We Must Say No to the Status Quo: Educators as Allies in the Battle for Social Justice


Veronica McDermott

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright

    List of Activities and Figures


    I can think of no more important curriculum topic or school culture and climate issue than social justice. Without a direct, purposeful, and critical consideration of how social justice plays out and is embodied in our school curriculum and classrooms and corridors, I fear that injustice, hate crimes, and ongoing marginalization will be our legacy. As educators, we can—and must—take the necessary steps to counteract the negative consequences bred from ignoring injustice, sidestepping hate speech, and tolerating marginalization.

    I like to think of education as a gentle rain on a thirsty soul. I did not make up this definition. It came out of a discussion about education I was having with my husband, a non-educator. Among other things, my husband is a social worker, an Anglican priest, and a noncredentialed theologian. It was his theological side that kicked in. Did you know, he said to me, that the Hebrew word for education is early rain?

    Of course I didn’t know that, but the concept intrigued me. Early rain connotes a gentleness and new birth and nature providing exactly what is needed for flowers and plants and animals to thrive. Early rain transforms the landscape in fundamental and meaningful and essential ways. Should we expect less from education? What would happen, I wondered, if we thought about education as an early rain, something that is provided with gentleness, that is unbidden, that soaks down to the essential aspect of the human condition, the soul? What would happen, indeed, if our purpose as educators is to do what gardeners do: ensure that every plant in our care thrived; that every child in our care became more whole, flourished, and added to the general beauty and well-being of the world?

    What would happen? The weeds of injustice, hate, and marginalization would disappear. They would have to. Weeds and plants rarely flourish together.

    The more difficult question, of course, is how do we, as educators, address a world littered with a history of bigotry, misunderstanding, and hatred of others? How do we keep up with the ever-changing onslaught of new manifestations of bigotry, misunderstanding, and hatred that permeate the media, that worm their way into conversations, that play out in perverse policies, and that show up in malevolent individual and group actions?

    In other words, how can we, as educators, make a difference? What do we need? What do our students need? How can we come together to honestly question and knowingly interrupt a system and ways of thinking that we have been conditioned to accept as normal?

    Go to the Place Where No One Else Has Been

    This book is an attempt to answer these questions. It is both a portrayal of my experiences as a White middle-class teacher, administrator, and professional developer on a lifelong quest to become an ally in the battle for social justice. This portrayal is dissected and sifted through a social justice lens as a way of elucidating the many concepts and theories that play into the work of a social justice ally.

    In many ways, it is a storybook, and purposefully so. Stories leave room for interpretation and personalization.

    Storytelling is a fundamental means of meaning making (Wells, 1987). It is part of our DNA. We love to hear and retell stories. Isn’t that what we do when we get together with friends or when we need to illustrate a point? Stories anchor abstract ideas in an accessible medium. They take the sting out of emotionally charged experiences. They personalize and connect.

    I know it is desirable, certainly fashionable, and undoubtedly comforting for authors to provide readers with a blueprint, an irrefutable-sounding, authority-imbued list of the ten next steps or five most powerful best practices or the three things you need to know in order to do whatever it is the book is about, along with a detailed description of what the desired outcome will look like, feel like, sound like and how it will operate. But I will not do that. I will not do this for one reason. I do not have a foolproof definitive recipe to become an ally in the battle for social justice. Nor should you. The reason is because it does not exist. A socially just world needs to be created. A socially just world is a work in progress. The end point, a new order, cannot be fathomed from our current vantage point.

    My position is quite simple, but it springs from the coming together of many disparate ideas, the inevitable lessons learned from a lifetime of experiences, and the deep suspicion that complex issues defy simple solutions. There is no single, foolproof way to become an ally in the battle for social justice. There is no single, foolproof way to create the socially just world our marginalized students crave and allies desperately desire for them. If I provided you with a blueprint, a list of next steps or a litany of how-tos, I would rob you of your personhood, your uniqueness, your opportunity for soul searching, the joy of deep thinking, and perhaps most importantly, the chance for you to exercise your creativity, and that would be an injustice.

    Ally work, the desire to change the world, is creative work. How can we, stuck as we are in a place where injustice thrives, know exactly how to build a better life, a society based upon the best in human civilization? In the post-apartheid world of South Africa, there is a strong recognition that the political transformation that took place in the 1990s requires a “second transition.” This second transition, it is said, is needed to tackle the sticky residue of long-standing social and value systems that newly earned political rights left untouched.

    I believe that ally work requires more than just a second transition. I believe it requires commitment to an open, adaptable, creative transition. Ally work is ongoing. It is messy. It is anything but linear and developmental. There will be setbacks, to be sure, but there will also be brilliant bursts of unexpected adjustment, glorious adaptation, and ingenious renegotiation. The results can be breathtaking, in much the same way emerging from fog that hides and distorts what is on the other side can be. Once the fog is traversed, once it is lifted, once the sun pierces its swirling cloudiness, what emerges is new and bright and glorious and often an unexpected and certainly unpredictable landscape. It is, in a very real sense, a new creation.

    Ally work, like painting a picture, writing a poem, or composing music, requires fluidity, adaptation, constant adjustment, ongoing evaluation, constant revisiting. It is through these processes that works of art are created. The prolific artist, the productive writer, the inexhaustible composer possess a general idea, a nagging urge, a visionary desire to make something glorious out of the blank canvas, the wordless page, the note-less sheet music. The painter, the writer, the composer plunge in, they dig deep, and they trust the process. They fearlessly engage, charging ahead into unknown territory. They intuitively know that creativity is a place where no one else has been. Allies, too, need to fearlessly enter and charge ahead to that place where social justice thrives, that place where no one else has been.


    In many ways, this book is a legacy project, the legacy others have left for me and the legacy I hope to leave for others. As a nod to the past, it highlights and honors my family, my mentors, my colleagues, my students, and the many systems that were in place to allow me to be in a position to write a book such as this. It also highlights and honors the work of countless allies who are deeply concerned about the kind of future our children and grandchildren will inherit. To all, a heartfelt thanks. You are all in this book somewhere.

    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Jennifer Abrams

    Educational Consultant

    Jennifer Abrams Consulting

    Palo Alto, CA

    Judy Brunner

    Author, Consultant, Clinical Faculty

    Instructional Solutions Group and Missouri State University

    Springfield, MO

    Becki Cohn-Vargas

    Director, Not In Our School, Retired Superintendent

    Author of Identity Safe Classrooms

    El Sobrante, CA

    Takesha Winn

    Dallas ISD

    Assistant Principal (Middle School)

    Dallas, TX

    About the Author

    NoneVeronica McDermott is a retired school superintendent who continues to focus her efforts on school transformation, social justice, and equity. She is a frequent keynote speaker and workshop leader at national and international conferences devoted to issues of leadership and learning for equity and social justice. She is the author of many articles, chapters, and opinion pieces, as well as coauthor of two books designed to change the way educators think about, talk about, and interact with our students who are not thriving. Dr. McDermott received her PhD from New York University, a professional diploma from Long Island University, and her master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In addition to being superintendent of schools, she has served as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction; principal; district director of English Language Arts, Reading, Second Language, and ESL; and English teacher. She was also a regional director with a national professional development organization that provided high-quality, embedded learning experiences for urban educators. Her legacy project is to eradicate the crime of squandered potential.

  • Afterword

    “Use Your Words”

    On September 13, 2012, the world shifted—cosmically. My first grandchild, Ida, was born.

    Ida’s arrival signaled the birth of several new identities accompanied by new responsibilities, new roles, and new names. Our daughter and son-in-law became parents, Mommy and Daddy. My husband and I became grandparents, Papa and Nana. My father, the only remaining member of the previous generation, became a great-grandfather for the first time. He died one month after we snapped a picture of him clad in a hospital gown, sitting in a wheelchair in the lobby of the hospital, cradling and cuddling and caressing Ida, while his grandchildren looked on and an IV sustained him. This photograph is powerful, unforgettable, and pregnant with meaning.

    This is how it goes in the cycle of life. The web is intricate. Ida’s birth heralded a new era, a new iteration of who our family is, a new version of how we are connected to the world, a new take on whom each one of us is. In my father’s day, his marriage to my mother was considered shocking. After all, her family came from a totally different part of Italy than my father’s! I can still remember hushed conversations that took place around both sets of families’ tables regarding the food the others ate, the dialect they spoke, and the values they represented. This was identity politics on a familial level, and, quite frankly, I did not get it. To me, both sets of grandparents were important, were loving, were part of me and I of them.

    By the time my generation came around, the circle widened. Neither my husband nor my brother’s wife has Italian blood in them. We were, however, connected by faith. Our son’s marriage took place under a Hoopah, the Jewish wedding tent. When my husband and I met with the caterer who was eventually hired to cater our daughter’s wedding dinner, the first question he asked was, “Tell me a little about the bride and groom.” We indicated that both the bride and groom were PhD candidates working in the world of anti-racism education, that our daughter is American of Irish and Italian descent, and our soon-to-be son-in-law is from Trinidad of East Indian and Afro-Caribbean heritage. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked. “Have fun!” he responded. And he did. And so do we. What a blessing it is to have grandchildren who have the history and heritage of three continents flowing through their veins. What richness. What connections. What miracles.

    In October 2013, Time magazine published an article, “The Changing Face of America,” which begins by saying that the United States is no longer a country “in which race is so black and white.” To prove this point, they include statistics from the U.S. Census that indicate that one of the fastest-growing categories on the 2010 census was the one that allowed people to choose multiple racial designations, an opportunity, by the way, that only began in 2000. Also included is a gallery of photographs of people young and old with captions indicating how they self-identify and how they are categorized on the census.

    Is the multi-race option a step forward? Some people would argue absolutely not, since the categories themselves are based on a very flawed idea that race is rooted in biology, when it is clearly a social construct. Still categorizing lives and identities goes on. Categorizing provides easy answers, pathways to articulate the very complex process of coming to understand and name who you are. People whose faces do not match rigidly defined racial expectations often maintain a fluid identity depending upon circumstances, most notably how others might use that information. Some take a playful root, blending labels: Blackanese, Filitino, Korgentinian.

    But, they are still labels. They are still words that carry with them the legacy of division, the horrors of hierarchy, the politics of exclusion.

    When Ida was just beginning to talk, she was often coaxed and encouraged by her parents, “Use your words.” Now that our second grandchild, Leo, is starting to talk, he, too, has been encouraged to use his words. Words matter. They define. They highlight. They insinuate. Finding the right words is a weighty matter and it is often very hard.

    Ida and Leo live in Canada, where their skin color and facial features earn them the identity of a “visible minority.” These words conjure up for me an image of my grandchildren being always and forever visible, out in the open, members of a minority and thus less than.

    Visible minority. Ouch. That hurts my American ears; my grandmother’s protective instincts; my life’s work to reduce barriers, to eliminate oppression, to give all children unfettered access to everything they need to thrive. Visible minority: defined by the Canadian government as “persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in color.” I bristle at the notion that my grandchildren—that any child—can be officially defined by what they are NOT, rather than what they ARE. That is why I chose to write this book. It was—and will remain—my attempt to change things through the one means I know I have at my disposal. I will use my words.


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