Photo: Devlo Media
Education = Freedom
Based on her parents' experience in Eritria and her own time in school, Malika Ali, Ed.M.’19, learned that education meant liberation
“The three things that can never be taken away from you are your education, your values, and your faith.” So says Malika Ali, Ed.M.’19, reflecting on her story and how it led to her current work in education.
Ali’s story starts with her parents, who came to the United States as refugees from Eritria, a country in northeast Africa. They ultimately settled in Oklahoma, where Ali was born and raised. The lessons they learned on their journey framed Ali’s childhood.
“I learned early that for my parents, education was the way out of war and poverty,” explains Ali. “My mother left home at 14 and crossed a border into Sudan on foot. As she made her way, she couldn’t bring anything with her — except her education, her values, and her faith. Growing up, she instilled in us that no matter what happens in life, education matters and cannot be taken away.”
As a child navigating poverty in a community that didn’t represent her, this is a lesson Ali later learned herself.
“Doing well in school mattered because it was the only thing I could control,” says Ali. “I couldn’t control my social-political context, but I could control how I showed up in the classroom and what I could do there. It was a huge source of inspiration and confidence for me.”
Reflecting on her years in school, Ali remembers her education as a path toward freedom. Not just toward social mobility or stability, but true liberation. She thought, “If I can broaden my mind, it doesn’t matter where I am or what condition I’m in because internally, I have this source of liberation that I can work toward and manifest in my life. These things have to happen together: We can’t change our reality without learning.”
Today, Ali seeks to instill this same idea — that education is liberation — in the schools and communities she interacts with through her work as director of pedagogy at the Highlander Institute in Providence, Rhode Island.
“We bring together students, educators, and communities to collaborate on plans for school improvement,” says Ali. Using a framework that she designed, the institute unites different community members on one design team to make a plan for school turnaround, and to implement that plan. “Community and school members work together to try new techniques, review data, and build better schools,” she says. “We facilitate the process.”
Ali sees clear connections between the work she does now and what she learned as a student at the Ed School.
“I believe that communities know what they need; it’s not our job to tell them what they need. My time at HGSE helped me think about this — about how we actually effect change,” she says. “What is our role? We are going into communities, some we are part of and some we are not, so what is our role in that space?”
In the future, Ali sees herself continuing to work in education, with the goal of fostering an education system that liberates students. This work involves constant discussion about what liberation means in different communities, what it looks like, and how to create it. It is work that is both frustrating and exciting, she says. But in times of crisis, it is all we have.
“I grew up with stories of people who did not have their fundamental needs met — and those needs are so important — but internally, learning was a source of freedom that could not be taken away from them. Learning allows us to break away from the prisons that confine us. There is so much injustice and oppression in the world. And yet all of us have power, privilege, and the ability to imagine a greater reality for ourselves, our communities, and society.”
Gianna Cacciatore, Ed.M.’18, is a former teacher and Harvard Teacher Fellows member currently working on her master’s degree at the Harvard Divinity School.