Cierra Kaler-Jones: Educator Reflections

Since 2020, the Zinn Education Project has hosted hundreds of Teaching for Black Lives Study Groups. Each study group receives copies of Teaching for Black Lives and a Rethinking Schools subscription for each participant, a year-long menu of workshops and seminars to choose from, and access to a network of social justice teachers across the United States. 

In 2021, participants in the Teaching for Black Lives campaign — study groups, online classes, and/or Teach Truth Day of Action — were interviewed to reflect on their experience.

Dr. Cierra Kaler-Jones, a community-based educator, writer, researcher, and the first-ever Executive Director of Rethinking Schools. She said, 

I come to education justice work by way of my students. As a dance teacher of mostly young Black girls, they would come to the dance classroom every day after school and they would have so many critical questions. They would say, “Miss Cierra, can we learn about Black history and dance, because we don’t learn it at school? Can we learn about women’s history at dance, because we don’t learn about women’s history at school?”

And they would also say things to me like, “Miss Cierra, can we talk about current events at dance class? Because I know that there are so many things going on in the world and I wanna figure out what I can do to make a difference.” Young people are asking for this history, they are asking for this learning, and they deserve this learning. And it’s up to us as educators: We have a beautiful duty and a responsibility to be in community with young people and to learn alongside them.

Listen to an excerpt of her interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

Why is this work important for all of us?

This work is important because when we learn about history and the current manifestations of racism and oppression, we can unpack and we can dismantle it because we’ve been able to learn about it.

This work is important for Black young people to see themselves and see their ancestors, to see their people in the everyday love and joy and creativity that Black communities have always been embedded in. And for white students, this is also important because white students get to see themselves as co-conspirators, as allies in the movement and in the struggle for justice. It takes all of us.

I know you’re an educator — you’re in touch with community, with students, with other people  — what’s the reflection that you see in the work that is being done? How do you see that affecting people?

In my reflections, I’ve seen the number of social justice educators that have always been embedded in this work sharing true people’s history with young people. I see not only how educators organize and mobilize in their communities, but then young people are also organizing and mobilizing in their communities. So this work is not only about teaching the truth, not only about teaching for Black lives, but acting in service of the truth. It’s about action. It’s about acting in service of protecting, loving, and affirming Black lives.

For Black students, this history is life-affirming. After facilitating a lesson on Black women, non-binary folks, trans folks in the curriculum, one of my students said to me that she sees herself now as a resistor. That’s what we are building as we are doing this work — classrooms that are sites of liberation, justice, joy, and of resistance.

Is there anything else that you would like to recall, cover, or talk about that we haven’t addressed?

Alongside my students, we’ve been exploring the everyday, ordinary people that have organized and mobilized in service of justice and liberation. As a reflection of our learnings together, one of my students shared with me, she said, “What matters is that they helped change things, and they could be any one of us.” When we only lift up the singular figures in history, these heroes, it seems as though they have come up out of nowhere to save the day. But the reality, as my student reminded me, is that the people that create change, they can be any one of us.

She actually created this really beautiful animated video. It had different figures from Black history. So it had Rosa Parks, Florynce Kennedy, Robert Smalls. In the video she covered the eyes of each of the figures. She said, as her artistic choice that she shared with the community, that she covered their eyes because she wanted to show that what matters is that any one of us could change things. She wanted to show that they were everyday, ordinary people. That they were one of us.