Putting equity at the center: a Q&A with Valerie Kinloch

Remake Learning co-chair Valerie Kinloch shares thoughts on the role equity plays in learning, the future of the Remake Learning network, and her own scholarship.

Valerie Kinloch is Co-Chair of the Remake Learning Council and the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, a position she began in July 2017. Dean Kinloch’s scholarship examines literacy and community engagement both inside and outside of schools. She is the author or editor of a number of books, including Harlem On Our Minds: Place, Race, and the Literacies of Urban Youth (2010), Urban Literacies: Critical Perspectives on Language, Learning, and Community (2011), Crossing Boundaries: Teaching and Learning with Urban Youth (2012), Service-Learning in Literacy Education: Possibilities for Teaching and Learning (2015) and June Jordan: Her Life and Letters (2006).

We sat down with Dean Kinloch to talk about the role equity plays in learning, the future of the Remake Learning network, and her own scholarship.

As co-chair of the Remake Learning Council, what projects or goals are you most excited about pursuing? What opportunities within the network are you most enthusiastic about?

I am most excited by Remake Learning’s intentional focus on thinking differently about learning: not just teaching and not just education, generally, but also the process of learning, the act of learning, the practice of learning, and how we remake learning to make it more engaging. That is very intriguing, to be part of a council that is intentionally focused on thinking about and engaging in learning across different contexts: schools and out of school environments.

Also, I am excited by Remake Learning’s intentional focus on equity because I am really invested in thinking about and acting on equitable education practices. For the Remake Learning Council to take into serious consideration equity when it comes to emphasizing learning in relation to girls and STEM, underrepresented and historically marginalized groups of people—racially, ethnically, linguistically—and for Remake to seriously attend to equity across these different contexts such as urban environments, rural environments, and other geographic locations—that’s really exciting and critical work.

Dr. Valerie Kinloch, Dean of the School of Education, photographed at Posvar Hall, September 13, 2017. Aimee Obidzinski

Dr. Valerie Kinloch / photo: Aimee Obidzinski

Going off that idea of an intentional focus on equity, can you talk about your creation of the position of Associate Dean for Equity and Justice in Pitt’s School of Education?

Shortly before I began my tenure as Dean, I had conversations with people in upper administration about my desire to create a senior-level position that emphasizes equity and justice and what this position might look like and represent.

Different universities and various schools/colleges of education, and so many other people do the work of equity and justice, and they do it well. However, most times the person charged with leading efforts in equity and justice is not someone who has a senior leadership position. It might also be someone who is not well-versed in equity and justice scholarship. I wanted to create this leadership position because as a nation, generally, we talk about diversity and inclusion in ways that do not always encourage us to explicitly and seriously focus on educational equity. Then, when we do talk about equity, we often do so in ways that do not attend to how we can and must work to equalize the educational playing field, and how we must provide access to resources and opportunities to “under-resourced” or minoritized communities.

Hiring someone in this role signifies a commitment to the work of equity and justice, and that we all have to be committed to it. It takes all of us.

I was very interested in descriptions of your scholarship that emphasized literacies and community engagement both inside and outside schools. Could you talk about what makes the outside-schools part so important?

That outside-of-school (or beyond school) aspect of my work is really, really important because I have always believed learning happens everywhere. Before I started school in in Charleston, South Carolina, I was already part of a family in which learning was always happening, even during those moments when we did not name it learning. Sitting on the front porch listening to my father, seeing my parents read the newspapers, playing in the community with my peers, and walking down the street reading community signs—these things represented learning events that occurred outside of school.

Somewhere along the way, learning in schools stopped resembling the types of learning, engagement, activities, and conversations that were always happening inside our intimate and familiar community spaces. And, I began to wonder why and I wanted to know what caused this disconnect between learning in and beyond schools.

I started thinking more deeply about this disconnect during my graduate studies in Detroit, Michigan, and even more so when I lived in Houston, Texas. However, my interest in grappling with this disconnect really took shape during my work in New York City’s Harlem community when I partnered with amazing young folks who were so actively engaged in their communities. We began to have some powerfully rich conversations, and I started to observe them inside their schools. At that moment, I noticed that our conversations and their interactions inside schools were different from those in the community. While some might claim that young people are disinterested in or disengaged from school, I believe schools (the place) and schooling (the act and practice) has a way of suppressing that energy young people bring with them from their out-of-school environments. Focusing on both spaces—inside schools and inside communities—is really important.

What do you see as the most pressing challenges facing underserved and under-resourced learners within the Remake Learning network?

I think this is multi-pronged. In the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, our goal is to provide people with access to learning and to framing their learning in meaningful ways that contribute to positively impacting society and lives, especially when it comes to what many refer to as “underserved” and “under-resourced” communities. Providing access might mean a number of different things. It might mean seeking to better understand why certain groups of people do not access the university or do not feel safe and welcomed here, and then attempting to address the exclusionary measures that lead people to rightfully feel the way they do. Doing so can then lead to a space that is accessible and open to others who have historically been uninvited or dis-invited from being here.

Another challenge that we need to address is determining meaningful ways by which to talk with and listen to people: What do others say they want and need? What do they see as their desires, hopes, dreams, and challenges? It is so important for us to commit to listening to people and honoring their voices and perspectives. In so doing, we can get closer to understanding what they say they need and want as we collaborate with them and them with us to make those needs and wants realities. I see this as an important challenge. Without engaging in this kind of work, without taking a survey of what people say they want, we will always continue to assume that what we are doing works.

This shouldn’t be hard to do, but somehow we oftentimes do not this work (of talking and listening) right. The world would be fundamentally different if we could just get that right. That is, if we could really learn to listen and to make meaningful connections with others, then we might better understand how such interactions are situated in learning that can lead us to engaging in equitable practices. Somehow, we have arrived at a place, overall, where either we don’t know how to listen or we don’t want to do listen because we think it threatens our ideological and epistemological ways of being in the world. I really believe that we have to figure out how to engage with others as we practice ways to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality education, let alone affordable healthcare. Having access to these things are (or should be) fundamental.

What about the most promising opportunities?

A most pressing opportunity is to have and engage in different types of conversations about learning, equity, and justice that should happen, but don’t always happen across different groups of people. Having a variety of people from many different communities all come together in our commitment to equity and remaking learning, and being able to have collaborations and partnerships emerge from this coming together—now that’s transformative.

What innovations do you see shaping and supporting an equitable future for learning?

A critical innovation for me would be to figure out a way to do the work that we are doing in the School of Education across different types of communities, and to do so in ways where people do not always have to come to campus to participate in this work. As I stated earlier, learning happens everywhere, and we need to have a commitment to engaging in/participating in learning in all different types of communities. I am not talking about having faculty members and students go into schools and communities to “do” research, but fashioning multiple types of sustainable education partnerships with communities, parents and families, kids, and community pedagogues. This requires us to be invited into community spaces and to co-create learning opportunities with people inside communities. This also requires that we work alongside community experts who are often unsung heroes, but whose commitment to community engagement, revitalization, learning, and justice is unwavering. And we ensure that they have access to resources that facilitate their work and their learning and that support their lives and literacies. We cannot simply sit in our offices on campus or enter into a community to “do” research. We need to be inside communities building relationships and partnerships with other people.

So, I am obsessed with thinking about the many different ways for us to not just have a presence in communities, but to genuinely provide, make available, and/or partner to create opportunities because we care about and want to do what’s right by others. For example, I have been thinking a lot about how to better support community pedagogues, or educators, who have expertise but who might not have credentials or degrees. How can we support their educational pursuits in ways that are accessible and affordable, and that center their knowledge-work and knowledge-lives?

What do you think is most important that we get right about the future of learning?

I think it is important that we understand that learning happens everywhere. In some ways, I believe some folks still think that learning happens only inside of academic institutions. That perspective stifles so many of our kids and young adults who are innovatively creating and engaging inside their communities. It also leads some of us to negatively mark our kids and young adults in ways that are not just and not humane. If we want to get the future of learning right (whatever that future will be), then we have to go into schools and communities and homes and see learning happening, sometimes in the spaces and places that we might least expect. If we can do this, then we can begin to think more expansively about the power of learning.

Also, I think it’s important for us to consider: How do we think about learning in relation to human life? In relation to other people? What do we want to change about the world and our reality, and can how learning move us closer to this? What makes learning innovative, and what is it that we want to see in regards to learning, equity, and engagement within the next five-to-ten years? How do we answer that question even if we do not know how the future of learning will look? What kinds of jobs are going to be created and by whom? The point is not to answer these questions definitely, but to reimagine and remake our perceptions about learning in relation to equity, engagement, justice, and the future of learning.

Published August 21, 2018

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