Planting Seeds of Justice with Keynote Speaker, Lorena Germán

Holly Spinelli, November 2023

NYSEC’s annual conference was a grove of learning and celebration. Educators from across New York State gathered together to grow our collective knowledge and to support one another in our work towards cultivating more just and equitable learning communities for all. The conference’s theme, Sowing Seeds, Growing Justice, stemmed from educators’ reflections on the multitude of ways we can reimagine and strengthen our pedagogical approaches to foster our educational communities’ growth and potential.

It is no surprise that Lorena Germán’s powerful opening keynote address set the conference’s tone. She planted us all face-to-face with the brutal and complex roots of our nation’s educational system. Her “PhD in six minutes,” as she explained, provided the racial, cultural, and historical systemic injustices upon which our nation’s educational systems were founded. She emphasized the urgency for educators to acknowledge and understand these injustices and their ties to our educational roots to help us foil the cyclical attempts of those who wish to uphold traditions firmly planted in those oppressive histories from uprooting the inclusive, culturally sustaining educational practices in our classrooms and respective learning communities. She acknowledged the overwhelming context in which educators are currently situated, namely within the recent wave of book challenges and bans, curriculum challenges, high-stakes testing, and the push for educators to continuously do more with less. Germán speaks directly to how the stress associated with these injustices impact our ability to begin to educate ourselves, one another, and our students about our education’s critical historical contexts. Germán encouraged us to listen and learn as she guided us through a look back into those challenging histories, specifically those that oppressed and continue to impact four specific groups: Indigenous people, African Americans, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and Latinx folks.

She guided us along the long, destructive path through U.S. schooling’s past situated in violence and forcing people in the aforementioned communities to reject themselves, and to make their proximity to whiteness a weapon against their cultural, racial, and familial customs, languages, and practices. Germán took us through the brutal and oppressive cultural genocide housed in the involuntary removal of Indigenous children from their families, and their placement in Native [American Indian] Boarding Schools, and in the centuries of enslavement of African American folks– including the laws and regulations that deemed literacy illegal for enslaved people, and its connections to the segregation of Black and white communities thereafter. Germán cites the egregious effort to shut down schools in Black communities and to bus Black children into white communities, and not to send white children to schools with predominantly Black educators, staff, and students in Black neighborhoods. The history lesson continued with a focus on the lasting effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, and the immense pressure– through stereotyping – to fall within the “model minority” myth. Germán asked us to consider “What happens when you [those being stereotyped] don’t meet that standard?” Finally, she uproots the monolithic “border experience” that politically and culturally impacts Latinx communities as she says, “[We] need to understand that one journey [of migration]” is not true for all; She reminds us to consider the Caribbean experience, too. She reiterates that Latinx people and cultures, that all people and cultures, are not one in the same.

Germán understands the weight of this history, and as promised, she delivered practical, sustainable, and flexible ways for educators, students, and other learning community members to flourish. As she guided us through the various ways in which current myths in education that are packaged as helping all students can, in fact, perpetuate the horrors of our nation’s educational past, she asked us to reframe our approaches to these dangerous paths, and offers ways in which we can prevent the harm from spreading. One example includes standing up and speaking out against English Only practices. She explained, “Parents stop teaching in their cultural and home language, because they want their children to succeed in school. These children are not illiterate or lacking in linguistic skills. They have skills. How can our schools be places that acknowledge and celebrate these as strengths?” Collective nods circulated the room. The urgency to act grew as she asked, “How do our rules and practices continue cultural genocidal practices?” Without skipping a beat, she provided spaces where educators can find practical, vetted, and reputable sources to help us learn more and take practical steps towards cultivating just and inclusive educational spaces. Her list includes visiting the Learning for Justice website for educational resources, her latest book, Textured Teaching, and consulting with local community spaces. Before she closed, Germán remained true to her word; she once again acknowledged the challenges educators face when they speak up or work towards implementing culturally inclusive educational practices. She highlighted the power our words hold. She said, “Call it [just teaching practices] kindness if you need to” because any rules or practices that harm specific groups of children by way of exclusion, cultural erasure, or linguistic oppression “move[s] against the human instinct [and] human nature to be kind to others.”

What mighty seeds Lorena Germán has planted for us all. I wonder what will happen when we nurture them? I long to see how bountiful they will be when they bloom.

Holly Spinelli is an advocate for equality through anti-racist, anti-bias, and anti-oppressive facilitation within and beyond the classroom. She continues to cultivate community-inspired work as an English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, New York, and as an adjunct instructor in the English Department at SUNY Orange County Community College. She is an Academy for Teachers fellow and served two terms as an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. She is currently an NCTE Open Educational Resources Fellow (2023). She is excited to be part of the NYSEC executive board.

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Growing Justice with NYSEC Keynote Speaker, Jacqueline Woodson • Vincent Fino • December 2023

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