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Reflective Practice

The Case for Abolitionist Pedagogy

A screenshot of a tweet from @tourmaliiine on June 7, 2020 reads: When we say abolish police. We also mean the cop in your head and in your heart.

A screenshot of a tweet from @tourmaliiine on June 7, 2020 reads: When we say abolish police. We also mean the cop in your head and in your heart.

By Talisa Feliciano

Abolition means to destroy and to uproot. In the context of the Americas, it is the many movements that seek to end systems of oppression and transform these oppressive systems into communities of liberation.

In the United States, abolitionism shaped the freedom fight against institutionalized chattel slavery and evolved over time to include the call to abolish institutions of anti-Black violence such as lynching and the prison industrial complex. Now, abolition has expanded to include all current systems of policing, including domestic police forces, the military, and border control and ICE. In the contemporary moment, we are witnessing collective calls for the abolition of many of the organizing systems in our society, from the prison system to national borders and ICE to the gender binary.[1] An abolitionist framework asserts that many systems and structures need to be destroyed and invites us to create new networks and communities of freedom.

The prospect of abolition begs the question: what happens once oppressive systems are abolished? In “Abolition and Pedagogy: Reflections on Teaching a Course on Alternatives to Punishment, State Repression and Social Control,” Vicki Chartrand and Justin Piché use their classroom to practice imagining prison abolition. They highlight the challenge imagining a world without prison systems can present to students socialized into believing the prison system is fundamental to society; they asked students enrolled in a course on abolition to imagine justice beyond the carceral logics of the current penal and criminal justice systems. They found their students-turned-participants remained in “a liminal state” between the current criminal justice structure and “a landscape of abolition (25).” While students were open to learning about abolition, they identified it as impossible simply because they could not envision or imagine how it could be possible. In a world shaped by and implicated in oppressive systems, those systems appear necessary or at least indestructible, and thus abolition comes off as a grey area of unknown.

This is a common reaction to abolition. There is little abolitionist literature precisely because the road to abolition must be walked. In other words, the practice of abolition is just as, if not more important than, the theorizing of it. This pandemic has inadvertently offered a path towards abolitionist thinking. In 2019, no one envisioned a socially distanced world and yet here we are. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our social systems can be destroyed, uprooted, and created anew with the intention of uplifting and holding dear Black and brown lives and voices. No one envisioned a socially distanced world and yet here we are. Abolitionist thinking requires practice and imagination. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution to justice or harm. It is a process that is predicated on fractals—the idea that many intentional micro movements create momentous revolutionary change (brown 2017).[2] Begin in the smallest units of your life, in your smallest relationships and incorporate abolitionist ideals. Discover what abolitionist practices can hold. As educators, what decisions are we making that align with the carceral and punitive logics of the prison industrial complex and how can an abolitionist practice improve our teaching? Interrogate your syllabus, your policies, your due dates, your classroom practices, the tone you use with your students.

Why Abolitionist Pedagogy?

In September 2020, a Black student was suspended for playing with a Nerf gun while in Zoom class, in his home. The art teacher running the Zoom class decided it was appropriate to contact both the student’s mother and the principal of the school. In September 2020, after continuous protests against the unfettered brutality with which police have displayed particularly against Black people, a young Black student was terrorized for playing with a toy in his own home. The school’s principal notified the police. There are a series of micro decisions that led to the criminalization of this young man. He now has a record that states he brought a “facsimile of a firearm to school.” Did the art teacher and principal understand just how complicit they were in criminalizing a young Black child? Do they recognize the violence of their mundane decisions?

Using a transformative justice framework, we can see how both the art teacher and the principal caused harm. Transformative justice seeks to understand how people are conditioned to cause harm, and to transform the relationships between people who harm and people who are harmed. A transformative justice framework understands that our current criminal justice system uses the label of “criminal” to determine who is disposable, but criminality is also the product of the systems of race, gender, class, age, and sexuality that operate in our society. Our education system operates according to the norms of the larger society and the individuals that comprise our educational system have the capacity to cause harm. In the case of the student with the Nerf gun, the maliciousness or intent is not as important as the fact that these educators caused this student harm.

As adjuncts, professors, and administrators, we need to be intensely aware of how our individual decisions, our micro decisions in the systems of power, can negatively impact our students. Every educational decision that we have to make as adjuncts, as professors, as administrators has the potential to cause harm to our students. We must recognize we all have the potential to cause harm and be harmed. This means we must reorient our relationship to education and to learners. Hopefully, this means we will interrogate how we ourselves behave like police toward our students. Hopefully, we can learn from this example and use the little bit of power we have to subvert systems of violence.

Suggestions on How to Practice Abolition

Abolitionist pedagogy asks us to put in the work to teach and fight towards an educational system and society where all students matter, not just the white ones. The theory behind it is simple. Our school systems cater to and reproduce anti-Black carceral logics in both curriculum and practice. In every CUNY class I have taught thus far, my students have brought up a similar question around the contradiction between the curriculum I teach and what they have learned in their elementary and high schools. They often ask why they had not learned before about the realities of anti-Black policing, ICE, histories of chattel slavery, and indigenous genocide. A significant proportion of my students have come from (or survived) the New York City Public School system; in reflection exercises in my class they are, sometimes for the first time, speaking about the violences (physical, emotional, sexual) they have witnessed or experienced at the hands of educators, administrators, or so-called school safety officers.[3] Black and brown students are more likely to be suspended, to be criminalized, and to go to schools with police on campus (Love: 4-5). In the context of these educational realities, it is important to understand how our students have developed relationships to learning and how our classrooms can potentially transform those relationships. Below are some suggestions I have gathered and implemented in my time as a CUNY educator:

  • Get to know your students and center their experiences in the classroom in regards to their experiences of racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, immigration, and language
  • Invite learner feedback into the structure of the course, the syllabus, the reading material, the workload, and the grading rubrics. Commit to implementing learner suggestions.
  • Resist punitive measures of assessment such as taking points off for being late or having “bad” grammar, judging content based on its respectability (i.e. no cursing, censoring of hard/difficult topics)
  • Resist punitive practices in the classroom such as threats to call campus security, threats to kick out “problem students.”
  • Invest in restorative practices—try to create safe(r) learning environments
    • prioritize mental and emotional well being
    • Make the effort to learn about your students
  • Continually imagine what else needs to be abolished, and what could take its place.

The work is not easy, nor should it be and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It requires imagination, practice and sometimes for those of us in power it requires our silence so that we can uplift the voices of all of those learners who are silenced.

In learning about abolitionist pedagogy, there are connections and relationships to socially conscious pedagogy, trauma informed pedagogy, learner centered (or student centered) pedagogy and decolonial and anti-racist pedagogy. Learning about and questioning what needs to be abolished is a practice deeply connected to socially conscious pedagogy. It is through the examination of our society and the reckoning for consciousness growing that we can come to abolitionist pedagogy. Trauma informed pedagogy could be a part of a larger practice towards, or in service of, abolition. It is through this type of pedagogy that we can question how the educational system itself is an institution that causes harm and trauma. It would be interesting in exploring what pedagogical practices between a trauma informed pedagogy are useful in the service of abolition. Abolitionist pedagogy does not merely focus on what needs to be destroyed but instead asks us to turn our attention to what needs to be uplifted. In learner-centered or a student-centered pedagogy the importance is placed on the learner. Who is the learner, how does the learner absorb information, what are the material conditions that bring this learner into the classroom?  Finally, abolitionist pedagogy is centered around the uplifting of Black and brown students. Abolitionist pedagogy stems from the work laid down by the colonial and anti-racist pedagogies.

Centering Black and brown students, students with disabilities, queer students, and students who are neurodivergent forces a reckoning with how the educational system reproduces hierarchies of race, gender, class, ability, sexuality, and ultimately power in our society. Education can be used to stratify groups of people in our society and that stratification compounds over time from elementary school to higher education. At the college level, our educational focus, our pedagogies, our curricula must decenter the colonial, patriarchal, racist, and heteronormative ideas and practices that shape our current educational system. It is these ideologies and practices that abolitionist pedagogues seek to dismantle. Decolonial and anti-racist pedagogies give us the tools to name, reclaim, and learn about our histories, cultures, and communities. It is the practice of these pedagogies that bring us closer to abolition and towards a more equitable learning community.

Talisa Feliciano (she/her; they/them) is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology.

References

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017

Chartrand, Vicki, and Justin Piché. “Abolition and Pedagogy: Reflections on Teaching a Course on Alternatives to Punishment, State Repression and Social Control.” Contemporary Justice Review : CJR 22.1 (2019): 23–42. Web.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete?  New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Love, Bettina L. We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.

Notes

[1] Ironically enough the most vocal calls to abolish the Department of Education are currently coming from the right. These people use the language of abolition to bolster their own views of American exceptionalism. They see education departments as a waste of time and money. See “The Time is Now” by Walter E. Block; “About the Bill Abolishing the Department of Education” by Anya Kamenetz; & “Economics Professor: Abolish the Department of Education” by George Leef

[2] In the words of adrienne maree brown, large scale systemic change can happen when we shift patterns at smaller scales. brown states, “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system” (2017: 53). Thus, our small-scale practices in the classroom can “set the patterns” for gradual shift in the system.

[3] School Safety Officers in New York City are civilian members of the New York Police Department. In New York City’s hypersegregated public schools, Black and brown students bear the brunt of encountering police in their schools. See #policefreeschools and Student activists ask mayor not to hire more NYPD school safety agents

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