Take Refuge in How: An Abolitionist Approach to Communal Consciousness in Teaching, Learning, and Care

When she was only eleven years old, Pecola Breedlove is raped and impregnated by her father, and spends her life holding the tensions of her psychological and spiritual nightmare, the systemic impact of whiteness on her ideals of truth, and a faulty worldview obscured by misery, regret, and shame. But the most pernicious effect of her trauma is an unremitting pursuit to make meaning of freedom and inherent dignity within her Lorain, Ohio community, which has all but abandoned her. An incestuous rape leaves us wanting to understand why a crisis like this happens, blemishing the psyche and communal consciousness of a young girl for the rest of her life. Pushing against our longing for why, Toni Morrison offers us wisdom.

There is really nothing more to say—except why.

But since why is too difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.1

Although how can feel like it is a poor refuge when measured against our human partiality for understanding why crises happen and why trauma occurs, it is how that becomes a beacon of moral light in our complex and mysterious pursuit of freedom and dignity in this nation.

Nothing reveals the moral convictions, ethical values, emotional muscle, psychological vitality, pedagogical creativity, operational wherewithal, and communal consciousness of a teaching and learning leader like how one makes meaning of, and acts in response to, a crisis. More than that, sociocultural and sociopolitical crises can abruptly expose the racial politics of a school leader. Will the school leader confront, and speak to, the crisis explicitly with the community? Will the school leader utilize the crisis as a moment to move the community toward a just and emancipated future for all students? Will the school leader take action "by any means necessary" to ensure a restorative environment in response to the traumatization of the crisis on the cognitive and emotional wellness of students? Will the school leader ensure a strategy that imagines a more equitable democracy within and beyond the classroom? Will the school leader appropriate an individualistic consciousness that leaves students without advocacy, or an inclusive-lens that positions themselves as part of the crisis?

At its core, this book deals with the intersection of school leadership, crises, abolition, and communal consciousness—each of which are expansive enough to stand in isolation of the other. It is not intended to be the definitive work on leading schools in times of racial crisis, nor is it an attempt to offer a technical-manual of crisis procedures, protocols, and policies for school leaders. Let's be clear. This is not a manual, but this is a reflective, inquiry-centered approach to abolitionist leadership. This is not a textbook, but this is an analysis of history as a framework for meaning-making of an abolitionist framework to form and inform our school communities in today's racially polarizing and politically jocose climate. This is not an answer, but this is an invitation to take a journey of questions to arrive at your own answer for your own school community within your own context. Taken as a whole, it is an experiential, humane treatment of how school leaders take seriously the impact and influence of intersecting and compounding crises on the living fabric of teaching and learning communities that serve disproportionately higher numbers of Black and brown students; and hence, it is how to develop and utilize an abolitionist approach to cultivating a communal consciousness.

Teaching is political. Learning is political. Schooling is political. Community is political. Leadership is political. Crisis is political. Crisis is racial. Crisis is social. Crisis is cultural. Crisis is environmental. Crisis is economic. Crisis is emotional. Crisis is moral. Crisis is spiritual. Crisis is radical. None of these things, even with our well-meaning attempts, is unbiased and impartial. Therefore, as abolitionist school leaders, we have a responsibility and a burden to interrogate every crisis that informs the landscape of our teaching and learning communities in order to expose the moral myths of American democracy that we might achieve a more perfect union. James Baldwin wrote in 1962, "It is, alas, the truth that to be an American writer today means mounting an unending attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred."2 With that spirit, it is the truth that to be an abolitionist—an abolitionist educator and an abolitionist school leader—in America today is to pursue emancipation, by any means necessary, for all of our Black students from the systemically oppressive and subjugating ideas that public education holds sacred in the name of high expectations, grit, persistence, and success. As in Baldwin's view of the writer, it is my view of the task of school leaders to hold America accountable for its promises of liberty arid justice for all—underscoring the all, inclusive of Black students in predominantly Black classrooms, in predominantly Black schools, in predominantly Black communities—is a moral one; and in the task before us, we must see social, cultural, and political crises as a continued confrontation with a moral mirror that forces us to see beyond the myths of good intentions and face the truths of oppressive impact.

With ever-increasing sociocultural and sociopolitical complexities plaguing the American democratic project, an increasing amount of science underscoring the impact of global warming, and the debt of racial injustice being exposed at every corner and in every institution of this nation, crisis is, and will continue to be, as much part of the fabric of our school community as teaching and family engagement. The impact of a crisis, particularly racial crises, is not limited to the heart and mind and learning within the school community, but has a ripple effect of economic burden, often resulting in food, housing, and income insecurities within families of the school community, budget cuts and layoffs impacting teachers and staff, and a loss of confidence about the moral commitment of the school and its leader, which can cause declines in morale, engagement, and in due course, enrollment.

Many crises are the result of climatic phenomena, such as unexpected weather disasters, like devastating and deadly tornadoes in Nashville, Tennessee that impact our socioenvironmen-tal context causing trauma in displaced students and families. Others are the result of preventable sociocultural and sociopolitical phenomena, such as the still-unresolved water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the unprecedented immigration raids by ICE in Morton, Mississippi, during which more than 680 undocumented workers were arrested on the first day of school, separating students from families. Regardless of cause and context, what connects every school leader is the ubiquitous regularity of crises, from the mundane to the epic, which always have and always will demand the imagination, and reimagination, of a new normal in the lives of our teaching and learning communities. Therefore, we must do the work of imagining in abolitionist ways that seek the emancipation of all students. In practice, an abolitionist leader offers teaching and learning communities an imagination of freedom before it's realized; to do otherwise is a gross negligence of our callings, titles, compensation, power, influence, and trust.

If we are going to do our due diligence in proposing an abolitionist ethic for leading schools in times of crisis, our first stop must be to frame what a "crisis" is and perhaps just as importantly, what it is not (in the context of school leadership, and in the context of this book). While we regularly absorb headlines about and carry angst engendered by a range of daily strife—from the insufferable political torture of those living under global authoritarian regimes to an NFL team absurdly stalled in determining a non-racist, non-xenophobic, non-colonial, non-imperialistic name—it would be reasonable to assume that every challenge we face within the public domain is a crisis. Our exploitation of the word itself is habitually indefinite, indiscreet, and insensitive. With its etymology in the Greek verb krind, meaning to "separate" or "judge," the Greeks used the concept (classically within law, medicine, theology, and philosophy) to denote having to separate or judge (as a matter of intentional choice) between two categorical alternatives. In our time, these might include racism and anti-racism, individualism and community, teaching to assess and "teaching to transgress," food apartheid and food justice, voting rights and voting suppression, mass incarceration and trauma-responsive care. Now, in its semantic expansion, "the concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh, and non-negotiable alternatives, has been transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favored at a given moment."3 Intuitively, this gradual adaptation of casual deployment is at the root of our exploitation of the word.

A number of academics, management researchers, and crisispractitioners have attempted to offer an extensive framework for measuring and categorizing events and moments into types of crises faced by leaders and organizations—along with conditions and risks associated with each type. Ian Mitroff, regarded as a leading thinker in the academic study of crisis management, proposes that there are six types of crises: economic, information, destruction of property, human resources, reputational, and violent behavior.4 Andrew Griffin, privileging the risks at categorizations based on the crisis' emergence from within or beyond the organization, offers a four-part framework: safety and performance (internal), security and policy (external).5 While both of these models provide valuable insights into the classical sense of crisis management and attempt to order the complex nuances of crises into easily comprehended categories, both fail to capture the inimitable culture of teaching and learning communities.

In fairness, both Mitroff and Griffin would contend that these models should not be taken too literally because crises, by nature of being crises, neglect to function in assigned categories. Accordingly, the level of complexity that exists between the "same" types of crises differs enormously by contexts. A student murdered by a known assailant is intensely different from a student murdered inadvertently by a stray bullet of violent-crossfire, which is profoundly different from a student murdered by mass shooting; the same typology of crisis, the same outcome, and the same mourning, but different in so many ways. As a result, for the sake of our analysis, there are five criteria that must be realized, each of which runs deeply through any crisis. These are as follows:

  • 1. The situation was unexpected, unpredicted, and unprepared for in the quotidian reality of the community.
  • 2. The situation has yielded high levels of uncertainty and unease within the community.
  • 3. The situation, whether kept private or exposed in the public domain, will mark a sociocultural, sociopolitical, or socioemotional imprint on the community and/or its members, particularly its students.
  • 4. The situation threatens to destabilize the community and its members in ways that will demand emotional, cognitive, operational, financial, and/or reputational healing.
  • 5. The situation exposes a sociocultural, sociopolitical, socioen-vironmental, and/or socioemotional injustice or oppression.

All five are critical. All five are necessary. All five are at the core of our working definition of crisis—any unexpected communally conscious situation with high levels of uncertainty and unease oppression and injustice, that, in private or in the public domain, has sociocultural, sociopolitical, and/or socioemotional impact, influence, and implication, thereby threatening to destabilize the emotional, environmental, operational, financial, or reputational well-being of a community and its members. It is perhaps verbose, but the appeal of this definition is that it manages to balance the intersection of humanity and pragmatism in ways that are accessible, applicable, and assessable.

Of course, this definition must be employed deferentially and aptly as not to exploit it as pacification for the sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioemotional impact of the isms and phobias plaguing teaching and learning communities unremittingly. That is, America's original sin of racism is not the crisis; the economic, housing, criminal justice, healthcare, and educational insecurities rooted in racism are crises. In October 2018, I recall spending time in conversation with the Reverend Dr. Virgil Wood, a nonagenarian and civil rights icon who served as a deputy to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., leading the nonviolence movement work for the state of Virginia. In our conversation around crises impacting the public domain, particularly public schools in major, urban cities, he shared that it would be a coarse injustice to frame the experiences of Black (school) communities during the 1950s and 1960s in the ways we think about crises today, because life itself for so many in Black communities across this nation was a crisis. He remarked,

Think about it like this, in the Jim Crow South, just trying to survive the plights and poverties of being Black was a crisis—a daily crisis. When didn't have mass shootings, and we certainly wouldn't have considered a protest a crisis, because we were trying to survive. Even the bombing of those beautiful four little Black girls at 16th Street [Church] wasn't a crisis. It's racism. Racism ain't a crisis. And we can't allow white supremacy to tell us that racism is a crisis as if it's an episode in America's drama. It is America—and it is American.

Crises are distinct from the isms and phobias themselves. Crises are distinct from problems. Crises are distinct from annoyances. Crises are distinct from displeasures. Crises are distinct from irritants. Crises are distinct from emergencies. Crises are distinct from disruptions. Yet there are situations (initially only thought of as any of the aforementioned) within school communities that have the capacity to escalate to the level of a crisis, and thus a school leader must always be in a state of imagination to unhesitatingly navigate the human-ambiguity and communal consciousness of a crisis at any given moment. The ubiquity of crises in our national headlines, coupled with their evolving impact on school communities and the subjectivity of how to lead during and through them, provides a catalyst to consider an alternative approach to communally conscious education. This approach would forefront the intersection of Black liberation, educational freedom, trauma-responsiveness, and radical humanity—an abolitionist approach that in a way involves, but extends beyond, conventional leadership practices.

Strengthening in enormity, density, regularity, and complexity, every crisis has the capacity to yield itself to us—school leaders committed to an abolitionist approach—as a vehicle for deepening our sense, understanding, and practice of communal consciousness. Crises unavoidably tear at the fabric of our school communities, placing an irreversible imprint on students, families, and staff, whether it be a global pandemic killing more than 425,000 in the United States and more than 2.15 million worldwide; a riven congressional climate where food, housing, healthcare, and reproductive justice are habitually at risk of being overturned; unrelenting mass shootings in assumedly safe spaces like churches, mosques, movie theaters, and schools; families being separated at this nation's southern border; or police murdering innocent Black, brown, and transgender citizens. These sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioemotional situations threaten to adversely impact school communities, including students, families, teachers, and staff, but they also invite school leaders to utilize an abolitionist approach to do the work of educating, by liberating, our nation's children. Ah, an invitation.

In effect, every crisis is an invitation for school leaders to embody abolitionist principles as a way to move our school communities from compartmentalized individualism and capitalistic-labor mills to interdependent^/ inclusive collectivism and emancipated thought-incubators. It is in the crucible, chaos, and confusion of crisis that our role as school leaders reaches its most critical, most discernable, and most instrumental state of being, because for Black and brown students, crisis is often a traumatizing and retraumatizing reality that demands leadership willing and able to balance healing and strategic planning, hope and operational assessments, love and accountability metrics, and restoration and communication protocols. As school leaders wrestle with all that is required in responding to and building from crisis, these situations provide a compelling backdrop in making sure that our crisis response and building are humanizing, emancipating, and deconstructionist in the spirit of abolition.

As a school-system leader and teacher who has worked with students of all races, socioeconomic statuses, and ages, from prekindergarten to doctoral students, I am more convinced than ever that only an abolitionist approach to leading schools will challenge and change the conditions faced by Black and brown students in this country; and that only through an abolitionist approach to communally conscious education can we construct teaching and learning communities that destabilize the systems of oppression that have facilitated the cognitive-enslavement complex in classrooms across the nation.

In our contemporary moment, abolitionism has been publicly misappropriated as sociopolitically extremist. Put the individual label of abolitionist aside for a moment, however, and think of abolition as an embodiment and a way of being. A label holds a certain amount of impermanence, whereas an embodiment, once fully realized, becomes an inescapable way of seeing, walking through, and interacting with the world. We sometimes rely on labels to find community, whereas we build and become community through embodiment, because we must become one with a shared ideal. For our work together, we must situate ourselves as abolitionists rooted in, and built upon the freedom tradition against slavery and racism dating back to the early 1800s. We must situate ourselves within a freedom tradition when Black folx, and a syndicate of well-meaning white folx, dared to imagine themselves embodying and living out the democratic ideals of the American project without the subjugation of shackles. As such, for our time together, an abolitionist is,

a passionately human, radically moral, no less divine freedom conspirator who embodies (or is consumed by) the principles of collective community power, the transformative justice of love, the universal emancipation of all oppressed people, the dismantling of subjugating social systems, and the practice of imagining and pursuing a new world, a new way, and a new witness.

Of all these principles, it is the emancipation of all oppressed people that proffers the most daunting invitation, because for abolitionists, all means all—inclusive of our oppressor. Du Bois offered a liberating truth for those committed to Black and brown folx, "The degradation of [wo]men costs something both to the degraded and those who degrade."6

Recent pedagogical theory and teacher development have emphasized that culturally relevant teaching, cultural responsiveness, and culturally responsive-sustaining education must be embraced to be deemed equitable and anti-racist. In these discourses, the voices, experiences, and knowledge of Black and brown students are privileged as assets in teaching and learning. However, the words "relevant" and "responsive" pose an opportunity for critical deconstruction within an abolitionist approach to leading schools. Abolitionists understood that responsiveness wasn't the fullest embodiment of freedom, because abolitionist-minded, abolitionist-apologist, and abolitionist-adjacent folx (particularly white northerners) were responsive—the act of responding to a schema or stimuli. But responsiveness is not a correlated indicator of altered consciousness, wherein the mindset of the respondent is operating out of a sense of duty to the thing as an end itself and not as a means to an end. Therefore, this book calls for an abolitionist approach of communal consciousness.