In this video Wisdom Amouzou (Executive Director at Empower Community High School, Denver – see their video here) shares his experience and critique of the violence of the education system in the US. See below for an edited transcript of the interview. You can also see how as a teacher Wisdom created a liberatory classroom community with his students here

There was one student who explicitly said to me: ‘You know what, I understand I might keep getting in trouble I might keep getting in detention, but I will not let them break me’. When I hear students talking like that about schooling and education, I always have to ask myself what is it that we trying to do here when students feel like horses that need to be broken. What if that’s how they’re viewed? You know like animals needing to be tamed.

Wisdom Amouzou

Edited transcript:

I was born in Togo which is in West Africa. When I was about 9 years old my family moved to the United States, I found myself attending similar schools that my students currently attend, typically low-income schools and intensely segregated with Black, Latino and immigrant population. At that time, I didn’t have an understanding of the deep history of oppression in the United States and I didn’t have the means through which to articulate or critique that education. 

When we arrived my brothers and I were at least two grade levels ahead of our peers, so in that way my narrative is different. I couldn’t understand why most of my peers struggled with what I considered to be basic math problems, it seemed like they had internalized expectations that were foreign to me. I was taught that black men were kings before they were ever slaves, but at the time I didn’t have a deep understanding and I started to internalize the images of what it meant to be Black in America what it meant to be an immigrant in America what it meant to be poor in America. However, I had parents that infused a deep sense of vision in what education was going to mean for me.

I think I had some critical encounters, the most major one came in college when I first learned the words Social Construct and Hegemony. Hegemony is ‘ruling through consent’, it’s the way in which the dominant classes manufacture consent from the lower classes to the current structure. It offered to me a paradigm shift and I began to contextualize the violence I was subjugated to in the American public education system and the violence that my peers were subjugated to.

I think there is a great deal of violence to our consciousness to constantly see misfortune, to constantly see inequity in your community, to see a lack of hope, and yet never given the tools to either comprehend that pain or to address that pain, to heal that pain, to fix that pain. The words internalized oppression and internalized racism don’t really capture the full scope of that experience.

I think I was lucky in the sense that the first nine years of my life I was educated within a community of strong values, strong expectations and to me that’s what my authentic self is rooted in, an African sense of belonging, an African sense of community. I think I had that deep grounded-ness and for me the violence in the American public education system is the slow chipping away of that grounding, that rooting, and that’s what I found myself struggling to hold on to.

It makes me think of this quote, I think the quote goes ‘within Native American Indigenous culture lies all the philosophies and pedagogies to raise children that are incredibly educated and incredibly grounded’ yet when European Americans were colonizing the Native American’s they were sent to boarding schools that use harsh punitive, coercive methods. While it might seem distant to me it doesn’t to me. Sometimes I see schools that use a specific set of pedagogies to ‘get their kids to college’, and they’re directly tapping to the narrative of those oppressors and directly propagating those inequities

There was one student who explicitly said to me: ‘You know what, I understand I might keep getting in trouble I might keep getting in detention’ but I will not let them break me’. When I hear students talking like that about schooling and education, I always have to ask myself what is it that we trying to do here when students feel like horses that need to be broken. What if that’s how they’re viewed? You know like animals needing to be tamed.

What I see the current education reform world as propagating is what Duncan Andrade calls ‘hokey hope’ (fake hope), and to me is this lethal dope (drug) that I think most schools in the current (education reform) movement peddle. We tell students that if they can essentially shut up, walk in straight silent line and sit down in class, and listen long enough for us to see a return of our investment in May, when they take that standardized test, then they will achieve their dreams, they will find liberation for their community. To me it’s a hoax. It’s a misguided solution. It doesn’t take into account what it means to be systematically oppressed.

When I see a system that might produce great data but fundamentally disempowers my students a system in which my students will graduate as conformists instead of transformative, it’s very much undermining the work that we’re doing.

The problem is (the system) is currently being handled by those who don’t always have to deal with the suffering of the communities they’re serving. I want to envision a system in which the suffering of our communities is an integral part of whatever visioning and design process schools are going through. When you think of it in terms of human rights abuses and suffering…our design becomes more human centered. That’s all I want for education, for it to be human centered.

That’s all I want for education, for it to be human centered.

Watch how as a teacher Wisdom created a liberatory classroom community with his students here.

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