Communal Consciousness

This abolitionist vision must be rooted in the idea of communally conscious education, which this book bases in the core sociological concept of collective consciousness, which refers to a set of shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge that are connectional and, as a result, common for a social group or society. As a social apparatus that forms and informs our senses of belonging and identity, it eventually forms and informs our convictions and behaviors. Developed and propagated by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his 1893 work, The Division of Labor in Society, to explain how individuals within a community are consciously bound, "What is it that holds society [or, community] together?" was the foreground inquiry that preoccupied his pursuit. Durkheim concluded, rightly for the sake of this work, that community is held together when individuals feel a sense of solidarity with each other. It is that sense of solidarity with each other that forms the basis of our ability to cultivate a communal consciousness that works collaboratively.

With Durkheim as our framing backdrop, an abolitionist approach to communally conscious education is rooted in individuals (students, families, teachers, and leaders) within a community sharing a sense of solidarity for the pursuit of universal freedom. Thus, community capacity to experience, circumnavigate, survive, and in the end transform crises that threaten to destabilize the emotional, cognitive, operational, financial, or reputational well-being of a community and its members is grounded in those community-cultivating beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge that point toward and actualize freedom. Every community, particularly every school community, has certain sociocultural, sociopolitical, socioeconomic, socioenviron-mental, and socioemotional risks, issues, and problems that are distinctive to its fabric and fiber. The processes and strategies by which a community attempts to address those issues are often derivatives of the shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge within that community. As school leaders, then, we must cognize that communal consciousness transcends an understanding of shared solidarity and belonging, and comprises an understanding of the sociocultural, sociopolitical, socioeconomic, socioen-vironmental, and socioemotional risks that function as shadows in the soul and happenings of the community. And based on the leader's proximity to the stakeholders within the community they are leading, and their embodiment of the abolitionist rhythms the level of communal consciousness varies across and within school communities.

When a school community, and its leader, is authentically communally conscious, it is fully aware of, knowledgeable about, accountable to, and guided by its sociocultural, sociopolitical, socioeconomic, socioenvironmental, and socioemotional conditions, and how those conditions subjugate the freedom of its students. Moreover, an abolitionist approach to communal consciousness demands an understanding of the histories of the people within the school community, and how those histories form and inform the identity and environment and influence of that school community within the neighborhood in which it is situated, in order to cultivate an abolitionist vision for the future that is precise. In effect, one of the threats to an abolitionist future is a generalist vision that disregards the distinguishing truths of each school community, and as a result, the distinguishing injustices and inequities that plague the fiber of that localized school community within its sociocultural, sociopolitical, socioeconomic, socioenvironmental, and socioemotional context. An abolitionist approach that cultivates a communal consciousness for leading a rural school community of Black students in the Mississippi-Delta to freedom is of the same solidarity (universal emancipation) but a different strategy as leading an urban school community of Black students in New York City to freedom. With its history of bottomlands plantations, white-dominated legislature, Black sharecropping, and vicious lynching; and its modern day de facto racial segregation, voter suppression, pervasive poverty, and agricultural-economics, the abolitionist vision for Mississippi-Delta students must address its sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic context, which is categorically dissimilar from sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic context of New York City—a city plagued by its own risks, situations, and conditions.

Cultivating a communal consciousness has always been a guiding pursuit of education for school communities disproportionately serving Black students. Neighborhood public schools, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and even Black boarding schools—many of which have dissolved since the 1970s—have centered the shared solidarity of Black liberation through cultivating voices, ideas, thoughts, and behaviors that usher the community toward emancipation. From 1619, when crisis took root in the American narrative of Black life with the arrival of enslaved Africans—from the Kingdom of Ndongo (currently, the Republic of Angola)—to the eastern shores in the colony of Virginia, to the crises of the 1950s and 1960s at the height of a demand for civil rights, to the crises of today with innocent Black bodies being murdered by the police state, injudiciously labeled "police brutality," the communal consciousness of Black folx has undergone a process that has demanded that we deepen our devotion to a shared sense of solidarity. It is that deepened devotion that leads to Black Lives Matter protests in more than 550 cities across the nation, calling for justice in the name of Black dignity. It is that strengthened sense of solidarity that energies thousands of essential workers—in a demand for higher (and livable) wages, healthcare benefits, paid sick leave, and the right to unionize—in more than 100 cities to organize the Strike for Black Lives and to walk away from their jobs for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time that a Minneapolis police officer suffocated Floyd in late May 2020.

To be an abolitionist teaching and learning leader in America today is to seek and cultivate a communal consciousness in our classrooms and hallways and playgrounds and cafeterias (and even virtually) that rejects any notions of individualism that excludes all oppressed people from being free. With a communal consciousness at the foreground, the Reverend William Barber II, a minister and activist, offers us a vision for a "third reconstruction" in America. In his vision, those of us committed to abolition must "refuse to be divided by fear and continue pushing forward together,"9 in order to do the work required in every aspect of the public domain, including our schools and classrooms, so that folx will see that "when any of us suffer, all of us suffer."10 This communal-suffering can be witnessed in the nationwide unrest and protests, from Portland to Kansas City to Chicago to D.C., as divergent groups and diverse demographics converge in the name of justice—Black millennials, white suburban mothers, Generation Z'ers, baby boomers, seniors of all races, LGBTQIA folx, members of congress, radical leftists, and even a mini-alliance of political conservatives, like Utah senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Imagine that. This convergence is a refusal to be divided by fear, which is often impelled by a sense of individualism. This individualism has been and continues to be moral malady in our schools and classrooms fueled by an injurious use of a capitalistic ethic that promotes the ideals of teaching, learning, and, ultimately, earning being about the advancement of me, myself, and I.

In September 2014, about a month after eighteen-year-old Mike Brown was killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, a suburb in St. Louis, Missouri —which happens to be my hometown and where much of my family continues to live—I was in the throes of another semester of teaching, mostly Black, first-generation undergraduates. While serving as a vice president and chief operating officer at Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville, pronounced "Loo-uh-vul" (now we've settled that!), one of the nation's historically Black colleges, I had the distinct honor of holding a lectureship in the department of religion and social sciences, which allowed me to remain proximate to the practice of teaching. That year, I was launching a new course I had developed titled, "Foundations of Human Dignity," where we explored the increasingly complex intersection of human rights philosophy, principles, instruments, and institutions, as well as an overview of current issues and debates in human rights with focus on race, gender, and sexuality specific to the United States. As you might presume, the murder of Mike Brown was ripe for discourse and debate in a class of approximately twenty Black students, ranging in ages from 18 to 35. Imprinted deeply in my memory was an exchange that ensued about the Justice Department opening a broad civil rights investigation to review whether the Ferguson Police Department had a history of racial discrimination, or misuse of force beyond the Michael Brown case. Let's be clear, as a Black man raised in the opaque racial politics of the Midwest, there wasn't much for the Justice Department to discover anew—policing in the Midwest, as it did in all of the United States, had a history of racial discrimination. I posed the following question, "What is the relationship and tension between our right to presumed innocence until proven guilty and the state's right to apprehend us on the perception of guilt?"

As a robust and thought-provoking exchange ensued between the students—many of whom wrestled with the tensions of defining innocence and guilt within a legal context—one of the students who was actively engaging when the discussion started became palpably annoyed and silent. Without shaming him, I got his attention and gave him a head nod directing him to meet me at the door. "Yo, you went from 100 to zero in

60 seconds. What's going on?" I asked. His reply wholly captures the trauma of individualism that has become the malady in so many classrooms.

Prof, I'm just over this discussion to be honest. I can't use this when I graduate or nothing like that, so we just talking to be talking. I'm a business entrepreneurship major. For me, it's like this—if you don't want to be presumed guilty, don't do sh*t that makes you look guilty.

I get that cops be out here wildin' but we gotta' do our part to make sure we ain't giving them sh*t to wild' out over. That's my take on it, but I know if I say that, they gon' start wildin' in there...you feel me?

Twenty-four seconds. It only took him twenty-four seconds to deconstruct with an individualistic consciousness why a dialogue on the tensions of defining innocence and guilt, as we explored the dreadful and unjust murder of eighteen-year-old Mike Brown—just one year younger than the student I was talking to—had nothing to do with him. Instead of seeing the racial and gender risks associated with his own identity in the larger communal pursuit of freedom for Black folx, or even conceding the racist policing of Darren Wilson, all this young Black brother could establish was that this dialogue would be disadvantageous and impractical to his earnings as a probable entrepreneur. While our doorway exchange was atypical in that historically Black college context, it is an exchange, a mindset, and an approach that is concealed in many teaching and learning communities of all ages, grades, and degree-pursuits across this nation.

Crises, then, can become the medium for a pedagogical and culture reckoning—and, with hope, a reconstruction—to exorcise our individual politics for the sake of a communal one. The convergence of racial protests, a global pandemic exacerbating public health concerns, an in-progress economic recession, increasing unemployment, and declining housing security demands nothing less than an abolitionist approach to communal consciousness that seeks freedom, safety, and justice for all. At the core of historical abolition, as it must be at our core today, those of us who are committed to emancipation for all have a moral obligation to resist individualistic actions and mindsets that place those within community at risk. Whether we are in pursuit of reopening physical school buildings in the midst of a global pandemic, reallocating our budgets after double-digit cuts in funding as a result of political jockeying, restructuring safety protocols and entrance procedures after a mass shooting, or giving voice to the police murder of Black bodies in broad daylight, those of us committed to an abolitionist approach must be clear with ourselves, and our communities, that how we answer in those moments will determine the future of our students, communities, and the world. In effect, will we be complicit soldiers in the name of individualism, or will we be freedom conspirators in the name of communal consciousness?

Soldiers, a word related to the medieval Latin word, soldarius—literally meaning those receiving pay to participate in the fight for a nation—are only in a position to execute orders in the name of those in power. A conspirator, on the other hand, seeks to plot against power in the name of the community, by calling on, for instance, the wisdom of Tubman and Douglass and Truth. School leaders who eagerly refute the guidance of health departments and epidemiologists, thus risking the safety of all within their care, are soldiers, while school leaders who heed their wisdom, aligning their actions with moral, ethical, and physical welfare, are conspirators. School leaders who deliberately fail to affirm the lives of Black folx and trans folx, formerly incarcerated folx, and income-insecure folx are soldiers, while school leaders who affirm, hold space for, and work alongside the aforementioned folx are conspirators. School communities— students, families, teachers, and staff—in crises moments get to decide: will we follow a soldier who will only execute as they are told by the powers that be, or will we follow a conspirator who will conspire with us to see the freedom, safety, and justice for all?

Since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, freedom, safety, and justice are not only political rights and cultural ideals but also educational sacraments—sacred embodiments and means of abolition for school leaders and teachers as the standard-bearers of teaching, learning, and community Millions of young Black and brown students recognize the abolition of public schooling as we currently know and experience it as indisputable to a morally solvent democracy, as the only way forward toward a more equitable republic, and as paramount to achieving freedom, safety, and justice.

 
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