Tanisha Brandon-Felder: 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. Tanisha Brandon-Felder, former classroom teacher, works as the Director of Equity and Family Engagement at the Shoreline school district in Washington. Listen to an excerpt of her interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

Talk about your role as an educator, as it relates to Teaching for Black Lives.

I think my role as an educator, as it pertains to Teaching for Black Lives specifically, has been kind of a journey. I know Jesse Hagopian — just from a personal connection, our kids went to preschool together and I’ve also worked in the Seattle school district while he was an active member, in the beginning, I think, of his activism. Always kind of being able to watch it from the sidelines has been really interesting, but also slowly getting connected with him through the union and being able to partner with him. One of the first things I did when I moved into my position in the Shoreline school district was contact Jesse about helping support the work I was doing around helping have conversations with staff around anti-racism, racial equity, culturally responsive teaching, restorative circles.

As a matter of fact, he currently is still working with our district as recently as last spring in the effort around Teaching for Black Lives, but he’s been doing many things around ethnic studies with us. So it’s been a really great partnership, and it is really helpful to have that connection. When I was able to get the Teaching for Black Lives books into the hands of our educators prior to us being part of the book study, it was kind of a core group of us looking at the materials, and it was really powerful. Just kind of really, I think, impactful for people to see the history that hadn’t been shared. So it’s been, I think, about three years that I’ve been involved just with the book and the access around some of the content of that. And then, more recently, with just the book study piece of it.

Talk about the impact that Teaching for Black Lives has had in your school district.

Well, Teaching for Black Lives first was introduced to our race and equity advisory team. It’s a group that I facilitate. The way in which it became really impactful in our district was that first we had a small group of people who were exploring the book. When I first came in, I thought it would be great for us to start thinking about it in terms of culturally responsive practices and making things really relevant for students around windows and mirrors and seeing themselves reflected, and also learning more about Black culture and Black history. So, as a core group, we started pulling elements and things from it to put together a bigger professional development plan for our staff. It went from there to actually doing some work around anti-racism and culturally responsive teaching.

And then looking more closely at some of the things  — like “A Message from a Black Mom to Her Son” and some other pieces, especially the teaching of Reconstruction, why we don’t teach that — just different things that I think weren’t really highlighted in general in our curriculum. So people became more and more, I think, interested in it. And then we had an event in our district called “Black Voices,” which one of our certificated teachers at that time coordinated. And she really put a lot of effort in our department. Our equity department put a lot of support around making that event a really great success for our wider community, and also for our teaching staff. Just for the very first time really exploring the impact of Black lives. We were not doing Black Lives Matter at School Week yet.

This was kind of our entry point and Teaching for Black Lives is one of the first things that we talked about on a bigger platform, on stage at one of our community events. I think at that point, people were really ready to kind of go deeper with it. And the next year was the year I actually applied for the opportunity to engage in a book study with Teaching for Black Lives and then kind of be part of that process. So I would say seeds were planted along the way, and we’re now seeing those flowers blooming.

Can you hone in on some of those seeds and some of those flowers?

There’s a couple of different anecdotes around what I mean by the flowers blooming and one is definitely our Student Voice. We’ve always had a really active Black Student Union in our high school levels, and our middle school levels really were interested in getting that started too. I think having those stories of who we are spotlit and affirmed was a really great model for them. It created this energy that wasn’t really existing before. It also, quite frankly, created this container in our community to be able to hold these conversations. I think a lot of people weren’t quite sure how to engage in anything around Black lives.

I’m in a situation where the community itself is predominantly white, our teaching staff is predominantly white, but our students are almost 50 percent kids of color. So we need to align the reality of what people were experiencing, but also what our students were asking for, and get past the discomfort of having those conversations so we actually could engage in the work. Because the bigger part was actually taking this bigger experience around Teaching for Black Lives and integrating it into our curriculum so it became a norm and a standard. We saw that in Student Voice, we saw that, actually, just in the passing of our district anti-racism resolution. A language around Teaching for Black Lives is in that resolution. And it’s also part of our ethnic studies resolution that also was passed in the last year. So we’ve had some actual pieces that our school board has approved and pieces that now our staff is accountable for. So, in those ways some really huge flowers have been blossoming.

How about the impact on you personally as a teacher, or personally as a person?

I’ll say both feel like it’s hard to separate, especially when we’re talking about Blackness specifically, I think. Professionally first, it was affirmational for myself, to be able to not have to be the only Black voice that was really understanding the impact of why Black voices mattered and why Black lives mattered. It was great. We had conversations for the first time. All of our Black students wanted to be a part of the conversations across our school district with all the Black leaders. And there’s only maybe a handful of us, and we came all together and we basically were like, this is our special place to be able to have these conversations and to talk.

And it was the first one that ever happened. That for me was everything. As an adult in the system, being able to talk to youth in our system and our school system about what it means to be Black, and in a really great way and celebrating it. That’s me professionally. I’ve got to see that, be a part of that, participate in that, and also lead that. I got to lead that and really be able to say to the white people around me: This is what we’re doing, and I can’t necessarily be around to support you.  I mean, how do I talk to people who do not understand why this matters? That’s not the work for me to do. That’s the work now for you to do. We built the foundations. It’s time for you to take that up and allow me to just celebrate the fact that I’m Black. Allow me to be able to celebrate the fact that who I am is beautiful. So that was me professionally, whether it kind of sounds personal, but it actually was me professionally.

I should also say probably the other professional piece was that we were able to have our Black Voices week. I’m able to help co-lead that where we had a different night for a week, a full week where community members came together to learn about things like Ethnic Studies, Afro-futurism, Black literature, cosplay, all different kinds of things, really to that lens around what Blackness was.

So all those great ways to be able to celebrate who I am in my professional role didn’t mean it didn’t come with struggles. It didn’t mean it didn’t come with some hard situations, because it did. Whenever, I think, you’re talking about censoring Blackness, it’s going to come with some difficulty because people aren’t used to that.

But for my personal life, it was really great to be able to say, as I’m working in a district, I also get to be present. Like here’s who I am. I get to come in as my full self. And so talking about it with my family and my friends, I’m getting to where all the things that help celebrate who I am, and I think feeling comfortable in my skin and not needing to feel like I needed to assimilate or code switch or any of that.

And now holding onto that. There is some freedom actually in being remote and having to work from my own home because I was in my space. I don’t like to code switch in my own space, whether I’m sitting on a Zoom with our superintendent or sitting on a Zoom with a student, I want to be able to be my authentic self. And subconsciously when I go back into a workspace, I know I code switch, I go back into this similar pattern. There was freedom in not having to do that, and I’m really trying to hold onto that, whether we’re back in person or not. I’m really trying to hold onto that authenticity of what it means for me to really show up in my full self. So that’s professionally and that’s personally.

That’s such an interesting point about being in your own space. That’s something that hadn’t occurred to me, but that’s totally true. Like in our familiar surroundings, we’re going to be able to bring a different self, and then I love bringing that into your in-person, not at home. Thanks so much for those answers. Talk about helping educators understand what it means to teach for Black lives.

Because we were helping educators understand what it means to teach for Black lives, I put that in two different ways. I literally had the Teaching for Black Lives book, the information, here are areas where they want you to focus on or just kind of zoom in on. And then, in general, just to understand what it means to teach for Black lives and to value Black lives. In the role that I have in our school district, I created and help support our full week of teaching for Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. All the curricula that were coming across the country in that resource bank that they have for Black Lives Matter at School week, I really wanted to make that very specific for our school districts, our students, and our families.

I did a lot of work with our instructional team to make sure those lessons were really especially designed and cared for. And what that meant was that first, since our resolution for Ethnic Studies passed in July 2020, part of that expectation in that resolution was that we were going to observe Black Lives Matter at School week. And we had never done that before. We had done our Black Voices week the year before, and that was something similar, but it wasn’t quite the same thing. So it meant then that every teacher in our district was expected to engage in Teaching for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter at School week.

Like I said before, we’re more than 80%, close to like 90%, teachers that are white. I was really cautious, somewhat hesitant around what it was going to mean to put the foundation in place for people to be able to hold that. Especially people who were like, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to believe that this is something that belongs in a school. It is too political.” Like all the things people say when they don’t want to have conversations about Blackness.

And so starting as soon as that resolution passed in July, it was on for me, it was on to start building that foundation of security for our students. So it was never about the adults for me; it was about the students making sure they didn’t feel harmed. They only felt affirmed and cared for regardless of how the teacher felt. So, the first three months was getting our administration on board, our principals on board, and being unapologetically understanding around why we were going to be doing it.

And if there were any questions or doubts, we were going to talk about it in those first three months. We weren’t going to wait until we got in front of our school staff. We were going to have a conversation there and we were going to reaffirm what it meant to care for all of our students and what care looked like. Once that was finished, the next couple of months were really working on designing the lessons and going through the banks of lessons that have already been created, and then just crafting them in a way that really helped our instructors be able to lead those lessons with confidence.

So, through that time we also did professional development lessons, trainings, shared videos, and did events for Black lives throughout every month. We then were able to build people up with excitement, and then we could use our week to really celebrate. And it was in that same week that we also invited all of our Black students to come together with our Black leaders to have a care session. How are you being cared for? How are you celebrating yourself this week? How do you feel celebrated? Reading, bringing in different speakers, and Black speakers would talk about their experience, but also through an education lens. So it was education, going through book studies, going through modules, all different kinds of things.

I think about how much effort it took to get people ready to talk about Teaching for Black Lives. And it’s kind of a shame actually. I mean, that’s the part that wasn’t as fun as a professional. It was like having to do all that. We’re just talking about the beauty that I know exists. But it wasn’t about me. That’s where I was able to put myself aside and say, ultimately, the students will be experiencing the lessons, experiencing the books, and experiencing all the things that will be offered, and I want them to be able not to feel anything that I’m feeling, and I want them to feel only the very best parts of it.

So for those reasons, a lot of work went into getting our district ready and getting our educators ready for Teaching for Black Lives. And that doesn’t even include the core group who actually did the study. All this is outside of the group that we did our book study with, but because it was such a bigger district initiative, that’s why all that effort went into it.

Can you speak more about the lesson plans?

There were some that were from the Zinn Education Project. And there were some that were kind of, I think, integrated into the Black Lives Matter at School week, like the database they have, the Google Drive. There’s a mix of those kinds of lessons. And there were some lessons that were given to me, that were suggested to me through the study guide that was provided with the book study. It was a mixture of all of that put together and then just highlighting things. We didn’t want to be overwhelmed for the first year. So we highlighted some things, like the most important to touch on for our youth around identity and an affirmation of family and being unapologetically Black. Some of those pieces are really more principles of teaching of Black Lives Matter, but I think were also affirmed through the Teaching for Black Lives book.

So the teachers that participated in the study groups, how has that participation improved education for students?

I had about 40 people in our book study group. It was a mixture of K–12 educators, family advocates, counselors, deans, some administration like principals, assistant principals, teachers. It’s a really wide group of people. When we came into it, we started our book study in January of 2021 and it went until June. One of the things that came from it was: How did I not know this? There’s a lot of surprise actually. And it wasn’t like we went through each book, I mean the whole book page by page. We actually kind of chunked it out into different sections. But the pieces in which we were looking at people, people thought they knew about what happened after the enslavement period, but the Reconstruction period is kind of hidden in history. People thought they understood what the Great Migration was but people really didn’t know. People thought they understood the Black Lives Matter movement, how it started, but people really didn’t understand that.

What it really brought was, first, a level of awareness. We were able to say, “Okay, now we’re all on the same page or understanding a little bit more consistency around truth and the real history that’s existed.” It put what we were trying to do in our district in better context. It helps to know that something like a Black Lives Matter week didn’t just come out of nowhere — it came out of a traumatic experience. We are really close to that traumatic experience. It happened less than 20 miles from where we’re all located. So when we talk about where things are situated, it’s not way, way over there. It’s right here in our home. That changes the perspective of why things  become a different kind of urgency.

It also is humbling. It’s humbling to be in a space where you’re recognizing and, for me, reading my history or reading parts of my history that were not taught to me in school. So then, why do I not know this? And then what’s my opportunity and obligation to make sure that others know it? What should I do since I’m responsible for making sure my students and the youth in our system are aware of that? So, I think that was kind of what was happening. I think the conversation that people were having cross-racially too was pretty powerful. The awareness piece, I think the impact around this, kind of what they didn’t know they didn’t know. And then, what do we do differently now?

What we’re seeing now is our history. High school teachers have something new to add to their curriculum and their lessons in their units, and they’re thinking about how to integrate that in ways that are not just like an impressive story, but a way to show the fullness of a people in history. So that’s what we noticed. And I think it really, really helped after having read some of the chunks to also have our presenter come in and really talk us through, and talk to us, and do some presenting around some bigger social issues that connect with Blackness and anti-Blackness.

Do you have any specific anecdotes or stories about student impact that you’ve seen as a result of this?

I think probably the biggest result from student impacts has been our anti-racism resolution. It started because we were doing other work around general Black voices and Black Lives Matter week. We started to talk a little about why Teaching for Black Lives needed to be a thing. So in 2019, Jesse Hagopian came to our school district and presented for the community. I think it was actually called “Teaching for Black Lives.” And so he came and he talked, and it was the first time that you could see the teachers’ light bulbs go off. Like, maybe I could actually do this. Like maybe this actually is important. And it was also when our students got kind of generated. They’d already been organizing, they already had really powerful voices, but they were starting, they were seeing things that are happening in their schools or they’re being victims of certain kinds of racist talk or whatever, and they feel like things weren’t happening.

We did student forms every year and talked to all of our secondary students. One of the things that kept being repeated was that this word is being used, this thing is happening. And I feel like nothing happens and there’s no consequences or no accountability. What can we do? I remember saying, “How can we organize around that?” And so we started capturing student voices. We started capturing community voices. These are all voices of color, so Black, Indigenous, Asian, or Brown students of color. Same thing with community members. Same thing with our staff. And we started asking, “What is your reality right now in our district? What would you want to see differently? What needs to be in place, literally in place, to make it different?”

From that is where the anti-racism resolution was drafted. When that was approved last spring, it was huge because that was a direct result of what students were experiencing, and now had enough efficacy to feel like I can say something about it. It was enough foundation in our district where we now know too much, so we can’t say we can’t do anything about it. The question is what do we do now? So that has probably been the biggest piece.

Can you talk about the growing number of anti-history education bills around the country? What’s at stake?

Ultimately for me, when I talk about the anti-history bills or the movement around not including critical race theory, I’m talking about the true histories that have existed and that pushback around doing that. Our superintendent retired, or resigned from our district, last June. And this is when all this energy was just starting to come up and then we were having a conversation with me as the director of equity, also a Black person. What do I need to be ready for? What’s happening? What’s the feel in the Pacific Northwest? I think that we have kind of like this reputation of being very liberal and very free-minded and everything. There are definitely pockets of that, and those are pockets that are really not like that at all. Like pockets where people are flying and selling flags that really have very hateful kinds of things on them. And then having people who are cheering as they’re walking down the street to support that. Anytime white supremacy is threatened, there’s going to be a fight, right? Any time you get too close to actually saying, “Well let’s create a real equity for everyone’s voices and histories and full selves to be present.” White supremacy gets threatened by that.

I’m not surprised because there was such hatred during the last four years, that it was cultivating and growing and brewing and spinning in this really big, huge circle. And then it wasn’t; and that energy doesn’t just go away. It’s still going to be there, and the best place to focus is the learning. Because education is everything; literacy is everything. So if we’re talking about racial literacy being threatened — which is what I think we’re ultimately talking about, the history of race, the history of what’s happening in our country, what’s always happened in our country — is a literacy around understanding the racial history of our country. Literacy’s always been that leverage point, that power point. We don’t teach our enslaved people to read or to write because that’s threatening. We don’t want them to have power. We take away the language of people when they come to this country, or we strip it from our Indigenous people, all those things, because literacy is power.

So, the whole anti-history movement, it doesn’t surprise me. It disappoints me. It angers me because you’re somehow seeing that only one kind of history needs to be taught and anything else is, what, threatening your life? Literally it’s not. But it will threaten other people’s lives. We feel like somehow our stories can’t be told, our stories don’t deserve to be centered. And then somehow you can tell me that the story that I have is not real, that the story that I have is not valuable. If that’s the message we’re sending to our students, we’re going to be paying for that.

It’s going to be painful. That will come out, like in mental health, death by suicide. It’s going to come out in lots of different ways because we are literally impacting people’s identities. So there’s a piece that connects history to identity, which is very different, and that’s humanity. And I think because we are threatening the humanity of white supremacy, then of course people are going to be fighting that white supremacy. It is never going to go down easy. And I think that’s why we have to collectively — across our spectrum of Black, Indigenous, Brown, Asian, and people of color — come together to really say that we’ve had enough. We have enough voice, and ultimately maybe enough impact to say, “Nope, our story really does matter.” And I think the problem is that when our structures are inherently racist they don’t support us as people of color. And that’s the difficulty. But you never know; never underestimate the power of white supremacy.

Anything else that we haven’t covered that you want to talk about?

It’s probably a good time to say thank you for the opportunity. Because when things like this happen, like the Zinn Education Project, or like Rethinking Schools, when things like that are able to be brought into a district, a lot of the things that we have in our district now is because I brought them or built them cohesively and collectively with other people. It’s because I’m in the position that I’m in. And when you have other resources that are onboard, that are going to support 100 percent, this is what it’s about. We’re going to provide resources to make it happen. That really does change things. It really creates an impact and it creates this power movement.

It’s cool to be able to say I have the Zinn Education Project on my side. Rethinking Schools is offering books to all of our educators. Those are not small things. Having our presenters come in and talk to our staff is like everything. Like I said before, I know Jesse in a different way, but Jesse Hagopian’s name and association with the work that’s being done is very different and it’s powerful. And so I’ve appreciated the opportunity to connect as a part of these conversations, and it’s led to other conversations and other opportunities I’d be able to participate in, like the Clint Smith book group with How the Word Is Passed. All those are things that I was introduced to through this organization, and that has made me a better educator. So I just want to make sure that people know that that’s been a great resource for me too.