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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: The Value and Inequity of Identity work with Heinemann Fellow Minjung Pai and Cornelius Minor

felicia-buitenwerf-Qs_Zkak27Jk-unsplashPhoto by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

This week on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re handing things over to Heinemann Fellow, Minjung Pai. This is the fifth episode in a mini-series by Min. We encourage you to go back and listen to previous episodes if you haven’t gotten the chance to hear them yet.

Min teaches fifth and sixth grade in Los Angeles, California. She is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. Min believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact.

In today’s episode, Min sits down with Cornelius Minor. Cornelius is a well-known educator, Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and Heinemann author,best known for his book We Got This. Min and Cornelius talked about the core values of identity work, and how it informs their education practices…


Below is a full transcript of this episode.

Min: Well, hello Cornelius.

Cornelius: Hello Min, I am so thrilled to be on this podcast with you. This is a bit of a dream come true for me.

Min: Oh my goodness. It's a dream come true for me. Thank you so much for being on this podcast. Who knew, all those years ago when I followed you on Twitter, that we'd be doing this together? So thank you very much.

Cornelius: Absolutely.

Min: I would love to start off with the question of what does identity work mean to you and how has it impacted you and your pedagogy?

Cornelius: Well Min, identity work is everything. It's the stuff that I do when I get up out of bed in the morning and I'm brushing my teeth. Identity work is the stuff that I do when I'm on the subway, and I'm on the way to school. Identity work is the stuff that I do when I'm choosing what newspaper, or what article, or what book that I'm going to read while I'm on the way to school. Identity work is anything that we do to shape the way that other people perceive us in both public and private space. So when I get up and I brush my teeth extra nice because I know I got a parent meeting this morning, that's identity work. When I get up and I choose an article, or I choose to not read any articles because the news is too disturbing and I pick up a comic book instead, that's identity work. I'm crafting how I want my day to go based on how I'm going to feel. And based on how the world has perceived me and people like me.

And so identity work isn't just a classroom thing for teachers like us, Min. Identity work is how we move through space. And, for me personally, identity work has a lot to do with how I protect myself. I'm quite forward with who I am, especially in public space. I am a black man that rides public transportation and that is often wearing headphones and hoodies. And so, identity work is the fact that I simply have to acknowledge that before I leave my house. And so, identity work isn't just the stuff that I do when I'm in front of kids or when I'm talking about social studies, it's everything.

And I think when we think about identity work, for those who compartmentalize it, that's problematic because if you have the social privilege to only think about identity when you're around people of color, or if you have the social privilege to only think about identity when you're traveling abroad, or if you have the social privilege to only think about identity when you are in a different school, then you're not doing identity work right. And so, identity work, for me, is all encompassing.

Min: Before I take it back kind of to the classroom and pedagogy, some of what you were saying was really interesting to me and was reminding me of kind of my own, even though journey's an overused word, a journey of this work for myself. I think about the activist DeRay Mckesson and he often says on his podcast that the role of the teacher is to give language for experiences, right? That children have all these experiences and knowledge, they just don't have a language for it. So it's our job, as teachers, to give them that language.

And, for me, I really connected with that because I had all these experiences as a woman of color, as a Korean woman. Like you were talking about that every day that I had to kind of do that identity work, but I wasn't fully conscious of it, right? I didn't realize that that was what my life experiences had been. So I'm wondering if you had a moment in your life, whether it's as a student or a teacher, where that kind of became clear to you like, "Oh, this is life experiences, now I want to do it more intentionally."

Cornelius: Absolutely. And I think that it hasn't been just an experience. It's been experiences and as we think about life as a series of interconnected occurrences, these experiences tell a story. And so there is the identity work that my parents have been doing on my behalf when I was unconscious of who I was in public space. And then, there's the identity work that I inherited and started doing on my own as soon as I was mature enough to start to see the social forces around me.

And so, when I think about, yeah, experience I think it's been ongoing. My parents are African immigrants, I am from Liberia in West Africa, and I arrived in this country in elementary school. And I remember one of the first conversations that I had about America was about American schooling. And my dad told me outright that he's like, "Americans don't know that much about the world outside of their country. And so you're going to go to school and people are not going to know where you're from. They're not going to understand your customs. They're not going to understand the multiple languages that you've had exposure to. And so you're going to find yourself correcting people a lot."

And even in third grade, my dad said, "If you spend too much time correcting people and teaching people, you're not going to spend enough time learning." And so he's like, "Don't worry about this folks." And I was like, "Dad, what are you talking about? Again, I'm a third grader, so I don't want to be thinking about this stuff. I just want to go to my new American school and wear my new American Nikes, right?" And sure enough, my very first day of school in America, my teacher tried to be as welcoming as she could. And she asked me where I was from and I told her I was from Liberia, and she pulled out a map and she pointed at Libya. And I knew that that wasn't my country, but I let that slide because I was just like, "Yo, I don't have the time to be educating you, lady. I just got here."

Now, of course, that's not what I said, but that's what I'm thinking. That I didn't think of that my dad's words would ring true so early in my academic career in America. And he says, "Yeah, it's real easy to fall into the trap where you're teaching Americans all the time. But if you're so busy teaching Americans, you're not going to have time enough to learn for yourself." And that's one of the things that racism does, right? The great Tony Morrison says that one of the functions of racism is it keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you occupied with your own self worth. It keeps you occupied with other people's perceptions of you, and so it keeps you from doing your work. And my dad's early warning was a form of that lesson. That if you spend all your time educating these folks you're not going to be on your work. And I need you to go to this American school and be on your work. And so I guess my first experience with identity connected to school was that one.

Min: It's so interesting that you're talking about you wouldn't have time to teach other people, right, if you were going to do learning on your own and you became a teacher, a middle school English teacher, am I correct?

Cornelius: Absolutely. So I couldn't dodge it.

Min: I mean, I know the way I was taught and trained through my teacher ed program it was kind of this lie, the illusion of you're the teacher, you have to be objective, right? You're not there to be their friends. Teach the lesson objective, teach the goal. These are the outcomes that you want to see. And then, that's that. I had internalized that I don't bring myself into the classroom, right? I know for me it was through kind of intentional identity work and really naming and recognizing the inequities in the classroom that I was creating that really started me on this journey. And I'm wondering how did it impact you in your classroom, your first few years of teaching, and then later when you became a pro at it?

Cornelius: Or something, yeah. What's funny is I was very intentional about why I was coming into a classroom, and I was really intentional about who I was going to be when I got into that classroom. I had the great fortune of coming from multiple generations of educators. My pop, my grandma, my mom, all educators. And I remember vowing that I would not become a teacher, I think all teachers' kids do that. But then I also remember the extraordinary psychic violence that happened in many of my classrooms. I remember reading Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry for the first time in fourth grade, and all the white kids in my room expecting that I could speak for the African-American experience. And I remember not being African-American, and not having anything to say about that experience, and people somehow seeing me as less than.

And so, I can even tell you the moment when. I remember when Wu Tang came out in '92 and on C.R.E.A.M. Inspectah Deck's verse, "Leave it up to me while I'd be living truth to kick the truth to the black youth." And that was my verse again, "Leave it up to me while I'd be living proof." I was like, "Wow, that can be me. I can be living proof." And so I remember forming this idea that I'm going to be the kind of teacher that young Cornelius wanted in a classroom. And I'm going to be as nerdy as I am, as black as I am, as energetic as I am in the classroom, and everybody else just going to have to deal with it. And that's who I've been to date. I've been that energetic black nerd in the classroom. The guy who loves books, the guys who loves young people, the guy who loves Pokemon, the guy who loves transformers. And I've sought to bring my entire self to a classroom.

But, again, that's identity work though. That decision, that conscious decision to bring my entire self. And then, the conscious decision to deal with the consequences that come with that. That there are folks out there who believe that, yep, you need to be in this space, and you need to be as vanilla as possible, and that you need to be as "objective" or whatever. And my whole design of being in a classroom was to be as nerdy as I can be, as me as I can be, as black as I can be in space because kids need to see that.

And I remember what it was the first time I saw a black nerd in public space, it was LeVar Burton. To this day, I'm LeVar Burton's biggest fan, right? But watching Reading Rainbow, and then Roots, and then Star Trek I'm like, "Aw man, that's who I'm supposed to be. I'm supposed to be the dude with all the books that can also transcend this reality and go to space. And that can also look back in time at our ancestry. That's who I am and I can be that consistently for other children."

Min: So then, showing up in the classroom that way as a teacher, right, someone who kind of dictates the classroom culture how was that for you and your students?

Cornelius: I was really intentional about that, dictating classroom culture. And I love that you chose those words. I remember my very, very first year of teaching, I was super, super into thinking about the experience that I wanted kids to have. I worked at a small and brand-new school up in the Bronx. This was in the early 2000s, when New York city was moving towards a smaller schools movement. And so, I had this small little academy on the corner of Tremont and Jerome, and I was one of the founding sixth grade teachers in this really little school. And I remember thinking about yeah, we get to craft experiences for kids. And I have a voice in that craft.

And I remember that I wanted the experience ... I'm in the South Bronx, and so I wanted that experience to include hip hop because these are the nieces and nephews, and sons and daughters of the architects of the culture, right? So I wanted a DJ in my classroom. And I remember inviting my friend and he brought turntables, and we would play music.

Min: No, you did not.

Cornelius: Oh absolutely.

Min: You did?

Cornelius: Absolutely, yes!

Min: Oh my gosh. I wish I was a student back then, yes!

Cornelius: Absolutely! And one of the things, I look back on it now, and you never know what you're going to create, right? And my students they're in their late twenties now, and they talk to me all the time about how important that was for them. And how essential lessons were to them. And then, I was like, then we got to document all this. So I would invite photographers to the class, and we would take really artful photos. And this is before Instagram, before smartphones, before selfies when we would just be in the classroom with old school 35 millimeter cameras like posing it up, and taking pictures because I want the kids to see themselves in regal poses. I wanted the kids to see themselves in studious poses. I wanted kids to see themselves in powerful poses because we know that that's important for self concept.

And so I was really, really intentional about what I was doing, and about how I was doing it. Even in how I dress, I made sure to always wear ... I had to wear the school uniform. Well, I didn't have to wear the school uniform, but I chose to wear the school uniform because that's what kids wore. But then, I wanted to wear it with a kind of pride, and a kind of panache, and a kind of swag that said, "I'm bigger than this place right here. And that you're bigger than this place right here. So, even though we're all wearing the same thing, that we can be more than this and we will be more than this."

And then, I would develop rituals around that uniform. I remember the first writing project that every kid did, they would like earn their stripes in the class. And so, I would give them patches, almost like Girl Scouts style where they would put on their school uniform. And I remember all the kids in the other homerooms being jealous that my homeroom, we had like the special class 703 patches that we would wear around for our homeroom. And so, just like those little things that you do but, again, all that is identity work that I wanted the kids in class 703 to know that somehow 703 was something special. So when you had those numbers on your uniform that meant something. But, again, that's identity work. And sometimes we are born into identities, other times we choose them, other times we co-construct them with our friends. And so, I was really into that with my class.

Min: And then, what did you notice coming from your students as you're creating this with them? Like creating this culture of belonging with them?

Cornelius: Well, we were family. It was really interesting. There was one field trip that we took to the Bronx Zoo, and it was the first field trip where I understood the concept of dialogue. Where as much as I talk, I also got to listen to kids, and the classrooms don't work unless we are in authentic dialogue with one another. And in the Bronx Zoo, to get to the Bronx Zoo it's a long subway ride and it's on a local train so it's stopping all the time. So you've got a lot of time to really talk to kids. And so, we'd gone up to the Bronx Zoo to see some of the animals and I think it was lions ... or no it was the big cats. We were watching the big cats and they had this demonstration that they tend to do in zoos where the zookeeper comes out, and the big cats come out, and then all of the cats do these things. So they like grab things and they wave to the crowd. And so the cats like played in front of the audience.

And there were three different zookeepers, and each zookeeper had their own cat. And so, the cat would come and wave to the crowd, and do things, and play with the ball, and all of that. And so, we watched these three zookeepers. The first zookeeper comes out, the cat plays. The second zookeeper comes out, then the second cat plays. The third zookeeper comes out, then the third cat plays. And so, we watched these three cats. Then, we have the rest of our day, and we're back on the train for this interminable subway ride back to school. And we're headed back to school on the train.

And one of the kids started talking about which of the big cats they liked the most. And this one kid said, "you know the, the cat I liked the most was the third cat that their cat was really spirited. That cat did more than all the other cats did. That cat ran faster, jump faster, caught the ball quicker. That cat did everything and all the kids like, yeah, that third cat, that was like the third cat had it going on. And then the kids got quiet for awhile and then they said, did you notice that the zookeeper that worked with the third cat was the coolest zookeeper that he had the best relationship with his cat? And I bet it's because of that relationship. That's why that cat can do more. And then one of the kids turns to me and he said, it's kind of like you, Mr.Minor. You're like that with us. And so we can do more. And, and that was like a moment for me. I was like, yeah, that's what this is like, that we have a relationship and so we do more. And that's identity work.

Min: That's a beautiful story. That's beautiful. So then I'm wondering, because now you're more pushed out of the classroom. I'm working with educators and adults. And I'm wondering, how has identity work impacted that work that you do with the adults?

Cornelius: It's been huge. It has been huge. And again, for me at the beginning of life, identity work started with how I moved through public space and it's the same thing even now that now I move through space, but not just as a teacher, as a teacher of teachers. And so I work with principals and superintendents and community leaders and leaders of small organizations and I'm in and out of airports. And so I've started to see more of the world and I'm exposed to more of people's judgments and preconceived notions and this is a thing that I write about a lot, but I remember the very first keynote that I ever had to give. And so I had been working at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project with several of my great colleagues there. And I was invited to give a keynote on student voice and it was my first big keynote of my life and I was so nervous.

And one of the things that I do to calm my nerves is I go on runs and I remember looking at the conference program and my face was on the front of the conference program. It was one of these big literacy conferences and it's just me chilling on the front of the conference program. And that made me even more nervous. And so when I looked at that program and saw my face on it, I was like, I got to go on a run before my talk. And that morning my talk was at 10:00 AM and so I got up at about 7:30 and I was just going to go take a quick run before my talk. And I remember just kind of pulling my hoodie on, getting my headphones, I listen to Kendrick whenever I am like feeling stressed out.

So, I have Kendrick Lamar playing and it's just like a beautiful morning and I'm going to calm my nerves and go give this talk. I get on the elevator of the hotel and I was on like the seventh or eighth floor. And so I'm going down and this lady gets on at the fifth floor. And again, here I am, headphones on, sweatpants hoodie on and getting ready to go on my run. And I remember watching this lady get on the elevator and she was holding the conference guide. And so she had kind of the book with my face on the front. She's this book. And I got so excited because all morning my nerves had been worked up because I didn't know if I was good enough to be given this talk, or I didn't know if anybody would come see me.

And then here's this woman on the elevator who's holding the book with me on the front. And I'm like, Oh, this is a sign from God. Here's somebody who's willing to come see me. And I was so excited. So I kind of took off my headphones and I said, "hi. You know, I'm so excited that you're here. You're here for the conference. Right?" And the lady like shouted at me and jumped to the back of the elevator and she's like, you don't know why I'm here. Don't touch me. Get away from me. And I didn't know what was happening. I'm like, what's going on here? Like what? What's going on? And she shouting at me. We finally get to the first floor, the doors open, and she like runs out of the thing and I'm still standing there. I'm like, what just happened? And I'm realizing in that moment that I'm a black dude wearing a hoodie on an elevator with just scared white woman.

And this is, hours before I give my first keynote and I think about that lady all the time. And I thought about her while I was giving the keynote and I tried to think about her morning. I was like, this lady saw me on an elevator, read my body, read my clothes, read the fact that I was wearing headphones, somehow deduced that I was an enemy, yelled at me, then got off the elevator, went into the lobby, and then paid $250 to hear me speak. You know, and I was giving my talk and I'm wondering, is she in the room, and does she even know that the same dude that was on the elevator is the same dude in the front of this room? And she probably didn't because everything about me on that elevator's said to her threat, right?

Even though I was completely welcoming, even though I was enthusiastic, she turned all of that into this imaginary monster. But then she crossed the ballroom and paid $250 to hear me talk. And so that's identity work. And so I move through public space now as a teacher of teachers and the same biases that teachers bring into classrooms, the same judgments that teachers bring in the classrooms often find their way into my experience. And one of the things I thought about, I think about that lady and I think about ladies like her, what's it like to be a student of color in her class? What's it like to be a poor kid in her class? You know, one of the things that I write about often is that to many people, I personally can be a concept, I can be an avatar.

So I can represent things like inclusion or diversity or whatever you want to call it. I can represent things like literacy or student engagement. So I can be an abstract concept, but I can't be a person. You can't share an elevator with me or you can't sit next to me on the train. And so that's a thing that I think about as I do my work or, or that people feel safe. You know, I have become the safe black guy cause I'm the one that'll come to your school. But then when you don't recognize me on the street, you'll cross the street to avoid me. And so that's the thing that I think a lot about all of the microaggressions that I carry in and out of this work.

And we know that microaggressions are anything but micro, right? We know that these things have lasting and very important consequences. And again going back to Tony Morrison, the role of racism is it prevents you from doing your work. I had to give a keynote that morning. You know I get shouted at in an elevator by a woman who's literally holding a book with me on the front and I got to go talk to a room full of women like that and inspire them and convince them to listen to student voice. You know?

Min: I want to honor your story and I feel myself connecting to your story a lot and I'm wonder if there's a lot of educators of color who work in predominantly white spaces that are connecting to your story a lot because I think it was through my identity work that I realized at what cost it comes with working in predominantly white spaces as an educator of color. I think precisely for that kind of underlying tension that your story really communicates that it's within certain contexts where white colleagues or white, teachers will accept me and what I have to say. And then if I'm out of that white middle-class norm context, right, you can't accept the other full parts of me or you see me as those stereotypes or you see me only as my race. And it comes at a huge cost and these are the things that I've been grappling with personally and the conversation's kind of going in a different direction than I originally planned it.

And I'm kind of excited about it to be able to kind of talk to you about what do we need to do for us, right? Us meaning educators of color. A lot of the times I find myself doing a lot of work with white educators and I do that of my own choice. And I do that in a place of power. And I do that because I think it's important work. And I do want to build coalitions and collectives 'cause in order to really work towards racial and educational justice, we all need to be doing this work together.

And at the same time I think about those really rare sacred spaces where there is no white gaze. Those are really rare, sacred spaces where the healing happens for me, I think I'm rambling on right now, but I'm thinking like what are the things that we need to do for us as educators of color to stay in this work? Because less and less Black and Indigenous people of color are applying to credential programs. So that means as the students of color become the majority, they're going to see less and less teachers that look like them. Right? So I feel this calling for us to start doing more work that takes care of us, right? So we can take care of our students. I'm wondering like what are your thoughts on that

Cornelius: Min such a powerful question. You know, my mind goes to so many different places when you ask that question, and I'll start with a word. The term self care and the term self care has become almost cliched at this point where you know, everybody's running around and talking about self care now. And when I think about that term, when I consider that term self care is a radical term, especially when applied to marginalized people. That so much of the function of the world, or the function of the social world that we occupy as social world dominated by notions of Eurocentric and white-centric and male-centric and heteronormative. So much of this world wants to homogenize us, right? We're all supposed to look the Leave it to Beaver dad or we're all supposed to look like that Norman Rockwell family, that's American, right?

And so much of what we encounter in American social life wants to homogenize us. And so what self care does is self care affirms that, nah, I'm me. I don't have to be that right? Self care says that I'm actually going to remove myself from American social life so that I can rest so that I can collect energy so that I can study so that I can continue being me. And so, and self care takes different forms for me. That happens in three big ways. Three big ways that I take care of myself and really I'm taking care of my spirit that I love doing work in schools. And that means that I am committed to doing work alongside white educators. That means that I'm committed to doing work alongside educators who come from communities where people have tons of money. That means that I'm committed to doing work alongside educators who come from communities where there aren't people of color present.

You know? Because if we are to craft realities, like we can't kind of pick and choose where those realities are to be if we are to craft strong realities for all children and we can't pick and choose where those realities are to be crafted. And so there's three ways that I think about caring for myself. I care for myself, first of all, by being honest. And I'm really honest about how I'm feeling. If I'm feeling overwhelmed or if I'm feeling frustrated or if I'm feeling like people aren't understanding the perspectives that I'm attempting to bring to this space. Then I name that and I name that in loving ways. And I talk about ways that people can strengthen their understanding before I resume my work. So that's one of the first things that I'm honest, and I'm honest about what I can do and what I can't do.

I think in as equity work has become buzzword work, right? Everybody wants to be talking about equity. Everybody wants to be doing equity now. As it has become buzzword work, I'm really honest about what can be done in certain amounts of time that people want to invite us to schools and people want to say, Hey, let's have an hour long conversation and solve racism. And I'm like, Nope, can't do that. Or let's have an hour long conversation and solve sexism or let's have an hour long conversation and overturn homophobia like it. That's not how it works that you can't read a book or attend a seminar and all of a sudden all the homophobia is gone. You know, you can't attend a seminar and all of a sudden all the ableism is gone, that this equity work is real and this equity work has to be sustained over time.

And so I'm really honest about what we can do together when I'm in this work. The second thing that I do to protect my spirit is I spend time with people that I love. Like this podcast for example, like I had been following your work for years. I love what you're doing in your school and I love how you lead the work with your colleagues. And I love how you engage with your students. And so taking opportunities to have conversations like this one are, are really affirming. And this is how I fill my cup, so I spend time at teacher happy hour hanging out with my friends. I spend time on podcasts like this one talking about important issues. I spend time reading books, I spend time trading ideas with other folks. You know, I sit on my roof, I sit in my living room and I have people over and we drink tea and hot chocolate.

And so really spending time with loved ones feels like an important part of the work. And just like we budget our schedules in terms of when we're going to go to meetings, when we're going to do our lesson planning. I budget in time with loved ones and I'm really fierce about protecting that time. And then the third thing that I do is I spend time teaching myself. Like it's always collective study is really important, but also spending individual time in reflection and individual time studying and then individual time just kind of saying to yourself, what the heck just happened to me? Or, what was that experience all about? And, and spending that time not beating myself up or not feeling guilty about an interaction or an event, but time really kind of reflecting on things and really thinking about, all right Cornelius, who do you want to be in public space?

And what kind of intentional moves do you need to make in order to be that person? Who do you want to be for other people? And what kind of intentional moves to you have to make so that you can be that for other people? Who do you want to be for your community, who do you want to be for this profession, who you want to be for this world, and what kind of intentional work can you do in order to be that person. And so my three things are again, really taking the time to study by myself, really spending time with friends and really being honest. And then I do fun things. Of course, I got to play video games and listen to hip hop and hang out. So, yeah, all of that.

Min: I'm wondering as you're speaking, like yes, and I honestly feel a little bit of anger because working for like racial justice and educational justice, especially as person of color, it comes at a cost, right? So that we have to, or at least you know from what you were saying, you and I also have to be really intentional about carving out space in my life to do that self care. That it's not at too high a cost. And I'm wondering, because you've worked at so many different schools across the country and internationally, have you ever seen an institution that creates that space that creates that kind of culture at the institution, like at the job, right? So that it's not extra labor that people from marginalized groups or historically not included groups have to do again outside of work.

Cornelius: You know, Min, you're so right. This idea of anchor, I think you've named it perfectly. There is this incredible extra labor that, that we have to do to navigate and negotiate social and professional space. Right? And to answer that question, have I ever seen an institution, I'm able to do this work predominantly because I attended a historically black college and for four years I lived in an ecosystem where the intellectual center was blackness. The curiosity was blackness. The fun was blackness. The excitement was blackness. Where I lived in this space where I could be my nerdy self, and that was never questioned for four years. So the question, have I ever seen that space? Yes. I had it at FAMU. I went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, the great Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, and really, when I think about my endurance in the field, when I think about my ability to leave my community and be in other communities for days and weeks on end, that comes from the fact that I had four years of fortification at Florida A&M University, so I know spaces like that exists, and I feel like I know how to co-construct them with people.

So my apartment is one such space, where my wife is white and my children are mixed race and some of my neighbors are white, some of my neighbors are Asian, some of my neighbors are European, but I've been able to, in this articulated way, create a space where people can be who they are, because that's the kind of house I want to live in.

In the school where I worked, I taught and worked and I ended my teaching at the Brooklyn School for Global Studies before I became a staff developer, and there at the Brooklyn School for Global Studies, like any school, we had our flaws. So it was not a perfect school, but even in our imperfections, you could be who you were, because they were people who worked intentionally to make sure that kids had space and the adults had space to be themselves and to do the kind of identity work in public and to do the kind of negotiation, because we know the identity isn't static, so you're always negotiating. So adults and kids in the building were given the space to do that negotiation and were given the space to make those mistakes. So spaces like that do exist, and whenever I leave spaces like that, I bring the memory of those spaces with me, and I bring the blueprint of those spaces with me so that I can co-construct them when I'm on the road and I can co-construct them when I'm in other people's schools.

Now the tragedy is that it often falls upon people of color to do that co-construction. It often falls upon women to do that co-construction. It often falls upon poor people to do that co-construction. It often falls upon our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA community to do that co-construction, and my anger comes from the reality that marginalized people have always got to do more work, and I wish we lived in a world where people understood the damaging impact of centering whiteness and the damaging impact of centering maleness and the damaging impact of centering heteronormativity, and I wish that more people who occupy those privileged positions would engage in the work with us.

Min: So let's say we have a teacher who's listening to this podcast who's one of few, or the only one, and this person is hearing co-constructing and they're thinking to themselves, "I have no one to co-construct with," or they might be thinking to themselves, "How do I construct this space so that at the minimum, I can survive at my school, hopefully get to a place where I can start thriving also?" You're such an action oriented person, you're one of the most action oriented people that I've ever met. You have the three steps that you need to do to initiate this work, and I love how your brain works. I'm wondering if you have some advice for those teachers out there who feel really alone and don't know where to start to begin to create those kinds of connections and spaces for themselves.

Cornelius: I started this podcast by mentioning that I'm West African, and in West African, specifically Liberian culture and folklore, the role of the drum is really important, and we know that the drum speaks. So the drum is the original telegraph. The drum is the original tweet. If I've got a message on my side of the village and I need to communicate it to the other side of the village, I beat a drum, and then there's somebody listening on the other side of the village who understands the cadence of that drum, who understands my message, and so even if I am isolated on my side of the village, if I have a drum, I have a community, and really that's how I see my work. That I work in isolated spaces all the time. Right. I used to work at the teacher's college reading and writing project, where I had wonderful colleagues there, and we did amazing work, but sometimes I felt alone.

But I had a drum, and of course it wasn't a literal drum, but I have the ability to pick up a phone and to reach out to you or to pick up a phone and to reach out to Sonja, or to pick up a phone and to reach out to Trisha or to any number of folks. So again, if you've got a drum, you've got a community.

So I've really been practicing at understanding my isolation, but part of understanding my isolation is also understanding the tools that I have around me to break that isolation. But again, the hard part of that is, again, that marginalized people end up doing a lot more work, but I spend a lot of time in community with other people across distances. I spend a lot of time using my phone or using my voice message or using my video message to connect with other people. I spend a lot of time writing to other people, and really, again, using that metaphor drum to connect folks. So when I think about the act of co-construction, sometimes co-construction happens across a space. I'm a huge pop culture fan, and I think a lot about even music, that you get artists like Sun Ra and George Clinton who had this common refrain that space is the place. This idea of a mother ship, that if we cannot find justice on this planet, we won't find it elsewhere. So now we're getting into Octavia Butler and people like that, and this idea that I can use technology to bridge space where I don't have community, find that community in other places.

Min: That's beautiful. So before I let you go, I have kind of one last question I want to ask you, because your work currently, you do so much work at an institutional level, and as I do more learning and share my own learning about identity work, I have to kind of really emphasize that even though this feels and is very personal, and it is at a very individual level, it's also about exploring and understanding how it's connected at a structural level, at a systemic level, at an institutional level. So I was wondering if you could share some of your experiences and knowledge about how to really impact change at an institutional level with identity work. How those two things are connected.

Cornelius: This is my favorite part of the work. This is what gives me the most excitement. One of the things that I think a lot about is yes, this work is systemic. That people really think they can solve racism with niceness campaigns. People really think they can solve sexism by being kind, and all of those things are true. Kindness is important, niceness is important, but you cannot overturn racism, you cannot overturn sexism, you cannot overturn homophobia with posters about being kind or nice. That's just not how it works. So I'm really clear about this reality that when we talk about classism, when we talk about ableism, when we talk about homophobia, when we talk about sexism, when we talk about racism, what we are talking about here is systems. We are talking about decades of rules and policies and traditions and customs that govern the United States, that govern the state that you live in, that govern our schools, that govern our classrooms, and these rules and these customs and these procedures, they marginalize people.

So I've been really clear that any rule that doesn't allow a person to be who they are is a rule that is damaging for people. So the expectation that all kids sit still in a classroom is damaging to kids who need to move, and so that's a rule that we can revisit and renegotiate so that kids have better realities. The rule that says that every kid needs to write on paper with a pen is a damaging rule, because not every kid can write on paper with a pen. We can negotiate realities where writing can show up through the use of assistive technology. We can negotiate realities where kids can use dictation. We can negotiate realities where kids can draw, where kids can move, where kids can act in order to communicate.

It doesn't always have to be the way that it was 20 or 30 years ago when we were in school. So I'm always looking at that at the very structure of school and thinking about how can we redesign, renegotiate, re-imagine these things so that more children can thrive here? Because we know that when we consider unjust rules, when we consider unjust policies and traditions, people of color suffer the most, poor people suffer the most, women suffer the most, disabled people suffer the most, members of our LGBTQIA community suffer the most. So I'm always thinking about, how do we renegotiate these things so that people don't have to suffer?

But while these things are institutional, yes, you cannot do the institutional work while harboring a spirit that allows you to do damage to other humans. So the work is also personal. It's that identity work that you've been talking about, or how am I at myself, looking at my experience, looking at my upbringing and beginning to understand how I have, at times in my life walked with sexism. How at times in my life I have walked with racism. How at times in my life I have walked with classism, with ableism, with homophobia. How I have been complicit in the systems that damage and hurt other people.

That's incredible self-work, because that doesn't just require reflection, and people are real good at the reflection, but that work also requires articulated and sustained change. So if I champion classrooms where kids can only win if they write, and I realized that the kid that has trouble writing or the kid that can't communicate through writing alone, that needs to speak, or the kid that needs to move gets less of an experience, and so that means that as woke as I want to be or as woke because I want to get on Facebook and say that I am, that means if I am not changing that reality for that kid, for all kids, then I'm part of the problem. So this idea of systemic work and identity work intersecting, you can't have one without another. You can't harbor a spirit that damages folks while claiming to work on the systems that damage them as well.

So it's really, really important to look at the self and to continue looking at the self. People have this idea that self work is ever done. Like, "Oh, I got my wokeness certificate because I went to the lecture," or, "I got my wokeness certificate because I read the book," or, "I got my wokeness certificate because one time I took a selfie with Cornelius or with Min." So people feel like, "Oh, I'm done," and no, we're never done. We're always revisiting ourselves, our practice, our outlooks, our experiences and seeking to do better. I think in an ecosystem where everybody is busy and everybody is overworked and nobody ever has enough time, how can we carve out spaces to do that work. That the way we do the work, it can't be limited to meetings, it can't be limited to reflection. That this is work that we do in an ambulatory kind of way.

So we do it as we walk around. We do it as we go shopping, that I am always thinking, always reflecting. We do it as we take our children to playgrounds, we do it as we wait for little league to be over. So I'm always thinking, again, how can I be better, not just for the children that I serve in school, for the community that I represent as a person, for the space that I take up on this planet, for the care that I take of this earth, that we can always be revisiting these things and thinking about these things.

Min: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to have this conversation with me. I know I learned a lot and I've been challenged and pushed and affirmed, so I'm hoping our listeners have just even a little bit of the experience I had listening to you and talking with you today. Thank you so much, Cornelius. I really appreciate it.

Cornelius: Thank you, Min. This is a real honor, and I am just so thankful for the work that you are doing there in California and beyond, and I'm really glad to call you a colleague.

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minjungpaiMinjung Pai is committed to equity, inclusion, and progressive education. She believes that collaboration is at the core of teaching – that working together with students, parents, and teachers can make a significant, powerful, and lasting impact. She is a member of the UCLA Writing Project Leadership Team where she helps serve writing teachers in the greater Los Angeles area. She presented multiple workshops at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and served on the local planning committee in 2017. Currently, Minjung is the Group 6 Head Teacher (5th and 6th grades) at Westland School in Los Angeles, CA where she also serves on the Board of Trustees, the Diversity Leadership Team, and the Social Justice Anti-bias Curriculum Task Force.

Follow Minjung on Twitter @minfucious


corneliusminorCornelius Minor is a frequent keynote speaker for and Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In that capacity, he works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support deep and wide literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe. Whether working with teachers and young people in Singapore, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius always uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to recruit students’ engagement in reading and writing and teachers’ engagement in communities of practice. As a staff developer, Cornelius draws not only on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with young people.

You can follow Cornelius on Twitter @MisterMinor 

Topics: Cornelius Minor, Heinemann Fellows, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Identity, Racism, Social Justice, Minjung Pai, Anti-Racist Education

Date Published: 02/16/20

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