Improving K-12 Education

Education is Liberation. Liberation is Education.

“I never had my creativity stamped out of me.”

This is the quote that most resonated with me out of all of the comments Dr. Michelle Foster made during her keynote address at our January Consider This… event, an event with the goal of revisiting the Brown vs Board decision and assessing the impact of its legacy on Black teachers.

As Dr. Foster spoke about the fight to maintain her dignity throughout her career as an educator and a student, I reflected on my own struggle as a Black-Latino man working in the education system.

For the better part of six years, I worked in a local charter school network as a paraprofessional, a teacher, and a dean of students. I experienced what many Black and Brown educators experience in the workplace, including incessant emotional violence, being siloed, a torrent of micro-aggressions, and a deep sense of alienation (the latter is a bit of paradox as I was working in and serving a community full of people who looked like me and came from a similar cultural truth as me). What’s more, I didn’t feel my knowledge and cultural gifts were uplifted as valuable; instead, I found white men and white women constantly telling me what was best for children of color.

Simply put, that reality was a product of racism.

Racism is a school district that serves roughly 70% students of color but has only 30% teachers of color. Racism is the perception that capable and gifted Black and Brown teachers are unicorns. Racism is a situation where all of the major charter networks are founded and run by white men, with a couple being led by a white woman. And racism is the “achievement gap”, a perpetual rallying cry of reformers, but a gap that never shrinks, growing larger with each policy change.

Based on this reality, I must conclude that schools are designed to be mechanisms of racism, with the aim to fortify systematic oppression. Indeed, through my own experiences as a student and an education professional, as well as through my knowledge of the history of this country, I deduce that the main function of schools, in the context of our society, is to assimilate youth into white-dominant culture as well as to make communities of color dependent on white “saviors”.

In other words, the school system is built to stamp out of Black and Brown folks their creativity and culture, their power.

Aspects of a Liberatory Education

Any school system rooted in humanity is one that is liberatory in nature. I believe we, as educators of color, need to approach the work from a place of freedom, as a good friend of mine says. We need to make space where students, their parents, and the adults who work with them can grapple with the good work, the work that seeks to decolonize the self and dismantle racism.

First and foremost, a liberatory education cannot be prescribed onto a community. Authentic co-creation includes the people most impacted in the design process, not just as participants, but as the chief drivers. As an educator, I see students and their families as the experts of their own experiences. It’s vital that we, as educators, approach this work as learners just as much as teachers. Being a good listener is key. What you hear and learn from students and families should inform much of your program design.

Children cannot be what they don’t see. Black and Brown children should see themselves in their classroom teachers and school staffs. There should be examples of Black and Brown people living healthy, fulfilling lives all around students. That means having leaders and teachers who are people of color (and who are from the community they serve), who feel they can show up and show out fully. Naturally, Black and Brown folks set the highest expectations for their own children, so representation not only matters, it’s a requisite if your aim is to have students perform to their full potential.

If you’re a white educator and your goal is to lead a school for decades in a community not your own, then you’re a colonizer. A signifier of white supremacy is thinking you, as a white person, are so powerful that you can empower people of color. Because whiteness is normed as superior in our society, it’s white people who have the most work to do in the effort to decolonizing the self and dismantling their own biases and social privileges. One can only accomplish this through decades of struggle, study, and focus, not just by reading a few books or having a handful of “crucial” conversations. White educators who wish to serve Black and Brown communities should first make a habit to consciously – on a moment-to-moment basis – decenter their social privileges and seek the truth about history. In that history, the truthful account, racism is acknowledged as a constructed system that seeks to keep power and control in the hands of white people, while the history of Black and Brown peoples begins with stories of triumph and prosperity.

From this knowledge, whiteness can begin to appreciate the ruthlessness within its own privilege and respect the ability of others to decide and build the future through their own prerogative.

Other Qualities of a Liberatory Education

  • A liberatory education should cultivate in students the audacity to interrogate systems and the status quo;
  • A liberatory education recognizes and celebrates our differences;
  • A liberatory educator seeks to make themselves obsolete – the ultimate goal of the work is to build such a level of agency in students that they begin directing people, resources, and experiences in order to accomplish their vision and goals.

Media Production as a Liberatory Practice   

There’s a reason why we don’t see many of the aforementioned qualities in schools serving communities of color – the system will never create its own demise.

My aim is to disrupt the system by creating opportunities for youth to build spaces of belonging among each other, deeply explore themselves, and engage issues that impact their communities. One such effort came during Donnell-Kay’s Consider This… event, where the Youth Empowerment Broadcasting Organization (YEBO) – an organization I founded with community – partnered with four students from the Colorado Youth Congress (CYC) who attended and recorded the Donnell-Kay Consider This… event and then developed the accompanying podcast episode.

I believe the experience of creating this podcast was liberatory in various ways. First, the students drove the work and were the main contributors of the conversation, and the process shifted based on their needs and feedback. I also learned with the students; I had little experience in creating podcasts but felt the need to practice what I preach and take a risk to embark on a project outside of my comfort zone (remember, students can’t be what they don’t see).

Although none of the students identify as Black, they all recognized the value in having a Black educator and diversity in their teachers. Moreover, the students had an opportunity during this project to engage Black educators and listen to their stories. Recognizing and celebrating our differences can help to decenter our own biases and help us empathize with others.

The most fundamental goal of what we do at YEBO is supporting youth with surfacing and defining the power that’s already within them – discovering their unique voices. As you’ll hear, the students of this project not only surfaced their voices but they also used them to interrogate injustices and express what they felt were oppressive aspects within our society. Their thoughts are bold, sharp, and enlightening, and their conversations cover topics that are rarely explored in their school experiences.

Their product is a powerful declaration of what’s possible when students lead, and the adults follow.

There’s no stamping out this group’s creativity; there’s only their truth. And within that truth exist solutions to many of our world’s ills. Listen to this podcast and you’ll understand why YEBO encourages students to push their perspectives and wisdom into the world through media production, and why we believe every adult that works with youth has a responsibility to cultivate a learning environment that promotes authenticity and critical consciousness.

I think most people, especially educators and parents, can agree that self-worth and critical thinking should be at the foundation of education. The product of our efforts as educators should yield a healthy, happy, and determined youth, not a world where young people are told how to walk, talk, and think. That world, the world in which many schools exist, is not liberatory.

To accomplish the vision of a liberatory education, schools must stop stamping the creativity out of our youth. Instead, every opportunity and every adult put in front of a young person should encourage them to:

Plug in. Go live. Speak up.

*For more information about YEBO, please visit or @yebolab on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

YEBO Colorado Youth Congress Podcast

Reference List

Written by: Cory Montalvo

Cory Montalvo

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