Justin A. Coles
For as long as he can remember, words have been Justin A. Coles's passion.
Growing up in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, Coles’s family placed a high value on literacy. His mother was an English language arts teacher and his father was always reading a book, Coles recalled. The family’s home had a veritable library in the basement, with books representing a diverse range of cultures, but particularly the family’s own Black culture. As a child, Coles wrote poetry and plays; he competed annually in the NAACP’s ACT-SO oratory competition.
In his teenage years, Coles became keenly aware of disparities in educational experiences. He visited his mother’s classroom in an under-resourced Philadelphia school and saw "a world of difference” in the experiences of students there compared to his own suburban school, only 15 minutes away. As he traveled around to other area schools for sports, marching band, and academic competitions, he saw inequality in everything from the curricula offered in schools to the degree of wear on marching band uniforms worn by students.
“Such disparities can be demoralizing and dehumanizing” for students who lack opportunity, Coles said.
These early experiences inspired Coles to pursue a career studying education and social justice. He earned a BA from Brown University and an MSEd from the University of Pennsylvania. After learning about the murder of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 and contemplating the violence experienced by Black youth, he decided to specialize in anti-Blackness. Coles went on to earn a PhD from Michigan State University in curriculum instruction and teacher education with a concentration in urban education.
Today, Coles is an associate professor of social justice education in the UMass Amherst College of Education, and serves as director of arts, culture, and political engagements at the UMass Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research.
In his research, Coles studies how society—and, in particular, schools—position Black people and Blackness as inferior. He collects the stories of Black youth in high schools across U.S. urban centers to document their school experiences and how they make sense of anti-Blackness. Core to his research are Black literacies and youth empowerment, which he describes as “all the ways we communicate our realities to the world: speaking, writing, listening, movement, and expression. Any way I can get youth to process and document their experiences.”
Through this work, Coles hopes to gain an understanding of “how young people are living through and beyond anti-Blackness,” he explained. “I use this knowledge to help educators think about how to create more equitable schools, which are more attentive to students’ needs.”
A groundbreaking scholar in his field, Coles has published over 30 articles in just the past five years in journals including the Journal of Teacher Education, Urban Education, The Journal of Negro Education, and The High School Journal, among others, and his work is highly cited. In 2023, Coles was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Collegium of Scholars at Morehouse College in recognition of promoting "the work of peace through moral cosmopolitan social responsibility.” Coles is also a William T. Grant Theories of Blackness, Indigeneity, and Racialization in Research to Reduce Inequality in the Lives of Young People Writing Fellow. In conjunction with this award, he contributed an article in the volume, Conceptualizations of Blackness in Educational Research, published by Routledge in December 2023.
How do I create a record of the beauty and brilliance of Black youth life and ability, so that no one can deny their existence?
In 2022 and 2023, Coles was also a semifinalist for the NAED/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, one of the most competitive and highly sought-after postdoctoral fellowships in the field of education. At UMass, he serves as an ADVANCE Faculty Fellow and a STRIDE Faculty Fellow.
Coles was awarded a grant from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Research Foundation for his study, Black World Aesthetics: Storying Portraitures of Black Youth Cultural Expressivities as Method/ology for Black Worldmaking and Educational Futurity, which is being carried out during the 2023–24 academic year. In this study, Coles is engaging six youth in cities across the country in making art around their experiences being Black and navigating the U.S. educational landscape. The resulting art will be shared online, on social media, and on other channels not typical for academic research.
“I will use findings from this project to think about Blackness broadly in the U.S. and how to build counter systems to the anti-Black violence that youth may experience in schools,” said Coles.
Coles is also co-leading, with PI Conra Gist of the University of Houston, a Student Experience Research Network (SERN) grant, Agenda-Setting for Systems Transformation: Applying Lessons Learned from the Handbook of Research on Teachers of Color and Indigenous Teachers in Policy and Practice. In this project, the researchers are hosting policy convenings in major cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota, and California to explore strategies and policies to increase representation of teachers of color, working in partnership with local teachers, parents, youth, and other community members.
Coles also serves as co-organizer on the ongoing Demystifying Language Project, which began during the 2022–23 academic year, with support from a $20,000 national grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Together with PI Ayala Fader of Fordham University and a team of scholars at Fordham and UMass, including UMass anthropologist Lynette Arnold, Coles is working with groups of high school students and college interns to dissect notoriously dense linguistic anthropology scholarship and rewrite it to be accessible to high school students and educators. They’re even creating TikTok videos to convey the article’s key messages to youth.
“We know that power is held in language, and that language is a primary tool of oppression when certain people are left out,” said Coles. “This project is trying to develop a more aware future citizenry by helping students decode the power that is present in language.”
In his role at the UMass Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research, Coles organizes events and programming to raise awareness on campus and beyond about the power of art as a tool to counter social injustice. In February 2024, with support from the UMass Amherst Office of Equity and Inclusion, the center is hosting a Black Arts and Activism Conference. Coles and his graduate research team are also working to develop a partnership with a community organization in Springfield on a project to create an archive of stories from local Black youth. “What does it mean to exist in this time and space in the U.S. as a Black youth?” said Coles, describing the project’s goals. “We’re trying to think about how to uplift the voices of these youth that otherwise would be overlooked.”
Over the long run, Coles aspires with his research to a simple but vital goal: “How do I create a record of the beauty and brilliance of Black youth life and ability, so that no one can deny their existence? I want to archive the ways Black youth and Black people have always lived robust and dynamic lives, in spite of oppression, and have stories that are worth telling and being heard for the success and sustainability of our entire world.”
Many of us move through the world accepting things as they are, yet through research, said Coles, “You have to step out of the world to document and process how things are, and ask, ‘What is actually happening here? How do we change things and make them better?’”
“I've always been super curious, and I find it so beautiful to dissect society because it is so complex,” he said. “Even as I’m studying painful things, we wouldn’t be able to see possibility if we didn’t confront the painful narrative of our existence. The most rewarding thing about research is sharing knowledge with other people to create a better world.”