Educational anthropologists strive to understand the cultural aspects of educational systems both in the United States and globally. At the same time, we seek to engage in practices that are responsive to our research participants, particularly those from marginalized and oppressed communities. In our own work (Carla and Gabriela), which is participatory in nature, we collaborate with pre- and in-service teachers and language minoritized K-12 students, families, and community members. In what follows, we reflect on our experiences organizing a panel for last year’s (2020) AAA virtual conference that included some of the in-service teachers we work with. We believe the lessons learned from this experience have important implications for future meetings and for rethinking the practice of talking about the people we work with rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.
In March 2020, we submitted a proposal for the 2020 AAA Meeting entitled, Verdad y Responsibilidad: Testimonios, acciones, y esperanzas de comunidades multilingues. The session was prepared entirely in Spanish. The original goal of the panel encompassed themes such as translanguaging, learning in our home language as a right, and maintaining cultural identity. When the AAA 2020 annual meeting in St. Louis was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to consult with our colleagues from the double panel we submitted, to see if there was interest in participating in the AAA 2020 Raising Our Voices virtual event. Seven of us that had planned and organized the original proposal, members of the Multilingualism, (Multi)Literacies and Language in Schools and Communities committee of the Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE), decided to submit a proposal for the virtual event and everyone contributed to writing the abstract. We made a conscious effort to organize a panel discussion for this event that embodied the principles of our academic profession and that supports the CAE mission. We changed the focus from our original goal toward the current events of COVID-19 in schools and the Black Lives Matter movement. We intentionally chose to “raise the voices” of our collaborative partners, the multilingual in-service teacher collaborators we work alongside, as honored guests for this event. We prioritized their voices as invaluable and precious witnesses of knowledge within our purposefully designed panel.
In planning our session, questions arose about our own roles as academics and organizers. What would our roles be in this panel…What did raising the voices of our honored guests look and sound like? What did listening imply in this context? Some ideas included incorporating padlets and jamboard interactive slides to allow for participants to ask questions and allow for dialogue. But we as panel organizers intentionally excluded dialogue time in the session design as the purpose of the panel was to listen attentively to the voices of the non-academic guests. We recognize that in most academic settings, our bilingual/multilingual collaborative partners do not get a chance to contribute personally. We are also aware that, when given the chance to talk about their passions, academics can talk for long periods of time. Because “we must listen and allow subaltern voices to be heard” (Flores 2013), as our abstract stated, we wanted to use the whole hour to listen to them.
Against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, we believe that now more than ever it is crucial that voices from the margins be centered. We constantly reflect on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s (1988) question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In addition to Spivak’s question, we also reflect on the manner in which these now global events are taking place in the public sphere. We look to the framework of Nancy Fraser (1990), which extends the bourgeois notion of Jürgen Habermas (1962) by examining who contributes to the discussion within the public sphere and whether conversations include all community members. In the recent past, healthcare and police brutality committed against African Americans was often found in an alternative public or subaltern counterpublic. Fraser writes that the subaltern counterpublic has historically been excluded from dominant public conversation due to gender identity, sexuality, race and ethnicity, social status, or ability to own property. However, in 2020 voices from the margin rose from the subaltern counterpublic into the public sphere for the whole world to witness. During this timeframe, systemic racism became an important topic of discussion. Therefore, as elite academics, when creating our event, our group questioned, who is included in the conversation about a public issue and whether our work and our panel are accessible to everyone.
With this in mind, our proposed event organized intellectual subaltern individuals (Kumaravadivelu 2016) to share their reality from their own positionality. The following questions, shared with our honored guests before they accepted to participate and, became the central focus of the event: 1) How can we restore educational justice for racialized multilingual communities in these challenging times? 2) What are some of the local response efforts that have been successful in supporting bilingual/multilingual families during the pandemic? And 3) What continue to be some of the areas of educational need and challenges? In the session design, academic participants would be invited to listen to the voices of our intellectual subaltern honored guests as they shared the realities they face daily in their schools and classrooms in this moment of the pandemic and Black Lives Matters movement, and how this also affects their students’ lives.
For a number of reasons, our panel was not included in the official Raising Our Voices program. However, panel organizers and guests decided to continue with our event at the same timeslot we had been assigned in the program. We advertised the event within CAE and among our international colleagues. We were thrilled with the outcome. There were 49 total educators in attendance, (12 panelists, 37 participants, 5 honored guests), including senior scholars. The panel’s main purpose was to raise the voices of, as mentioned before, our non-academic guests and marginalized subaltern practitioners. One of our honored guests said,
I really enjoyed being part of the panel and I would love to participate in other events in the future. It was my first time speaking about the work I do in my classroom, with a greater audience, and I felt very comfortable sharing my experiences with other teachers and professors who shared similar ideas. I liked that the professors were very interested in what we were sharing, and they were asking questions so we could expand on the topic. I also liked the way we were introduced by the panelist, who invited us, that made me feel very special (Personal conversation, March 22, 2021, Reyna Albertina).
During the session, we all listened and learned about classroom experiences during the pandemic and how educational justice issues were viewed and addressed. We heard various contexts described and about the increased and rapid demand to learn and develop online lessons. The need for a culturally relevant curriculum and the growing importance of including literature that reflects the students’ lives were reaffirmed. The need to build community and work in partnership with families to restore educational justice for multilingual communities through the leveraging of the community’s funds of knowledge was emphasized. The pandemic and the resulting virtual learning have limited the daily opportunities for educators to get to know their students and families and therefore to support them through their challenges. Some of the schools in which our honored guests work have reinstated home visits to reach out to students and their families. Our educator guests stated their desire to continue these home visits to closely establish collaboration between school and community, as well as to learn more about their students’ contexts. The panel also led to sharing information about each other’s contexts to plan future conversations and share resources.
As educational anthropologists we strive to move past our colonial beginnings to constantly propose and exemplify examples of “just solutions to educational problems” (Council on Anthropology and Education 2021). After weighing all costs involved, we are grateful we prioritized the voices of our event’s honored guests and removed our panel from the official Raising Voices 2020 program due to the barriers we encountered by attempting to make our event accessible to everyone. For us to be the most successful in our work as anthropologists, we must listen to and allow subaltern individuals to speak for themselves. We encourage AAA, CAE, and all sections to challenge our traditional beliefs and systems of power of including practitioners and co-creators of knowledge in annual meetings and programming structures by making these public spheres as accessible and inclusive as possible.