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Our podcast today features Dr. Connie Wun, the founder and director of Transformative Research: An Institute for Social Transformation and AAPI Women Lead. Connie is an educator, activist, and researcher whose work centers on race and gender equity, community-centered research, women's empowerment, school discipline and punishment, and anti-Blackness in education.
Connie and I talk about school and its relation to the carceral network, or how school is intertwined in producing delinquency, inequity, and power structures in the United States. Our discussion talks not only about the issues facing US schools, but how we can utilize the "winds of change" of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the COVID crisis, to revolutionize the education system to best serve Students of Color and marginalized students.
Briefly, to provide some context to the carceral network and schools - we're referring to not only the "school to prison pipeline", but the commonplace day-to-day discrimination that Students of Color face, including but not limited to a white-centric curriculum, dress codes, the tardy system, and racial stereotyping/discrimination (for example, sending a student out of class for "laughing too loud" or "chewing gum", which effectively hurts a students' education as well as simply their humanity.)
Dr. Connie Wun provides an incredibly clear overview to the carceral state and continuum between schooling and carceral pedagogies.
Dr. Connie Wun, researcher, speaker, and educator, and founder/director of Transformative Research: An Institute for Social Transformation and co-founder/director of AAPI Women Lead.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Susan Michelle Harrison, Dustin Rideout, and Trent M. Kirkpatrick. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to episode 73 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Our podcast today features Dr. Connie Wun, the founder and director of Transformative Research and Institute for Social Transformation, and AAPI Women Lead. Connie is an educator, activist, and researcher whose work centers on race and gender equity, community-centered research, women's empowerment, school discipline and punishment, and anti-blackness in education. Connie and I talk about school and its relation to the carceral network, or how school is intertwined in producing delinquency, inequity, and power structures in the United States. Our discussion talks not only about the issues facing U.S. schools, but how we can utilize the winds of change of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the COVID crisis, to revolutionize the education system to best serve students of color and marginalized students. Briefly, to provide some context of the carceral network in schools, we're referring not only to the school-to-prison pipeline, but the commonplace day-to-day discrimination that students of color face, including but not limited to a white-centric curriculum, dress codes, the tardy system, and racial stereotype and discrimination. For example, sending a student out of class for quote-unquote laughing too loud or chewing gum, which effectively hurts a student's education as well as simply their humanity. So much of your research is focused on black feminism, how the institution of school negatively impacts young women of color, and in all these continued events that we see going on right now, the murder of yet another black individual, there's protests going on throughout the country, we see schools taking that first step of at least acknowledging racism in the United States. They have like website statements and things of that nature. This is obviously a very small first step, but it is opening that door to perhaps more deeper systemic change in the education system. Before we jump into what those changes could be, would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself and the research that you're focused on and what your current role is?
Connie Wun: Sure. So thank you for inviting me to come and talk with you. I am one of the co-founders of AAPI Women Lead, which is an organization that amplifies the issues of violence that impact of identified Asian Pacific Islander women and girls. And we also talk about or amplify the leadership of our community members as well. I'm also a consultant and the founding director for transformative research, where I go around the country and I train organizations how to do community-driven research, data analysis, and host campaigns based upon their community-led research.
CM: I came across your work when I was reading, I believe it was a study out of your PhD. A lot of that work stemmed out of looking at particularly young black women in school. Could you talk a little bit about how that research has led you to where you are right now? I think it's important to note that what I did was I studied school discipline, punishment, and violence through an intersectional framework.
CW: So I wasn't studying black girls, I was studying schools and their disciplinary practices. And that's what led me to the findings that the folks who are most impacted are black girls. It's important to distinguish that, right? That work is ongoing. It's actually been going on before my dissertation, before any of my publications, which I actually have a piece coming out on truth.org in a couple of days. That work has led me to go and make sure that I talk about the intersections of violence across communities. It's led me to do the work of looking at how anti-Asian violence and our contingent freedoms and privileges are based upon anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity. For our organization, I think about our community members, both Asian and Pacific Islanders, as colonial subjects. And what does that mean to be colonial subjects of racialized forms of violence in an anti-black world and an anti-indigenous one?
CM: Yes. So let's dive into maybe some concrete examples for teachers listening in. I know one huge one is definitely the colonized curriculum and what students see day-to-day within that curriculum, but you also have dissected things beyond suspensions and beyond expulsions. Many people are familiar with the term school-to-prison pipeline, but it's obviously a lot more deep than that. And there's a lot of microaggressions or small things that happen every day that add up into a much bigger picture of systemic racism. Could you dive into some of those concrete examples? Yeah. So let me contextualize some things that I'm going to give you examples, right? So I want us to think about there are differences between being anti-racist and also being against anti-blackness. As educators, we are doing a couple of things. We have been consciously or unconsciously, but definitely formally, we're tasked to teach a particular pedagogy and curriculum that ushers in a very specific multicultural white form of nationalism. We see it in our history books. We see it in our political science books. We see it in our English classes. We see it all across our disciplines and subject matters that there is a specific culture and narrative we're ushering in, and it's very multicultural white nationalists. Very rarely are we learning about black liberation movements. Very rarely do we learn about the depth and breadth of an anti-black chattel slavery condition, let alone its history. Very rarely do we talk about the breadth and depth of the anti-indigenous genocidal project that still exists today. That's not a part of our curriculum. In history, poli sci, English classes, that's not what we're teaching. Very rarely do we talk about the United States colonial projects beyond the United States. We don't talk about the breadth of the war in Vietnam, what happened in Laos, what happened in Cambodia, or the Philippines, or Guam, or Hawaii, or Samoa. We don't know these histories. Even when we say the US history or United States, we may talk about Hawaii, but we're not talking about Hawaii as an occupied territory by which native Hawaiians will vehemently remind you. We don't talk about US states, we don't talk about its territories. Those are occupied lands that's not in our history, political science, in any of our courses for the most part. So that's what I mean when I say that we have a particular set of values that we're teaching and a particular recollection of this country. So then that's a part of the informal ways that we produce white supremacy. And now we have an increasingly diverse population that we're teaching it to. And a lot of these like multicultural populations, they don't remember their histories. They don't remember how they got here, but we're continuously teaching them how to be good citizens. We're teaching them, you know, how to be really good at STEM without a context by which they're supposed to be really good scientists and mathematicians to continue ushering in this project without context. So those are kind of a day-to-day informal practices of multicultural white nationalist project, right? So then when we talk about discipline, the other hand, right, we have the soft ways of disciplining and then we also have these more stringent rigid ways of disciplining and punishing young people. So people talk about the school to prison pipeline, as you referenced, there are many of us who talk about it, schools and prisons as a continuum. And we talk about them as a school to prison continuum under a carceral state by which while everyone is subject to surveillance and policing, there are certain populations that are being targeted for premature death and or enclosure or political and social debilitation. So that happens through the punitive projects or the punitive policies of suspensions and expulsions where we see that most of the young people impacted have been Black, Latinx and Indigenous. So then, you know, we started kind of contending against, you know, these punitive practices like how dare we suspend these kids? How dare we expel them? How dare we bring in the police to arrest them and punish them, right? That's definite. Yes, stop it. We've also failed to look at the kind of normalized forms of policing that many of us are implicated in doing. That looks like in my research when I was and I continue to do this research in my research, I'll find students will tell me they would have gotten in trouble for chewing gum. They would have gotten in trouble and sent out of class. They may have gotten a referral and or they just get sent out of class to stand outside for an hour. That doesn't get documented. Or a student, you know, will come to school late and predominantly Black youth, Black girls will talk about coming to school late because they're actually taking care of their siblings at home because they're living under conditions by which they're under resourced. So they have to be the second parent. They come to school late. They ask for support from their teachers and their teachers are asymptotic. That's a form of policing, disciplining. And then they end up getting tardy referrals instead of some compassion. So then we also have incidences of, you know, students will actually intuitively know that their teacher is racist. And I think the way that we've been taught, we've kind of dismissed our young people's intuition under the pretense that it needs to be logical, like demonstrate to me that that teacher is racist versus young people saying, well, they're not talking to me and they're not looking at me. I can actually tell that they don't like me. We don't, you know, lend any credence to that young person's feeling of being ostracized in the classroom. Right. As a type of disciplining. In my research, the young people will say, you know, I had a young person say that teacher doesn't like Black kids, but they don't get a referral for it. They're just like, they don't they don't talk to me. They they just don't help me. Right. That's not documented as suspension or expulsion or, you know, one of my AP students that I interviewed gave an example of how she did an assignment in one of her classes. At the end of class, the teacher pulls her aside and said, this is not your this is not your writing. My student, a Black girl, was like, what are you talking about? The teacher says this is an Asian girl's handwriting. None of that was was documented as a suspension or expulsion. Instead, she sends the student to the principal's office with her assignment and the principal has that girl in real time start writing to compare whether or not that was her writing. These forms of disciplining and policing and punishment are not documented. It's an everyday ritual that the young kids experience. And so that that that student that I was talking to felt so marginalized, if not attacked in the classroom, she's literally shut down. She's not she isn't going to drop out of school. Right. She's going to stay in school. She's an AP student, but she feels tortured in the school. I'm giving you a handful of examples by which a lot of the young people I spoke to in my research talked about anti-Blackness as a part of the culture they were living in, beyond the referrals, suspensions and arrests. They're much more mundane and everyday than we are archiving.
CM: As you share those stories, I mean, it's sad. It makes me feel so bad that these students every day are being, in a way, forced to go to a place where they're not being accepted, where they don't see themselves, where there's not even a form of empowerment for them to share their voice, usually on a day to day basis. As you're diving into, first off, the curriculum side of things, it's sad that so many teachers have used the standards as they're written as a way to whitewash history, because it is possible to integrate more perspectives, even what would be seen as a more critical perspective to the United States and still teach the standards, because there's tons of resources like teaching tolerance and zen ed project and all the different variety of materials that one could use. But it's not explicitly said you should use these materials. It's more of like a sadly an above and beyond type thing. In the same way, too, with like math and science, which are also incredibly white centric, where, for example, in math, people are not recognizing anywhere from like southeast and southwest Asia and like the roots of the golden age of mathematics and all these different things. Then building into the point about discipline, I wonder with the wave of the Black Lives Matter protests, with what's going on in the news, do you see any systemic reform or anyone actually looking at how this movement could impact how teachers and schools see discipline within the classroom and how they deal with systemic racism?
CW: So I was on a panel for Partnership LA, which is a group here in California. I bring them up because we asked the question about the relationship between education and racial justice. And I referenced an organization called Teachers for Social Justice, which is a national organization working for social justice. There's a group called Education for Liberation. So there are people who are doing this work to make schools more accountable to students of color. And then there are there's curriculum on Black Lives Matter in schools. I know that Teaching for Tolerance, I know they have curriculum as well. I also know that there's a huge movement for police free schools that I think has to be emphasized in terms of changing the tide of discipline and punishment in the schools. Police free schools. That is in tandem with the defund police movement, the abolish police movement that's taking place right now. And that's being led by organizations like Movement for Black Lives, organizations like Black Visions Collective, who led what's going on in Minnesota. These Black led organizations have drawn upon decades of organizing in order to hold schools accountable by asking them or demanding for them to remove police from schools to redistribute those funds towards restorative justice, transformative justice in the schools. There's a huge movement around that. Now what I am going to say is that I would love for us to use this moment to make schools if we do it correctly. We are schools and an educational system that centers racial justice and demands an end to anti-blackness. If we do it correctly, it's not infusing anti-racist curriculum into the schools. We make the schools racial justice centered. The entire educational system would be working to upend anti-blackness, to upend colonial projects. What would it look like if all of our curriculum and practices were working to end anti-blackness, were working to end colonization? Not just to infuse it, but those become our practices. What if it was our curriculum and our practices were to end white supremacy, not to infuse anti-white supremacist pedagogy, but that those were our standards? How would the lessons in the curriculum be working to end these things? Abolitionists including myself, we've been police prison abolitionists for decades. What we're asking for is not only the end of these things, but to create an entirely different world where we get to rely on each other. We get to take care of each other. We get to center our young people's livelihoods and not just try to get them through the next day, which I know as a former school teacher, most of our days kind of feel like that.
CM: When it comes to that systemic change, I think of things, I don't understand why they're such a big deal, but I know that schools take them so seriously and they disproportionately target people of color, for example, like dress codes or how tardy policies are handled. Then I also think about things like grades and ranking and filing students and making standardized testing overtly competitive and using standardized testing as an admissions calculation at all when it's based on literal racist IQ testing. All these different things that have sadly rich histories of white imperialism. We know these things, but yet we continue to use them. As a teacher myself, I imagine that I'm listening into this conversation, it can feel very overwhelming because we're talking about dismantling a system in the United States that's been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. What recommendations would you have for a teacher on their own without any systemic support? What would they even do? Where would they start?
CW: So I think one is listening to your podcast would probably be helpful. I also think it's a couple of things. One is that everyone who isn't already doing the research and the work, you want to be able to study and genuinely understand the foundation of this country. You want to embody it as real knowledge first, like this is an anti-black, anti-indigenous colonial nation. Now once you do that, do the research, do the studying, tons of resources online, do your reading, do your research. The second step is it's a false dichotomy between standards and teaching a racial justice curriculum. It's a false dichotomy. You can still teach content that is racial justice based and in fact probably produce the standards faster if not better. If you had our young people reading the history of genocide here, I'm pretty sure they'd be like, oh man, that's crazy. Can I read some work? You know what I mean? That would entice me. You've had our young people reading some of these really exciting texts about resisting slavery, resisting colonization. I think it's maybe idealistic, but I'm sure our young people would be more inclined, would be excited to learn this kind of history, especially in this moment.
CM: I taught history for years and students always would say, whenever we were talking about, for example, like the Filipino American war or about even like the war in Syria, things that are going on right now, the class was consistently seen as like, wow, this is like the coolest class ever, even though it's hyper depressing and everything we talk about is so sad and morbid really, because sadly United States history is steeped in, there's very few points in United States history where you can go like, oh yeah, they were a good person. It's either a shade of gray or something nefarious is going on behind the scenes and you're like, oh, this is why we're at the way that we are today. But students get hyped up about that kind of thing. They discuss those things. They talk about those things, especially if you have basically the conversation that we're having right now with students talking about the school system and how it basically treats them because they're living that. In my opinion, it's really important that students understand the system that they're in so that they can then transform and lead some change and even things like protest and demand change from the inside.
CW: I love that, right? So I love that we're studying the history, we're teaching the history. So those are two steps, right? We study it, we teach it, infuse it in our curriculum. I think it's also you're saying that it inspires young people to be critical thinkers and to act upon that, right? So we change our curriculum to include more racial justice centered content. And then the other part to that, if your subject matter doesn't allow for that, you also diversify the content. I have a school teacher that I know and care about in my family who's a third, fourth grade teacher. And he's teaching Christopher Columbus, right, as he's been told he has to teach. And then he teaches his students like, so who were the originators of this country, right? Who originally are the stewards and the young people, the students will say the natives. So he teaches them like, here's what I'm supposed to teach you. I've taught it to you. Now here's another set of history. So I want you to compare and you tell us, you get to decide. You can also teach them other vantage points if you're not going to center it, right? Because you feel constricted, even though I think you have the freedom to change it, but nonetheless.
CM: I think that's a really good point too, which is I think many educators are afraid of this like top down administrative approach that if they go against the grain even slightly, that they're going to instantly be fired. And I think that you could make the argument that in most districts, teaching this way can be framed as just saying this is a more critical and more difficult approach to teaching and learning. As in it's more practical, it's centered around current events, it is deep in both context and literature, and it's reminiscent of what you would get in a college environment, hopefully, where you're getting more sides, where you're getting deeper context in books, et cetera. I hope you're enjoying our podcast so far. If you like what you hear and want to dive deeper into progressive education, I highly encourage you to visit us at humanrestorationproject.org. There you'll find a range of free materials, research, writings, and more to help transform schools towards human centered practices. Plus you'll find ways to support us through donations, a Patreon subscription, and merchandise. We appreciate your support. Now back to the podcast. Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project. Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. How about the other side of things as a teacher? So first part being curriculum, but then second part being the disciplinary stuff, how does a teacher push back against a systemic discipline system in which they are at least expected to abide by?
CW: I'm not sure that people, what it means to be expected to abide by it.
CM: Like for example, let's do like an easy one, like dress code. If you are not policing dress code in your room, you're going to get reprimanded for not doing so. Or if a student is being loud, like laughing loudly, and it disturbs someone in another classroom and they're not being assigned like a warning and you're just saying, hey, like, can you be a little bit quieter because they can't learn? Like you're just not being humane about it and to serve someone else, someone might say like, hey, like you should be disciplining, quote unquote them. All these like minor things that are kind of upheld by the school system, but sadly are written into handbooks.
CW: That's such a great question. And I'm going to say two things. I think they're just going to have to resist. You're going to have to do and be brave and bold enough to really be about what your students need. Right? For instance, if you're a young person, you know, I remember when I was teaching my students at some point I taught at a continuation school, which is an alternative school, right? Kids have discipline records. And I remember my students coming in and being loud or acting out. The two things I remember thinking is one, I wanted the context. So I learned my students, I learned about their lives. And it was then that I could understand one, maybe I'm being really sensitive around the volume. Maybe I'm the one, right? Maybe I'm potentially the problem. Like maybe I'm the disrespectful one versus all the thinking it's the young person that's being disrespectful. So I check myself and my own barometer around privilege or my own barometer around cultural sensitivity or whatever that means, my barometer. Then I also think, what's the content of my young person's lives? I would find out a lot of things, exposure to premature death, the amount of responsibilities they had to experience, the intergenerational trauma. All of that is to not pathologize the young person, but to really think about the systems that have made it very challenging for them to be, you know, so much more focused on the kind of curriculum that you want them to be focused on. And then I want you to think about potentially how oppressive the environment really is and how much when you were younger, did you really like school that much? Like, I really want us to be honest about that, right? For me, I have a PhD from Berkeley, which is like one of the top tier universities, but I have to admit to people, I genuinely hate school 100%. I do not like school from second grade past my doctorate. And I have had to go through so much therapy in order to get through it. I say that because sometimes we have to honor the fact that a lot of the young people feel like they're just clocking time. So how do you create a condition by which our young people are not feeling like this is just prison?
CM: I'm of the mindset that the best teachers are those that hated school. Deborah Meyer, like the famous progressive school advocate, said that she intentionally hired people that either didn't do well in school or admitted that they were apathetic. It sucks. But for the most part, especially if you are in like a high capacity, like 2000, 3000 person plus school where you're just treated like a number and everything's controlled from like when you can use the bathroom to what you learn about at every given moment of time, it's not a good experience. And many students are just waiting for 230, 330 to roll around so they can go do the things they want to do, which is sad because there's so much opportunity. On the other hand, if we were doing things right, I highly doubt the world would look like it does today where there are so many problems. And even though there's inklings of them getting better, the majority of people still aren't voting. You still have issues with racial insensitivity, especially in rural areas and suburban areas where educators are less prone potentially to talking about it, at least in my experience. There's a lot going on. I like that point that you made surrounding if teachers go out and read and they understand the deep dark history of the United States and their role in it within that system, that will allow them then to every single time that they're presented with the situation to really reflect on what exactly they're saying and doing and if they're upholding that system or if they're changing the status quo.
CW: I love that summary. That's a perfect summary. When you know what this nation state continues to do, especially under this context, all the violence that we're witnessing and you want to think about the deaths from COVID as a part of the violence, like who's dying? How did it come to be that people are dying with these health disparities and access to healthcare? What are you upholding? When you're teaching, what are you teaching and what are you teaching them for? Are you teaching them to reproduce what has caused us to live under this crisis? Are you teaching them to upend this crisis? Are you teaching them to end the crisis that we live under, to create a different world? Because a good colleague of mine, she's a psychologist, she goes by Dr. Jen, huge following on Instagram. Brilliant. What kind of future do you want to create? When people say this is how it's been for hundreds of years like you alluded, what do you want for hundreds years later? And this is the moment to decide upon that. Do you want this to continue? Because if this is what you want to do, then we know, be clear about it. Be clear about that.
CW: I feel like I talked to you for a very long time about this, but I also don't want to eat up too much of your time. So Connie, is there any other point that we haven't discussed yet that you really want to make sure that everyone hears? You know, I want people to be bold. This period speaks to how much change is overdue. By that, when you're talking about the police violence, the high rates of incarceration, the people dying, I think we have to be bold enough to create an entirely different world. Be bold enough to stand up against what it is we've known. Because lives are on the line and they have been. This country has been built upon so much violence, it cannot continue. And people have to be honest about that and be bold enough to put themselves on the line for change. I just want to say the second point is that people are attacking, you know, rightfully not attacking, but people are seeing the police as these agents of violence. But our educational system also makes all that violence possible. We're the other hand of it. So we have a role in the abolition of that violence.
CM: Yeah, that's a perfect final line if I ever heard one. And I'm with you. I love that idea of teaching as a revolutionary or teaching for protest, as a form of protest. To me, that's empowering. That's like what makes the job worth doing it. You're doing social good in the world. That's the whole reason why you sign up to do it. I don't understand why that wouldn't be appealing to someone because the opposing side would be, I go into school to teach algebra one. That's like, oh, cool. I just couldn't imagine that being inspiring, but I don't know. That's why people need to listen.
CW: I'm going to say something to you too, Chris. It's like, I want people to understand, like, you get to be that expansive and that creative to like create a different world. In a world that like is not founded upon racialized violence. Those people who want to uphold that, those are the people that are on the other side. We get to have a revolutionary movement to create something entirely different and be creative and excited about what it is that we do. Get to be excited. Get to say, I don't like what this is about. This sucks. Feel the freedom to say that. You know, and I think that's a part of the repression. People don't feel the freedom to be like, I don't like this. I want to do something different. And then know that the world is on your side now.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.