An Abolitionist Communication Framework

As teaching and learning leaders do the work of framing communally conscious communication in the lens of freedom, be clear—it is a complex and weighty undertaking because human lives are on the line. With freedom as our pursuit, school leaders must employ an abolitionist struggle to communicate in ways that embody eight aims connected to the directness principle, explicitly humanizing the lived experiences of the recipients as being deeply impacted by whatever is being communicated. All eight aims do not have to be represented in every communication, but compromising any of the aims immediately places at risk the pursuit of freedom. The following eight abolitionist framing principles are intended to provide all leaders, markedly white leaders, at every level of leadership with a reference point that ensures, above all else, communication in crisis and heightened community moments does not sacrifice oppressed folx in the process.

Principle 1: Above All Else, Do No [More] Harm

Malcolm X, a critical voice in the emancipation history of Black folx, said,

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that's not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made ... They won't even admit that the wound is there.7

At the core of abolitionist communication is the practice of attending to the wounds and traumas caused by crisis. Yet, in 1964, Malcolm underscored that in the grueling work of undoing the trauma of slavery in this nation, most American white folx had yet to admit the presence of the wound itself—structural oppression. And much the same, today, many white school leaders still have yet to admit that the wound—structural oppression, or even the knife, systemic racism—is there. In the spirit of the oath undertaken by physicians, abolitionist communication, above all else, should do no harm to the community. That is to say that school leaders in all communities, but particularly in Black, brown, indigenous, and oppressed communities, have a responsibility to do no harm; and for white school leaders, to do no more harm than what has been done. How is harm evaded? By acknowledging the presence of the wound and the knife that has contributed to consequential traumas plaguing communities of color, namely Black communities over the last 400-plus years. This nation has been home to systemic and structural oppression in sociopolitical, sociocultural, socioeconomic, and socioenvironmental contexts. Twisting the knife of racism, continually widening the wound, has been fatal to countless Black lives: those beaten and tortured on plantations, lynched as "strange fruit" on trees, viciously stricken by fire hoses and police dogs in the Jim Crow south, and blatantly murdered at the hands of the police state. Doing no harm is, minimally, refusing to ignore the presence and consequences of racism and systemic oppression.

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