Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” This quote has been one dear to me on my journey to a career in education and has recently taken on a deeper meaning. This year began for me with a life-changing opportunity to take part in a historical and educational civil rights tour exploring the Deep South, visiting Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, places rooted in a movement that changed a nation.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have a family that ensured I knew the true history of my people, despite the false and/or watered-down narratives used in traditional educational institutions. But it was hard. To have the history of my enslaved ancestors, beaten and abused, plastered across my textbooks, year after year, with only occasional highlights of the tenacious and unrelenting leaders who fought for my freedom, was both daunting and exasperating. This tour inspired me to shift my focus away from what was missing in my classroom education to how I have the power to do better as an urban environmental educator of the next generation.
I sat in the pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church (Martin Luther King Jr.’s family church) in Atlanta, Georgia, where Dr. King once preached as co-pastor. I listened to firsthand accounts of the civil rights movement from Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. (civil rights activist, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Freedom Rider, and executive staff and close friend of the late Dr. King Jr.). And on a bus with a diverse group of forty-six people from around the world and a variety of career fields, I rode down the same routes the Freedom Riders took on their journey through southern states which refused to desegregate public buses even after federal ruling by the US Supreme Court. Each experience afforded me the opportunity to think intensively and critically about how I will tell my students the stories of the continued fight for equity and equality.
When teaching and learning about the plights of people of color in their uphill battle for true freedom, it can be easy to remain stuck on the problem instead of focusing on progress and action towards a resolution. Looking through exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum I was overwhelmed, fighting back tears of both excitement about newfound knowledge and frustration at how much I still had to learn. Even though my family made it a priority to fill in the gaps missing from my classroom experience, they too only knew so much.
This tour exposed me to the untold stories and the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement and reminded me that my people aren’t defined by what they’ve been through or had to overcome. They (we) are so much more. What if these stories, ones of triumph and victory, were the ones reinforced in my classroom as a child instead of those of abuse and oppression? Would that have changed my development as an educator? Do my missing pieces influence the quality of education I provide?
These are questions I continuously ask myself and finally began to unravel on the civil rights tour. I learned to remind myself of a powerful lesson from summer quarter: I can’t teach what I don’t know. This tour reminded me of the gravity of investing in my own learning to be a finer educator. I am reflecting on the words of Dr. King, and thinking intensively and critically about the type of person I one day want taking care of this planet, and how that informs the pedagogy I choose to utilize with my students. I want to create a learning space that is full of positive feelings where my students value themselves and others. I want them to value diversity and to see the power in unity and tolerance for a greater purpose, to learn to stand up and speak out for what is right. Despite not having an inclusive and well-rounded class experience regarding black history myself, participating in this civil rights tour inspired me to dig deeper to ensure the opposite for my students.
Enrolling in the Urban Environmental Education graduate program has been one of the first steps in committing to creating a more authentic, meaningful, and culturally responsive learning environment than I was afforded growing up. My missing pieces do not mean I am incomplete, but rather open up the opportunity to create a bigger picture in the minds of my future students.
Denaya Shorter is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.