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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue B ::: February 2003

A Conversation with FOB...

Addressing Racism, Gender, and Classism in ABE

Jereann King has been involved in adult basic education since 1979. An African-American woman, she has thought about and tried to address issues of racism, gender, and classism over the course of her career. Focus on Basics talked to her about her experiences and what she feels adult basic educators can do to address power differentials that interfere with best teaching practices.

FOB: How did you get started in adult basic education?
JEREANN: I moved to rural Warrenton, North Carolina, in 1977, shortly after I finished college, to work for a small community-based public radio station. To supplement my income, I took a part-time job at the local community college teaching adult basic education. I had no background in adult ed. The first night of class my supervisor brought me a box of books, registration forms for the students, and other paper work. I didn't know where to start. I had not one bit of training.

FOB: So what did you do?
That very first night I realized that I had pretty good instincts for teaching adults because I asked people to tell me about themselves. As they described themselves, I wrote the sentences and descriptive words that they used on the blackboard. Those words became our spelling words. People said things like: I'm a grandmother. I'm a worker. I'm a good church member. Those became the content that I started to build curriculum around. I did that for a while, just sort of playing on my instincts.

FOB: When did you start to work as a professional development provider?
JEREANN: I went to a Laubach training workshop. Deborah Gaddy, who was leading the workshop, complimented me on some of the things I told her I was doing in my class. She was working with Hannah Fingeret and Page McCollough at the North Carolina Center for Literacy Development at the time, the predecessor to Literacy South [a now-defunct organization with a social justice orientation that provided professional development services to adult basic education programs]. Deborah told them about me and I started as a Center consultant in 1986 and continued to work at the community college.

In 1990, I took a job full-time at Literacy South, while continuing to teach ABE at the community college until1994-95. At Literacy South, I was director of programs: designing and implementing training with literacy and basic skills teachers. After about four years, I started to pay more attention to teacher research as staff development, or inquiry-based staff development. That's when Cassie Drennon [see article on page 20] and I worked with teachers in Georgia and with NALPIN [National Adult Literacy Practitioner Inquiry Network, no longer in existence]. We were trying to do what we thought were more empowering ways of doing staff development. So that's my background. Now I'm working independently and collaboratively with individuals and organizations to build communities around literacy education and cultural awareness.

FOB: When did you first come to recognize race and class as issues in ABE classrooms, programs, and staff development interactions?
JEREANN: In my classroom work, back in the 1980s, all the students in those first years were African-Americans and I am African-American. We shared a common culture, even though we had some differences between my upbringing in southwest Georgia and their upbringing in North Carolina. I grew up in a very Jim Crow situation in the 1950s and 1960s [Jim Crow signifies obstacles, legal and cultural, that work to keep African-Americans from equal status with whites]. When I started to use cultural content as teaching content, I could see regional differences around certain themes: getting baptized, surviving cold weather, certain natural remedies. There were things like farming traditions that were different, or community survival, some of which were unfamiliar. However, we shared a common racial identity and culture.

When I came to do staff development and worked with mostly white teachers - 80 percent of the people I worked with were white - I recognized race and class as differences. I recognized class in the work that Hannah and I did in the mountains of North Carolina. We were working with a small volunteer library-based program. All the volunteers were white. In the mountains of North Carolina, most of the students were probably white; perhaps there were some black students. The teachers who volunteered were from a different class than the students. A lot of the volunteers were people who had retired to the mountains and were sort of acting out of their sympathy for people who could not read. They were very benevolent and wanted to help. They were not people who had experienced education as a barrier: a good education was part of their privilege. Most of them were college graduates. Some had held very good union jobs in the north. Those who had not had a working career were mostly women and had husbands who supported them and maintained a privileged life for them. They came to the ABE field with no experience of not having an education or access to education. They could not understand how their adult students made it as far as they did, to adulthood, not being able to read. They brought all of their class values to teaching.

FOB: How did these values manifest themselves?
JEREANN: Oh, one way was around language and how people talked. Often these teachers would say that the students "talked country." Instead of using the richness of the mountain language, the volunteers saw it as nonstandard and a deficit. I'll never forget this one woman who told the story of a person who said that they were going to the ´fahrŞ. The volunteer tutor thought they were going to a fire, and the person was saying they were going to the fair. She made a very big deal of saying she couldn't understand how people could talk like this.

The volunteers made fun of people's dialect. I saw myself as bilingual: I was comfortable speaking in an African-American dialect, and I could do pretty well with standard English, but I knew I could be scrutinized in the same way. I felt totally intimidated. So, as a trainer and leader that was scary. I was comfortable with my black identity and didn't feel like I needed to be white, but I felt like I needed to get it very right. Where would I start in helping people identify their own classism? Would they feel attacked? There were all sorts of issues.

The second time [I recognized issues of race and class] was in the inquiry-based staff development work in Georgia. It was during a time when there was a lot of attention on welfare reform. All over the South there was an emphasis on getting poor women on welfare into adult education classes: they had to get in and out before the new legislation. Community colleges and technical schools in Georgia hired a lot of retired African-American public school teachers in the adult education programs, although there were plenty of white teachers also. It seemed to me that both the white and the black teachers perceived that the women who came to their programs were on welfare because they were lazy and irresponsible, sexually promiscuous, and had all of "these children out of wedlock." What I noticed about race and class was that even though the teachers were talking about their students in those ways, those social and race issues were never addressed in the classroom. They were pretty much using decontextualized materials, which were totally irrelevant to the issues and challenges that the women experienced in their everyday lives on welfare. The students weren't reading about the struggles of single women, about women getting and keeping jobs, and [the teachers had] no awareness that there should be any connection [between the class content and the learners' lives]. Then when I raised that issue - I felt that was my responsibility - it was too new. The teachers said the people were there to get their GEDs; they didn't want to talk about other issues; the only reason they come is to get their welfare check.

The teachers never had any empathy for what it means to be a woman dealing with raising children as a single parent. Many of these teachers had had similar experiences but they never saw that as a correlation. That's where the sexism came in. They never saw how the education environment could be a springboard for these women to act or think differently. To me, that was the empowerment piece: helping people take on new roles and to explore their identities. But all of that was very frustrating. I was stuck because I didn't understand how to confront it. I knew some things about learner-centered education, but some of the other sort of subtle racist attitudes I didn't know how to confront. I was terrified. I know now that some of that fear comes from my own upbringing in a Jim Crow environment. 

FOB: Your reluctance certainly makes sense. How did you end up addressing their attitudes?
JEREANN: The extent to which I could address it was to introduce ideas of doing learner-centered lessons. That meant that teachers and learners had to deal with social and economic issues. The teachers had to put the lives, the experiences, the culture, the histories, and goals of the students in the center of the teaching and learning. I was not really comfortable naming these things. I was better able to confront the black teachers, particularly the male teachers, than the white teachers. I never knew how to tell the white women.

Remember, the project was an inquiry-based staff development project, and there are lots of power issues ingrained in the process. That was the point: to give teachers power in their own learning. As we did this teacher research stuff, I was afraid about how the teachers would use their power. I felt like they would use it to justify their own assumptions about poor women who were going to these welfare-to-work programs. I believed that some of the white teachers and the African-American teachers believed that poor African-American women and poor white women just didn't know how to act. So much of the attention at that time was on teaching people how to write a resume, dress for the job, and about good work ethics: get to work on time, don't talk back, don't call in sick. They would teach that, and then, what they would observe when these women went to get jobs was failure. They taught people to dress for success, and still the women failed. So for the teachers, it was proof that these women couldn't get it. But the reality, at least from where I was looking, was that there were no jobs for these women.

The jobs for them did not require resume writing, dressing for success, or work ethics. They required networking with family and friends, getting there before daybreak in the morning, and you sure didn't show up with a navy blue suit on. You wore jeans and a sweatshirt, and tried to look like you wanted a job. The women needed to say, "My cousin told me to come on this morning and I'm here." It's difficult to suggest that to teachers who have not considered that angle. With the black teachers, I was more comfortable asking questions like: Where are the real jobs? Do you think you need a suit to get a job where nothing is going on but poultry production?

One way of looking at class is as a stance. That stance was based on the teachers' assumptions about who the students were and what the students deserved. So the education maintained class boundaries. Teachers - they had a little bit of privilege - the students were poor and what the education reinforced was a sort of poverty mentality. All this emphasis on success and no consciousness about what the real situation was: no jobs, or only minimum wage jobs. Nothing about the adult education served to break down these class barriers. The message was, "You're here to study for your CNA [certified nursing assistant's certificate], get your nursing certificate, and work in a nursing home," which is nonunion, low pay, and for every one job there are nine certified people available to do it. In this message there was no mention of hospital settings as places of employment, where the employment ceilings are higher than in nursing homes, and there are generally more opportunities for advancement. The educational approach and the content served to maintain poor women in a traditionally low paying industry and not helping them to understand how to take what they had and do better.

FOB: How did you learn to feel comfortable addressing these issues?
JEREANN: I started learning to feel comfortable asking the teachers hard questions: What was it about your education that gave you what you needed to be where you are today? It was a simple way to get teachers to look at important elements of their education and how they were not doing this for their students. I also asked them, "What opportunity does this afford the students?" Then I started a graduate student program with all this reading about culture and how culture matters in adult education. That answered so many of my questions. That helped me to feel a lot more comfortable.

I think you have to deal with it all - class and race. Culture is the basis of our values. Race and class have a lot to do with our values, but I still think that there's a lot of ambiguity with any kind of 'isms' analysis. It's complicated by history, values, by beliefs, and how people act. 

In terms of values, telling women on welfare to pull themselves up with their own bootstraps is an individualistic approach. Encouraging women to work together is more relational. Whether you're black or white, culture adds another lens to the situation. It adds another dimension to all the 'isms'.

FOB: What about people who say they're not racist or classist. What do you say to them?
JEREANN: That's very hard, to tell someone that they're racist. Sometimes a teacher says she sees no difference between white students and black students, as a way of saying she's not racist. She might say, if people would just not pay attention to race, everything would be OK; yes, you're black; and yes, you're white, but it doesn't really matter. Part of what teachers have to do is accept difference and the fact that there are many cultures. I think we also have to recognize the social and economic circumstances that historically contribute to the gaps in educational achievement and economic/social stability. We might need to ask, "I have a black student here who is reading on a 5th grade level, and a white student who has one more GED test to take. What is that about?" There was something different about the education or social systems that resulted in these two people of the same age being on such different levels.

There is a difference between black and white, between poor and rich, between men and women. We study in this [graduate] program a lot about change and what it means to support people in a change process. That's what staff development is about: helping people change, helping people shift their values and beliefs. Change doesn't happen automatically. You have to grieve, first of all, what you lose in the change process. That grief process is important. 

FOB: What do teachers lose? What do they have to grieve?
JEREANN: Teachers have to grieve not being in charge. They lose some power. Their identity is not primary. They have to grieve that. They have to grieve the fact that they don't know all the answers. Until they deal with their own stuff, they can't change.

Dealing with isms in the classroom also means dealing with a lot of unknowns. Teachers would have to explore their students' cultures, backgrounds, environments, and social situations. They grieve losing their centrality. For me, as a staff teacher working across race and class, I grieve lost comfort and self-confidence in addressing issues of race.

I think that meanings change when students and teachers come to grips with race and class and culture. For example, is the definition of success different? Success may have been getting all the answers right on a test. In a more sensitive environment, success might be having a successful meeting with your child's teacher or applying for a job that requires writing a resume. There's a shift in how people understand things.

FOB: Should teachers and students be of different cultural backgrounds?
JEREANN: I think so. But they have to be mindful that there is some difference: their students are not like them. I don't know what it would look like if teachers would talk about that difference with the students, telling them what their educational experience was and how and why education is different for their students.

One of the things I learned [in graduate school] which was another "Ah ha" was about identity development. Identities really do develop: you're not born with them. Life takes you through stages. When it comes down to race and class, those developments can shift: from not paying attention to race to wanting to recognize how society builds on and exploits race. As a staff developer, it helps me to realize where people are in terms of their identity. If people are trying to accept their differences, I might ask questions differently than if they were not acknowledging differences at all.

FOB: What steps do you think the field of ABE should be taking to address issues of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia?
JEREANN: I think funding for staff development, for training and for materials [for programs] is necessary. This would really give ABE programs the materials that they need: not just tests and standardized books, and money for field trips, new technology equipment. I think that ABE should consider all the ways in which technology could give students more of an opportunity to break down this divide. That's the new line. There's not enough funding, so we sort of maintain the status quo.

I think intercultural sensitivity is necessary for adult educators. Attention to culture has been much more prevalent in ESOL classes and programs. We don't pay as much attention to culture and how it fits into issues of race and class in ordinary basic skills programs. We maintain the status quo by maintaining a culture of teaching people skills that don't necessarily open new doors for students, skills that keep them in low wage jobs, that keep them from being able to challenge the system for better jobs, and for better communities. We often don't have the resources or use resources to provide staff development that helps teachers to really think broadly about the students' overall learning and development and the broader development of the community in which students live. One of the great benefits of the Equipped for the Future model [the National Institute for Literacy's standards-based reform initiative] is that it expands the conversation to include adult learners in their roles as parent/family members, workers, and community members.

To examine our attitudes about students from other countries and combat xenophobia, it might help if we, as teachers, learned more about international politics. We have to look at the world's situation and understand what's going on in the world. Why are the Sudanese or the Hmong here? How does our country relate to Central America and what are the implications of the political/economic situation there for adult literacy programs? And as practitioners, it's important to understand the culture and situations from which our students come. If they are new immigrants, then teaching and learning should support them as they transition to this country, this culture, this economy. Again, we can't put blinders on and claim people's differences do not matter.

Race and racism are at the core of American culture: the economy, the social life, and about everything else we can think of has some relationship to race. There is no getting around race in this country, a country whose economic origins were built on African slavery. I don't believe white people can say they are not racist, when they benefit, knowingly or unknowingly, everyday from a racist society. We have to challenge that racism and we have to remember that racism is internalized deep in our souls and reflected in everyone's life. We have to look at why one out of every four black men is in prison. Why is that? We have to ask those hard questions. What is it about the economics of black communities that result in black men going to prison? Who really benefits in the long run? And bringing it back to adult education, is there a role in ABE for addressing issues of race and class?

FOB: What's the role of staff development in addressing these issues?
JEREANN: Staff development that is intentional and thoughtful about supporting teachers in examining their own identities and how those identities influence teaching philosophies and practices is one key, I believe, to unlocking some of the frustrations about race, class, and gender issues in adult basic skills and literacy and language education. The ethnic and racial diversity seen in America today is good and can provide opportunities to explore new ways of interacting and communicating in educational setting. However, the old American black/white paradigm still colors and defines our identities. For students and teachers to reach the full power of education, we have to examine not only our personal identities but all of the assumptions we make about who needs and deserves what. I don't know if the immediate goal is to overcome racism, but rather to understand it and begin a systematic process of changing our lives and attitudes to recognize race and it's oppressiveness. Then we can make informed choices and take the appropriate action.

Useful Resources

Ms. King has found these books to be particularly useful in understanding the interplay of race, class, and culture in adult basic education.

  • Salett, E.P., & Koslow, D. (1994). Race, Ethnicity and Self. Washington, DC: NMCI Publications.

  • Bennett, M.J. (1998). Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

  • Sue, D.W., & Sue D. Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory and Practice. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

  • Ponterotto, J., & Pedersen, P. (1993). Preventing Prejudice: A Guide for Counselors and Educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

  • Marris, P. (1975). Loss and Change. New York: Anchor Books.

  • Wilkins, R. (2001). Jefferson's Pillow. Boston: Beacon Press.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL