I am J LeShae and I run an activist education initiative called Ms. J's Classroom. For the last four years I've served as the Principal of Conscious Consulting, where I've led social justice education and coaching for several institutions including The Black Teacher Collaborative, The Budd Center at Southern Methodist University, American Baptist College, One Goal, Teach For America, The Commit Partnership, and The Teaching Trust. I also head a youth leadership movement called Building Opportunities & Opening Minds, which provides spaces of affirmation, decolonization, organization, and innovation for K-16 Black and Brown visionaries. I am a first-generation high school and college graduate, who received a full scholarship to obtain my B.A. in History from Clark Atlanta University (HBCU).
I was a founding teacher at Democracy Prep Charter High School at the St. Phillips campus in Harlem, New York, during the 2009-2010 academic year. I was recruited by Jonathan Howard and managed by the founding principal Lisa Friscia. Seth Andrew served as the Superintendent at that time. My observations and personal experiences with racial injustice during that year inspires my support of the activism of the Black & Brown at Democracy Prep Collective. I stand in solidarity with them in their demands for restructuring Democracy Prep Public Schools, and in their advocacy against the sale of the Marlboro campus to Seth Andrew & Democracy Builders. I have also shared comments of my experiences at Democracy Prep with various journalists in Marlboro.
Identity & Lens
I was named Jamie LeShae Jenkins at birth: "Jamie," from my father, "LeShae" from my mother, and "Jenkins" from British-American Confederates who fought to maintain slavery here in the United States. Some of my most salient experiences within our present social condition (often misnomer-ed as identities) are racial (Blackness), gendered (Womanhood), cultural (Southern, community rich, capital poor), and spiritual (energetically aware sensitive/sensual). In essence, I participate in this world within a dark-skinned (termed: Black), afro-haired, womb-body (termed: female or woman), and identify as energy.
I am actively decolonizing from the ever-present violence of Western European colonial social systems. Thus, both as an individual and as an educator, I resist all practices of miseducation and psychological trauma from systems of thought rooted in the legacy of colonial occupation of the Americas, Africa, and South Asia. I also stand against any practices of white-dominance or control over the bodies/minds/spirits of First Nations People (Native American), displaced African people (African-Americans, Afro-Latinx), or their descendants (Black, Latinx, Multiracial Persons, etc.) This includes, but is not limited to, that which occurs within schools. Because of this, I am a 13-year career activist for educational equity, racial justice, and freedom.
Additionally, my truths and lived experiences, which I offer as medicine for human healing, can be experienced by those who benefit from our present social structures, as confusing, conflicting, or even painful. Subsequently, in many cases, my words alone are discredited as destructive or dangerous, and have led to threats against my livelihood. These realities influence my life, language, and lens.
I choose to lend my face and name to this movement with keen awareness of the dangers of full disclosure. I have personally experienced the impacts of truth-telling against injustices performed by institutions and/or white people of wealth. From instances of being black-balled in certain corners of the philanthropy and education reform worlds, to being physically threatened with a gun by two white men while having lunch on the patio of a Cheesecake Factory in 2014, I know very practically that openly performing as a moral conscience in a racist society is not safe.
I have observed many questions and critiques of the Black & Brown at DP Collective's anonymity. While this is disappointing to me, I recognize that humans often struggle to conceptualize rationale for conditions that they have not personally experienced. For example, if we have not been reprimanded for speaking up against racism, or if we have not personally experienced harm from racists; empathizing with Black and Brown activists who choose to protect themselves with anonymity may prove difficult. Further research into social justice activism may aid us in our struggle. The Movement for Black Lives offers a model of decentralized leadership and practices of some levels of nondisclosure. Lessons from past resistance movements, when participants were beaten, assassinated, penalized on jobs and in schools, and/or placed on the FBI's Most Wanted List, help us to be more strategic in our approaches today. In 2020, many collectives have chosen anonymity as an organizing strategy, including several other charter school systems, like Success Academies, and Uncommon Schools; as well as magazines, like Essence.
Our Schooling Condition
Much of the present American schooling condition is a legacy of colonialism. In the same way that European settlers planted flags on foreign lands with missions of civilizing indigenous people through occupation and domination; leaders of no-excuses charter systems, including Seth Andrew through Democracy Prep and now Democracy Builders, plant their institutional flags in Black and Brown communities with the same missionary zeal. We do not expect reformers to request the perspectives of community-centric Black and Brown experts and educators, nor do we require them to seek permission from the community's leaders, children, or parents in the places they are entering. We just join in this 500-year history of white-domination over Black and Brown beings, blindly.
Perhaps it is too painful to consider how we have been complicit in continuing this ugly legacy of dominance in American history. Perhaps, because we have endured our own miseducation, studying history from books that erase the terroristic truths of eugenics and Native American boarding schools, or the triumphs of community schools and Black-led universities, we haven't a clue of the atrocities that have happened here or of those that are still happening. For those of us who hold core values of equity and justice, we must deeply interrogate the parallels between 16th century settler-colonialists and 21st century neocolonialists. We must question why, if we can now name the harm in one, that which resulted in the theft of indigenous lands and the enslavement of Black bodies, we cannot seem to see the harm in the other, that which shackles Black minds and spirits. Whatever the reason, let us no longer allow ignorance to destroy our humanity.
Over 200 people have submitted stories to the Black & Brown at DP Collective. While not everyone who attended Democracy Prep Public Schools perceive the institution negatively, many do. I do. My experiences with racial discrimination and trauma at Democracy Prep's Charter High School largely inspired my zeal for designing and leading social justice education in education reform organizations. What I saw there was horrible. I can confirm that several of the anonymous submissions to BNB@DP align to my observations and experiences at the institution between 2009-2010. Regardless of this, the bigger issue is the problematic orientations of DPPS's founder, Seth Andrew, through whom these conditions of racial harm were born and allowed to fester even after his exit. At present, he has chosen non-response when invited to reconcile and rectify these issues, likely to protect his ego. Somehow he does not suffer the same critique as the Black and Brown folk who do respond, but do not reveal themselves, in order to protect their psychological and economic safety.
There are students and faculty who had great experiences with DPPS, just as there are others who suffered abuses. What will it take for us to resist the restrictions of "either/or" thinking and welcome the healing of "both/and"? One truth does not negate the other. When harm is being communicated, at any level and in any way within our schools, we have a legal responsibility to investigate. The onus is not on victims to subject themselves to additional injury for the sake of satisfying public curiosity. It is on us, the citizens of communities where these institutions exist, or are being installed, to ask questions about, and to push against the trends of racial injustice that are being communicated. That said, if we find ourselves hyper-critical of the Black and Brown people sharing truths under the cover of an anonymous collective (just as several other grassroots activists have chosen to do), yet we are, at the same time, confident in narratives offered by white people and the institutions they control (alongside their access to money, press, powerful partnerships, and racial privileges that Black and Brown activists are not privy to), let us also name and accept this truth as evidence of our affinity to the culture of white supremacy. In that vein, let us then own the limitations of our perspectives and honor that we are not yet equipped to interpret or solve this situation equitably. Let us demonstrate justice by inviting racial equity practitioners, Black and Brown culturally and community-responsive education experts, and families from our communities to speak and lead in these matters. Let them have the final say.
All in all, Black and Brown people are simply demanding that we — individuals and institutions — be and do better. That's all. The Movement for Black Lives exploded into a global effort this year, and in turn, demands for racial justice are happening everywhere. The activism of BNB@DP is not unique, but a microcosm of a larger reality. The people of Vermont's communities have an opportunity to consider its core values and who they want to be on the other side of history. If anonymity leaves too many unanswered questions for decision makers to move forward concretely, or to dissolve the bill of sale to Seth Andrew, let it also inspire a full independent investigation into the accusations/allegations against him, Democracy Prep and the current Democracy Builders organization. Seth communicated in his essay on medium.com a realization that he has more work to do. He made commitments to anti-racism. Allowing an independent investigation into these allegations is a way for Seth to demonstrate good-faith effort on his commitments. On the other end, an investigation is also an opportunity for him to prove that these accusations are fallacious. My recommendation to the Marlboro and Emerson communities, as well as to T. J. Donovan, the Attorney General of Vermont, is to call for the halt of the sale until an independent investigation is conducted to determine the severity and consequence of the crimes communicated by former and current students and staff. Some of the challenges submitted include financial mismanagement, illegal transcript and score handling, racial discrimination and HR breeches, policing of Black and Brown bodies, and sexual misconduct with minors.
Let us not allow anymore extraneous minutia to distract us from the larger opportunity in front of us. Let us be diligent in pursuing racial equity and accountability in schooling for all young people and educators in our communities.
J LeShae writes from Dallas, Texas.