Using Education Research to Disrupt Institutionalized Forms of Discrimination: A conversation with Whitneé L. Garrett-Walker

In this month’s Lead the Change interview Whitneé L. Garrett-Walker highlights challenges and opportunities for students and educators to work toward fostering systemic equity in schools through an understanding of the historical contexts of modern policy. Whitneé is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, Policy and Social Diversity at the Ontario institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Whitneé is a Black, Indigenous (enrolled member of Natchitoches Tribe of Louisiana) and Queer woman from the San Francisco Bay Area. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change (LtC): The 2023 AERA theme is “Interrogating Consequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth” and charges researchers and practitioners with creating and using education research to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination. The call urges scholars to challenge traditional methods of inquiry in order to create increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research that can be used by schools to develop informed policies and practices to better support students. What specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Whitnee L Garrett-Walker (WLGW): I think educational change scholars have a responsibility to be co-conspirators for the purposes of equity and social justice. We do not need more of the same kinds of research on change management, school transformation, and transformational leadership occurring in institutions that primarily serve historically marginalized youth and communities. We have enough research on traditional notions of leadership that are centered in white, heteronormative, ableist values. We need to see more research and intentionally diverse collaborations (diversity within identities as well as the folx leading/researching various educational contexts) to continue conversations of why we need critical leadership in our field to push social justice movements forward. This looks like intentional collaboration to change the field of educational change and our expectations of what we hope to give and receive from it as means to better build our collective future. For example, we need more research on the importance and responsibility of solidarity across our various identities. I talk more about that with some amazing colleagues and friends here: UnLeading Podcast: Leading Through Solidarities.

In terms of my own research, I come to this work as a former teacher, instructional coach, and school leader of 14 years in San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco, California. My research is deeply informed by my practice of being a Black, Indigenous (Natchitoches Tribe of Louisiana) and queer woman working in urban public schools. Given this, my research explores the experiences of racialized and gendered leaders and the ways in which they are defining their experiences, including their challenges, promise, and the potential of what is possible within the innovation of their leadership as well as their healing. I see my research as grounded in the ancestral, historical, and political context and understanding of what educational leadership looks like for Black, Indigenous women. I gather Black and Indigenous women and seek to learn from them because they are me, and I am them. I remain curious about their experiences as well as opportunities for solidarity as a model of what is possible for transforming the field of education, broadly. Their leadership, legacy of resistance, and critical hope are not just innovative, but pedagogical tools. My work is deeply connected to this call for the simple fact that my research subverts what has been and demands that we turn our eyes to what is possible.

LtC: You write about your experiences as a mother, a Black and Indigenous woman, a school leader, and a scholar, offering insights into the challenges and joys in balancing these identities, especially during global crises. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?

WLGW: As folx read my work, my hope is that they learn to humanize Black and Indigenous women and our experiences both in the world and in our work. We are whole people who are full of love, joy and the resistance of our ancestors shines through us and within our work inside and outside of schools/the academy. To tell our stories takes courage, as well as hope; not that someone will find us worthy, but so folx know that we exist as more than we’ve been caricatured to be. I think our SIG and field of educational change can learn much from my work and from the work of amazing colleagues and scholars before me. My hope is that folx gain more information and clarity about the experiences of historically and multiply marginalized practitioners to shift how we conduct research, engage with policy, lead the way on policy, and finally prepare new practitioners for the field. I do this by approaching my work from the space of movement-building, as opposed to the space of conducting research for the sake of conducting research. I conduct research for the sake of collective liberation from the harmful ways that whiteness, capitalism and other systems and structures of oppression have adversely impacted how we think about and engage with each other and educational leadership. My hope is that my colleagues and those who read my work will do the same.

LtC: In your work investigating the experiences of Black women in leadership, you use critical theories to guide your analysis. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners envision and implement a more just and inclusive education system for faculty, staff, students, and communities?

WLGW: Well, I think particularly through critical hope. In my dissertation study, I found that Black women continue to engage a legacy of resistance that is grounded in their desire to lead from a space that activates their ancestral legacy of resistance. Critical hope is what fuels their desire to transform learning outcomes for historically and multiply marginalized youth and keeps them in this work and to continue this work, they must engage in healing as ongoing. So much can be learned from these findings, regardless of your place in an educational institution. I think it is so powerful to read and empathize with people who do not look like you (or experience the world as you do) because it begins an important process of critical self-reflection, transforming your behavior, and building connections to rebuild the world as we know it.

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?

WLGW: It’s important to read, elevate, and center work that intentionally engages deeply in conversations that we need to have. For example, if you are a white scholar who is engaged in the work of educational change, who are you collaborating with? Who are you citing? How are these collaborations explicitly allowing for shifts in practice? How are you bringing these diverse authors and perspectives into your classroom? Another way to support the collective work toward equity is through directly incorporating the innovative scholarship of emerging scholars and practitioners who are multiply marginalized.  Most times, our work is not seen by those in our field without a tweet or a newsletter such as this. Educational change as a SIG and the field as a whole must center scholarship from multiply marginalized and historically marginalized peoples to transform how we think about each other and create meaningful opportunities for solidarity.

“My research subverts what has been and demands that we turn our eyes to what is possible.”

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

WLGW: I believe that our field is moving entirely too slowly in reference to the way we think/write and conduct scholarship about educational change. We are living during a powerful series of moments where everyone is clearly aware of how systems and structures of oppression are alive and well. COVID-19 has also shaped the way we’re engaging and thinking about the future of the public education system. There aren’t any additional excuses that can be provided as to why the harmful behavior of some continues to go unchecked or why we keep conducting research and publishing scholarly work that highlights inappropriate ways of how we write about and engage with certain populations. Educational Change as a field is in a special place where we have the power to shift language, behavior, and policy, and this is what excites me most about the future of our field and our SIG.

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