Please describe your current and/or previous roles that relate to your work for justice and equality.
I have always believed in education as a tool for racial justice and equity. Since graduating from Lafayette I have been a teacher in New York City in predominantly underserved neighborhoods. Most recently, I have expanded to co-found my own organization known as Roots to Revolution to teach adults the history of systemic oppression in America so they can be a part of the process of dismantling it. In 2007, I joined Teach for America and started teaching in the South Bronx at a public school. I’ve been teaching in New York City since then, most recently in Brooklyn. I’ve taught grades 5-12 in both global and U.S. history. Most recently I have been working with history teachers across four middle schools developing the history curriculum in grades 6-8 and providing professional development for them as educators. It was always my goal to have my students see themselves in the American story, so my focus has always been on teaching a historical narrative that is inclusive and helping my students build their skills as political activists in our society.
I recently co-founded an organization called Roots to Revolution where we teach any willing adult the history of systemic racism in America so they can use history as a tool to fight oppression. We launched this summer and have taught adults ranging in age from 22-72. As an educator, I’ve always believed that it is important that my students weren’t taught a whitewashed version of American history and most recently I have found that story shouldn’t stop at being told to just children; adults need that story too. I believe that if all of us understood the contributions of Black Indigenous People of Color to the nation in a more comprehensive way we could take the first step in healing past our racial trauma as a country. Understanding an inclusive story of our past is an important first step in dismantling racism in America. We need to understand how structural inequality has been created if we want to destroy it. In Roots to Revolution, we meet with our students once a week for 90 minutes on Zoom in a 7-week course. We provide them with readings to do in preparation for class and then at the end of each week they complete an action plan that helps them think about how to become an activist. We believe in building a strong sense of community in our courses so that students can become sustainable activists.
Outside of work I am involved in two major volunteer commitments. I work with an organization called Amplify Her in New York City as the co-director of the student chapters. In this role, I have worked with students across New York City high schools getting them involved in local political campaigns for women running for office. New York City schools are incredibly segregated so through this role my co-director and I have worked to bring together students from different parts of the city so they can develop strong relationships and also understand the differences amongst their communities. I am also a member of the junior board at the Women’s Prison Association (WPA) of New York City. This group works to rehabilitate women who have been accused of crimes instead of incarcerating them. The women prison population in the United States has increased by 837% in the last two decades and the majority of women who are incarcerated were victims of domestic abuse. I fundraise for the WPA because they focus on strategies that help women re-enter into society and avoid traumatizing incarceration.
What about your work brings you the most joy or gives you the most pride?
Teaching is an emotionally rewarding job. Teenagers are really fun people to work with. Being around kids all of the time is extremely joyful. I have had many fun little moments in the classroom, whether it be dressing up like historical figures and making the kids laugh or having them debate current events and watching them light up when they have the right answer. Daily work with children is exciting. Then there are the big moments in teaching that have made my career really special. I was able to take the entire junior class to go see Hamilton. I’ve gone on overnight trips with my students to Washington D.C. and New Orleans. I’ve watched my students be some of the first in their families to get into college. (Selfishly, I was very excited when one of my students accepted at Lafayette!) I was a confirmation sponsor for one of my students. One of the best parts about being in a profession that serves others and works for justice is you develop strong meaningful relationships that are so fulfilling. Being able to start my own organization and grow something from the ground up has been exhilarating. Roots to Revolution has challenged me to be a new kind of leader and I’ve gotten to exercise so many creative muscles navigating how to build community and effective learning through zoom. But the pandemic has also created a learning opportunity. Through this course we’ve connected individuals from 24 different states and four countries. Some of my students had never had a Black woman as a teacher before because the history profession is so dominated by white men and they are learning so much from my colleagues of color. This experience has taught me that in every type of adversity we can find opportunities for growth, love and connection.
What is your most meaningful moment or significant accomplishment as it relates to your work for justice and equality?
The hardest part about doing racial justice work is that the work is never done. I am not sure it will be done in my lifetime, so it’s extremely hard to pull out a moment that has been the most significant or feeling like I have accomplished my goal of ending educational inequity. I know it will be a lifelong journey that I work on everyday. It has been powerful though to hear from students as they get older and watch their life trajectory. I have a student who I taught my first year teaching and she was in 7th grade. She has since graduated from college and went onto get her Masters in Social work, she wants to go back to her community in the South Bronx and work in schools because she felt our teaching community really supported her. She’s the first in her family to go to college and I love hearing from students who are going on to do incredible work fighting for equity. Working with students on political organizing has been extremely rewarding. One of the issues with our political system is it is not designed for low income BIPOC people to get involved, it caters to wealthy white Americans. I have worked recently with my students in the last couple of years to get involved with volunteering on state assembly races and NYC council races. It has brought me a lot of joy to watch them share their stories with politicians about the needs of their communities and see them influence change. I hope that early exposure to the political system will keep them involved for a lifetime and hopefully inspire them to run for office someday. Even if they do not run, their voices are pushing for a more inclusive system.
What is the greatest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country. Witnessing the inequity that exists across racial lines in one of the wealthiest cities in the world is extremely painful because it simply doesn’t need to exist. We have the resources to fix it, they are just disproportionately in the hands of wealthy white New Yorkers. Every day requires strength to stare that inequity down and try to work within a broken system to provide stronger outcomes for kids. Every day feels like you are falling short, because until the system is dismantled and rebuilt to be equitable for all kids, what I can do as one individual will help but will never be enough. The structural problems in our society are bigger than just one person, that is why I believe so strongly in teaching others about systemic racism especially in education-we need a strong collective of people working on all of these issues. Racial justice work is about the collective.
On a personal level,I have also had to work hard at unlearning so many of the racial biases that I was taught. I have done a lot of work on myself internally so I can be a better advocate for the communities I serve. As a white woman, I have had to deeply reflect on how my identity was impacting my students and the ways I needed to change. The hardest and most beautiful part of doing justice work is it forces you to look inward and grow.
How do you empower those around you (as it relates to your particular role)? I truly believe that everyone has something different that they can offer in the fight for racial justice and for me, imparting knowledge to others is my gift. I work to help others find their gifts in advocacy work. I’ve taught people ranging in ages now from 10-72 about global and US history. The best part about teaching is the “aha” moment that you watch a person experience when they are uncovering something new. There is nothing more powerful than that moment, because once you have new knowledge no one can take it away from you. Once you know how to apply that knowledge to your circumstances, you can shake the world up. I get the most joy out of watching people empower themselves with new understandings. I love that I can be a small part of their journey by facilitating their growth in some capacity.
What short phrase would you offer others to inspire them to have hope and/or to take action?
We all have gifts and we can use whatever gift we have to fight for equity and justice. Doing anti-racist work is like physical exercise, you can’t do it once in awhile and expect to see results. It has to be consistent sustainable action that you make a part of your identity everyday for the rest of your life.
How has this summer’s civil unrest and calls for equity impacted you?
I started to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 when Eric Gardner was killed. His death shook me in a personal way because one of my students lived in his neighborhood and came to school one day completely rattled. It hit home for me because I realized how much police brutality was impacting people I loved and cared for in my community. Since then I have been an advocate for change outside of the classroom. I was excited to see a resurgence this summer of Black Lives Matter and more Americans joining the movement, I was also simultaneously frustrated that it took them so long to join.
Being a history teacher, when the Black men and women were murdered this summer, I found many people coming to me asking me to explain how the country had reached this point. They lacked context for how this moment was both uniquely situated but also rooted in the past. I had decided to teach a class to adults on the history of systemic racism and white supremacy in America, I thought that only a few people would sign up and created a google form online. I had an overwhelming response. In two days, 200 people had expressed interest. With two of my colleagues I started an organization called Roots to Revolution. We teach people how to use history as a tool to combat systemic racism. Through our course we not only teach the history of how Black Americans have shaped our country but we work with our students to help them find their role in activism. Each week students complete an action plan related to the course readings on how they can figure out the best way that they can support racial justice. We really believe in leading with love, community and compassion. We want our students to be vulnerable about how they need to grow and change in order to dismantle white supremacy in this country. We firmly believe that if everyone had been given the non white-washed version of history during their education we could move our country towards an equitable place.
How has your perspective changed since the time you were a Lafayette student?
When I was 22 and graduating, I thought I had to follow a specific path to make change. At the time I thought it was law school and becoming a politician because those are roles that society deems prestigious. While I still really admire people who do that work, I realized for me that work wasn’t going to bring me the most joy. I stopped listening to societal stereotypes around what it meant to be a secondary educator, many Americans don’t value the role of a teacher. In college I was a perfectionist and was concerned about prestige, now I care a lot more about being happy and making sure I am comfortable with how I show up in the world everyday. What hasn’t changed is I always cared about justice, I just have a much clearer understanding of what my role in the fight for justice is all about.