As Aaliyah El-Amin finalizes seven years of work and research at HGSE and prepares to graduate, the Ed.D. Commencement marshal finds herself experiencing mixed emotions.
“I’m excited to see all my work and effort culminate into something, and excited to take these ideas forward into the world,” El-Amin says. “But change is always hard and leaving the people I have grown close to will be tough, but I’m eager to see what happens next.”
Though El-Amin came to Harvard with hopes of developing a school model for students of color that helps them respond to issues of racial inequity, she realized that she first needed to take a big step back. She spent the better part of this year writing her dissertation, “'Until Justice Rolls Down Like Water' Revisiting Emancipatory Schooling for African Americans – A Theoretical Exploration of Concepts for Liberation.” The thesis outlines an educational framework for African American students that focuses specifically on building their skills and motivation to pursue social change.
“A lot of schools provide students with knowledge to navigate society as it is, but children also need to be equally equipped with the skills and capacity to break the status quo,” El-Amin says.
Her research suggests that historical models of emancipatory schooling, or schools that embrace teaching groups to advocate for their freedom, should be revived as a part of our present-day practice. More so, El-Amin suggests five critical concepts that a school can cultivate to ensure young African Americans can both thrive in and transform a society in which racism is still pervasive:
- Sound racial identity, or to see one’s racial identity as a strength and asset.
- Critical consciousness, or the ability to identify and deconstruct issues of inequity.
- Liberation-centered academic identity, or the ability to see academic achievement as a way to change society rather than just be successful in it.
- Collective obligation, or a sense of responsibility to a group.
- Activism skills, or the ability to create and sustain systemic change.
Each of these pillars is extensively documented to equip students of color with knowledge, skills, and mindsets that can help them push against racism in the United States. El-Amin’s research also demonstrates that each pillar has a really important influence on the others and she suggests the five should be developed together — whole school models present a unique opportunity for focusing on all of them at once.
Rising racial tensions this year throughout America, El-Amin says, “reinforce the significance of schools and educators being able to prepare students of color to survive, thrive, and deconstruct a racist society. We have young kids of color as captive audiences for an incredible amount of time in schools, she says, how can we not leverage this setting to help them make sense of and react against one of the most clear threats in their lives?”
El-Amin believes her work can help. “My next step is to figure out how to make my voice larger and louder in this space and sharing what I have learned with others who are interested,” she says. “I want to spend time figuring out how to get some of these ideas out into the broader world of practice.”
El-Amin recently received a $35,000 Ruth Landes Memorial Fund grant which will allow her to extend her dissertation research. As part of the grant, she’ll complete an ethnographic study of schools that are holistically teaching freedom and that incorporate the five core pillars outlined in her dissertation. Her goal is to showcase how at these schools children are learning academic content in rigorous ways, while at the same time being carefully and thoughtfully prepared to be warriors for justice.
“I think it is important for people to understand that this type of critical education or a focus on these five pillars in schools isn’t just nice to have at this point — it’s necessary,” she says. “Racism and racial inequities not only determines the quality of too many of our young people of color’s lives but also, as has been brought to wider consciousness recently, determines whether or not they get to live at all. A kind of education that acknowledges our deep flaws — and intentionally helps kids help remedy them — needs to be on the table.”