Shifting Dominant Narratives in Education to Create a World for Everyone

Esther Ohito

Dr. Esther Ohito’s family culture influenced her to pursue education, and not just because several relatives were teachers. Instead, it was her father instilling a sense of curiosity in his daughter that sparked her career choices.

“I remember being really young and reading the newspaper to my father. At the time, I thought it was just busy work, but now I realize he wanted me to be curious about the world,” Dr. Ohito, assistant professor of English Education/Literacy Education, said. “I’m a really curious person. I try to always begin with questions.”

Those questions led her to focus on three areas of research: the gendered pedagogies of Black critical educators, the gendered geographies of Black girlhoods, and the poetics and aesthetics of Black knowledge and cultural production.

“It excites me to know that the work I’m doing celebrates the diversity and the richness of blackness as it is embodied in Black people and that my work could also potentially shift the dominant narrative we have about who Black people are, not just in this country, but in the world,” she said.

Drawn to education, Dr. Ohito knew she wanted to be a teacher like the ones she had in Kenya. In second grade, a teacher called her a writer, opening a new lens for the young student. “This teacher’s ability to recognize something in me that felt very natural, but that I didn’t have words around, was very affirming,” Dr. Ohito said. “I felt so seen, so known, and so recognized.”

Raised in a working-class family in Kenya, Dr. Ohito immigrated to the U.S. at age 13. She did not feel as seen in her predominantly white high school. “I was very much in a shell,” she recalled. “That served as a model of how not to be a teacher.”

Dr. Ohito earned a bachelor’s in English Arts at Hampton University and then a master’s in teaching at National Louis University. She taught elementary and secondary school for five years in Chicago. After working three years in teacher education in Chicago, Dr. Ohito realized she had questions about education theory and started her path to getting a Doctor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

After stints as a professor at other universities, Dr. Ohito was drawn to Rutgers Graduate School of Education because she saw it as a place where curiosity is cultivated, and because of the diversity—on many levels—of GSE’s students and faculty.

“Being at Rutgers feels very much like peeling back an onion. There’s always another layer, and another layer, and another layer. Because I’m a curious person, that keeps me interested. I want to keep learning, and I feel like there’s a lot to keep learning here,” Dr. Ohito, who has been at Rutgers for three years, said.

In her courses, Dr. Ohito emphasizes the importance of funds of knowledge, or an asset-oriented way of viewing family and family cultures, especially those in urban communities.

“Each family has something and some things that they teach, and those things are valuable and important,” she said. “I always emphasize to students that they have their own funds of knowledge that they’re drawing upon when they enter the classroom. Part of my work is to help them become clearer on what those funds of knowledge are and how those funds of knowledge are shaping their perception of the young people whom they work with.”

Contemplating the future of the GSE and education more broadly, Dr. Ohito believes education is integral to defining and shaping the kind of world in which everyone feels like they have a place.

She said, “More than many other areas, education is a tool that can really be transformative, both at the individual and societal level. My hope is that there is more recognition of the power of education and that there’s more engagement with education as the powerfully transformative tool it is.”

Read more success stories in the 2023 Rutgers Graduate School of Education Impact Report.