From the time Courtney Martin strapped her daughter, Maya, to her chest for walks around her neighborhood, she was curious about Emerson Elementary, a public school down the street from her Oakland home. She learned that White families in their gentrifying neighborhood largely avoided the majority-Black, poorly-rated school. As she began asking why, a journey of a thousand moral miles began.
Courtney journey led her to Integrated Schools and our founder, Courtney Everts Mykytyn, who told her: “people like you do things like this.” Integrated Schools, and a friendship between the two Courtneys, became a support system as Martin decided to enroll her daughter at Emerson – and discovered that her public school, the foundation of our fragile democracy, is a powerful place to dig deeper – to go beyond hashtags and yard signs to be a part of transforming herself, her community, and ultimately, the country.
She chronicled this choice and then the complexities of living into it in her new book, Learning in Public. More than a memoir, Learning in Public is an exercise in doing the best you can, owning your mistakes, and committing to knowing better and doing better.
She joins us to talk about the book along with one of the key characters from the book, Mrs. Minor. After teaching Courtney’s daughter, Mrs. Minor left the public school system to start her own private preschool, The Learning Forest. Courtney and Amha (as Mrs. Minor’s new students call her) developed a friendship over the course of monthly conversations about integration, public education, race and more. Ahma brings a critical eye and nuanced perspective to the topic of integration, and pushes us to constantly reconsider if we are doing the right thing.
- The Learning Forest Preschool
- Courtney’s new book – Learning In Public
- On Being Column by Courtney
- Mansa Musa
- Courtney’s last appearance on the podcast
Use these links or start at our Bookshop.org storefront to support local bookstores, and send a portion of the proceeds back to us.
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver.
Courtney Martin: And I'm Courtney, a White mom from Oakland.
Andrew: And this is “Learning in Public” and I know it's summer, we're supposed to be on break, but we thought we'd drop into your feeds with this timely bonus conversation.
And I'm thrilled to be joined by guest co-host, Courtney Martin. Courtney, welcome.
Courtney Martin: Thank you so much for having me, Andrew. I have listened to every single episode, so it is especially exciting to be a co-host with you today.
Andrew: Well, I’m very glad you're here. Many listeners may know your work. Some might recognize your voice. You were in our NCSD keynote episode with Vanessa Siddle Walker and Dani McClain and Elizabeth McRae. But maybe you can tell us a bit about you and how you came to be connected to Integrated Schools.
Courtney Martin: Yeah, so I am a mom and I'm a journalist and I moved from Brooklyn to Oakland when I was pregnant with my first kid and had a real epiphany when I was walking around my gentrifying neighborhood. I would, you know, walk by the local neighborhood school, which was rated a 1 out of 10 and sort of notice that there were just so few White kids on the playground, despite the neighborhood having a lot of White families in it, many of whom I knew.
And so when I kind of asked myself, “Where are all the White kids?,” it led me on a journey of a thousand moral miles, which I know our listeners know a lot about. At the time I had a column at On Being and I ended up sort of turning to that column, writing a series, and got a lot of incredible emails from people all over the country about their own struggles and triumphs around this issue and actually got to know the late Courtney Mykytyn through that work and now I co-lead a chapter here in Oakland, with my friend and brilliant organizer and thinker, Rachel Latta.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, you've been a huge driver of people to our work. I think that On Being series, a lot of people came to Integrated Schools through that and your SubStack and your social media. We're super grateful for that. And, and I, I know you were a really a great thought partner for, as you call her in the book, the other Courtney, Courtney Mykytyn before her death, and certainly have been really valuable to the organization in the wake of her loss.
And I've always had such, such deep respect for your ability to think through issues like school integration with humility and with clarity and, you know, with a willingness to really live into the complexity and the nuance of the issue. And that's why I was so excited when you said you were writing a book about choosing a school for your kids.
And that book came out yesterday. It is called Learning In Public. And it's amazing. Why did you write the book?
Courtney Martin: Oh, thank you so much for saying all that. I really, you know, I feel like the best movements are deeply reciprocal and relational. And so any humility or complexity or nuance that you see me reflecting in my work, I feel like is a direct impression of what I get from this podcast, what I got from Courtney. So it just feels like a very mutual admiration club here.
Um, the book is basically my attempt to tell the journey story of my own reckoning with how I could use my power and privilege to make a different kind of choice than the choices that most of my peers were making here in Oakland.
The neighborhood school I mentioned is called Emerson Elementary. It's majority Black, lots of Latinx folks, lots of newcomers. We have a quarter of kids who speak English as a second language, and 75% of kids on free and reduced lunch. And importantly, the context of Oakland is such that, you know, Oakland is only 40% White, but the public school population of kids is only 10% White. And the majority of those 10% gather in a few highly resourced, Whiter public schools.
So the book is really me kind of like understanding all of that, but on a deeply personal level, I'm hoping that it sort of propulsively moves people through the real emotional life of a White mom and a parent trying to understand these things.
And then most of the book is actually living into the decision. We decided to go to Emerson. My kid will start her fourth year there and my youngest is actually going to start kindergarten there. So, I've had some time to live into the decision, to have all the joy and challenges that it brought about.
And so I write about all that deeply vulnerably in an attempt to really push the conversation forward and to make Whiteness very visible. It's sort of one of these paradoxes of, I'm trying to kind of decenter White people by making Whiteness visible and saying like Whiteness is a culture, the way we talk about this stuff, the way we have expectations of the communities we're a part of, you know, what you guys sometimes talk about as The Smog.
So anyway, it's that. It's, it's a personal is political kind of journey.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, to me, it captures all of those things. It is deeply personal. I felt, like, sort of protective of you sometimes. Like, oh God, I can't believe she actually put that in the book.
Courtney Martin: Many people have said that.
Andrew: I'm sure, but it's great. And I do think it, it really, it brings people in on this journey and really lives into that nuance and it's, it's great.
So, you did decide to end up at, at Emerson. Tell us a little bit about Emerson as a school.
Courtney Martin: My sense is this feeling of just being among parents who are all trying to do our best and who have our kids’ joy at the heart of what we're all up to. There's not a particularly competitive culture, which is something I've experienced in other more predominantly White communities.
There's just a lot of love to go around. There's not a lot of resources to go around, but it's, it's been just such a refreshing and yes, awkward and at times uncomfortable, which is all in the book, but such a refreshing and loving community to be a part of with just deeply committed teachers and educational leaders, which of course is always moving to be close to.
And it didn't appear on any of the neighborhood Excel spreadsheets that I was so generously forwarded, despite being, you know, blocks from each of our homes. And that in and of itself was really telling.
So, yeah. It's a school that is, is in many ways, invisible to the White and privileged families in Oakland. So I think now maybe I've made it freakishly visible, but I hope, in pursuit of recognizing all of the Emersons across the country that are in fact beautiful, imperfect, multiracial communities that White and privileged parents could be a part of if they kind of right-sized their ideas about their own risk.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, I love that because I certainly wouldn't want anyone to come away from the book thinking like, wow, Emerson is this hidden gem. Emerson, is this like one unique outlier in a system of broken public schools. Because I think from reading the book, it sounds like Emerson has many of the problems that lots of schools have around the country and is also beautiful, like you said, in many of the ways that so many - I mean, certainly your description of Emerson fits very much with my experience of the school that my kids go to here in Denver. I know there are lots of schools like that. So Emerson is not a, it's not a unique outlier, but it's really kind of representative of, of something that goes so often overlooked, but doesn't need to.
Courtney Martin: Yes, totally.
Andrew: Can you give us a little overview of Oakland and the geography? You know, it's like unsurprisingly, a big driver of segregation, in Oakland public schools. Where does Emerson sit and what's the lay of the land?
Courtney Martin: Yeah. So Oakland, like most American cities, is very residentially segregated by design. Um, there was like profound redlining, tons of federal investment in steering Black folks to what we call the flatlands and White folks to the hills. So the legacy of all of that remains very strongly to this day.
There's been a recent spate of closures and mergers, which I also try to cover in the book. Again, imagining that might mirror a lot of different people's cities that they live in and the situations there.
Andrew: Yes. Yeah. I mean, obviously this book is so deeply entwined with the work we're doing at Integrated Schools. Which is obviously why I wanted to have you on to talk about it. But I know you are also a big believer in sharing the mic, so when I asked you to have this conversation, you suggested that maybe we should also include one of the main characters from the book, Ms. Minor. Who is she? Why did you think she should be part of this conversation?
Courtney Martin: Ms. Minor is an incredible thinker, educator, and lucky for us, she was my kids' transitionary kindergarten teacher, which we call TK here in Oakland.
Andrew: That’s like, school for four year olds.
Courtney Martin: Exactly. School for four year olds. And I was completely clear the minute I walked into her classroom that she was a gifted educator and a gifted world builder. She's just one of those people that you, you just feel you've entered this comprehensive world when you enter her space.
So I got to experience that as a parent with a kid in her classroom, but I always sensed there was a bit of a professional distance maybe between us. I would try to get to know her, and I was like, all right, I guess this is sort of normal that I sense there's more to what she thinks about various topics that I'm bringing up then she's laying out.
She ended up leaving the school after my kid’s year with her, to start her own preschool in East Oakland, which is a very low income, mostly Black, although lots of Latinx folks too, area of Oakland.
And I asked her if I could go and interview her at her preschool and just see how it was going. And she was very warm and welcoming. And I said, you know, I'm writing this book on school integration, and we sat down and she was like, Do you mean school integration or school gentrification? And I was like, All right, we're going to have a real talk here. This is like...
Andrew: We’re starting off hard….
Courtney Martin: Yeah, professional distance is gone and I'm so glad it is because I, I've sensed what a gift her wisdom might be and her honesty might be. And, and I ended up coming back basically monthly, to have these conversations with her while her little ones were sleeping in a room off to the side, we would sit in the kitchen and just wrestle with this question of how virtuous really is integration.
So that's a big part of the book, is really questioning the whole premise of what we're doing here on this podcast, which is like on the one hand, we know integration has so much potential to break the cycle of poverty and, you know, we've got the data beautifully analyzed by Rucker C. Johnson, and we've got Nikole Hannah-Jones, and you know, we've got as a movement, all of these reasons to believe in this.
And then, when the rubber meets the road, I think most of us have real reasons to doubt whether this is THE answer, right? It is an answer, but it's full of complexity in it's lived experience. And so that's a lot of what Ms. Minor, who now, would like to be called Ahma, that's a lot of what she helped me surface and helped me wrestle with.
Andrew: Yeah, you were absolutely right to call her in for this. I'm so grateful that you did. You can hear her passion, her dedication, her wisdom. You'll hear in the conversation, she, she gets really gets going and you can hear a pounding on the table as she's really leaning into her points.
She's, she’s phenomenal. I'm so, so grateful to get to have this conversation. And, and as you said, since she left Emerson, she has started going by Ahma. That's what her kids at her school call her and what we end up calling her in this conversation. So, I think we should take a listen to it and maybe meet back on the other side to discuss.
Courtney Martin: Sweet. Let's do it.
Ahma: First off, thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here on this important podcast. So I am formally Artemis Minor, but I do go by Amaris Israel, that's my cultural name, and everyone calls me Ahma.
I am the owner of the Learning Forest Childcare Home and Preschool. Also the owner, you can say, of Power Academy, which is my homeschool. And there's a virtual component of that, which is called Set Apart Scholars, where I have students all over the country, where we focus on reading, writing, and presentation. And so it's something for homeschoolers, specifically Black homeschoolers.
And I'm also a mother of three beautiful children and a wife. We just celebrated our 11 year anniversary.
Andrew: That's amazing. Congratulations. Can you talk a little bit about how you found yourself here, steeped in education, finding a way to serve kids, specifically Black kids? You, you were born and raised in Oakland, is that right?
Ahma: Yes. So born and raised in Oakland. Always loved the city. It's always had such a rich culture and rich history. I was raised by my grandmother. She passed away at a hundred years old, a couple years ago. I know. And she raised us, my sister and I, right there in North Oakland and she was really big on education. And it's funny, it's like something I think about after the fact, but growing up there was, of course, the public schools nearby. The closest Oakland Public School to my home was Santa Fe, and, um, we didn't go to Sante Fe. You know, instead my grandmother did all she can to put us in the best school. And at that time, the best school in our area was a private school. It's written in the book, the Catholic school and the Catholic school was a Black community, had Black teachers, a Black principal. It was a great choice, but it did cost money, you know.
And so I was definitely torn growing up. Like I have all these neighborhood friends who don't go to my school and I have all these school friends who do go to my school. And we're talking about Black kids, right. And so even growing up, I felt like, Why can't they go to my school, right? And then part of it was, well, why can't I go to their school? Um, and there was a big like code switching that I had to do growing up, because you know, those two worlds kind of didn't always blend.
Andrew: Even though it was, I mean, you grew up in largely a Black context, both your neighborhood...
Ahma: That's right.
Andrew: And the school, but even still there was this kind of code switching from a class perspective mostly?
Ahma: You know, it's class and it's, it's education and it's sad that they have to intertwine, but that is the case, you know. If you had enough money to go to a private school, well, then your education is going to be different.
There was a time in my life, and I'll never forget that I was talking to some friends or some girls in the neighborhood and they said, Why do you talk like a White girl? And I remember being so offended. And it's like, Well, why do you say that? Because I have a large vocabulary. And it literally was the difference with going to the public school where you were just kinda being escorted to the next grades and the next grade without true education or being at a private school where they actually care about giving you a quality education.
Now we're not talking about Black Pride and things like that. And those are things that I learned later. There wasn't always, you know, a really strong cultural education necessarily at the Catholic school but there was a difference.
And I think with that, I always wanted to blend those worlds. I always wanted, you know, my neighborhood friends to get the same exposure and the same opportunities that I had. So, so from a young age, I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the Oakland public schools because I know that they weren't up to par. It never felt equitable, you know? And we're not talking, like I said, Black and White, we're just talking, like you said, class, I guess.
Andrew: And education, yeah.
Andrew: What was Emerson like when you first got there?
Ahma: So when I first got there, Emerson was great. It was my first real experience as a actual classroom teacher. I was excited to be there and I remember bringing my girls there and redecorating the whole classroom and everything. Um, there was a lot of life there, you can say.
And once we got going and I saw my roster and, you know, I think I had 26 kids the first year, which, which is a huge number to...
Andrew: It's a lot of four year olds.
Ahma: It's a lot of four year olds.
You know, but I came from a theater background and I used to do plays with a bunch of four-year-olds and five-year-olds, right? So I definitely was up for the challenge, so to speak. When I first got my class, um, I definitely was a little taken back because my class itself did not match the demographics of the entire school. I had majority White students in my class and I had maybe four or five Black students. So that was, was surprising to me.
Andrew: What was the makeup of the rest of the school at that time?
Ahma: After kindergarten, it probably was 70% Black and another decent percentage were Arab Americans or Hispanic students and a very small percentage of White students, and it literally was in TK and kindergarten.
And after kindergarten, I found out later that most of them leave. And that was actually a conversation that the principal and I had constantly. How to keep the White parents at the school.
Andrew: Right. What was your impression of that, Courtney? Of the difference in the racial makeup from the four year olds and the five-year-olds and then who stuck around and how that played out?
Courtney Martin: Yeah. I mean, it continues to play out exactly as Ahma described it. That there's a lot more White families who are part of the TK community at Emerson. And then as soon as their kids can get into a kindergarten at one of the Whiter, more highly resourced schools in our area, then they head out.
Andrew: That's just like a capacity thing, like how much TK is available?
Courtney Martin: Yeah, Emerson's one of the only schools in the catchment area that has a TK. So a lot of the families who live in the neighborhood and would not consider Emerson long-term say, Well, we get a free year of public school and we hear this lady Ms. Minor is amazing. I mean, that was definitely like the talk of the neighborhood - was like, as you can hear just from her voice and her energy and her commitment to her kids, she is an extraordinary teacher and very quickly that was part of the neighborhood whisper network was like, You shouldn't send your kid to Emerson long-term, but you could send them to TK and you get a free year of public school and then figure out how to get them into one of the other schools.
And it's damaging because, you know, here we are trying to create a community where people are all investing together over the longterm of our kids' lives together. And you know, it feels pretty disingenuous to me that in this neighborhood where we should be investing in this public school, we invest as long as there's this gold star teacher, and then keep it moving as soon as we have the opportunity to, it just, it feels, it feels hard to me.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, ‘cause we're, we're investing in ourselves and in our kids, But we're not actually investing in the community or investing in the school.
Ahma: But we also should look at who's signing up early enough. There was this thing where everyone would come on a tour to see my classroom. And sometimes they will be having a baby in their arm, and they’re, they’re considering Emerson. There was one lady who was pregnant going on a tour, right. And it's like, wait a minute. That's a different world.
And that's problematic, where there are wealthier families who could afford to do another year at their preschool but they're potentially taking up space for the local neighborhood kids who might miss the opportunity to go to the TK program because now it's full.
And see, saying that, like, that's where early childhood education is so important. You know, we were really big on literacy, I mean, that was our big thing. That's my big thing at the Learning Forest as well. But I had students from very fancy pants preschools and they had really strong foundations coming into TK, right? So, yes, we had super successful years when I was there. And, I mean, as much as I would love to take full credit for that, right, and we definitely did amazing work, but they came in really strong, right. So, out of 25 kids, well, 20 of them are excelling. They're doing so amazing. And then my five kids, they're, they're making it, but they're just making it, right?
And so if I look at the demographics, I would say, Well, wow, those five kids are the kids of color. We have a problem, you know. And it wasn't really the first year, the first year, I'm just pumped. I'm excited to be this teacher. It's autonomy in my classroom. We're creating this TK world and it truly was a TK world of its own. And, on paper, we were doing great.
And it was maybe the next year, my second year that I said, you know, I'm not comfortable with the way things are going. If just one or two of my Black students were barely making it and all my other White students were doing exceptionally well, well, I have a problem. I should've been focusing more on those Black and Brown students who came in already behind.
And that sounds problematic in itself, that this achievement gap that we talk about so much in education, literally starts in kindergarten or in TK, right? That sounds like that can't be possible, but it is when you have affluent families sending them to wonderful preschools, they're coming into TK or to kindergarten already ready. And then you have maybe other families who couldn't afford a good preschool or whatever the situation is, and they don't have that same foundation. And so now we're kind of starting from scratch with them.
Andrew: So you’re seeing that even in TK, even with four year olds, the ability of a family to pay for pre-k, housing stability, all these things that, you know, we know are tied to larger racist systems in our country, are showing up already with four-year-olds, and you saw that in your classroom.
Ahma: We did something called a community circle, where I would pose a question and everyone would get a chance to get to answer. And this was my first year and there was a particular young lady, I'll call her Princess, and Princess, she was so quiet and we sat in the community circle, it might've been three months in where we've been practicing. We know this, this is our routine.
And so this day was on a Monday. I said, What did you do this weekend? That was our question. So we're passing it around and you know, one of the little Caucasian girls, said, uh, oh, I went to grandma's house and we went swimming and someone else might've said the movies, someone else said the zoo, you know, and they can name 10 of the animals.
And then it went to Princess and she actually said in a very quiet voice, My mom stole a blue car. And I was taken back. And she always sat next to me. And so I kind of rubbed her back and I said, Thanks for sharing. And I just kind of made a mental note and we pass it on, the next person talks about going skating or whatnot.
And when I think of Princess that first year, she is my example of, in many ways, what's wrong with public education in general, because Princess did come in, never gone to preschool at all. She was from a very difficult household environment. You know, hearing that particular story that she shared and she shared it in a way where it was very nonchalant, just like, you know, that was what her weekend was about.
You know, Princess was my special girl. And unfortunately I had a really close relationship with Child Protective Services also because of Princess. And I would go to sleep at night thinking about Princess and how to help Princess and her family. And I will say out of the literacy markers that we always had to address at the end of the year, she made it, you know, she barely made it, but she made it and it was exciting.
But I'm going to tell you the real thing that hit me when Princess went into first grade, I was talking to her first grade teacher and I say, well, how's Princess, and she said, she's Princess. You know, she kind of hides under the table a lot. And she said it so nonchalant. And so just, oh, it really broke my heart. It really made me say, wait a minute, Princess was my everything in TK. Right? And for you to tell me, she's just hiding under a table, being Princess, that's a problem.
And that goes to a deeper problem in education. To me, it goes to what type of teachers do we have within the public school? I think Courtney, in her book, it was described as a global majority school, right. And that's considered the Black schools, right. Or what we would call the flatland schools in Oakland. But I argue that it's not a Black school. It's not, it's not a Black school, unless it has Black leadership. There isn't Black leadership in most of these schools, right. And there isn't Black curriculum. That's not what's going on at the school, so the education system in itself is broken and not really pushing our kids to be their best, right. But how can we, when the students can't even identify themselves in the curriculum, in the books, but even in their teacher that's in front of them.
So yes, Ms. Minor might've been that, you know, oh, awesome Black woman in this classroom, right. But that's few and far between. I was proud to be that Black teacher, you know, I was proud to teach my vision of what Black excellence is. I was proud of that, but many Black teachers are encompassed around White administration, other White peers. And because we've been, you know, I guess you could say brainwashed all of our lives to say White is better. What do these Black teachers do if they don't have a strong sense of self because they grew up in those same systems. They're now looking at their peers, trying to impress their peers, trying to impress the principal versus standing for who they are and standing up for Princess. They're patting Princess on the head and saying, Oh, let me give her a snack or something at recess because she had a hard night.
But if we truly love our children and we love our culture and we understand what Black excellence is, I'm not just allowing my student to sleep under a table. Instead I'm pushing her even harder because I know she can and I'm giving her the tools to succeed.
I'm not going to simply sympathize with the child, I'm going to empathize with the child because I am Black, I understand where you're coming from, right? And I'm going to support you no matter what it takes. So yes, if you need an extra nap, maybe you could have an extra nap, but guess what it means during recess, we're going to be working.
Andrew: You gotta make it up. Yeah.
Ahma: You gotta make it up, right?
Andrew: If that doesn’t speak to the power of having Black teachers, having Black administration in front of kids, I don't know what does.
Ahma: There was an article from 2018 and there was like a study done. And says that research has proven that the impact of racial mirroring, like a mirror, right, it has an effect. So Black students, I'm sure you guys have heard this before, but Black students who had a Black teacher by third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college after graduation. If...
Andrew: One black teacher. That’s all it took.
Ahma: One Black teacher, you got it. If, if they had two Black teachers, Andrew, the Black students were 32% more likely to go to college. Right. And so that is so meaningful to me, the idea of racial mirroring. That's exactly like what I went through. You know, I saw the strong Black principal growing up.
And this, this is what all our students need, is strong Black teachers or teachers of color that really tell you like it is, you know, tell you genuine history, teach you from a perspective that's not just Euro-centric perspective. So when I say going to a global majority school is not really going to a Black school because it doesn't have Black leadership, that's what I mean. Because there's no way certain literature or certain curriculum would ever be taught at a real quote unquote Black school.
Courtney Martin: I just love listening to Ahma go off.
Andrew: I mean, even, even a school full of Black teachers, even Black administrators, is still operating in this system that is, that is White dominant. And that the, the metrics for success, you, you look at your TK class, and a whole bunch of White kids are exceeding expectations and you get a pat on the back for being a great teacher and whether Princess makes it or not, it's sort of irrelevant to the system. It's relevant to you, but it's not relevant to, you know, whether you get judged as a good teacher or not.
Andrew: It's like there's, there's this tension between what you wanted to provide for your kids, the kids who needed the most attention from you, and then what the system demanded of you. And Courtney, I guess I'm wondering how you think about that. Like that system demand piece? How did you see yourself fitting into that space in a classroom that had such a wide range of needs? On the one hand you've got the sort of constant White parenting pressure to make sure your kids are exceeding and then, you know, also recognizing the kind of the, the degree of privilege that your kids bring to the classroom and that, that you bring to the school community.
Courtney Martin: Well, I mean, I had thought my initial hump was just being quote unquote brave enough to send Maya to this global majority school. Like, okay, I'm doing a good thing. This might be a little uncomfortable. I'm going to live into it. And then I asked Ahma if I could have a conversation with her about this book I was working on and I sit down and she just starts saying a lot of what she just said. And all of a sudden I'm just, kind of like scales from my eyes, sort of like the second hump of, of the journey of like, oh shit. Okay.
So I knew I wasn't like saving anyone by showing up at Emerson, but I did feel that based on the research I'd done, that there was something like fundamentally good about this choice and then to talk to her and think, Okay, now I'm trying to hold this paradox of, on the one hand, it's like, if I care about Princess, which I do, I didn't know Princess specifically, but I know versions of Princess from my own days at Emerson who I care so deeply and genuinely about. Is it better for me to have Maya in that classroom because she takes less labor than the equivalent Princess might? And I'm bringing my resources, my money, whatever I'm bringing to the school. Or is she a distraction because Ahma really needs to pay attention to the Princesses and Maya's tugging on her arm and saying, you know, I want to tell you about my trip to my grandparents' pool or whatever the thing is.
So our conversations were so deeply enriching for me, both, both because, Ahma had been Maya's teacher and she's like an incredible teacher also because she's, as you can hear, like a brilliant critical thinker. I think she just exemplifies the kind of person, which I think is the Integrated Schools community. Like our aspiration is to be like, this is to constantly be asking, okay. I thought I understood this thing, but I just have to keep unraveling and keep unraveling and looking at these systemic influences.
So it left me quite confused, um, in a really good way, in a good way. And I think that's where I tried to even end the book, was sort of like, I still think this quest for integration is worthwhile but I in no way think that it's some kind of magic bullet or easy. There were definitely moments where I was like, maybe like this whole thing was a bad idea, you know, which is a really powerful push for me.
Andrew: Yeah. The ongoing work part is so important and it's not like after a year and a half, I'm going to get the point like, okay, great. Now, I’ve, I've done my piece to solve systemic racism and I can just like coast from here. Yeah, it's ongoing work.
I’m wondering if you can talk about the decision to leave Emerson and start your own school, I'm assuming it was not just that you had a full year with Courtney’s kid in your class, and that was all you could take. You had to get out of there, but there were some other things going on.
Ahma: Yeah. You know, I think there was a few things that was kind of nudging me in that direction. As the years went on and the biggest conflict I had was internally, it was really about the achievement gap. I remember one of my little friends, you know, saying Ms. Minor, this is a fossil and it blew my mind. You know, it's something that maybe you guys take for granted, but for me, it was like, wow, what a great vocabulary, you know, why isn't Princess talking like that?
Ahma: These different worlds that's being blended within the TK class. But wait, what was it before TK, right. That really, uh, was vital in my decision to start a preschool. It became like, what are we missing? Because if there's an achievement gap in TK, and then by second grade, it's even worse. And by fifth grade it’s even worse. And then by high school, you got kids walking across the stage, but only have 10 credits. What is going on in the school and the school system, right?
So where can I best contribute? It's early childhood education. It's creating a space where before they even entered the racist school system that they're going to be in. Unfortunately, most of them, they are coming in with, with something in depth inside of them. They're coming in knowing they're great. They're awesome. They're from Black excellence and royalty. You don't have to accept people trying to hold you down because you're great. You can do anything. You know, knowledge is power.
And it was just a great opportunity for me to say, you know, even if it's 12 students at a time, I can make a difference. ‘Cause at Emerson, I mean, at some point I only had two or three Black students, you know?
So yeah, that was really my decision. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be that, that strong Black voice for them that hopefully echoes in their, in their head as they grow older and say, Wait a minute, my preschool teacher told me that I can do anything and I'm Black and beautiful, right? And even when the White students come to my school, they're in, around all this great Black excellence. So they're going to hopefully go into their public schools, if they are going to public schools, and be more aware and be more loving and engaging and genuinely having these real friendships and things like that because they experienced so much love from a Black preschool. So, so it crosses all bounds.
Courtney Martin: Um, this is another paradox is like holding that notion of like, this is generational change. This is long-term. This is, like, I'm going to keep, just keep showing up to Emerson day after day so that's this, like, long, patient thing. But there's such deep urgency. Kids today are not learning to read that should know how to read. And that's on my watch. It's on Ahma's watch, it's on your watch. And so I think that's another tension I am continuing to walk with is like, yeah, this is long-term, I'm going to keep showing up and be humble. And like, I don't want to be so patient in my humility and have this posture of like, just trying to get it right. You know, like day after day when it's like,
Andrew: Shit’s broken now.
Ahma: Yeah, that’s right.
Courtney Martin: Yeah, So I want to be a part of that, but figuring out how to be a part of that urgency in a respectful, like honorable, humble way is also very tricky.
Ahma: It's so interesting to me because when I read in your book, when I was already gone by then, but, um, I believe her name was Blair who was this, you know, really courageous White woman who had so much experience in education. And she really came guns blazing saying, We have to get these kids reading, you know, and everyone had a lot of pushback. And from what I read, didn't really want to hear what Blair had to say because of the way she said it. And I would say, it's also, you know, her being White, you know, it's like, Wait, this is the Black school and you can't come in here with your White self and tell us what to do, right?
But I had a problem with that and I wasn't there. I know, you know, I don't know Blair, but it made me feel like, Hey, if I was saying the exact same thing, would you listen to me?
Um, when I was at Emerson, we had a huge turnover rate, right? So this particular year, they used maybe, I don't know, $26,000 or something like that for these other educators to come in and discuss implicit bias with the teachers.
So you have all these White teachers coming in, who, you know, working at the school. They might not even be there next year and all of a sudden, instead of talking about reading, instead of focusing on our math, instead of focusing on the things that our kids truly, truly need, we have to spend a pretty good chunk on a few teachers to come teach the teachers how to not be so racist. It's the craziest thing in the world. And it's like, why couldn’t you have spent that $26,000 on a few tutors to help the fifth graders read, right? There's so many things that that money could have been spent on.
And I know that's a, you know, a crazy example because everyone was against Blair and I wasn't there. I didn't meet Blair, but it sounded like she really got it. She's like, we're going to do what it takes to teach these kids how to read.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like there's some, some question of trust, some question of, you know, being in an integrating space and, and who is advocating and, and who are they advocating for? And then what sort of culture are you creating in the school? And I guess the hope for integration is that it leads to spaces where, where everyone can come in and advocate for their kids. In a way that isn't at a cost to other kids.
Ahma: Ultimately integration the way it's, it's discussed, you know, it's just kind of in theory, right? But it's not reality. Reality is if you go to the Chinese school somewhere, they're learning about their culture and their heritage. And it's so rich and strong and a White child could go to that Chinese school and they can learn how to speak Mandarin, they can be fully embedded in that culture and become an amazing child and well-rounded because they went to this culturally strong school and successful school. And it doesn't take away from their, their Whiteness, right.
But that doesn't exist within the public schools in the Black community. We can't say that the schools in the public school system are Black schools just because there's Black and Brown bodies in those schools. Because if it was an actual Black school, we have Black leadership, there would be a totally different form of success. I mean, I have to say it like that because that, that there is this implicit bias that's going on. There is a structural racism that's going on. ‘Cause there's no way that we should be allowing our kids to fail generation after generation within the public schools. There is no way.
And that's where I had this kind of aha moment where I don't want to be looked at as just this kind of diamond in the rough teacher, you know, like, Oh, well, Ms. Minor's class is great, but after that, oh, don't even think about it. I didn't want to be that. I was a part of the problem, you know? And so that's why I chose to go ahead and gracefully bow out, and create my own school where I can truly have integration.
‘Cause guess what Andrew. Do you know, I have at this point out of 12 kids, I think at least four Caucasian students, right? So although I'm this pro-Black school, I'm a school for Black excellence. I'm the school that has, you know, Black figures all over the wall and Black books and Black dolls and Black teachers and we’re excited and we're, we’re engaging in true historical context and all these great things.
I have White folks calling me every day to come to our school. And, that's what I really believe should be happening across the board. There should be a cultural utopia of sorts, but nothing takes away from anybody else. Every culture needs to learn about who they are and where they come from. And in the Black culture, in the public schools specifically, it's not happening. We're not learning about ourselves. That's a problem. That's a real problem.
It's like, Where do we learn about Mansa Musa? I didn't learn about that till I was an adult. The richest man that ever lived, right. Who was the emperor of Mali who was passing out gold like it was nothing. Who loved education and had a huge library and pushed education on his people so much so that it was a very thriving community, right? When will we learn about those things? What school is teaching those things, what school is, is bringing out literature that really reflects our greatness.
Instead, we're only learning that we were slaves, right? And then the White student that comes into the quote unquote Black school, which I argue is not a Black school at all. But the White student that comes in there, they know their history. And they sit around and in a way, it might be very subconscious, but I feel like it's actually boosting their confidence to be around those types of environments where all the Black kids are kind of behind.
There's something to say that all the Black kids are lining up for free lunch but the bento boxes full of, um, fruit that's shaped as stars and, and little notes on their bananas, right. There's something to say about that, you know, and me and Courtney talked about that and, and I was really taken, I did all these observations and I really was taken back like, you know, how is this a world that's okay? How does it make that Black child feel, you know?
Courtney Martin: Yeah. And when does integration reinforce a hierarchy of human value that we're trying to disrupt by sending our kids there, but then our kids showing up with like, you know, the fancy stories about their weekend and the beautiful lunch. And, yeah.
Um, going back to, when you were talking about your own preschool, how do you think about demand, as you get those calls from White parents?
Ahma: We definitely got to the point where I am not just accepting anyone, because we do have a wait list, which is just a blessing. Now, as far as numbers, would I accept all White children? Well, that wouldn't be a preference of mine, that wouldn't be a goal at all. And so, uh, there is this nice balance and interestingly enough, I want to say that there's an element of, I guess it's social capital in a way, right? Two of my original White parents came from Emerson, right. So I taught their child. And then they might put a good review on one of those fancy Caucasian websites that everyone reads, right. And so next thing you know, I'm getting these great calls, you know, when they check my website and they see we are Black royalty around here, right? They're like, oh, I love your school. I love what it stands for. I love everything about it, but I don't want to take up space. So those type of parents, we can have a conversation, you know, if we have an opening, if you generally are like, you know what, I'm, I'm here for you. That's really true integration. You know, they're coming into our Black world, they're not trying to change my world, right.
Andrew: Clearly, they are not going to be successful in changing your world, like your explanation of what it meant to create a TK classroom, even in Emerson, was creating this whole world, so obviously that is sort of a gift you have.
You know, a lot of Integrated Schools work is how do we create more White parents who will show up in that way, who will show up and not take over, not change the culture.
Ahma: No, that's great.
Andrew: I mean, that's the promise. That's the goal of integration. That's, like, as you said, what we would like it to be on paper and what it has yet to be fully realized, because of all these other structural things, but I think, and this goes back a little bit to this sort of like timeline question, Courtney, that you were mentioning is like the, those kids, the White kids who are in your school and the Black kids who are in your school, go on and become teachers and become principals and become administrators.
And now, you know, 30, 40, 50 years from now, the school system maybe starts to actually shift and starts to actually change. But there's a tension like, am I fighting for three generations from now or am I fighting for today? You know, like I, I don't worry much about my kid. I mean, I worry about some things, but like in general, I've got two White daughters who walk through the world as if it was designed for them because it was designed for them. Who walk into a classroom and the teacher assumes that they are going to thrive. And if they're not, the teacher says, Hang on, like what's going on?
So I don't have to spend a lot of time worrying about how the system is going to treat them. So if I don't have to worry about that, I want to think about the long term. I want to think about, you know, what is the next generation who, who's going to be the next teachers, who's going to be the next police officers. And how do I kind of invest in that? I mean, this comes back to maybe Blair as well, but like, yes, our babies need to learn to read tomorrow and yes, like, our school, if it's spending $26,000 on anti bias, that is money that is not going to teaching these kids to read.
And yet if none of our teachers have any idea of their own internal biases, how are they ever going to teach our kids to read anyway? How do you think about that kind of, that tension between the sort of short-term and the long-term?
Ahma: Yeah, I would say initially to that last point, so yes, spending the money about implicit bias, you say, well, that's good because they need to kind of understand that they have this implicit bias, but in reality, why was that teacher hired in the first place? It's like that teacher shouldn't have been in this school and so somehow that needs to be reconciled. So there is a lot of structural things that need to be addressed. Um, and it isn't an overnight thing, you know?
Um, but when you say, well, I know my daughters are going to be okay, that's a phrase that I hear so much in the White community. I actually had a parent and she was just lovely and her son was amazing, but she told me during our parent teacher conference and she cried about it, Don't worry about my son. He's going to be okay. Focus on the other children. And I don't always know how to take that because as an educator, no, I, I do want your son to, to learn and grow, that's not the world that I'm trying to create here where I'm ignoring your son to focus on the Princesses.
That's not, that doesn't really equate to equity to me. I mean, I couldn't imagine doing that.
Courtney Martin: Can I dig in a little on this point because I think there's something really deep there. Um, there's something about this way in which White folks like us, Andrew, are struggling to like right-size ourselves and show up authentically and just like represent ourselves in the full texture of who we are in these multiracial and multi-class spaces. Like there's a feeling of, let me show up and disappear, like I'm here ‘cause I'm trying to be helpful, but I won't ask for anything. I'm not going to say anything.
And it's just like this really inauthentic dance. And I, I still stand by White folks’ need to shut up a lot. Like, I think that, that's important part of the Integrated Schools’ ethos and it's had a huge impact on me, but I do feel like a lot of us who are part of this movement are really struggling to show up authentically and people feel it.
Ahma can you say more? ‘Cause I do think it's a very, it's a mentality among people like Andrew and I that's very strong and feels like an important thing.
Ahma: Well, I think it's just, it's really a cultural thing, you know, it's the privilege of knowing that your children are going to be okay. That you have this idea, not you, but you know, just in general, have this idea of, uh, I don't want to take up space or I need to come in and shut up.
I guess it's a, you know, a White guilt kind of thing, I guess if I can say, and I can't really fully connect with the idea of, oh, my child's going to be okay ‘cause that's not the Black experience, you know, unfortunately we can't never just say my child's going to be okay.
Especially, they don't even know who they are, right. They can't be okay if I just choose to send them to an all-White school because who knows what can happen there. As far as, you know, their self-esteem and things like that, they can't be okay if I send them to a quote unquote all-black school because I don't know what kind of traumas and different things are happening there as well.
So, so that brings me to the point that I chose to pull my children out, and now we homeschool, right. That's a whole different world. And that's something that is becoming more and more popular amongst Black families. Why? Because we're taking control of our children's education
Andrew: It’s like there’s a, a lack of genuineness in that assertion that my kids will be okay. That, that, that, that somehow like removes you from, from the community, from the like genuine parenting community.
Ahma: That point matters so much. And I think that kind of genuine parenting is what I want. I care about my kids. And thus, I care about the community that my kid is going to be in. Right? So, so there's, there's no Black and White with that.
But if I am not confident in who I am as a Black woman, if I'm not strong as a Black person and say, wait, I'm not bowing down to you. I'm not sitting here trying to be under you, you know, I'm equal to you. That's the difference, right? Then we can accept one another. We can, we can even hang out. Right. But if I don't have this Black excellence about myself, if I never learned my true history, it becomes a superior / inferior thing. And we can't commune in the same spaces.
Andrew: The risk is so great. that, that if, if White people like start down that road a little bit, that we will wreck things. You know, a parent is not going to come into your preschool, Ahma, and, and wreck it, whether they're White or Black, right. You have this strength, this character, you are sure about what you are doing, and you are going to keep doing that. And so if somebody wants to come in and say, we’ve got to get reading scores up, here's some things that are going to help, you can welcome that help. Whereas, the, you know, structures are set up, and I don't know anything about the leadership at Emerson, I only know what I read in Courtney's book, which was amazing, but so easy for that quickly to go from, “I want there to be more reading” to “I also need this school to reflect my other White values.” And I need to take over this and turn it into something that it is not.
And so, I think you're right Courtney, like I don't actually, I don't think my kids are going to be fine. I think that is like a shorthand for saying I don't want to be one of those White people, to try to distance myself from that.
I don't think my kids will be fine. I think that if my kids went to the first school that my oldest daughter went to, that was like the fancy White school around the corner from us, that we paid, you know, a stupid amount of additional money to buy our house in the district for, cause I didn't know any better, and we went there. If my kid had continued to go there, I don't think she would have been fine. If my younger daughter had gone there, I don't think she would have been fine, because the stakes are different, but I also need my kid to be in a space where other cultures are supported and, and have a chance to thrive, where other kids have a chance to live into their full humanity.
My kids also need that and they're not going to be fine if they don't get that.
Courtney Martin: And our democracy isn’t going to be fine, which is like part of my big ambition. You know, mostly my ambition is like incredibly small in this book, which is like, let me just be as brave as possible in analyzing why it's so hard for us to live in multiracial community.
But my really big ambition is, in this moment to be like, this democracy is profoundly fragile. And the only thing we’ve got going for us on the foundational level is a public school system. Like that's where the majority of the country's children are coming through and learning who they are, to Ahma's point, learning the basics of how to be critical thinkers and citizens. And if we just let the public school system fail the vast majority of our children... We think democracy is fragile now, like it's only going to get worse and worse. And maybe, you know, one could take a really long view and say, that's actually what needs to happen. We've got to blow it all up because it's so broken.
Andrew: It’s so broken already, right?
Courtney Martin: But I still feel like, and you know, this is where maybe Ahma and I are not in the same place these days, like it still feels like being a part of even a struggling, multiracial public school community is the biggest privilege I have in trying to show up as an American and grow my own muscles.
But it makes it really hard to, to keep advocating for that, when, as Ahma points out, our district is so deeply broken, our country's so deeply broken. Like, there’s just so many reasons not to be down for that experiment if you have any kind of risk.
Ahma: It's tricky to me, because it makes me feel like who does that really support, you know? There was a part in your book. If I can mention about the school board, right? The school board meetings were so profound there was a point, um, on page 219, when they’re discussing closing a particular school, and you put in your book, if I, if you don't mind me quoting, it says that, um,
“The directors all shake their heads No, and they look utterly exhausted, demoralized and misunderstood, and a White man screams off mic, “if they make a no-vote, that doesn't matter! If they make a yes vote, that doesn't matter! They have no power. We have the power!!”
And, you know, I mean, I wasn't there, but when I'm reading it, for me, this man just screamed White power.
Courtney Martin: Yeah.
Ahma: And I said, what makes this insurrection at the school board meeting any different than the insurrection in January?
Courtney Martin: To your point, encompassed in just yelling that is like, I am not privy to any of these institutions, which is your point about like who is failed by these institutions and is deeply dependent on them? It's Black and Brown kids in this country. And so if a White person like me elects to be a part of the public school system, because it's an interesting experiment in democracy, and then, you know, wants my cookie and wants to write my book, that's hard. Like, how genuinely can people take that choice when it's a total privilege. It's a, it's a choice I'm making. It has nothing to do with my dependence on the public school system.
Ahma: That's true. That’s true.
Courtney Martin: And yet, you have so many kids and families who are just like deeply dependent on a system that has failed them generation after generation. It does feel really complicated.
Ahma: It is. It is indeed. So there's a lot of things that can be unfolded with, with the whole idea of integrating schools. Like I said, I think the Learning Forest does, does a great job organically integrating our school. And, I do applaud the white families who are choosing to come to the Learning Forest, you know, knowing that we are basking in who we are strongly and genuinely and we're not gonna, you know, sway from that.
So, I think that is a choice that they're making that they don't have to make. And, I think those moments matter. And it's, it's like what you're doing, Courtney. I think what you're doing, going to the global majority school matters. And I think it's something that's thoughtful, you know, but I think it is very complex also. And I think there's moments where we do just have to step back just like I did when I was at Emerson, and say, wait, am I really doing the right thing?
Courtney Martin: I wanted to say one thing, in the midst of all of this complexity and like the short versus long term change. I think that, in addition to, you know, walking the talk with our own kids and our own families, I'm really interested in more ways in which we can redistribute our resources as White and our privileged families who are part of the Integrated Schools community.
And I think, you know, White culture and like elite culture tends to be obsessed with scale. Like how do we do things at a large scale? And when you hear what Ahma is doing for, know, 12 kids, 15 kids, I hope that people will think about a), feel free to donate directly to The Learning Forest, but also b) like where is the Learning Forest in your community? What are the Black excellent schools, like and how do you just support them with zero expectations?
Courtney Martin: If enough of us do that for these small scale, beautiful world-building experiments, that makes a difference and it makes a difference to those kids, and it makes a difference to these educators, like Ahma, who are just like so profoundly excellent within the midst of so much brokenness.
Andrew: Right. That's not enough. You can't just like write the check and pat yourself on the back and be done, but that is definitely a place to, to engage and to redistribute resources. Yeah.
I can't thank you both for taking the time, for sharing. I want move to Oakland, and have my kids become much younger and then send them to your school, Ahma, cause it sounds amazing. It does sound like a, like a beautiful, a beautiful world you've created, and I think all the kids who get to experience that are incredibly fortunate. So thank you for what you're doing there for Oakland, for those kids, and for the country.
Ahma: I appreciate that.
Courtney Martin: I know I said it before, and have hopefully said it many times and said it in the book, but I just, um, I could not be more grateful to you for your wisdom and mentorship and this ongoing friendship. It's had such a profound influence on me, and I think it's the backbone of this book. And so for people who are intrigued by this book and read it, my highest hope is that they're gaining some of what I gained through our conversations. So thank you so much.
Ahma: I appreciate that. And I appreciate you guys having me here with you and having this conversation and how much you have always been a support, Courtney. I really do respect you and have a real friendship with you. And I appreciate that. I do appreciate you despite our differences, right? You know, we have to keep rereading each other, as you said in the book, right?
I think, um, you know, that those kinds of friendships are genuine and I think it matters. And I think it's those types of friendships that will come out of the Black community that pushes Black excellence. You know, like I said, the Chinese community that pushes Chinese excellence. It's like all of those independently learning your culture, and then being able to merge those worlds together. And then, when our children are, you know, in high school and in college, they're able to say, Hey, I know who I am, I want to get to know who you are. Hey, it's awesome, you know who you are too. And so I think those are the things that need to be shaken up, and I believe in Black educators. I believe in having, you know, strong Black teachers, Black leadership, um, and I'm happy to be a part of that world.
And you never know, maybe one day, Andrew, I'll have a school for older children and then your kids will be able to come to my school.
Andrew: We're coming.
Andrew: Thank you. so much. Thank you
Ahma: Thank you.
Andrew: Courtney. She is awesome. Thank you so much for introducing us to her, for bringing her along with you. I was really grateful for that conversation.
I feel like a good place to start in kind of wrapping up is to talk a little bit about Blair. And I know you often talk about like, not writing heroes, and not writing villains. And I think you do a really good job of that. And, I think if, if anyone in the book comes across with any sort of like villain-ish tendencies, it might be Blair.
Courtney Martin: Fair enough.
Andrew: And so, you know, to hear Ahma sort of come out as team Blair, I was a little surprised by that. Who, who is Blair? Like what's the sort of backstory there and then what do you make of Ahma's being team Blair.
Courtney Martin: I love that. So Blair is this parent who appeared on the scene, I felt like out of central casting to be like, here is your villain. Like here is the White mom with a million ideas about how things need to go at the school, who is going to come in guns blazing and just tell everyone what she thinks and try to take over.
And that sort of happened. Blair did do that and alienated a bunch of teachers. But what, what was interesting was I realized that underneath Blair’s style, which I found both kind of repellent, but also racist because it was so patronizing and pitying, I think is, is really what it came down to, what she was saying was important. She was saying, We need to make sure that the Black and Brown kids at this school are reading on grade level.
And those of you who are these like, progressive White parents, who don't wear high heels like I do, and don't come in guns blazing, like I do, shouldn't be sitting around feeling super self satisfied because you've made this choice and then, you know, showed up and shut up as we talk about an Integrated Schools, because on your watch, these kids are not learning to read.
And I did, as I was getting to know Blair, I was like, oh my gosh, this is like a lot of what Ahma has been saying. They, they differ in very specific, very important ways. Which is that, basically Blair's analysis of what needs to happen is a very specific curriculum and it doesn't matter who teaches it as long as they're deeply rigorous and disciplined. Whereas, Ahma believes that the people who need to be at the head of the classroom should reflect the racial and class background of the kids who are looking up at them. And that is like a fundamental difference.
So that's the way in which they really differ, but in terms of their call for excellence, in terms of their frustration with what they talk about is like a White, low tyranny of expectations for Black and Brown kids, like they are very united in that front.
Andrew: And there's a tension there because she's right. Like kids need to learn to read. And that deep focus on it is really important. And you know, Ahma sort of comes down on, like, if you're advocating for reading because your kid is at that school, that's fine by me, as long as you're advocating for reading.
But like, it feels to me at least, like there's such a risk in that getting wildly out of hand so quickly that a school like Emerson that has held on to some bit of holding space for Black culture, that has held on to some element of being a welcoming space for all families, that maybe just implementing this one reading curriculum would be a good thing, and maybe Blair would stop there. But I guess I feel like I've seen it go wrong so many times where that then leads to, and also we need to do all of these other things that ended up changing the culture of the school in such meaningful ways that end up then kind of pushing people out or making people not feel welcome anymore.
Courtney Martin: Totally. And I think, you know, part of what I learned from Courtney that I tried to reflect in this book is that accountability is about not some abstract, like academic accountability, it's about like, who are the parents and teachers and kids in your school community, and what do they think about this thing? Right? So it was really important to me to notice, oh, the people who are most offended by this person, Blair, are White people.
And I thought a lot about, um, the ways in which White progressives can become our own kind of policing entity. That we're like, oh, you've got the high heels on and the ponytail and you're not using the right language, and so you're not in our club. And so like, even if what you're saying has some value to it, there's this big sort of separation. In some ways, I thought she did more to provoke the community in a good way than I ever had. And so I was like trying to think through all of that.
I still do hold all of that same cynicism you do, about what her ultimate goals were and, her profound lack of humility and interest in questioning what do other people here think I've only been here for, you know, a minute.
And certainly the way she talked, particularly to the elders in our community, as if they worked for her was like deeply offensive. So I don't mean to sugarcoat it, but I do think part of the journey for those of us doing this Integrated Schools movement work is, is to not let ourselves fall into the same traps that we're trying to push against when it comes to having like particular ideas about exactly how people are supposed to show up or what language they use versus like, what are their most deeply held values and what are they willing to put on the line for those values?
Andrew: Yeah, in some ways, it's like coming at the impact versus intent thing from the other side.
Courtney Martin: Yes. Yeah. Totally.
Andrew: You know, you may disagree with her intent because it is steeped in racism but like the impact may actually not be terrible if, if the result is that more kids are actually reading.
Courtney Martin: Right.
Andrew: The other piece of this conversation that's really been sitting there with me since we had it, is this, my kids will be fine.
Courtney Martin: Wasn't that powerful?
Andrew: It was, it was great. Yeah, it was, I mean, the book is called Learning in Public, and I feel like it was a moment of certainly me learning sort of through the course of this conversation. What's been sort of kicking around in your head since that conversation?
Courtney Martin: Well, first of all, I did love that moment and I loved your ability to model being curious about how that landed and stuff like that. I think it's just so important for us to do this in live time because otherwise we don't learn.
It's such a gift, particularly for a person of color, like a Black woman in this conversation with two White people to trust us enough, to be like that doesn't feel great to me.
You know, like that's such a gift and ultimately the meaning I kind of made of that moment and other moments I've had with Ahma have been around authenticity, which I feel like is another interesting paradox for those of us in this movement to hold is like on the one hand show up and shut up, I still believe in it. On the other hand, having this kind of impulse to always take up less space, does endanger you from really showing up authentically and vulnerably because you've prescribed this a role for yourself.
You know, authenticity is the lifeblood of our ability to do hard things together. I think we have to find ways of being both humble and like taking up less space, but also not disappearing in a way that is almost like sending a message. Like, we don't need you to look at our kid, cause like our kid's fine, which is like the ultimate form of privilege to be like, I have no worries about my kid. Like of course we worry about our kids. They're our kids, you know, and we don't have to demand a disproportionate amount of time or energy on behalf of the teachers in the classroom for our kids, but I think that felt like part of what she was getting at is just like, be real with me, like show up in a real way, even as you're trying to live this examined life and trying to like, not take up too much space.
Andrew: Yeah. It's another one of these like fine lines that's really hard to walk because the tendency is to take up too much space. Our expectations are that we should be allowed to take up too much space. So there's a way that you want to pull back on that, but, but this pendulum can't swing so far the other direction that you're silent, that you don't, that you don't exist in the space at all, because then what good is it for you being there in the first place?
Courtney Martin: I can see how our, our attempt to not ever take up space could also just be read as arrogance or just like not being vulnerable enough to be known. Like here we are coming to this space, wanting to know everybody else, but like, are we being vulnerable enough to be known?
Andrew: Yeah, no, I think the potential on the other side of it, I think like the reason it seems like it's worth trying to find that balance, you know, recognizing you're probably not going to always get it right, but the reason it's worth living into that is because I do think there is this like potential for more meaningful friendships and relationships that comes on the other side of it. They're not always easy. They don't always come right away.
I'm thinking particularly about your friendship with Ahma. You guys actually have a meaningful friendship now. And, and you didn't get there by not taking up any space. Right.
Like there, there was something in your vulnerability, in your curiosity, in your humility that allowed you to kind of get through that initial hump of, our lives are different, we come from different places, we have different feelings, you know, we, are approaching even this like idea of school integration in very different ways, but you're able to kind of get through that by, leaning into that discomfort and then arrive at this kind of beautiful friendship on the other side.
Courtney Martin: Which I think, ultimately, it was less about me proving that I didn't only care about my kid, and proving I genuinely care about all of these kids, right?
And, and of course she would have very earned cynicism about that. Any Black or Brown adult who's growing up in America, that’s like this White person is showing up pretending to care about everybody, like, I don't have a ton of evidence that that's usually the case. But that, for me, feels like part of what I've learned from her is she doesn't need me to not care about Maya, she just needs me to genuinely prove that I care about everybody.
Andrew: Right. So my kid will be fine is trying to say, I don't really care about my kid, which you know, is either like a lie or you're a sociopath, right? Like you clearly care about your kid. It’s either saying like, I have so much privilege that I don't worry about my kid or I'm like, pretending that I don't care about my kid in order to try to convey some message. And there's yeah, there's authenticity lost there. When really what somebody needs to hear to get to a place of a deeper, more meaningful friendship is like, I actually care. I care about my kid and I care about these other kids.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. And that's like, I dedicated the book to my daughter, Maya, who, by the way, could care less. She read it and was just like, whatever. But the dedication is, you know, to Maya, who's already my greatest teacher and deserves the best of everything, and to every other kid who is not her, who deserves just as much.
And that is really like where I come out and where, what I hope this book keeps bringing people back to is, we have to move through our own personal development to understand our own choices as White and privileged people, but how do we like continually come back to this collective notion of these are all of our kids.
And I do not want my kid or any other kid to witness me compartmentalizing, rationalizing how we can possibly live in a time in this country when we give kids such profoundly different experiences of educational access and equity and a chance at a thriving life, in however you define that.
But we do have to go through all of this, like personal, messy stuff to get there. The stuff that, as you said, makes my friends worried for me that I put it on the page because I just think, otherwise it, it feels too surface-y or too transactional.
Like this is, this is deep work, you know, to show up in multiracial community is pretty deep vulnerable work.
Andrew: Yeah. To me, it is, that's the work that matters. You know, you mentioned in the end of the conversation, how fragile democracy is, like, if we want to actually have a multiracial democracy, if we want to live into the promise of the country that we have not yet lived into, we have to do the messy personal work. And then we have to also be in multi-racial community and, and fighting for the good of everyone. Because they are all our kids, because if, if our kids do well, we all do well. Like we all benefit. There is the potential for us to all be better off if we can actually do it meaningfully.
Courtney Martin: Yeah. And then of course, I'm thinking like, and just laugh at yourself and try easier and have joy because here we, you know, we always get to this like deeply serious place. And the, the friendships I have formed have been so solidified by the joy and the laughing at myself, and the like figuring out what lights people up and joining them in their joy, and not always like making everything so freaking serious.
So that's, that's the flip side, right? Is that Ahma and I now have an ability to joke with each other and connect on a bunch of personal levels that have nothing to do with this like super serious integration conversation that we keep having.
Andrew: Yeah. Uh, it's a beautiful book. It's a beautiful conversation. Um, Ahma is a beautiful person. I'm so glad we got to meet her and I'm grateful to you for writing the book, for all that you do for helping push our country, in all of our little small ways, towards being better, towards being a true multi-racial democracy, and I’m really grateful for you for coming on and hosting with me.
Courtney Martin: Likewise, Andrew, this feels particularly full-circle because of what a profound influence Courtney has been on me. You know, Courtney did it best in terms of the light and the dark, and the laughing and the, the serious self examination. And so I feel like in our friendship, you know, is that seed that she planted. And so this is, this is for her too.
That was a long one, but thank you for sticking with us. If you'd like to support the Learning Forest, there's a link in the show notes. If you have great Black schools in your neighborhood, let us know about them on social media. We can help spread the word. As always, we welcome your feedback - [email protected]. You can support this work by joining our Patreon, patreon.com/integratedschools, and we will be back soon for the beginning of the next season.
As always, I'm grateful to be in this with you as I try to know better and do better.