Collaborative Community-Based Research, Leadership, and Counter-Movements: A Conversation with Ethan Chang

This month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview features Ethan Chang’s discussion of his work on Collaborative Community-Based Research, social justice leadership, and counter-movementsChang is an assistant professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University.

Lead the Change: The 2022 AERA theme is Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century and charges researchers and practitioners with dismantling oppressive education systems and replacing them with anti-racist, equity, and justice-oriented systems.

To achieve these goals, researchers must engage in new methodologies, cross-disciplinary thinking, global perspectives, and community partnerships to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including the COVID-19 Pandemic and systemic racism among other persistent inequities.

Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems and reimagine new ways of
thinking and doing in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Ethan Chang: This is a big and important question. I would agree that there is consensus that we must all do more. But before asking what more we might do, I think there is a prior question: What have we as education scholars been doing? And to draw on Tuck (2009), have these various scholarly doings actually worked? In posing Tuck’s questions to myself and thinking about the urgent, but daunting work of dismantling oppressive systems, I choose to concentrate my work in three areas: (1) Collaborative Community Based Research (CCBR); (2) learning and social justice leadership development; and (3) critical studies of countermovements.

Collaborative Community-Based Research.

Collaborative, Community-Based Research (CCBR) is an approach to inquiry thatstrives to produce knowledge that emanates from, and isaccountable to, those historically excluded from knowledge production processes (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Glass et al., 2018; King, 2016; Kirshner, 2015). It
refuses prevailing theories of change that insist more and better knowledge automatically leads toward justice (Tuck, 2009). As a process and a product, CCBR facilitates new epistemic relations, identities, practices, and concepts to prefigure the kinds of futures we hope to bring into the world (Curnow et al., 2019).

One way that Leiʻala Okuda and I have taken up CCBR is by engaging in the political education project of “recuperación crítica” (critical recovery) or “harnessing historical interpretation to the formulation of organizing strategies” (Rappaport, 2020, p. 94). We had the privilege of sharing in the insights of elders and former youth activists whose community-based struggles sparked anti-eviction and ʻāina-based
movements throughout Hawaiʻi and the Pacific. In partnership with elder-activists-researchers, we have sought to understand how and why they became lifelong activists (c.f., Conner, 2014) and focused on the organizational environments in which they were inducted into movement work as one way to access this question. We have undertaken this work because we believe it will take intergenerational work to undo centuries of oppression. As Miʻkmaq scholars poignantly remind, social transformation requires “thinking seven generations ahead” (Julian, 2016). Our CCBR activities—hosting virtual events, crafting academic and popular articles, authoring new identities for ourselves and each other (Catania et al., 2021)—represent various ways that we have attempted to enact this long-term theory of change, particularly amid a global pandemic that has strained intergenerational ties.

“It will take intergenerational work to undo centuries of oppression.”

Social Justice Leadership.

Another way I understand how change happens is by cultivating broad-based, collective leadership. Many scholars have productively challenged traditional definitions of school leadership underpinned by military and corporate models of organizational administration (Ishimaru, 2019; McGhee & Anderson, 2019). My work aims to extend scholarship that pulls the field away from assumptions about leadership as an individual act of heroism and toward models of leadership as a praxis of organizing (Ishimaru, 2013); that is, an exercise of analysis and action that co-designs bold and transformative visions of community self-determination and emphasizes building the leadership capacities of others (Anderson, 2009; Anderson & Chang, 2018; Awaachia’ookaate’ & Chang, 2020; Lac & Mansfield, 2018). We have been particularly inspired by Horsford (2012) and her scholarship that amplifies the lessons and insights of Black women leaders and educators like Ella Baker and Septima Clark. We feel there is so much to gain and so little to lose by turning to fields beyond education such as Social Movement, Black, Indigenous, Chicanx, and Asian American Studies. These fields offer generative locations for thinking about how change happens and how we might dedicate ourselves to meaningful projects of education
and social transformation in our lifetimes.


In my scholarship, I have also focused my energies on countermovements, or movements that aim to
undermine gains made by progressive social movements (Meyer & Staggenborg, 1996). Over the past several years, we have witnessed Blue Lives Matter rallies surface in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. We have also observed symbolic performances like the 1776 Commission emerge in response to expansive curricula developments like the 1619 Project (Hannah-Jones, 2019). These possessive investments in status quo racial hierarchies are not new (Harris, 1993; Lipsitz, 2006). But my
work has sought to illumine how these patterns of retrenchment play out on the shifting terrain of education politics today.

As one example, I studied an oppositional movement to Ethnic Studies, which is an interdisciplinary curricula and pedagogy that centers the insights of Black, Indigenous, and minoritized peoples (Cuauhtin et al., 2019). I spent extended time with white parents in a California suburb and attempted to understand how they positioned Ethnic Studies as “anti-American” and “anti-White,” forged a strategic coalition with disability advocates, and digitally sutured or bound their local countermovement to broader right-wing populist currents (Chang, in press). Telling the story of one local countermovement offers potential ways of comprehending, anticipating, and, as I ultimately concluded, weathering the next countermovement.

Each of these strands of inquiry cohere around a theory of change rooted in the lessons and insights of social movements. These projects have afforded productive tools and concepts to resist a swift desire to “do more,” and instead, to move with a sustainable (and sustaining) sense of urgency to build more humanizing and liberatory educational spaces.

LtC: What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change might learn from your work and experience on critical analyses of education technology?

EC: My studies on EdTech raise similar questions about how we think change happens (Tuck, 2009). If there is one lesson I hope this work raises, it is that our imagined futures of a “twenty-first century education” demand attention to past and present realities of racism. My work in this space investigated how the institutional field of EdTech unevenly rewarded those actors and organizations who distanced themselves from acknowledging systemic oppression (Chang, 2019). In a familiar tale of American innovation, organizations who received significant funding and media attention were those who championed reform narratives about “fixing” the individual child in preparation for tomorrow’s society
(Chang, 2020; see also, Katz, 2020; Sims, 2017). By contrast, those who utilized digital tools to cultivate youth critical consciousness—to examine the historical formation of present inequities in an effort to
dismantle them—were underpaid, undervalued, and burdened by the day-to-day demands of organizational survival.

Like some of my current work on countermovements, this thread of inquiry into the EdTech landscape has proven profoundly ahistorical and deeply sobering. Most digital innovations rarely paid attention to “educational debts” that we know impact educational outcomes (e.g., adequate housing, nutritious foods, livable wages, to name a few; Ladson-Billings, 2006). Still, what keeps me returning to questions of digital technologies are pockets of hope and resistance such as cases in which youth appropriate digital tools for their own ends such as utilizing Google mapping technologies or social media platforms to build organizing power in their communities (Akom et al., 2016; Emejulu & McGregor, 2017). Our CCBR work aims to extend these insights. We seek to use digital tools to reconnect with prior generations of activists, leverage cloud-based platforms to cultivate place-based leadership, and co-create education and social futures rooted in the lessons of past struggles.

“Let’s move with a sustainable (and sustaining) sense of urgency to build more humanizing and liberatory educational spaces.”

LtC: In some of your recent work, you discuss the barriers to developing justice-oriented leadership development programs (i.e., moving beyond individual texts or courses to renovate entire learning ecologies). Your exploration of Highlander offers a number of lessons for leadership preparation programs. What would you consider as some of the most important lessons?

EC: The Highlander Research and Education Center (founded in 1932 as the Highlander Folk School) is an invitational, residential adult learning center for labor, educational, civil rights, environmental, and grassroots community leaders. It dramatically shaped the trajectory of U.S. history and culture, and for over the past century, survived and thrived amid ongoing state and vigilante attacks. Our work on Highlander surfaced in response to a white supremacist arson attack on the center in March of 2019 (Chang & Glass, 2021). We understood “recuperación crítica” (critical recovery) as one way to counter white supremacists’ literal attempts to erase Highlander. But in addition to studying Highlander on its own terms, we approached the school as a potentially illustrative case to “re-envision the ‘how’ and ‘who’ of leadership preparation” (Bertrand & Rodela, 2018, p. 28).

One of the lessons we feel Highlander offers is the power of bold, transformative visions, or what Kelley (2002) might call “freedom dreams.” Co-founder of Highlander, Myles Horton, put it this way: “You can’t develop any valuable leadership if you don’t teach people that they can deal with big problems” (Horton, 1990, p. 147). For Highlander, these big problems included Jim Crow segregation, poverty wages, environmental pollution (among others). This lesson is particularly urgent given the ways educational administration programs can, at times, focus on the small, technical, and managerial aspects of leadership. One of my strongest students recently graduated from our program and decided not to become a principal. She felt the state department of education kept principals “busy with mandates” and sought alternative organizational contexts to enact the kinds of leadership she felt in her naʻau (her gut; see Meyer, 1998). I offer these observations not to diminish the incredible and transformative work of school leaders, but to point the arrow back at my own teaching and scholarship and ask: How am I preparing aspiring education leaders to engage with “big problems”? In what ways am I working to transform the organizational contexts of schooling that so often discourage promising individuals from becoming formal school leaders? For me, Highlander provided a way to clarify the costs we pay, and the valuable people we lose, when we do not cultivate the conditions for aspiring education leaders to deal with big problems.

But Highlander also offers insight into how organizations might adapt to the ways big problems shift over time. Black woman activist, educator, and singer, Bernice Johnson Reagon, observed that Highlander possessed a remarkable ability to “move through time” (Phenix & Selver, 2009). Insights from unfolding social movements—for race, gender, sex, environmental, immigrant, and Indigenous rights (to name a few)—directly informed the organizational roles and routines at Highlander. By actively recruiting individuals that community members identified as leaders, Highlander invited students to infuse organizational structures with their values (Selznick, 1948). In this way, Highlander offers a concrete example of a leadership learning ecology rooted in and responsive to progressive social movements.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

EC: Like the first question, this question raises two prior concerns for me: first, regarding schooling as a privileged site of inquiry; and second, concerning how researchers might meaningfully support educators, activists, and organizers in ways that trouble an historical paternalism in our field.

“Highlander invited students to infuse organizational structures with their values.”

In the first instance, we know that schooling is only one way to organize teaching and learning (Varenne & McDermott, 1999). Nearly thirty years ago, Tyack and Tobin (1994) conceptualized the “grammar” of schooling to name the taken-for-granted school practices such as the single-subject, age-segregated classroom (p. 454). Like the grammar of speech that organizes meaning in language, the grammar of schooling organizes the everyday practices of teaching and learning in schools (Beckham, 2019; Mehta & Datnow, 2020). When we think of “deep and often difficult transformation” then, it involves changing this grammar. It entails rewriting inherited cultural scripts that so often reduce radical education reform ideas into modest additions to the everyday practice of schooling.

In contrast to studies that operate within the grammar of schooling, rich and exciting education scholarship has focused on learning in social movement (Curnow et al., 2019; Jurow et al., 2014; Shield et al., 2021) and community-based spaces (Baldridge, 2019; Terriquez & Serrano, 2018). Of course, these spaces are not insulated from oppressive roles or routines (Baldridge, 2020; Clay & Turner, 2021). But these studies allow us to consider— or perhaps more accurately, to recover— alternative grammars of teaching and learning such as learning spaces in which classrooms become intergenerational learning circles, teachers identify as relatives, or worksheets are replaced by visits with community elders (Kahakalau, 2020; Shield et al., 2021). These educational spaces represent promising local nodes for building and sustaining a national movement for education justice (Warren, 2018); one capable of realizing more than symbolic additions to the grammar of schooling (Rincón-Gallardo, 2019).

“Leadership as accompaniment stands in solidarity with youth and their struggles for a more dignified and just world.”

This question also raises important tensions concerning the meanings of “support” and the modes of association between “researchers” and the “researched” and between education leaders and the families and young people they aim to serve. Rebeca Gamez and I have been thinking through the idea of leadership as accompaniment as one way to specify social justice leadership in relation to youth activists. Accompaniment is a praxis drawn from social movement and abolitionist studies (Mei-Singh, 2021; Tomlinson & Lipsitz, 2019; Watkins, 2019). Like musical accompaniment, “It starts with careful listening, empathy, and identification” and “involves augmenting, accenting, and countering one musical voice with others” (Tomlinson & Lipsitz, 2019, p. 27). Educational leadership as accompaniment foregrounds an ethic of listening, attends to dominant forms of exclusion, and stands in solidarity with youth and their struggles for a more dignified and just world (Chang & Gamez, 2022). Awaachia’ookaate’ and I have also been interested in notions of accompaniment and aim to think through the challenges and risks inherent in articulating accompaniment toward decolonial ends (Awaachia’ookaate’ & Chang, 2020; c.f., Mackey et al., 2020). Across our projects, we aim to hold ourselves accountable for any recommendations we might pose to education leaders. In the words of Lugg and Shoho (2006): “To advocate for social justice, while being risk-adverse in practice, is the worst sort of professional hypocrisy (p. 205). We approach accompaniment as a generative research praxis that moves us to foreground deep listening and stand in solidarity with those whose lives and expertise have been historically disregarded.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

I prefer not to speculate on where the field of Educational Change is going but can comment on what excites me and where I hope the field might be heading. One hope is that CCBR will gain increasing legitimacy but in ways that resist shallow inclusion into academia. Scholarship that aims to produce knowledge that is answerable to those with most at stake, that values humanizing processes in addition to products, that is committed to a radical reflexivity is needed now more than ever. Engaged scholars like Sheeva Sabati, Emily Borg, Chrissy Hernandez, Saugher Nojan, Farima Pour-Khorshid, George Lipsitz, Diane Fujino, and Ron Glass are doing impactful work in this area. These scholars understand CCBR as a valuable methodology for producing rigorous and relevant scholarship and insist on CCBR’s foundational political commitments to intervene in the cultural and material contexts of injustice.

Another direction that I hope to see more of in Educational Change scholarship are studies that take seriously the lessons of past and unfolding social movements. Skeptics might comprehend this direction of inquiry as impractical or even impossible amid a global pandemic that has exhausted our school leaders and educators. But it is precisely this exhaustion that speaks to a need for something other than individual models of heroic leadership. In their analysis of the common activist statement, “I’m exhausted,” Emejulu and Bassel (2020) examine the social structures that demand exhaustion and exact a toll on the minds and bodies of women of color (p. 402). One social structure pertains to a patterned refusal to take women of color’sinsights seriously. Activists are exhausted because we keep rehearsing old missteps and mistakes. We continue to insist that we can build futures premised on the oppression of others or remain fearful of our differences instead of leveraging them as sources of collective strength (c.f., Hernandez et al., in press; Surviving Society, 2021). Education research that engages past and present movements can help us reach beyond this exhausting normal. I hope to continue to be a part of conversations that animate these important insights and build toward more humanizing and liberatory educational spaces.

The LtC series is produced by the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research AssociationJennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

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