Updated: Sep 14
A twelve year veteran educator in NYC public schools, our colleague Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez, Ed.D., knows the joys and struggles of being a teacher firsthand. The wall behind her in her work-from-home set up is reminiscent of a classroom, her son’s artwork filling up the space, most of the pieces at his eye level. Once in a while, she said, she walks in and sees a new creation that he made just for her. Now, as an assistant professor with the Center for Early Childhood Health and Development (CEHD) – where ParentCorps is housed – Dr. Rodriguez said, “My time at CEHD really has helped me to understand the struggles I had as a teacher as connected to my race and culture.”
Recognizing the need for healing and identity exploration for Black and Latina women in early childhood education, Dr. Rodriguez and colleague Shana Devlieger organized the upcoming Fostering Emotional Engagement for Learning and Liberation (FEELL) convening on October 10, 2022 (Indigenous People’s Day) in East Harlem. Individuals can register for this free event, designed as a space for Black and Latina women to join together in affinity alongside fellow educators, mental health professionals, and researchers devoted to educator wellbeing, here.
We spoke more with Dr. Rodriguez about FEELL, and how she hopes to give the love of teaching back to educators of color.
What was the inspiration for FEELL?
This is a coming together of many years. I'm a veteran New York City public school teacher. My time at CEHD really has helped me to understand the struggles I had as a teacher as connected to my race and culture. It all started to coalesce into this drive to support Latina and Black educators. And specifically women, really thinking about their unique position in the field, and how they are both contending with racism and sexism.
It felt like more of a personal goal of mine. If I can pull this day together, it's healing for me because I felt like I was forced out of the profession that I love. My love is teaching children. But I felt like I couldn't do it anymore, like I wasn't allowed to do that anymore. So the next best place I can put my skill set to support teachers like me is to be in research to try and set policy.
What are the unique experiences of Black and Latina women in early childhood education that you are hoping to heal and explore?
All spaces are white male dominant spaces, and we [as people of color] contort ourselves to fit. And for women of color, that's especially true. When desegregation occurred, it wasn't that all Black and white children were mixed together into spaces. Black children were allowed into the white schools, in turn [Black] educators were now without jobs. To avoid desegregation laws other racist strategies to keep black teachers out of schools were employed. Normative practices such as, redesigning teacher certification requirements, teacher displacement, failing to renew teacher contracts, involuntary reassignment, excessing, eliminating tenure laws, dismissal without cause, failing to replace retired teachers, reassignment out of content areas, evaluating teachers as incompetent, and combining Black teacher associations with White teacher associations were some of the insidious systemic strategies employed to push teachers out of the system.
So the goal is for this to be a day where Black and Latina women can enter a space and it's their space. They don't have to conform. They don't have to apologize. They can literally just enter and be themselves.
“So the goal is for this to be a day where Black and Latina women can enter a space and it’s their space. They don’t have to conform. They don’t have to apologize. They can literally just be themselves.”
One piece is about healing and coming into a space designed by and for Black and Latina women educators. The other piece is about identity development, and really digging into what it means to understand your own identity as a woman of color and to become aware of that. We don't “serve” children, we are not waiters, we are not in servitude. We form deep meaningful relationships to support their development.
On your website, you describe FEELL as a space for joining together and affinity for healing and identity exploration. Could you tell me more about the sessions you have planned for the day?
This is not a professional development and this is not a conference. From the moment they enter the space we will enjoy breakfast together while we engage with a creative arts activity about our many identities. Rather than sitting at tables and chairs staring at a screen, we will mingle, laugh and create together.
Teachers will cycle through small groups throughout the day. Teachers will have the opportunity to add their voices to research as well because the documentation of their experiences is critical to impacting policy change.
[In a journey mapping session, teachers will be] asked about their education journeys. We'll have deep conversations about the elevations (joys) and depressions (challenges) of their individual journey, while also reflecting on commonalities.
They’ll also be radical rest. This session was difficult for me to accept as necessary because I constantly think I have to work otherwise I’m worthless, or lazy. Radical rest will be a time for women to rest in whatever way they feel is restorative, and also a time to talk about what it feels like to be told to rest. We will delve into how rest is a radical act of resistance against racism and sexism.
We’ll also have a focus group devoted to teachers’ experiences with families as well as an indigenous healing circle. All of our facilitators are also Black and Latina; they are educators, clinical mental health professionals, and researchers devoted to educator mental health. This is more than a one off healing retreat. It is a space to process our own lived, collective trauma while we heal together and empower ourselves for a changed future.
We recognize that this can be a lot to dig into; it might trigger some very traumatic experiences. So we'll have debrief and decompress sessions in between. Mental health professionals will be present to support educators one-on-one if needed. We'll have communal lunch, music and enjoy one another's company. It was not random that we chose Indigenous People’s Day, this retreat is another way to redefine that day centering communities of color.
What are you hoping that the participants are taking away from the day? What are you hoping to take away from the day?
I hope we can provide a space for Black and Latina women educators to say, “I can let [myself] be seen and I can engage.” Only when we're in those spaces can we really dig into our traumatic experiences. That's when we start to do the healing, when we start to see and become aware of who we are. I think way too often educators and women of color are asked to hold the children of society, the men of society, and we are told to ignore ourselves. It happens from birth and is so pervasive that we’re not always fully aware of who we are.
“I think way too often educators and women of color are asked to hold the children of society, the men of society and we are told to ignore ourselves.”
Can you tell us about the significance of the space for the convening?
This place, El Barrio’s Artspace in East Harlem, was a miracle for us. Artspace is a national nonprofit arts organization specializing in creating, owning, and operating affordable spaces for artists and creative businesses. In El Barrio they redeveloped an abandoned public school. Imagine the loss of hope for children to walk by this abandoned public school in their community. Artspace fosters equitable, artist-led community development.
Our retreat is also about equitable community development. These educators truly love their work with children, but the system makes it impossible for them to do what they love. So hosting the retreat in an abandoned school that was repurposed to foster community empowerment is perfect. It’s as if we’re showing the powers at be what a school with supported, healthy educators should look and feel like.
How do you see FEELL evolving?
The FEELL retreat is a pilot where I lay out a model that can endure. My hope is that this can become an annual event that spreads to other states for more women of color. This model has teachers engage with their unvarnished experiences of racism and sexism because only with awareness can we truly delve into healthy identity development. When we become aware of our own identity we can act with intent rather than simply react as a means of survival. Awareness, identity development, and acting with intent… that is a different way to be an educator.
The media talks about teacher shortages, burnout, depression and anxiety as an epidemic. Notice how the blame is placed on the teacher. I agree, there is a public health epidemic but it is not grounded in the teacher. The teacher isn’t the problem, they are the casualty of the system that exploits them. I've heard so few solutions that are really about the teacher and supporting their mental and physical health. There are even fewer that are considerate of the most marginalized in our community, Black women. Self-care solutions place the onus on teachers to heal themselves as if they created the problem, and ignores the cultural norms of communal healing among women of color. So I'm hoping this gives a very clear tangible way to become aware, develop our identity and act with intent for a more empowered future. We can do this thing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cindy Gray is a ParentCorps Educator.