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Interview with Sherry Deckman, Ph.D. from Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY) on Racial and Gender Equity through Teacher Education, Black Student Arts Groups, and LGBTQ+ Student Inclusion

About Sherry Deckman, Ed.D.: Sherry Deckman is Associate Professor of Education at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY) and is an affiliated member of the faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she also serves as Executive Officer and Associate Professor in the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education. Dr. Deckman’s scholarship on educational equity focuses on teacher education and preparing teachers to work with students from diverse race, class, and gender backgrounds.

Dr. Deckman’s research also investigates how students pursue equity and discuss racial justice in artistic student groups, as in her recent book on the Harvard University Kuumba Singers, Black Space: Negotiating Race, Diversity, and Belonging in the Ivory Tower. Dr. Deckman has authored dozens of publications that appear in leading journals including the Journal for Multicultural Education, Teaching and Teacher Education, and Urban Education. Her recent scholarly articles include “Classroom Management #Karen: What Can Educators Learn from a Meme?” and “Beyond Pronouns: The Case for Gender-Expansive and Democratizing Practice in Teacher Education” that appear in Multicultural Perspectives and Teachers College Record, respectively. Dr. Deckman also serves as Editor of the Journal for Multicultural Education, and is Co-Editor of the collected volume Humanizing Education: Critical Alternatives to Reform.

Additionally, Dr. Deckman has served as Associate Professor in the Social Welfare Graduate Program at the CUNY Graduate Center and as Co-Coordinator of the Social Studies Education Program at Lehman College. Prior to joining the faculty at Lehman College and the CUNY Graduate Center, Dr. Deckman was Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Ithaca College. Dr. Deckman received her Ed.D. in Culture, Communities, and Education from Harvard University, where she also earned her Ed.M. in Education. She has a B.A. in Communications from the University of Pennsylvania.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in issues of equity in education, especially with respect to teacher education and how teachers are trained to engage with diverse students and issues related to race, gender, and class?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] This question makes me think of both personal factors and professional factors. Personally, I think about my own family experience. My family is racially diverse and to some extent socioeconomically diverse. I was privy to seeing how different people from different backgrounds navigated educational systems and how they were served and underserved. Because of that, I was interested in issues of justice and equity even from a young age.

I became a teacher after college. I worked in a high school in northwest Washington D.C. There, again, I was able to perceive firsthand how we were serving or not serving students from different backgrounds. I was working with ESL [English as a Second Language] students, many of whom had immigrated from Central America and Ethiopia. I would interact with their parents and could see the kinds of resources that they needed and did not have access to, both in the school and in their communities. That propelled me to continue working in education more and then to pursue a doctorate.

One other experience solidified my path. After teaching in Washington D.C. for a few years, I supported teachers in Brooklyn, New York City. I was assigned to about 20 different schools in a single district, and I would go observe different teachers. I got to see lots of different schools and how those schools, even if they had a similar demographic of students, had different access to resources based on the community they were located in. That experience raised lots of questions that I wanted to research as a Ph.D. student.

[] Will you introduce us to how you define equity in your own research and practice, perhaps reflecting on your recent piece “Going Beyond Anti-Racist Pedagogical Practices: Co-Constructing a Pro-Black Classroom”? How does this piece reframe our understanding of what is required of movements for racial equity in education?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] I frequently teach the Educational Foundations course at Lehman College. One of the questions that I always engage my students with is, “What do we mean by equity and what do we mean by equality?” I will start there, because I think that is a really helpful frame for people who are entering the conversation to think through.

Sometimes when people talk about equity, what they mean is equality, which is all students getting the same thing. I would say that that is not equity, because equity is about what students need. If we think about students whose communities have been systematically marginalized or disenfranchised, they may need more resources, or more of a certain kind of resource, than students in another position. If we give everyone x number of dollars per person in every school district, that is not going to do much to level out other disparities that exist between high-income communities and low-income communities. For folks who are interested in delving more deeply into the difference between equity and equality, I just finished reading a book that I thought was very helpful by Dr. Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade called Equality or Equity: Toward a Model of Community-Responsive Education.

I think about equity in terms of what students need, focusing on what they or their communities have been denied. I think anti-racism plays into that, because racism is a systemic barrier that functions to limit opportunities and access for students. “Going Beyond Anti-Racist Pedagogical Practices: Co-Constructing a Pro-Black Classroom” delves into the question of what anti-racism actually means and whether anti-racism pedagogy really serves Black students. I wrote this with some of my own students here at The City University of New York, and we argue that it does not.

For a long time, we have been using this word “diversity” to refer to doing right by students of different backgrounds. But many folks would agree that the word has been cheapened, so it does not really mean a lot anymore. Our argument in this paper is that this is similar to how anti-racism was taken up after the summer of 2020. Lots of schools were saying, “Oh, we’re going to be anti-racist,” but then were doing the same thing they did to the word diversity, where they appropriated the discourse, but it was cheapened because it did not equate to meaningful action.

One of the main conclusions is that we need to be very specific with our language and demands to create classrooms in which Black students can thrive. I think my co-authors would also agree that, if we are fostering classrooms in which Black students can thrive, then we are fostering classrooms in which all students can thrive. This means moving toward equity by providing everybody what they need in order to be well and to do well.

[] Your most recent book is Black Space: Negotiating Race, Diversity, and Belonging in the Ivory Tower, where you examine the Kuumba Singers, a Black student performing arts organization at Harvard University. Would you provide us some background on this book and highlight some of its key insights? What do the Kuumba Singers help us understand about the potentialities of, and the challenges faced by, Black student organizations and campus “safe spaces”?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] This book is about the Kuumba Singers, which is Harvard’s oldest Black student organization. That is, in and of itself, unique. Another thing that interested me about them for this research was that it is not an exclusively Black student organization. It has members of many different racial backgrounds who all feel equally like members and very comfortable and affirmed in this space. This, again, raises the question of diversity and what it means.

Part of what I say in this book is that when we talk about diversity, we are often talking about spaces or organizations that are predominantly white that will then recruit a few people who are not white. I thought that the Kuumba Singers was a unique organization to think about that dynamic from the flip side. Although, the Kuumba Singers did correct me during the research to say, “We were diverse even before we had people who weren’t Black because there were so many Black students from different countries and backgrounds.” Still, we can see the limits to the way we talk about racial diversity in the U.S. starkly illustrated in this case. Diversity is often neither progressive nor helpful if it only means getting a few people of color into a predominantly white space.

The Kuumba Singers also tell us a lot about conversations surrounding safe spaces in higher education. In the book, I discuss how, when we talk about safe spaces in predominantly white higher education institutions, we often do not acknowledge that is the context. But that context sets the parameters for how people feel they can function and for what safety means. Critics of safe spaces argue that safe spaces squelch free speech, which means students are not really learning or engaging rigorously with people who have different ideas.

In contrast, with the Kuumba Singers, the students I spoke with across different backgrounds all called it a safe space, but they do talk about challenging ideas. They do not all agree. They are not robots or copies of one another. They prioritize thinking about race and being very conscious about the racial context. I think this offers a valuable lesson for predominantly white institutions in how explicitly discussing the racial context might actually open up opportunities for the kinds of dialogue that people so often seek.

You and I are having this conversation today when the Supreme Court is about to issue its decision about Affirmative Action in higher education. Historically, one of the key reasons that Affirmative Action has been allowed is because of the value of learning from people who are different. It is an interesting time to be having this conversation and to think about what it means to learn from people who are different and how we can make that an accessible and worthwhile endeavor for all.

[] As you just mentioned, safe spaces have been criticized for shutting down dialogue, but that is not what you found when you were researching this student group. Could you elaborate on how you see this dynamic? Do you think having these open dialogues about race made students feel more safe in those spaces, or do you think that having these types of dialogues is a testament to the safeness of that space?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] I think it likely goes both ways. Some designated “safe spaces” on campus do not necessarily feel that way to students, but in this case it did. Because they felt truly safe, they could have these more challenging conversations, which then contributes to the feeling of the safe space. They were just upfront about how things were. It was not like a game of hide the ball. The rules of engagement were spoken, and that included having some really hard conversations about race and the expectations about how people might participate from different backgrounds because of power dynamics elsewhere on campus. I think the dynamic comes full circle and feeds back into itself.

[] Some of your most recent pieces focus on transforming how teachers engage with gender and sexuality in classrooms, including “Beyond Pronouns: The Case for Gender-Expansive and Democratizing Practice in Teacher Education,” and “‘We Cannot Imagine’: US Preservice Teachers’ Othering of Trans and Gender Creative Student Experiences.” In a moment when LGBTQ+ students are facing increasingly hostile attempts to regulate their identities in educational institutions, would you highlight some of the important issues trans, nonbinary, and gender creative students face in their interactions with educators and some of the recommendations you make to educators to support these students?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] That research focuses on what the teacher educators are doing and saying. I think it is important to note that I am not trying to speak on behalf of LGBTQ+ students and what they might experience. Still, there are so many examples in the media and in bills that are being passed today that indicate what is happening very clearly. If we look at Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for example, this is a very overt move by the government that limits what teachers are allowed to say and how they can engage in conversation with their students in their classrooms.

I would say there are also subtler experiences that may exclude students in classrooms. For a basic example, consider how students are addressed when we talk about “boys and girls,” when we divide them and have them line up that way, or when the only examples in history classes are about people who are clearly identified as having heterosexual partnerships. Or the controversy over trans students in school athletics, which has also been in the news a lot lately, and is not necessarily so subtle. There are myriad ways in which students are informed through schooling practices that who they are is not acceptable.

There are so many great things that teachers are doing to push back against this, but this context of student exclusion informed my interest in doing this work and thinking about what teachers and teacher educators might be able to do better to foster more inclusive school contexts and classrooms. One thing that we noticed teachers struggling with was treating issues of gender expansiveness as individual problems to be addressed. They would just deal with the one kid who is non-binary, for instance, and treat their identity like it is a problem isolated with that particular child.

Instead, they ought to be opening it up and thinking about ways in which society and the educational system may not be set up to accommodate the identities of those students. One recommendation that we have is shifting away from thinking about solving the problem with the individual child to thinking about how classroom practices, curriculum, and other aspects of their educational experience could be more inclusive.

Another thing that I found interesting in the research that I would want teachers to think about is the existence of an empathy gap. The title of one of the papers you mentioned is “‘We Cannot Imagine.’” That phrase suggests a failure of empathy. It says that what you are going through is so foreign to me that I cannot even imagine what it is like. This was expressed with the pre-service teachers we studied with respect to how they spoke about trans and non-binary students, often labeling them either as victims or heroes.

They would say things like “I can’t imagine. Your life is so hard, oh my gosh,” or, “I can’t imagine, you’re so amazing and brave to face this really horrible world.” We want to push back on that a little bit and have teachers think about their own experiences with gendering. How can we strive to actually imagine, so that we can close the empathy gap in order to better serve all of our students?

[] Another place your research overlaps with current educational controversies is in its focus on the politics of textbooks, which you have explored in “Numbers are Just Not Enough: A Critical Analysis of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Elementary and Middle School Health Textbooks,” and “(Un)Affirming Assimilation: Depictions of Dis/ability in Health Textbooks.” Could you contextualize the importance of health textbooks in the larger struggle for educational equity, considering some of the problematics in their content that your research explores? Do you see new or unique barriers to attempts to make textbooks more inclusive in our current context?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] Health is not necessarily my area of focus. That was a group project, and we started with health due to the research interests of other members of the team. But, of course, health is important to equity. We were thinking about disparities in health outcomes and access to healthcare and how to design appropriate health messaging to mitigate these disparities. We were doing a study that was essentially an update of a study that had been done with textbooks in the 1980s. We wanted to document any shifts over this time in how people of non-dominant backgrounds were portrayed in health textbooks.

What we found is that there were numerically more people from non-dominant backgrounds in textbooks, but when we dug deeper we saw it was a matter of the textbooks seemingly just tossing in some people that were of non-dominant backgrounds. In a 1995 publication, Sandra Harding introduced the idea of “just add women and stir.” This is an approach to diversity where we just throw in some people and stir, and then everything is fine. We argue that this is problematic. These are messages — what educators call the “hidden curriculum” — that communicate values and appropriate ways of being to students. That needs to be interrogated and is not addressed by the add and stir approach.

These days, there is a lot of conversation about the extent to which we are still using textbooks. Perhaps we are moving to different kinds of materials, but teachers are still using curricular materials. Whatever those curricular materials, they need to be interrogated for how inclusive they are of people from non-dominant backgrounds, how they are portrayed, and the messages students might be getting about those people.

I think the challenge now is that textbook companies are companies. Any company that makes curriculum has a bottom line, and they succumb to the pressures of the market. We know certain states exert undue influence on the market because they buy a lot of textbooks. Think about Texas, for example, or Florida. When legislation impacts, for instance, whether and how AP African American History is taught, textbook companies respond to that because they are trying to appeal to a market that is going to buy their materials. Teachers are also afraid of losing their jobs for using materials that might deviate from what is acceptable in their state. This goes far beyond Texas and Florida; many states have been enacting legislation that limits what teachers feel they can say without having their livelihoods jeopardized.

[] You are currently Editor of the Journal for Multicultural Education. Would you discuss how your commitments to social justice and equity guide your approach to your role as Editor? Has your view of this role changed in light of the political developments you just mentioned?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] I do not think that it has changed. We have been in this cultural current for a little while, even though some of what has come down the pike has perhaps been beyond what we were anticipating.

As an academic, publications are really important. It is how we get promoted, it is how we get tenure, and how we are able to keep our jobs. In light of that, I see being a journal editor as being an extremely important gatekeeping position. I think about that a lot in my role. I think about what kinds of work are accepted, published, and seen as valuable in different contexts, because across academia different types of studies are valued differently. As an editor, I can try to cultivate voices, perspectives, and approaches to research that might not be valued elsewhere.

Further, when I have time, which is not as often as I would like, I can work with junior scholars or first-generation academics. No one else in my family has a doctorate, so I try to help other first-generation academics who may not have the same training, understanding, or personal and professional connections. If I see a piece and I think, “Oh, this just needs a little bit more editing,” I can help them and give them feedback before it is sent out for review.

I would really love to see more editors acknowledging their gatekeeping role and how important that is. I would love to see more folks trying to think about ways to foster diverse voices and perspectives.

[] Similarly, could you discuss how your perspective on educational equity has informed your prior service as Co-Coordinator of the Graduate Program in Social Studies Education at Lehman College and your current role as Executive Officer in the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] Both of those positions are at The City University of New York, which I would say is, itself, a movement towards educational equity in New York City. We are lucky that we have this institution which is trying to make high-quality education and educational attainment accessible.

I co-coordinated the program in Social Studies Education at Lehman College, which is in the Bronx. This is the only four-year, degree granting CUNY institution in the Bronx. That matters a lot in opening up opportunities for students, and I value that part of my job. An emphasis of my role was to help shepherd first-generation students through the process and answer their questions.

I am just beginning my role with the Ph.D. program now, but I am similarly looking forward to cultivating programming aimed at helping first-generation students navigate the educational system better. That will help them get the jobs that they want, to produce the scholarship that they want, and to be the kinds of educators that they want to be.

[] Based on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to educators, scholars, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity through their own work?

[Dr. Sherry Deckman] For people who are classroom educators, one thing that you could do is take an inventory. You could do what sometimes is called an “equity audit,” for example. This involves thinking about your curriculum, but also can expand beyond that. Take a look at what structures are in place in your classroom, what curricular materials you use, what messages these materials and structures might be sending to students, and how those messages might move towards or move away from equity. If you research “equity audit,” you will find many valuable resources for doing this.

For Ph.D. students and emerging scholars, I would say make connections. Find people who will champion your work, because there will be people who will not hesitate to do that. If there is something you are really passionate about, sometimes people say, “Don’t research that until you have tenure,” but I think you can stay committed to issues of equity through finding people who will champion your work.

For educators, I would also recommend my publication with Lizette Aguilar in Multicultural Perspectives, “Classroom Management #Karen: What Can Educators Learn From a Meme?” In that piece, we discuss how educators might interrogate systems of discipline and punishment in their schools and classrooms with particular attention to whiteness.

Finally, while we have talked about my work as being either about gender or being about race, I think that moving forward, I really want to make sure that those threads of my work are coming together. A term we use in education sometimes is intersectionality, which describes the ways in which people’s experiences differ and how they are often disenfranchised differently based on their overlapping identities. Thinking about intersectionality allows us to be much more nuanced about how students from different backgrounds experience school, and I think that is an excellent opportunity for thinking about making change as educators.

Thank you, Dr. Deckman, for sharing your insights on pursuing racial equity and inclusion for LGBTQ+ students through teacher education, your work on the Kuumba Singers and educational safe spaces, and more!