GSE Faculty Work to Advance Equity in Education

When it comes to the topic of urban education, there is no singular, agreed-upon definition of  what the phrase actually means. According to Dr. Lauren Kelly, an assistant professor at the GSE, “It’s a contested term because of our changing society and different notions of ‘urban-ness.’ At the GSE, we’re thinking about the impact of education on marginalized communities and how teaching and learning practices can work to bring about equity.” Dr. Kisha Porcher, GSE assistant professor of professional practice, shared: “I think that when we throw around the word ‘urban’ now, people think of big cities full of black and brown bodies in mostly impoverished areas where groups are marginalized and specifically kind of organized into a specific space. But if I had to define urban myself, I would define it as a very complex space that is forever changing depending on the ways of our society.“ Dr. Nicole Mirra, GSE assistant professor, also felt the weight of inequity in her response. “I think of ‘urban education’ as education that grapples with issues of equity and access and is oriented toward the mission of giving access to a quality education to students who have traditionally been marginalized. That usually refers to students of color and students living in poverty.”

Breaking down the phrase only leads to more nuances. “Due to the proliferation of digital media and the globalization of culture, the word urban no longer refers just to a geographic location and the culture that emerges from that location,” Kelly stated. Mirra added, “This term is kind of the catch-all that sometimes keeps us from having conversations about inequities in certain communities.” When thinking about how the word ‘urban’ resonates, Porcher says, “it’s really important to understand the context of where people might be situated and where they might live. People will say that New York City is an urban space, but it is very complex in terms of who lives where and when you start to think about topics such as redlining, then you have to have a very different conversation.”

The state of education within urban spaces is constantly shifting. “Because of gentrification, these groups of people who have been in traditionally defined ‘urban’ neighborhoods for decades have had to move out. And for a really long time, urban education was defined by being situated in those types of areas and cities, which had become synonymous with poverty and marginalized communities. We’re at a point now where we have to begin to rethink what that means and what that looks like in the modern context,” states Kelly. These traditional labels of being an urban district can have negative implications, according to Porcher. “It is important for us to have conversations about the nuances of words and how they have changed over time as well as how we use this for a specific person or a specific community, how we get one connotation, and how will we use it in the terms of gentrification and revitalization so that it is looked at something that is positive.”

The negative connotations associated with one’s neighborhood and one’s schooling can also affect the mindset of the student and what they believe they can achieve. Mirra elaborates, “Students understand what the narrative is in this country about education — they understand where they live, they understand what the dominant media narratives say about them, and about their communities and their possibilities and potential. It becomes a battle of creating counter-narratives and speaking back to that portrayal and students do it every day. I am always amazed by the strength and the resilience that students bring, but it’s not a task that they should have to have on their backs to begin with.”

As the GSE strives to advance equity in education, there are practices in place that assist in advancing this critical mission. “One of the first things that we try to do in our program is try to help students understand that what we see as ‘normal’ is a specifically structured vision of what is ‘normal’ that benefits some people and does not benefit others,” states Mirra. Porcher adds to this, “I spend a lot of time just helping teachers unpack their own biases and their own internalized racism, because sometimes we have to have those critical conversations. Some come in thinking that most of these kids can’t read or that most black men are dangerous. Where did that come from? Where is that situated in your own personal experiences that might hinder you from actively engaging with students and to be the best teacher you can be?”

Kelly elaborates, “I’m hoping we are moving towards a space where teachers and students are equally learning from each other and bringing into the classroom openness and curiosity. We want to make sure that what preservice teachers are learning at the GSE is relevant for their teaching practice, for their students, and for communities. We also want this framing of teaching and learning to invite more people into the field of education who want to do social justice work and not be deterred because it seems overwhelming or impossible.”