Research News

GSE symposium explores MLK’s vision of just and equitable schools

Composition of screen capture from the GSE symposium and the promotional graphic that reads, "Creating the Beloved Community.".

Terri N. Watson (top), a UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholar, speaks with award-winning author Christopher Emdin during a session of “Creating the Beloved Community,” the Graduate School of Education's virtual symposium held March 15-16. It drew about 650 people, including about 200 UB students. Image: Amber Winter


Published April 5, 2021

“Our job is not to merely teach kindness and test-taking skills … Rather, we must practice love and provide all students with the skills that will enable them to reach their dreams. ”
Terri N. Watson, Distinguished Visiting Scholar
UB Center for Diversity Innovation

To help transform schools into spaces grounded in justice, equal opportunity and love, the Graduate School of Education hosted “Creating the Beloved Community,” a free, virtual symposium that was open to the public and drew about 650 people, including about 200 UB students.

It featured five authors, activists and educators from universities in New York, sharing insights about how to reshape the education system to be less punitive and more responsive to young people from all backgrounds and races.

The symposium was organized by Terri N. Watson, a UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholar and associate professor of educational leadership at the City College of New York. She organized and collaborated with GSE colleagues, theming the event around Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of the “beloved community” as one evolving when “a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.”

To that end, the two-day series of six webinar-style presentations, held March 15 and 16, was designed for faculty, staff, students and guests to explore new ideas for transforming schools into places where all children can thrive.

“Schools must be loving spaces for all children,” Watson said. “As educators, we are bound to act ‘in loco parentis,’ meaning ‘in place of the parents.’ As such, our job is not to merely teach kindness and test-taking skills … Rather, we must practice love and provide all students with the skills that will enable them to reach their dreams. I hope this symposium inspires us.”

The event, with details still posted for reference at the Creating the Beloved Community webpage, opened with a presentation by Christopher Emdin, the award-winning author of the books “Urban Science Education for the Hip-hop Generation” and “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too,” a New York Times bestseller.

He talked about the need for educators to understand the subtleties of race in the classroom. For example, Emdin explained how a white teacher may trigger reactions in Black students and the importance of self-reflection as a tool for becoming aware of the dynamic.

“As a white educator from suburban America, not only do I need to … figure out like, ‘Oh man, I may have some biases I need to address,’ I also have to understand there are some preconceptions that those young people have about suburbia, about whiteness, about how I may look like a police officer, or the social worker, or the judge,” Emdin said. “So, the beginning step is for the educator to understand … If I represent all these things that are richly enshrined in a tradition that has done violence to young folks, and I’m an extension of that, what can I do to intentionally depart from that? What do I do to show young folks that I recognize how they see me, and I’m actively working towards being better?”

The virtual gathering, with breakout sessions after each presentation for students to discuss what they heard, became a community of its own, said Watson. The meetings were a welcome break from the social isolation of the past year’s pandemic. “Students were happy to have a space to just talk … They still wanted to be part of something,” she said. “Faculty appreciated learning with students.”

For Watson, as a visitor to the UB community, it was particularly heartening to see the symposium become its own collective experience. “It was nice to come together to work on the beloved community with the community at UB… Putting this event together, that was community,” she said. “We formed a team.”

The five C's

Each speaker addressed one of the “five C’s,” themes Watson considers to be the keys to school transformation: care, courage, critical reflection, commitment and community.

Care: Emdin elaborated on ideas explored in his upcoming book, “Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success.” An associate professor of science education in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education.

Courage: The presentation “When Warriors Cry: Education, Integration and the Color of Love” by Cornell University Professor Noliwe Rooks highlighted the history of racism and segregation in American education and the inequities that followed the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. “Opportunity without equality will never lead to freedom,” said Rooks, who is a W.E.B. Du Bois Professor, director of the American Studies Program and professor of Africana studies at Cornell. A scholar on race, racism, inequality, education and gender, Rooks has written four books including her most recent, “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.”

Community: The session “Children Framing Childhoods: Working-Class Kids’ Vision of Care” explored the lives and relationships of students outside school with their photos in an analysis by Wendy Luttrell, professor of urban education, critical psychology and sociology, and executive officer of the Urban Education PhD Program at the City University of New York. Her research examines how urban schooling shapes beliefs about gender, race, class, identity, knowledge and power, with a focus on how students internalize systems of inequality.

Critical Reflection: Shannon R. Waite, clinical assistant professor of educational leadership at Fordham University, discussed racist norms in schools in her talk, “Disrupting Dysconciousness: Confronting Anti-Blackness in Education.” She researches diversity recruitment, culturally responsive school leadership and hyper-segregation and its connection to the school-to-prison pipeline. “If I don't interrupt the pathology of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and racism, who will?” said Waite, who is also a member of the Panel for Educational Policy for New York City’s Department of Education.

Commitment: David C. Kirkland spoke about the intersection of COVID-19 and racial injustice in his presentation, “Committing to Justice: Advancing Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education in the Midst of Pandemics.” Kirkland is a Distinguished Professor of Urban Education and vice dean for the Office of Equity, Belonging and Community Action at New York University, and executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “How can we commit to listening more in order to transform educational environments?” Kirkland asked the audience. “How can we commit to partnerships? … Partnering with those who are most implicated by the decisions that we will make for them?”

In a final panel discussion, GSE students shared their perspectives about the symposium. A first-year master’s student said he was particularly inspired. As he listened during the two days of talks, he decided to learn more about the speakers and their research and writing. “I think the good thing was being able to meet these scholars who are doing this work,” he said. “I was unaware of many of these folks.”

For GSE Dean Suzanne Rosenblith, the symposium exemplified the importance of community as a tool for change and transformation.

“Coming together as an academic community to listen, learn and exchange ideas around equity, diversity, justice and inclusion is critical,” she said, “if we are to realize just and inclusive schools for all children.”