Transcript of the episode “Abolitionist education: Creating liberatory spaces (Encore)”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi! I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:17] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Today we will hear an encore of our conversation with Dr. Edwin Mayorga. Dr. Mayorga is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies and the Program in Latin American and Latino Studies at Swarthmore College. He is founder and co-researcher of “Education in Our Barrios” project and 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: [00:00:48] Hi. Glad to be here. Thanks.

Amy H-L: [00:00:52] What is abolitionist education?

Edwin M: [00:00:56] 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: [00:02:28] 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: [00:02:38] 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: [00:04:53] 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: [00:05:02] 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: [00:06:09] Yes.

Edwin M: [00:06:10] You know, the Sankofa bird…

Amy H-L: [00:06:11] Would you explain to our listeners?

Jon M: [00:06:13] Yes, that’s a good idea.

Edwin M: [00:06:14] 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: [00:11:36] 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: [00:11:50] 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: [00:15:35] 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: [00:16:49] 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: [00:22:30] How would this racial capitalist lens manifest in the classroom?

Edwin M: [00:22:37] 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: [00:26:35] 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: [00:26:58] 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: [00:30:37] So take us into a KHSA classroom. How does it  differ from another classroom?

Edwin M: [00:30:46] 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: [00:33:28] You’ve defined the role of teacher as lead Inquirer. What does that mean in, in a classroom situation?

Edwin M: [00:33:38] 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: [00:36:24] What does it mean for a teacher to move at the speed of trust?

Edwin M: [00:36:28] 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: [00:38:33] How can we teach students to be trustworthy?

Edwin M: [00:38:38] 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: [00:40:21] 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: [00:40:47] 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. 

Amy H-L: [00:43:02] 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: [00:43:17] 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: [00:46:24] 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: [00:46:50] 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: [00:49:39] 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: [00:49:54] 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: [00:53:06] 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: [00:53:24] 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: [00:56:15] You’ve explored the idea of community land trusts as possible model for schools. What would that look like?

Edwin M: [00:56:24] 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: [00:59:37] 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: [01:00:04] 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: [01:03:49] How can our treatment or some would say exploitation, of animals other than humans coexist with liberation?

Edwin M: [01:03:58] 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: [01:06:22] 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: [01:06:31] 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: [01:10:27] 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: [01:11:08] 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: [01:15:56] So we come back to it’s all about the relationships. 

Edwin M: [01:16:00] Always! 

Jon M: [01:16:02] And on that joyful, hopeful note, thank you. Edwin Mayorga of Swarthmore College.

Edwin M: [01:16:10] Thank you all.

Amy H-L: [01:16:12] And thank you listeners. 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. 

Click here to listen to this episode.