Urban Mathematics Education as a Political and Personal Project

Gregory Vincent Larnell and Danny Bernard Martin


In a chapter written for the previous edition of this Handbook, we examined “historical and contemporary conceptualizations and framings of urban mathematics education within research, policy, and practice within the U.S. context” (cp. 373). Although there has been a decades-long yet disjointed trajectory of scholarship that directly or indirectly relates mathematics education to urban contexts and communities, we based the previous chapter on the observation that there has been very little overarching or guiding conceptualization and analysis of urban mathematics education as a categorical idea (see Matthews, 2008; Tate, 2008; for leading exceptions; also see Larnell & Bullock, 2018). In an effort to redress this need and to bolster the very notion of urban mathematics education scholarship, our prior analysis focused on four areas: characterizing urban mathematics education as “a necessary response to a long tradition of values, ideologies, and critical omissions that have characterized mainstream mathematics education” (Martin & Larnell, 2013, p. 374); explicating the significations, conditions, and consequences of an urban framing for mathematics education; characterizing four historical-political moments in mathematics education over the past 50 years and the ways that research, practice, and policy have emerged in service to urban mathematics education within those moments; and providing an initial reframing of urban mathematics education that examines its relations with local and global practices and politics and its potential for addressing the injustices that often result from those practices and politics.

While the analysis presented in our previous chapter served as an initial foray into urban mathematics education, this chapter takes up the multidimensional character of this domain. Our present analysis considers urban mathematics education as both a political project and a personal project. Therefore, our goals for this chapter are two-fold. First, in characterizing urban mathematics education as a political project, we frame the internal characteristics that, in our view, should define it as something different and incisive, capable of resisting oppressive tendencies of the nation-state that filter down through mathematics education, and capable of examining its internal logics and orientations. Inspired by prior theorizations of anti-oppressive research and practice in fields like social work (e.g., Rogers, 2012; Strier, 2006; Strier & Benyamin, 2014), theorizations of anti-oppressive education broadly (e.g., Kumashiro, 2000), and, more specifically, recent theorizations of anti-oppressive mathematics education in indigenous contexts (e.g., Stavrou & Miller, 2017), we offer a set of threshold principles — ideological, epistemological, and pragmatic — that we believe urban mathematics education must sustain in order to preserve its character as a counternarrative political project.

In our view, knowledge production, practice, and policy in service to urban mathematics education cannot mean merely reconfiguring systems and relations of power that render mathematics education as a place of privilege and domination for some and prone to experiential, epistemological, and symbolic violence for others (Martin, Price, & Moore, 2019). Neither can urban mathematics education be put in service to broader, political projects and agendas that are antithetical to justice and liberation. We advocate for urban mathematics education as a political project that continually resists forces such as racial capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism, neo-colonialism, militarism, and accumulation by dispossession (and the matrices of permutations thereof; see also Chen & Buell, 2018; Harvey, 2007; Morales-Doyle & Gutstein, 2019). As a means toward selfcorrecting, such a process continually asks what kind of work is being done in the name of the project and interrogates the logic models of knowledge production, practice, and policy carried out within the project. Rather than embracing reform-oriented rhetoric and frames that support the status quo (see, e.g., Martin, 2003), we believe that urban mathematics education should align with anti-oppressive social movements, and adopt prefigurative politics (Cornish, Haaken, Moskovitz, & Jackson, 2016; Leach, 2013), which Leach (2013) describes as:

a political orientation based on the premise that the ends a social movement achieves are fundamentally shaped by the means it employs, and that movements should therefore do their best to choose means that embody or “prefigure” the kind of society they want to bring about. . . .

(p. 1004)

Prefigurative politics can be illustrated via Swains (2010) and Young and Schwarz’s (2012) analyses of sociologist John Holloways Crack Capitalism (2010) which focuses on anti-capitalist struggle and prefiguring a life beyond capitalism. Swain repeats Holloways suggestion that “Enough cracks can converge, naturally and inevitably, until the system shatters. The job of those who wish to overthrow capitalism is to seek out or create these cracks, occupy them, deepen them and aid their convergence.” Swain further characterizes Holloway’s argument as suggesting that “an alternative to capitalism can develop in the space created by these cracks; it does not have to come about through the complete revolutionary overthrow of the system that socialists argue for.” Young and Schwarz note the “Cracks can be spatial (for example, land occupations), and/or temporal (for example, short-lived street protests, or longer-lasting ‘Occupy’ encampments), and/or resource-based (for example, a community establishing control over its water supply)” (p. 221). For Holloway, “the ‘unifying thread’ of all these cracks is the desire to overcome the alienated labor of capitalism and replace it with activity that is voluntary, fulfilling, and socially useful (p. 198)” (Swain, 2010, p. 221).

Holloway’s arguments about resisting capitalism align with Martin’s (2019) recent call for refusal in the context of mathematics education. Martin’s arguments were focused on Black learners, and, in his view, their need to escape the oppressive and dehumanizing practices within the project of mainstream mathematics education. Martin suggests that Black people exercise refusal in and refusal of the system and practices detrimental to Black learners. His call for refusal in the system acknowledges that, in the immediate term, some Black people do not have readily available options to outright refuse and must strategically engage the dominant system. Therefore, while confined to the system, they should find ways to create what Holloway refers to as cracks. Ultimately, Martin believes that refusal in the system will take Black people to the precipice of refusal of the system. Here, we suggest that the project of urban mathematics education should support both forms of refusal, supporting the move toward “structures that are ruthlessly democratic and ideologies that are explicitly intersectional in their approach to fighting different forms of oppression” (Young & Schwarz, 2012, p. 220).

A second goal of the chapter is to speak directly to those who self-identify as urban mathematics educators, those seeking to construct an identity as such, and those doing work that they would characterize as urban mathematics education scholarship. We ask each of these audiences to engage in standpoint interrogations' that require critical reflections on their pre-practice assumptions, political commitments, and social imaginaries about phenomenal realities in urban spaces, what urban mathematics education can and should look like in those spaces, and why they seek to do work in those spaces on behalf of the larger political project. Taylor (2004) characterized the social imaginary as:

Something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlies these expectations.

(p- 23)

According to Lucena (2014), social imaginaries can serve stabilizing or subversive and revolutionary functions. In the stabilizing, conservative sense, they reflect perceptions and experiences of how things are in the world — the normal state of affairs. In their subversive or revolutionary aspects, social imaginaries reflect perceptions of how things should be. In our previous chapter, we invoked Leonardo and Hunters (2007) notion of the urban imagination, which we believe also has stabilizing or subversive and revolutionary entailments:

the urban is socially and discursively constructed as a place, which is part of the dialectical creation of the urban as both a real and imagined space. The urban is real insofar as it is demarcated by zones, neighborhoods, and policies. However, it is imagined to the extent that it is replete with meaning, much of which contains contradictions as to exactly what the urban signifies =. . . . As an imagined space, the urban is constructed through multiple and often contradicting meanings. These meanings are sites of contestation as to what the urban signifies in people’s imaginations. Consequently, the imagined aspect of the urban setting affects urban education because it socially and culturally constructs the people who live in it as well as their needs.

(pp. 780-781)

Taylor (2004), makes important distinctions between imaginaries and theories, indicating that the former term is concerned with:

the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends. It is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society.

(p- 23)

Among mathematics educators, theories abound for learning, teaching, curriculum, and assessment, to name just a few areas (e.g., Cai, 2017; Grouws, 1992; Lester, 2007). Much less obvious are the social and urban imaginaries that exist among mathematics educators not just as individuals but, equally important, as collectives; how they see the current state of the world, and what they envision for the future. Even while some mathematics educators have appropriated equity concerns into their work and joined social justice movements, Martin (2019) has cautioned that framing such work in terms of reform — tweaking the system as it is and adopting incrementalist approaches versus building new and different systems — may have the effect of maintaining the status quo.

Non-deficit, self-determinist, empowerment-oriented social and urban imaginaries for can potentially serve as cornerstones of what Kelley (2002) and others (e.g., Khasnabish & Haiven, 2012, 2014) call the radical imagination. Khasnabish and Haiven (2014) characterize the radical imagination as:

the ability to imagine the world, life, and social institutions not as they are but as they might otherwise be. not just about dreaming of different futures. It’s about bringing those possibilities back from the future to work on the present, to inspire action and new forms of solidarity today.


In our view, radical imaginations about urban mathematics education envision a form of mathematics education that is worthy of those who encounter it, unlike traditional forms of mathematics education that are fundamentally structured to convey privilege to those few students deemed worthy. These radical imaginations envision subversive and revolutionary, rather than stabilizing ends for urban mathematics education. We view the need to interrupt and interrogate social and urban imaginaries as necessary not only for anyone who engages in urban mathematics education as a personal (professional) project but also as an ongoing reflective, evaluative process for collectives, organizations, institutions, and social movements promoting urban mathematics education as political project or enlisting urban mathematics education in service to other political projects.

Ultimately, this raises several key questions. Who can and should do the work of urban mathematics education? Who sets the agendas in the domain for the political project? In terms of research, can any mathematics educator, trained in any area and topic related to mathematics education, do their work in urban spaces? In addition to their specific expertise, what knowledge base, awareness, appreciation, and levels of respect do they need to have relative to the people and communities and intricacies and practices in urban spaces? For example, can one adequately study, draw conclusions about, and make recommendations for the mathematical lives and development of Black children without similar levels of knowledge about Black people and Black lives as they have about their particular area of mathematics education (Martin, 2012)?

Additionally, who controls the epistemic directions of urban mathematics education is a key question to consider. We know that mainstream mathematics education, as an arm of the U.S. nationstate, has maintained its identity as a white institutional space, characterized by: (1) the exclusion of non-Whites from positions of power in various institutions, which results in the accumulation of white economic and political power; (2) the development of a white frame that organizes the logic of these institutions and normalizes white racial superiority; (3) the historical construction of a curricular model based on the thinking of white elites; and (4) the assertion that knowledge and knowledge production are neutral and unconnected to power relations (Martin, 2009, 2011; Moore, 2007). In terms of teaching, who should be allowed to teach mathematics to students in urban settings, especially those children for whom traditional pedagogical approaches have been ineffective? Who controls the mathematics curricula that students engage with in urban classroom settings (Martin et al., 2019)?

Related to all of these questions: who benefits from urban mathematics education? In framing urban mathematics education as a political and personal project, we heed the following cautions from Stier in his discussion of liberating social work research from oppression:

any intervention or research project, regardless of the benevolent and progressive nature of its goals and intentions, may replicate the structural conditions that generate oppression. . . . [and| affirm [the researchers’] position as those in charge. . . . Indeed, the principal beneficiaries of the research might be the researchers themselves, rather than the subjects of the inquiry (Oliver, 1999).

(Strier, 2006, p. 3)

Our reasons for raising these questions are not fueled by an attempt to serve as arbiters of this domain — attempting to predetermine its contours and viable contributions. Instead, we are committed to our expectations of the larger political project, and of those who carry out work in service to it and their own projects. Our efforts to address the political project and personal project dimensions of urban mathematics education in this chapter are also motivated by two real-time demands. First, we acknowledge the need to critically reflect on the previous chapter. Our initial exposition and framing portrayed the state of the knowledge base at that time, but also reflected our biases and positionalities as self-identified urban mathematics educators with overlapping and divergent epistemological and ideological orientations and commitments. Critical reflection does not mean that we dismiss or abandon our previous discussion, but seek to avoid freezing ourselves or urban mathematics education in time. While we remain committed to certain core ideas of urban mathematics education, our own perspectives on, and expectations for, urban mathematics education have evolved, as well. Similarly, the field has evolved. Knowledge production and practice in service to urban mathematics education over the past few years, for example, has intensified more than ever to focus on various forms of systemic violence inflicted by mathematics education, the persistent inability of mathematics education reform to alleviate inequities, and a growing movement focused on humanizing mathematics education away from its oppressive tendencies (Battey & Leyva, 2016; Berry, Ellis, & Hughes, 2014; Larnell, Bullock, & Jett, 2016; Gutiérrez, 2013, 2018; Jett & Davis, 2019; Martin et al., 2019).

A second demand that informs our writing of this chapter comes from the current (U.S.) historical moment. We are writing this chapter during the summer of 2019 just days after the President of the United States has used Twitter, once again, to invoke what some critics have characterized as racist and white supremacist views. On July 27, in the midst of public debate about southern border patrol, enforcement, and detainment, President Donald Trump responded to criticism from 13-term congressman Elijah Cummings,2 an African American man who represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional district, by tweeting the following:

К ep, Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAIL WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA ... As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded. Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place. Why is so much money sent to the Elijah Cummings district when it is considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States. No human being would want to live there.

(Trump, 2019 [emphasis added])

The point of reference for the President’s tweets is Baltimore, Maryland, the 26th largest city in the United States with a population that is nearly two-thirds Black. Many who responded to these tweets believe they serve to re-ignite and fortify racist social and urban imaginaries, especially white supremacist and anti-Black social imaginaries, about urban spaces and the people who populate them. The assertion that “No human being would want to live there” carries with it the ideology that Black people are not human, suggests that Black people are to be feared, and that spaces dominated by Black bodies are inherently dangerous. These tweets are also imbued with negative characterizations of Black competence. Our previous chapter offered some characterizations of these imaginaries, among them those that frame urban spaces and those who live in them in deficit-oriented ways. While these, and subsequent, tweets do not deal directly with urban mathematics education, they are very much indicative of the current sociopolitical moment in the United States.

Even while grounded in the current moment, we cannot ignore history, which shows that mathematics education has been put in service to larger political projects such as nationalism, xenophobia, racial capitalism, neoliberalism, and white supremacy. Mathematics capital, in the form of people and formatting power, has been converted into other forms of capital, including military weaponry, surveillance and containment technology', and algorithms that facilitate capital transfer (O’Neil, 2016). Urban mathematics education, as a political project in its own right, must contend with the current moment, partly characterized by the intensification of White nationalist, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant ideologies, as well future moments.

Urban Mathematics Education as a Necessary Political Project

One of our central claims here, as well as in our previous chapter, is that urban mathematics education is more than the practices of knowledge production and research focused on spaces designated as urban, and more than a collection of mathematics education practices that unfold incidentally in urban school and classroom contexts. Rather, we view urban mathematics education as a political project. Bockman (2012) and Wacquant (2012) elaborate on the concept of a political project in their discussions of neoliberalism, which is partly characterized as a “political project to reengineer the state” (Bockman, 2012, p. 310). In particular, Bockman states that “when we talk about the ‘political’ project of neoliberalism, we mean: the revamping of the state, the political commitments of those creating neoliberalism, and the reorganisation and potential relocation of the political” (p. 312). We heed this characterization of neoliberalism and build on it to frame the political project of urban mathematics education. We are especially attentive to Bockman highlighting cautions offered by Collier (2011):

not to assume too quickly that “we know who the bad guys are (the neoliberals); we know who the good guys are (those who suffer at the hands of neoliberal reforms, or resist these reforms); and we know what the right political commitments are (more social welfare, more solidarity, more equalisation, more justice).”

(p. 250, as cited in Bockman, 2012, p. 311)

Although we frame urban mathematics education as a counternarrative political project in relation to traditional, mainstream mathematics education, we acknowledge that there are places where the two projects overlap. Also, efforts that may have counternarrative beginnings and orientations can be quickly co-opted to support the status quo. Martin (2019) documented how the equity-oriented messages of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the world’s largest organization of mathematics educators, morphed from a focus on Black, Latinx, Native American, and poor students (NCTM, 1989, 2000) to the inclusion of White, wealthy, male, and mathematically successful students (NCTM, 2014).

In service to making urban mathematics education a political project that is incisive and different, we propose a set of through-lines and principles that we believe should frame the domain.

Anti-Oppressive Commitment

We believe that urban mathematics education can express an anti-oppressive commitment in three realms: research, practice, and policy. Here, we focus on research, drawing on principles developed for anti-oppressive research in social work. Strier (2006), for example, suggested the following principles:

1. Goals: anti-oppressive research should be the systemic study of oppression and the development of knowledge that supports peoples actions to achieve freedom from oppression.

By foregrounding oppression, we are not suggesting that this is the only lens with which to view the lives of individuals, the terrain of urban spaces, or the functions of institutions and structures. Whatever potential mathematics education has to be liberatory and humanizing, it has to be harnessed to support those with the greatest needs, to protect the land and environment, to promote peace in nonviolent ways, and to end conditions that result in human suffering. While microlevel concerns with student learning, teaching, curriculum development, and classroom practice are important, all of these should be approached in ways that are anti-oppressive.5

2. Populations: anti-oppressive research focuses purposively on the study of the most oppressed populations that are largely excluded from main spheres of public and economic life and disconnected from social services. In order to hear silenced voices, the study of the oppressed requires multiple strategies to connect these groups to research projects and to overcome barriers of mistrust and alienation.

We believe that a focus on the most vulnerable populations must not result in the commodification of those populations to serve the interest of researchers. Moreover, research for and with vulnerable populations should not be premised on identifying, repairing, and remediating so-called deficiencies in their ways of being in the world. Throughout the past 40 years especially, there has been an abundance of research on Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor students in mathematics education; groups who have benefited the least from mainstream mathematics education. Much of that research has contributed to common-sense understandings and beliefs about intellectual and cultural inferiority, racial achievement gaps, and hierarchies of mathematical ability. The mere inclusion of those populations in research has not resulted in the kinds of collective gains that would render mathematics education a liberating and humanizing enterprise. We suspect that the amount of funded research to study those groups over the past three decades runs in the billions of dollars. In many cases, the greatest beneficiaries have been the researchers themselves who generate various forms of academic capital from this work. Urban mathematics education must maintain a commitment to the most vulnerable populations to produce research for them and not just about them.

3. Methodologies: anti-oppressive research in urban mathematics education research “should reject the dominant traditions of social science research, which ‘reduce research into mere technical evaluation and replaces intellectual and creative efforts with rules and regulations’ (Butler & Drakeford, 2005, p. 2). [Urban mathematics education research] should combine methodologies that are able to address the complex, multifaceted character of oppression, with its objective, structural aspects as well as its subjective, phenomenological dimensions” (Strier, 2006, p. 5).

A number of scholars outside of mathematics education have suggested similar approaches to research that focus on culturally sensitive research (Tillman, 2002), research as resistance (Brown & Strega, 2005), and decolonizing methodologies (Patel, 2015; Smith, 2013). Such approaches should characterize research in urban mathematics education.

Urban Mathematics Education as Site for Rethinking Success or Failure, and Winning or Losing

Mainstream mathematics education has a long history of producing success and failure, winners and losers. Students deemed worthy and smart enough reap the perceived and property-conveying benefits of mathematics education (Larnell, 2019). Students deemed less worthy and struggling are often confined to the margins. Winners receive access to high-level courses, admissions to math-related programs in college, and access to particular kinds ofjobs. In the eyes of the general public, they are seen as smarter, more capable, and, in some instances, more deserving of additional opportunities. In service to political projects like militarism and nationalism, mathematical achievers are seen as potential saviors and protectors of the nation-state from external threats. But why must mathematics education be rendered into a space that produces winners or losers, success or failure? Even the production of losers and failures allows the project of mainstream mathematics education to persist in celebrated fashion. For example, the tendency to begin and sustain narratives of Black students that focus primarily on failure means that any level of progress is deemed acceptable. Incremental change is then accepted as a substitute for justice. Urban mathematics education as a political project should resist these tendencies to produce winners or losers, failure or success, and promote human flourishing (Su, 2020).

Multidisciplinary commitments

Multidisciplinary research is very rare in the history of mathematics education, even in research contexts focused on equity. Theoretically, mathematics education research has drawn heavily on psychological theories. Only recently have researchers begun to draw on theory from fields outside of mathematics education including critical theory on race and identity (e.g., Jett & Davis, 2019), gender and intersectionality, and whiteness and white supremacy. Urban mathematics education should continue to build on these developments.

Typically, mathematics educators or researchers in other domains such as child development formulate the research questions; collect, analyze, and interpret data; and report the results by drawing on the history, precedents, and preferences of their domains. But what if mathematics educators were joined by researchers from such disciplines as ethnic studies, sociology', political science, urban planning, social work, public policy, and history, for example, to avoid silos and academic ghettos (Bullock, 2014)? How might the design, implementation, interpretation, and application of research look different?

Urban Mathematics Education as a Personal Project

In addition to the claim that scholarship in this domain represents necessarily a political project, for individual scholars and collaborative research teams, urban mathematics education is necessarily also an endeavor that is shaped at all levels or stages by individually and collectively held perspectives, positionalities, and ideological commitments. As urban mathematics education scholarship continues to expand and develop as an epistemic domain, it behooves us to pay greater attention to not only contemporary, historical, and political conditions of knowledge production but also the knowledge producers — i.e., those who situate and identify their work as urban mathematics education scholarship and/or themselves as urban mathematics education scholars. At the same time, an associated danger of such activity is that some may misuse it to justify their surveillance of mathematics education scholars (i.e., researchers and teachers at all educational levels); in recent decades, there have been multiple waves of organized attacks4 on mathematics education colleagues — especially for scholars who make explicit their sociopolitical aims and perspectives.

By referring to urban mathematics education scholarship as a “personal project,” however, our intent is neither to suggest that it is possible to participate in any research domain in ways that are fully impersonal (in the same way that one cannot participate in research in ways that are apolitical), nor to insinuate that urban mathematics education scholarship is somehow less than a professional pursuit. Second, although the notion of “personal” does connote a kind of identity-contingent connection that is complex yet necessary, it must not include the obscuring lens that develops when personal connectedness is confused or conflated with benevolence. Our purpose, rather, for designating urban mathematics education as a personal project is to inquire after and cultivate specific threshold conditions for knowledge producers in this domain. This focus on threshold conditions is not for the sake of fabricating rules for exclusion, but we do aim to center the question of epistemic trustworthiness* (Daukas, 2006) as a criterion for urban mathematics education to truly become a personal project and not simply a status-conveying opportunity.

If there is overlap between urban mathematics education and traditional, mainstream mathematics education in relation to both being political projects, that overlap is not the same regarding both being expressed publicly as personal projects. It is certainly possible — if not frequent and widely yet tacitly acceptable — for traditional, mainstream mathematics education to omit any personal or professional positioning on the part of the individual engaging the work. We argue that such unre-flective and/or concealing practices are not viable for the explicitly sociopolitical work of urban mathematics education. This is a problematic criterion, then, for scholars whose work simply seeks to import objectives and practices from the mainstream domain to considerations of urban place, institutions, communities.

In order to support this principled stance regarding urban mathematics education as a personal project — i.e., as an epistemic domain that requires its contributors to be critically reflective practitioners (including research and teaching and policy) — we propose a set of through-lines that we believe should frame one’s participation in the domain.

Standpoint Interrogation

The first through-line or threshold principle that we propose for realizing urban mathematics education as a personal project is standpoint interrogation. As mentioned earlier in the chapter, we regard standpoint interrogation to be a necessary starting point for personal, epistemic trustworthiness within the domain. Moreover, we view standpoint interrogation as a specific aspect of critical reflexivity through which individuals and collaborative groups refuse self-interested performances and apologist rituals. As Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernandez (2013) argue,

Apologist accounts serve only to bring whiteness to the center, ... In some circles, these white scholars are celebrated for their performances of critical reflexivity', but little else changes, and the cumulative effect is that white experience of the world resumes its place as the rightful and natural perspective.

(pp. 82-83)

We contend that this same thinking can play out for urban mathematics education across intersections of racialized, place-based, and socioeconomic identifying. The goal of standpoint interrogation, then, is for its interlocutors to see their work whole (Kilpatrick, 2013) and to recognize that such wholeness must include seeing others and their communities as not inherently deficient (see Tuck, 2009). As such, standpoint interrogation is a critical opportunity for producers of urban mathematics education scholarship to consider questions like the following: For whom is my work intended? Who benefits? What kind of political project am I engaging, and how do my ideological commitments and circumstances contribute to veiled assumptions in my scholarship (Larnell & Bullock, 2018)?

Although the popular phrase “do no harm” can seem opaque or almost generic, we take it as a central ethical charge within this domain to interrogate ones ideological commitments and circumstances for the purposes of mitigating damage to urban communities and institutions through projects that are foundationally disconnected from communities or that view them as sources and not partners. To be clear, however, although “personal project” is suggestive of personal identifying and group membership, the idea of standpoint interrogation should not be confused with a checklist of pre-selected identity categories to which one must lay claim in order to produce urban mathematics education scholarship. Rather, it is important for individuals to interrogate the kinds of identitycontingent limitations that accompany their participation.

The Perils of Benevolence

A second through-line principle, certainly related to the goals of standpoint interrogation, is the imperative to resist the perils of benevolence as an organizing ideology for producers of urban mathematics education scholarship. This is not to suggest that urban mathematics scholars should approach their work as not producing for or not providing new, usable knowledge. Rather, we refer to a framing of benevolence that, on the one hand, aims nominally to do good and to facilitate access and resources for dispossessed and marginalized groups yet, on the other, fundamentally harms and insistently frames the beneficiaries as inherently problematic, characteristically deficient, and in need of superior agency beyond their own for their own survival. This saturating framing of benevolence preserves and enhances asymmetries of power between those who are positioned structurally as benefactors and those who are persistently framed as problems to be helped or saved. With regard to urban mathematics education, specifically, this benevolence framing adheres to the problem of urban as a veil that simultaneously reduces the meanings of urban to its most pathological signification (Leonardo & Hunter, 2007; Martin & Larnell, 2013; Larnell & Bullock, 2018), and conceals the full and complex diversity of urban spaces and communities.

Martin (2007) has described the consequences of benevolence framing within mathematics education (specifically regarding the relation between Black learners and their mathematics teachers) as supporting the production of caricatures that attempt to either “save African American children from themselves” or refuse to see those same children as worthy of specificity. Similarly, in this domain, we claim that the missionary aims of a benevolence stance actually cannibalize and compromise both the researched and the researcher.

Conclusion: What Makes (Urban) Mathematics Education Different?

Some readers will suggest the points we make could apply to any domain in education or urban education, not just mathematics education. Likewise, some within the mathematics education community may claim that our arguments have no bearing on mathematics education, given their more general applicability. In response, we invite scholars-practitioners from other domains to adopt and appropriate our points; we challenge those within mathematics education to consider our arguments. And with the discussion questions that conclude this chapter, we invite your continued engagement.

To both audiences, we contend that the social narratives about mathematics within education are different than other sub-disciplines; mathematics education functions very differently as a political project and in relation to other political projects. Its deep links to hierarchy and stratification in school and non-school contexts, the role it plays in militarism and war technologies, and the way it underpins catastrophic financial engineering, for example, call for a different approach, especially in relation to urban spaces where oppression and human struggle are the norm for thosewhose social status and subject positions are characterized by histories of marginalization and exploitation.

In this chapter, we have attempted to make a case for viewing urban mathematics education that, as a political and personal project, seeks liberation, opposes oppression and human struggle, and operates in unison with other radical projects and social movements. This requires a pairwise examination of the work of urban mathematics education scholarship and continual self-examination regarding the ideological commitments and circumstances of scholars themselves. Accordingly, we ask the reader to consider the first two groups of discussion questions for this chapter in tandem; and finally — but not separate from the other concerns and questions — we pose a third question the reader.

If urban mathematics education is to continue to grow and address the ever-evolving intersection of mathematics education involving urban places, institutions, and communities, we must continually inquire about the sharpness of our lenses and the relevance of our analyses, as well as the positionalities that inform the production of knowledge in this domain.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. What are the tensions and consequences of the work that we do in the name of urban mathematics education, and what kind of political project does that work represent?
  • 2. What is the positionality of the researcher, what perspectives and commitments does the individual or group of individuals bring to the work itself, and toward what ends and whose benefit?
  • 3. How do we collectively continue to push and develop the burgeoning domain of urban mathematics education and, specifically, the conditions and characterizations of urban mathematics education as a personal and professional project?

Authors’ Note

The authors wish to thank the editors for the opportunity to revisit our previous chapter and expand our thinking about urban mathematics education scholarship. The substance of this work, however, reflects the authors’ viewpoints.

Correspondence is welcomed by both authors: College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1040 West Harrison Street (MC 147), Chicago, IL 60607.

Authors’ contributions are equal.


  • 1. Although the phrasing here may be uncommon, the idea of standpoint interrogation shares a conceptual core with critical reflexivity (see Barajas-Lopez & Larnell, 2019; Kilpatrick, 2013). We recognize, however, especially where matters of place and race are concerned, that critical reflexivity can sometimes be reduced to a self-interested performance (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2016). With “standpoint interrogation,” we seek to emphasize the part of critical reflexivity that requires the individual or collective to continually and earnestly self-assess their ideological positionalities in relation to communities they seek to serve — not for solace, but for the purpose of actively refusing to see others’ communities as inherently broken (Tuck, 2009).
  • 2. Although the initial drafting of the chapter occurred during the summer of 2019, the processes of revising, editing, and publication extended through 2020. During this period, The Honorable Elijah Eugene Cummings, a career public servant from and of Baltimore, passed away on October 17, 2019.
  • 3. For one recent, more detailed anti-oppressive specification of the goals of mathematics education, see Martin et al. (2019).
  • 4. Beginning in the 1980s, as U.S.-based mathematics education entered its still-unfolding standards era, increased attention to national mathematics education policy, practice, curricula, and research also lured the critiques and territorial ire of a sizable collection of academic mathematicians (many of whom held positions at prestigious U.S. universities). They circulated and sometimes published multi-signatory letters, papers, and curricula and often publicly and fervently confronted mathematics education researchers at research conferences and university colloquia (e.g., the “Mathematically Correct”; Askey, 1999; Wu, 2006; Milgram, 2004). At times, their individually aimed attacks received international attention (see Boaler, 2012, for a thorough account of a personal attack). Similarly, through the 1990s and 2000s, there have been other, looser factions of mathematics education researchers who have exerted tacit and overt exclusionary criteria for mathematics education scholarship that did not meet their expectations for the treatment of mathematical content (e.g., Heid, 2010; also see Martin, Gholson, & Leonard, 2010). Most recently, there have been public attacks in commercial and social media (i.e., nonacademic spaces) in which politically conservative and right-wing commentators, news outlets, and nonprofessional online blogs and websites have targeted mathematics education researchers whose scholarship is explicitly political or racialized or justice-focused (see The MathEdCollective, 2019).
  • 5. Epistemic trustworthiness is both veritistic (or based on the kind of externally defined threshold principles that we seek to pursue and articulate) and character based by way of internal assessment (Daukas, 2006, p. 111).


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