Power literacy for educators

Talk it and walk it

by Fatimah Hayes

As a social studies teacher for 19 years in the Pennsauken Public School District and as former president of the Pennsauken Education Association, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with power. Some may find it hard to believe that. But even while standing in the most powerful position of my local association, and being the first Black woman to do so, I was reluctant to embrace my own power. I often questioned the power that came with the position.

My trepidation came from witnessing the rampant abuse of power displayed day in and day out, from the White House to the schoolhouse. In fact, if I truly reflect upon it, for the majority of my life I saw power used to manipulate, oppress, deny folx access, and ultimately strip people of their humanity.

In school settings this abuse of power shows up in many different ways. You can see it in the decisions made in the recruitment, hiring and retention of teachers of color, upholding discipline policies and practices that are oppressive, the intentional segregation of student populations, the widening of economic and academic disparities during remote learning, and ultimately in forcing teachers and staff into school buildings that are unsafe during a pandemic. Because I have witnessed the ways in which power can harm, it was something that I shied away from.

Fatimah Hayes speaking at the 2020 NJEA Equity Alliance Conference.

Soul searching

In 2019, I was asked to co-facilitate a workshop called “Power to the People of the Global Majority” with my union comrade, Gabriel Tanglao, during the NEA Minority and Women’s Leadership Training Conference. This work made me look at the multifaceted dimensions of power; my own power as well as collective power. The famous author, Alice Walker, says, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Had I given up my power because I refused to accept it as my birthright? How do I stand before a group of educators and tell them how powerful they are when I have yet to recognize the power within me? I had some soul-searching to do.

I started with what I knew to be true; the very words of affirmation that I utter to my students on almost a daily basis. My constant reminders to them that they alone are enough and that they bring myriad talents and gifts into our classroom. I had recognize the community and cultural wealth that I bring to this work. These gems are often diminished and marginalized in our society, but I know they keep me uplifted.

I looked at my family and our strong ties to unionism. I tapped into the genius of the ancestors who laid the blueprint for the work that I was embarking upon. I revisited the organizing genius of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker.

I discovered the contemporary works of Dr. Bettina Love and Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. When I looked up from those books I found myself in spaces surrounded by powerful educators, unionists and community organizers who reminded me of my greatness and the power that I possess.

Dismantling unjust systems of power

During this discovery of my own power, I continually faced the challenge of how to disrupt and dismantle the perversions of power that were all around me. I had to examine how when we are so often  confronted with individuals, systems, and institutions that abuse power, we think there’s nothing we can do, that the challenge is too great, and that the retribution will be long lasting.

I know that this type of thinking is shortsighted. In these moments, we’ve forgotten how much power we yield as a collective. Appeasement and compliance in the face of the oppressor is never the answer; history has shown us that. Mahatma Gandhi explains this perfectly: “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”

The absence of love in the power dynamic is what made me fearful of power. With that clarity and understanding I now knew the kind of leader I was and wanted to be in and outside of the classroom.

It’s beautiful the way the universe works. A simple invitation sparked an awareness and a realization of my power. Being in community with NJEA members all across this state reminded me of the collective power that WE possess. In that invitation I gained a sense of my own power and I haven’t looked back.

Fatimah Hayes is a history teacher at Pennsauken High School. She is a former president of the Pennsauken Education Association and currently serves PEA as the coordinator of the Families and Schools Together Work for Children (FAST) program. Hayes is chair of the NJEA Women in Education Committee and a UniServ consultant in the Region 3 office.  She can be reached at fhayes@njea.org.

njea r.e.a.l. movement

There is power in stories, power in language, power in joy and power in teaching. NJEA has committed to building a movement for racial equity, affirmation and literacy called the REAL Movement. Any successful movement for justice is centered on the collective power of the people.

As we focus our energy on the well-being and growth of our students and communities, it is clear that we must also build our capacity for understanding our individual and collective power in ways that allow us to reshape the systems, structures, policies, practices and school culture to be more inclusive, equitable and liberatory.

This is why we invite you to join one of our power conversations at the upcoming events:

      REAL Inclusion Learning Lab Sessions at the Equity Alliance Conference. Register – njea.org/eac

      REAL Movement-Building Session at any Winter Leadership Conference. Register – njea.org/wlc2021

      REAL Organizer’s Lounge (a.k.a. “O.L. School”) Power Series in March. Registration to be announced at real.njea.org