The decision to come to Harvard Graduate School of Education — thus leaving behind a classroom of eager and excited eighth-graders in the Bronzeville community of Chicago — wasn’t an easy one for Eve Ewing, Ed.M.’13, Ed.D.’16.
“They were sad and disappointed,” says Ewing, recalling when she told her students that she was headed to Harvard and could no longer be their teacher. “But they were proud, excited for me, and gave me their blessing.” One girl wrapped her arms around Ewing’s knees, clenching tight, and another student reassured that it would be OK because, “Ms. Ewing is going to fix all the things we talk about.”
Looking back, Ewing says, it was naive to think that she could solve all the larger problems that exist in education, but that very thinking is part of what drew her to HGSE. As a teacher, she witnessed inequities in the system despite students, their families, and colleagues doing the best they could.
“There were things outside my control as a teacher that hampered their experience,” she says. “There was someone making decisions I didn’t like and I thought, maybe, if I could get to the table, then I’d tell them that their ideas were bad. In retrospect, [what was happening had] a simple explanation, but part of my job now is to look at the frame, wall, and gallery…. Never lose sight of the picture or the frame.”
During her first year at HGSE, her former school in Bronzeville became one of the 50 school closures that occurred in Chicago. “It was an emotional experience for me,” she says. “People at the Ed School were asking what this was about and why it was happening, and I really didn’t know.”
Though Ewing, a writer, poet, artist, and sociologist, had many vocations that she pursued while at HGSE, the focus of her dissertation research was helped by the words of her adviser, Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: “Remember what sent you here and who sent you.” Her four-part dissertation, Shuttered Schools in the Black Metropolis: Race, History, and Discourse on Chicago’s South Side, explores those school closures, focusing on the Bronzeville neighborhood, as well as the significance of these schools to the African American culture. The dissertation is a portrait of a community in which Ewing conducted interviews and observations to tell the story. “I felt a moral imperative to make this the focus of my work,” she says. “It was a devastating event for a lot of communities.”
The heart of the research explores how and why school administrations and communities have no say in the decision to close a school. In her discovery, Ewing admits it isn’t so much that schools should never be closed as much as it is that the reasons and “calculus” to make those decisions is off.
“Oftentimes districts grossly underestimate the impact closures can have on students, families, and communities,” she says. “Schools have a strong symbolic presence and the weight attached to a school is something that needs to be taken into account when decisions are made.”
In the case of the Bronzeville neighborhood — an area that was instrumental in the history of African Americans migrating from the south to the north — schools were named after famous African American luminaries such as Daniel Hale Williams, a doctor who opened the first nonsegregated hospital in America, and Anthony Overton, the first African American leader of a business conglomerate. Closing these schools and displacing students, Ewing argues, sends a broader message from the school district that they don’t care about that legacy.
In some ways, Ewing sees her research as making good on an understanding between the Bronzeville community and herself. “It’s easy to get caught up in an interesting class or a great book or lose track that there is a community you really care about who brought you here,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been on long-term loan from Chicago.”
She will return home this summer where she’ll spend the next two years working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago turning her dissertation into a book. Then, in 2018, she’ll begin working as an assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. “I love teaching and engaging with students, but to have those two years to push my work to next stage will be a huge gift for me,” she says.
Until then, Ewing has one more task to complete at HGSE: class marshal at Commencement. “It’s a huge honor,” Ewing says. “No one tells you [to] come to Harvard for the nice people. People tell you to come for the money, prestige, or resources, but no one says you should come because the people are nice and really good. While here, I’ve been so blessed to have colleagues who challenge me, are kind and caring, supportive and not competitive, and view me as a full human being not just a pocket of labor. The fact that my peers, whom I respect so deeply and profoundly, see and acknowledge me in this way [class marshal] means the world.”