Writing home. The theme for the 2022 NYSEC conference set the tone for an energized professional learning experience. The crisp October air buzzed with conference attendees’ excitement and anticipation. Watching educators reconnect with folks they haven’t seen since our collective pre-pandemic days, observing new connections forming from the registration line, and seeing the small crowds gather near the session rooms captured the essence of what it meant to be welcomed back to our professional home.
Ileana Jiménez, a leader in the field of feminist and social justice education for over twenty years, opened the conference on Thursday morning with a powerful keynote address. She asked attendees, “Do you still feel at home in your school?” I wondered how many of us in that room could honestly say, “Yes, I do.” Jiménez invited the audience to consider what it means to examine ourselves, our schools, and our professional experiences through a feminist lens, and what it means to build a home through it and within it. She invoked queer theorist scholar Sara Ahmed’s call for self-examination: “Feminism is homework. When it’s homework, it’s not an assignment you’ve been given by your teachers. It is a self-assignment.”
Jiménez modeled this assignment for us all when she discussed her own learning experiences, which included struggling through adolescence as an outsider, navigating both supportive and unsupportive professional spaces, and revisiting her continuous process of self-reflection. In sharing her personal anecdotes about coming-of-age as a first-generation, queer, Latina feminist in a predominantly white, heteronormative suburb of New York City, as well as integral moments from her own feminist activist journey, she graciously built a foundation, a place for us all to cultivate feminist approaches to our own teaching and learning. She cited groundbreaking, Black intersectional feminist scholars like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis as key components to building her personal and professional growth. She encouraged us all to learn from their scholarship, and to include it as part of the home we create with our students as partners in building our home for learning.
Jiménez emphasized the importance of reflecting on her own educational experiences through intersectional feminist practices to inform her work as an educator in K-12 spaces and at the university level. Her willingness to convey the difficulties she faced when teachers ignored her racist classmates when they taunted her in the halls, and to open up about feeling empty while reading assigned texts where characters and voices that mirrored her own identities were silenced, vilified, or even worse, completely left off the page, hit home for many folks in the room. How many of us thought of our personal and professional learning spaces? She encouraged us all to act, to do better for our students, for our communities, for each other, and for ourselves. She shared that the “start of [her] warrior in schools movement” began within and beyond the classroom, when students shared experiences with “sexual harassment at schools by teachers and peers.” The start of her movement demonstrated how important it is for us, for all educators, to create spaces where students can see themselves in their learning, where students feel safe, where students know that they have support, where action will be taken to dismantle oppressive and unjust systems– a place that feels like home.
Jiménez’s openness, her call for audience members to “do the internal work” and to actively create learning environments for students and colleagues to find and call “home” within and beyond schools– even in the face of adversaries– was itself an act in building a home among us in that room, in our various stages of engaging in this important, affirming work. She reminded us that we as educators are “immersed in this work” through our students’ experiences. Jiménez stressed that we cannot ignore the intersectional lens of today’s most pressing social issues and how they impact our school communities. She acknowledged that this work is tough, but that it’s worth it. She directed us to “be in solidarity with students who want to call out harm being done to them [and others]” while reminding us that we are not alone in this work; we have our professional home through NYSEC, and with everyone in that room. In her closing remarks, she earnestly extended her support for and with us all: “I really want to walk this walk with you.” Her sincerity was familiar. Welcoming. Comforting. Like home.
Holly Spinelli, NYSEC Executive Board Member, is an advocate for equality through anti-racist, anti-bias, and anti-oppressive facilitation within and beyond the classroom. She is a 2011 Alice Trillin Teaching Award For Social Justice Work in New York Classrooms recipient. Holly 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 a two-term member of the National Council of Teachers of English Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.