A survivor making black lives matter in the curriculum

Eight hours before Aya Waller-Bey was due to jump on a plane from Detroit to London to take up a scholarship at Cambridge University she was sitting in a courtroom watching as a judge sentenced her sister to two years behind bars for assault with intent to do bodily harm during an armed robbery.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Aya was about to start a new life in one of the world’s most prestigious universities and her sister, Junea, was leaving behind her son, family and friends for prison.

They are two children out of five in a family from an area of Detroit where most parents, if they are not unemployed, are blue collar workers, employed in car plants or as cashiers, or janitors. Both their parents work on car assembly lines, in rival companies.

According to Aya, now 24, the highest level of education for most people in her childhood neighbourhood – and she says the vast majority of them are Black or African American – is high school.

But the separate paths the siblings took reflect both the challenges holding young people back from educational achievement and the possibilities if only they were given the right chance.

“Though we grew up in the same household, she definitely had a different lived experience,” Aya says.

Aya was identified very early on as a high achieving, self-motivated student and went to a Magnet middle school. Her sister became a teenage mom.

“I had that label and support from educators since kindergarten, so I had a headstart from the age of four or five. People believed in my ability and cultivated it,” she says.

“But if you were not taking honours classes in those schools, you were just kind of lost.”

Aya was the first in her family to go to university and she earned her break through her own hard work. But she was helped on the way by pro-access measures and secured a place at Georgetown, one of the country’s elite universities.

Georgetown is predominantly white, very privileged and populated largely by the upper middle classes, but like most highly selective universities it is needs-blind. “If you are accepted and need US$60,000 to attend they will pay it,” says Aya, who majored in sociology, with a social justice concentration, and minored in African-American studies.

As part of her social justice course, she took community-based learning classes, and volunteered in community organisations in some of DC’s poorest neighbourhoods. She served as a mentor and tutor for adjudicated youth with the After School Kids programme, once a week going to court and taking teenagers to Georgetown to eat in the dining hall, go through their homework with them, and give lessons on their rights in the criminal justice system as well as life skills, including the right way to talk to girls.

The course looked at inequalities including the ‘food deserts’ in certain DC wards, where there are no grocery stores and as a result no access to fresh food and vegetables.

Aya says doing sociology was “the best thing that happened to me” because it exposed her to ideas on race, gender and class that helped her think about the world more deeply.

She became active as the political coordinator of Georgetown’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and campaigned on the marginalisation and criminalisation of ethnic minorities, and voter registration. She also campaigned to improve diversity at the university and to secure a diversity requirement in the core curriculum for all students.

After studying at Georgtown, Aya worked in the admissions office as the coordinator for African-American recruitment and was given responsibility for attending college fairs and encouraging applicants in four states in the Midwest: Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.

Recognise disparity

It was while attending these fairs and visiting low-income charter schools in these states that she began to recognise the disparity in education, in who had access to what resources.

“Some Atlanta students would come and ask me where Georgetown was – even though it is a Top 21 university. That revealed the environment they were in, where institutions like Georgetown were never talked about,” she says.

“Then I would go to private schools where students would drill me on an international school programme in Barcelona, or the foreign service programme, or mention how they visited Georgetown yesterday with their parents.”

Aya says the disparities are fuelled by the system of state school funding , which depends on property tax, so if students live in a wealthy (often white) area, their school will have nice resources. But if they are in a poor inner city (where systematically black and Hispanic/Latino live) it is a different story.

“It felt like one set of students is running a race that the others don’t even know has started. This bothered me deeply.”

Hip hop perceptions

That is when she realised she wanted to study education, found out about Gates scholarships, looked into courses at Cambridge and stumbled on the arts, creativity, education and culture programme in the Faculty of Education. She saw an opening to look further into an area of her undergraduate research on the perception of hip hop in the classroom.

Her research has since evolved and she is now looking at how hip hop informs adolescents’ understanding of gender and sexual consent and how students are being educated about gender through music, video and lyrics.

“For me hip hop is so pervasive, not just in the US, but also here in the UK. Hip Hop’s narrative largely impacts people of color since the artists, who largely are of colour, often chronicle the experiences of underrepresented communities.

“People who look at them perform on stage but [it’s also about] their mannerisms, aesthetics, their identity, what it means to be a man or woman and how it illustrates heterosexual relations.

“I do think it is related to tackling social equity – educators need to realise that hip hop influences all of our lives, especially young people’s because it is so pervasive. If the research reveals that young people are learning about who they are because of what certain hip hop songs tell them they should be, we have to re-evaluate how to use hip hop as a tool to communicate values we think are important.”

Aya thinks hip hop is a legitimate subject for research and the curriculum.

“If Billboard’s top hip hop song in 2015 that is all over the world is telling women they should slide down a stripper pole, and all they are worth is their physical assets, how do we take that and discuss it and challenge that representation and how do we find songs that counter that narrative? How do we find songs that empower young people?”

She says people will often discredit hip hop for being inappropriate, explicit, vulgar, demeaning to women, even homophobic.

“That may be true but people are still going to listen to it and watch videos, so how do you help them critique what they are watching and see them write counter videos in the classrooms, using beats and rhythms they like?”

She mentions, as an example, how a few months ago Michelle Obama did a rap, with a Saturday Night Live comedian, saying you should go to college. “It’s about how you inform, inspire, empower or critique to challenge what hip hop is and represents.”

Psychological barrier

Aya says there is an added challenge to breaking through the education glass ceiling for minorities. It requires provision of the right support and opportunities. It also requires having a curriculum that students can see is for them, that includes issues of relevance to their lives. But it may also require breaking through a psychological barrier inside the students themselves.

Aya describes this psychological barrier as survivor’s guilt, the feeling, when so many of your peers just don’t get the same life chance, that it is not right to have to be the only one, or one of very few, from your community to be given that break.

“I actually know people who have turned down opportunities because of that feeling,” she says. “But for me, I have always said, yes get me out of here. I don’t desire to live in Detroit at the moment, in the inner city where there is so much crime and violence. And I desire for my family not to be there – even if one day I hope to return and contribute to higher education access and admissions literacy in some way.

“But it is a weird experience [at Cambridge] – occupying spaces for very privileged people who would turn their noses up at janitors.”

She says the problem stems from people sensing that education is “not geared to us, not including our culture”.

That is why she has been fighting on this issue in her own department in the cloistered corridors of Cambridge – debating what it means to read certain scholars, research made in Britain, edited by white males, making assumptions about communities that these people cannot identify with, or making assumptions about who is credible and has authority to produce knowledge worthy to be taught in the academy.

And that is why her undergraduate research looked at the academisation of hip hop. There are more than 200 courses on hip hop in US universities now and it is a minor at the University of Arizona.

“The academic discourse is about whether it is even worth talking about,” Aya says, because the voices are those of “people of colour or low-income people using language that doesn’t adhere to that used in scholarship”.

“That is part of the problem – whether your textbook or classroom discussion is aligned with your experiences or validating them. Hip hop is often discredited because people do not identify with the music. There is a clash over what is worth studying in the academy and what children should be learning and who from, and that is part of the problem.”