Teaching with Community and Liberation

Amina Mohamed is an elementary school teacher at an independent progressive school in New York City, and a 2020 Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow. She previously taught English Learners from immigrant and refugee backgrounds in Michigan.

 

“all the women

in me

are tired” -Nayyirah Waheed

It took a global pandemic and national revolution for me to come to terms with all the fatigue I’m experiencing. Mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And it’s in this moment that I’ve consciously made an effort to rest and heal. In this journey, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the state of education, what it means to be a classroom teacher, and more importantly: what radicalized me as a teacher?

My understanding of the world and of myself didn’t come from formal education. As an immigrant, who also comes from multiple generations of immigrants and refugees, education always came from the community. Institutions and formal pedagogies are oppressive spaces that I have never felt welcome in. As a child, I vividly remember moments wondering why characters in my favorite books didn’t look and sound like me. Why the stories I wrote and made up never reflected the realities of my experiences. Why the stories my parents told me were never taught in schools. Nonetheless, I continued reading and exploring and eventually found writers and storytellers who affirmed me. I also found the vocabulary to articulate the oppressive structures that constantly made me feel inadequate. And it is through this journey, of learning and unlearning, that I’ve slowly come to value my community and the educators within it who molded my values and politics.

 I grew up in a family that depended on the community for survival. While my parents were very active in my upbringing, there were so many other people who were responsible for educating and caring for me. My parents also depended on our community to help raise me.

My mother along with several other women had monthly circles where they contributed money that eventually helped pay for my private school education. It’s also this money that helped fund our groceries and my college applications. For the longest time, I thought this was how everyone’s parents acquired extra income for survival. These community circles played a quintessential role in my understanding of finances and how families provided for their children.  My father constantly reminded us that if we ever had any extra food, it was our duty to share the surplus with our neighbors and friends. In short, if I’m good, everyone around me should be too. Both my parents were teachers at some point in their lives and this was my first introduction to educators: people who played roles in caring for the community outside the classroom.

The teachers I knew taught phonics on Mondays and cooked meals to feed communities at night. They taught addition on Tuesdays and opened their homes for women experiencing domestic violence later that night. They taught maps on Wednesdays and were providing free childcare in their homes for families who couldn’t afford it. Education went beyond the classroom. The teachers I knew educated and took care of children and families. By any means necessary. While they didn’t always vocalize it publicly, they knew that institutions and governments constantly found ways to reimagine violence and oppression. They also knew that their survival depended on looking out for each other.

In looking back to this as an adult, I can’t help but wonder: what is the connection between community and liberation? How does our dependence on communal care help us reimagine a world where liberation for all is possible?

When I eventually decided that I wanted to become a teacher, I knew from day 1 that teaching is political and therefore teachers are too. I’m reminded of all the teachers I know who have informed my understanding of education and the role of educators outside of formal institutions. When I enrolled in a teacher preparation program, I didn’t have the language to describe the discomfort I experienced daily in my classes and the curriculum. However, I knew from my upbringing that institutions were never places that were welcoming towards folks like me: a visibly Black Muslim woman. An immigrant. The daughter of nomads. The granddaughter of oral storytellers. The list goes on. While I did have a seat at the table like my white peers, I knew the curriculum wasn’t made with me in mind. Instead, it catered towards teaching white educators how to teach in “urban” and “diverse” communities

Little thought was put into intentionally creating curriculums dedicated to equipping Black and teachers of color with the tools and resources to be successful. So, while my peers read Teaching with Love and Logic (which I also read), I was reading The New Jim Crow too. I was thinking about the lives of my students in and out of school. I was concerned about the school to prison pipeline. I was thinking about the heavy policing of Black and Brown children in schools. Knowing that my education was happening outside the classroom constantly made me feel lonely and isolated. While I didn’t trust institutions, I knew that I still had power as a teacher in the classroom to shift the narrative and create a space where Black children, like myself, would feel affirmed. I promised myself to never let any child feel unseen and unheard in the school curriculum.

As I continued in my teacher prep program I quickly learned how schools prescribed Eurocentric curriculums that were oftentimes also emotionally violent towards Black children. I had to ask myself what kind of teacher I wanted to be. What does it mean to live and teach in the same community as my students? What does it mean to cook and go to the funerals of my students’ families and teach them reading the following week? I went back to the drawing board and remembered my parents and the communities of teachers I knew who did more than just teach content. They loved, cared, and protected their students in unconventional ways.

Then Trayvon Martin happened. And Tamir Rice. And Sandra Bland. And Ahmed “the clock boy” Mohamed. And George Floyd. And Breonna Taylor. And the countless others whose names were erased and forgotten. In the midst of a global pandemic, Black political resistance, and abolitionist frameworks entering educational spaces, what does it mean to live and teach from a liberatory lens that extends freedom and communal care? What does it mean to be a teacher in a country that constantly inflicts state-sanctioned violence towards Black people? What does it mean to live in a country that refuses to provide basic needs to its people? I knew that I couldn’t depend on institutions that have failed Black children to equip me, their teacher, with the resources to teach them. So I looked back and reached out to the folks whom I knew have done this work before me: my community. They consisted of educators, organizers, parents, refugees, neighbors, and elders. I listened and learned with and from them. Then, I rolled up my sleeves, lesson plans, and taught. I had to restructure the curriculum so that it reflected the realities of my students and their experiences. In my classroom, we learned about Indigenous people instead of Christopher Columbus. We learned that the police aren't there to protect people. We learned that laws aren’t always fair. We learned that heroes can look like us and don’t have to water down their identities to fulfill their dreams. We learned about Islamic, Buddhist, and Pagan holidays. We cried, laughed, and learned together. We envisioned a world outside of our own realities

My upbringing and lived experiences have radicalized me and continue informing my values and politics. In a country and world that does not value Black life, it is my moral obligation to love, listen, and care for Black children. It is also my duty to create space where they can engage in radical thought and reimagine a better world for themselves.

                                                                                                  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

It is certainly within the rights of philanthropic and political institutions to 'not do religion,' but such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based humanitarian efforts in much of this country.
Last month, Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, brought two interfaith leaders together to discuss their respective publications and the consequences of the Equality Act on religious organizations, institutions, and places of worship.
It is in this spirit respeaking memory and finding time to etch it into the future that I offer the following exercise. It is designed to do with your friends or folks – preferably three or more. Take some time with it. Use it as a catalyst to...
Imagine my surprise upon coming to USA and celebrating my first Easter, but didn’t people realize it was Easter? Why are all the egg die and chocolates already sold out and none left for us celebrating a few weeks later?
They will, in other words, be learning the skills of mindfulness meditation — the secular version of the Buddhist practice that has skyrocketed in popularity to become America's go-to antidote for stress.
This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.
Chaplain Fuller’s leadership and guidance has left a lasting, rippling effect on and off campus which will guide communities and individuals into multifaith work and engagement long after her tenure at Elon.
In the grip of a deadly second wave of COVID-19, religious charities and faith-based organizations are among the many civil society groups that have stepped up to mobilize relief efforts.
Una nueva encuesta conducida por el Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) e Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) encontró que los enfoques basados en la fe pueden mover a más comunidades indecisas sobre la vacuna hacia la aceptación.
Highlighting the role of faith and community in providing relief to communities during the pandemic, the project documents how diverse religious communities in the Charlotte area are responding to the pandemic.
Rabbi Sandra Lawson offers religious literacy education in this piece focused on Lag BaOmer, the day of celebration during the otherwise solemn period of the 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot.
While vaccination rates and warmer weather are currently lending us ample opportunity for optimism and joy, we are not nearly out of the woods regarding the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our nation’s mental health.
Cargle is not alone in her spiritual discovery. Generation Z has been the driving force behind the renewed popularity and mainstreaming of the age-old esoteric system.
Clergy from 20 New York congregations, including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians, met as the Interfaith Security Council held its first meeting to talk about how to share expertise and improve relations with law enforcement.
The past four years have devastated communities across the United States with issues including police violence, climate change and environmental degradation, racism, anti-Semitism  anti-Muslim bigotry, and political upheaval.
"No matter the memory, the ability to grow older and look back on life is a privilege. And it’s heartbreaking and disturbing that as a nation we’ve witnessed so many children robbed of that privilege because they were killed by the state."
Musa explores and analyzes data related to the growing irreligiosity and declining religious affiliation in America.
The report, co-sponsored by IFYC and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), revealed higher rates of vaccin hesitancy among certain religious groups, including Hispanic Protestants, white evangelicals, and Black Protestants.
I noticed this year the Christian holiday Easter or Resurrection Sunday fell on the same day Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th. What people outside of the black community don’t realize is when an innocent life is lost it connects us...
Collaboration between religious officials and health care professionals — from both nonprofit and for-profit companies — has aided efforts to increase access to vaccinations.
As various communities consider the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and navigate the physiological and psychological toll of the virus, town halls can be a space wherein community members can be presented with resources and accurate information.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.