Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies: a Four Part Series

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I don’t think there would be much opposition to the following statement:


Social hierarchies of any kind result in oppression. Period.


When I teach my sixth graders about ancient history, one of the first concepts I introduce them to is that of the social hierarchy compared to the ideas of tribalism and egalitarianism. Haters will say, “But, wait! Ancient tribal societies were not egalitarian!” Yes, I know this, that’s why I said, “tribalism and egalitarianism.” While I know that many tribal structures include some type of a hierarchy, it is much less rigid than the hierarchies created by larger civilizations.




Francis Fukiyama, in his book The Origins of Political Order; From prehuman times to the French Revolution, does a great job of breaking down the differences between tribal and state governments. He does this mostly by describing the different ways in which personal property was valued, regulated, and shared. In tribal societies, personal property, mostly in the form of land holdings, was strategically traded between tribes, usually through marriage arrangements. Using this method required a sense of community and trust between different tribal governments. Yes, there were gender hierarchies and class hierarchies, but there was still a sense of family and community because of the cooperation between tribes. The leaders were in community and were familiar with the community, if not liked or loved by them. Leaders who lost the trust of the community lost power.


Fukiyama compares three ancient cultures and outlines when and why they went from tribal governments to state governments. All three, China, India, and Europe, started with tribal governments. The shift to state government came in waves in China because the tribal organization was so deep and the geography so wide. India remained largely tribal until it was invaded and occupied by European nation-states. Interestingly, Fukiyama points out that Europe’s transformation was the swiftest and strongest because of Christianity. Individualism, as discussed in the last blog post, and adherence to law are two important tenets of Christianity, especially after Reformation, and since early monarchies and Church leadership were virtually inseparable, Church law was law. This created a shift in how personal property was defined. It became more of an individual ownership and not something that is shared within community or to build alliances between communities. It laid the foundations for capitalism and individual gain over the common good. It also set the leaders apart from the people. Power was transferred to wealth instead of community agreements.


Through invasion, occupation, and colonization, other cultures eventually took on similar state governments creating the social hierarchies we are familiar with today: capitalist oligarchies, totalitarian dictatorships, constitutional monarchies, democratic socialism, etc. Those are just the state hierarchies. There are still the gender and class hierarchies, and we’ve added racial hierarchies. There are institutional hierarchies as well. I want to address the last few here, but as you can see… it’s going to take a while, which is why I’ve split this topic into a four part series.




In part one of this series, I want to begin to argue that decolonizing our schools can’t happen unless we actively work to dismantle these hierarchies. No, I’m not asking you to dismantle capitalist oligarchies (though I believe if we do what I am suggesting, that will be a natural consequence). I am asking you to actively work to dismantle racial, class, gender, and institutional hierarchies in the classroom, in your school building, and in your school district. Until we do, we are still colonizing our students and each other. I will start with the classroom. Part two will address school and district-wide hierarchies, part three will address higher education, specifically in school administration preparation programs, and part four will be a reflection on how I’ve worked to dismantle hierarchies in my classroom.


Paolo Friere tells us that liberation requires a “praxis.” This can be defined as “theory in practice.” Recently, I learned from the leaders of the Mexican-American studies program in Tucson that the Aztec word for this is Huitzilopochtli, which translates to “hummingbird on the left.” It is taken to mean acting from the heart. Friere writes at length about what it takes to be a revolutionary leader. He says, “… but leaders who deny praxis to the oppressed thereby invalidate their own praxis… Revolutionary praxis is a unity, and the leaders cannot treat the oppressed as their possession.” How can leaders act from the heart if they are not only detached completely from the people they are trying to lead, but also feel they know better than the people? I, and Friere, argue that it’s impossible. That’s not leadership. That’s oppression, and the only way to avoid it is to dismantle the barriers created by hierarchies.


In the classroom, we are the leaders. We can further oppress our students, or lead them to praxis through education. I recognize that there are many of us in the profession who are box checkers. We show up, we check off the boxes for the standards we covered, and check off the boxes in our scope and sequence map, we collect a paycheck, and take our summer vacations. This is my official call to action: if you are this educator immediately cease and desist this practice! If you work with educators like this immediately organize educators who believe this is immoral and push those educators to immediately cease and desist their practice! Box checking educators are funneling our children into prisons, poverty, drugs, streets, and police brutality. Box checking educators are responsible for the rise of fascism in the United States. Box checking educators are killing public education.


We need to return to tribal values of community and cooperation through praxis and egalitarianism in our own practice. We must recognize that our students, regardless of age or ability, come into our classroom with an astounding wealth of knowledge, and for most of their lives, they have been told that their knowledge is not valid or invaluable simply because of their age. I am saying that this is a hierarchy; an institutional hierarchy, yes, because a classroom is part of a larger institution, but also an hierarchy based on age and perceived knowledge. I’ll go deeper into the perceived knowledge hierarchy in part three.




One of the first messages I give my students is that I see them. I see their lived experiences, and I value them as educators. I explain that I am at the front of the room only because I have the privileges of age and formal education, and that in no way makes me or my knowledge superior to theirs. I also share how much I love to learn with and from my students.


Dismantling hierarchies in the classroom requires a complete shift on the definition of knowledge. The human brain is wired to perceive the world and process knowledge through culture. From the moment we are born, how we interpret our experiences is painted by the culture we’re born into. Unfortunately, when we go to school to learn, we are expected to check those cultural perceptions at the door and allow teachers to fill our heads with the perceptions of white American cultural “knowledge.” Our brains become colonized.


I think it’s impossible for every educator to learn the culture of every student that is in front of us, and the beautiful consequence of dismantling age and knowledge hierarchies is that we don’t have to! Our students have what Dr. Anita Fernández refers to as “cultural wealth.” They bring with them all of the cultural knowledge and experiences of their communities. Learn from them! Don’t invalidate their knowledge! Utilize it! Value it! Teach your students the value of having diverse perspectives when solving problems and analyzing their world. You are there to give them resources and guide them. You’re not giving them wisdom, knowledge, or even a lens through which to see the world. They came to you already equipped with those things, but part of our own education has told us that they are ill equipped if it’s not the white way of doing things, and that children aren’t sophisticated enough to already have skills that we deem valuable.




One thing I do think all educators have the responsibility to do is love their students. I love my students. I love who they are when they come to me. I love what they teach me and the joy they bring to my life. I love when they’re challenging and they push me to be a better human being. In order to fully dismantle hierarchies in the classroom we must love our students unconditionally. I have literally been laughed at in the past for suggesting this. It goes against what we’re taught – to be objective. Here’s another call to action: if you can’t love your students, get another job! If you know educators that don’t love their students, counsel them out of the profession!


If we don’t love and value our students, they won’t trust us as leaders. This is where we lose our kids. This is how we are funneling them into prisons or worse. Love your students! Be a valuable member of the classroom community. Don’t be a figurehead lecturing from behind a desk. Be with them. Learn with them. Commune with them. It’s not some hippy bullshit. It’s how we are meant to engage as human beings. Teaching and learning are part of the human experience, not some sterile, objective process.


Through unconditional love we can fully value the cultural wealth that our students bring to us and each other. When we love our students we see and build on their humanity, which is my goal as an educator. I’m not here to check boxes or prepare students for “college and beyond.” My goal is to grow human beings who value their humanity and the humanity of others. We’ve lost sight of that in education for a lot of reasons, mostly corporate ed reform, but that’s a blog post for another time.


By practicing unconditional love and valuing the humanity of our students we are modeling the kind of human beings we want them to be – not become! Emphasis on now. Part of dismantling the hierarchy is showing students that their cultural wealth can be put to use now, not when they graduate or turn eighteen. They can change their world now. In kindergarten? Change how they treat one another. In 6th grade? Change school policies. In 11th grade? Change laws and perceptions in their community. Dismantling classroom hierarchies through loving and valuing our students means empowering them to be change makers now, not after it’s too late.


Come back next week for part two of Decolonizing Education Through Dismantling Hierarchies: Dismantling Building and District-Wide Hierarchies

Christianity and Colonization

The next few blog posts will probably be on the subject of decolonizing education. It’s the summer; the time when educators do most of our learning and reflecting. I’m currently in Tucson, Arizona, where I have the great privilege of learning from the educators of the banned Mexican American/Raza Studies program. I’m learning a lot about myself and how colonization has created a need for Ethnic Studies and the need to decolonize the way we teach in our schools.


I chose this topic to write about today because … you know how sometimes you have these ideas or conversations where you know you’re on to something, but you can’t quite see it clearly, and then it’s like the stars align and new knowledge lights the darkened path you’ve been walking? That’s the experience I had today. It’s like an affirmation, or the glue you were looking for to put the puzzle in your brain together. It also makes you feel less crazy, because someone else “gets it.”


In my Google drive, I have all of these Google docs with ideas for blog posts. Is that what “good” bloggers do? Maybe it’s just me… Anyway, I had one with notes on writing about the role Christianity plays in colonizing the minds of the oppressed, particularly in Chicanx people. The only thing my notes said were, “Christianity is the shield. Colonization is the sword.”


In a workshop today led by Dr. Elias Serna, I was introduced to this quote by Eduardo Galeano:


“Vinieron. Ellos tenían la Biblia y nosotros teníamos la tierra. Y nos dijeron: ‘Cierren los ojos y recen.’ Y cuando abrimos los ojos, ellos tenían la tierra y nosotros teníamos la Biblia.”


“They arrived. They had the Bible and we had the land. They spoke to us: ‘Close your eyes and pray.’ And when we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible.”


Dr. Serna asked, “What does this mean?”


I raised my hand and said, “Christianity is the shield and colonization is the sword,” and we had this moment of connection in which we both knew we were on the same thought plane.


Dr. Serna began this section of his lecture almost apologetically, because it seems to be a taboo topic, but it’s something I’ve always struggled with personally and in my teaching practice. How can we have a truly critical, liberatory pedagogy without critically analyzing the role that religion, specifically Christianity, played – and continues to play – in colonizing our minds?


Currently I am an atheist. I say, “currently,” because I recognize that I am a reflective human being and that ideologies and belief structures should change when we are presented with new knowledge. One reason I am an atheist is because I learned the history of the genocidal roots of Christianity, not just in Mesoamerica, but all over the world. I could not reconcile the act of being Christian with the fact that Christianity justified physical genocide, cultural genocide, femicide, and slavery. Not to mention the killing of science and reason. Is there a “cide” word for that? If not, I’ll invent one here: cognocide.


The anti-intellectualism coming from the right is a continuation of this cognocide. People have abandoned their humanity because the cognocidal arm of Christianity continues to take its toll. From a decolonizing standpoint, Christianity has taught us to turn away from the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors in favor of blind faith in a religion that tells us a mythical being holds all knowledge and truth, and that this being’s version of the “truth” includes all of the violence previously mentioned.


The legacies of Calvinism and reformation – meritocracy and individualism – have destroyed indigenous ideals of community, family, and collectivism. These beliefs open the door wide open to justifying the dehumanization of “others,” including the poor, and we are currently seeing it being used as a shield for the sword of abducting children from their parents and denying refuge to people seeking our help.


I struggle with this in my practice, because I believe with all of my heart in critical consciousness and teaching for liberation, and my students, the majority of whom are people of color, consistently rank their Christian, Muslim, or Jewish faith as an integral part of their cultural identity. How do we critique the role of religion in the ongoing process of colonization and oppression in such a way that does not further marginalize and oppress these students?


My hope in writing is that I never come across as having all of the answers. I hope that my writing leads readers down their own path of introspection, and that’s the purpose of this post. If we aren’t including a critical analysis of the role religion plays in colonization, specifically Christianity, are we doing it right?

Decolonizing Curriculum on the 4th of July

On this 4th of July, during a moment in history in which we see massive protests against a racist presidential administration, I have been giving extra thought on how to “decolonize” curriculum through Ethnic Studies. The longer Trump is president, the more urgent this task seems to be. Today, July 4th, 2018, is weighing heavy in my thoughts.


Tomorrow, I fly from Southern California to Tucson, Arizona to attend the XITO Institute. There I will learn about Mexican-American studies and techniques to implement a district wide K-12 Ethnic Studies program in Seattle Public Schools. Part of the language being used in Ethnic Studies circles is “decolonize.” Our aim is to decolonize the curriculum, thereby decolonizing our minds. I often say that people who don’t “get it” are “colonized,” meaning that their culture and social paradigms are dominated by the Master Narrative.


As I sat in a restaurant drinking coffee this morning, I observed patrons wearing their red, white, and blue. Not only white patrons, though. Being in Southern California means that white Americans are the minority. Many of the Latinx patrons were also proudly sporting American colors as our Latinx brothers and sisters are being detained and torn from their families. It’s because they, or their ancestors, came for the “American Dream.” They believe that it’s still possible to do better for their progeny, even if our country is currently in turmoil. I believe the possibility is still there if we fight, and Ethnic Studies is part of that fight. The question I’m wrestling with today is, “At whose expense?”


Recently, a colleague of mine sent me an article entitled, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. Most the content of the article I’ve heard of before and considered in my work on Ethnic Studies, but the crux of the argument is that people of color cannot talk about decolonization without realizing that they are colonizers themselves.


The impossibility of fully becoming a white settler – in this case, white referring to an exceptionalized position with assumed rights to invulnerability and legal supremacy – as articulated by minority literature preoccupied with “glass ceilings” and “forever foreign” status and “myth of the model minority”, offers a strong critique of the myth of the democratic nation-state. However, its logical endpoint, the attainment of equal legal and cultural entitlements, is actually an investment in settler colonialism. Indeed, even the ability to be a minority citizen in the settler nation means an option to become a brown settler. For many people of color, becoming a subordinate settler is an option even when becoming white is not.


As a biracial woman, this resonated with me more than the other ways in which colonizers try to deny their colonial status. As a Mexican-American woman, I can claim North American indigeneity, but I also have European ancestry. How do I reconcile this with the fact that, either way, I benefit from colonization of Native American land, people, and culture?


The authors also argue that solidarity amongst “colonized” groups creates a vague sense of oppression that glosses over the fact that we are colonized on stolen land. How do we honor that and decolonize education? My goal is not to “decolonize” in the broad sense, which would require returning land to sovereign Native tribes. That is both beyond the scope of my ability, and something that I won’t claim an expertise for. But decolonizing curriculum? I believe that’s possible, and I want to do it in such a way that recognizes we are all settlers. The fact that I am able to write this blog means that I have some degree of privilege granted to me by settlers. I’m benefitting from colonialism as I criticize the Fourth of July holiday.

My Number One Priority as an Educator

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Below is an essay I wrote for the Teacher of the Year application. My colleagues and I have been accused of “pimping” students of color in order to push our agenda. I guess that is supposed to mean that we don’t actually care about the kids. Fortunately, I think most people who know me would disagree with that; however, I understand the sentiment. I feel that way about white passive progressives who use kids of color to argue in favor of fully funding education. People who argue that money will fix racial disparities don’t understand the history of racial injustice in our country.

The prompt I was asked to respond to is, “What do you consider to be a major public education issue today? Describe why this is important to you. How are you addressing this issue from your classroom?”

Racial equity is the number one educational issue of our time. Every other issue that has come forward is about racial equity, even if nobody likes to admit it. Students of color are impacted to a greater degree by things like funding, tracking, special education, support services, high-stakes testing, culturally responsive teaching, discipline, graduation rates, etc.

As a woman of color, this issue is important to me for what should be obvious reasons, but it is also important to me because I teach in a school with mostly students of color. I see, every day, how racial inequity affects their ability to learn, but most importantly, their ability to see themselves as learners. There are a lot of social inequities that cannot be solved by teaching and school policy alone, but that is no reason for inaction. Educators have a moral obligation to examine their own part in systemic injustice and the school to prison pipeline that is funneling our Black and Brown students straight from our care into the care of the State.

In Washington, there is currently a lot of talk and organizing around fully funding our schools. Many people pin racial equity to this ideal of what fully funded schools look like. Without a racial equity lens to full funds, however, racial equity is only lip service. Fully funding from a racial equity lens includes money set aside to recruit, educate, and retain educators of color. Full funding with a racial equity lens will include professional development on things like critical race theory and racial identity development for all educators. Racially equitable funding will include entire programs and departments in each school district dedicated to racial equity initiatives that are fully staffed with the capacity to serve each building in their district. Unless state funding includes those things and more, schools will not be funded to end racial disparities. The same old policies and programs will perpetuate some of the worst disparities in the nation, the only difference being a larger budget to support them.

I believe in the power of grass roots and collective organizing for change. My number one priority is to interrupt racial injustice in practice and educate my students about the laws and policies that continue to oppress them in their neighborhoods and education system. Our generation cannot have a sustainable solution to this issue unless the generations that come after us are equipped to continue the fight. I do this through creating lessons on social and racial justice, upending the Euro-centric Master Narrative, and teaching the true history of power and oppression in the United States and the colonial world. I want all young people to have the skills to identify and dismantle racial and social injustices wherever they are found. I challenge my students to question every semblance of power and authority and to see themselves as agents of change, with their own power, who are capable of continuing the work that their idols and mentors have begun.

Day 1

This isn’t really a blog post. It’s me making a commitment to create a blog post once a week. If you haven’t read it yet, check out the home page to get an idea of who I am, then check back weekly to learn more!