For most of my academic career I have researched teaching and learning using the traditional institution-centric approach of anonymizing all the people and places that I study. As of late, I felt that while this helped identify general trends, it did not help scholars, teacher educators, and teachers get a true picture of what is happening on the ground in education. I decided to engage in community-based research and write a book to help tell the stories of teachers and the work they do, using their names, and describing their work with groups and organizations.
I knew this was a different kind of writing and research. I knew I had to make sure that what I wrote was accurate, and represented the work that the teachers did in a fair way. I, as academic, hold power in the words I write, and I need to get it right. I made sure to double and triple check the stories I wrote with the teachers that I wrote about, and do as much background research as I could on the organizations they worked with. Yet, in this different paradigm, I learned an important lesson about writing about teacher-led organizations today that I hope other education writers can learn from as well: the representation of the social make-up and structure of leadership matters.
The mission and vision of groups are often lived out through their organizational and participation structures. When you write about who is participating and how leadership operates in a group, you are telling a story about what the groups values. If you get that wrong, you misrepresent the group entirely.
I learned this lesson particularly through my writings about one group, EduColor, which promotes critical conversations about race in education through online discussions and by building networks of educators. The group operates as a leaderful collective, with mostly women of color at the helm. There is no single leader, but rather, a democratic structure committed to including diverse voices in the work. My knowledge of the group came from my work with two educators involved, whom I wrote about in my book. Later, in a related EdWeek article, I mentioned these two as leaders in the group, based on my previous writing.
The effect that this one sentence had was much larger than I realized. I learned from several members of the group that in that statement I had misrepresented the organizational structure and the core people involved in the group. First of all, by leaving out the collective nature of the leadership, I misrepresented the democratic value system of the group. Secondly the two educators I mentioned were both male, one African American, and one White. However, the collective leadership of the group were mainly women of color. This type of misrepresentation was a pattern in previous press about the group. The two men were more frequently highlighted as educational leaders than others. I had continued a pattern of misrepresentation in writing my article.
It was a devastating moment for me, as person who identifies as a woman of color, to realize I had repeated a pattern that was so detrimental, and as a researcher who strives to promote marginalized voices. Also, all of my research on teacher-led organizing had told me that the notion of collective, horizontal leadership, was a critical component of organizing today. I had re-inscribed the autocratic, hierarchical understanding of leadership in describing the group, even in my attempts to highlight how it was uniquely different the group was to others.
Yet, it was also a moment of learning, and an opportunity to address this issue head on. When members of the group reached out to share their concerns with me I realized it was a chance to set things right. I decided to write this blog post to acknowledge that misrepresentation, seek correction (and connection) with EduColor, and to highlight it as a lesson for future scholars.
I have written this post through a process of feedback and conversation with several members of EduColor. Their feedback has helped me to explain the nuances of representation, structure and power in writing about education organizing groups. It is my hope that this post also becomes something of the beginning of a conversation of representation of leadership, and how education scholars and writers can check themselves.
Here are some key take-aways for education writers to consider:
- Representation of leadership structure matters – structure denotes values and ideologies. Today many social movements and organizations have a more collective, democratic structure and framing this with older language of leadership hierarchy can misrepresent the group.
- Representation of participation matters – go straight to the source of the organization for information on this, rather than other headlines so as not to perpetuate certain narratives.
- If you misrepresent, take responsibility to publicly acknowledge this, and work with the group to correct it.
- Public, community-based research is fundamentally different than blinded research. In researching people, remember their connections to other people or groups – think on how you represent them as well.
Engaging in community-based research means that the research project is never fully over – the scholar is a member of the community, learning alongside with it, and sharing that learning publicly. At a recent research forum, a colleague that also engages in this type of work reflected on his role as a scholar which resonated very much with me. He said that research is not the end goal, only a tool. The end goal is seeking greater equity, social justice, and liberation through the work. Thus, it is a different road to travel than traditional institution-centered research, with new lessons to learn along the way.