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Faith in God, themselves, and the people: Black religious activist-educators

I started my first seminar on Radical Pedagogy, reflecting with students on a provocative blog entitled “10 Reasons Septima Clark was a Badass Teacher.” Beyond the shock value of using badass in a divinity school setting, the students were curious about why I started with this lesser known (if not completely unknown) figure from the 1950s Civil Rights era. Most of the students were interested in community organizing and the educational philosophies of the well-known authors on the syllabus like Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and bell hooks. Septima Clark was not a “key figure” like these and even in her own time, she often did not make headlines. Yet it was she who joined Martin L. King, Jr. as he went to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, and it was her work in the Citizenship Schools which Andrew Young credits with “training” an entire generation of leaders across the southern United States (Levine, 388).

I asked my students how she could be so important to these figures and generally unknown to others? So, as my students quickly went to Google more about Clark, I began to explain that Clark embodied one of the types of radical pedagogy that I wanted them to explore. She embodied what I have come to describe as a radical, pragmatic, and improvisational pedagogy—one that empowered educators like Clark (and the many she trained) to respond to the unexpected challenges of educating children and adults who for the most part had been systemically kept from education and disenfranchised from the typical venues for advancement in the United States. Clark also embodied a deep activist faith that drew upon her Methodist roots but came to life in her genuine love of people and her ability to have faith in them (to trust them) to learn, to lead, and to be able to fully participate in their lives if they were trained.

However, describing her pedagogy did not fully convey why I researched and esteemed this woman. So, I invited the students to participate in a simple lesson, where we learned to hold pencils. Yes, we learned to grasp pencils in our hands, and wonder at the types of frustrations we would encounter if something as simple as a pencil stood outside our grasp and beyond our mastery, because our lives had not ever been accustomed to this type of labor. These were the types of students that Clark started teaching when she attempted to teach adult literacy in the rural south. Students who I imagine broke pencil after pencil because they were more used to holding a plow than a delicate writing utensil. Likewise, I asked my students to break their pencils. This simple request to break something I paid less than 7 cents each for and that did not cost the students a thing caused them to pause. Some refused outright. Others did it but were hard-pressed to explain why they felt guilt, pain, and shame doing so, even when it was the direct instruction of their professor. These reactions illumined the difficult and unforeseen hurdles to literacy and education which Clark and her fellow teachers could have never imagined, but had to creatively respond to as they attempted to help their students have a better chance at becoming fully engaged participants in their communities and lives.

The next time I taught my seminar on radical pedagogy, I started with a TED Talk by a long time public school educator, Rita Pierson. She was equally unknown at the time, but created less initial confusion than Clark, as most students assumed that if she was doing a TED Talk, she was important. And yet, I could see them waiting for the moment when she would give them the one idea that would change all their thoughts and practices regarding education. While no students voiced disappointment, there were many who just did not see her as a “radical” educator. She was not calling for a complete overhaul of the educational system. She did not start a special charter or private school. Her talk instead is most well-known for the phrase that “every child needs a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” Pierson emphasizes the importance of relationships and human contact within education. As a veteran teacher, she had seen her share of educational reforms and new instructional techniques, but what endured was the power of relationships in helping students (even the most academically deficient students) become successful. Thus, while students initially trusted me when I presented a TED video, I got strange looks as I again presented a seemingly unlikely exemplar of radical pedagogy.

Pierson’s was a pedagogy that centered, as did Clark’s, on empowering students with basic skills, responding to unexpected challenges, and taking time to get to know the students and families they were engaging with. Pierson, over the course of her career, encountered students historically and geographically far removed from the children and adults Clark was teaching in the pre-civil rights era south; however, the social and economic challenges among their students were strikingly similar.

Sometimes, I too have wondered with my students about my focus on teachers like Clark and Pierson. I thought I wanted to research the type of education and spirituality that leads to massive change (and movements), and yet I was studying the spiritual lives of TEACHERS, long time, primarily public school teachers. But in honesty, I have found renewed joy and energy in studying “teachers”—not just the philosophies which undergirds their actions but the complex and sometime messy stories of how they came to commit their lives to teaching. They have inspired me and reminded me of the ongoing significance of education and individual teachers in transforming the lives and futures of generations (even as generations of education as a practice of freedom has been undermined and the academic study of education have been challenged or reduced to mere technique). And as I delved into their stories, I found myself drawn to the ways that their faith or spirituality often emerged as an animating factor in their work. Sometimes I could point to direct ways that teachers were inspired by a religious conviction or community to live or act in a particular way. But more often, I found in these teachers an embodiment of what Audrey McCluskey describes as “activist-educators.” McCluskey describes her cadre of Black women activist-educators as having an intriguing and unwavering faith in God, themselves, and their students. In a word, mining the spiritual wisdom of Black teachers has reminded me of the ways that Black teachers, across the 20th century and today, while exceedingly complex, collectively inspired movements for and with Black students; and through their lives teach us to attend to the ways that Black religious traditions permeate the worlds of Black women educators in both expected and unexpected ways.

Significant portions of this blog were previously published as:

Wright, Almeda M. 2016. “Unknown, but Not Unimportant! Reflecting on Teachers Who Create Social Change.” Religious Education, 111 (3): 262-268. DOI: 10.1080/00344087.2016.1172861

Featured image: Part of classroom with teacher. Prairie Farms, Alabama by Marion Post. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.

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