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In Pursuit of Joy and Magic: Jo Persad, L&T'21

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Learning and Teaching reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Jo Persad

Jo Persad: "I chose these two photos because they symbolize a journey, and most accurately encapsulate my life at HGSE this year. These images are representative of living, working, and learning through a pandemic."

Photo courtesy of Jo Persad

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 12 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Jo Persad will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Learning and Teaching (L&T) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 27.

Senior Lecturer Kathryn Parker Boudett, faculty director of L&T, comments on Persad's selection: “Students’ nominations for Jo practically jumped of the page. They spoke of how she pushed them to ‘dig below the surface and grapple with tension’ but also of her encouragement to ‘take action beyond the intellectualization process.’ I was struck by Jo’s intellectual curiosity and commitment to action in a conversation we had earlier this year. It comes as no surprise to learn that she has been such an inspiration to her fellow students.”

We spoke to Persad about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What does this photo mean to you?  

My HGSE experience was shaped by a vast array of phenomena, both in and outside of Harvard. While my classes and coursework contributed significantly to my HGSE experience, it was also influenced by occurrences within my personal, societal, and professional life. With this in mind, I chose these two photos because they symbolize a journey, and most accurately encapsulate my life at HGSE this year.
These images are representative of living, working, and learning through a pandemic. Upon my acceptance into HGSE, I daydreamed about what interacting with my professors and colleagues would feel like, and also about late nights in the library with a group of friends hunched over books and laptops. As you may have guessed, the global pandemic would make it so I never stepped foot into a Harvard classroom. My only interactions with peers and professors would occur through a divide: a screen. Not all was lost, however, albeit not at the library, late nights, with classmates hunched over books and laptops: check. That in a nutshell was exactly what this year was. A year of doing the same things but in a different way. I did much of what I had daydreamed about doing but not in the means that I had imagined.

The first reality that I had to accept and adapt to was the fact that my home would become my classroom. In thinking about something symbolic, there is nothing that I could showcase that has been more foundational to this year than my classroom: my home. The pictures chosen were taken in my home. I also selected these photographs to specifically honour the location in my home: Read table turned desk and the unseen chair, that supported me through those arduous 15-hour days on the computer.
These pictures reflect the resolve I maintained despite the challenges of a rigorous academic and work schedule, along with various internships/fellowships, and the emotional toll of the many societal conflicts. Persevering manifested in two ways as "J.O." Joyful Overextension and the other effect I affectionately call "tired eyes." At times my eyes made the "tired'' extremely apparent, but most times, they were masked enough that only I could see it. This mirror into my soul began to serve as a symbol of my drive, persistence, and determination to achieve my goals and make the best of trying circumstances. These tired eyes were absolutely a consequence of being J.O.
In a whirlwind of opportunity, I quickly and repeatedly found myself in a state of  J.O. Joyful Overextension. Admittedly, I stretched myself thin this year. Although I was giving of myself, joy remained because I was involved in activities that I loved, namely: learning, teaching (no surprise I was in the Learning and Teaching IL strand, right?) laughing, cultivating change, growing, and making meaningful relationships.
I love these two pictures because they illustrate the overlap and oscillations between Joy and feelings of Overextension. The picture on the right portrays the J in joy. This was taken moments after a major professional achievement which could not have come into fruition without the O, Overextension needed to victoriously overcome whatever circumstances were in the way. My ability and ongoing journey to return to center segues into the symbols on the picture. The icons on the pictures represent my school and my support.
The Cardinal is my school's mascot. There are fewer places where I experience more joy and healing than in the classroom with my students. Also, the support of my coworkers and co-teachers provided me the time and space to pull my limbs back into place. I'm so thankful for my work family.
The second symbol is a Ghanaian Adinkra called the Hye Won Hye. I was introduced to it this year and it became a source of strength as I remembered I am part of "That which cannot be burned." The presidential race, the racial unrest, the fight — inside and outside of Harvard's classrooms — for Black lives; humanity and liberation are pillars that characterize my time at HGSE. Racism is pertinent and alive. Many days, my performance would be compromised as I "reconciled" and rebounded from the acute nature of the occurrences. Additionally, Hye Won Hye, acknowledges that it was not solely by my own might that I was able to endure. It is because of that of my village: my friends, family, and ancestors. A special note of gratitude for my Black HGSE family.

In this year of remote learning, what were some of the ways you were able to connect with your peers?

While attending HGSE full time I was also teaching full time. One of the positives of going to school virtually was being able to maintain my teaching position. Some may see it as a double-edged sword, but I see it as nothing less than a silver lining. I love teaching dearly. Despite a virtual barrier and other effects of the pandemic, I was able to have had the continued pleasure of teaching my students. Furthermore, I remain thankful that I was able to engage in a mutualistic, real-time implementation of my learnings as a result of being a full-time teacher and student. Moreover, the relationships I developed and community healing that was built with my students positively impacted the way I tackled the demands that presented themselves during my time at HGSE.
The main challenges to learning online were staying focused, motivation, and authentically presenting. When you have every website at the click of a finger and the list and every household chore staring you in the face, I doubt staying focused requires further explanation. Motivation waxed and waned. Mitigating the effects of racial stress, the emotional disruptions from living alone during a pandemic coupled with the fact that I was learning and working online often did not lend itself to wanting to sit and continue working in the same spot looking at the same screen. This was incredibly difficult. Shout out to the Pomodoro method and my accountability partners!

Lastly, I desperately wanted to escape the excuse of "it's hard because we're not in person." I wanted to ensure I was bringing the same energy I would as if I were in person. I found myself asking would I say this if we were in person? If so, how and when? The most important question was probably, "Are you being your authentic self?"

"Reframing shame and trauma and shifting my belief of healing from an individual exclusive to a community inclusive model, with history as a catalyst, has been the most important experience for me at HGSE."

Then there is disengagement. This is probably the aspect of Zoom learning that I found most challenging. The virtual world increased the ease in which we could neglect social formalities, humanness, and slink away from moments of discomfort by abruptly changing topics or by virtue of not responding. If we were in person we wouldn’t be so bold as to abandon the societal conversational cues. (Perhaps it’s worthy of investigating what it means that these norms were so quickly forsaken in the virtual world.) I often found it ironic that we would complain about how the virtual world differed from the "real" world while acting fundamentally different than we would if we were in the "real" world. Then begs the question, is it different because of the space or because we're engaging differently? I can only control my own actions and it’s this that undergirded my desire to be fully present. I'm better for this because remaining in difficult conversations meant I learned more about my classmates and myself. However, I would be remiss if I did not give credence to various comments from my colleagues about how I engaged in "hallway chats" as compared to in class and additionally for an impactful meeting with Professor [Houman] Harouni that incited much needed introspection. These two incidents were the catalyst for leaning further into my authenticity.

This method of engaging with one another is difficult and yet, the fact of the matter is, our world is progressing into one of increasing digital interactions. Therefore, it behooves me to learn how to bring my personality online, how to make friends and have discourse in this virtual space. I didn't think I would come to this conclusion, but I am immensely grateful to have attended Harvard virtually. Resultant of the many online interactions and dynamics I have amassed some of the necessary skills to engage and connect effectively, virtually.
In thinking about building connections I'm thankful to the professors for their various attempts at replicating the nuances of in-person experiences. One of the creative ways professors assisted us in building relationships was through "hallway chats." This occurred when class had formally ended, the professor would leave, but transfer host privileges to a student which allowed the Zoom room to stay open. This was established to mimic organic after class debriefs. Some professors stayed on after class for a few minutes and stopped the recording to imitate drop by post-lecture questions. No one did it quite like Dr. V [Christina Villarreal] who had community course gatherings for us to cook, grieve, heal, and dance together which formed relationships within and across sections. Regardless of the magnitude, all attempts were appreciated.

Regarding connecting with my peers, the key was intentionality. In this virtual realm, there were no incidental encounters so we had to more formally organise ways to engage with one another. I created a Black HGSE group chat and accountability workroom but many of my peers were much more creative. We had yoga, “zoomba” sessions, and cooking get-togethers among other events. Generally speaking, where concerted effort was put in connections were cultivated.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

My experience at the Ed School has been shaped by several professors. However, it ultimately comes down to Dr. V and my TFs Kwame, Zenzile, and Michael. My life is fundamentally changed as a result of taking Ethnic Studies and Healing Centered Engagement. The courses were meticulously crafted and the materials were elevated as a result of how the teaching team engaged with me. They encouraged me to engage with myself, and from this new paradigm see myself in society and society in me. This shift was transformative. These classes made it abundantly clear that in order to mold that new paradigm and allow it to take shape in my life, I have to prioritize my healing journey by taking it off the back burner and putting the heat on high.

Reframing shame and trauma and shifting my belief of healing from an individual exclusive to a community inclusive model, with history as a catalyst, has been the most important experience for me at HGSE. As a direct result of these classes, I will be a better person, professional, leader, learner and teacher. As Dr. [Shawn] Ginwright said, "Invest[ing] in human development makes you a better person and a better professional." He hit the nail on the head. I can empirically say that is exactly the result that spurred from Dr. V's classes which invested in me developing me. I believe my leadership class would have me call this an adaptive solution.

Maybe I'm supposed to stop there but listen, anyone who has spoken to me knows I also rave extensively about Dr. Joe McIntyre. I love math and suck at math. Until the fall of 2020, there had been no mathematics teacher who had ever leveraged the fact that I am excited to learn math to mitigate my ineptitude. I'll never forget our first office hours, which occurred because he replied to my discussion post. I had stated I was going to drop the course and he responded suggesting that instead of dropping the class I drop into his office hours. Touché. This is where I learned about his superpower. He gives a damn. He doesn't math at you, he maths with you.

I had worked really hard on this line of code prior to our meeting and figured out how to get the answer (in a super roundabout way) and was proud of myself. Professor McIntyre matched my excitement! I was in shock. He was genuinely enthused about me learning. He truly wanted me, all of us, to be successful. As demonstrated by his actions, he was willing to do what it took to get us there. This categorically changed the way I interacted with Statistics. If you can believe it, I actually enjoyed myself.

"As a teacher, the way these classes made me feel as a learner propelled me to assess how I was engaging with my students. To ensure the soil for the environment we co-create contained the nutrients needed for students to feel not only comfortable but encouraged in being and bringing their full selves."

Lastly, I want to recognise Dr. [Irene] Liefshitz. What a beautiful, gentle and warm spirit. I am thankful to have her as my guide as I learn the "Art and Science of Portraiture" developed by Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. I had never heard of portraiture research but it is exactly the methodology that I want to use for my Ph.D. because of how it centers goodness, sees the whole person, and emphasizes storytelling. This was critical because as I wrestled with continuing in academia, it was of the utmost importance that I found a research method that took into account humanity. That didn't take people as a data point and neglect the story. Portraiture is that. I am in my infancy with this practice and would be treading water while attempting to learn the process and nuances of this methodology. Dr. Liefshitz is not only a resource but also a source of perpetual encouragement. She is exceptionally easy to talk to and the way she balances the realities without diminishing the idea gives me room to dream. I'm so thankful to have spent a year with her as my professor and adviser.

There is no possible way my gratitudes would be complete without Dr. J (Tracie Jones). Thank you for everything. She is the Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DEI) at HGSE and she definitely shaped my experience here and I am so grateful to have met and connected with her, and learned from her throughout the year.

As a teacher, the way these classes made me feel as a learner propelled me to assess how I was engaging with my students. To ensure the soil for the environment we co-create contained the nutrients needed for students to feel not only comfortable but encouraged in being and bringing their full selves. To reflect on how I was supporting them in their academic fears and how I was creating a space that fostered healing, joy, and passion-based action.

In this moment, I'm also realising a common thread that led to my engagement was the safety I felt in these classes as a Black woman. These professors saw us, their students, as humans. Adjustments to the syllabus were made based not only on student needs/feedback but also in anticipation for how societal events would impact our ability to engage. These felt like student-centered classes as opposed to subject-centered classes. Not coincidentally did I learn and participate the most in these courses. Of course, they wanted us to learn but their ability to recognise that school was not happening in a bubble, to not expect us to compartmentalize, to offer rest, is what makes them exceptional.

What are your post-HGSE plans?

Ph.D.? Consulting? Gap year? Sleep! A girl can dream, right?
Thinking professionally, one thing appears to be for sure, I'm going back into the classroom. I am excited to continue the evolution of education as a means of liberation, i.e. using my classroom as a site for community healing, joy, and learning about self, society, and subject matter. I'm truly looking forward to implementing and experimenting with the liberatory pedagogies I learned during my time at HGSE and making them my own: our own. While this year (2021) I will be applying to Ph.D. programs and launching my consulting company, Froot Consulting, being a teacher grounds me. There is no other place I'd want to be than with my ninth-grade physics family as I begin my transition back into flux.

In my professional life, I'd say the keyword is expansion. This means pushing past what I think I can do and going after what I want to do, daring to venture where my convictions, bliss and passions lead me. In doing it this way, I will most importantly be fulfilled, and as a fortunate consequence, diversify my skill sets, my network, and thus broaden my circle of influence, and the amount of change I am able to make. What's the HGSE slogan again?

I am starting my expansion this summer, by working as an associate with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in two cities, as well as with their Racial Equity Working Group. In addition, Froot Consulting begins work with their first client soon after graduation! Perhaps the gap year will have to wait but I am eager to use all that I have learned from HGSE to pull my dreams out of the sky into real life.
Personally, I'm endeavouring to truly put the "Jo" in JOy. This means continuing on my healing pathway which includes rest, reflection, removal, rebuilding, and redemption. I didn't think it was going to be Harvard that jump-started this journey, but it has and it is definitely an integral part of my post-HGSE plans, if not the most important part. All the success I hope to attain and the differences I aspire to make are propelled by my wholeness and ability to give of myself. Dr. V (I believe the original quotation is from someone else) says that we need to pour from our excess, not our essence. The priority is to make that my reality.

"A classroom is not a requirement for education. Learning, joy, healing, laughter, and all the humanness that comes with being in a community are not exclusive to the confines of four walls."

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

The pandemic has shifted my views of education significantly. The first assertion I would make is that learning has happened and is continuing to happen during these unprecedented times. I have come to see that the system of education is dreadfully resistant to innovation. It has become the norm to just conveniently use the pandemic as a crutch for the challenges that existed well before this contagion — need I remind society that racism is the first pandemic exacerbated by a viral pandemic. The political warfare and racism that exist within the entirety of the school system were not only put on display but in some cases further weaponised and used as tactics to promote policies that return us to the status quo by utilising faux anti-racist rhetoric. It's alarming and disheartening and yet as I'm writing this during Teacher Appreciation week I have never felt more appreciative for the career that chose me than I do this moment.

The newest and perhaps most important conviction I have as a result of the pandemic is that a classroom is not a requirement for education. Learning, joy, healing, laughter, and all the humanness that comes with being in a community are not exclusive to the confines of four walls. I experienced it on both sides of the coin as a student and a teacher. Community, although definitely impacted by your Wi-Fi connection, does not require proximity. That's because it's electric, magnetic even, like a wave, traveling through any medium, taking with it only the energy put into it and none of the fluff. I find myself thankful to not be entangled in arguments where my job seemingly would be to convince people that we should be team student over statutes, standards, and standardised tests. Even as I exist as a part of the system and therefore cloaked in all that makes the system broken, through being a teacher, I can do magic. Together with my students, we have the classroom version of sleight of hand. After we close the door or enter our virtual classroom, how we operate is completely under our jurisdiction. Nowhere else in the building could we hide in plain sight transmuting the ills of the system into a discussion, a learning moment, a teaching moment, a hypothesis, an action plan. I Love learning. I Love Teaching