Acting on the wisdom of Black communities: A conversation with William Jackson, PhD

If we want to solve inequities in education, we need to start listening — really listening — to parents and children of color. That’s what William Jackson believes. It’s also how he spends a large portion of his time.

Jackson is a scientist, an expert in learning theory, a former high school teacher, and an advisor to K-12 leaders — including those supporting and developing schools as part of IFF’s Vital Services team. He began his career in the Atlanta Public Schools, where he taught physics and chemistry to high schoolers and became the system’s highest-performing science teacher at age 24. He went on to obtain his PhD in educational psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2014, he founded Village of Wisdom, which works with families, children, and teachers to create ideal learning environments for Black families and their learners. He has received numerous awards and honors, including a 2019 Forward Promise Fellowship from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

IFF recently sat down with Jackson to hear his thoughts on how to more effectively serve families and children of color, help undo systemic racism, and lead authentically.

 

IFF: What first drew you to the classroom — and later led you away?

Jackson: Coming out of college, I wanted to be a role model and make the sciences more accessible to folks who look like me. I had a great time teaching. Kids are amazing.

I ended up leaving the classroom because I realized people were giving me accolades for students’ test scores, but the test scores weren’t giving the students very much. End-of-grade tests don’t get kids into schools or lead to jobs. I was preparing them for a test, but I wasn’t necessarily preparing them for life. We weren’t working to develop their ability to acquire information and learn on their own.

That realization got me enamored with the idea of trying to truly understand how people not only learn but guide their own learning — something I had the opportunity to explore in depth in grad school.

 

IFF: What were some key takeaways from that deep dive into the science and dynamics of learning?

Jackson: Probably the biggest thing that happened was I recognized there were a lot of cultural factors impacting cognitive processes going on in kids’ minds – and people weren’t talking about that.

Instead, people were talking about the achievement gap. And if you ask what’s causing that gap, nine times out of 10, no one says, “Racism.” Instead, most people are going to say something like, “Parents aren’t involved enough” or “Poor kids need more tutoring or mentoring.”

No one acknowledges that the way classrooms are set up puts kids of color at a cultural disadvantage, because frequently teachers use references that kids of color are unfamiliar with — and the very function of learning is connecting prior knowledge to new information. If you’re talking about stuff that kids aren’t exposed to because they come from different cultural backgrounds, you’re privileging one group and disadvantaging another.

 

IFF: How else does our system put kids of color at a disadvantage?

Although things like mentoring can help, you don’t need to “fix” kids in the way that a lot of the rhetoric around the achievement gap suggests. You need to fix the people who are harming the kids.


Jackson:
Our system tells kids of color that they don’t belong, tells them they’re not learning, disproportionately suspends them, disproportionately puts them in jail. And while those are the worst, most obvious disadvantages, the other bad part that we’re not talking about is these things all happen while kids are trying to learn. How am I supposed to learn while somebody is basically calling me a superpredator?

And although things like mentoring can help, you don’t need to “fix” kids in the way that a lot of the rhetoric around the achievement gap suggests. You need to fix the people who are harming the kids.

 

IFF: Is that your focus at Village of Wisdom — on fixing the people and the systems doing harm?

Jackson: It is now. Initially, our work was more about protecting kids from harm — not necessarily eliminating that harm. We knew racial identity affirmation was important. If my identity is solid, I won’t put as much cognitive effort into worrying about it and questioning it when someone messes with me, so that won’t detract as much from my ability to learn.

And then we had this realization that although racial identity affirmation is helpful and a more equitable approach than many programs take, we weren’t working to change learning environments so that discrimination is no longer tolerated.

There’s an analogy I like to use to explain the difference: Think of the learning environment as a body of water that’s polluted by discrimination. If we stop investing so much energy in protecting individual fish so that they can breathe, we can focus our energy on measuring the water quality and creating tools to clear it.

Think of the learning environment as a body of water that’s polluted by discrimination. If we stop investing so much energy in protecting individual fish so that they can breathe, we can focus our energy on measuring the water quality and creating tools to clear it.

 

IFF: What methods are you using to make learning environments more equitable?

Jackson: We need to figure out how we’re going to neutralize this polluted water. And everybody is talking about being culturally responsive, but not many explain what it means.

I don’t think it’s necessarily about doing a lesson using rap music. Instead of making assumptions about kids based on how they look, teachers need to find out who each kid really is and then integrate that into their lessons. Let’s say I’m a Black kid from the suburbs of Atlanta. My experience is going to be different from a Black kid who grew up in urban Atlanta. And it’s definitely going to be different from a Black kid who grew up in Durham, North Carolina.

So, at Village of Wisdom we’ve started creating tools that give Black parents and students a mechanism to communicate kids’ interests, challenges, racial identity, and genius to educators. That’s what our Black Genius profile and planning process is all about.

 

IFF: What about the measurement tool you mentioned?

Jackson: We’ve developed a survey tool that allows students to reveal their perspectives on how they’re being treated in the classroom and whether they’re experiencing a culturally affirmative environment. We’ve also conducted a scientific study demonstrating that there are relationships between some of the survey topics — like whether teachers are aware of kids’ interests and frequently affirm their racial identity — and metrics like attendance, discipline rates, and academic performance.

It’s been a breakthrough to layer culture and race onto some of the current thinking that organizations like CASEL [the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning] have done around social-emotional learning.

 

IFF: How have the kids and parents you work with contributed to these ideas?

Jackson: Everything I’ve talked about I learned from them. I don’t go off into a corner and come up with this stuff. It comes from sitting down, listening, and hearing what parents, students, and teachers say.

There’s a story that I think is illuminative of this practice and reflective of the pressures Black parents are under. It says a lot about the messages Black people are taught about how we aren’t adequate, yet our deep creativity and resilience have endured.

We asked one Black mom, “When has your child exhibited an ability to persist?”

At first, she said, “I don’t know. He gives up pretty easily.”

We kept asking the question. And then, probably 40 minutes into the conversation, she said, “Well, I did ask him one time what kind of learning environment he wanted to be in, and he drew a picture of himself sitting under a tree, with it raining and his headphones on.”

That knowledge was in her. I didn’t need to tell her anything so that she would understand that about her own child. She knew it. But what’s crazy is when we get into conversations about our children, we have to work past all of the negative messages about how they aren’t capable, and we aren’t capable as parents. The same people who came up with the idea of superpredators and the Central Park Five [Exonerated Five], and all of that — those same voices are still telling us lies every day on the news about what Black communities are and are not doing.

So, when Black parents come to the table and they haven’t necessarily had a lot of affirmation in their familial experience, I’m reminded of how important it is not to blame yourself. It wasn’t because your momma didn’t love you and wasn’t trying hard. It’s because somebody literally stole that affirmation from you, just as African American people were stolen and taken to this country.

At the same time, the resilience of Black people is incredible. I didn’t say that kids need to be racially affirmed as part of our Black Genius work. That came from Black parents. That came from Black researchers researching Black parents. I sat in a room where parents said things like, “The problem is these teachers don’t do stuff my kids are interested in” and “I wish there was more Black history in my kid’s school.”

That made me think about self-determination theory, which says if you aren’t intrinsically motivated, then it’s really difficult to have the energy to learn. It made me think that racial identity affirmation is important to a kid’s overall social emotional health. But I don’t get there unless I’m having a conversation with a parent.

 

IFF: It sounds like a lot of your work is about listening deeply and then connecting what you hear to what you know about education and learning.

Jackson: I just believe in the wisdom of Black parents and kids. Other people often see them as having nothing to contribute. I think we have to continually ask ourselves: Have we done enough work on ourselves to check our biases and hear the wisdom in each other?

Kids and their parents know where and how they want to learn. They know what types of environments allow them to be productive. But then we go and stick them in environments that we never asked them to help us co-create. And we wonder why it’s not working.

 

IFF: What is the first step you recommend teachers and leaders of schools and other organizations take if they want to better serve communities of color?

Jackson: If you can’t start with yourself as a leader, you’re not going to be able to lead authentically. I try to take a look at myself and say, “What are my growth areas? What are the areas where I’m probably harming people because of the biases that I bring to the table?”

You need to be able to have an honest conversation about the fact that you’re doing harm. Most of us are not intentionally trying to be a white supremacist, or sexist, or homophobic. But understand this: We live in a society that supports people who unconsciously do things that represent those attitudes. Therefore, as a human you will replicate those same tropes, because that’s what we’re programmed to do in our current society.

Most of us are not intentionally trying to be a white supremacist, or sexist, or homophobic. But understand this: We live in a society that supports people who unconsciously do things that represent those attitudes. Therefore, as a human you will replicate those same tropes, because that’s what we’re programmed to do in our current society.

This is something I’m thinking about now as a leader for my own organization. I did all this work to change our strategic direction so that we would focus more on improving schools’ environments. And I had an epiphany: We need to do the same thing around our culture at Village of Wisdom. I need to set a direction for how we’re going to examine who we are as people, how our biases are showing up in the work, and how that’s getting in the way of the work. Because again, when our biases are up, we can’t access each other’s wisdom.

You also can’t perform well as an organization, no matter what your goal is, because you’re not getting everything out of people. It’s not that they don’t want to give it to you. It’s that you and the other people on your staff literally can’t communicate effectively because of your biases.

It’s a journey. You build a muscle around it so that you get better. But you also recognize that at any moment you could fall back. There’s always something to learn, there’s always a new moment where you’re like, “Dang, I didn’t even think about how that’s ableist, I didn’t even think about how that’s xenophobic.”

It’s not that you had an ableist thought or xenophobic thought. It only becomes a problem if you let the thought go unchecked, and now it’s out there in the world harming people, or if you’re too emotionally cowardly to acknowledge the harm that you might cause. When those things happen, you are prioritizing your own emotional comfort over somebody else’s mental health — and it’s somebody who didn’t do anything to deserve the harm you’ve done. You threw that rock.

 

IFF: Any other advice for leaders?

Jackson: There’s another question I would recommend that nonprofit leaders ask: Is it more important for your organization to be successful in terms of things like revenue and organizational longevity, or to realize the organization’s mission and vision?

Is it more important for your organization to be successful in terms of things like revenue and organizational longevity, or to realize the organization’s mission and vision?

I think most organizations want to see a world where everybody has equitable access to financial resources, or a world where everybody has a home, or all kids get a great education. I think the rub happens when our so-called “success” as an organization begins to compete with achieving our mission. Are you willing to sacrifice some of your revenue or longevity to achieve your mission and vision?

You may need to remind yourself that sacrifice isn’t a bad thing. When you work out and break down your muscles, it’s painful in the moment. But over the long term, your muscles get strong. I think what has been misconstrued is that sacrifice does not lead to some benefit for you. Sacrifice may be exactly what it takes to get to the mission and vision you’re seeking.

I think that if we as leaders could embrace this framework of delayed gratification, our organizations could become places that really do plant the seeds of transformational change, that really do allow our world to experience a more comfortable revolution — or at least as comfortable as it can be.

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