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

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 second of a two-part interview with 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. In last week’s episode, Dr. Mayorga talked about abolitionist education and “freedom as a space,” as well as the role of teacher as lead Inquirer and “moving at the speed of trust.” He described Kensington Health Services Academy, a school in Philadelphia, which he will also refer to briefly in this episode. 

Amy H-L: [00:01:34] Have you seen examples of more traditional schools that have been able to make the shift in their educational and social emotional cultures, either under the same leadership or new leadership? 

Edwin M: [00:01:48] So I think abolitionist approaches or liberatory approaches are not all the same. And I think about them as a kind of spectrum. Schools are in different places and at different points in their evolution, you know, trajectories. But if we use that as the, as a goal, right, that the schools are more liberatory than they had been. I have seen a few schools that I would say on the whole still remain fairly traditional, or at the very least are focused on compliance with the expectations of our local school district, which I would argue are very much focused on performance and measurable. Certain kinds of metrics around test scores and things like that. But even as they have complied, I think they have also used like different resources or small grants that the school district offers to actually really focus on building relationships with families. One school that comes to mind that is also one that I’ve been studying is, um, a kindergarten to eighth grade school in South Philadelphia called Kirkbride, where they have a fairly new principal, but a principal that had also come from other kind of community-based, community-rooted, both charter schools and traditional schools here in Philadelphia, which has a large charter school sector. But I think what she’s been able to do, I think again, is yes, she stays within the certain parameters and expectations, but at the same time, I think pushes the envelope alongside her teachers. Again, I think she’s good about trying to facilitate partnership and relationships, caring relationships, with her staff, from what I’ve seen, or, you know, at the very least, I think comes from a position of respecting teachers and families as their own experts, that they too have wisdom and knowledge and perspectives that absolutely matter to the direction of the entire school community. And so in that, I’ve seen good things, things that I would describe as good, positive changes that I think still sit within what we might think about as traditional or what right now are seen as traditional approaches to teaching and things like that.

But I think I’m kind of hesitating to say, well, asking myself, like what does traditional, but without going too far afield ,within a traditional framework, I think teachers still feel a certain level of freedom and autonomy to make some decisions to do what they think is right for their students. And so I see that as a positive, it may not be the kind of abolitionist thing that we were talking about with KHSA, but I think it’s, it’s still within that same kind of spectrum that I was talking about a moment ago.

Jon M: [00:04:55] So often school communities, such as Kensington, or as you were just describing where the principal’s making changes, find it difficult to sustain themselves after the founder or founding group of teachers have left. How can schools try to build a lasting infrastructure that can survive those changes?

Edwin M: [00:05:22] I mean, I think that’s one of the huge challenges, especially with, with the revolving door of leadership and reorganizations on district levels, specifically when we’re talking about public schools, but even in smaller charter school networks and even private schools. When things are unstable, it’s hard to maintain those things. What I’ve seen in both of the cases that I’ve presented and talked about here, I think one thing is not just a respect for teachers, but finding avenues in which teachers who often stay longer than almost anybody else in buildings, the weight of their voice is honored. They’re seen as partners in trying to build a vision for these places.

You know, schools are funny places because both your students whom you serve is continually changing from year to year, as, as students matriculate in and out of the place. Then with the current policy landscape, there’s so much turnover in leadership and sometimes with the teachers. But as I was saying, the teachers play a vital role in that in being a kind of stabilizing institutional memory for some of these things. And I think institutional memory is particularly important when you’re trying to transfer from one cohort of students or one cohort of teachers to the next, a certain kind of spirit of care of, liberatory stances. There are of course, no guarantees. I saw that at another high school that I’d been partnering with here in Philadelphia, where it was a really wonderful and transformative leader, but they got picked off to move up the administrative ladder. And so one of the things that didn’t happen there is that some of the building with and around and through the teachers just wasn’t able to take hold in a way that kept the momentum going. But I remain hopeful in that I think, for me, documenting and sharing those strategies and that’s part of what I’m trying to do with Kensington Health Sciences, is actually document alongside them what has worked, you know, what what’s driving all of the things that they’re trying to do, what’s the vision here. And sharing that with others so that even if the principal or a set of certain like key teachers leaves, there’s this kind of documentation of what has happened, you know, similar to what Tom Roderick’s book around early childhood settings in East Harlem. Yes, like they’ve changed, but their histories are still there for us to really continue to pick up on and really honor by continuing to bring those visions into the future.

Amy H-L: [00:08:11] Looking at the future, how does the relationship of business or capital to schools compare today to a hundred years ago, and how is it likely to change in the future?

Edwin M: [00:08:25] So there’s a lot of parallel, I think, actually, with what we saw a hundred years ago with that wave of industrialization and large captains of industry, like the Carnegies and so on, and what role they played, I think a lot of the influence and perhaps what’s different, I’ll get to in a moment, but what’s similar, I think, is the cultural influence that industry and capital have had on how schools are run. So, you know, a hundred years ago, we’re thinking about a cadre of experts and educational professionals that were really trying to articulate, they were called administrative progressives, and the progressiveness came from their focus on efficiency and really, you know, how to run a factory better. And so it was in some sense a kind of application of the logic of how to be a more efficient factory, but this was a school factory. That was the period of, we had a mass migration of people from different parts of the world coming to our large urban centers in the United States. And so there was a call for mass public education or an expansion of public education, which I think in many ways, shapes the entire 20th century into the 21st century with regards to what we are doing in schools and classrooms. I think again, here then in the contemporary period, we actually have seen a ramping up of not just the cultural influence, but the actual political influence on education policy. The ways in which schools are directed. We saw that in New York City with mayoral control, a focus on testing and outcomes that was framed as for the purposes of justice, and the soft bigotry of mediocrity or fuzzy, progressive education of the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties.

And so the response was yes, back to basics, but also a ramping up of, alongside technology, a focus on quantitative data that really, again, in some ways, you know, going back to spirit murdering, it kind of took the soul out of a lot of schools. And I think as we reconstituted the, this focus on the production of students of a particular kind of student and those who did not fall into that image of the student that they were trying to produce would then be victims of severe punishments, whether it being pushed out, increasingly surveilled, you know, we see now like the mantra of “no excuses” kind of schooling, which to me, I think is just so deeply harmful and has profound effects, not just on the individual student, but their entire families and the communities that they are said to be serving. But I think in many ways, schools are set up to just surveil and punish at this point, which is quite discouraging to say the least.

Jon M: [00:11:37] So as kind of a counter to that, obviously a lot of liberatory movements, especially coming out of indigenous communities, talk in terms of sovereignty, whether it’s food sovereignty or other forms of sovereignty. How does this apply to education?

Edwin M: [00:11:55] I think again, the, the focus to me. If, if we truly are thinking about education as liberatory spaces rather than ones focused on punishment and surveillance, a policing of bodies, our current system is focused on eliminating young people’s sense of sovereignty, of agency, of capacity to be free. What I find to be most heinous is that it’s all veiled around this promise that for you to quite literally, in a colonial kind of process, actually evacuate all of those things that make you you, but that the schools are, are designed to actually ask you to do that for your own good, I think is what’s most heinous in the educational experience that young people are going through right now. And that as a teacher, I abhor to even be associated with, but there, I found myself as a public school teacher, really caring about public school kids and their families, but still being forced to do certain things in order to keep my job. And I recognize that contradiction and I continue to sit with that.

And so the antithesis to me is, again, not just the centering, but what are we centering? And if we’re centering sovereignty and providing opportunities for young people to both learn and apply the kinds of skills and risk-taking that are required in order to be free, in order to be sovereign, in order to be self-sufficient but also community sufficient, knowing how to be engaged community members, that would mean a complete about face in what we’re doing and what matters and what’s at the center of it. And to the point you raised in your question, Jon, the, the role of Indigenous ways of knowing and being I think are vital here as part of the retrieval process, that those practices, of course, are absolutely rooted in Indigenous communities, but I think all of us can learn a lot from those approaches and adapt them, engage with indigenous communities, in ethical and responsible ways, to learn from them, to learn alongside them so that we can continue to articulate and interrogate what we really believe and what really is important to us. And that shaping and to me, one of the key things that must be important is sovereignty and that kind of spirit of sovereignty for both teachers and for our students, of course, but for teachers as well.

Amy H-L: [00:14:47] You’ve explored the idea of community land trusts as possible model for schools. What would that look like?

Edwin M: [00:14:56] Yeah. So, you know, my, my own research is situated in East Harlem El Barrio in New York City. And as I was doing my research around schooling and, in particular, I was thinking about governance and the history of governance and the innovative kind of governance that actually ended up emerging in East Harlem in the seventies into the eighties and nineties around the small schools and schools of choice, which has been written about. Heather Lewis has a really wonderful book about some of that period. And so at the same time, as I was doing that research, the community land trust as a concept was really starting to gain traction in East Harlem and in New York City. And what I mean by that specifically is just the participatory kind of power sharing that a land trust is premised on. And so thinking about, you know, again, understanding that we live in a capitalist and racist kind of context, that the question of ownership is still a question that needs to be addressed. But if everyone in a school community felt that they had some sense of ownership over the direction of a school as well as having a voice, you know, really thinking about the school as an anchor, as one of the many important anchors to an entire community or neighborhood, that if everyone felt a sense of voice and ownership in what that school means to that entire ecosystem, that to me provides a really open or a really wonderful window in which we can transform things and communicate to others that being, you know, kind of top down and traditional in our mode of governance is not the only way.

I see that a lot here in Philadelphia schools, where people are always fighting with the school district, our schools have been state run, run basically by the state and what was called the School Reform Commission, for 17 years. And what was absent in all of that, even though they had these monthly public forums where people had two minutes to say their piece, with a timer and that timer, even now during COVID, even though we’ve gone to a mayoral appointed school board, those practices are not ones that to go back to the question of moving at the speed of trust, these are not trusting relationships. This does not establish a respectful, trusting relationship between administrative power and the people that are supposed to be served by these institutions.

I think we’ve got it backwards. We need to flip that script. And I think that’s what community land trusts does is to flip the script on who owns or whose voices are at the center of this enterprise of land and homes and shelter and education, in our case.

Jon M: [00:18:08] Autonomous school communities can be liberating. They can also exclude based on race or class or other kinds of factors, political factors, whatever. How do we create systems that allow for balancing autonomy with accountability, to protect against discrimination against those who are seen as “others” in whatever the situation might be?

Edwin M: [00:18:35] I think it’s about instituting policies and shifting our culture around governance and rule to focus on people, to actually think about democracy in its fullest sense on every level. When I say that schools are an anchor to neighborhoods, you know, schools also function as these localized nodes of political power and, and modes of governance of an entire city. And if we can’t really focus on voice and participation and collaboration at the school level, I really think it’s hard for us to ever expect or to be able to move an entire city. It’s actually, what’s been inspiring to me, you know, having moved to Philadelphia or starting to work in the Philadelphia area for the last seven years, what I feel like I’ve been blessed to be a part of, is a number of coalitions that have fought the fight around community. I think what’s been impressive is that the fight has been one where, or at least in the organizing circles and activist circles that I’ve seen and that have been most effective, there is a focus, not just on single issues. So, you know, yes, like the school closures were a big issue for us in 2013 and in the subsequent years, but people didn’t separate the school closures from the fact that we had a state run commission that was governing our education system or that high stakes testing had become the sole metric for how schools are doing and how effective they’re educating children and young people. I think the activist communities here have really tried tounderstand that all of these things are inextricably tied to one another. And so that we need lots of people fighting on different aspects of this larger, complicated set of structures. I think that’s what’s key is being able to see that and to act in such a way that brings people together to look at these complex issues.

And I think what I’ve seen in Philadelphia actually is that those that work,  and a lot of the people that I’ve worked alongside in these struggles have actually now, years later, taken on public office. Right. So now they’re one of our city council members and probably my favorite city council member, just one of my favorite people in the world is Kendra Brooks, who won on the Working Families Party platform or part,  organization. And so, you know, here was a third party candidate and I don’t know how long, or if there had ever been a city council member who was a third party member, or if they had been, had been a really, really like decades, perhaps a century since we had had that. But l here’s this Black mom who started her organizing around her kid’s school and what was wrong with it. And that brought her into the activism and the coalition work that where she and I met. And it’s just been inspiring to see that then evolve into, you know, citywide kind of power. And here she is defending, trying to maintain the moratorium on evictions, on housing evictions. Right now, she’s really focused on affordable housing. You know, she’s doing everything that she promised she would work on, she’s working on. And that, to me, is just really powerful.

Amy H-L: [00:22:20] How can our treatment or some would say exploitation, of animals other than humans coexist with liberation?

Edwin M: [00:22:29] Yeah. I think again, and this is, this is a critique of movements, is that many of our movements, especially in education, are for good reasons, are focused on children and people. But I think it’s where our work needs to continue to grow. And interestingly here in Philadelphia, particularly, I’m thinking about environmental toxicity, so that toxicity being present in our schools and in our neighborhoods and what those implications are for all kinds of species. And so really pushing ourselves, decentering the anthropocentric human focus of our work, I think is an area that we really just have a lot to grow on because I think it’s really lacking in our analysis and in our activism, I wouldn’t say not like writ large. I think there are definitely, so I know here in the West Philadelphia, for example, you know, there are certain parts of  longtime anarchist movements and things like that that actually are also very focused on on animals and other species and their rights. And if we’re really thinking about abolition in the most global sense that we need to, as we were talking about previously, like we need to free them all. And, that’s not really, you know, I think to the detriment of our movements, we’re not really talking about that. At least in the circles that I run in, you know, I know young people are, humans are important. Yes. But so are every other living species on this planet. So we have to be able to talk about that as well. And we have to model that for young people. I think actually that’s been one of my struggles is when I engage with young people thinking about, especially like young people of color, who are like the great activist leaders in a lot of this work. When we talk about climate change or thinking about other species, that conversation doesn’t gain a lot of traction, at least from what I’ve seen. And that’s a problem, it really is. And so moving that needle I think is an important next step that we need to engage in if we’re really interested in continuing to evolve our liberatory movements.

Amy H-L: [00:24:51] A couple of weeks ago, you gave a talk at SUNY New Paltz on Joy, Healing, and Transformation. Show us where the joy is.

Edwin M: [00:25:02] The joy? I think the joy is in so many things right now. You know, even just kind of like my emails in the midst of pandemic, you know, I now introduce my emails with it rather than saying, “I hope you are well,” I ask “how are you, and have you been able to find joy? “Or “I hope you’re finding joy in different things,” because I think that’s what I’m also trying to focus on right now is where is joy in my life and in my family and my community’s life right now. And if we can’t find it, then what do we need to do to, to go and build it or to create these spaces for joy. And so, you know, these have been hard times to find joy, but I think for that reason, I’ve been doubling down on trying to do that. Part of that has been in the organizing. And I think, you know, when you’re an organizer, or an activist, there’s always this sense that you’re always working. You’re always stretched too thin. But it’s been my experience that yes, while that is true, some of my greatest joys have been in working alongside just some of the most brilliant, loving people that I have ever met in my life and that I just feel blessed to have known. And I feel like that is the same thing in the classroom, the relationships, and some of the people that I have been blessed to have an opportunity to be my students whom I ultimately, at the end of the day, feel like they are my teachers. And how much I learn from them about a lot of things, including myself, those to me are the kind of joyful life-giving things that I try to pay attention to, I love. I’m a student of history, right. And part of the retrieval process and the joy in learning new histories or uncovering new histories or working alongside young people who are, you know, the, the participatory action research, like the archival work that I did with the young people when I was in, El Barrio. I still look back, you know, this is almost 10 years ago now when I was doing that work with these young people who are now adults and have children of their own, but you know, here, you’re a college age kid, 19, 20 years old, and one, it was interesting because it was both a moment of anger when they would see all of these people, these changemakers in these archives. We were at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños archives and looking at like, who is this woman, Antonia Pantoja? And so it was aggravating for them because they had felt like they had had their history denied to them. At the same time, I saw joy in coming to know these changemakers. Like, “Oh, there are, my ancestors were like these people that were changing the world. We can do that too, you know.” And it’s that kind of joyful process of learning and uncovering our histories to me is just, the young people call it life-giving, right. Like it just gives me life to be with people, but to be also in the process of learning and also to be in the process of activism. And just, you know, working to change things, however, small or incremental these things are are right now. Part of my work has really been focused on defunding the police and having police-free schools. And I just feel joy in seeing the young people lead that movement, me as the old crotchety professor. I tell them like, I want to just be an accomplice to your work. I’m not here to define it by any means. I’m just here to listen. You tell me what to do. And just to see them lead is just like, wow. Like the kids are not only all right, but the kids are going to save us. You know, we hope so. It just makes me wholly hopeful. And so in that sense, it’s just brings me a lot of joy.

Jon M: [00:28:58] That’s such a cool answer. I mean, you’ve just said so many things during the conversation. So one last question is: What are some of the takeaways for educators or for parents or students, whomever, you really feel like you want to say something about that. You know, when people listen and then they go back to, it might not be back to the classroom right now. It may be back to their class on Zoom. But what are some of the immediate takeaways that you think people can be looking at, whatever their current situation might be?

Edwin M: [00:29:39] I hope people to circle back to joy. I think first and foremost is I really want people to, to sit back and, and appreciate. Yeah. At that talk at SUNY New Paltz. I started with a quote from my son, my 11 year old, who said, you know, “If you are laughing, you are breathing. And if you’re breathing, that means you’re alive.” I was just, I mean, I love my son, but I was, again, that was the moment where I was like, here’s my teacher. My son is my teacher. And the capacity to not just breathe, right. And understanding that question of, and I think of Eric Gardner and going back to the idea of not being able to breathe. And so, you know, when we go back to our classrooms thinking about one, taking a breath, but two, taking in  what are some of the possibilities, the joys, the hope, the radical possibilities?

As my teacher, Jean Anyon, talked about, the late Jean Anyon, where can we find them and where can we build them? And I say that not to overwhelm any one person, because I know it’s like, you know, Monday morning happens. Sunday night rolls around and man, you know, Mondays are tough. Mondays are extremely tough right now in the Zoom classroom. So I guess the last thing is just encouraging people to, to start small, find those small joys and think about how curriculum is still our craft, as much as they’ve tried to scientize and quantify curriculum and teaching, I still am absolutely a firm believer that that is the educator’s mode of expression. It’s through the curriculum that we teach, who we are. It is the through the curriculum that we teach young people, that we provide young people an opportunity to teach us who they are. And it’s through that kind of medium, which we can share stories and share stories of others, troubles, triumphs, possibilities, science, language, to describe the beautiful things in our world. That, to me, is curriculum, and as facilitators of inquiry, the curriculum is the way that we communicate. That’s the joyfulness of learning that I think we absolutely have a right to, and that I think we need to demand. And so we can start small. We can focus on, maybe it’s just focusing on having joyful morning meetings if people are having morning meetings. Or maybe if you’re not having morning meetings in your class, in your zoom spaces, think about instituting a 15 minute morning meeting, just to start, and focus on joyful things. How do we humanize one another? How do we think about our relationships to other species and other things on this planet? Those are the spaces. Right. And if we don’t create those spaces, it’s, they’re not, there’s no, um, there’s no given in terms of joyfulness in the Zoom classroom right now. And so we got to go out and fight for it. We got to go make it, but I absolutely think we’re all, as educators, extremely capable and smart and transformative people. And I remain hopeful that even starting small, build one little piece of hope, one little space for hope and you add another and you add another till, you know, you have an entirely hopeful Zoom space from 8:30 to 3 or however long, you know.

You know, the last thing I’ll just say is that one that really centers like the joyfulness, but also the process of healing. This online environment is extremely toxic and traumatizing and isolating for so many of us. But if we actually lean into it and teach each other how to use this opportunity to be together, right, like here are the three of us are in Zoom. It’s been just a joy for me to just be alongside and be in conversation with the two of you. Like I want young people and teachers to feel that same thing. Maybe it’s just for 15 minutes a day to start, but start there, start small, but keep building or in hip hop, we say, stay low, keep firing. Just keep your nose to the grindstone, but do it in a loving way and don’t lose yourself, right. Just focus on your joy, your students’ joy and facilitate healing for all of us. And I think we’ll be okay.

Amy H-L: [00:34:27] So we come back to it’s all about the relationships. 

Edwin M: [00:34:31] Always! 

Jon M: [00:34:32] And on that joyful, hopeful note, thank you. Edwin Mayorga of Swarthmore College.

Edwin M: [00:34:41] Thank you all.

Amy H-L: [00:34:43] And thank you listeners. Please be sure to go back to Part One of this interview if you missed it, 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, 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. Till next week. 

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