When Love Gets in the Way: Community-Engaged Teacher Education and the Work of Social Justice

By Eva Zygmunt

Author Beverly Tatum says, racism is like “smog in the air we breathe” … as we daily and deeply respire, we often know not what we take in and how it can toxically permeate our spirit and soul. And lest we become aware of how our heads and hearts are damaged by the contaminating forces of a collective history of oppression and inequity, the lens through which we view the world can be blurred, and our thoughts and habits can manifest a destructive reproduction of the malady which must be remedied if our society is to be healthy and whole.

During the past three decades in my role as a professional educator, I have witnessed the impact of various forms of racism on real children in real schools. I have experienced inequitable access to facilities and materials, inequitable access to high quality teachers, inequitable access to a climate of high expectations, and inequitable access to an education that is culturally relevant, affirming, responsive, and sustaining. At the 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we have a system of public education that is inherently segregated and arguably unequal. The persistent academic achievement gap between poor, and black and brown children and their more advantaged peers is a moral scar on a country founded on principles of equality. We simply must do better.

As a teacher of mainly white teachers who will be educating an increasingly diverse population of students, I am preoccupied with both the opportunity and responsibility with which I am privileged. I am ever aware of the power I have to turn a blind eye to issues of social injustice, or, alternatively, to be laser focused in ensuring future teachers who believe in the capacity of all children to learn, and who are committed to an ethic of equity in education. It is the latter that has propelled my journey over the last eight years in growing a program of educator preparation which seeks to build teachers with both the head and the heart required to reach and teach, as well as the persistence and perseverance to change the very systems that limit the promise and potential of so many children. In the words of my late and dearly departed colleague and friend, Peter Murrell, we must grow teachers with both the requisite will and skill if we are to realize a new tomorrow.

Our program of educator preparation immerses our future teachers in a primarily low-income, African-American community, where they are matched with host families who impart the values and beliefs of the neighborhood in which the school is nested. Host families invite our students to church so they can begin to understand how faith gives meaning to families’ lives and anchors them in a continued struggle for survival. Host families engage our students in the work of the local neighborhood council so that they might see and participate in authentic community mobilization for positive change. Host families adopt our students as their own. As one host family member explains,

We love on these future teachers. We invite them into our lives so that they will come to understand the strength and resilience that has informed our history as a people. We love on them so that they feel safe and connected in our neighborhood. We love on them so that they will understand who our children are, and value the strengths they bring to learning. We love on them so they will love on our children while they are here, and love on the hundreds and hundreds of other children whose lives they will touch, wherever they land.

Our program of community-engaged educator preparation is grounded in reciprocal relationships that bridge the university and neighborhood in important ways. Through privileging the collective wisdom, expertise, and cultural wealth of the community as decisive elements of educator preparation, we position neighborhood leaders, pastors, and families as “teacher educators” without whose knowledge of the neighborhood culture, our future teachers will not have the context they require in order to be culturally responsive in their teaching. The near decade span of our partnership has resulted in creative and collaborative opportunities for resource development to address community-identified need, with broad impact on programs in the neighborhood that support children’s academic success and future promise.

The transformative impact of this experience for our future teachers, many of whom view the neighborhood and its residents in terms of deficits before beginning the program, is significant. With the opportunity to build relationships characterized by care and concern, our students transition from characterizing the neighborhood as “poor” to one that is “rich” in relation and resiliency. One student, articulating an epiphany, expressed, “I thought I was coming into this experience to save children and families …. What I never expected, and what I have come to realize, is that they saved me.” Another student articulates her intentions moving forward, with,

As long as you're simply studying things that are wrong, you don't have to be touched by the wrong. Injustice is a very sterile, safe thing from a distance, and that makes it easy to keep it at arms length and not get involved, not let it change the way you're living your life. But when injustice involves the faces of your friends…fortunately, love gets in the way. When it’s friendship, when you're no longer an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ separated by misunderstanding, you can understand what injustice is, and you can understand that apathy and ignorance are no longer an option.

The current national landscape is fraught with tension and tumult, and we have important decisions to make to inform our capacities for justice and equity. If we are to rewrite divisive narratives that continue to fracture bodies and souls, together, we must forge a path of peace. In our small piece of the world, we are working to prepare teachers. There is no doubt room on this path for many others engaged in innumerable disciplines, initiatives, organizations, and agencies. There is much healing ahead, and our spirits can be fueled by a rectifying resolve that will only be realized when we seek to know, understand, and indeed love our neighbors. How I pray for us all that we are up to the challenge.

Eva Zygmunt is a Professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she directs the Schools Within the Context of Community program of educator preparation, and is the co-director of the Alliance for Community-Engaged Teacher Preparation (with Susan Tancock). Eva is co-author of the recently published book Transforming Teacher Education for Social Justice (with Patricia Clark), published by Teachers College Press at Columbia, University. She can be reached at - click here.


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This article appears in: 2016 Catalyst, Issue 13: Countering Violent Extremism & American Citizen