Abolition in Education
"It is a deliberate and intentional freeing ourselves from imprisonment and isolation"
Listen in as Dr. Crystal T. Laura, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Chicago State University, shares her wisdom to break down what abolition could mean and look like in schools.
Dr. Laura's Recommended Artist: Onra
Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-To-Prison Pipeline By Dr. Crystal T. Laura
Youth Learning on their Own Terms By Leif Gustavson
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
To Teach by William Ayers
Contact Dr. Crystal T. Laura at <crystaltlaura> (AT) <gmail> (DOT) <com>
Transcription (Please excuse any errors.)
[Music Intro ♫]
LaToya [LS]: Hey listeners! Welcome to Abolition Science Radio, we’re your hosts. I’m LaToya Strong-
Atasi [AD]: And I’m Atasi Das. We’re here to talk all things science and math and their relationship to-
AD: And so much more.
[ ♫ Music fade out.]
AD: Welcome back. Last time we talked with Robert P. Robinson on the historical legacy of abolition, so this week, Toya, what are we gonna do?
LS: This week, we are going to bring abolition to the present. And specifically talk about what it means for us in education.
AD: And uh, abolition these days is really linked to, the carceral state, the idea and it’s presence, and the prison industrial complex. So, are we saying that schools are like or they even are prisons? And so what would abolition re- , actually mean in this context?
LS: So there are parallels between prisons and schools and we can talk about the school to prison pipeline, but I think when we start calling schools prisons, we erase the very real lived experience of those people that are incarcerated and have been formerly incarcerated, so I don’t think we’re saying that schools are prisons. In fact, we’re not saying that schools are prisons. What we are sayin though is that the carceral logics and the carceral thinking that enables the carceral state and the prison industrial complex to exist shows up in the education system. What are your thoughts on that?
AD: Yeah, so I think that, we’ll explore kind of, when we’re talking about abolition as having a link to prisons themselves, that what does that mean for schools, what does that mean for educators, as you said before, there is a connection -it’s not the same thing, but what does that have to do with us as educators in schools or even students and families. In their daily lives. So who are we bringing on?
LS: So, to help us delve into this topic of abolition and carceral thinking and schools and education, we are bringing an incredibly dope scholar, activist, educator who leads from spaces of love, justice, and joy, Dr. Crsytal T. Laura. She’s an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Co-Director of the Center for Urban Research in Education at Chicago State Unviersity which is located in the deep South Side of Chicago.
AD: So, Dr. Laura’s work on the school to prison pipeline grew out of her dissertation project. She’s published two books. The first one called Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School to Prison Pipeline. And co-authored a second book with Bill Ayers called You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones and 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teacher Unions, and Public Education. So, this is really central to her scholarship and really excited to have her on.
LS: Right, so we’re excited to share Dr. Laura’s thoughts, experience, and provocations with you – let’s get started.
LS: Dr. Laura, if you could please just share with listeners where you’re calling from and what you’re currently listening to.
Dr. Crystal T. Laura [CTL]: Interesting. Um, ok, cool. Ok, hey I’m Crystal Laura, I’m calling in from Chicago, my hometown where I do all kinds of work and play, with folks who I adore and who bring me life. I’m currently listening to music actually. Um, last week my thing was like, podcasts and um, listening to NPR and this week my thing is music. Mostly because I’ve been doing a lot of moving. This is probably not part of our abolition discussion, directly, but I promise I’ll find a way to weave it in because I think that practicing movement and joy is part of practicing abolition. But I’m a yogi, and -ha, so I’ve been listening to all things yoga. So what was I listening to when I practiced yesterday? Onra – “I Wanna Go Back”. Yeah, um. All things that just have, soulful beats. Things that just make you wanna move.
AD: Cool, thanks for sharing that. We wanna ask that question cause uh, I think, you’re absolutely right, like what we do in our lives, our practice are so connected. So thanks for sharing [CTL: Mhmm] your music preference at the moment.
AD: So, could you tell us a little bit about your work, and, connected to that, what is your current preoccupation. What’s taken up your mind occupying your activities?
CTL: Sure. Officially, for a living, I’m a Professor of Educational Leadership at Chicago State University, which is a predominantly Black institution, the only one in the state of Illinois. It’s located on the far South Side of the city, in a neighborhood that would generally be perceived as lacking gems, and jewels. Except there’s this huge institution that is organized around Black lives and Black love and, um, funding Black futures. So, um, there, I teach folks, most of my students are actually principals, folks who are on the road toward the superintendency. It’s a doctoral level program that prepares folks to take over school districts. And my primary preoccupation there at the university really is trying to use that space, that position as a tenured, promoted professor to speak all kinds of truths about racial justice in education, around ways that people who have institutional capacity to do something about many of the, the issues that have been plaguing particularly Black and brown folks, in educational spaces for quite some time. I really try to use my space and I’m preoccupied with trying to figure out how to empower these people who have all of this, again, capacity to do big things. By teaching and learning and trying to develop community and trying to always be sort of developing, growing the community of folks who are doing kinda critical work in education, it’s often a lonely place to be, you know, particularly educators feel that way, that they aren’t generally trained to teach for social justice or to lead for justice, um, to lead from spaces of love, justice and joy. And I try to spend a whole lot of time, the vast majority of my time at the university trying to figure out what does that look like to develop a community around these concepts and really take them into classrooms and school building and educational spaces in meaningful ways. But that kinda ripples out into so many different things. So, if you will, take my show on the road. Ha, I’m really aware of the fact that the university is only one space where that ma- that kind of magic can happen and there’s so many other spaces where, I wanna be and other folks who I wanna be in community with. So, I try to link up with community based organizations. There’s a wonderful organization here in Chicago called Teachers for Social Justice. That’s part of a whole network of activists, um, educational organizations around the country, and then I also try to figure out ways to, as I said a moment ago, in my sort of intro, is really fold my professional life into my personal life. In fact, I really firmly believe that it’s kind of disingenuous to, to separate those things. So, I’m also preoccupied with trying to, practice and explain and share connections between justice and healing and using movement and yoga and meditation as really its own form of healing in this really difficult moment. So, intersections between wellness and education and social justice really are my jam. Ha.
AD: That’s awesome. Awesome. So, connected to that, as you have been really, kind of sharing your positionality and kinda your focus - how would you describe abolition? And how does that- you kind of spoke a little bit about it, it’s connection to your central focuses of love and joy, but how does that connect, inform your work? This concept, this idea, this praxis of abolition?
CTL: Mhmm. I think of abolition as the deliberate and intentional, removal of imprisonment, isolation, and um, punitive institutionalization as thee foremost way that we address issues of harm and healing. So that is both a conceptual thing and it’s also a material thing. Meaning we have to sort of think differently about, about how we relate to one another and as long as prisons and all of their apparatuses and all of their tools and all of the people who participate in them and all of the resources and money that is used to fuel them. As long as we have those things as go-to’s, then we always know that that can be an option whenever we feel like folks are disposable, whenever folks rub against our sensibilities and so, part of abolition is freeing ourselves from that, as, the end all to be all and instead, really utilizing our imagination to think about how we can focus on relationship building, how we can focus on community building, how we can think about the resources that are needed on the front end. How we can filter and really infiltrate communities with the things that sustain happy and healthy ways of living. So that we don’t even have to think on material end, about locking folk up, or isolating people. So if people have what they need and if they have access to healthcare, if they have affordable housing, if they have food to eat, if poverty is less of an issue, if we really have these material things on the front end, then we would have less of an urgency, I think to, uh, really rely on prisons as the way in which we deal with things that go awry. So, for me Abolition really is again, just freeing ourselves from commitments to carcerality, or incarceration or it’s many forms.
Again, if you kinda move back to education, there are lots of ways in which we utilize carceral thinking. It’s not just about a jail itself, but we utilize our classrooms as spaces of isolation. [AD: Yeah] We utilize our policies and practices as ways to punish young people, to punish families that we don’t think are contributing in the way that we think folks should be contributing or, again, if they rub against the way in which we think things ought to be done, we tend to find ways, a space that could be a, democracy. It could be a space where we show our best selves and we turned it into a kind of prison. So, I think, taking abolition as a jumping off point for my work means that, you know when I talk to educators, when I work with educators, when I meet, develop relationships with educators, I try to live the principles of abolition by, beginning as I said, from spaces of love, of justice, of joy. And those aren’t for me just, abstract fluffy cool words to like dish out, you know, ha, when it’s appropriate or when it’s advantageous, but to me, love really means you know, as my shero bell hooks, my Black feminist shero bell hook she says that love is the action we take to enhance or alter our own or someone else’s well-being. So it’s not this mystical thing, it’s not this magical thing, it’s not something that’s abstract and way out there ten thousand feet that’s beyond our reach. But instead, it’s something we do. It’s an action.
So, if I can find ways with young people, with their parents, with their educators, to, act in ways that demonstrate my commitment to multiculturalism, to multilingualism, to dedicating educational spaces to the brilliance and the magic, and the expertise that young people bring to us, um, to allowing young people to be the experts on their own lives and show us educators the way. Like those are concrete things that I can do when I show up to give a talk or to participate in a writing project, or to talk with you all on a podcast. If I can begin from a place of action that is dedicated toward seeing a more just world through education, um, and through wellness - then I will. And I think that, for all the times we talk about abolition and people, their eyes glaze over cause they’re like, the- you know, like this is so, you know, year 3050, right? It’s not something that we can do in the here and now, nobody’s gonna shut down the prisons today. Well that may be true, but, that it’s not happening today, but I think we have to come at our work and come at our lives from a position of hope and to be frank, like, you know the day before slavery ended, like, people thought it was impossible, right? Like it was just not gonna happen and then the day after, everybody thought it was inevitable, so. Abolition is sort of the same way.
You have to wake up each day thinking one day we won’t have prisons, we won’t rely on prisons, and that the way of thinking about prisons as the end all be all to address issues of harm and healing and suffering and people needing things , the way that that sort of goes into all different aspects of our life - one day we won’t have that and instead we’ll have a greater imagination, we’ll have lots of tools, and we’ll have a lot of soldiers on the field ready to advocate for a different way of living.
LS: Wow, thank you. These are really powerful concepts that you are talking about, and with the way that you’re talking about love and joy and freedom, and how we even, like, we have carceral thinking is a phrase that you used. Can you talk about what it looks like when you share these concepts with your students - these principals who are leaders in school? Um, how are they receiving it? How do they take it up?
CTL: Hm. You know, it’s kind of a mixed bag. I think, in my classrooms and outside when I speak to other folks about it, sometimes, it hits home right away and folks feel like, oh man, I’ve been thinking this, I didn’t have quite this language that you’re using but I feel like there’s something odd here. I feel like the students who I serve- speaking as, my students right now, the students that I serve and my students mostly serve folk who are in urban communities, or urbanized suburbs, communities that could use a bit more of everything. Could use more money, could use more civic resources, could use more positive thinking about, from outside folks about you know, who they are and what they can become. So they are generally serving students and communities that have been disinvested from, and they see it and they know it, and they oftentimes say, ‘wow. I’ve felt intuitively what you are saying to me intellectually,’ and so now I have the language to try to make sense of this thing that, you know, I’ve been observing or feeling, or maybe even experienced myself as a student. [LS: Mhmm]
But then I also have folks who are resistant to, to the idea that we ought to think differently. I did a talk not that long ago. Two weeks ago, and after my talk, a person who sat through the entire talk and seemed really engaged came up to me and said, ‘you know I really like what you said. It was very different for me. I’m from another country.’ Um, she was from a European country, senior, teacher, older woman, and she said ‘I really liked what you said, but culturally speaking, it doesn’t resonate with me. Um, where I’m from, we shut up, we do what we’re told and the folks who- who come onboard with that, they do well, and the folks who don’t, they get left behind and so I’m kinda, you know I like what you said but I really struggle with the idea that, I should be doing something more than I’m doing.’ Right, so I think it’s not uncommon to, to meet someone who, or talk to an educator or try to explain these ideas to an educator who simply has not been exposed to the idea that education and teaching - that those two are political acts.
Oftentimes, we think it’s transactional. We learn, um, to teach children to read. And that’s the end. Like, my job, I get paid to teach kids to read - without acknowledging that literacy is a justice issue, right. Without acknowledging that oftentimes, it is folks who struggle with literacy who end up leaving school, getting caught up in the streets, and end up in jails and prisons. Who don’t have that larger context to understand that even something as transactional, as fundamental as reading, really is connected to a much larger concept and set of issues. So, I think I’m lucky enough to have, reactions on both ends of the spectrum. Maybe someone else might get frustrated with or overwhelmed by, you know, folks having difficulty wrapping their minds around these concepts but instead for me, I think it’s a teachable moment for me, I have to think about new ways to describe it. I have to think about, new lenses, that people will, are naturally bringing to the work that I have to figure out ok, how does that make sense in terms of the way that I’m talking about this issue, the way that I’m making sense of this issue. So, to have folks who are saying, yes, I feel empowered by what you’re saying. I feel like this makes sense given my everyday experiences, given the experiences of my students and my colleagues and now I have the language and now I’m ready to move forward, so I have those folks. And then again, I also have folks who are like ‘Ehhh’, I’m not so sure. And then I should also add that there are lots and lots and lots and lots of people who don’t even have access to the language of abolition. Right. Who don’t even know that there are folks who have created a whole movement for the past, you know, thirty, forty years, around pushing away from prisons altogether. So for some folks, it’s like What?! You know, like, we could actually live in a world where those institutions don’t exist. What would that look like? And then the question becomes of course, what do you do with the “bad people” right? Ha ha. And, to be frank, abolition is, we you know, sort of struggle with that question. I think, and, we’re still trying to develop the argument for, um, you know, shifting away from notions of bad people. So then it’s kinda falls into a whole other discussion of who counts as a bad person and who gets to decide when someone is, officially rehabilitated and they’re no longer a bad person and now in our good graces. So it gets sort of complicated I think, and again as abolitions, I firmly believe are still reworking the argument and not- not just for the sake of being, um, persuasive, but really so that we understand what we’re talking about. And we understand what we’re fighting for. Often times, we’re really good at thinking about what we’re against, but less good about what we’re for. And I think that part of the Abolitionist Project is consistently reimagining, rethinking, and reworking for ourselves and each other what it is that we’re fighting for.
AD: You really um, brought to my mind, as you’re talking about some of the, the what you encounter with your students and other educators is like, pushing this like, radical audacity, of like, it’s possible. Things - change is possible. And I think, in our work that we are, LaToya and I are really thinking about that audacity of possibility in particular disciplines. And so I think, what I wanna kind of investigate and hopefully, have your insight on, is as we’re thinking of abolition as like, systemic, and as like, personal, as enacted in front of us as well as beyond us, how do you see that kind of engagement when we’re talking about curriculum? When we’re talking about, for example, in the- in this podcast series, the show is really looking at science and math. So, do you have thoughts about how that engagement can come into those areas, those areas of, yeah, content?
CTL: Mhmm. What comes to mind for me right away is of course, the two people that I’m hoping will get on your show at some point, but also, just the idea of committing to and participating in culturally sustaining pedagogy. We may have heard of culturally relevant pedagogy, maybe culturally responsive pedagogy, but my colleague and comrade Django Paris writes beautifully I think about culturally sustaining pedagogy - I think as a spin off, but also as, again, I think, radical audacity to even push beyond what we think we know about bringing young people’s cultural experiences and their world’s into the classroom, so, you know, I think what Django helps us see and articulate really, is the beauty and the abolitionist possibilities of youth learning on their own terms.
Actually, this reminds me of this great book by Leif Gustavson and that’s the title of the book: Youth Learning on Their Own Terms. And, this book is written by an educator who takes kind of an ethnographic stance in his labor and this book focuses on three young people - and they’re artists, in their own right. One is a zine writer, one is a graffiti artist, one is a turn-tableist. And, he follows these young people wherever they will allow him to go in their natural settings to document how they learn, what sets their souls on fire, and like sort of the process of them creating their own art and their own processes. Basically, without adults’ foolishness. Ha ha. Without adults kinda tinkering with, or, intruding on their intellectual space, their cultural pursuits, their artistic expression. And, he’s primarily following these young people and producing this book because he wants to ultimately show educators what it looks like to free yourself from the um, from the, tendency to get all in young people’s business first of all. And to second of all, insist that our curriculum is the curriculum. And instead, allowing these young people to show us. If you just let me be free, I can show you all the wonderful things that I love to do, and that if you figure out how to tap into that and bring that into the classroom in a sustainable way, boy will I show up for myself and I will show up for you. So it doesn’t matter if it’s science or it’s english or it’s math, but if we pay attention to the way young people learn and they think and they process and they create the things that set their souls on fire. If we then tap into that as educators, then no matter the subject, we can create things that young people are engaged in.
So the two folks who I’ve mentioned to you two um, to you both I think, but certainly you Atasi, who are science educators here in Chicago, you know, they do this wonderful, wonderful work of utilizing materials and stories and family members and experience all generated by the young people as the jumping off point for their scientific experiments and explorations. And so when, as I think about abolition, I think about science, I think about curriculum, I, I naturally wanna hold on to the folks and the ways of working, the ways of being in this educational arena that are freed from our own adultism. Ha ha ha. [Mhmm] And are grounded in culturally sustaining ways of focusing on young people in the stories and experiences that they naturally want to share and they naturally want to be the center of their learning.
AD: Right, yeah. I, ha, totally agree, I feel like this is um, it’s really helpful to hear it reframed I think for myself. I was a fifth grade teacher for a number of years and that was like, both a praxis that I tried to do but also a challenge thinking of all the different expectations from the administration to other families. Of like, well what does that mean you’re doing? Like, what are you doing in the classroom? [CTL: Mhmm] And how are you engaging and so, that, the way that you just described it, a way of bringing it into our curriculum is an important one to like, reiterate. Even for myself, who I feel committed to this, what you’re saying.
CTL: Mhmm. And it’s not an easy thing to do, right. Particularly when there are standards and tests and state accountability. Folks who are just breathing down your neck trying to make sure that what you’re doing is like, what the next person in the next classroom is doing. But that’s what I really love about this notion of community. Many people, it may be enticing to use community as this fluffy, wonderful word, but, just like love, like justice, or joy, I think, community is like a for real thing that you need to lean on in order to stay sane, in order to stay well, in order to do the good work. So these activist organizations, like, I lean on them to get sustenance, I lean on them to learn how to be a radical professor, how to be a radical educator, um.
I go to, every year, a curriculum fair here in Chicago that’s meant for educators who are radically audacious. I think I’m gonna live with your phrase for like the [All laugh] - who are radically audacious. And this fair is kind of a combo between a conference and like an old school science fair, right. It’s conference-y in there’s a keynote speaker, and there are workshops. But it’s science fair-y in that, throughout the entire day of the colloquium or the fair, there are colleagues, comrades, who are posted up in all of the hallways of the space- it’s usually held at like a high school, so there are comrades who are posted up throughout all of the hallways and they literally have posterboards up, they have lesson plans to hand out, and the idea here is you can literally try to find somebody, I’m a science educator in high school, great. Now, let me walk around and see who I can connect with who’s also a high school science educator, and see if that person has a lesson plan to hand out. Or tell me how they prepare for the state test or whatever, so it’s literally a matter of building community and developing resources and making sure that you have each other’s back. Because, as you were alluding to, folks aren’t taught to do this kind of work. So, you need to rely on people to maintain the work, to do the work creatively, to do the work authentically, to do the work in a way that’ll help you keep your job. Um, ha. That’s really important.
LS: Dr. Laura, something that is coming up for me through everything that you’ve said that I hadn't thought about before in relation to abolition or doing like freedom empowerment work is vulnerability. [CTL: Mhmm] And like in order to engage in this work, you’re, you know, you’re a professor, you publish books, but yet you’re, you can sit here and say I am still learning and I am depending on this community and these other people to like, like help me grow as I try to do this work. Could you maybe speak about it, that’s something that you’ve thought about? This vulnerability aspect of abolition to the people who are trying to enact it or see it through?
CTL: Absolutely. I think there’s a level of confession, that has to happen. At least for me. I mean everybody moves differently but I have to show up as, in a space as I am and I am a person who was invited into this labor from a very personal story. When I’m talking about abolition it’s both again, a conceptual thing, but it’s very much a material thing too. My brother is locked up right now, I want him to come home. Um, I want the doors to be open now. And willing to begin the work from this space of confession and fessing up that this is not uh, this is not a, quite frankly, this isn’t the work that I wanna do. I wanna weave baskets, right. Or, I want to, I don’t know, do yoga all day. I wanna do this work just to put myself out of work, right. I don’t, I don’t wanna be a person who um, becomes an expert abolitionist. That’s not at all what I wanna do.
What I want is for abolition to be so effective to be so contagious, to be so sexy, that it takes root, that it spreads like wildfire and we open the doors and we rethink punishment and punitive institutionalization and incarceration and isolation and we rethink all those things and we live an entirely different space.
And it’s partly because I feel so personally connected and personally impacted by what’s happening What also happens too is when you notice that you’re complicit in our expanding prison nation, either because you have a family member who’s locked up or a friend or whatever or you’ve just realized that as a tax paying, you know, member of society, that you are contributing in some ways to the expansion of our prison. It’s like when your eyes are open to that fact, that’s really difficult to - at least for me, to act as if those things don’t exist.
So my students know what’s up with me, when I come to be at speaking engagements, folks know what’s up with me and I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a, even in education, even as an educator, writer, speaker, whatever, whatever your thing is, that emotionality, the emotional labor of education, the emotional labor of taking a justice stance on education. That those things require a level of vulnerability. And I try to be kinda low key. I do the work and then I, you know, I kinda vanish to the background because I don’t- I just think that’s kinda my vibe. But I do think it’s important to note that it’s when I’m most honest that I feel like I have the greatest connection to the folks around me. [AD: Mhmm] It is when I bare all, it is when I allow myself to be, and sometimes that means I’m in the middle of a very important keynote presentation and I burst out into tears. It is that moment of honesty and I think people connect to and realize like, this is just not somebody who was paid to come speak on this stage but somebody who has real conviction - and really a representative of a whole other group of folk. So it aint just about that person but it’s about this message and it’s about this movement. And I think the ability to and willingness to fess up about that, is so central to gettin more people to consider what we’re talking about, ah ha ha, rather than shutting off again, eyes glaze over like ‘alright we got another radical here’ you know, ‘we got another fist pumper here.’ Being able to open up and say, nah it’s not about that. Aha. It’s about real people.
It just reminds me that, I have a friend who’s also impacted very personally, by our expanding incarceration state. And she’s heard me talk, we went to school together, Kay Fujiyoshi, beautiful soul, is a professor at the University of Chicago and she’s heard me talk a gazillion times, both as, you know, my comrade in school and then, post us graduating and I remember - I was in a talk with Kay and Kay said to me after, ‘You know what sis, I really love that you bring attention to these numbers and these statistics because often times, you know, it’s not the qualitative stuff that people resonate with. Maybe it’s the numbers, some people are wired to think about statistics and so you have to have a good mix. And so great, and so Crys, I really love that you have shared these numbers with folks about how, you know, 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s incarcerated, 2.3 million people locked up, all of that good stuff. You know, it really bothers me when you say bodies. When you say, you know, that there are 2.3 million bodies. Because often times people are more than willing to separate, to disembody, to kinda create this fiction that they are people out there who aren’t even really people but just bodies in these small places where they deserve to be so even using the language of bodies, Crys in your very radical talks may actually be contributing to this separation of people from this very real situation that they need to be engaged in.’ And I thought ‘Damn!’ Ah ha ha ha. Wow, I hadn’t considered that at all.
And so, you know, even switching that language and being o- I think my point is being open to, new possibilities, to vulnerability, to bein yourself even when yourself is completely wrong and when you need to be checked and switched into- moved in a new direction too. I think all those things are key to folks being willing to step into this arena and at least consider what it might mean to take on abolitionist practices and policies um, and consider what they might look like in their own spaces. Shout out to Kay! Ha ha ha. [All: Ha ha]
AD: Maybe like one last piece before we kind of wrap up. You’ve really shared a lot about your journey and a sense of kind of, insights and takeaways in your ongoing praxis towards abolition or of abolition. Could you share any ways that you feel like you’ve changed, as an educator over time, and maybe I don’t know, um, educator can be as broadly as you wanna designate it. It doesn’t have to be like k-12 classroom or anything like that but...
CTL: Yeah. I - so I’ve had a few, couple of different educational experiences that just [finger snap] or teaching experiences rather that come to me right away. So I’ve taught at all different levels. I’ve taught at the high school level; before high school, I’ve taught some younger folks than the high school level, I’ve taught some undergraduate classes, um some masters classes and now I’m teaching in doctoral level and I guess I haven’t considered how much I’ve shifted across those different levels and across time but - what came to me right away with your question is that I was lucky enough as a graduate student to be taken on, if you will, mentored by folks who have some really important ways I think and really important lenses through which they see the world more generally but also teaching and learning schooling and society. And, I was, I think lucky enough to adopt those ideas early on. And I think they’ve just gotten more layered, more nuanced, more complicated, but I’m not even sure that that’s true. I guess I’m hoping that I’m still the same me that I was as a graduate student at least in this capacity.
What I was taught early on is that there is wisdom in every room. That there is wisdom in every single room and so, if I take that idea home with me to my two boys. I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old. If I take that idea home to my boys, that means that they have something to teach me. That I’m their mom of course and my job is to, is to lead them and raise kings, but there is so much that you can learn from hanging around with young people and how they see the world and how they talk about the world. The questions that they ask, the things that just seem so absurd once you hear it from a five year old’s mouth is like, wow, why do we do that, that’s crazy. That’s ridiculous. We should do things differently! But of course the same concept is applied to my students at the university.
When I first started actually I was- I’m 35 now, I was 28? And um, ALL of my students were like twice my age, right. So, it’s my first semester teaching at the university and here I am strolling in, bright eyed, bushy tailed in my cute lil’ suit and I’m 28 years old and I’m ready to teach these people who are twice my age who have been educators for 20, 30 years, what I know. And that was a really rocky semester because we all had to learn together, this concept of, you know, there’s wisdom in every room. And what ended up happening throughout the semester is that, they learned that my primary contribution wasn’t to teach them what they just picked up in 30 years. That’s like, non-sensical right? That, my job was to, was to bring this lens that, for real, like the vast majority of my students were like, oh! Critical pedagogy, word. Like, [LS: Ha ha ha] I wanna learn more about that. Never heard of that before. Been an educator for 30 years, went to school, did my whole thing, but never heard of this concept of critical pedagogy. So my contribution, my wisdom, was in taking a kinda, a different, more radical, critical stance on education and helping them understand the social context of their work that they’ve been doing but in new ways and providing new lenses.
And then, you know having this personal experience, working at this adult high school for formerly incarcerated folks, folks who wants from educators need it the most and somehow got the least, folks who have the same story incidentally, you know, that they you know, were not engaged well in school, dropped out, got caught up in the streets, jails, prisons, and then came back for high school in order to make up for lost time. My oldest student at the high school was 71 years old. [LS: Wow] And had the same story as the 20-year-old. So here I am, I’m 28 years old coming in and I say, I don’t know 30 years of leading schools, but I do know education justice and I do know a world that I wanna live in and I do know the world that I want for my young people and I do know, that I’m literally looking at each of you, I got, you know a strong case of wanderlust, who knows where I’ll be next year, next month, next week, and it could be possible that I move into your school district and you will be my son’s principal. So, this isn’t some abstract reality, in fact, I’m trying to prepare the folks who I would trust to love and learn and lead my babies. Ha ha ha.
So I think when we got there, they were like, aah. And similarly, I had to respect the fact that these folks have had a lot of experience. They have all kinds of information that I could never dream of, that I just, as a 28-year-old person coming straight out of a doctoral program, it’s like, I don’t have what they have, so acknowledging that there’s wisdom in the room is just, it’s been so central to me. I just gave you two examples, my kids and my doctoral students but it is just a thing. So every time I lead a workshop, there is space in all of my workshops for participants to teach me. Anytime I wanna call or whatever, I’m like listening, tryna pick up new phrases as I’ve done in this podcast. [AD: Ha ha ha] Right, I’m just like, always trying to be a student of the world.
One other thing that came off the top, right as soon as you started, talking, Atasi around this issue, is that young people are experts on their own lives. I mentioned it earlier but I should say very explicitly that’s something that I picked up as a graduate student that has been with me throughout my short career. They’re also other things that stick with me, that we should be focused on humanization. That education is a process of humanization and at any moment that we realize that we are dehumanizing folks, we’re not doing our jobs, right. That love should be the cornerstone of everything that we do. That if you are not joyful in your work, then you should go pursue something else, immediately. [AD: Mhmm] That justice really is achievable.
You know, that we can wake up each day with hope, quite frankly, if I did not wake up each day with hope, I couldn’t be on the phone with you right now. I would be laid up in bed, curled up, depressed, unable to move forward to do the things that I know need to be done because of course, this issue is so huge. It can be so overwhelming but what I tell folks often times when I’m in talks and workshops, etc, is it’s true that you can’t do everything, but everybody can do something. Ha ha, so if you just choose your lane, you figure out what your thing is, what’s the thing that really gets under your skin?
We haven’t talked about it a whole lot, but you know, my primary writing is around this notion of the school to prison pipeline. You know, that there are concrete ways in which young people are ushered, nurtured, supported, on a trajectory, from schools to jails and prisons. And I could not do work if I didn’t say, there is a space where I can jump in. Maybe it really bugs me that special education services, which could be a wonderful, beautiful set of services and resources for folk who need them, have often time turned into a dumping ground for Black and brown children. We utilize special education as a way to get people out of our faces when they’re driving us nuts. We use it to punish people whose behavior we don’t like. So, if I’m a special education coordinator, I’m a special education director, if I’m a superintendent who focuses on the special education services in my district, if I’m a special education teacher, if I’m a parent whose child is receiving special education services, if I’m a student who’s been identified as someone who needs them, really, I can jump in at this issue and say, that’s the thing that I’m gonna put my energy toward.
I can’t do everything, but I can do something and I’m gonna be an advocate for better understanding and doing something about the misuse, the abuse of this particular issue and how it’s exacerbates particularly, for young people of color, um, inclusion in this trajectory. So, lots of things come to mind but they’re all I think things that were generated in me when I was a young buck and I’m just trying to figure out in all these different contexts and every single year, with every new talk, and with every new beautiful people like you two, who I’ve met along the way in my journey, how I can crystallize those in new ways and in ways that are authentically mine.
LS: Thank you! Ha ha, I feel like every time you speak, we’re just looking at each other like, wow!
All: Ha ha ha.
AD: Furiously taking notes, like, oh my gosh.
CTL: Thanks folks, I appreciate you.
LS: We could probably talk to you for hours and hours and hours but, ha ha ha. In order to respect your time, we don’t have any more questions for you, but do you have any final thoughts that you wanna share?
CTL: I wanna share all love to you for this space that you’ve created. I think it’s a beautiful thing. There’s so many different ways that we can come at people and that we can offer these ideas to folks and podcasts particularly led by two people who are generative, who offer good questions, who listen well, who just have good spirits I think is just such a smart strategy. So all love to you for creating the space. [LS: Aw, thank you.] Yeah yeah yeah.
Also, I wrote a whole piece around the school to prison pipeline in particular so maybe folks might be interested in checking that out. It’s called Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School to Prison Pipeline. Um, folks tend to resonate with the book, partly because it is um, it’s really an essay. It’s a long form essay and it’s intended to bounce back and forth across time, it layers people’s different perspectives, my brother himself, who as I said before is incarcerated in Illinois Department of Correction, um, family members, educators, - it’s very much a book that is written in an accessible way. In a way that folks tend to see themselves in, so I would definitely drop that as a gem that maybe some folks might be interested in checking out.
And then I’m also in the social world, Crystal T. Laura, so if you’d like to connect with me, that’s also my email. So CrystalTLaura@gmail.com, and real talk, I’m like authentically interested in connecting with people who are somehow impacted by the issues that we’re discussing right now. So if that is you, I’m not one of those academics who like, whatever, so and so emailed me, moving on with my life. Um, it is, you know, I’m happy to connect and grow my community as I said, so, reach out if you need me.
AD: Amazing, thank you so much. Um, you just mentioned the book, or an essay, I feel like, you said long form essay, that you published. [CTL: Yep.] Are there other recommended readings, you mentioned a couple in, through the podcast and well, we’d like to list them for our listeners, on our website. [CTL: Oh great.] Are there any um, maybe, other things that have popped up that you’re like, oh people should read this, or?
CTL: Yeah, yeah, no doubt. In the abolition world, definitely read Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. I think it came out, shoot, I don’t know, 20-30 years ago, but it’s one of those classics that I think, you know, really absolute terms, no uncertain terms, explains on the material side what we’re talking about when we’re saying we wanna move away from prisons and really rethink how resources are distributed. Um, of course The New Jim Crow [by Michelle Alexander]. Most folks know about that but you know, some folks don’t. So, if you don’t, be sure to pick, pick The New Jim Crow up as well. From an educational standpoint, my friend and comrade and mentor, Bill Ayers write so many books around rethinking teaching, so you know, he doesn’t consider himself an educational philosopher, but I do. And I think he has so many interesting books called, one is called To Teach. There’s another one that’s called To Teach but it’s like kind of a comic, or a graphic novel, if you will, as we again think about different modes of interaction and different modes of sharing the ideas. But so many others that may be of interest to folks. I would definitely check out The New Jim Crow, Are Prisons Obsolete?, my book, Being Bad, and basically anything written by Bill Ayers. Ha ha ha. Would be a good look.
AD: Great. Thanks for those recommendations. We’ll make sure we post them up for listeners.
AD: Thank you for being on our show.
LS: Yes, ha ha ha.
CTL: Thank you ladies, I appreciate you! And will listen in and all that good stuff. Let me know how I can support you.
AD: I will.
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LS: We hope you enjoyed that interview, this next segment of the podcast, we’re going to delve into some music – specifically the music that Dr. Crystal T. Laura mentioned at the beginning.
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AD: You just heard from the artist Onra, their first track called ‘Introduction’ from the Chinoiseries Part I. Which was released in 2007. LaToya, when you heard that, what connections did it make for you or what did it remind you of? What came up?
LS: Well, first I was not expecting what I heard. [AD: Hmm] I think when I think of yoga music, there usually aren’t drums and it’s not generally upbeat, but I don’t know if that’s a reflection on in the US, who has stereotypically gotten to practice yoga and run yoga studios. And how they have bought what yoga should be for people. But I appreciated, I mean, I like music with drums and that move me and so I’m just trying to put myself in a position of what would it look like to practice yoga when you do have that, that beat and that rythym flowing through you while you’re trying to get your practice on.
AD: Yeah, I think, also for myself, I was surprised to, A. Be moved by the, the music itself, it’s just kindof like this really great backdrop to so many different activities. But, to know that so many people are linking it or using it in their practice, yoga practice itself. I guess, largely it makes me think more broadly of what people do to persist in times of resistance and in their activities that whatever they may be, to make life better for each other and for ourselves. So, what are those practices. How do we engage in it, what’s some of the soundtracks? Yeah, that’s what it made me think of.
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AD: Hey, so thanks for listening, check us out in two weeks when a new episode drops.
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Laura, C. T. (2014). Being bad: My baby brother and the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers College Press.
Ayers, W., Laura, C., & Ayers, R. (2018). You Can't Fire the Bad Ones!: And 18 Other Myths about Teachers, Teacher Unions, and Public Education. Beacon Press.
Gustavson, L. (2007). Youth learning on their own terms: Creative practices and classroom teaching. Routledge.
Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete?. Seven Stories Press.
Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.
Crystal T. Laura : https://www.tcpress.com/crystal-t.-laura
Django Paris: https://education.uw.edu/people/dparis
bell hooks: http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com/
Kay Fujiyoshi : https://uei.uchicago.edu/about/staff/kay-fujiyoshi