Healing the learning

When I wrote my most recent newsletter back in June, I said that I would make a list of de-colonial, anti-racist, collective liberation resources available on my website. Then I didn’t do it. That I still didn’t do it when I finally sent the newsletter, months later, let me know that that promise had been hollow – what I felt was a No.

Instead, I’d like to offer some encouragement – specifically for white people, but not exclusively – around letting go of the list, getting curious about how you student, and decolonizing your relationship with wisdom.

There’s something killing about a list, you know? Reductive, capitalist. A list for the grocery, ok. A list of things to pack for camping, yes. I don’t want a list of the plants that grow in my garden.

Currently, I have a list of individuals imprisoned in Oregon (supplied by the good people at CRPDX) who I am writing letters to. The list is needful; in the absence of relationship, it lets me know what is mine to do. But what I am getting from writing the letters is not in the list. There is no cookie for completing it. I breathe in a single name. Sometimes google to see what the system blamed as it claimed that name for itself. I describe my reasons for writing: what in my lived experience pushed me to embrace abolition? I practice being visiblemaking the value ever more personal.

Back when I was working at a school, I had a list on the computer of all the students who were meant to be in a class. I needed to mark them present or absent. This was not, in my experience, an act that brought me into deeper connection. The youth knew that they were being counted: a reminder every period, all day – the system is watching you; sit down, stay.

As we approach the end of the first quarter of remote schooling in which students will be fully graded in the PPS system, I am alert to our systemic addiction to the deadline assessment. As the narrative goes, on November 3rd, we will – as a collective body – suddenly know a great truth about ourselves and our future. Two days later, everyone involved with public schools across Oregon will have their willingness and effort to connect, communicate, comprehend, and demonstrate their process (on a set of topics not chosen by them, on a screen, from whatever they have for home, in a pandemic) reduced to a set of letters. This will go down on your permanent record

There is a colonial fantasy that a list, a deadline, a rigid limit will make things fair, visible, objective, clean. In my body, a list makes me a machine. I notice a brittle scarcity around the binary of present/absent; done/still-to-do; known/unknown. The point of a list is to get through it.

The learning contact I have sought and received from brilliant, radical Black educators over the last six years… is a whole universe. An Alvin Ailey dance. A Nikki Giovanni poem. A fugue of survival and a hymn of resolve. It is not a list item. It is not something I ever want to get through. The rage and shine of Black femmes opens me up; I learn not by doing what I’m told, but through love.

More: to make a list is to leave out all the the deeply intimate teachings which these professional educators prepared me for, opened me to. The colonized mind sees authority in abstraction: having studied oppression makes you a scholar; having lived it makes you a schmuck. This kind of education dissociates to indoctrinate. But we evolved to learn from people closest to us! From those whose direct experience gave them something to share. It is one of the triumphs of the racist program still running in the US that so many of us are deprived, daily, of contact with people who could actually show us the truth of ourselves. Seeking out this contact and orienting to the wisdom of lived experience is potent medicine – which requires a steady practice in slowness and humility that can’t ever be represented as a list item.

Finally: I saw A Lot of Lists in the frantic shock-woke socials-posting that happened after George Floyd was publicly murdered by the state. The toggle between the black square that declares I know nothing and the re-posted assignment list of how to be a good ally… left me cold. I am no authority here. I am an engaged neighbor, a companion, an elbow, a raised eyebrow, someone who will insist that this shit be talked about. But I can’t tell you that if you do certain things, you’ll be good, you’ll be fine.

The toggle for me in collective liberation work is this: notice/accept; divest/invest; heal/heal. The process and conditions of learning are inextricable from what we learn. This is why I love to learn about race from Black women who take no shit. Boundaries are visceral learning. We learn to act from how people let us act.

Spiritual practice is premised on being able to get more free than we feel in this moment. Activism, organizing, and social movement practice is premised on being able to get more free than we feel in this moment. Moving with an awareness of freedom means being open to feel what we cannot yet feel, while staying oriented to the sensations of support and connection that we need as organisms.

An arc of increased empowerment and personal accountability supports us through the pain and grief of association to dehumanization and calculated destruction. Cultivating curiosity and humility helps us check performativity. Also: honoring the cycle; sourcing joy; getting skin in the game; being called in and up and out. (There’s a list of actions for you.)

I use the term toggle, and learning can look like a back and forth: teacher-student, outside-inside, reflect-express. But in every possible binary, I see a wheel to turn: a cycle of seasons that, in balance, will self-fulfill. Getting curious about how you student can feed a process of healing the hurts in your own learning cycle. Who supports you? What is the self-talk? What’s your healthy pacing? Where do you tend to flinch, to fall off? How can you let go of how it looks and make the process more accessible – for yourself?

Every kid needs to learn about how they learn. Instead, for many years, we mostly learned how close or far we were from the goal, the ideal. We have all had our desire for community and belonging co-opted. We have all cut off our natural urge to explore because we were shamed for it. We have all learned – and here I see how our conditioned identities create major divergences in strategy – what manipulations of our essential energy we can adapt to: how we can conform.

Have you heard people use the terms un-learning and re-learning? Have you considered how like re-parenting they are? I am here to insist that actually, none of you is free of the social burdens of school and childhood – despite the messages that you may have received, that surviving that time is enough, and that if you don’t have any children currently in your home, you can just move on.

As a teacher, I can confidently say that the children we can support best are the ones who act through us, all the time. Young people would love for us to be able to handle our own inner children. This is the true indicator of whether a substitute teacher will increase chaos in a classroom or be a fun break for the kids. I know, I’ve done both. If you haven’t read James Baldwin’s A Talk to Teachers, here you go.

Learning – real learning – changes the function of our cells. A growth edge is where each of us – and groups of us – are available to be changed. As Baldwin says, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

If you made it this far in this post, there’s probably curiosity. Care. Some sense of reflection. Hi. Hello.

I take such comfort in knowing that there is lineage everywhere. The connections between ideas are connections between bodies: love threads of meaning and visceral recognition that carry through time and space. Feeling the pull, following the threads, reaching out in curiosity, settling in with humility to receive: the process honors our ability to grow, as it honors those who tend that growth. 

If you know where your learning is happening right now, please: celebrate it. If you would like a single resource to draw you in and out and up – send me an email about what you’re noticing about your learning process and I’ll pick one especially for you. If your anti-racist process is feeling like a list, take a look at your teachers, take a look inward, and feel for where you can kneel: slow down and show some respect.

A list can pick a few key points out of a swirling world of possibility. It can be a place where we set down repetitive thoughts. It can let us know the shape of enough, so that we can step toward our purpose: rest.

But the list does not hold the wisdom. You hold the wisdom. New perspectives, fresh information, a well-timed invitation to reconstruct the map – these are seeds that must meet soil in you.

Which is why paying your Black educators is so important. More on that, next time.

Published by Devon Riley

lately: youth work, parenting, sorcery, books, walks in the woods

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s