Envisioning Schools as Entry Points for Racial Equity

Vision driven justice for marginalized communities

Envisioning Schools as Entry Points for Racial Equity

Social Justice professor Jamila Lyiscott works to transform schools into institutions that truly foster equality.

Social Justice Assistant Professor Jamila Lyiscott

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.

Portrait of Assistant Professor of UMass Amherst Social Justice Education, Jamila Lyiscott

Her experiences significantly impacted how Lyiscott sees education and its impact on our communities. “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.” Now an Assistant Professor of Social Justice Education in the UMass Amherst College of Education, Lyiscott has dedicated her work to transforming schools from institutions grounded in white supremacy and Eurocentric ideals to institutions that truly foster equity.

Lyiscott came to UMass in the fall of 2017 after completing her doctorate at Columbia University in 2015. She has quickly become a preeminent voice in social justice education. In addition to her position at UMass, she is currently completing her tenure as a senior research fellow of Teachers College, Columbia University’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) and is beginning a Coyle Fellowship with the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Literacy Education. In 2019, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) gave her their “Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research” award, as well as their “Scholar-Activist and Community Advocacy” award.

Lyiscott’s research examines the relationships among language, race, and power and uses those intersections as an analytic tool for understanding educational inequity. She looks at the “linguistic and cultural diversity that exists organically in Black and Brown communities and how they exemplify some of the same competencies, skill sets, or powerful ways of knowing that are disregarded in school spaces in ways that contribute to racial inequity.”

In an approach she calls Liberation Literacies Pedagogy, Lyiscott works with both young people and educators to understand the myriad ways learners can absorb information and knowledge and communicate their mastery, as well as how teachers can confront and dismantle white privilege within and beyond the classroom. As she describes it, “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.”

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.”

Three video stills of Social Justice Education Assistant Professor Jamila Lyiscott performing
Jamila Lyiscott takes a selfie with students

Lyiscott started Cyphers for Justice at the suggestion of her advisor at Columbia, Ernest Morrell, modeled on the Council of Youth Research that he developed in California. As the program evolved, “we started to understand the power of not just teaching them the research process, but also giving them the opportunity to use their authentic voices, cultural practices, and linguistic diversity to engage in the research process and also to disseminate the product of it,” Lyiscott notes.

The youth in Cyphers for Justice undertake qualitative research within their schools and communities, studying social issues and injustices and articulating the kind of social change they want to see. They then share research, data, and analysis through hip hop, spoken work, and digital media, challenging traditional scholarly formats. 

In its six years, Lyiscott has seen Cyphers for Justice significantly change how the young people and teachers see their roles in education. “One of the things that we saw in terms of our mutual evolution was as adults, especially as scholars and educators, being able to truly value and center the perspectives and voices of those young people was a bit of a learning curve for us because we’re used to jumping in, to speaking up, to correcting,” she observes. “It was a learning curve for them as well, because they’re used to asking for permission and looking at adults to validate what they have to say or don’t say. So we 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.”

[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.”

UMass Amherst College of Education Assistant Professor Keisha Green

As part of this work, Lyiscott and College of Education Assistant Professor Keisha Green are in the process of launching a new entity in the college that they will co-direct: the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research (CRJ). Lyiscott and Green will focus on four areas in their efforts to center racial justice and youth voice across disciplines in the field of education: racial and educational justice; youth engaged research; language, literacy, and power; and critical teacher education.

Through the center, Lyiscott and Green have won a Fulbright Award to take a group of 11 sixth-through-twelfth-grade educators and two non-UMass colleagues to Ghana in July of 2020. The trip will give teachers opportunities to explore language, literacy, and culture in a broad global context and to challenge the ways that traditional ways of knowing, language, teaching, and learning shape their own curriculum.”

With the publication of Black Appetite. White Food. Lyiscott is able to reach a much wider audience and more widely disseminate the perspectives of Liberation Literacy Pedagogy. Grounded in her research, the text helps educators explore the nuanced manifestations of white privilege in and beyond the classroom and provides tools that teachers, school leaders, and professors can use for awareness, inspiration, and action around racial injustice and 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.

Jamila Lyiscott's book, Black Appetite. White Food.

This tool gives teachers a structure through which to approach conversations about triggering political issues or events that ignite across mainstream and social media. It serves as a “way for people to peel back the layers and think about not just what’s happening in the moment and what we’re seeing in the moment, but what intersecting systems of power are affecting what’s happening and how can we act against that.”

Although Lyiscott grapples with some of the most damaging aspects of our culture and history in her work, she approaches it in a way that is positive and empowering. Focusing through a lens of what she calls “vision driven justice,” she reframes racial inequity as not only as what we’re fighting against, but also what we’re fighting for. “I found that as a social justice practitioner, myself and many people who work alongside me become so entrenched in what we’re fighting against, that we really don’t have a clear picture of what we’re fighting for,” Lyiscott explains. “My concern with that is a lot of what we are fighting against are systems of power that are being sustained by people who are visualizing their success and who have these powerful practices of thinking about the kind of world that they’re trying to foster.” 

While still resisting the world these antagonists are trying to create, Lyiscott looks beyond this as well, crafting a vision of the social-justice-oriented, equitable world we want to see. Even further, she wants to move beyond the frustration and burnout that can accompany social justice work: “I’m really in a place now where I’m thinking about how do we nourish joy in this work while still holding systems accountable.”