Tuesday, May 18, 2021

They Started a School Rooted in Love, Learning and Liberation

Myron Long is one of the founders of The Social Justice School. He is a native Washingtonian and has been in education for about 15 years now. The journey towards founding The Social Justice School began with a focus on their commitment to being designers. The school focuses on connecting design thinking to social justice and is rooted in three core values that were born out of a community-led effort: love, learning and liberation. 

 You can watch the full conversation here.

 

Tell me about the creation of The Social Justice School.

We always start our design work with a question in mind. For instance, “How might we design an experience for young people that is rooted in love, learning, and liberation?” 

So, what we decided to do was to take time to directly hear from young people and their families in order to figure out what kind of learning experience would align with those three core values. 

What we discovered in these empathy interviews is that our families wanted spaces where young people could have the opportunity to collaborate, to learn about issues related to social justice, to have the opportunities to do research, and apply what they learn in school.

So, after those empathy interviews, we decided to create a few pilots to really test our hypothesis. Would kids actually benefit from this type of learning environment? 

My co-founder and I both saw that when our young people were engaged in texts that were related to social justice engagement increased significantly. When you give a child something to read that is not only relatable to their lives but something that could potentially change their outcomes, they become more engaged.

Courtesy of Myron Long.

Those initial interviews started our journey into creating our pilots that eventually became The Social Justice school. 

One of the things that we wanted to make sure we did not do was assume we knew the needs of our community just because we live here. Despite being a native Washingtonian, despite being a Black man in education, it is not possible for me or anybody else to know the needs of others without asking them. I also understand that I am generations removed from the young people I am actually serving now.

That is why we designed our pilots in a way that our participants could offer feedback. During each of our pilots, we actually ended up changing parts of our model based on the feedback from our participants. By doing our pilots this way, we were able to accurately understand what we needed to do to provide a more positive impact in the lives of our students.

For us, the pilots were a way to decolonize school design through active listening.

Ultimately, this means feeding power and giving power to the young people who are experiencing our school. We have been at this for about five years now. 

We started off with a pilot with about 10 students. Our largest pilot lasted two years with 25 students. From there we decided that it was time to be official. Thankfully, our charter application was approved and now we have 53 scholar-activists. 

All that we do is really rooted in love, learning, and liberation.

What does social justice mean to you?

We struggle with that, honestly, because I think when people think about social justice, they normally think about it in an outcome-based mindset. For example, equitable housing, redistribution of wealth, or abolishing the prison system, etc. 

So it was really important for us to look at the process. So for us, we see social justice as a designed response to systems of inequality. All of these systems of inequality were designed, so that means they can be redesigned. 

We want our young people to have an ethos of social justice, which really means being empathetic and vulnerable. It is our hope that they learn to connect with other people and put themselves in the shoes of another. We do not want to just stop with empathy; we want our students to use that empathy and love to do something about these injustices.

Do you hope your students will become changemakers?

Yeah, definitely! Our hope is that our young people are at the forefront of social justice. And the reason why we think that that will be true is when we look at any social movement in our country, we always think that it was the elders who were doing all the work. 

They were doing a ton of work, but it’s always young people who tend to be at the forefront of civic engagement. Young people have always led the changes in our society. We believe that our young people will continue to carry on that torch.

I am looking at social justice from a Black liberation viewpoint, but does social justice involve more?

Yeah, definitely. I think that black-led schools reflect this notion of social justice. These schools work with the community and they collectively build something in order to serve that community. 

Historically that is how small communities of color have survived and made a change. That is us! That is what social justice is all about! It is about having this deep empathy for your community, working in the community, and collectively working for the duration.

How does it make you feel being a Black school founder?

My student Dariyen says that it makes him feel good to be at a Black-founded school because he feels like he is a part of some sort of new era of education. I think it also brings feelings of a desire to pay it forward. I think the challenge of being a Black founder is sometimes in school design. From my perspective, there is an invisible playbook, and sometimes Black founders do not have access to it.

I think it is important for black founders to create schools within and with their community so we can continue to pay it forward. We should create opportunities for other folks to come into the mix. The community aspect is important not just as a Black founder, but as a native Washingtonian. I am able to engage with generations of families and the community that gave birth to this school.

What are some of the challenges school founders face, specifically Black school founders?

Sometimes you will find that it is super lonely, like, mad lonely. Make sure you find your community—your “crew” as we call it at our school. There will be times where you will begin to question yourself. 

Having that crew of support who are both your family, friends, and loved ones, but then others who are doing the work are fundamental to success. I was fortunate enough to be in a cohort with a few other Black founders. So that enabled us to have authentic conversations about showing up as our authentic selves and being unapologetic about the change we want to see take place.

Additionally, there is always the question of money. You have to figure out how to navigate fundraising and the political landscape as a founder. I would also advise that as a founder you remain a designer and dreamer. 

Courtesy of Myron Long.

I think the beauty of launching something new is that you have the opportunity to continue to iterate over and over and over again until you get it right. Do not be afraid to make some mistakes but make sure to fail forward. Continue to iterate until you arrive at something that aligns with what people need in your community and goes from there. 

Right now, there is a major focus on Black-owned businesses. Why don’t you think Black-owned schools get recognition as well?

Well, I think the existence of Black-led schools definitely challenges some of the status quo that is typically associated with the education reform movement. I think that having a space like our school allows communities a place to work with each other and it is desperately needed. 

I also think the lack of attention on our schools makes it seem as if there are not many Black-led schools. Actually, there are a lot of schools that are led by Black and Brown folks. So, having something like Black Minds Matter is really revolutionary because it has an opportunity for you to connect with someone that is like you. It gives a voice to Black-founded schools.

Should more Black-owned schools exist?

More Black-owned schools should exist. Black-owned schools will be tailored fit to the needs of their community. It is our belief that those who are most proximate to the challenges that a community is facing should be the ones who are designing solutions to them. 

Black students will have the confidence they need to strive and follow their dreams. I think students being in an environment that has an attendance of those in their own ethnicity is important because it offers a community that will understand their needs better than those from outside the community. Our school is rooted in love, learning, and liberation, and we hope to see more schools like ours exist.

Denisha Merriweather
Denisha Merriweather was a tax credit scholarship recipient in Florida, the Founder of Black Minds Matter and is the Director of Family Engagement at the American Federation for Children.

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