Open Letter to Historically Marginalized Educators and Co-Conspirators: Be the Revolutionary Educators your Community Needs.
Rama Ndiaye and Nayoung Weaver
“We believe that many international educators are already having conversations and taking action on these important issues. We also believe that far too few people are doing just these things. Waiting is a privilege that educators of color do not have. We are hopeful that the tide is turning, and urge that our eyes be fixed on international educator equity.”
– Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color, International Educator Equity Statement, 2019 http://aieloc.org/international-educator-equity-statement/
Be a revolutionary educator.
“Trust is contingent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true, concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with their actions. To say one thing and do another—to take one’s own word lightly—cannot inspire trust. To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce; to discourse on humanism and to negate people is a lie.” – Paulo Freire (1970)
In his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (1970) states that education must be a revolutionary process within which revolutionary leadership is practiced. Revolutionary leadership stems from a culture of “co-intentional education,” (p. 69) wherein all members of an institution have a collective awareness of the reality within which they live and critically understand and discover that reality as a community. Once that reality is acknowledged, members have an opportunity to co-construct understanding and use that knowledge as a tool for societal transformation. This process, however, must be embodied within a culture Freire calls “humanizing pedagogy,”(p. 56) a culture of dialogue where generosity, vulnerability, trust, and cooperation are fostered in lieu of inequities and individualism.
The qualitative data and anecdotes from our AIELOC community show that many international schools are still not genuinely (or financially) invested in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) work. Community-wide change seems to have been summarized into a checklist completion task, which keeps the inequities and individualistic culture in place.
For change to genuinely and meaningfully happen in the international school ecosystem, historically marginalized educators must become the hopeful revolutionary educators. We must recognize the leadership skills in ourselves that stem from our lived experience surviving a capitalistic, white supremacist world. We have witnessed many schools fluctuate from individual and overt racism to systemic and covert racism (Gardner-Mctaggart, 2020). In order to survive a system that was not created for the global majority, many of us found ways to develop self-reflection skills, collaborative skills, relationship skills, adaptability, vulnerability, and shame resilience. Since we have acquired these attributes through our lived experiences, many of us have an (almost) “automatic understanding of oppression” and thus, capable of fostering – with the help of our antiracist communities – our own ability to lead the teaching of “criticality” (Muhammad, 2020) towards change and liberation (Gardner-Mctaggart, 2020).
As marginalized educators, our first step towards revolutionary leadership is to acquire a revolutionary consciousness (Freire, 1970) to dismantle the western-centric, Anglophone-centric, and colonialist legacies of our educational environments. Deeply understanding our roles, our disadvantages, and our privileges – in systems filled with inequities and harmful hierarchies – is one of the most influential ways we can affect community-wide change as revolutionary educators.
Additionally, revolutionary educators must foster authentic dialogue among every single member of the school community to ensure that cooperation becomes the lynchpin of the institution. For this kind of culture to become liberating, revolutionary educators must strive for a relationship among all to be “human[e], empathetic, loving, communicative and humble” (Freire, 1970, p.171). Revolutionary educators must also be committed to creating a non-restrictive and more open-minded school culture where they actively question the status quo and inspire other educators/stakeholders to see, unveil and denounce various forms of what Freire coined the “dehumanizing aggression” (Freire, 1970, p. 88) that consistently takes place in the international school ecosystem.
International schools could benefit immensely from revolutionary educators whose values are entrenched in humanized pedagogy and the democratization of schools. Such a systemic shift would empower students and their families and also provide a space for the silenced to be centered, rather than manipulated into the oblivion of oppression.
Advocate for racism as a child protection issue.
“There is such adulation of the Western world across the Global South; international schools need a conspicuous number of Western teachers to be deemed desirable by the local elite. Parents dream of sending their children to Ivy League schools, to Oxford and Cambridge. They want their kids to internalise Whiteness as a standard. The denigration of our own cultures has been going on for so long, and enforces the narrative of Western superiority.”
-Xoài David, an international school alumnus (2020)
As international educators of color, we have witnessed the systemic inequities within the classroom and the institution at large. These inequities (economical, racial, or otherwise) stem from colonial remnants and further create widely accepted hierarchies within international schools. From our experience, and based on the experiences of many of our AIELOC members, these inequities/hierarchies end up becoming harmful to all members of the international school community. Keeping international schools the way they are – as a colonizer’s tool to systematically elevate and render superior the culture of the dominant minority – will continue to produce generations of traumatized students.
The Council of International Schools (CIS) clearly states on its International Taskforce on Child protection mandate that, “The International Taskforce on Child Protection (ITFCP) was formed in 2014, after its members recognized that in order to affect any real change, organizations needed to work together and not in isolation, to set new standards and raise awareness about abuse within international school communities”. We are beyond awareness when it comes to global and institutionalized racism. This phenomenon is a child protection issue because the legacies of its implementation continue to dehumanize students as they internalize the oppression they observe around them.
Historically marginalized educators and co-conspirators must implement an antiracist curriculum that can empower students to understand the reality within which they live and provide them the tools to navigate, name, understand, and co-construct knowledge around the power structures that surround them. Students bear the right to acquire an education for liberation and therefore should be provided the space to freely speak about the context within which they reside.
We are observing a clear trend of international school leaders trying to adapt to the global multicultural paradigm shifts by wasting energy on learning to use antiracist education as a tool for domination. This confirms that “they are not interested in the liberation of marginalized people [but rather] (t)hey are [solely] interested in the development of white people” (Perreras, 2021). They utilize Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) work as a new way to dominate the voiceless, diversify the elite and disempower learners from fully understanding and expressing their consciousness. DEIJ, at its core, should be perceived as a “quest for mutual humanization” (Freire, 1970, p. 75) and thus used as an instrument to build the path to liberation.
As historically marginalized educators, we enter the antiracist space with personal and often traumatic experiences. Our lenses and abilities start from the margins, and we work our way to expand the “norms” of each space we inhabit. As a result of our culturally expansive lens, we are capable of embracing a wider array of identities that often foster empathy. So when schools actively decenter students and tacitly endorse the status quo in the international school ecosystem – to personally benefit from its capitalist nature – our antiracist lens sees right through the performance. As committed educators, we see “education as the practice of freedom [rather than a tool] that merely strives to reinforce domination” (hooks, 1994 p. 5). For these reasons, we see it as an affront to human dignity – and thus take it very personally – when we witness learners and other community members being harmed by the inequities, the abusive hierarchies, and the racism taking place in the international school ecosystem.
Current revolutionary educators have prepared and shared a plethora of resources in the past few years, for committed people who are in different parts of the “DEIJ journey.” A few of the systems that we believe should be urgently implemented are: local school/college counselors in place and/or training for foreign counselors; a safe and brave space for students to discuss DEIJ freely; and an anonymous microaggression/bias reporting tool that will be utilized to help support the person who reported the incident and actively help the perpetrator through restorative justice.
We live in an era when leaders can no longer make excuses to slow down the work for personal gain or hide behind the lack of a legal international system that should hold them accountable for their actions. Instead, we want to welcome courageous educators to be vulnerable and open-minded enough to share their struggle around shifting the cultural paradigm. The privileged educators who authentically embrace this need for change – to benefit learners – will also be the ones willing to create space in their community where people can voice their fears and freely talk about the liberatory work they are doing and why. This culture of permissiveness (Freire, 1970) – where all members of the community feel self-actualized – is another lynchpin that can effect positive, community-wide change.
Accountability is your superpower.
“Those arguing that education should be neutral are really arguing for a version of education in which nobody is accountable.” – Henry Giroux (2019)
Revolutionary educators always hold themselves accountable. It is fundamental for educators to reflect and be deeply aware of how they engage in the transformation of their schools. First, there should be a permanent culture of dialogue (Freire, 1970) where every single member of the community is perceived as a stakeholder, thus engendering a more democratic organization. By choosing to approach this work from a place of obliviousness, and without an inquiry-based framework, educators continue to perpetuate the cycle of racism.
To gauge how DEIJ initiatives are meaningfully impacting their schools, educators should think about the following:
- What differences are we seeing in student learning and action? Often, an environment that implements authentic DEIJ work should see a difference in the way students advocate for their existence, the existence of others, and their learning. The curricula in both the elementary and the secondary school should prioritize “identity” (the ability to understand who we truly are at the core) and “criticality” (the desire to transform our societal condition for liberation for all). As Gholdy Muhammad (2020) argues in her groundbreaking book Cultivating Genius:
When we further consider these four pursuits [skills, knowledge, identity and criticality] we know that we are cultivating children’s quality of life in their post K-12 experiences. When I think of the greatest leaders of our time, they hold identity (or a strong sense of self and others), plus skills, intellect, and criticality. On the other hand, the greatest oppressors of the world lack criticality and knowledge of self and others (p. 61)
- How valued and connected is the local community? In many international schools, most local staff do not feel as valued as their expat counterparts, nor do they feel connected to the community. This circumstance engenders a hierarchy that is perceived and clear to many community members and often internalized by students who in turn emulate the accepted cultural hierarchy. In his piece, Washing the World of Whiteness: International Schools’ Policy, Gardner-Mctaggart (2020) explains:
The distinct and privileged position of whiteness [as a power structure] in the world can easily be viewed as being integral to the domination of a particular group, with ongoing, pervasive and neo-colonial overtones. For the ‘dominated’, this is experienced in education as an emotionally draining, never-ending struggle (p. 4).
For example, how are co-teachers, or what the international school culture calls “Teaching Assistants”, thriving as educators or being supported? The “cultural power of whiteness” that Gardner-Mctaggart (2020) describes resonates even more profoundly in the international schools located in the Global South where, often, the “Teaching Assistants” are educators of color. The hierarchy is even more striking, obvious and harmful in elementary classrooms where teachers spend the majority of the day with students.
Revolutionary educators should be aware of these hierarchies forming within their institutions and actively denounce and dismantle the tradition. Such practices not only hinder the opportunity for authentic progressive education but also perpetuate structural oppression. Revolutionary educators understand that the local community is integral to the school. Members of that community bring a cultural capital not often understood (and seldom embraced) by foreign hires but that is highly beneficial to students. To effect community-wide change, leaders should evaluate educators based on the educators’ expertise and commitment to education, rather than merely and solely base the teachers’ perceived efficacy on the acquisition of “western credentials”. Leaders should ask through a humane and critical lens: How is curiosity fostered in this classroom? How are critical thinking and inquiry implemented? How does the commitment to social justice manifest within the curriculum?
Revolutionary educators understand that the local community is essential in providing the other half of a holistically, internationally-minded curriculum. Such a commitment is also an opportunity to educate and to demonstrate to prospective and current families that the school is a justice-oriented organization where learners are at the center of the curriculum.
- Does your school truly understand the meaning of being internationally-minded? A way to ensure the community’s understanding of a global citizen is for educators to co-construct that understanding with the members who serve different roles in the institutions. International schools place western culture, whiteness, and the English language at the top of the hierarchy. Equating western culture and westerners as internationally-minded merely for teaching in a foreign country is leading schools to conform to the theory of cultural hegemony where the dominant culture maintains power in hierarchical societies:
[Antonio Gramsci characterizes cultural hegemony as] the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group. This consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) that the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.[…] (R)uling groups impose a direction on social life; subordinates are manipulatively persuaded to board the “dominant fundamental” express. (Lears, 1985, p. 568)
Revolutionary educators understand that in order for a school to reach the status of an internationally-minded community, this intercultural value must be embedded in the curriculum, and thus explored by students. International-mindedness must also be clearly situated and genuinely felt within the school culture by all stakeholders.
As a (future or current) revolutionary educator, what will you do to ensure that transparency and accountability become an intrinsic part of your values? How will you guarantee that all community members feel humanized, seen and valued? How will you fight for students’ right to discover themselves and be provided the adequate tools to understand their reality so that they do not simply feed into the cycle of oppression?
At AIELOC, the norms of all of our Community Visioning meetings are to stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept non-closure. We listen to our students, families, parents, alumni, and teachers. The most influential way of effecting community-wide change within international schools is to engage in challenging and uncomfortable conversations. All educators need to be committed to their own learning and not rely on colleagues to bring forth summarized realizations of antiracism. Every educator needs to become an active, transformational member of their communities. Silence and neutrality are not options when it comes to racism and discrimination. Culturally sustainable pedagogy means that all are seen, heard, valued, and feel truly connected. This does not mean “all identities matter” – it means acknowledging the systemic inequities and specifically (and genuinely) listening to the global majority and those who have been historically marginalized.
At our association, we vet our educators and continuously hold them accountable. There are plenty of AIELOC BIPOC educators who are doing the work daily and willing to give out consultation advice. Their wisdom will keep the antiracist work moving forward. Leaders should actively listen and amplify these voices.
The interest convergence of DEIJ and future generations of identity-centered awareness is impossible to stop. Becoming a revolutionary educator who holds a humanistic understanding of education is one of the many ways to begin creating a more just world. Join us in the struggle for social justice, join an antiracist organization, but most importantly be active and be reflective. Meaningful change can happen. We simply must have the courage to work as a collective and in solidarity in order to transform the world into a more justice-oriented place.
Kevin Simpson is the founder of AIELOC and KDSL Global, a leading learning organization focused on empowering educators and education businesses globally.
Nayoung Weaver is an AIELOC Fellow. She has worked as a College Counselor and Secondary School Math teacher at international schools in Asia.
Rama Ndiaye is an AIELOC Fellow and has been teaching in the international school ecosystem for the past few years.
To learn more about AIELOC, visit www.aieloc.org.
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