What does equity in education look like? UAlbany exhibit featuring students, teachers explores topic

GUILDERLAND — Three times over, the white teacher made the same comment, followed by the same question, to Leanne Airhienbuwa, who is Black:

“I really like your hair. Am I allowed to say that?”

It was only the 17-year-old’s second time wearing her hair natural to Guilderland High School — she had stopped for a while after her peers kept touching her hair the first time she wore it natural, even when she asked them not to. If there were more widespread education about racial justice and cultural sensitivity, maybe she wouldn’t have to deal with such microaggressions at school, Airhienbuwa thought to herself.

A new project in the Capital Region has been addressing the root of that question: What does equity in education mean and look like? What can we dream into possibility?

A collaboration between the University at Albany’s School of Education and the Capital District Writing Project, “Freedom Dreaming for Educational Justice” is a writing and visual arts program that brought together teachers, administrators, mental health professionals and K-12 students from across the Capital Region to examine social and racial justice in education.

“For so many students, school can be a place of joy and learning and understanding. But for so many others, that can also be a place of pain and struggle and silence,” said Kelly Wissman, director of the Freedom Dreaming project and a professor and department co-chair at UAlbany’s education school.

The program started in September, and through numerous workshops, classes and group discussions over the months, participants used art to relay what their hopes are for the future of education.

The racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 during a police encounter in Minneapolis was a turning point for educators, particularly as students voice the need for more inclusion and representation at school. And as issues around education and curriculum become hot-button topics across the country, from banning books to debates about how to teach about racism, the need to create that space for students became even more evident.

“Teachers are mainly waiting, and we know with the questions around equity and justice, we cannot fully understand the story – kids have to tell that story,” said Amy Salamone, an English teacher at Guilderland High School. “This group of educators, we were like, ‘How are we contributing to or disrupting the narrative that continues oppression in our schools, whether it’s your curriculum, books, microaggressions?’ Because something isn’t working, and people are being killed. Our students are not safe.”

And so the teachers turned to the students to learn.

During one workshop that invited middle and high school students, educators were struck by the incisive and powerful criticisms students offered of what the education system has meant for them. The educators left the workshop asking, “Why aren’t we having students at the table for every one of these conversations?”

So students like Airhienbuwa and her peer, Abigayle Tyson, who are, respectively, vice president and president of the Black Student Union at Guilderland High, were brought into the program.

They did workshops teaching educators how they organized an anti-hate rally at their school. They talked about the microaggressions they experienced in school, such as the comments about their natural hair. And they offer insight into the lack of representation among their teachers and peers, as well as their educational materials.

“I wish our English and history curriculum would encompass more Black voices, because I think a lot of the books we read are focused on the white perspective of Black people — especially with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” said Airhienbuwa. “I wish we had Black authors that were celebrated in those classes.”

Tyson noted that the BSU advocated for a Black history course at the school, but that she would want to see it offered as a core class in social studies, not just an elective.

For the students, the workshops were a fulfilling opportunity to see first-hand how others are advocating for them, as well as to explore their own dreams.

Incorporating art into the program is intentional, and a core aspect of it — and the participants’ creations will be on display at an exhibit in UAlbany’s Fine Arts Building starting June 10.

“I think the arts give us that place to live in a space of imagination and possibility, which is what I think will help us to… work towards a better system for us and for our students,” Wissman said.

Airhienbuwa and Tyson both have the same favorite piece of art they saw a peer create during a self-portrait session: the student drew a silhouette of herself, and then wrote the words of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, within that silhouette.

“The power of the 13th Amendment paired with a Black girl — that, for me, was just really inspiring and empowering,” Tyson said.

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