Transformative Education is a tool for social justice and storytelling is a vehicle for social change. These are my two loves. I am the product of a large, east coast, urban school system. By the time I was born, educational opportunities for Black people in America had increased so that I had opportunities that were even beyond those of my older siblings. My family had established a relationship with schools and schooling (albeit that of tolerance rather than of mutual embrace) and a clear intention of acquiring all that integrated education promised. My parents understood education as an American institution that we could use against oppressive forces. My parents, both great storytellers and each teachers in practice and by passion although not by trade, taught us-encouraged us-to articulate our understanding of the world.
So as Martin and Malcolm and the Kennedys were assassinated, as the images of the Vietnam War were aired on nightly news, as Southern churches were being bombed and hoses were turned on civil rights and anti-war protesters, dialogue was being held in our household. Central to Friere’s work is the idea that both teachers and students are agents engaged in the process of both constructing and reconstructing meaning. I live in the recognition of each individual’s ability to interpret and articulate reality through naming, reading, and thus owning and knowing that reality. Like so many who hold membership in marginalized populations, we were able to use school as a tool for production of meaning and still resist and reshape the hegemony of the institution.
Thus, at 10 years old, I channeled the terror of seeing girls my age napalmed and the obituary photos of little colored girls that perished in church bombings, who could have been me or my baby sister into framing in the language of my 5th grade social studies texts an anti-war, humanist, and feminist stand. Listening to my parents “grapple” with the issues developed my ability to think critically and to self reflect – critical to theories of transformative education.
My early teachers (Sunday school, dance class, art enrichment) were friends and family. I had always been in learning settings with family and community members. I found “real” school a lonely and hostile place. The first time I was ever hit by an adult was in school by my kindergarten teacher. While I was always an A/B student, I hated school and felt that school was out to break me. Nevertheless, I graduated in the top 10th percentile of my city’s graduates in the mid 1970s.
Imagine my shock and appall when I landed at Wellesley College ill-prepared for this culture of privilege, inexperienced with blatant racism and unwilling to bend to the rules of power. Here is where my transformative education, which began in my home, was augmented by traditional education settings. I began to investigate why I had “made it” while my peers, just as smart as I was, barely made it to community colleges. Why was I struggling with my courses, even though the content itself was not difficult to master? Why was I struggling while my more affluent (and often less academically excellent) counterparts were not? Why are women, the poor, people of color and gay, lesbian and transgendered typically on the margins of society? What role does education have in this set-up?
My experience of having matriculated and served on the faculty at the traditional environments of Ivy League institutions, state-supported institutions, and in the progressive environments of institutions emphasizing education for mid-career adults informs the exploration of these questions. The question of how different educational environments influence academic achievement, professional development, and personal fulfillment for different people bring me to my work, which is my love.
Because of my humanist upbringing, my feminist consciousness and experience in the world as a Black woman rooted in both working and middle-class society, I have always been conscious of the complexity of race, class, ethnic, and gender oppression. I seek to create ways to raise issues of social responsibility and oppression that affect both the marginalized and those that hold membership in socially/politically privileged groups.
I want to help students critically explore their own experiences as Black, Asian, Lation/a, and White people; as male and female members of society; and as individuals from privileged, working-, middle-class, and family in poverty. Using storytelling and narrating personal experience is a way to critique these values and to critically examine the ideologies of dominant culture that many of us regard as “common sense” knowledge. I seek to help create practices in schooling that will begin to change social structures and create new patterns that accommodate difference. I see this work as necessary, challenging, and rewarding.