As an educator and an activist, one of Shantá Harrington’s main goals is to challenge prevailing notions of what it means to educate Black youth — and she hopes to pass that drive on to her students.
“I want to dedicate my work to thinking critically about the many ways we can and should prepare Black youth to not only navigate this unequal society, but to transform it and confront the realities of oppression, power, and privilege with critical reflection, self-efficacy, and action,” says Harrington. “As my year at HGSE comes to an end, I constantly tell myself: ‘Light a fire in your students so that they may transform what the world looks like today, but be sure to prepare them to transform what it will look like tomorrow.’”
Harrington recently was awarded an Education Entrepreneurship Fellowship to work in the Harvard iLab this summer on an “exciting, transformative venture” that aims to provide communities with tools, strategies, and methods to raise critical consciousness in marginalized students. It will also work toward anti-racist, anti-oppressive professional development for educators. Harrington plans to bring this venture to her hometown of Chicago, where she hopes to partner with other organizations to “make magic happen.”
“I've watched the young people in Chicago be living examples of what knowledge, activism, and hope look like,” Harrington says. “While society continuously tries to silence them, I have heard the voices of Chicago's black and brown students, and I am ready to go home and serve them in a way that I could not before.”
“Shantá Harrington is a gift to us all in promoting deep thinking and facilitating stimulating conversations, with learning and levity,” says Lecturer Eileen McGowan, faculty director of the Specialized Studies Program (SSP), noting Harrington’s valued contributions to the Alumni of Color Conference, the youth group YouthWoke, and SSP, for which she co-created a three-part workshop on justice, power, and privilege. “As one of her admirers wrote, ‘She is so eager to share what she knows and is so enthusiastic about learning that it is infectious.’ We all got the bug.”
Harrington will receive the Intellectual Contribution Award for SSP at Convocation on May 23. Here, she reflects on her time at HGSE and her life in education.
Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?
My Professors in Liberation, Christina "V" Villareal and Dr. Aaliyah El-Amin, have both been powerful forces during my time here at HGSE. Unapologetic women of color who have constantly reminded me that who we are is not only more than enough, it is critical to the work that we must do. That in fact, we already possess everything we need in order to best serve our young people, we just have to act consistently, fearlessly, and intentionally even when it is difficult. They constantly give me hope and every single day have been walking examples of what it looks like to decolonize and humanize teaching. I am still processing everything from their courses, and remain inspired and challenged by them intellectually, professionally, and personally. In Ethnic Studies (V) and in Educating to Transform Society: Preparing Students to Disrupt and Dismantle Racism (Dr. El-Amin), I've learned so much more about critical consciousness development, hope and healing, and the powerful critical pedagogies of social justice and liberation work. When I first came to HGSE I had so much passion and no idea what to do with it. After this year, I think I have a pretty good idea of where to start.
What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program?
Take it all in. This will be a quick nine months, but it can also be some of the most rewarding. Get out of your comfort zone. Take classes that challenge you personally and professionally. For incoming students of color, speak up for yourself and your community. For incoming white students, stand in solidarity with your classmates. Realize that we all perpetuate systems of oppression and dedicate these nine months and the rest of your life to disrupting and dismantling them. Allow yourself to challenge and be challenged. Allow yourself to grow and to change. Get to know as many people as possible: students, faculty, staff. Live every day as if there is much to learn, for there is, and we must learn as much as we can if we are to liberate ourselves and our communities.
What will you change in education and why?
Education should be connected to the lives of the students we serve. Education should validate our students' communities, experiences, identities, and whole selves and prepare them to be change agents. For me, education was not the golden ticket to leave my community for something "better." In fact, it was the golden ticket for me to realize that better was already around me, it just needed to be nurtured. Students should not feel like they have to leave their communities or deny parts of their identities and culture in order to achieve high levels of success inside and outside of school. We need to bridge the disconnect between social justice work and schooling. This is the education that should be prioritized, and I am ready to join other educators, students, and activists, working to transform our schools.
If you could transport one thing from Cambridge to your next destination, what would it be?
The iLab – High School Edition. There is so much knowledge, innovation, and creativity in Chicago, I could only imagine the things that could be developed and produced there. There are so many entrepreneurs, creatives, and young business women and men especially within Chicago Public Schools, and that is why it’s so important for students have access to high-quality STEAM programs (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) and other spaces for them to CREATE. And I would definitely have high school students leading many of the workshops, too. There’s a lot we could learn from them.
The number one, biggest surprise of the last year was …
I feared that being at Harvard, I would feel trapped in the ivory tower, wouldn’t be able to be my full self, and would be so disconnected from activism, fun, and working with young people and communities. But HGSE is about that action! HGSE is LIT, the people are real, and we definitely know how to party!