The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 8


Jennifer Gonzalez, host

Listen to the audio version of this interview.


Jennifer Gonzalez:   Hi this is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 8 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, I talk to writer José Vilson about how teachers can best respond in their classrooms to the aftermath of the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

I have recorded this intro about three or four times now because I am trying to…every time I listen to my conversation with José, I realize how little I actually knew about this case before I talked to him. And I tend to shy away from discussions of current events because I am always afraid that I am going to reveal my ignorance about something. And that definitely happened a few times when I talked to José. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m going to go ahead and do it, because I think it is useful to maybe other people out there. But I don’t think I even realized that there wasn’t really a full trial of Darren Wilson. I kind of saw this whole thing very similarly to the Trayvon Martin case. I figured they were in some sort of a trial and then it came out that he wasn’t going to be penalized. And so even though I kept hearing the word indictment, and Darren Wilson isn’t going to be indicted, I really didn’t dig very deeply into the case. I think I, as a news consumer even, have gotten pretty anesthetized to hearing these types of stories and having a pretty good idea of what the outcome is going to be, including the riots and the looting and the protests. So, I think it was so valuable to talk to José because it made me realize that, depending on what perspective you’re coming from, you’re more or less likely to dig deeper into the news and actually learn things.

And so I just wanted to sort of say that. That every time I listen to this interview, I realize how much I didn’t know about the Mike Brown case. So if there is anything that I hope people are going to get out of this, it is those who are looking at the Mike Brown case and the Ferguson protests in a very simplistic way, you would do yourself and your country a service by reading more about it and really getting clear on what all the details of the case are. And what all the different versions are of the stories that are being told. Because there are many different versions and we have so much information that is coming to us now in the world. Ferguson is one small piece of that. And so it’s really easy to grab a few facts and say, Okay, I got it, that’s enough, and move on and feel that you have the whole picture.

So, let me just quickly explain who José Vilson is for anyone listening who does not know who he is. José Vilson is a writer. He’s a blogger. He writes at and he also wrote a book called This is Not a Test. What José Vilson writes about most of the time is the intersection between race and education. He writes about privilege and where we are right now as a country. And he writes very passionately about it and he does not shy away from controversial topics. He has been writing a lot about Ferguson in the last hundred days or so, since the incident happened in August. So I asked him if he would be interested in sitting down to talk about it. I was very surprised and pleased that he agreed. Because I think where José is right now, in this time in history, he is a very important voice when it comes to race and education. And so I just wanted to know what advice he would have for teachers as we move into the next few weeks and the protests are still going on, in regard to Ferguson. And how teachers can best approach talking with their students and what we might be able to do to move the needle more in the direction of this type of thing not happening again. And how we can help each other to understand all of the complexities of this situation.

So the interview that you’re going to hear, it starts sort of in the middle of a sentence because we had some technical stuff that didn’t sound so clear. So I basically start José right in the middle of his sentence. I’m going to stop talking now and let you listen to my interview with José Vilson.

[Music playing.]


José Vilson: I think everybody has their lenses, because they come into things from a different perspective. I came through of course, being a young black Latino male who went through the Rudy Giuliani era, where he was “cleaning up the streets,” followed by Mayor Bloomberg who also thought similarly about policing. You know, I grew up in that, so of course I come to this conversation about Ferguson in that lens of police using excessive force to get their point across, especially when it comes to communities of color. And not necessarily trying to build up relationships, but first starting out with that show of power and a show of “I am the authority,” versus coming in and saying we are here to protect and serve the community and we’ll work with people, unless of course we find that you’re against the law. Then of course, that’s a whole other situation. There doesn’t seem to be that balance when it comes to police enforcement anywhere. Some people, a lot of people, even more so, don’t have that nuanced conversation about what it means to police. So, when I look at the Mike Brown situation, I often think, Were there situations in which Mike Brown could’ve done better? Sure, but then it’s always like, What did the police do to provoke this? Have there been years and years of ostracization by the police force there? You know, infuriating the community and pushing them further from any sort of community-building that there might have been? So, that’s always kind of my lens there. I hope that answers the question, a little deeper there.

Gonzalez: Yeah, it does. And that’s the thing, I think when people who have not grown up in those environments, or are not familiar with them, they see it as an isolated incident. Or maybe it is an incident that has had a lot of others before it, but they see it in one way, which is: Mike Brown and his friend in the middle of the street, middle of the road. Refused to move out of the way when the police officer asks them to move, or tells them to move. And then Darren Wilson gets closer and there is an altercation where, according to Darren Wilson, Mike Brown comes at him in the car, grabs his weapon, and sort of fiddles around to grab the trigger. And then, Darren Wilson shoots him in self-defense. At least this is the story that’s been reported here lately, with you know, his testimony. And I guess one of my questions for you is: Does whether or not a person is angry about this incident — does that hinge on them believing Darren Wilson? If you believe — Can you believe Darren Wilson’s story and still believe that a great injustice was committed that day?

Vilson: I think that’s a great question. I mean there are probably a few people who think they can do that. But, I think for Darren Wilson, for instance, to have gotten four hours of unchecked testimony to talk to the grand jury when they had the indictment hearings, says a lot about just how much the prosecutor at the time felt that he needed to protect Darren Wilson from what should have been at least some sort of indictment. At least some sort of sense of justice. To that end, you start seeing some of the footage and the witnesses and you start putting it all together. And you start realizing that there’s no way that Darren Wilson shouldn’t be at least taking the stand in a grand jury case.

But, unfortunately, that’s just you know, the deck of cards was already stacked against any sense of what Mike Brown’s justice might look like. Even if you believe that there was some kind of tussle, which you know if you look at the hospital photos, it looks like he had, maybe a cold, or maybe that he had brushed his face, at that. Somebody was talking about a contusion of the eye and that is far from what actually happened. For you to have been, I think — what was it — one hundred feet away from Mike Brown and still to say you had an altercation and all this other stuff. I just, it’s just that those pieces do not add up to me. So, the more credible story seems to be that there may have been a small tussle, at that, but at some point, Mike Brown gave up because he knew he was in big trouble, but yet he still got shot anyway.

If there was any sort of regret, on behalf of Darren Wilson, then you wouldn’t have seen Mike Brown, you know, lie on the ground for 4.5 hours just to show everyone that show of force. You would have seen at least some sort of apology, on behalf of Darren Wilson. You didn’t see any of that, you didn’t see any remorse. You didn’t see any of that. If anything, there was one hundred days where people, law enforcement officials, seem to have worked together with Darren Wilson to create a story that could be even somewhat plausible for a grand jury with nine folks who were from the community and three who possibly weren’t to come together and not indict Darren Wilson. That sounds a lot more plausible and all the pieces seem to signal towards that.

Gonzalez: The story was being built to get him off, to get him relieved of any charges?

Vilson: Of course. As far as I can tell, anyway. And that could be again, my lens, because of the things that I’ve seen and my experience. But I think that even the most rational person started seeing that one hundred days is a bit of a stretch, just for indictment. And for the prosecutor to have been on the board of directors for the organization that is fundraising for Darren Wilson, that speaks volumes about the sort of underhandedness that seems to have plagued the entire case throughout the last hundred plus days.

Gonzalez: The idea of there being different lenses is, I think, is crucial in understanding the anger. And it’s very easy for someone who comes from privilege to say Mike Brown broke the law. Maybe in the, I think in the convenience store video, definitely didn’t help. Because, in that video, we see somebody who is presumably him, shoving the convenience store owner. We don’t know what they said to each other. And I think it’s very simple for somebody who has never been in any of those situations to say, he broke the law, or he misbehaved and so he deserved to…he should have just obeyed the police officer and then this never would have happened. And then — and this has been the part that has been confusing for me, because it’s easy to cut and dry it that way — and say, “Yeah, if he hadn’t done these things, then none of that would’ve ever happened.”

But the first thing you started with, was the about relationship between the police and the people in the community. And how if they have never worked to build that relationship, then it actually, to me, I think it draws a really strong parallel with teaching. With teaching any kids, but especially with at-risk kids. When I was in the classroom, I rarely had discipline issues, but I always attributed it to the fact that I built relationships. I was an English teacher, so I read their journals and we talked a lot about what was going on in their lives and I knew stuff about their lives that most of the other teachers didn’t know. And so much of the classroom management that I had wasn’t really a system, it was that the kids knew I cared about them. This sounds just like what you’re saying about the police in these communities, that there is no proactive plan or approach to really get to know the community in times of peace, when there is no problem going on. So, it sounds like, as a possible remedy for these types of things, that would be one step in the right direction, is just starting to build relationships between the police and the community.

Vilson: Well, I think it’s also too the, again, it goes back to lens. So, let’s look at the convenience store incident. If we had seen all of the lenses, we would have actually seen that Mike Brown had actually seemed to have given some sort of currency to the store clerk, and that’s a lens that often isn’t being shown. It’s always the one that CNN plays, but not the one that all the other cameras show, which is why you don’t hear an initial 911 call on behalf of the store. There’s a lot of disconnected events that happen all at once. You know, how did the officer know that there was a theft of some nature if there had been no 911 call, unless there was some sort of, you know let’s go find out. This person must have been getting into some sort of trouble. We’re going to try to attribute it to this, that and whatever. There have been numerous, numerous reports from community members. A lot of them have already felt, even before Mike Brown, that there was a hostile environment already created for them. So, what does that say about…yes, about schools. About schools, that we try to tightly fit some kind of narrative about our students. And we say, “Oh this person broke the law and they deserve to die.” I think that says a lot about the way that, even teachers, approach our jobs, because it’s always like, where do we come into our jobs from? And how can we become better teachers to serve the people that we need to serve.

I think, for instance, Mike Brown might have stole something. We’ll go with that premise, even though there is evidence to the contrary. It says a lot about our society that in some communities, things get stolen all the time. And yet, people can just, you know, call the father up and say, “Oh, they’re just being rebellious kids, it’s not a big deal.” So, they’ll land on some sort of cushion, and they’ll be fine. There’s no militarization of their police force. But in these certain communities that we work in, because of the color of our skin — and really, it doesn’t seem like much else –hen, you have to start wondering about why is it that these police forces are militarized in such a way whereas in other communities, they’re not. And does it mean that if someone steals something, they deserve to die? Well, I guess it depends on what they look like and whether or not we consider them fully human. And if we do, then they tend to not get shot in broad daylight and left in the street for 4.5 hours, versus if they are fully human it’s something else. I don’t know. I feel like there’s an inner turmoil even within myself, where I’m trying to fight against things that, you know, I can’t fully see but I that are there. And I think that’s the double consciousness that a lot of people of color feel when they have these conversations.

Gonzalez: Can you talk a little bit more about that, about that double consciousness?

Vilson: Sure, so, I guess I’ll give it from the teacher lens. I feel like, for one, we as teachers generally are supposed to feel like we are working with students. We are professionals and you know, whether unionized or not, we still have a certain set of responsibilities that we’re supposed to adhere to. We’ve already been…some of us don’t actually get read our rights, in terms of teaching. So, some of us come to it from different routes. But all of us eventually end up in the classroom with either an Expo marker or a piece of chalk and we have to do the best that we can for the next 200 days or so. And we give our lives to that.

But then, within that, there is a sense of being of color and especially if you are of color serving the community that looks a lot like you and when your fellow staff members, generally aren’t going to look a lot like you. But the students who are in front of you, more often than not look like you. Then there’s that disparity. And often you have to be the one to kind of bridge the gap between the students that are in front of you and the teachers who don’t often get why it is that you do what you do. Or why it is that kids gravitate towards you whereas they don’t. Those are the things that a lot of us don’t always have to worry about. But then, that can be a double edged sword. So, you know, for instance, I can be someone who walks in the classroom and I get the instant respect because I know the community. I look a lot like the people in the community and that’s how it works. But, if I don’t work on my pedagogy then that’s a problem. I can get away with just slacking and being like “I’m cool with the kids and they respect me,” and that’s fine. But that often means that it’s an imperative for me to be more pedagogically skilled because I already have that buy-in as soon as I walk into the classroom. Whereas a white teacher doesn’t always have that buy-in when they walk in. They build that buy-in over time with relationships.

Gonzalez: That’s really interesting. I think I’m now remembering that from your book, too, when you talked about having that, that right away you get that buy-in — from certain kids anyway.

Vilson: Sure.

Gonzalez: So, if a teacher is — I want to talk about how teachers can… This week, teachers are all going back to the classroom and this is going to be a topic in faculty lounges and in the classroom. So, let’s say you’re a white teacher, in the suburbs, in a mostly white school and you hear people say things like “Mike Brown was a thug. He deserved to die.” How do you recommend a person respond to that in a professional environment?

Vilson: See, that’s the thing, professionalism becomes like a quasi-conservatism, doesn’t it? It’s always like, well, let’s just, let’s calm things down and not talk about it because it might ruffle feathers. You don’t talk about war. You don’t talk about religion. You don’t talk about race. And if anything, it means that teachers are going to have to learn how to reframe conversations. So, we talk about what it means to be a child and then go from there. What is the root of what’s happening? Is it simply that, you know, people need to pull their pants up? Or is it that the police are just bad people? Or is there something else going on? We often have to find a way to dig into the root of whatever personal feelings we have and then try to work outward. Which is something I think I try to do in my book, but I often feel like people don’t quite get it because a lot of us do — especially, again, if you’re of color — you have to be able to build a platform of saying, “Hey listen, this is where I come from. And of course if this is where I come from, then this is the way I talk about things.” But, frankly, if you’re a white educator, you don’t have to explain yourself that way. You don’t have to take that much to explain because you are part of a dominant culture. You can if you wish, but that’s kind of the way things go.

And so when you’re coming into a conference — or even if you’re coming into a parent/teacher conversation, it’s always like, well, how would you feel if you were the parent of…? What does it look like for all of our children to feel safe in a community? And then build out from there. I think those are the things that white teachers can do perhaps most effectively, because there isn’t that stake of I have to prove that I’m human to you. Instead, you’re kind of sticking up for other people and you are working with others to build a better community.

Gonzalez: Yeah, but it sounds like asking questions is one approach, asking that person about — like you said, asking if you were the parent of that child, how would you feel about this? Or, you know…It’s just really hard to know sometimes, how to respond. You can just clam up and walk out. And being professional, you don’t want to start a big debate about it. I think you draw an even…it’s an even trickier spot to be in when your students say these things, because they’re hearing what they’ve heard their parents say. And then you’re basically risking having them go home and say, “Oh, Ms. Gonzalez says you’re a racist.” And you don’t want to get into that with somebody’s parents. But, there’s an opportunity when you have a thirteen-year-old kid who says you know, this is what my parents say and this is what I think too. There is an opportunity there to help stretch them, and grow them and show them another perspective. I guess, one of the questions I had for you is, maybe just over this last week, have you had any conversations with anyone where you feel like you made some headway with them, where you’ve helped them to see Ferguson in a different light?

Vilson: I wouldn’t say directly, but of course I have my writing, I have my Twitter, etc. etc. And I tend to ask a lot of good probing questions. It’s been kind of a mess, frankly, because as someone who is of color and who started doing things on social media and those other places, fairly early on, and blogging in this fashion, one of the things I’ve learned what to do when people show a side that they shouldn’t be showing. So, there’s that. I’ve changed some minds and hearts every so often, but I feel like the temperature has definitely come to a boil in the last week or so. It’s been really hard to chip away at some of the things that have been happening. People have gone even tighter within themselves when they have these conversations. So, I feel like I have made some headway, perhaps with some people.

There are times when, even in my last post, where I was writing about how some teachers feel about their kids, and I said this is not just something that happens in Ferguson. This can happen pretty much anywhere at any given time and these are the beliefs that are held by folks who we consider our colleagues. What does that look like? And we need to keep pushing those conversations. You know, we can’t feel like we’re always alone when we speak up about these things. It can be very lonely, especially in places where there is that conservative quandary, and even in, I guess like the right to work states where your First Amendment rights aren’t really protected that way.

Gonzalez: Right, you know it’s funny too because. Well, it’s not funny, but I’ve worked in two separate environments. One right outside of D.C. with more at-risk kids of color. And then here in Kentucky with a lot of kids who come from rural backgrounds. You see a lot of the same attitudes in both places from the teachers who come from the dominant culture. Whether it is the dominant racial culture or the dominant socioeconomic culture. This idea of a kid being trash, or coming from trash, and having very low expectations for them. Hearing about them, now, a lot of the kids I taught as middle schoolers are in their twenties now. And hearing about how they turned out. “This one’s in jail now, and of course he’s in jail.” And you hear people pretty much not showing any real disappointment, just saying, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought was going to come of him.” It’s sad, it’s hard to know how to respond. There’s this assumption in those kinds of statements that we all agree with each other here, so nobody would disagree. And it is very uncomfortable, and very lonely. Because you basically get to choose between alienating yourself from this group, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But, if it’s a lot of people on staff, then you’re pretty alone.

Volsin: Yes, yes you are, and that’s difficult. But, I think, again, it’s worth again, having conversations. Because again, for everybody who feels that they’re alone, they end up finding people who they at some point wind up respect, and I think that’s critical.

Gonzalez: What about, so I asked you about being a teacher, working with mostly white kids who are sort of looking at this from a distance. What about a teacher who is working with kids in these at-risk neighborhoods? Where do they go from here, as far as just listening, letting these kids talk. Let’s just take the whole class period today, or the whole week and just talk. Is that enough or is that a good starting point?

Volsin: It’s always a starting point. Really, you just want to build, or at least create pathways for them to create their own solutions because what I often run into is that teachers aren’t giving students the voice in the classroom to really hash out what trauma they feel. What you’re often seeing is, as well-intentioned as folks are, there are times when they’re, you know, just telling them exactly what happens. And when everybody’s like, do you push your own points of view on students? instead of putting out what evidence there is out there and letting students make choices for themselves, and then maybe ask critical questions to deepen their thinking, or even just, you know, having an ear for how students have felt.

The latter seems like a better method than just straight-up telling them “Let me just talk over you and tell you how you should feel.” That’s just not an education for me. I think, you know, there are spaces for that, but that’s only if there’s a gateway. I think with my kids, for instance, I wasn’t trying to tell them anything, as far as my own personal opinion. I only gave them what I knew. So, I gave them exactly what I knew, you know, there is contradictory evidence, I brought that up too. And of course at one point, they asked me for my opinion and I just go, of course once they ask for my opinion, all bets were off. I was just like, I went in. But then at the end, I said, “Let me say this though, this is my opinion and I know that there are a lot of you who have relatives who are cops, or who are part of the armed forces and that shouldn’t prevent you from caring about them, or anything of that nature. But, this is a lot more complicated than anyone in the media gives it credit for.” And I was very flat out about that, I guess. This is a conversation that needs to keep happening, because too many teachers keep pushing kids to believe in their own system of beliefs and not enough about trying to find out where the students are coming from and letting it go from there.

Gonzalez: Is there, is there room in that kind of a conversation for somebody to say, you know “My uncle is a cop, and he’s told me stories.” And you know I think there is one sentiment going around the country. That is this sort of a fear that police officers can’t, they can’t defend themselves without there being a consequence. This is people who see that situation in the way that he reported it anyway, and I do think that someone who believes Darren Wilson’s story purely would see that as, Oh my God, if you’re a cop you’re just kind of out of luck now. You just better hope that nobody threatens you because you can’t do anything. You know if my dad was a cop and he was telling me this, it would make me want to tell him not to be a cop anymore. So, what do you say to that fear?

Volsin: I mean it depends on what lens I want to use, right? For one, I could be very   humanistic and say “Yes, I know there are these struggles and there’s always going to be those conflicts.” It is tough to be a cop because you’re kind of working for both bosses but there’s often one boss that has a stronger word than the other one. And that boss ends up being the state, 9 out of 10 times. That’s a conversation to have.

On a personal level though, I’m always like, so wait, Darren Wilson came out with at least five hundred thousand dollars. He’s set. He’s retired. He resigned the minute, well soon after that happened. Does your relative have that privilege if this happens? And if not, then you ought to treat this as a very special case. We ought to think about what it means to be Darren Wilson being the average guy. And what does it look like when there is all this contradictory evidence, versus when there is flat out evidence and you just kind of feel for that person. I don’t think, based on evidence that you see that Darren feels any sort of remorse, you know, or any kind of empathy or sympathy of any nature. He treats the victim as an animal, as a monster. From the interviews, I think most, I’d even venture that most cops don’t feel like the people who they arrest are animals or monsters. But, they may feel like they have gone down the wrong path, that sort of thing. That goes really back to training and being human about the way that you approach your job. I think that’s the root of the protest too. So, the protest is basically saying “We want a fair trial. We want justice. These are the things that America promises to deliver, and if you can’t promise to deliver that, then why are we abiding by these rules then.” Because, that’s the trade-off. If we do all these things, then you have to do all these things that you promised us. And it’s not like they’re revolting for the sake of revolting, they’re revolting because they don’t feel like the justice system has done justice or right by them.

Gonzalez: All right, let’s talk about the last week. There have been peaceful protests, and then there have been the riots and the looting. I think the riots and the looting have also gotten, I mean, just, can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think the quote that Mike Brown’s father told everybody to burn this motherf***r down, and a lot of people are saying, what is that all about? How is that any kind of a good response? And you know when I’m hearing about these things, I try really hard to at least tell myself that I do not know what it’s like to live in that situation, so I can’t speak for this person. What is your understanding of why, when something like this happens, why somebody would destroy property, in their own neighborhood, as a reaction?

Vilson: It’s a mix of things. Number one is you start seeing that most of the neighborhood stores aren’t actually owned by the people who live there, and the ones who have, have been crowdsourced and protected enough where they are not being violated by the looters. Secondly, the looting isn’t really that big of a problem, in the context of, I guess, the people who have been speaking on the ground have said that the people who are doing the looting aren’t really people from the community. They are just people who have, like come in and try to take advantage of whatever’s happening.

It’s a very matter-of-fact way of saying there is no community here. So, if there is no community here, there is no worth. If there is no worth, that money’s not coming to me anyway, so I’m going to get whatever I can out of the situation. That seems to be in the small minority, according to many sources who are on the ground.

You know more than anything, Martin Luther King, because people keep using Martin Luther King as some sort of a peacenik, and it’s not that simple. He often said, you know, a riot is the basically the protest of the unheard. It’s when people don’t feel like something is for them, or that community is for them, then they are going to riot. They are going to break. They are going to do what they need to do. But, and like I said, it’s a small minority, compared to the actual peaceful protests and the sort of organized protests that are happening in these communities, many of whom, by the way, are protecting the businesses of the folks who actually live in those communities, and if they don’t live in the community then they don’t, I guess they don’t necessarily feel a stake in whatever’s going on. So, it’s a lot more complicated than we’re giving credit to. Not to mention that  are incidents of all this rioting and looting, let’s say during sporting events and we don’t have a lens about that. We don’t say very much about that, except for the people who live in those communities will. And even then, we’ll take maybe ten minutes to talk about what happened during the Stanley Cup riots or what happened in the San Francisco Championship, where you’ll see cop cars turned over, or you’ll see goalies broken, the whole situation. But, the perception is always like, “Oh, look at these animals.” versus saying “Look at these drunk kids and they’ll get over it. They won’t be arrested, they will just get over it. Take a bath and, you know, we won’t arrest you.” It’s wild, there’s this wild disparity to me.

Gonzalez: Yeah, well and it’s funny because over the last week, I have seen some journalists, I mean, well, it could be anybody at this point, trying to put together video — photos of people protecting the businesses in their community. And I’ve seen people put together montages of stupid, drunk white people rioting after sporting events. There is work happening out there at least to fight that other narrative, which is great to see when people are putting that together.

So what would you like to see? What, to you, would be some signs that things are going in a better direction? Whether it is things happening in classrooms — it feels like maybe I am forcing that connection, but all of these kids go to schools and I think that teachers could be doing a lot to influence what happens — or just in communities, whether it’s things that are happening on police forces, to change this. What would be some signs of positive change in your eyes.

Vilson: Well, generally, I think we need to start demilitarizing police, especially in places where you don’t have a high density or high possibility of terrorist attacks. Of course, this is again from my New York lens, where many police officers carry military-style weaponry and armory almost all the time, especially like in Times Square or the WTC, you know the World Trade Center. In a place like Ferguson, let’s be honest, you’re not going to see any kind of terrorist attack, and even then it’s like a minimum. Now, if we can start giving a lot of the military weaponry back to the US government, let them destroy or do whatever it is they are going to do. That would go a long way in terms of saying, “Hey listen, we’re kind of on a level playing field now.” You know, even when it’s still kind of unbalanced.

The second thing that needs to happen, though, is those conversations, and really having a critical lens about the ways in which we look at each other. Especially amongst those that have power versus those who don’t in a particular situation. It seems to me that Ferguson is a place where there has been a lack, a severe lack of trust from community members to police officers and perhaps vice versa. And of course, with the severe lack of trust, that is where you start seeing a lot of the violence and a lot of the unwarranted violence, and tear gassing. And frankly, with racism, a lot of the straight-up racism that you see. It’s happening far too frequently for anyone to really feel like they’re growing.

In our classrooms, it also means that teachers need to…I don’t want our teachers to feel like they have to be superhuman, but they kind of have to rise above whatever the situation is and really understand the roots of our children’s experiences. Whether they are in Ferguson or they are in New York, L.A. or wherever they may be. There are places where teachers are so aligned with whatever their perceptions as far as their kids that they kind of forget to come out of that and see them as children. See them as human beings, fully capable of loving and living and learning all at once. We don’t have enough of that. That’s kind of my sincerest hope is that we can start to have those conversations about what does it mean for kids to be fully human, fully capable, fully loving, fully learning. So that’s kind of where, that’s been my lens for this whole time, frankly.

Gonzalez: I read something that you wrote on Edutopia a few months ago about how to have these conversations.

Vilson: Sure.

Gonzalez: And you mentioned that it was important to set ground rules ahead of time, but those ground rules were not specified in the article. So, what would you suggest? If a teacher wanted to open this up, later this week, how to introduce this kind of a conversation?

Vilson: Well for me, I guess for me it was, again for me it was easy. I mean, every ground rule is going to be based on whatever the classroom structure is. But, generally, I tend to lean towards respect, listening, caring, and validating the feelings. Not so much validating an ad hominem but, you know, validating the feeling of anger or maybe of distrust. You have to validate those feelings because they are deep rooted from somewhere. And that’s where you start building up, like “Why is it you feel this way?” and so on and so forth. So, those elements of listening, caring and learning, and respect should go across everything you do, regardless of whether or not you’re teaching about Ferguson. And once you set those ground rules of “Hey, listen, I’m here to listen to you all and get a sense of where you’re at. And here are the things that I can provide for you if you need them. And here are the things that I don’t necessarily need to do. But, I want to kind of lead off with your feelings and we can go on from there.” Those are things that need to be stipulated in the beginning: What is the protocol going to be? How are we going to listen to each other? How are we going to learn from each other? And then maybe try to find a way to conclude it – if you can. I mean, for me it was difficult to do so because I felt so emotionally invested in it, but a lot of people can do that sort of thing where they find a way to close it. I’m still trying to find a way to learn how to close that sort of deal. So, it’s really going to depend on who that teacher is, but it’s always that baseline of respect, care, love, learning. Always.

Gonzalez: If somebody is really coming at this from so much privilege that they don’t even know that they come from privilege, and they want to sort of better understand the sort of background — not of Ferguson, but of all of these types of communities that have these types of relationships with the police — have you read anything that really kind of breaks that down that you think might be instructive?

Vilson: Wow, well, I mean, well, there’s a plethora of those. I always, when it comes to conversations of privilege, power, race, I always go back to Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum. That tends to be the way that I can rope people into the conversation about race and racism. Another one that I might recommend is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists, which talks about why racism is more institutional than a case of white people getting hurt by black people and vice versa. It’s not about that. It’s a lot more structured than that. Once you have that lens, I think it’s easier to get into every other book, including mine, around race, especially if you’re coming from a very privileged background.

Gonzalez: Is there anything else that you want to say on this subject tonight?

Vilson: I would just say more than anything, we need to keep building, keep working towards a better future for all students, especially for students who are most disenfranchised by our system. And often, we as teachers need to see ourselves as agents of change because we are in the position that we are of caring and loving and learning. Which I don’t think many people are in that position. To really affect change within our students, thirty students at a time, you know, that’s a powerful privilege to have, to be able to affect that many students. And, you know, put somebody in front that can say “Listen, I care about you and here are some things I want you to consider as you move out into the world.” We as teachers, can do that sort of thing.

Gonzalez: Thank you so much José.

Vilson: No, of course.

[Music playing.]


Gonzalez: I’d just like to thank José one more time for his time and for sharing his thoughts with me. You can find José on Twitter at @TheJLV and on his website For more resources and articles on teaching and learning on how we can better meet the needs of all of our students, please visit my website Thanks for listening and have a great day. ♦


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