Education actually saved me, and for that reason I’ve always wanted to be in education.
I grew up in Southwest Philly, and especially coming from a big family (four brothers, three sisters) and a community where violence and incarceration and sexual health are just really important areas, I grew up always wanting to help people and educate them. I came to New Orleans in 2017- after I’d finished teaching English (sixth and eighth grade) in Philly- and through the Urban Leaders Fellowship I was introduced to the city by working with School Board member Ethan Ashley and the City’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability. I was working on these big picture issues that actually mattered to me. I think that’s what captured me. Nowadays most of the time I'm working with educators. I train them to implement sex ed to their students, which is something that we've recently started but is really expanding and has really been able to allow students and specific populations of students to access sex-ed. When I do engage directly with youth it's through teaching sex-ed to them with our CrAFT curriculum or through outreach with our HIV Testing and Prevention program.
After leaving my job as a classroom teacher, I had to reconceptualize what it meant to work in education. Working in education means working in law. It means working in housing. It means working in policy. and many more areas - because they all come together to educate our youth. Working in health is no different. We live in a place where natural disasters are common, and we know that they affect both our health and our mental well-being. We also know that we live in the mass incarceration capital of the world, and we're able to contextualize and understand that all of these things come together to affect our students on levels that might be much higher than they are in other cities. New Orleans is a really small city. when we're talking about people being arrested or incarcerated at these really, really high rates, then that affects the community that's so small as this one, on a micro and a macro level. People have a strong sense of community with one another and we know that with our students and with our kids you can have an uncle, a friend, a brother, a mother, a sister, an aunt be impacted by violence and even if it didn't necessarily happen to you, but it happened to your neighbor, or your friend, or your mom's friend or aunt, who you call your cousin - then that's an experience that you take on and that's a burden that our people and our students do have. I think trauma-informed programming or a trauma-informed framework is essential in the work that we do because it acknowledges our students and our youth as humans, and I think that that is at the very basis what everybody needs, to be acknowledged as a human being and to know that adverse life experiences (those in the ACEs study) are actually common.
One of the biggest impacts of trauma on the youth that I work with is how it plays out in the classroom in terms of discipline and “behavior” problems. Sometimes that looks like not being able to sit still in your seat. It can also show up as not having the desire to want to listen to authority figures that aren't your mom or aren't your dad, and then if a kid is like me and they didn't have a dad, if they're looking at this authority figure who might be a male it’s like, “Why is this man telling me what to do?’
Sometimes schools don't always acknowledge the trauma youth experience, which can be damaging to students when adults don’t understand or recognize where they're coming from. They may also have a power structure where there are teachers at the top and then students below, and if there are people in positions of power or authority that abuse it, they are likely to remind the people who are “underneath” (i.e., the students) that they don't have the power. So, there’s a sense of powerlessness that derives from the trauma, and students may try to take back their power while teachers may want to hold onto it, which results in things like talking back, yelling, screaming, walking out, etc. And with our school systems and our discipline systems now, that can lead to a suspension, an expulsion, in school suspension, getting kicked out of the classroom, walking out of the classroom and just roaming around the halls and then ending up in jail, which may put you out of the school system permanently.
I explored this entire concept and theory when I was in Philly doing my master’s thesis, and oftentimes through interviews with students most of the things that would really get to them and cause them to react even stronger was when teachers accused them of things that they didn't necessarily do. Another issue was teachers talking at them, rather than talking to them. They wanted people to just talk to them, they wanted to be able to have a voice - and I think that's something that I always tried to do and still try to do as a teacher, as an educator and as a person, is to listen to people, because everybody wants to be heard. When you take the time to actually listen to a student - whether it's verbally or having them write it out - then you realize what that student actually wanted, and that could be that they just weren't feeling well. Like sometimes we're not asking, “Are you feeling OK?” I had a student who came in the class, wasn't necessarily listening, but her dad had got locked up that morning and so, if you don't have that conversation, then you don't find that out and then again you're taking that power from the student rather than giving it back to them by allowing them to have that voice.