Skip to main content

Just after he joined the Ed School in July, after five years in the Africana Studies department at San Francisco State University, Professor Shawn Ginwright spoke to Ed. about social justice educators and the vital importance of rest — including his own.

What got you thinking about the toll activism takes on educators, especially their ability to rest?  
To keep it real, I didn’t always see the connection between social change and rest. I guess rest became important to me when I realized that something was really wrong in my own life. In 2001, I experienced a sort of a mental breakdown. We had just given birth to our daughter Nyah. I was teaching at Santa Clara University. I was the executive director of a nonprofit in Oakland and constantly raising money, and I was leading a series of youth organizing sessions with young people. One night, I woke up in a sweat and I just couldn’t sleep. I was so stressed and worried about failing to raise money, not being good enough at teaching, and most importantly, not there for my daughter. I walked into the living room and broke down crying. I was sobbing, and at first, I was surprised and didn’t know where all this emotion was coming from. But when I tried to calm it, bury it, and stuff it back down, it welled up even more.

What happened next? 
I was five minutes into my snotty nose crying when the inner dialogue started in my head. One voice, the strong baritone Black man, stood up and said, “Hey you a grown ass man. Suck it up and keep it moving.” Another voice, one that I’d really never heard before, said, “It's OK man, you are so hard on yourself, just let go of all this shit you’ve been carrying.” More sobbing. Nedra, my spouse, heard me and came into the living room in the midst of my emotional battle. She had never seen me in that state, so she knew something was really wrong. We just sat and talked, and what became clear to me was that I needed to make a different choice about how I wanted to live. I remember reading somewhere this quote, “I choose peace of mind, instead of this,” and that’s exactly how I felt. I also realized that I wasn’t alone, and that a lot of teachers I was supporting were experiencing their own version of my meltdown.

Why do educators sacrifice rest in the name of justice?  
The truth is teachers aren’t really trained to understand themselves. They are trained to support and teach students without much consideration of how to cultivate the reservoir of presence that is required to teach and support students in a transformative way. In most cases, teachers are expected to grind and burn their way through the challenges of teaching. This is particularly the case for social justice educators who assume that there is not much time for their own rest because there is so much suffering and injustice in our schools. Rest is also an opportunity to reflect because it allows us to take stock of what’s going on inside and shatters the myth that the only real social justice work happens outside of us. Rest forces us to reconcile the close relationship between our inner journey and how we show up on in the world on the outside.

You say that "rest is an act of freedom." What exactly do you mean? 
There are so many ways that we, as a society, view rest as a sign of weakness. The idea that rest is weakness has a long history in America and it is still deeply rooted in white supremacist capitalist culture that views work, labor, and productivity as the bedrock of a healthy economy. People of color, in the minds of white America, have primarily been seen as labor to exploit. Rest and leisure are reserved for the white folk who supposedly earned the luxury to rest. Rest and race are intertwined and boil down to who has the right to rest, under what conditions should rest and leisure be granted, and who has earned the ability to rest without stigma or ridicule? Rest for folks of color, in white supremacist culture, has to be earned first by demonstrating unquestioned loyalty and dedication to work, sweat, and toil. For example, African slave labor is just one of many examples of how the idea of rest as weakness permeates our society. This also applies to Mexican farm workers in the Central Valley of California and the Chinese whose labor created the intercontinental rail system. When we understand how rest inequality is systemic and historical, we can create new policies, practices and programs that encourage and support our need for rest and leisure. We collectively free ourselves from the impact of White supremist capitalist culture when we center rest in our personal and professional lives.

Post-pandemic, how can educators balance the need to help students catch up without sacrificing rest? 
There is a false notion about “learning loss” resulting from COVID. First, for most students of color in underresourced schools, there has always been a learning loss that is rarely acknowledge by policymakers. Second, the idea that we must “catch up” fosters additional pressure to do more with less time. The fact is our students did actually learn quite a lot during COVID. They learned about their fears, their dreams. They learned how much they valued being in community at school. They also learned how to learn from a distance. In short, if we focused more on the social-emotional learning that occurred, and expanded our notion of knowledge, we could ease the pressure to catch up and fix the supposed learning loss.

An edited version of this Q&A ran in the fall/winter 2023 issue of Harvard Ed. magazine.


Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles