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Striving for Freedom through Anti-racist Education

Diversity and inclusion officer David Humphrey reflects on his role in creating an anti-racist praxis at the SOE

David Humphrey, dressed in a brown suit with houndstooth-patterned undershirt and holding a microphone, speaks to a group of students
Dr. David L. Humphrey Jr.

Dr. David Humphrey is a reflective person. As the SOE’s first-ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, he explains that his experiences “walking through the world in his Black body” make him aware of racial dynamics in ways that some others do not feel. He notes, “like W. E. B. Du Bois, in his acclaimed work, The Souls of Black Folk, I navigate this world with a feeling of ‘two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’

“Living in this country [the U.S.],” Humphrey continues, “and working in historically white academic spaces that constantly send me messages that it was not made with me in mind—that I am not the norm—is sobering and traumatic. It is hard to hear folx talk about what I call the conflicting ideas of American democracy. In one way, being told the U.S. is a land of opportunity while at the same time being told that because I am Black I have to be smarter, stronger, and better to get the job. But as I thought about it more, I realized this conflict was ingrained within the spirit and memory of this country. Black folx have always held a paradoxical relationship with U.S. ideals of democracy. This country was built on Black bodies and continues to need Black labor to sustain itself. This has never changed. We have never deeply examined the white supremacist, capitalist, sexist skeletons in our country’s closet.

“For reasons like these, anti-racist work is critical for the field of education.”

The sentiment that anti-racist work is critical for the field of education is also evident in Dean Elizabeth Moje’s recent messages to the community in the SOE’s Year Four DEI Plan as well. The SOE, in Humphrey’s words, plans to continue to work to create culturally sustaining curricular and co-curricular opportunities and disrupt the white supremacist hegemonic imagination. This includes working to diversify the SOE’s staff, faculty, and student composition and center indigenous and anti-racist research and scholarship.

In a message that Moje sent to the SOE community about the school’s critical role in combating racism, she wrote: “We must act! We must engage in the collective struggle for human progress and freedom. Until all are free, no one will be free. Let's come together and work to build a better society for current and future generations.”

“We cannot change the harmful realities of our society until we center culturally sustaining pedagogies and teaching practices in our learning environments,” says Humphrey. “Our students need to possess the tools to engage difference; to facilitate and engage in difficult dialogues with folx who come from different positionalities than them. If we do not create spaces where our students—many of them who have grown up and had schooling in homogenous spaces—are prepared to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, they will simply leave the SOE and re-create the same homogenous bubbles they came here with in their own classrooms. As one of my mentors once said, ‘Your level of exposure determines your level of awareness, and your level of awareness determines your level of expectation.’ I am not in the business of consciousness raising, nor should we be as the SOE. We must be in the business of increasing our students’ expectations—as well as ours—of the endless possibilities of what it means to truly be free, ‘to be more human,’ in the words of Latin American liberationist thinker Paulo Freire. The more we center the realities of our students, the more we disrupt the pervasive influence of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism, and the more we position ourselves as teacher-students, and our students as student-teachers, the more we will set our students and ourselves free. This is imperative and essential to the soul of our society, the building of a more humane and just world. This is our job as educators—the most important job on earth. And there is no way around this; there is no neutrality. Either our teaching is liberating or it is oppressive; there is no in-between.”

Humphrey extends this work as part of his role in the SOE. He believes that if we are not all free, then nobody is free, and that education is an act of liberation. He and the school’s dije (Diversity, Inclusion, Justice, and Equity) co-lead Maren Oberman do this work in collaboration with SOE students, faculty, and staff.

“In the past few weeks, we also have launched a series of meetings and workshops to advance anti-racist and decolonizing visions of education,” Humphrey says. “These will also include spaces for White colleagues to learn how to be anti-racist actors and co-conspirators in the fight for racial justice and freedom. We invite all people who may benefit from such work.”

The sessions will center healing, contemplative work, breathing, and breaks—which Humphrey says is an honor to our humanity. “Breathing is an act of resistance itself,” says Humphrey, “we work in spaces that privilege competition and production—automaton-like behaviors; doing and not being. So encouraging folx to stop and breathe is a way in which we help folx reclaim their humanity. Teachers are not robots, they are human beings.”

One such workshop was called “From complicity to co-conspiracy: a professional learning community.” It is a group composed only of SOE staff, which started meeting twice a month in the winter. Two major goals for this group were: (1) to develop a deeper sense of self and empathy toward others and use that disposition to reimagine and pursue an anti-hegemonic praxis; and (2) to understand how their work (approaches, content, and context) has the potential to disrupt and/or reproduce patterns of injustice in the SOE. Humphrey explained that staff are becoming aware of the ways in which they can either reproduce or disrupt hegemony across campus. Leaders of these sessions also included staff members Alyssa Brandon, Darin Stockdill, Leea Allerding, Katherine Taylor, and Meri Tenney-Muirhead.

The SOE has recently formed an Anti-racism Task Force led by Humphrey and Oberman. Launching this task force is one important step in helping the SOE develop clear definitions and a clear and concise framework for what it looks like to be anti-racist in the SOE. The task force will recommend to the SOE leadership team a framework for building anti-racist praxis in the SOE.

In addition, the leadership team and dije co-leads are working to address specific concerns raised by the Black students at the SOE. “We look forward to engaging with the larger community about a plan for strategic action we can take together,” Humphrey says. “I know from queries and notes of support that many students are willing to work on this effort, and I am eager to engage with the SOE community in the process of strategic, systemic, and sustainable change for our school.”

This is, ultimately, Humphrey’s goal: “I aim to work with colleagues in the SOE and beyond to create an ethos where people are compelled by a vision of justice and liberation. Where we all see that our humanity is inextricably link to the educational endeavor. And engaging with difference—both in ourselves and others—provide each of us with an opportunity to be more fully human. In the words of womanist foremother Katie Geneva Cannon, ‘this is the work our souls must have.’”

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