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  • Writer's pictureEllida Parker

Sonya Douglass

On designing the new Black studies curriculum for New York City public schools.

By Ellida Parker

Sonya Douglass is a Professor of Education Leadership at Teachers College, where she directs a research collective that is currently designing the first-ever K–12 Black studies curriculum to be implemented in New York City public schools. Last October, the New York City Council awarded her Black Education Research Collective a $3.5 million grant to use towards this monumental goal.

Illustration by Taylor Yingshi

The BERC project comes amidst a fraught nationwide debate over the presence of anti-racist education in public schools. Its mission statement to “conduct, translate, and disseminate research that leads to improved educational opportunities, experiences, and outcomes for Black children and youth,” responds to the debate head-on, in part by insisting on the importance of Black studies in our classrooms. BERC also addresses particularly urgent issues for students amid the ongoing pandemic. Last spring, the collective found that Black students returned to in-person schooling with “disproportionate” increases in experiences of trauma due to Covid compared to their white counterparts, along with decreased trust in education. Horsford is a leader in the movement against such inequity, hoping to create positive educational experiences and outcomes for all New York City students.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Blue and White: You've written extensively about the misconceptions surrounding integration, and about the problems with equating the formal, surface-level success of the integration movement with meaningful equality for Black students. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about your research in that regard, and also about what you see as some of the main obstacles standing in the way of true educational equality.

Sonya Douglass: I think the biggest obstacle—and this is becoming very clear now in ways that it maybe wasn’t to many people—is that we have competing visions of education, period. How do you create a system that is able to meet the educational needs of a diverse population of students when you have, again, not just two, but multiple competing visions and perspectives of what education should be, what should be included, its purposes, its values? And that's just something that I think we have to confront as a nation.

We don’t have a national system of education, obviously, but I think there is an interest at the national level to at least have some kind of shared understanding of what we believe a public education should provide for all students. While things are really challenging right now with the resistance to critical race theory (which is not even being taught in schools), I actually think it's a great moment for us to engage in that difficult but also necessary conversation about what the purpose of education is. What should every child be able to know, to do, to access as a result of 13 years of education in the public school system? We make huge investments in terms of funding for each student. And I think we need to be clear about what we're expecting them to have in terms of opportunity and quality of life.

I'm hoping that that conversation will get started fairly soon. I’m hoping to even initiate it, in a sense that we have to move beyond these divides and engage in … the challenging dialogue that it’s going to require to have a shared understanding of our history, to have a shared understanding of what we want our future to look like.

B&W: How do you answer some of those questions about what education should provide and how we can bridge those divides in competing visions of education?

SD: We have to center our humanity. We have to focus on the things that we all share … I say this in the context of the conversations around race equity and diversity. I think that while identity is important and that we all should embrace who we are, and be able to share and name our experiences, we also have to listen, you know? It's a two-way street. Yes, I can express who I am and what is important to me, but I also need to take the time to listen to who others are and to hear what's important to them. And I might not like it. I might not agree. But it's just important, particularly … in a free democratic society, that we are equipped to have those types of conversations.

I think our education system should prepare us to have those civil conversations. Education should be about learning to be a citizen, learning how to participate, learning how to use your voice, understanding who you are and how you fit into the world. There’s great potential in shifting how we view the role of education, from one that has been focused largely on test scores, achievement, efficiency, and productivity to one that centers creativity, imagination, and community transformation.

B&W: I like that idea of foregrounding empathy and of centering on our common humanity.

You’re working on this very exciting project, designing the Black studies curriculum for New York City public schools. I'm wondering how you see a Black studies curriculum fitting into what we were just talking about in terms of transforming education.

SD: It’s such a privilege to be a part of the process. It is a challenging one, because it requires huge shifts in how we think about what learners should know and how we deliver that information. And we are not exempt in higher education from [having] our own dominating perspectives that have been largely European, largely Western in terms of how we value knowledge, how we produce it. Like, we know that teachers [implementing the Black studies curriculum] have to engage in reflection, but so do [the people designing it], right? I mean, Black studies is the study of the world. It’s about kind of the oneness, right? The inclusive worldview. So in many ways, I think it gets at the questions of equity, diversity, and integration that we’ve been struggling with. This is actually a mechanism for us to grapple with it in a very tangible way. What curriculum, what units, what lessons … what modalities do we use to teach this? Should it be virtual? How do we incorporate the learners in the development of this curriculum? What can we learn from the learners? We really want our approach to be one where students are helping us to understand how they best learn.

It has been really eye-opening in that while we have been … fighting for equity and justice and education … something like this is concrete. It’s less abstract than the platitudes about diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s actually requiring us to think, to challenge our own biases and also to learn more. I didn't have access to Black History or Studies in my education, right? I’m sure many people haven’t—so we're all learning together.

B&W: Absolutely. I know you're still in the process of designing the curriculum, but could you talk a little bit about what your group’s vision is for it?

SD: It’s gonna align with the [existing] social studies standards. It’s transformative, but it’s also corrective. We’re just going in and saying, “Look, there’s only been one predominant view that's been reflected, and we want to fix that.” We want to make sure that it reflects the multiple ways of knowing and being, the contributions of peoples of African descent, as well as understanding that much of the knowledge that we attribute to Europeans actually came from the continents. So again, it’s about deconstructing a lot of myths, like the Columbus story. I mean, there are so many examples of the things that we teach that are not true. This curriculum is a corrective to make sure that what we are teaching is the truth.

B&W: So, is this curriculum mostly history focused, would you say?

SD: That’s a great question. It’s interdisciplinary. So it’s more than history, but it’s inclusive of history. For example, Unit One is ancient civilizations in Africa and Egypt. Unit Two will look at Indigenous knowledge systems. In Unit Three, we're going to look at the age of colonization and settler colonialism. Unit Four is Reconstruction. Unit Five is World War I and World War II in the African diaspora. Six is segregation in Jim Crow. Seven is the civil rights era. Eight is post-civil rights era, Black Americans in the 21st century. It’s pretty expansive.

B&W: Going back to the nationwide conversation about how we’re teaching race in education—how would you respond to the conservative backlash to teaching Black studies?

SD: I ask a lot of questions. I think we need to ask more questions: why is it so upsetting to people? Why do you believe it is being taught in schools? Why is it so offensive? I think people have real, legitimate answers, but we don’t have the discussion. I really believe in dialogue, and asking people questions, and giving people a chance to speak their own truths and to listen—because we are just talking across each other, right?

It’s hard to really know what the cause of [resistance] is. We can say it’s racism, but you know, I think allowing individuals to really express why they feel the way they do, and how they feel what they do is an important first step to better understanding how we can get to the point where we can find common ground.

B&W: We need constructive conversations rather than shouting back and forth.

SD: Exactly. But that’s the culture that we’ve developed over the last 10 years or so. If you think about television and punditry and the talking class—it's just talking points and people yelling back and forth. There really isn’t the time to process information, to even have the chance to change your mind about something. It’s gotten so dogmatic.

Education, I think, is an opportunity for us to take more of a leadership role in that and say, look, there’s different ways that we can engage in discourse, and we have to be the ones to model it, for young people in particular.

B&W: On that note about discourse—what kind of community engagement has there been around this curriculum?

SD: I think it remains to be seen. Certainly stakeholder engagement is a huge part of this. We’re working with United Way of New York City, as well as the Eagle Academy Foundation. I did a community conversation with a group of Black administrators last night. We had invitations to attend a community education council meeting. There will be a commission that’s going to be developed that will represent community stakeholders. We’re conducting focus groups as part of a research study. We’ve also conducted an opinion poll, which had some really interesting feedback from parents of New York City students. So there’s a lot coming down the pike. The next couple of months we’ll be releasing quite a bit more information in terms of engaging the community and then also getting feedback on the curriculum.

B&W: What kind of feedback did you receive on the poll?

SD: It was Black voters in New York City, and it was focused on education. I think it was 78% who were very highly supportive of the curriculum. We asked CRT questions, too. And that was interesting, because I don't know that anyone has asked Black parents about critical race theory.

B&W: How do you think the past couple years have necessitated that we reimagine K–12 education, or what have your takeaways been from the past few years? I'm sure that's a question you get asked a lot.

SD: Well, I mean, I wept at the start of Covid. When it hit I remember wondering, where is the leadership on this? Who’s thinking about what’s going to happen when we get out of it? Who’s going to think about what a recovery looks like? Who’s going to think about this potentially being an opportunity where we can do schools differently? And while there was so much rhetoric about not going back to normal because normal wasn’t good, inertia has been so powerful. We’re fighting to get back to normal in some ways, and that’s concerning.

We’re in a period of chaos right now and we’re seeing structures kind of falling apart. We see people leaving the workforce because they’ve looked inward, tapped into their own gifts and interests and how they want to spend their time. I think there’s been so much loss and suffering too, that people really value their time and have had a chance to maybe reset. And so that’s how I view this time: as a chance to reset, to recalibrate, to let the things that didn't work fall away, but also to be really intentional about building a strategy for going forward. So that’s why this idea of having a clear vision of what we believe education should accomplish needs to happen. And I don’t know who I’m waiting for to make that happen, but I’m certainly doing what I can to emphasize the message that we need leadership. And we need a vision and strategy for education post-Covid.

B&W: Where do you think that leadership needs to come from? And are you looking for this leadership nationally or on more of a local level?

SD: I wish I could answer that. I definitely don’t think it’s the federal government.

B&W: Right.

SD: The [Education] Secretary’s been very clear that they don’t do curriculum. I think it has to be grassroots, bottom-up movement building. And we’re doing that with this curriculum. Again, it’s a Black studies curriculum, but I see it as a movement for educational justice, because I think that’s what it represents and what it will actually accomplish. We're actually going to do things that are going to affect children in the classroom, hopefully to inspire and encourage them and excite them about learning.

B&W: Are you thinking about this curriculum you’re designing as something that will just be implemented in New York City, or do you think it could potentially be like a model for curriculums like this nationwide?

SD: I think nationwide. It was really exciting to get so many requests from people from different places who were interested in the curriculum. I definitely think New York has the potential to really spark a movement, around not only Black studies curriculums, but Asian studies, Indigenous studies. In New York, right now, we have groups that are expressing an interest in doing that.

We’re in a time of reckoning or awakening, whatever you want to call it. And it’s exciting. It's going to be bumpy. It’s going to be a little messy. But I think now is the time for folks to really just use their voice, speak up. We have to have a vision for what we want this country to be in order to think about what the education system should look like to support that vision. I’m hopeful. Not necessarily optimistic, but hopeful.

B&W: That’s a good distinction in our times—that distinction between optimism and hope. So, this is a year-long project, right?

SD: Well, we’re requesting funding for year two. The hope is that we will have that. Because [we knew] that it was really, really ambitious to have an entire K–12 curriculum done in nine months. So our hope is that in year two, we could do a formal pilot program and continue to generate that interest and momentum, and help prepare teachers and leaders to understand the curriculum and make sure that they feel comfortable and equipped to deliver it. That’s a whole process in itself. I think the students are ready. But it’s a major paradigm shift. So just giving ourselves the time to help prepare teachers and leaders to become comfortable, familiar with, knowledgeable about the content and ways of delivering it so that it will be successful is crucial. But we want it to be in as many schools as possible.

Again, I really feel like this is a pivotal moment in education. In general, we might look back and, and say, “Wow, we can’t believe what was being taught before 2022.” That’s my hope. We are in this really historic political moment in America’s history. And I think that our education system is going to be a part of that and hopefully it’ll end up being something that we can all be proud of.

B&W: This is a K–12 curriculum. Does that mean that every year, K–12, there will be a specific course on Black studies? Or will the curriculum be incorporated into existing classes?

SD: It’ll be incorporated into social studies, and we’re also developing interdisciplinary activities that might touch on the arts or math. And that’s why we want the teachers who are now in our design labs (which is like our pre-pilot program) to be involved. We didn’t want to write [this curriculum] without teachers or without teachers having access to it. We’re already getting tons of feedback, lots of opportunities to improve and revise—and also just to get their thoughts on how they can best be supported.

B&W: That must be really challenging but rewarding work, to be collaborating with such a big group of people on something that’s so important.

SD: It’s a lot going on. A lot of pieces, a lot of layers, but yeah, you’re right. It’s very rewarding and I’m just glad to be a part of it.

B&W: What was the impetus for the project?

SD: The elders in the community are like, we’ve been asking for this forever. The announcement was huge: It was a beautiful celebration at the Schomburg Center, with elders who had been fighting for years for education equity and wanting to make sure that Black children could see themselves in the curriculum. The stars aligned politically, but this is all a culmination of a lot of work among community members, policy makers, and educators.

B&W: Could you tell me about what you’ve found inspiring in this process?

SD: What's so inspiring is that in education, I think many of us also often point to the policy makers and say, ‘if only they had the political will to do the right thing.’ Just to see everything lining up that way, where you have leaders in policy who wanted to see this happen, where you had community advocates and activists and parents who wanted to see this happen, and you had us in the research community that wanted to step up and said, “Hey, we can pull together the team to make it happen.” I really think that research practice and policy partnerships—which is what BERC is really committed to—is the way to advance social change. For me, it’s affirming because it’s my hypothesis around how change happens, and it’s working. So, just to be a part of something that I think reflects what, from a scholarly perspective, I’ve been advocating for—to see it come to life—is very rewarding.

Again, there are lots of different political agendas, policy considerations, structures, cultures, even within the Black studies community. And even in Black history, there's debate around when does it start? What time period? How do you do Black studies for a mainstream environment? I mean, it’s one thing to create Black studies for an independent Black school. But it’s another to think about incorporating it into the largest school district in the world. So those are all of the things that we grapple with, but it’s the work that I enjoy. So I can’t think of anything I'd rather be spending my time doing.


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