This week on Beyond the Letters, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts speak with Shamari Reid about doing the personal work that leads to living authentically, and fostering safe and inclusive spaces. Shamari is a doctoral candidate in the department of curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently, he is engaged in his dissertation work which explores the agency of Black LGBTQ+ youth in New York City. Read his full bio below, and check out more of his work at www.shamarireid.com
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Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Maggie: Hi everyone. I am Maggie Beattie Roberts.
Kate: And this is Kate Roberts.
Maggie: Welcome to the podcast. If you've been listening to the series, you know that we like to start off thinking about why we are doing this podcast.
Kate: So why are we doing this podcast?
Maggie: All right. Today, I was thinking that one reason that I really wanted to do this podcast is I left my classroom in Chicago a decade ago and I've been guest teaching in classrooms all over the country since then. It's given me this beautiful opportunity to see so many different schools in so many different areas, like rural America and urban America, and I just every day gets surprised by all these new classroom environments. I get to see, and I don't know if I've told you this, Kate, but recently, I walked into a school that... it just had great representation. That's the best way I can describe it.
It just was this place where I could just tell that so many different kinds of kids and teachers could see themselves in this place and I literally, like cried. I was just in the hallway, late to my classroom teaching demo, just in tears because you know, just thinking how powerful that is for all the different shades of the kids' identity to be reflected in a place that they spend so much time. So just a big shout out to the schools that are creating those environments.
Kate: Well and that you see that it's possible, right? Like what's possible out there that it matters.
Maggie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kate: We are lucky today because we have a guest that embodies that possibility. I can't help but smile when I introduce Shamari Reid. Teacher, scholar, activist. A doctoral student at Teachers College Columbia University and an Adjunct Faculty member at Hunter College, specializes in curriculum and teaching and teacher preparation and I cannot wait to talk to you today. Welcome, Shamari
Shamari: Hi. Thank you for that beautiful welcome. I'm smiling too.
Kate: Yes, oh good. There's so much I want to talk about and know about your story. I spent time on your website and there are so many different places I could start our conversation and then like tell me about your story, Shamari, but one thing I was thinking about was, was there a critical moment that led to the teacher that you are today, the teacher that you have become? What's a spotlight in your story that you could share with us as we begin?
Shamari: Oh Wow. What a beautiful question. You know, I would have to say that there are probably critical moments, plural, for me. When I reflect on who I am as a teacher now, as someone who embraces all of my identities, that was a gradual process. I think it began probably about four years ago where I gradually began stepping into my power, and by stepping into my power, I mean stepping into my truth. Because I do personally believe that there is power in knowing who you are and being true to it. Because when you know who you are, then people can't tell you who you are. And so my stepping into that role was ongoing. It began 2015, 2016, New York City, and it was because for the first time, I was in a city where people were embracing their authentic selves and I was not. It invited me to be more critical of the way that I wasn't walking in my full power.
So with each day, with each train ride, I started trying to live in ways that were congruent with my soul, in ways that were authentic. Naturally for me, they also appeared in my teaching because for me, my teaching is not divorced or separated from my personal life. Teaching for me is very personal. Teaching for me is very political. So as I began to walk in my power and in my truth at home and in the streets, consequently I began to do those same things in the classroom. It's gradual and I'm probably now at a space where I would say I am the most powerful because I'm the most authentic version of myself I ever have been.
Which goes back to the website you mentioned. I launched that as a way to not reintroduce myself to the world, but to say, this is who I am. This is how I want to show up. This is how I want to live my life, and I'm inviting all of you to come along for the ride. You may like things that I say, you may not, but know that they're always true, that they're always who I am and reflective of how I understand myself and the moment and the time in which I wrote them.
Maggie: Yes. Can we just take a moment for New York City? You know what I mean? Can we just take a moment? You know, we're just reflecting your words back, that you were in a place where people knew who they were and we didn't, you know, and that just the power that a community can bring to somebody who is evolving or not yet knowing all the truth that they are. It makes me think about the settings of our world, the settings of our classrooms, the settings of our teacher preparation programs. Because I'm just so grateful that you work with future teachers and you help create these settings for teachers to find themselves at that level.
Kate: I think that idea of naming your truth, it's so universal, right? Like this podcast is focusing on our queer identities, but like how powerful it is to be able to know who you are and how long that takes for me, for so many people.
I think education is a tricky place, right? Because you're a teacher and there's this identity. I think sometimes it supposed to be a certain way, but our kids want us, right? They don't need to know our private lives. They don't want to know about my, you know, credit card debt ...
Maggie: My credit card debt ...
Kate: But they want the real me, right? Not like a version of me that seems sanitized in some way.
Shamari: Right, right. I didn't share this before, but now I'm thinking about it when you speak of New York City. My first day here, I remember riding the J train and I was leaving the backside of Brooklyn to go somewhere in the city. I grew up in Oklahoma City, and so I grew up in a place that many would refer to as probably the center of the Bible Belt and so religion is very pervasive. Because of the sometimes narrow interpretation of religion, people have a hard time accepting things they might not understand like queerness. What I learned then was to fade into the background. I learned to be invisible. I never thought it would be possible for me to hold my partner's hand or express affection.
But on the J train that day, I look over and there was this beautiful, beautiful, queer couple. Two beautiful men, and they were laying on each other. I became terrified, because in my mind, they were going to be bullied or harassed. I was like, "Oh no, we're going to approach the next stop. People are going to get on and surely they're going to say something." But to my surprise, people got on and they smiled and they applauded. I was like, "Whoa, where am I?" Where we can celebrate queer identity. Wow!
Shamari: And I know right then, I was like, "I belong here, I belong here." I took a photo of them, this is unethical, that I keep sometimes.
Maggie: We're saying our truth here, Shamari
Kate: You need it. It's maybe unethical, but you need it.
Shamari: I had to document that moment. So some days, where there are dark days that we all have, I pull that photo out and I'd say, "This is what's possible. This is what's possible."
Kate: That's beautiful.
Maggie: That whole thing about learning to be invisible, your words, you know, just the years of learning to be invisible and I wonder about our kids, our kindergartners, our third graders or eighth graders, our 12th graders. I could continue, right, of how do we help kids unlearn that, if it has been learned or prevent that. If I angle it to your expertise of working with teachers and as a teacher yourself, what can educators do to help dismantle some of that?
Shamari: Absolutely. I think this is the question I probably get most often, right? Because we talk, I think we talk a little bit about the dangers, right, and the violence that may come from that sort of forced invisibility. But then we don't talk enough about the solutions. So what I found in my work, both as a teacher and now as a teacher educator, is that we have to spend some time, whether we are pre-service teachers or in-service teachers, thinking about who it is we are and thinking about our identities. Even if we don't identify as queer, but reflecting on, "What are the identities that make up who I am?" And working toward an understanding of the notion that these identities will inform what I teach. They will inform what I choose to include or exclude in my curriculum. Also if I am unaware of how my identities very much influence the way that I interact with the world and the way that it interacts with me, it might be also difficult for me to understand how my students are going through the world as young, beautiful people with identities.
I have to first start with myself. I tell teachers all the time, and I use this analogy of a pie. Let's imagine you're a pie. Think about all the slices that make you up. Write them down, reflect on them, ones that may be salient for you in certain spaces but not on others, but think about all your slices. Then ask yourself, "How might these slices inform how I teach?" That teaching of course will have consequences for our students, including our queer students, and other students. I have to begin to interrogate where certain beliefs about certain identities live within me. I don't think we do enough of that work, and so then we get into classrooms and we have these beautifully crafted curricula. But if I still don't believe that queerness is appropriate, for example, in the classroom, I might opt to exclude it anyway.
So I have to become aware of my own beliefs about queerness. For example, in kindergarten classroom, and I have to be honest and ask myself, why might I think this is appropriate or inappropriate. Then understand that by excluding something from the curriculum that you found inappropriate, you are inviting students to do a series of different things. Sometimes invisibilize themselves, right? And I use it as a verb, but to render themselves invisible. Sometimes you invite them to not see that inherent humanity in their peers.
So it comes back to us. To us as people, we have to explore and make sense of our own identities, whatever they are, and understand that they might inform how we are thinking about or not thinking about the identities of others. I think that is the, for me, critical work that I would sort of charge any teacher with before or while they're in the classroom working with the future.
Maggie: Yes, and just even too, I'm struck by the pre-service and the in-service teacher. I think about my young, collegiate undergrad self, and having some time to really explore those different intersections of who I am. And I can kind of take that into the classroom, and then I have standards, and assessments, and forms, and all these mandates.
This idea of how do we preserve space when I'm a year into teaching, 5 years into teaching, 30 years into teaching, as our culture and our humanity evolves, to continue to make space of that work of reflecting on, "Well, who am I today?" Right? "What are my identities today?" And this idea as you're talking about this critical work that our curriculum needs to be an invitation to all.
Shamari: Of course.
Maggie: How you tether what we might deem as inappropriate, then condones invisibility. And that just can't be.
Shamari: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, no that's powerful what you just shared. I think because we hear from teachers, and we are teachers too, that idea that we already have so many things to do. I have many teachers who tell me, "Shamari, this work sounds beautiful, but I have standards. I have to test prep. I already have to have five or six meetings with students' parents. I don't know where I'm going to find time and space to do this work."
What I offer, or how I respond is, "I'm not asking you to do anything additional, or to do anything extra. I'm asking you to think about how you approach what you're already doing." What I'm offering, I think is a mindset, and it's an approach. It's a reflective process in which you come to better understand who you are teaching, how you teach, and why you teach. It's not additional thing on the checklist, but I'm offering lenses, right? Or a pair of glasses through which I want you to see your work.
Kate: That's right-
Shamari: To begin asking those critical questions, and so it's not, for me ... and I think everyone has their own take on it. But for me, I'm not offering an additional toolkit, or a checklist, I am offering an invitation to put on these critical glasses through which you begin to see yourself as someone who has multiple identities, and how they might influence who you are, and how you are, in your classroom.
Kate: With our work, Maggie and I both used to work at the reading and writing project out of Teachers College. One of the things that we looked at when looking at issues of social justice was being able to identify these parts of ourselves and think through which of these identities give us power, choice, and voice; and which of these identities muffle that power, choice, and voice, or take it away, right? Which makes it harder, which makes it easier, and thinking about those balances, and being able to reflect in that way.
I think the other thing you said that's so powerful is the idea of it isn't about adding something in. It's not about shoving in a social issues unit, right-
Shamari: Right. Right.
Kate: ... into your unit] or adding a novel to your study or something else. But it's about changing how you view yourself, your students, and the role of the classroom.
Shamari: Yes. It's a shift in your beliefs. I think if you were to really analyze, intentionally and deeply, the tenants of, I don't know, culturally relevant teaching, or responsive teaching, or sustaining. What they, for me, are all built on is a set of core beliefs that can lead to certain practices. But there are certain beliefs that you have about yourself, about the work of teaching, and about your students.
Those beliefs will inform your attitude, which become actions, which produce different consequences. And we know I understand consequences and as the life role of students. But if we want different consequences, we need different beliefs.
Maggie: How would you recommend ... you know, if a teacher is, again, listening to you and thinking, "Yes, yes. I need to do this work." And also confronted with the crush of daily life, right? And the to do list a thousand miles long. What are some ways that you've guided your students to do this belief work, to uncover our beliefs, and interrogate them a bit?
Shamari: Absolutely. Wonderful question. I have to take a moment to highlight the work of a scholar, who I love, who I've worked with, and who has taught me more than she'll ever know, Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz in the Department of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Working with her, I learned how to invite people to begin asking themselves questions. Questions about where certain beliefs and ideologies about other people live within them. There are many different ways she takes that up, but one that I found helpful is journaling. Asking teachers to maybe just find five, ten minutes before the lesson, after the lesson, whenever you have time, and just journal, and just write about where you think certain beliefs come from that you have, where certain beliefs that might be dangerous to live within you.
But I think the work that she calls the archaeology of the self, and these are again her words and her terms, so please credit her. But this work is internal, it's personal. I don't think you should write to share with anyone. I don't think you have to dialogue with anyone. These are personal questions.
And so when you sit with yourself, and you're having your preferred drink, coffee, tea, wine, ask yourself these questions. And maybe think about how you can write them out to reflect on them later. That's also going to serve as a way to document your growth as you grow your beliefs, or you don't. But I think even that realization went well. I feel the same way I felt a year ago, is also powerful. Because knowing that you're aware of it, you can think through what might you need to do differently to work toward growing your beliefs in different ways.
The work itself, for me, is internal work, it's personal work, and I allot in my class time for pre-service teachers, in-service teachers, to do that work. We'll spend 30 minutes perhaps every class just writing, engaging questions and prompts. Not to be shared out, ever, but just to reflect on. And many of them have come back after a few years later, and have expressed their gratitude. Basically saying, "Thank you for inviting me to ask these questions that I wasn't asking myself. But now that I've begun, I can't stop."
Kate: I love that.
Maggie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kate: Shamari, I hate to put you on the spot, but do you have any of those prompts or questions on the tip of your tongue, particularly around LGBTQ kids and teachers?
Shamari: Absolutely. One that I would say for anyone who's listening, if they have a piece of paper right now with a little bit of time, just ask yourself how do you feel about issues of queerness? How do you feel when you hear the words queer or LGBTQ+? What images come up for you? What words come up for you, what phrases come up for you? Just document those, jot them down. Be honest, be open, be vulnerable.
Then after you've done that, then ask yourself: what might your jottings tell you about yourself, and what might they mean for your relationship to queerness, for example, and your ability, or inability, to incorporate conversations around identities other than heterosexuality, or heteronormativity, in your classroom.
It starts with first you have to unearth it. We can't even begin to ask the question of what does this mean. But what comes up for you when you hear queer? What do you see? Who do you see? And then after, you have to ask yourself why do you see that in that way?
Maggie: Thank you for that. It feels like it just frames teaching as, yes, this investigation of others-
Shamari: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maggie: ... and the investigation of knowledge, but really the investigation of yourself.
Maggie: And you being a voice, and a guiding light back to the practitioner, the person behind the words, the person behind the choices. That can get so lost in the bells ringing, and the papers shuffling. Yet the way you speak about it, reminds us how critical that investigation of self is, because everything filters through me as a teacher, right?
That I'm this conduit for texts, and messages, and content decisions. Your words help interrupt that trance that I think that we can get in in the classroom, and in education of all the things coming out us, and your tips encourage us to go within-
Maggie: ... and keep that within nurtured, healthy.
Shamari: It's a call to remember that even as teachers, we are humans too.
Kate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shamari: And we have to be able to see our own humanity, if in fact we want to venture to see the humanity, the inherent humanity in our students. We can't dehumanize ourselves in the process. And that's when it goes back to be that teaching is personal, and for some, it's political, because it's human work. You're working with the hearts and minds of young people informed by your own heart and mind as a person.
Kate: That was so beautiful. I feel like you should record a series of cassette tapes or-
Maggie: I'm just going to call it Shamari All the Time. I just was Shamari all the time.
Kate: ... Oh my Lord.
Maggie: You know, I was thinking Shamari, if you were to go back to your pre-New York City self, if you were able to go back to that kid in Oklahoma, for me, I was a kid from Southern Illinois, what would you say to him?
Shamari: You are enough.
Kate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shamari: You are enough. You don't have to be anything that doesn't feel real for you, or to you. Because I think for a very long time, maybe even after my first six months in New York City, I was performing. Because it was how I was socialized to be. When people saw me, they wanted me to be someone else. And so I gave them that, because I wanted acceptance, and I wanted love.
I found that the way to get it, whether it was authentic or not, I wasn't worried about, but the way to get attention and love was to perform the role that everyone assigned to me as this young, black, they didn't want me to be queer, boy growing up in Oklahoma City, and so I gave them that. I would just tell that five year old, I think is when I began performing, I remember I was five, that you're enough, that you don't have to play these roles, you don't have to memorize the lines that were given to you by someone else who wrote a play for your life that isn't really authentic to who you are. You can just be yourself, and that you're enough.
Kate: What a great message to send to our students, right? That they don't have to perform otherness, that we want to create climates where they can perform their authentic selves. You've got us speechless Shamari.
Shamari: Sorry, I mean, I just...
Kate: It's beautiful.
Kate: I'm feeling everything. I think you're speaking to something so deep in us, and so often not talked about in education by me, by everybody, of who are you, what is your truth, what is your authentic self, how are you finding time to reflect on how you really feel about things that are happening in your classroom and in your world. Especially as it relates to the LGBTQ+ community. Just really some of those prompts of, like, let's just take a moment. How do I feel right now in this moment about queerness, about gender identity, about all of these things? Kids that might be questioning, where am I with that?
I think there's another kind of performing that's happening these days, which is the flip side performance, where I might perform a kind of progressive Liberalism, because I know that's what's sort of expected of me. Of course I accept gay people, of course I'm anti-racist, right? But sometimes I notice in the work I'm doing that when you push at that a little bit, you realize that there's not, it doesn't mean that people don't actually feel it or that I don't actually believe in it, but I haven't had that time to get those messages in my roots and to struggle with them against all the other stuff that's rolling around inside of me.
Shamari: Which is why that work of doing it alone is so important, because you can. For me, I cannot lie to myself. I can say things, but deep down inside I know they aren't true, and so while it might be easier for me to fain certain things for other people, to perform for others, when I'm alone in my home and someone asks me how I feel about queerness and I have to go and sit with my own words, I can't lie to myself. What's going to come up for me is going to be real. I can choose to not engage with it and move on, but I think what we're inviting teachers to do is to resist that desire to disengage because it might be uncomfortable, and to begin to dig deeper, and to do it alone. You're not performing for anyone, you don't have to be correct even.
I think sometimes it's like, "I want to say the things that are correct, I don't want to offend you." No, it's you and yourself. You're not going to offend yourself, so be honest with yourself, be honest about where you stand, because something I also want to offer is at five years old, I was thinking about it, and so this idea that teachers, you aren't the only ones. At five years old, I was thinking about my identities, plural, and how I showed up in the world, and I didn't have the language, right? I wasn't thinking about am I queer, am I not? But I was thinking like, "Hey, I actually don't want to do that thing, I want to do this thing, or I like this, I prefer that color." I was trying to find myself, I was looking for representation and it was never affirmed or confirmed by my teacher, perhaps because she wasn't thinking about it.
In her mind, well-intentioned, but consequently she was erasing me, because I never saw myself in a classroom ever. I wonder how might my life have been different if she had just thought about different things and reflected on it, if it would have changed her practice at all and I wouldn't have had to learn how to perform my own erasure really, right? And then have to unlearn years later in New York City where I see these two men engaging in public displays of affection and I'm scared for them. That was me trying to erase them too, because I had been taught that to survive as a queer person you have to erase that part of you, or at least hide it. And so I would just remind teachers that at five, I was thinking about it. I can't speak for all youth, LGBTQ+ youth, and I will not, but I can say that at five years I was thinking about all kinds of things. It's not always related to sexual acts, it was not that for me, but I was thinking about different things that I wanted to do but that I was told that I couldn't because I identified as a cisgender boy, a male boy. It sort of foreclosed for me opportunities to be my full self.
Kate: We could do this all night, but we do have to start to wrap up our time.
Maggie: I'm already looking at my calendar of when I'm passing through New York City.
Maggie: Pop on up there to Harlem and we can catch a cup of coffee.
Shamari: Yes, yes, yes.
Kate: But we do have a way of closing that has a potential tone shift in a way, but we like to close our podcast out with...
Maggie: The closing five.
Maggie: Five questions, prompts, things we would love to hear your answers to, because it will only add to the layers of Shamari. Are you ready for the first one?
Shamari: I am ready.
Kate: All right. Number one, "You'll never see me without my..."
Kate: Oh, yes. Describe, please, what do they look like?
Shamari: Well, so, I have a lot. I actually have a box, and I tell folks if you have seen me without my earrings, you should consider yourself very special, because I wear them everywhere. I take them off and close and lock my door, and then I put them on before I unlock my door, and so no one's really ever seen me without them.
Maggie: That's amazing.
Kate: What are the ones that you are wearing right now, if you are wearing them?
Shamari: Yeah, of course. They're these sort of diamond, really small diamond studs. Those are my favorite. I was into hoops for a while, like gold hoops I've been doing all of 2019. They work, but today I want to keep it traditional because I knew I was going to be talking with you all and I was like, "Well, what makes me feel the most like myself and the most comfortable?" So my first pair actually were these sort of square shaped diamond studs, and I got them when I was 17. I had to fight my mother for them, and I got them, and you know when you get earrings they say you can't take them out for, I forget how many months, I grew attached and I was like, "I am never taking these out." And I did, because of hygiene, but then I put new ones in, right? Over the years I've experimented from different shapes, to large ones to small ones, to ones that dangle, but I love my earrings.
Maggie: That's it.
Kate: That's a good one.
Maggie: That's a good one.
Kate: I mean, this might go to the second question.
Maggie: It might go to the second question.
Kate: Which is, "My favorite article of clothing..."
Shamari: Blue jeans.
Kate: Oh yeah.
Shamari: Blue jeans.
Maggie: Nice classic.
Shamari: I tell everyone I am jeans person. If I can wear jeans, and a t-shirt and jeans specifically. Please don't make me put on a tie or a blazer or a vest, please. Let me wear a t-shirt and jeans and I'm happy.
Kate: That's it. Your first concert?
Shamari: Beyonce's I Am world tour. It was a birthday gift.
Maggie: Are you serious?
Shamari: I had a pretty good start to live music.
Kate: I mean, you took my breath away with your words before, but you just took my breath away now. That is unbelievable.
Maggie: Lifeless, I am done, I am on the floor. Are you serious?
Shamari: Yes, and my sister gifted that to me and four of my friends, so I actually asked her, like I don't know where she got the money because we had pretty good seats, but...
Maggie: Oh, incredible.
Kate: Don't ask questions, just go.
Maggie: Just take the tickets.
Shamari: So that was amazing, and I've been to, I think five Beyonce concerts since then.
Maggie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kate: Mm-hmm (affirmative). After the podcast, we will tell you our Beyonce story.
Maggie: I was about to tell it live right now.
Kate: You can tell it live if you want. I embrace it.
Shamari: I want to hear it.
Kate: I just want to say, being next to Kate Roberts at a Beyonce concert is the best.
Shamari: Oh, I love-
Kate: First queer icon?
Shamari: First one? Big Frieda, Queen of Bounce Music in New Orleans.
Kate: We have our hands up.
Maggie: We have our hands up.
Shamari: Yep, Big Freedia all the way.
Kate: And now fifth question, current queer icon?
Shamari: Indya Moore, star of FX Pose.
Kate: Oh, beautiful.
Shamari: She's just a young honest voice, and I'm like, wow, you're so honest, so authentic, so who you are, you're so beautiful. At what age? Like, how have you?
Kate: I know, I know.
Shamari: ...walk in your power so early. She's an inspiration to me, I'm constantly rethinking the way that I do life because of her, and how can I be more honest and more authentic and walk even more in my power, because she's very vocal, even if it sometimes results in her being uninvited from certain spaces. She's always, she's just herself every time.
Kate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maggie: That's it. Well, that is a beautiful place to close, Shamari. Thank you so much.
Shamari: Thank you, all.
Maggie: For your voice, your beauty.
Shamari: Thank you for the beautiful, beautiful opportunity.
Kate: Absolutely. We'll stay in touch.
Shamari: Thank you.
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Shamari Reid is a doctoral candidate in the department of curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently, he is engaged in his dissertation work which explores the agency of Black LGBTQ+ youth in New York City. He has taught at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels in Oklahoma, New York, Uruguay, and Spain. He is committed to teaching for social justice. He believes Black lives matter; he proudly proclaims that love is love. Oh, and he has a small addiction to chocolate chip cookies. You can follow him on twitter @shamarikreid and engage with more of his work on shamarireid.com