSA is that their celebrations are also intentionally not just inclusive, but communicating the message that everyone in this community matters, their histories, their ways of doing things, matter. Like the lunchtime at the first year’s conference, all of a sudden turned into like a dance line around the school’s cafeteria because they had had a live bachata trio playing music during the lunch. And then all of a sudden it just kind of broke out into a dance.

And so to me, you just don’t, I mean, I’ve been in a lot of schools, both in New York and in Philadelphia and you just don’t get that. And these are things that, yes, it happened at this conference, but it’s something that I’ve seen that actually has happened at other moments throughout the school year. And it’s been interesting to see them try to also then figure out what that kind of community means in the pandemic that we’re experiencing now.

Amy H-L: [00:30:29] So take us into a KHSA classroom. How does it  differ from another classroom?

Edwin M: [00:30:38] Yeah. So a couple of teachers that I’ve worked with, one, my sense is one that it’s absolutely, and in the formal classroom, I’ve certainly have seen some of these same things in schools, in New York that have historically been doing some of these kinds of transformative things. And they’re very kind of basic things, but things like setting up in a circle rather than in rows of desks, which I think you still drop into many public high schools and it’s still a lot of rows and you know, or maybe a little better as like clusters of seats, but here, yeah, it’s a lot of sitting in circles, a lot of, even in the selection of literature, one case in point is the use of Acevedo’s book, Poet X, which, as you know, she’s a New York based  Dominicana writer, US Dominican writer. It’s a book, you know, a YA, young adult, piece of literature that is a novel, but it’s all written as poems.

And so, you know, just kind of a fascinating book, a wonderful book on its own, but to see some of the teachers there actually use that as the central text from which to have conversations, to think about, to invite the students, to think about their own communities, to their own neighborhood and their own sense of identity. A lot of the book, I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I highly recommend if you haven’t, but so much of it is about the body and our sense of self and our own identities. And, you know, I’ve appreciated actually hearing, these are, I’m talking about teachers who have, who have actually done this with their students. And so through these conversations and close readings and reading together, the students then have reacted in ways where they see themselves in the literature and are also seeing themselves in the author, that they too are authors and have the opportunity to write themselves into the larger narratives of society. And, you know, I’ll just close by saying another piece to this actually, another teacher I know there, is the coach for their slam poetry team, the Tiger Poets. And these Tiger Poets, they go out and they compete in local slam poetry, but they’ve also written chapbooks together. It’s just transformative, I think. We’re not kind of, but I think it starts… Facilitating young people being able to see themselves as sovereign and self-determined in that they have not only that they have a voice, but that they have the skills to use that voice in whatever ways they wish to. 

Jon M: [00:33:20] You’ve defined the role of teacher as lead Inquirer. What does that mean in, in a classroom situation?

Edwin M: [00:33:30] I think abolition, abolition requires us to ask questions. I was actually at my son’s career day this morning talking about my job as a social scientist and an activist and a teacher. And one of the things I focused on this morning was that what’s cool about all three of those things is how many questions I get to ask and how I’m able to pursue, like I’m able to go out and try to figure out the answers to these questions and often just kind of finding more questions. 

But that to me is what’s potentially liberatory of when a teacher is focused on the question and. Inviting all participants in a classroom community to ask questions to also then co-lead the search for answers, the search for knowledge, the production of knowledge. You know, so much of education, particularly in K12, is still that kind of banking education that Paolo Friere for decades now has taught us is what we do and get repeatedly. And I think even the push in the last two decades around high stakes testing and the kind of conceit that, oh, well, you know, or, or just like the, the kind of false narrative that we’re asking them to do critical thinking within these testing formats.

Now as a college professor, I see what impact that has on students, on certain students, because I can start to get a sense with my undergraduates, all very high performing, you know, like students that have worked their tails off to get into, you know, a place like Swarthmore, very elite, but it’s a very diverse school. And so a number of the students who are first-generation students or students of color are working class students. You can get a sense that they’re absolutely brilliant, but they have also been conditioned into a way of learning that is performative rather than introspective, reflective and transformative in such a way that they struggle at first, right, to ask the kinds of questions that I’m inviting them to just think about or to consider. It’s not that they don’t know or that they don’t have questions it’s that they’ve had limited opportunities to ask questions in such a way and ask questions in such a way that also connects that back to, again, our liberation or our capacity to be free, or our capacities and strategies for changing conditions that we can all take a part in.

Amy H-L: [00:36:16] What does it mean for a teacher to move at the speed of trust?

Edwin M: [00:36:20] Yeah, so that’s one of my favorite sayings right now, and I certainly did not come up with it. I look to Adrienne Maree Brown, I look to a number of LGBTQ queer communities of color and communities of color with people with disabilities. Uh, disability justice kind of movement, people who have really focused on this notion of moving at the speed of trust. And I think to me, ultimately, it’s again, back to relationships and that our point of departure should be, especially as teachers, kind of focusing here on the classroom, but as educators, how can we, or I think our point of departure, each time we gather with a new set of students, is one where the focus is on thinking about liberation and freedom as a place that trust is absolutely necessary, but that trust is not a given. It has to be earned by each and every one of us. We have to learn how to trust one another, but also teach each other how we can trust each other. And so I think that’s what needs to be done in the classroom in particular. And I think, you know, again, KHSA is an important example of that, is that if we even scale it up to a entire school. So many of our schools are actually not premised on trust and building trust, even though we rhetorically or, you know, just kind of discursively say oh, well everyone trusts one another here, blah, blah, blah.

Um, if we actually asked that question, do we trust one another? Have we done the work to build that trust? Have we earned that trust from each other? I would say that most young people would respond no, my school has not done that work and I haven’t, they haven’t been invited to be part of that kind of process. And so if the adults aren’t trusting the students and the adults don’t even trust other adults, whether it be parents or teachers, I think we’re kind of dead in the water.

Amy H-L: [00:38:25] How can we teach students to be trustworthy?

Edwin M: [00:38:30] I think to me, it’s ultimately about modeling. To use the KHSA example, the principal, the school director, Nimet Eren, from what I’ve seen is putting in a lot of work on emphasizing and instilling that kind of ethic of trust building and modeling that, the way she speaks with students, the way she speaks with her teachers, the way she speaks with parents, and how that is echoed in how teachers speak to students and how teachers are speaking to each other, not just as professionals, but in a kind of, again, ethic of care. If we don’t model that and also, alongside that, create opportunities for young people to work that out, right, to put that into action in their own ways within the kind of school context or the school community. 

When I talk about a school community nexus, that kind of intersecting point, then I think again, students won’t have these kind of secure or at least nominally safe environments in which to take risks around trust because trust is, I think, tied to vulnerability. We really keep ourselves exposed when we are kind of facing the world in this desire to trust and to be trusted. So in the complicated world that we live in, schools, I think, have a really wonderful opportunity actually to create those kinds of safe spaces for trust-building, and risk-taking that I think are necessary. 

Jon M: [00:40:13] So I have a question that obviously comes up a lot when you’re talking about how to create environments like KHSA. Was KHSA, using the word “progressive” or a school focused on trying to build trust among everybody and relationships. Was it that way from its inception or did it evolve from a more traditional school?

Edwin M: [00:40:39] It’s part of what I’m starting to look at and starting to do research alongside some of the teachers and the principal and some of the students. So, you know, we’re just scratching the surface of that, or we’re really just kind of getting started on building the relationships to even have these conversations. But from what I’m able to gather thus far, the school was part of a larger Kensington kind of comprehensive high school that I think is similar to the kind of comprehensive high school that Michelle Fine writes about in the 1991 book, Framing Dropouts. It was a kind of dropout, or what Michelle Fine describes as a pushout factory. And so the school. from what I’m to understand was a kind of push out factory. It was failing and it was closed. And so the strategy and, similar to what we have seen in New York since the Bloomberg administration, was a kind of market logic to the ways of reforming or transforming schools, which is, you know, if a school site is not productive, according to certain metrics, that they merit closure. You just close up shop and I’ve heard that said, both in New York and even more so here at different points in time where, you know, schools are treated like a part of a portfolio and it’s a bad investment. And so you close it. And so Kensington, the larger, comprehensive high school was one of those bad investments from that kind of logic. And so the strategy there was to actually break up the school into multiple small schools.

And so Kensington Health Sciences is one of those three, maybe four, schools. Um, I think there are three that are active, but there might have been a fourth one in the initial reorganization of the school. But some of the schools, including KHSA, were relocated to other parts of the Kensington neighborhood. And so my understanding is that once it becomes the small school, the current principal when they come on board is kind of the start of, or the initiation of, some of these shifts in the ways in which it was doing things. 

Jon M: [00:42:55] Thank you, Dr. Edwin Mayorga of Swarthmore College.

Amy H-L: [00:42:59] And thank you, listeners. Please join us for Part Two of this interview next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a  focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week, when we continue speaking with Dr. Mayorga.

Click here to listen to this episode.