Thursday, June 13, 2013

You Must See, Hear and Read This Speech about Love

Cecilia Cissell Lucas at UC Berkeley on May 19, 2013

A remarkable young woman named Cecilia Cissell Lucas delivered this moving speech last month at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education commencement ceremonies. Thanks to Mares Hirchert, a peace activist and Facebook friend, I was able to obtain permission to repost it here:

Good afternoon! Thank you all for being here, and for all of your support for one another over the years. And thank you also to those who would like to be here today, but could not. This includes my Mom, who always made fun of me for taking forever to graduate -- but she passed away a couple of years ago and I am missing her today.

Of course, death is not the only thing that keeps people apart. Friends and families are ripped apart every day in this country due to an immigration system which criminalizes and deports people without “documentation”; and due to a prison industrial complex which disproportionately criminalizes and locks up dark-skinned people.

I raise these issues at an education graduation not only to honor those who may not be able to be with us today, but to raise the question of what it means for educators to be there for and with our students.

I think the answer to this question is, simply: to love. Simple, but not easy. Love is a discipline that must be practiced rigorously, and often involves taking risks.

Bell hooks has argued that where there is domination, love is impossible because domination is the opposite of love. To love, then, means being committed to bringing about justice.

This is also a pragmatic issue in our classrooms, if we are concerned with equity. We know that social policies and structures impact our students. Poverty, hunger, and housing insecurity impact a person’s ability to learn. So do the daily micro- and macro-aggressions of racism, nationalism, sexism and homophobia – all of which are systems of domination. These issues require our engagement beyond the classroom. But as educators, we should also interrogate the ways in which our curricula, pedagogies, disciplinary practices and school policies are supporting and justifying, rather than countering, economic and social systems of domination.

For example, I am inspired by the strong and growing movement against high stakes standardized testing. However, aren’t all tests -- and isn’t grading itself -- “high stakes” in the context of a society that thinks it is okay to discriminate on the basis of educational achievement?

All of us know that while, yes, we worked hard to get into UC Berkeley and to be here graduating today, this does not necessarily make us any smarter or more hard-working than others who do not have these degrees. And certainly our credentials do not make us more or less worthy as human beings. But that is what our society teaches us when our credentials are correlated with greater income and greater positions of power and influence.

There is a movement for “college for all” – but even if everyone were to get a PhD, does this mean that there would miraculously be enough well-paying and meaningful jobs available for everyone? We are told we need to improve our schools so that we remain “globally competitive” and that we are being responsible parents when, if we have the resources, we remove our kids from public schools or insist on AP and honors tracks within schools – but what does this say about our attitude towards the worth of children in other countries, poor children and/or children who are left out of honors and AP?

In a ranked system there is no such thing as “no child left behind” because ranking means some people’s success depends on others being less successful; the term “race to the top” is at least more honest.

Can we refuse to participate in a system which brutalizes so many of our students in this way, and reclaim schools for the kinds of learning that can help us build more just and loving societies?

We deal with many institutional constraints, but we are not helpless. Many people are working to create change using a range of strategies: direct resistance, subversive actions under the radar, acquiring positions of decision-making power, and creating alternative institutions.

Regardless of the strategies, we need to remain aware of the ways in which we compromise with oppressive practices. And we need to be doing this work in collaboration with our students and communities because we need all of our efforts and insights to shift from a norm of domination to a norm of love.

This rigorous discipline of love also requires learning to distinguish between liberatory and oppressive perspectives. This means teachers should not attempt to be neutral. There is no such thing as neutrality. That which appears neutral typically appears that way because it resembles the norm. But when the norm is characterized by domination, that is what we end up supporting when we attempt to be neutral.

While I am raising many difficult issues, I am actually quite hopeful. Cornel West distinguishes between hope and optimism. Optimism, he says, is “based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better.” Hope, however, looks at the evidence and says, “It does not look good at all. But gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.”

And, the thing is, people have always done this. That is, people have always created liberatory visions that they’ve resiliently acted on against the odds. The question before us, as educators, is whether we are willing to join in that legacy of past and present love warriors.

In our classrooms, this means that instead of creating docile obedient bodies, we need to foster intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical daring. We also need to develop radical imaginations that can expand our sense of the possible. How many classrooms have you been in where you simultaneously developed rigorous analytical capacities, connected the classroom work to meaningful work beyond the classroom and experienced a learning process in which it was okay and even encouraged to publicly cry, laugh, rage, dance, be playful, be honest, be still, be unknowing, and take risks?

I ask my students to take many risks in the classroom, including trying things that might feel scary. It’s useful to practice in low-stakes situations so that we might be prepared in situations with higher-stakes consequences.

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I’m going to conclude with something that feels scary to me. I don’t sing, and have certainly never done so into a microphone. So in the spirit of working together, I’m asking all of you -- in the audience and up on stage -- to please stand up and help me out; I know many of you know the words, and we’ll sing the chorus a few times so everyone can join in. If you don’t want to say “man,” you can say:

I’m starting with the one in the mirror. I’m asking her to change her ways. And no message could’ve been any clearer: if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.

Know that the mirror is not just on the wall but also in the eyes of other people who help us to see ourselves and the world in clearer ways. So commit to each other. Commit to loving as fiercely and uncontrollably as possible. Shout it out in your own way, in your own languages of the tongue and of the body: love, love, love, love, love. Thank you.

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