Community Vision for Education of Children
By | Wisdom Amouzou
The words of Sobonfu Some always remind me that the practice of community cannot be assumed as innate to all cultures and peoples. In some contexts, the embodiment and practice of community has been perverted, co-opted and rendered dysfunctional by a culture of rugged individualism. Ultimately, this country/state’s long legacy of white supremacy coupled with its savage systems of economic exploitation has resulted in an education system that succeeds at growing citizens adept at maintaining the current hierarchies and orders of things. Our current
approach to schooling our children is a reflection of bureaucracy’s understanding of community. Even what we call “innovative” tends to align with this individualistic philosophy/world-view. My responses to the article will infuse an African ethos and spirit of community/intimacy into this dialogue.
I was born in Lome, Togo and immigrated to the United States with my family when I was 9. I grew up in Aurora, CO. I went to Aurora Hill Middle School, Gateway High School and graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder. After graduation, I taught 7th grade Pre-Algebra and 8th Grade Socratic Seminar at STRIVE Prep-Montbello (before it transitioned to the old Montbello High School campus). To say I was misaligned to the pedagogical practices of that charter network would be an understatement. I found the pedagogy of intense behaviorism barbaric, unimaginative, and aligned to the next wave of colonialism. Not only did students feel like prisoners, but misaligned educators began to feel like prison guards. Like the STRIVE Prep RISE student, I too hoped to teach in schools not reminiscent of prisons. This is coming from an adult who experienced a school system in Togo where you could be beat for answering problems wrong on a homework assignment. I have a lived experience of what a colonial educational experience does to the soul. The contexts and communities might have been different but the violence was too similar. Worse than tears, I found that schooling system to double down on ineffective practices when faced with confrontation/feedback from students, teachers, or parents. Spaces like STRIVE Prep taught me that power only respects power. We could share feedback until our faces were blue but the opinions of a few in positions of power seemed to be the only levers for internal change.
“There is a difference between being in a position of power and being in a position of responsibility. Elders in traditional communities do not take
power; they take responsibility and empower others.” -Sobonfu Some
Our current system is not being led by elders in this sense of the word/function. Folks in positions of power are rarely willing to be traitors to the systems which employ them. Sustaining radical change requires accomplices across lines of difference and power. Quite often, the type of parent/student/community power that is highlighted or supported is the kind of power that those in power can tolerate. At Empower Community High School, we ground our work in Daniel G. Solorzano and Dolores Delgado Bernal’s framework of resistance which identifies that as Conformist Resistance. If folks in our community want to birth a new kind of education system, then we must be able to identify and develop what those scholars call Transformative Resistance. In short, we must take actions that embody a critique of our social conditions and fundamentally change the environment which maintains those conditions.
Two years after teaching at STRIVE and armed with the baggage of racial battle fatigue, I found myself teaching in Johannesburg at the African Leadership Academy (ALA). ALA was the first school I taught at that was legitimately attempting to redefine the purpose of education. It was a private school that attracted entrepreneurial students from almost every country on the continent. Once at ALA, students (ages 16-23) were exposed to a 2-year academic program with traditional academics preparing them for Cambridge International Exams, an Entrepreneurial Leadership program developing their capacities for entrepreneurship, and an African Studies program entering a pan-African perspective.
I left ALA committed to finding other educators who wanted to truly create a new education system grounded in community. A system where adults and students left feeling not dehumanized but centered, valued, loved,
Fast forward four years and I currently serve as Co-Founder & Executive Director of a school called Empower Community High School. To launch Empower, we engaged in an authentic co-creation process that took two years. Two years of breaking bread twice a month and co-creating this school. In this model of shared power, the paradigms of the old system make little sense. When parents and students are at the table, it’s not really a battle to push for more diverse teachers and administrators.
It’s a value inherent and obvious to the folks experiencing the educational equities. Of the 16 staff at Empower this year, 14 identify as Black, Latinx or Asian. If we failed in our goal to hire a diverse founding staff, it wouldn’t have been just another missed metric.
It would have been a collective failure of the hiring team composed of students, parents and staff. The beauty and mess of co-creation is it takes longer but the outcome is more sustainable because the decisions are owned by a collective.
Empower’s vision is “the world is ours”. It was written by a student on our Community Design Team, Jay Carter, who was remixing Nas lyrics. Our mission is authentic education that is led by students, guided by educators, and co-created with community. In 4 years, students experience an Ethnic Studies program seeking to decolonize their perspectives on identity and power, 1-2 hours every day in an instructional block called FLOW where students are supported to develop their own projects that impact the community, and a school model grounded in shared power between students, parents, and educators.
This work is not rocket science and we ought to not treat it as such. It requires values, liberatory mindsets, philosophies and pedagogies, diverse talent, financial resources, and accountability systems aligned to what our communities value. If we approach this work in a spirit of community, we can birth the education system our children deserve.
“Community is the spirit, the guiding light of the tribe, whereby people come together in order to fulfill a specific purpose, to help others fulfill their purpose, and to take care of one another. The goal of the community is to make sure that each member of the community is heard and is properly giving the gifts he has brought to this world. Without this giving, the community dies. And without the community, the individual is left without a place where he can contribute. The community is that grounding place where people come and share their gifts and receive from others.” -Sobonfu E. Somé, The Spirit of Intimacy
Wisdom Amouzou’s life goal is infusing an African spirit and love
ethic in all he does–whether it’s singing in harmony with The Storytellers, writing tall tales or co-creating a community high school in Aurora. He currently serves as Cofounder & Executive Director of Empower Community High School.