Envisioning Schools as Entry Points for Racial Equity
As a teenager growing up in the Crown Heights Caribbean-American community in Brooklyn, Dr. Jamila Lyiscott took part in community youth organizations like Urban World NYC and the Brotherhood/Sister Sol where she saw young people of color thriving. They were showcasing their ideas and talents not only with their peers, but also presenting them on Broadway, at the Apollo Theater, and on HBO. At the same time, she saw many friends failing in their high schools. “There was a disconnect for me around the kind of brilliance school just wasn’t tapping into,” she recalls.
I started to see education as a powerful entry point for racial equity—in particular, for centering and celebrating the power of marginalized communities that are often disregarded because of the way institutions frame success.
As much as possible, my work is about disrupting the white supremacist norms and standards that continue to marginalize other communities and ways of knowing in schools.
Lyiscott’s message has found a broad, receptive audience. She is in great demand as a speaker and spoken word artist, known for her Ted.com video “3 Ways to Speak English” and her commissioned TED Talk, “2053” in response to the 2017 presidential inauguration. In May of 2019, Routledge published her book Black Appetite. White Food., which is already in its second printing.
Much of Lyiscott’s work with young people has been through Cyphers for Justice, a youth participatory action research (YPAR) organization that she founded and co-directs. Cyphers for Justice apprentices inner-city youth, incarcerated youth, and pre-service educators as critical social researchers. These researcher/activists “flip the script about who gets to produce knowledge for the academy and who gets to questions what policies and practices occur in their schools and communities.”
[W]e watched them grow in confidence and in the power of their voices because they were being heard in ways that they’re not heard in any other part of their lives.
Over time, Lyiscott notes, the impact has been even more profound. “They start to ask deeper questions about the world around them, and when they present their work and when they think about the implications of their research, particularly for schools, they become really emboldened around what they want to demand of their teachers and their schools.”
When working with teachers in K-12, universities, and community organizations, Lyiscott helps them identify and dismantle the residue of white supremacy in their classrooms. This includes reflecting, in Lyiscott’s words, “on their position and complicity in the systems of power that we’re trying to dismantle,” and preparing them “for engaging with young people in those liberatory ways so that they’re not becoming complicit or remaining complicit in perpetuating that inequity.”
One tool that Lyiscott introduces in Black Appetite. White Food. is what she calls a Fugitive Action Framework. This draws on the “Four ‘I’s of Oppression, as developed by several grassroots youth organization, which “give you a way to see any particular situation through the lens of what’s happening systemically as well as individually,” Lyiscott explains. On the systemic side, these are the ideologies and institutions that shape the situation. On the individual side, this is the impact of the situation interpersonally and internally.