Freedom School Round Table Session

Katie Reed, News Columnist

On Thursday, Jan. 26, the Center for Peace and Justice Education hosted its annual Freedom School event in Connelly Center, which featured several one-hour sessions for students and faculty to attend throughout the day. The Freedom School seeks to continue the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to educate the Villanova community on topics relating to social justice, human rights, peacemaking and many other causes. 

One such Freedom School Session, entitled “Representation Matters: Black Female Writers in Philadelphia Classrooms & Beyond,” led by senior English research assistants Adrianna Ogando and Cynthia Choo, sought to not only shine a light on Black female writers and histories that have long been overlooked, but also to establish concrete ways for teachers to address this in their classrooms by implementing more diverse and inclusive curricula. 

Ogando and Choo presented from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the St. David’s conference room. Their work was centered around Alice Dunbar-Nelson—a Black female writer, activist, and educator—as her writings and teachings help provide insight into making educational spaces more accessible for Black students. To bring their goals to fruition, their project involved transcribing Dunbar-Nelson’s pieces to organize them on a free digital platform, attending and assisting with professional development (PD) sessions in the Philadelphia school district (including elementary, middle, and high school), creating the Black Women Writers Video Project and attending the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) conference in Montgomery, Alabama last October. 

With a project of such ambition, Choo addressed some of the challenges they faced.

“In terms of challenges, I think it was just really trying to narrow down what we wanted to focus on because our project has developed in so many different ways and we have a lot that we’ve taken on,” Choo said. “Also, we were trying to make it engaging for the audience and not just speak for an hour straight, but [instead] coming up with activities that we could do with them.”

Given that the focal point of the presentation was the PD sessions that Choo and Ogando helped facilitate, they modeled their activities from those sessions. For the first activity, they asked audience members to reflect on their favorite books, shows and movies in terms of whether they felt their identities being represented in those media forms. In the second activity, they read an excerpt from Dunbar-Nelson’s short story “His Heart’s Desire” and asked the audience what key themes they could identify and how they felt they could engage with the text. 

Ogando noted how fulfilling it was to see the teachers at the PD sessions engage with Dunbar-Nelson and other Black women writers like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to challenge their current curricula.

“A lot of the professors and teachers would be like, ‘my students are asking questions about this text’ or ‘my students are predominantly Black or brown and I really want them to engage with this,’” Ogando said. “There were also a lot of white teachers who were asking questions like ‘how do I say this’, ‘how do I make this space comfortable for my students’ or ‘how do I address whiteness in my classroom,’ and it was really rewarding to see that play out [and] get the conversation going,” Ogando said. 

Choo expressed a similar sentiment, especially given her desired career path.

“Once I graduate, I’m looking to be a teacher, and so as an aspiring educator I was really thrilled because our research team was directly impacting teachers who were seeking support to diversity their curricula,” Choo said. “[Given] that part of me who eventually will become a teacher and is also committed to creating these safe classroom spaces, [it] was really just incredible to see that unfold.”

From the PD sessions, Ogando and Choo were able to craft concrete, convenient resources for teachers to utilize, such as creating a One Stop Doc that has all of the resources and links they may need to access information for lesson plans. 

Ogando highlighted that while many schools and universities are offering more classes that push Black literature and Black women’s work to the forefront, there is more work to be done and “there is always more to learn.” 

“I think it’s important to know that this culture, this work and these women have been around for a long, long time,” Ogando said. “Diversity, inclusion and representation are more than just that it’s there, it’s about really implementing it, doing the homework and taking the time to educate yourself about stories and people who, if you don’t look for it, you would not be exposed to.”

Choo expanded on this and how their project seeks to bridge these gaps. 

“I think our project and our team is really committed to theory and practice and knowing that both have a place in any educational space,” Choo said. “[We aren’t just] focusing on the whole theory part of reading this literature and going through or transcribing the archives, but also implementing them in very practical ways in spaces that we have direct access to, whether it’s the Villanova community or the Philadelphia school district.”

Both Choo and Ogando had many words of advice for Villanovans, such as being comfortable with being uncomfortable, asking questions, opening yourself up to new information and perspectives and checking white privilege.

“If [white privilege] is something that’s a really new concept to somebody, I would even say just think about the things that you don’t have to question,” Ogando said. “Think about the ways that you’ve been represented in the media, think about the books that you’ve read in class, think about your education—how does that make you feel? I think that [is] a good place to start.”

“The history is all there,” Choo echoed. “It’s really just a matter of going out of your way to learn it yourself because a lot of these narratives and these stories are not taught in your classic high school classroom.”

Be on the lookout for more ways you can engage with the imperative mission of both the Freedom School and Choo and Ogando’s work.