This article comes from the January issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Education that is just, equitable and liberated.” Read more reflections online or subscribe to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
“Education either conditions the younger generation into acceptance of society’s status quo or becomes the practice of freedom through which people deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to transform their worlds.”
—Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997)
“Freire created a revolution in educational thinking by proposing that liberation and education were equivalent and mutual processes. In other words, education is necessary for the liberation of communities of oppressed people, and education and liberation are partnerships that must work together for the good of all communities.”
—Lora-Ellen McKinney in Christian Education in The African-American Church: A Guide for Teaching Truth
Growing up in Harlem, New York, as a young student of color, I found that education as liberation was an essential part of my foundation of learning. I was born into the lineage of the Harlem Renaissance, created in the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, produced in the path of righteous resistance through the passion of the Black Power movement and raised in the dawning of the black feminist and womanist theologians awakening that mothered my soul. Liberation and education were indeed partners, and I was molded and shaped by their intertwined ideology, philosophy and theology. Education as a “practice of freedom” became a normal part of my classroom experience, at least in my elementary years.
I was 3 years old when my parents enrolled me in nursery class at The Modern School, the first African-American elementary private school in New York City, located in Harlem. I was a student there until sixth grade. The school was founded in 1934 by principal Mildred L. Johnson, niece of James Weldon Johnson, co-creator of the National Negro Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (#579 in Hymnal: A Worship Book). During my formative years at The Modern School, I was exposed to black culture, history and scholarship. I learned about the nonviolent protests of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the radical writings of Malcolm X, W.E.B. Dubois and James Baldwin. Although I was taught the classics from European history and American literature, I was also taught the seminal works representing the humanities from the African diaspora.
My elementary school black educators believed they had a responsibility to help shape the foundation of what I believed about myself and society, to combat the challenge of “double consciousness” as described by W.E.B. Dubois in The Souls of Black Folk: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
The Modern School did not show pity for the students but set high expectations for growth and academic achievement. Through their teaching I was transformed into a critical thinker, a curious creator and an agent of change. I was educated to be liberated and become part of the ongoing efforts to liberate my community and beyond.
Education was a form of survival, resistance and liberating love passed down from teacher to student. bell hooks, in her revealing work, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, writes that “for black folks, teaching/educating was fundamentally political because it was rooted in antiracist struggle.” She says that at her all-black grade school she experienced learning as revolution: “We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind, was a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white racist colonization. Though they did not define or articulate these practices and theoretical terms, my teachers enacted a revolutionary pedagogy of resistance that was profoundly anti-colonial…my teachers were on a mission.”
I also found this revolutionary way of educating in my all-black elementary school in Harlem. My sixth-grade teacher, Dolores L. Williams, wanted us to remember that we came from African kings and queens. She taught us about Queen Sheba and Queen Nefertiti. She instilled in her students of color that we were brilliant beyond measure, more than capable and created to be courageous. Mrs. Williams would say, “Find the light within yourself and let that light liberate you.” Mrs. Williams was not just installing a particular curriculum into our minds; she was transferring power and transforming lives, the power to see ourselves as we really were and not as the world labeled us.
In that small classroom in Harlem I first learned about developing a community of truth and liberating love. A community that would not only cultivate my mind but ignite my spirit and lift my soul. Freedom was always connected to my spirituality, my freedom to choose my own path of learning and enlightenment. Not until my undergraduate years at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., did I feel that same sense of passion, truth and liberation in the classroom. EMU became a place where I could incorporate my Anabaptist values of social justice and peace with my sense of vocation, unique multicultural background and faith.
In To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker Palmer challenges our education system with a new model for “authentic teaching and learning.” He says “authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth—whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such spirituality does not dictate where we must go but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity and to embrace paradox.” Palmer remarks that “such a revisioning would result in a deeply ethical education, an education that would help students develop the capacity for connectedness that is the heart of an ethical life.” According to Palmer, “to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.”
As one of the few students of color at EMU from 1993-1997, especially from an urban African-American community, I needed to find a place I belonged, a place to grow. As noted by bell hooks, “the heart of education as a practice of freedom is to promote growth. It’s very much an act of love in that sense of love as something that promotes our spiritual and mental growth.”
I found that community of truth as an undergraduate social work major in the classroom of Titus Bender at EMU. Titus embodied and encouraged the intertwining of mind, heart and spirit. Although he was a white man from a conservative all-white community, he knew me because he knew the struggle of my people. Titus had served in Meridian, Miss., for 11 years in the 1960s. There he saw many injustices toward the African-American community. In the heat of the Civil Rights Movement and in the heart of Mississippi, Titus was transformed and liberated. His liberation was tied up with mine. Freire boldly says “revolutionary leaders cannot think about the people or for the people but only with the people.” Titus was with the people.
He was involved in the Freedom Summer of 1964, founded Pine Lake Fellowship Camp, the first integrated camp in the South, and in 1969 went to Tulane University in New Orleans to complete his Ph.D. in social work. Titus arrived at EMU to teach in 1973. Throughout his 22 years of service at EMU, he worked diligently to create a just, equitable and liberated educational system in the social work department and across the campus. My classroom experience with Titus was invigorating, engaging and empowering. I experienced this space as bell hooks describes it in Teaching to Transgress: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”
In Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change, Ira Shor reminds us that “people are naturally curious. They are born leaders. Education can either develop or stifle their inclination to ask why and to learn. Education can socialize students into critical thought or into dependence on authority…waiting to be told what to do and what things mean.”
According to Shor, “A curriculum designed to empower students must be transformative in nature and help students to develop the knowledge, skills and values needed to become social critics who can make reflective decisions and implement their decisions in effective personal, social, political and economic action.”
Titus William Bender passed away on Dec. 8, 2017. He was a beloved social work professor who helped bring to life my passion, curiosity and call for liberation as a social work student. As noted in his obituary, “Titus believed that every person has value, and his or her stories need to be heard. He practiced this belief by listening to and mentoring many students and community members over the years. Much of his work included fighting for the inclusion of marginalized people. He believed this was the central message of Jesus.”
In the fall of 2015, I returned to my alma mater to serve as assistant professor of social work. I was one of the few faculty members of color at EMU. On several occasions, I had the honor of meeting with Titus when he visited the campus. Each time he saw me, his face lit up and he voiced his affirmation of my journey as a student transformed into a teacher. He reminded me that I belonged and that my voice was needed.
On the foundation of Dolores L. Williams and Titus W. Bender, I strive to develop my voice and pedagogy of transformative teaching.
As I teach such classes as Exploring Social Work and Race and Gender, I feel a strong sense of mission to ensure students are empowered to utilize the social work values of self-determination, embrace the importance of human relationships and the dignity and worth of each person and embark on a journey of developing cultural competency. In my position as chairperson of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, it is my honor to advocate for the equality of all students and assist our campus in implementing effective ways to live out our strategic goal of diversity and Anabaptist values of social justice and peace.
I look forward to continuing this beautiful journey of learning and tap into new ways of seeing our diverse students, not just for what we can teach them but what they are longing to teach us. Together we can restore, empower and transform self and society into a community of truth, power and love.
Melody M. Pannell is assistant professor of social work at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.