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Anti-racism at the Forefront of New Justice Collective

A woman in a blue shirt reading a book to children
On the Sunday following the death of George Floyd in May, Valerie Kinloch, Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, sat at her desk with a heavy heart and started to write. A nationally recognized scholar with a career dedicated to advancing educational equity, Kinloch knew she had to intervene.

“We have to move into action, and one way to do that is by bringing people together to do meaningful work,” said Kinloch. “We must get to a point where justice is not a buzz word.”

The following morning, in a letter sent to faculty, staff and students in the School of Education, Kinloch announced the creation of the PittEd Justice Collective: A three-year working group that will engage in anti-racist, justice-directed initiatives with the Pitt Education community as well as with families, children, youth, K-16 teachers, school districts and community partners.

Join the PittEd Justice Collective

While anchored in the School of Education, the Justice Collective is open to anyone interested in advancing its mission—within and beyond Pitt.

To join, head to the PittEd Justice Collective website, scroll down and submit your information.

Contact PittEdJusticeCollective [at] pitt.edu with other questions.

“It’s time for us to really think about the importance of interdisciplinary research, teaching and engagement. We can no longer engage in research, for example, that’s primarily beneficial to the people writing it,” said Kinloch. “We need to determine how to combat racism. The Justice Collective holds us accountable to actually doing the hard, necessary work.” 

And her vision is big. Kinloch has mapped out goals for each year of the Justice Collective, in what she called an “aggressive agenda.” Year one is focused on definitions and clarifying the scope of work, she said.

“The first year is all about having critical conversations about anti-racism, equity and justice. It’s about defining our terms and our work. We are committed to inviting people into conversations wherever they are, but we cannot assume that we all enter from the same place. We need to understand what these terms mean and how they impact the work we do,” she said.

The Justice Collective will also include White co-conspirator groups: White faculty, staff, students and alumni who will read common texts, share experiences about anti-racism and explore ways to form educational collaborations grounded in equity.

Kinloch said this first year will also include a school-wide read focused on anti-racism—along with a series of events, including lunch and learns, professional development opportunities and an upcoming Virtual Series on Justice. Titled “Transform for Tomorrow,” the first set of events will offer anti-racist approaches to learning, leading, teaching and strategizing for superintendents, teachers and K-16 school leaders. The series will hold its virtual sessions on July 14, 16, and 21.

Doing the work together

One of the first calls Kinloch made while forming the Justice Collective was to T. Elon Dancy II, director of the Center for Urban Education (CUE), which is housed in the School of Education (SOE). An interdisciplinary center, CUE’s work is focused on being a space of learning and sharing to positively transform educational opportunities and experiences, with an emphasis on urban education. It structures its research, service and knowledge into three areas: Community partnership and engagement, educator development and practice, and student academic and social development.

“Dean Kinloch’s vision for the justice collective is invigorating. It signals a serious commitment to principles of equity and justice, as well as a serious investment in mobilizing the SOE and broader communities toward these principles,” said Dancy. “The Center for Urban Education is thrilled to deepen our relationship with the School of Education in this way as our work aligns with the dean’s vision around our values of learning, exchange and structural transformation.”

T. Elon Dancy II in a dark suit and tie
The School of Education—which, along with CUE, also includes the Office of Child Development, the Healthy Lifestyle Institute, the Falk Laboratory School, three new academic departments, and three new training divisions—has already been centering this type of work. But the Justice Collective takes it a step further, Kinloch said, to leverage the school’s relationships with local schools and community groups.

As the Justice Collective moves into years two and three, Kinloch said her hope is to create a center or institute in the School of Education and with community partners that focuses on race and equity. The center would be focused on interdisciplinary research, practice and partnerships and be committed to making recommendations for abolitionist teaching and policy across the country.

“I’m looking for an entire overhaul of the archaic education system in this country. We need to replace it with anti-racist curricula,” said Kinloch. “We need to talk about this nationally and in ways that take a closer look at statewide educational policies, mandates and practices.”

Kinloch said this overhaul would include moving away from the reliance on standardized exams and enacting humanizing ways to think about student learning experiences, which should include attention to community-based learning. An example of community-based learning may involve a student researching a local ecosystem or issue in their community and collaborating with a community member.

Another change she would like to see: improvements to teacher education programs and the hiring of anti-racist faculty, she said.

“What would really be impactful is if we can do these things at the same time that the work is finally taken seriously and given the funding it rightfully deserves. You cannot do this work on pennies and nickels, and on the unrecognized labor of other people,” she said. “If we are truly serious about revolutionizing the entire landscape of education, then there has to be a sustainable investment made to transformative justice work.”

A collective conversation

As the nation grapples with the deaths of Floyd and others at the hands of police, Kinloch said colleagues across the University have approached her asking what they can do to take action. But instead of having separate discussions, there needs to be a collective conversation that involves the entire University and communities, she said. The Justice Collective is meant to provide a venue for these conversations.

“We need to talk about what we’re doing to ensure an anti-racist environment for our students. We need to have policies at work that truly honor who people are and the experiences they bring to the University,” said Kinloch. “We need to have a direction and a strategic plan that centers equity and justice—one that values the way we see, interact with and hire people.”

Conversations are already starting: Since announcing the creation of the Justice Collective on June 1, Kinloch said she’s received more than 130 emails from people who want to get involved.  

She expects that number to grow: As vice president and eventually president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, Kinloch is involved in professional networks that extend across the world, even as far as Australia—and she said she’s been in touch with members of other schools of education across the country about forming partnerships.

Above all, sustaining this work beyond herself and beyond Pitt is key, said Kinloch.

“For me, sustainability needs to be a part of all of our conversations,” said Kinloch. “That’s what I’m after. When I look at schools and colleges, that’s the part that often does not get centered in our work, but it must.”

Register for the Diversity Forum 2020

Join Valerie Kinloch at Pitt’s Diversity Forum 2020, Advancing Social Justice: A Call to Action, to be held from July 28-30.

The forum, which is free and open to the public, has a goal of equipping participants with the tools to make the greater Pittsburgh region a more inclusive, equitable place.

Kinloch will be moderating a keynote discussion given by author and scholar Ibram X. Kendi, of the New York Times best-seller “How to Be An Antiracist."

Register now to secure your spot.