To whom can the title, educator, call home? How is it defined and fully embodied? Questions like these underlie my life’s hope of honoring legacies and possibilities for Black, intergenerational wisdom and healing.
In mid-October, a graduate school fellowship brought me back to New Orleans, Louisiana. My first time going was in July 2019. That time around, I ate good (yep, the grammar is intentional), visited Studio Be, went on a swamp tour, sweatily wandered around the French Quarter, and loved the mess out of Frenchman’s Street. For my recent trip, though, my focus was divided between participating in the Imagining America: Rituals of Renewal & Repair conference, bonding with my crew from school, and getting to know locals in unexpected ways.
Considerable time has passed since I was in N’Awlins, but it’s not too late to uplift some people I was fortunate to meet. To say “thank you” to them (for their presence, hospitality, and knowledge), I’m spreading the word about their love for themselves and their communities:
TWO Black Women of Bayou ROAD
I met Dr. Robin Vander and Mama Vera during a visit to the historic Bayou Road. In an era of ruthless gentrification, the street resounds with unapologetic Black ownership and agency.
A professor at Xavier University and mentee of Mama Vera, Dr. Vander is committed to Bayou Road’s André Cailloux Center for Performing Arts & Cultural Justice. Named after a formerly enslaved Black man and Union army leader, this space is a platform for emerging Black playwrights and artists. Its high-ceiling front room resembles a church sanctuary where the community can rest, see each other, and celebrate. The center also has a mobile black box theater for rehearsals and shows.
Dr. Vander reflected, “A lot of times, culture bearers do not profit while others come in and appropriate. This center will be an ecosystem and hub for arts, culture, and sustainability.”
I was curious about how Dr. Vander navigates working in academia while aiming to be for the people and the community, above all. This part of her journey isn’t without tension. Yet, she seeks grounding in her work at the André Cailloux Center and learning from lifelong teachers. As an educator, she refuses to have her students settle intellectually, artistically, and in practices of justice.
Candice Langston, one of two millennial organizers in the room, talked with us about coming from the low-country of South Carolina. She never grew up thinking her schools were lacking.
“Our resources were ourselves.”
Currently working in New Orleans, she is enlivened by “collective trouble and liberation,” true Black youth led spaces, and correlated pedagogy.
I got to thinking about how part of liberation is having the courage to hope, imagine, and work for it in communities of trust. While on Bayou Road, I felt grateful to be a part of dialogic and physical spaces that were alive and audacious.
Next door to André Cailloux is Mama Vera’s Community Book Center, which launched 39 years ago. As a substitute teacher, Mama Vera lamented the lack of books amplifying Black youth and culture. Before getting a storefront, she sold books out of her car and parents’ house. While coming up in the Lower Ninth Ward, “community schools” were customary. She told us how kids would walk to school together and pass by Black women owned businesses. Everyone who was a part of the local school ecosystem had roots in the community.
After Hurricane Katrina, the state capitalized on a deficit-laden mythology they were already pushing about public schools. The “Recovery School District” came in and converted historically rich sites of learning into charter-run experiments.
“I want you all to imagine a school district for a metro city like New Orleans being 100% charter.”
“Imagine how the babies feel.”
In an ironically classroom-like setting, Mama Vera challenged us to consider the generational impact of the state takeover. Teachers, mostly Black women, lost their jobs and political participation attached to homeownership and school board representation. In deed, they were told that they were unqualified to educate Black children. Unless attending private schools, families became profit generators, whose trajectories remain at the whim of a lottery system. It is common to see billboard advertisements for charters and have siblings inconveniently divided between multiple prison-like schools. Parents, too, are treated as less than and blamed for their students’ academic challenges as if systemic theft of Black opportunity doesn’t exist.
Yet, as always with Black folk, injustice doesn’t have the last say.
“Education is not just about the dreaming or imagining, but the daring. It’s knowing the questions to ask. We need genuine educators who are paying attention. Education is the one thing that can’t be taken away from us,” said Mama Vera.
I’ll be thinking about Mama Vera for a long time. She was firm, straight up, and about that life when it comes to Black children.
“If a book could be written about your legacy, what would you want it to say?” I asked her.
“If I could help somebody…” she responded.
In New Orleans, Black people continue to preserve, create, educate, and dare for more. Mama Vera uses “storytelling for reclamation and change,” which was the theme of our session together. After Katrina, “If she had it, the whole neighborhood had it.” People could come to the book center to use the telephone, fax documents, or any other resources available.
Beyond generating literary access, the Community Book Center is an all-knowing hub. When I walked inside, I inwardly smiled at who I assumed to be a father reading with his children. I scanned the bulletin board announcing events and initiatives flourishing across the city. With the purchase of a few books, I received a handout explaining the mission of the center and how to stay connected.
I didn’t want to leave Bayou Street, so I stayed while the rest of my group returned to the conference. Within a 15-minute time span, I met a Black cartoonist and a younger guy who has his own community organization. Before I left, Mama Vera offered to be my compass and pointed me to nearby businesses. I bought a fruit bowl from Froot Orleans, where the adolescent Black girl working the register told me, “You are so pretty.”
word is bond: TWO Black Women Loving Black youth in speech & action
Through spoken word, Patrice Hill and Denisha “Coco Blossom” Bland introduced themselves to us. Their workshop was all about “Cultural Revival: Using Spoken Word as a Ritual of Repair and Resistance.” These Black women co-lead Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) in their hometown.
They maximize support from the University of California-Davis, declaring, “The university has an obligation to invest in the community.”
SAYS abides by the fifth element of hip hop: knowledge of self. Their pedagogy is all about supporting youth with understanding, loving, authoring, and expressing themselves in school, life, and society. This way of being, teaching, and knowing drives their five programs, which include Project HEAL (healing, education, artivism, and literacy) and the Sacramento Youth Poet Laureate Program.
Going by Mama and Auntie, Patrice and Denisha make it their mission to show up. Happening five days per week, their credit elective classes center art, truth, spoken word, and poetry practice. They hype up their young people off-hours at parties, proms, games, and other occasions. Without apology, they stay on school and university administrators about delivering resources. The students also bond through off-campus trips to colleges, art festivals, and conferences. This year, Alexandra Huynh (a SAYS alumus) is the National Youth Poet Laureate, succeeding Amanda Gorman.
“Young people challenge us to bring our best self forward. This is more than a class. This is really God’s work,” they shared with us.
To sustain relationships and the program overall, they practice integrity, self-care, expanding their team when possible, and strategizing for the future. So far, soft-funding from UC-Davis, arts commissions foundations, and grants have helped them to do worthy work. Sometimes, though, the funding isn’t always enough. Still, they won’t violate the essence of SAYS to acquire dollars.
“We’re not willing to compromise who we are to take funding.”
It was major for me to hear that. A lot of my upbringing and early career is connected to nonprofit youth programs. As an adult, it was full circle for me to be able to return to Detroit and grow alongside Black youth. I grew attuned, however, to the cost of relying on funding structures that keep inequities in place.
We, the attendees, weren’t just inspired by their work and let off easy. They gave us the prompt, “I am not who you think I am.” For five minutes, we picked up a pen without letting it go. We, then, looked at each other in a circle and told each other who we call ourselves.
Here’s a piece of what I wrote:
I am a testament that more than one thing can be true at once. I yield authenticity. I yield trembles that tumble out the soft trumpet of my throat into words spoken by faith. I smile at myself in the mirror. I sing praise songs in the shower and Al Green in the car. I cook up soul in community. My soles touch soil where I sow and we sow and you sow because we believe that one day, we’ll harvest. We believe we are each other’s harvest.
who educates ‘we’?
New Orleans reaffirmed that school ain’t the only place to practice education, if it even does.
An educator can be the family griot, neighborhood journalist, book center owner, graphic novelist, youth leader, community organizer, cultural muralist, schoolteacher, preacher, dancer, archivist, parent, child, grandmother, great uncle, lyricist, or poet laureate. It can be the Black security guard I met on the rooftop of the NOPSI hotel, who recently returned to New Orleans after leaving post-Katrina. As we stood on elevated concrete in the Central Business District, he pointed out the ghosts of people and companies that fled the city soon after the storm passed.
“You see right there? That used to be a business, but now, it’s just apartments. Up there was Lionel Richie’s apartment, but even he left.”
You can’t depend on textbooks to tell you about yourself. You gotta listen to people, listen to yourself, and face the questions that require something of you.