In Black America

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January 26, 2020

Dr. Monique W. Morris (Ep. 8, 2020)

By: John L. Hanson

This week, In Black America producer and host John L. Hanson, Jr. speaks with Dr. Monique W. Morris, social justice scholar, author o f Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, and founder and President of The National Black Women’s Justice Institute.

Intro Music [00:00:08] The In Black America theme music, an instrumental by Kyle Turner.

Announcer [00:00:15] From the University of Texas at Austin, KUT Radio, this is In Black America.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:00:23] Unfortunately, what we’ve been finding is that Black girls continue to be the only group of girls who are overrepresented across the spectrum of discipline in schools and at every educational level in their educational journey. And so that has continued to, you know, sort of lead our inquiry around how we interrupt these cycles, how we elevated in the consciousness, how we elevated in the consciousness of those who are working in schools, who have children in schools, who are concerned about what goes on in schools. But also, you know, in the course of having these conversations about the problem, I have discovered a number of programs and strategies that have done tremendous work with our girls that have, you know, really discovered pathways in the schools, outside of the schools and in partnership with schools to transform the conditions that are really at the root cause of much of the behavior that girls end up in trouble for in schools.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:01:15] Dr. Monique W. Morris, social justice scholar and author of Single Rhythm Dance The Blues Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, published by the New Press. Maurice is also the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute. Maurice is a fighter. For more than three decades, she has fought for the liberation of Black and brown girls attending our public schools around the world. Black girls are being pushed out of school because of the policies that target them for punishment. The result countless girls are forced into unsafe futures were restricted opportunities. In her latest book, Sing A Rhythm Dance, the Blues marches in a clarion call for educators, parents and anyone who has a stake in a better tomorrow to transform schools to places where learning and collective healing can flourish. I’m John L. Hanson Jr. And welcome to another edition of In Black America. On this week’s program, Singing Rhythm, Dance the Blues Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, with author Dr. Monique W. Morris In Black America.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:02:23] Our research is showing and the research of others and other folks who have been engaged in this work, you know, both at the advocacy level and at the academic levels, they’re finding that Black girls are experiencing, you know, a form of adult ification when they’re in and out of schools. Identification is a term that has been deeply explored by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, that that shows how adults are reading the behaviors of Black girls to be more adult like than their white peers, which means that they’re seeing our girls as needing less protection, less nurturing, less comforting, that they are believed to be more independent and to know more about adult subjects such as sex than their white counterparts. And all of this really begins when Black girls are five years old and it peaks when they’re between the ages of ten and 14, which is also when we see peaks in their contact with disciplinary actions in schools.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:03:20] And the follow up to a critically acclaimed book, Push Out Social Justice, scholar and author Dr. Monique W Morse has pushed the envelope further in writing her latest book, Sing A Rhythm Dance, a bluesy travel from Oakland to Ohio and from New York to Iowa City and beyond, she describes with candor and love what it looks like to meet the complex needs of girls on the margin. In doing so, she offered a collection of ideas from educators who are attuned to the patterns of pain and struggle and who show how adults working in schools can harness their wisdom to partner with students and help the girls they teach, find value and joy in learning. Far too often, these young ladies on giving the benefit of the doubt. Many are misunderstood, thereby putting them on the path to incarceration. Singer Rhythm Dance of Blues A Guide to Move Away from Punishment, Trauma and Discrimination towards safety, Justice and Genuine Community in Our schools. Recently In Black America spoke with Dr. Morse.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:04:23] This is actually my fifth book. I did a street novel called Three Beautiful Four Words, and then I also worked with Kemba Smith on her.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:04:30] Biography, right? That’s right, I did. I did read that high as can be doing.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:04:35] She’s doing well from all I can see. She is. She’s thriving. It’s it’s wonderful to see.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:04:40] What particularly drew you to education.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:04:42] I started my life in education. I was teaching very young. And, you know, I had sort of veered away from teaching and moved into research and policy for a while, though never fully releasing education as an important focal point in my work. And I started to talk more intensely about the just the discipline disparities after seeing data that was showing that African-American girls were experiencing exclusionary discipline is. Engines, expulsions, etc., at higher rates than their white counterparts. And so I understand and have always understood education to be a critical protective factor against contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system is one of the reasons I call it freedom work. And when I see these interruptions taking place and this criminalization occurring of our girls, you know, it was really important for me to be a part of a community, to elevate the issue, but also to examine some of the solutions to this crisis thus far.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:05:45] What are some of the analysis that you’ve come up with on this journey?

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:05:49] Well, unfortunately, what we’ve been finding is that Black girls continue to be the only group of girls who are overrepresented across the spectrum of discipline in schools and at every educational level in their educational journey. And so, you know, that has continued to, you know, sort of lead our inquiry around how we interrupt these cycles, how we elevated in the consciousness, how we elevated in the consciousness of those who are working in schools, who have children in schools, who are concerned about what goes on in schools. But also, you know, in the course of having these conversations about the problem, I have discovered a number of programs and strategies that have done tremendous work with our girls that have, you know, really discovered pathways in the schools, outside of the schools and in partnership with schools to transform the conditions that are really at the root cause of much of the behavior that girls end up in trouble for in schools. And so it’s a tail of concern in terms of wanting to address a critical issue that, you know, really should be at the forefront of folks minds. But also, I would say, you know, an inspiring tale of how when we understand there’s a problem and set our intentions to shift the outcomes, we actually do it.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:07:00] And how did you come up with the title?

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:07:03] So sing a rhythm, Dance a blues Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls. I think the framework of it being, you know, sort of rooted in the musical traditions and artistic traditions of the Black community, you know, sort of came organically to me. I write in the introduction about a grainy black and white video that I was watching of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit. And as I was discovering what was happening on the road and sort of interacting with many Black women and girls, specifically in communities and, you know, dozens of communities, it occurred to me that obviously what we’re experiencing is a form of the blues, but that we shouldn’t only see the blues as a limit. We shouldn’t only limit the blues to entertainment or see it as a vessel for the expression of pain. I felt that it was important in in observing some of the traditions rooted in the blues and some of the practices in our own communities throughout the country. To recognize that the blues is a platform for truth telling that would then enable us to really seek and obtain the healing that is necessary for us to move forward in this work.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:08:13] You write about in the book that African-Americans and Latinos, girls and indigenous girls are struggling to realize their true identity as scholars making that point, what do you see some of the detriments that’s going on in between those four walls?

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:08:29] Well, our research is showing and the research of other folks who have been engaged in this work, you know, both at the advocacy level and at the academic levels, they’re finding that Black girls are experiencing, you know, a form of adult ification when they’re in and out of schools. Identification is a term that has been deeply explored by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality that has that shows how adults are reading the behaviors of Black girls to be more adult like than their white peers, which means that they’re seeing our girls as needing less protection, less nurturing, less comforting, that they are believed to be more independent and to know more about adult subjects such as sex than their white counterparts. And all of this really begins when Black girls are five years old and it peaks when they’re between the ages of ten and 14, which is also when we see peaks in their contact with disciplinary actions in schools. And so it’s really important to understand that when we render our girls as more adult like than they actually are, then we believe that they’re in greater control of their behaviors than they actually are developmentally. And it just feeds into a cycle where our girls are perceived as defiant and sassy and loud, problematic or bad real words that we assign to our young people in schools or girls especially, that disproportionately renders them vulnerable to being taken out of school, which then, of course, places them at risk of participating in underground economies and being in contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system. So these are the cycles we’re trying to disrupt are the readings of Black girl behaviors, the increasing ways in which Latino girls and indigenous girls are also being criminalized in schools. And also the elements that we can put in place to structure true accountability and to, you know, really respond to much of what underlies the negative behavior, which in most cases with our girls is a traumatic event or, you know, a sort of set of conditions that present harm in their lives.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:10:35] Have you put your hand on where this particular mindset came from?

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:10:38] So that’s something I explored and push out, which, you know, obviously is about the the vestiges of slavery and the ways in which the formation and misinterpretation of Black girlhood has rendered our girls today vulnerable to being treated according to some of the historical stereotypes and tropes that follow Black girls into womanhood. The idea that, you know, Black girls are loud or, you know, comes from our sapphire narrative that bell hooks gave us the, you know, sort of building off of the narratives of seeing Black girls as hypersexual, seeing Black girls as more adult, like feeds directly into the narratives around the domesticated perception associated with mammy tropes. So, you know, our consciousness is formed by a host of things. And even as we look at our girls today and we see how, you know, sort of renderings of Black girls survival are policed in a way that render them vulnerable to being seen as problematic, you know, you know, a ratchet or, you know, any of the other terms that we use sort of indiscriminately to describe the, you know, survival mechanisms and joy sometimes of Black girls is problematic, is it is rooted in a sort of deep seated presentation of what constitutes a good girl and, you know, the respectability politics that follow how we believe young people grow and should act. Some of that has been a part of, you know, survival mechanisms in communities, especially Black communities. But it is important for us to think about how we are also participating in harm whenever we, you know, start to label children and assign negative consequences that can impact their futures in a way that I don’t think we always, you know, thought about. I think for many folks, we think we can sleep, you know, say that and sing rhythm, Dance blues is that we’ve conflated the idea of discipline with accountability when there are two very different or the discipline with punishment and, you know, accountability and punishment. And those are all different things. And so how we think about that, how we move beyond some of the more violent representations of how we respond to young people is what I’m inviting people to do in this book.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:13:00] I found it interesting in the book when you talk about what happens in the home and what type of attitudes students, particularly the girls brain in school, that’s reflective of what’s going on in their real lives?

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:13:15] Yeah, I talk about that in the context of the traumas that do render, you know, Back and brown girls vulnerable to acting out in schools. In my work at the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, you know, and in my other capacities out in the community, I do have an opportunity to talk to women who are formerly incarcerated. And almost all those women, when I talk to them, you know, we’ll say that they had a push out story, right? Or they’ll say that they experienced some sexual violence early in their life that set them off course. And our inability to fully recognize those as traumas, to situate the conversation about sexual violence in this context or conversation about safety and justice in our communities, it does a disservice to Black girls in their ability to fully realize their potential. It is highly disruptive. You know, it’s not something that we can say, Oh, we just live with it. And you know, boys will be boys get over it the way that many of our, you know, previous generations might have treated it. We now understand that to be a survivor of those spaces doesn’t mean that our girls are fine. It means that they are fighting past a condition to try to realize their full potential. And so what I’m talking about is singer, rhythm, dance. The blues is the opportunity for us to say that we know that our girls are disproportionately vulnerable to this kind of violence in their lives. And these disruptions should not be seen as something to sweep under the rug, but to actually invite our girls into a healing process, some of which can begin in schools. But it certainly should continue into communities as well. And that’s something that, you know, is a different kind of conversation about where we locate safety in our communities, in homes. But often when girls are experiencing sexual violence in their communities, they bring it with them to school. And some of the actions and activities that render them vulnerable to that type of violence take place in school. And the institution does have a responsibility. To locate this conversation in the one about safety in schools and to really engage the students themselves really across the gender spectrum, to examine how they can facilitate a safety and an ally ship so that our girls can find opportunities for healing so that they can learn in our schools.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:15:37] If you’re just joining us, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. and you’re listening to In Black America from KUT Radio and we’re speaking with Dr. Monique W. Morris Is co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of Sing a Rhythm Dance the Blues Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girl. Dr. Morris, talk about discipline in the schools, but obviously is having an adverse effect on how these young women are matriculating through our educational system is not working.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:16:08] Yeah. No. The removal of students from the classroom impacts learning time, and it impacts whether they feel they belong in a school. And you know, there are those situations where a young person has, you know, sort of reached a level where they, you know, there are some times when a young person has reached a level where she might have to be asked to leave, but that should be a last resort and it should be done in the context of of healing and an opportunity to come back in and sing a rhythm, dance a blues. I actually offer a strong critique of exclusionary discipline and the idea that when we push kids away, that the system gets better immediately. I think that’s the sort of misrepresentation of what discipline should look like in our schools, is that if we just take this kid out, then suddenly the school system is better. Without considering that part of our work in education is to ensure that we are building out an institution that is responsive to all our children, and that even then that means that we should be concerned about those kids who are not in the classroom as much as we’re concerned about those kids who are in the classroom. I offer several examples. I think what situates, you know, singer rhythm, dance blues differently from the other texts is that I spend time on the road exploring this issue with different communities and happened upon programs and strategies that have figured out ways of doing things differently. And one of the programs that I profile is the Columbia City Prep School for Girls, where the principal at a community meeting stood up and said that she would no longer punish girls for having a bad attitude, which of course caught my attention immediately. But then following up with her and having a chance to visit the school, I saw that she had not only just declared that she was not going to do this anymore, but that she had really situated her staff and faculty in a very strong way to be able to say, you know, to be able to build out an infrastructure and a set of practices that would hold them accountable to that. So, you know, they instantly redid, you know, designed their classrooms the specific way they assigned young people to adults to have stronger relationships. They have regular meetings where they discuss student measurable progress, where they’re able to really have conversations that are specific to the student about what she needs in order to thrive. And all of this is doable. You know, having a set of restorative practices and opportunities for young people to engage in healing, it shouldn’t be that radical. You know, I think that we really should be in a space where we understand that if our young people are asking for their schools to be sanctuaries and really critiquing the fact that they feel like prisons, that that requires us to do something different. And so singing a rhythm dance of blues is evidence that there are schools that are reconsidering this, that are doing things differently, and that is showing positive outcomes. That school in Columbus had a reduction in their truancy rates. They had a reduction in their bullying rates, they had a reduction in their fighting and in their cases better have been assigned to insubordination. So across the board, the fact that they built out relationships with young people and respond to young people in crisis rather than pushing them away, I think, you know, is showing positive academic outcomes as well as positive disciplinary outcomes.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:19:33] You also talk about in the book, when these young women are in the classroom, they’re not learning. So there’s a double edged sword going on. First, they’re being punished for whatever behavior problems that they have, but also they’re not receiving an education.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:19:48] That’s right. You know, the loss of instruction, time is a big deal. Right. And so, you know, again, we should be trying to figure out ways to keep young people in classes rather than figuring out new creative ways to get them out. Right. And so, you know, in push out, you know, the conversations that I had with girls about their push out experience, I talked to them about what they would do when they were out of school. And for the most part, you know, they would describe preparing for fights or they would describe sitting around. Doing nothing. They would describe not having access to their academic material because they felt the school was mad at them or a teacher didn’t like them and didn’t give them the material. What the Columbus City Prep School, you know, to give an example again from that same institution does, is if a student is having a disruption, then they’re placed in a classroom. They don’t even they don’t call it their in-school suspension. But I think in some ways it functions that way. But they provide no child loses an opportunity to have instruction time. So there is somebody working with them in this space always to make sure that they’re doing their work. And the principal herself checks all the work before a student can be sent back to class and released back to class. And so there’s never a loss of emphasis on the fact that young people are there to learn and that our girls can have an opportunity to reengage. Another example that I talk about in the book is from Oakland, the African-American female excellence, where, you know, a girl had a disruption, she cursed at a teacher. It was seen as a violation of set agreements in the classroom, but that she was able to apologize and come back in. And one of the things that sat with me that I share in the book that I think is really important is that the head of the program at the time and Zynga, Douglas, said, you know that it’s important for us to recognize that we have to this work is about forgiveness, right? Like it’s about young people understanding that they can be forgiven if they make a mistake, that this is not a disruption that should sever their relationship with school, but that they should learn from this on how to actually behave and be in community with each other. And that’s what we’re seeking to do, is build out schools that emphasize community and relationships, not that are seen as locations for punishment.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:21:56] I know. That’s right. You having said that, you also talk about in the book about true partnerships for profit and nonprofit companies and not being hypocritical on one hand, but actually buying into the notion that we are partners in this and this endeavor.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:22:14] Yeah, I talk about volunteerism and partnerships to support our girls. And, you know, I think it’s important to know that our schools need us, right? We sort of think about schools as being uniquely, singularly responsible for educating our young people. But we know that’s not true. This is about a partnership. This is about people coming in and supporting people, giving what they have to engage in this conversation about education and to prioritize the supports for our teachers, as well as the administrators who are running these schools with our children. Right. Corporations, often nonprofit agencies, will often say they want to adopt a school or be in partnership with the school. But in my conversations with girls, they know when somebody is in it for just to write it off or to have a commercial and they know when someone’s in it because they actually genuinely care about them. Young people want to know you care about them before anything else. They need to know you care about them before they’ll learn from you. They want to know you care about them before you come into their space of learning. They want to know you care about them. Even if you come regularly and or write a check. They want to know you care. So you know, what I offer is that it’s important for young people to see partnerships with organizations, agencies, institutions that also live by what they say. So if they are causing harm in the community or exploiting the community on one end, but volunteering in the school to say they’re doing something positive on the other, the girls will recognize that hypocrisy. I think, you know, ultimately what I’m what I’m trying to offer is that we should recognize that our young people are smart, right? Our young people are savvy. And when they see this kind of discrepancy in, you know, what is stated and what is performed, they’ll call it out. And the calling out has been, you know, a tradition that has been, you know, a core function of our survival in the United States and elsewhere. And so it is important to just acknowledge that if we are coming in and setting up partnerships, that we have to be, you know, really we have to move with integrity with our young people. And so that’s what that conversation is about.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:24:19] It’s one thing to walk the walk and talk to talk. And you have done both. Tell us about when you volunteered the dance class.

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:24:27] Oh, I, um, yes, I talk about that in opening the track on cause I wrote the book to have tracks instead of chapters interludes to pay homage to the structure of blues and our musical traditions and and our creation of an album. But in that, in that conversation about volunteerism, I do talk about when I was volunteering to teach an African dance class at a school in San Francisco, and the girls loved coming in. I loved coming in. It was an opportunity for me to see, you know, a group of girls every week and to give them a chance to step into their bodies differently, to offer them an opportunity to explore some of the cultural traditions that they didn’t. Regularly have access to. I was just coming off of, you know, having been a performer myself, and so I kind of missed dance and performing and wanted to give back to the community in that way. But what I share is that aside from it being a time for us to connect in our bodies just through dance was it was also a time for the young people to share things about their learning experience and the conditions in the school that also facilitate their wellbeing. And it’s when we started having conversations about food and nutrition and the ways in which they needed to take care for themselves differently in order to perform differently. And without, you know, having had that opportunity to be in community with our girls. I don’t know if we would have discovered that some of our girls were facing food insecurity or that hunger was an issue for so many girls. And it’s really important to think about how we can engage again in the fostering of relationships with our young people rather than just dictating to them what they should be doing or blaming parents for what they should be doing. But we should be in community with our young people to uplift what all of us can do to improve conditions for our children.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:26:22] And reading the book, Dr. Morris, it came to me that some of these educators are not really in tune to the students and which they’re trying to educate. Meaning that there’s a disconnect from their community to their students, community and and upbringing. Am I missing something there?

Dr. Monique W. Morris [00:26:42] I mean, sometimes I mean, what we have is, you know, certainly in an underrepresentation of teachers of color in our schools and we have many educators who are coming into this profession without having done rigorous work around their own biases. And so it is important to, you know, engage in conversations about how to more deeply explore these biases, because they do impact our children. Our children experience them. Educators sometimes don’t recognize how, you know, they are human to write and so are coming into this with their own set of, you know, preconceived notions about communities and about parents and students that can have a negative impact. So it is important to have these kinds of conversations about how that impacts their pedagogical practices, how that impacts whether they are, you know, doing what I call in sing rhythm, dance blues, you know, teaching to the oppression.

John L. Hason Jr. [00:27:40] Dr. Monique W. Morris, a social justice scholar and author of Sing a Rhythm Dance of Blues Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls. If you have questions, comments or suggestions as to a future In Black America programs, email us at inblackamerica@kut.org. Also, let us know what radio station you heard us over. Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. The views and opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of the station or of the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear previous programs online at kut.org. Until we have the opportunity again for technical producer David Alvarez, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next week.

Announcer [00:28:31] CD copies of this program are available and may be purchased by writing to In Black America CD’s, KUT Radio, 300 West Dean Keeton St, Austin, TX 78712. This has been a production of KUT Radio.


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