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Ed. Magazine

Radical Refuge

Alum found a way to support communal wellness for Black and Latina early childhood educators
Women dancing
Finding joy at the retreat
Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Rodriguez

It started with a grant to host a convening about teacher social emotional learning. But then COVID hit, and Vanessa Rodriguez, Ed.M.'13, Ed.D.'16, had to put the work on hold.

In the meantime, Rodriguez, an assistant professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, started getting asked to take part in virtual panels about how educators, especially early childhood teachers, were coping. She had written a book in 2014 called The Teaching Brain and spent more than a decade as a public school teacher in New York City before moving into higher education. 

But Rodriguez hesitated on the invites: She just couldn’t do self-care talks anymore. 

“I’m at my breaking point,” she remembers telling a friend. “Self-care is not going to solve exploitation. Men aren’t told to practice self-care when they’re experiencing professional stressors. It’s sexist and racist. Self-care insinuates that the reason you’re struggling is because you’re not taking care of yourself rather than the reason that you’re struggling is because the system’s exploiting you. And the system, especially for early childhood educators during the pandemic, was especially exploiting.” 

These educators were expected to take care of the children of first responders and essential workers. Programs never shut down. “Many home-based providers and centers are open from 7 in the morning until 7 at night,” she says. Even for early childcare teachers working within public school systems, there were challenges during the pandemic, especially trying to virtually teach children who couldn’t yet read or write. 

Self-care was often the suggestion for those educators, but Rodriguez felt — and still feels — strongly that “we really need to stop telling women to merely practice self-care. Black and Latina women in particular practice communal healing. As a Brown-skinned Latina, I heal with my sisters. A massage will do little to address the systemic trauma I endure.” 

This Rodriguez says, is what drives her. “I was a New York City public school teacher, and I failed at taking care of my mental health. Now all of my research focuses on teacher wellness.” 

"Self-care is not going to solve exploitation. Men aren’t told to practice self-care when they’re experiencing professional stressors. It’s sexist and racist."

On Indigenous People’s Day 2022, Rodriguez launched her first, free, all-day healing retreat in Spanish Harlem for 100 Latina and Black female early childhood educators. She says the retreat wasn’t a traditional professional development seminar, though. Instead, it was designed using critical race spatial analysis, which she describes as “considering how racialized physical space supports or hinders our ability to engage socially and emotionally within it.” Similar to pandemic research pods, she says they “created a physical space of refuge,” which included “sessions of radical rest, healing circles, and education journey mapping facilitated by Black and Latina mental health professionals, education researchers, and teachers.”

Along with the in-person retreat, Rodriguez also designed virtual support groups for the educators with clinical social workers.

She calls the work her Radical Refuge Program — and it’s growing.

From that first retreat in Spanish Harlem last fall and the virtual sessions that followed, Rodriguez is now working with two additional groups of early childhood educators: One on Long Island and one in Nebraska, which came about when she presented information about the retreat during a think tank conference at Yale University on workforce well-being.

“Women of color typically go into teaching,” she says, “to prevent the harms they endured as students, but we don’t know how.”

Rodriguez says her Radical Refuge program offers that support.

“Unique to this program is how physical in-person and virtual space is utilized to support social and emotional health. Facilitators support Latina and Black women educators through an ongoing four-stage process to become aware of the exploitation they have endured so they can process the trauma with culturally affirming mental health supports in order to begin healing so they can build the necessary reserves to re-enter the toxic systems of their schools.”

As Rodriguez says, “facilitated-identify development is critical in order for educators to build the skills needed to heal and return to their classrooms rejuvenated.”

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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