“Education Is Freedom Work”: Dr. Monique Morris on Investing in Black Students

Episode 07

Having access to learning is a portal to opportunity, a key to unlocking your dreams and leaving doors open for those who come after you. That’s what education has been for Dr. Monique Morris, an author, scholar, justice educator and die-hard Prince fan who, in sixth grade, found herself at a fork in the road. She got into a fight with a boy who’d provoked her. And instead of suspending her, expelling her, or arresting her and pushing her away, Dr. Morris’ teachers reconnected her to her learning community—a key moment in the life of a girl who’d been dealing with sexual abuse and violence in her home. This moment of restoration paved the path for Dr. Morris to go on to earn a doctorate in education. Others in Dr. Morris’ situation haven’t been as fortunate, and find their studies interrupted by disciplinary action and a descent down the slippery slope known commonly as the “school to prison pipeline,” where they are pushed out of the education experience and criminalized by administrators. Dr. Morris uses her own education and experience to advocate for Black and brown students, encouraging schools to look at themselves as places of healing and restoration, not punishment, so that more students of color can become the scholars they are meant to be. Because no person is “unrecoverable,” and the important“freedom work of education begins when teachers ultimately see themselves as healers.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Morris: Education is freedom work. Education is how we increase the capacity of folks to realize their full potential. 

Jen: Welcome to the For the Love Podcast with me, Jen Hatmaker. Today, we are talking about what it means to be Black in the education system in America, with author and social justice scholar Dr. Monique Morris

Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome to the show. 

We are in a really important and what is shaping up to be profound series called For the Love of Black Lives. As I’ve mentioned, and if you’ve been kind of listening to the series, as a podcast crew, we just looked at each other and said, “This cultural moment of racial reckoning is so important, and full of so many important conversations that we want to also be a part of, that we want to highlight, that we want to learn from.” And so we knew for sure that we wanted to center this in kind of an extended series.

And today, gosh, today is such a good episode. I’m really, really happy that you’re here because we’re turning our attention to education. And we’re going to think about what it’s like to be a Black child—student—in America trying to learn, and grow and flourish like every kid. And ultimately, create a space where they can find a community where they belong, where they are cherished, where they can contribute. 

So there’s a reason, and we’re going to discuss this at length, that you’ve heard the phrase school-to-prison pipeline, which is a very real construct in our country. And usually, this phrase is applied to communities of color, where children are more likely to be funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems—way more so than children in white communities. The data is very clear on this.

Many of the children who enter the school-to-prison pipeline have had harsh adverse experiences growing up that affect their physical and mental health, and in turn, affect the way they learn. And so rather than being nurtured, cared for, attended to, rather than having their trauma addressed, their pain addressed, they find themselves so often in zero-tolerance policies, and sent to alternative schools, where they don’t receive the resources and care they need there either. Or even worse, they are arrested for the disruption, and sent to juvenile detention center. 

And guys, this starts early. We talk about this, but this is, this starts in kindergarten. Like, we see six and seven-year-old kids of color arrested inside their schools for taking a piece of candy off the teacher’s desk. Just absurd overreaction to normal childhood development. 

So we are going to absolutely discuss how so many kids of color are eventually pushed out of school, and into the gears of the justice system disproportionately. In fact, according to the National Black Women’s Justice Institute analysis of civil rights data collected by the US Department of Education, Black girls are seven times more likely than their white peers to be suspended. And Black girls are three times more likely to be referred to juvenile court than their white and Latino peers. And according to today’s guest, this is a narrative we absolutely can change. She is changing it. We can change this by transforming our schools from places where Black girls and boys receive punishment disproportionately, into places where Black girls and boys can receive healing. Because when we are healed, when we are safe, when we are loved, then we can learn. It’s just that simple.

So Dr. Monique Morris is who we have today. Lucky us. And I’m very serious, lucky us. She’s an award-winning author and social justice scholar. She has three decades of experience in the areas of education, civil rights, juvenile and social justice. She founded the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, and she’s now on the board, an organization that works to transform public discourse on the criminalization of Black girls and their families. 

So ultimately, Dr. Morris says, her work is about using research and narratives to challenge actions and structures of oppression as she meets people where they are on their journey toward freedom and flourishing. 

Also, what she’s going to mention, she loves Prince, like a lot. So she’s good, people.

Dr. Morris is an incredible author of books, tons of scholarly articles. Her latest works are Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, as well as Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, which she also made into a documentary. No big deal, she can do everything. Dr. Morris is an expert on understanding the educational challenges that Black women and girls face. In Pushout, she explores what facilitates school push out for Black girls, and how to reverse those practices.

This conversation is supercharged and interesting. And it’s both daunting to face the facts, but also really encouraging to hear what’s possible. Dr. Morris really discusses her work, and what she has seen, and what she is helping to create to incredible results. 

So this is a good one, you guys. This is a good one. This is where we go—we start in the origins as early as we can when the kids are still kids. This is the place where to reverse harm, and discrimination, and bias, and punishment and turn it into love, and possibility and wholeness. 

This is a good one. I’m so pleased to share my conversation with the very brilliant Dr. Monique Morris.

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Dr. Morris, welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I feel just really honored to get to sit here for the next bit and talk to you. Thank you so much for saying yes to this.

Dr. Morris: Of course. Thank you. Thanks for doing this, and having me on.

Jen: Yeah, your work is really powerful. Really, really an incredible body of work you have brought to bear on this earth. 

I’ve told my listeners, kind of high leveled it for them about who you are. But I wonder right here out of the gate, I’d love to hear you talk a little more about the work that you do, because you are the definition of a multi-hyphenate: you write, you speak, you’ve started organizations that do important research and advocacy work. You’re a documentary filmmaker. I mean, you got a lot of buckets. 

Can you talk in sort of general terms about your work, and kind of what brought you to this work? What brought you to this table, and [what is] the overarching theme that drives what you do through all these multidisciplinary platforms?

Dr. Morris: Well, thanks for reminding me that I don’t sleep enough.

Jen: That’s got to be true. Got to be true.

Dr. Morris: I would have to say I just have always been—I think I came to this world, really, with an understanding that I would be needed to participate in conversations about equity and justice in a way that is, I think, not sort of cursory to what I do, but essential to what I do. 

I remember, I sort of grew up—I’m from San Francisco, California. And I grew up in a city that’s very different from the city it is today. That included a family that talked to me a lot about the need to repair harms of the past, to explore the vestiges of slavery, to understand that poverty and some of the conditions that I was deeply concerned about as a young person were linked to these structural inequalities that also played out by race and gender. And we didn’t really have language for it, and I didn’t really understand what was happening except that I wanted to be a part of sort of dealing with that.

But I also know I sort of had this way of understanding who I am and what I’m supposed to do, I think a little differently because my mother would constantly talk about some of these conditions. And I was surrounded by people who were trying to make meaning and sense of their own conditions in ways that would call me to question why some people had access to certain things and why some people didn’t, and why it seemed to be aligned so closely with our racial identity. And so, I think, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t concerned about this.

That said, I think that my work is really about trying to live out what I refer to in some of my lectures and discussions as “Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to us around the demands of justice.” He has this very powerful quote that he gave us in 1968, about “the need for power to correct everything that stands against love.” And when I read that in my teenage years, it really invited me into a deep active exploration of what that means, and what it could look like if I just dedicate myself to questions of equity and justice, and use my power to correct everything that stands against love.

Jen: And you did, and you are.

Dr. Morris: I work on it. I think it’s a work in progress, and I think we all have this capacity. I think sometimes we think about these big issues. So, obviously I went on through my academic routes, and my advocacy work, and my creative work and people are like, “Why do you tackle these big issues? This is just too big. Racism, too big. Sexism, too big. Poverty, too big. It’s overwhelming, I don’t have time for this.” All these things that people sort of do to dismiss it without understanding that we are the structures when we sort of think about the global impact even of our individual actions. And so it’s never too big, for me. I don’t know if it’s just a worldview, but it’s never too big.

Jen: I like that approach. That’s a powerful thing to say, because I think it’s the expansiveness of this systemic inequality that keeps a lot of people paralyzed and just sidelined thinking, Well, I’m just a person. But I really like what you just said, “We are the systems.” We can break a system down to the granular level, and look at it in terms of policy by policy, person by person, choice by choice. It can be dissected, and it can be re-imagined. This is not impossible.

Dr. Morris: Absolutely.

Jen: You gave one of the most powerful and insightful TED Talks I’ve ever heard. And so everybody listening by the way, after you hear this conversation on the podcast, I’ll link to Monique’s TED Talk, and this is required watching. 

So you open your talk by telling the audience about a fight that you got into when you were in sixth grade, and how the school responded to you. Would you mind telling the story here on this?

Dr. Morris: Yeah.

Jen: On this podcast? Okay.

Dr. Morris: No. Yeah, thank you. When I gave a TED talk, I was really thinking about how I could help people understand that even those of us who have achieved many great things, and who have managed to perform and show up in the world a specific way may not have always started out that way. So back to our conversation about the individual decision making power that we each hold, it could set up an entirely different trajectory, if we are intentional about what we do. 

So I told a story of being in sixth grade and getting into a fight with this boy, who had been taunting me and aggravating me and teasing me for a while. And we were in PE and he stepped on my shoe, and he refused to apologize. And I was so upset and filled with rage that I grabbed him and I flipped him. I had been studying judo, so it provides a little…

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: …comedic moment in the talk…

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: …with the picture of my little self in my judogi. 

I threw him to the ground, and then the teachers broke up the fight. And I acknowledged in the talk that a simple act of stepping on someone’s shoes shouldn’t warrant that kind of response in that. If someone were to look at that today, they’d be like, “Monique, you were overreacting. What’s wrong with you? All he did was step on your shoe. It’s PE, for a goodness sake.” All these things. And what I share in the talk is that I was really responding to a host of other things that I had been dealing with—sexual violence, I had been dealing with abandonment, I had been dealing with a lot of both gender-based violence and sort of structural violence that filled me with rage. And so him stepping on my shoe and refusing to apologize was just the last straw for my little self, on my sixth-grade self. And so, I wanted to fight.

And I talk about the difference between that my teacher’s response to me, and what likely would have happened today, where my teachers came in, and, of course, I got sent to the principal’s office. And I was like, “You should ask me, ‘What happened?’” Like she understood that there were a series of critical questions that she needed to ask me about what was happening in my life, rather than say, “Monique is a problem child, and she has to get out of here.”

I was not suspended. I was not expelled. I was not arrested. I talk about how nothing that I did that day kept me from coming back to school the next day, or learning. There was no interruption to my learning, but rather, the educators used it as an opportunity to reconnect me to the community that they were building in school, and they used the things that they knew about me, my love for Prince, and my love for art, to reconnect me to the community, rather than push me away.

And that is probably the biggest thing I wanted people to take away from that story, is that when young people are in crisis, that’s the moment we bring them in closer, not the moment we try to push them away.

Jen: That’s good. Yes. 

So in kind of the opposite world, as I was introducing this episode for my listeners earlier, I talked about some of the data that your organization, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute had analyzed from the US Department of Education in that Black girls are seven times now more likely to be suspended than their white peers, and three times more likely to be referred to juvenile court than their white and Latinx peers, which is a clear discrepancy and bias in the way that Black girls are viewed by the education system now, today. 

And so, one thing I’d like to hear you talk through is this a place where age compression comes in? Can you discuss more about what age compression is, and why it’s so particularly harmful to Black girls?

Dr. Morris: Yeah. When we look at the data as it impacts Black girls, it is important to note that Black girls are the only group of girls who are disproportionately experiencing exclusionary discipline—the suspensions, expulsions, referrals, arrests, etc.—across the spectrum of discipline, and at every educational level. 

So when we think about that—for me, every time I say that out loud, I’m triggered in some way, because I’m just, I cannot believe that we, well, I can believe it, because I see it. But it’s so upsetting.

Jen: Yes, it is.

Dr. Morris: And, honestly, I feel disgusted that we have identified a group of girls as disposable and treat them as such.

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: And so when I saw these numbers, certainly, I thought about my own experiences. Having once been a Black girl, I’m the mother of two Black girls, I have Black girls around me in everything I do.

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: I’ve also been educated with non-black children, and so I’m like, I know that Black girls are not the only group of girls that are getting in trouble or that make mistakes. I know that all children are going through this process of learning. It’s just that some kids have an opportunity to have their actions or their behaviors read as an adolescent or juvenile mistake as opposed to others…

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: …where it’s seen as something that is somehow indicative of a problematic personality, or poor character trait that is not correctable, and therefore not seen as sort of worthy of intervention. 

And so that’s where we talk about age compression, which is, I think, one part of it. And age compression is a concept that I talk about in the book, Pushout, and that I spend some more time with in Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues as new studies have come out. And this tremendous work has been done by Jamilia Blake, Dr. Jamilia Blake and Rebecca Epstein at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, talking about adultification, where Black girls are basically experiencing a childhood that is truncated, and somehow sort of morphed into a young adulthood, where there’s this intentional or unintentional erasure of one’s childhood experiences and the recognition that they are as children developing appropriately, or cognitively in accordance with their age group.

The age compression is really about adult perceptions of young people, and so that’s why I think much of this is about the adultification conversation, where Black girls—the study that Georgetown released showed that Black girls were experiencing sort of this reading of their behaviors as more adult-like when they’re as young as age five, and it peaks when they’re between the ages of ten and fourteen. 

And sort of in the Pushout documentary, we spend some time talking about why that’s a problem, because this is a period where Black girls are experiencing early onset puberty between eight and nine and ten. So there’s this tendency to view their bodies as more adult-like, and then to treat them as if they are little adults when they’re not.

And when we think of someone as more adult-like, as the Georgetown study shows, we tend to then, as adults, read them as needing less nurturing, less protection, and sort of less patience. As you tend to have less patience with somebody, you don’t necessarily have a view of someone who’s in need of more nurturing and engagement and comfort. But this lack of patience, this lack of reading their behaviors as developmentally appropriate can also lead to harsher treatment and engagement when young people do make a mistake.

I mean, I think it just leads to a lack of empathy. It leads to lack of interest in exploring what some of the more culturally competent gender responsive interventions might be for this group of people.

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: And it really speaks to our intentions when we’re talking about working with young people. I always bring this up when I’m thinking about six and seven-year-old Black girls who are arrested for taking candy off a teacher’s desk, or having a tantrum in class.

Jen: Yes, exactly.

Dr. Morris: Any of us who have been mothers know that six or seven-year-olds can throw a mean tantrum. Just saying.

Jen: Yes.

Dr. Morris: And we all know that there are better ways to intervene than calling in the cops. Like, imagine you’re a…

Jen: No.

Dr. Morris: …six or seven-year-old.

Jen: No.

Dr. Morris: You don’t want to.

Jen: It doesn’t make sense.

Dr. Morris: Exactly, and it doesn’t make sense to anyone. No one, under any circumstance.

Jen: No, it’s absurd.

Dr. Morris: And when I see a six or a seven-year-old, I don’t care how “violent” this tantrum appears to be, I’m clear that this is a six and seven-year-old, or a six or seven-year-old. 

Jen: Right!

Dr. Morris: And I’m clear that there are strategies that I should know in working with young people or being around young people that call upon them to calm down, and strategies that engage them, and get them to recenter. And all of these things that we know are possible that we use in everyday life, as parents that we use in everyday life, community members and siblings to get someone to calm down when they are having a moment of disruption.

Jen: It’s just the most obvious developmentally appropriate response.

Dr. Morris: And yet, so many schools are calling in law enforcement for young people who are having tantrums in class.

Jen: I want to talk about that, because this is a big deal. And this is a big deal, what we’re talking about. And I want to discuss for a minute the school-to-prison pipeline, which is, as you’re mentioning right now, we begin to see its origins in kindergarten. We’re talking about babies here.

Dr. Morris: Yeah, even Pre-K.

Jen: Pre-K, right. And so I’d like to talk about this school-to-prison pipeline, and what it’s doing to kids in communities of color. Can you talk about how this works? And what kind of compounding effects make it harder and harder, and even impossible for kids to get out of the pipeline as they age up? And then, how it affects the community as a whole?

Dr. Morris: We could spend like, at least…

Jen: 100 years, yes. I know. I know.

Dr. Morris: Right. But let me try to give you a quick version of this. So the school-to-prison pipeline is a framework that was developed by advocates to help us understand that there was a clear path between the decisions that are made in schools, and the outcomes that are criminalizing to young people, and eventually, as adults. 

For me, it represented a very linear way to consider this phenomenon that is impacting so many young people, partially because when we think of a pipeline, we think of sort of a linear path, a direct path. And so what we were seeing in that framework were the conditions that we see disproportionately impacting many of our young boys and young men, where there would be an incident that occurs on campus that then leads to a citation or some kind of direct contact with juvenile court, or with an agent of the juvenile court, or probation officer, police officers, security guards, that then leads young people into contact with the juvenile court system, and potentially later with the criminal legal system.

In my work with girls, and I wrote a piece about this in 2012 that talked about where we could locate girls in this scenario, because we were talking so much about the school-to-prison pipeline, and so many folks were talking about how this impacted Black boys and Latino boys, and that was a worthwhile conversation. And it needs to continue, because we still see the disproportionate impact for them as well. But we were losing our girls. And so, in my work, I realized that part of the problem was that we were seeing this in too linear a frame, that we needed to sort of apply what my colleague and friend Kimberlé Crenshaw calls an intersectional lens, that invites us into explore the ways that race and gender might impact how girls—or Black girls, specifically—are experiencing these conditions.

And so, in the mapping of that work, I started to identify policies, practices, conditions, and a prevailing consciousness. So what we think about Black girls that render them vulnerable to future contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system. And so I started to call it school-to-confinement pathways, because I wanted to make sure that we were talking about girls. When we talk about prison, we’re still talking about primarily privileging the conditions of and experiences of men, that’s who…

Jen: I see, yeah.

Dr. Morris: … disproportionately are in prison. But when we’re talking about confinement, residential juvenile correctional facilities, when we’re talking about right residential placements, when we’re talking about at-home probation and electronic monitoring, that’s when we start to see our girls. And so I wanted to make sure that we weren’t losing…

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: …our girls, particularly because their experiences are so intertwined with sexual violence. Their experiences are so intertwined with domestic and interpersonal violence, that we had to make sure that we were using a framework that makes sense. And I offer that because often, when we think about this structure, or we think about this pipeline, pathways, ways to identify what’s happening here, we tend to think about it as something removed from our communities, and so it’s this distant place with barbed wire and…

Jen: Good point.

Dr. Morris: …and this space where we don’t necessarily have to see people who have problems. As opposed to really understanding that when we’re talking about girls, what we’re talking about are the policies and practices in schools. What we’re talking about is the structure that we’ve created in their places of learning that either take them away from their learning, or interrupt their learning through the exclusionary discipline that renders them vulnerable to participation in underground economies that can then place them into contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system. Or we’re talking about some of those more linear structures where there are citations on campus that also lead directly to a contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system.

But what’s more obvious for me is that the more routine way that we see our girls showing up in this phenomenon is by way of telling them, “You are out of uniform,” or, “I see your bra strap.” Or, “Your shorts are too short, you need to go home.” 

And a lot of girls saying, “Why are you policing my body or reading my body? It is somehow provocative in school and therefore denying me an opportunity to learn? And now, I’m not going to come to school because I can’t be who I am fully in school, and you spend so much time talking about my body instead of what I’m here to do and learn, that this is no longer a safe space for me.” More girls are saying, “I can’t even show up with my hair the way that it naturally grows on my head without getting some kind of citation for violation of the dress code. And so, I’m now out on the street.”

Or if a girl even is a fighter and gets into trouble in school, there are not, in many places—I mean, there are a growing number of ways that schools are responding, which I talk about in Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues. But there are creative ways that we have just sort of found to get kids out of school, which is like the opposite of what we should be doing.

Jen: Totally.

Dr. Morris: We should be finding ways to keep them in school, and not finding ways to get them out of school. Because I talk to girls who were in juvenile detention facilities because they had done various things, were labeled dropouts, all these sort of ways that they were harmed in our communities. And I asked them, I was like, “What do you do when you’re expelled or when you’re suspended from school? If you get turned away from school, what is it that you do?” 

And girl, after girl, after girl, and community after community, after community would just offer, either, “I organized to have another fight,” or unfortunately, they fall into the victimization of commercial sexual exploitation. They become part of other underground economies that allow them to make money when they need it. You’re not participating, and in growing the way that we know they can. And that really maximized what I think is their true possibility, and they know this.

Jen: Of course, they do.

Dr. Morris: Even these girls, who some would say they’re not interested in learning, they only come to school to do X, Y, and Z, and be disruptive. When I talk to them about what it is that they want, none of them have ever said, “School is not for me.” And what they say is, “I tried to go to school, but the community was so fixated on some of these other things, that it would just make me so mad that I had to engage in these other behaviors in order to be respected, in order to be seen, in order to be received as a person worthy of someone’s attention.” So that tells me that it’s, we have to, as adults, consider what we’re creating in these communities and modify our actions, which is why I set out to move forward with creating material that can help us do that a little better. I mean, that’s what Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls is about, is really allowing us to see the schools, the programs, the strategies that have taken this issue and wrapped themselves around it, and are producing different outcomes.

Jen: I want to talk about that a little bit. And you kind of alluded to this earlier when you discussed your sixth grade experience, and the way in which that administration responded to you. I’d like to talk about restorative justice, because in so many ways, it feels like the antidote to the school-to-prison pipeline. Actually, frankly, to a host of crimes against the Black community. But for the sake of this particular discussion, let’s focus on how practicing restorative justice might work, how it might restore our students, and help them and our communities flourish as an opposite approach. 

Would you talk about what exactly restorative justice is for those who might not be familiar with the term? And what it could, and should, and does look like in some of our schools?

Dr. Morris: Restorative practices are sort of born of some of the indigenous ideas around repairing harm, about understanding what harm has been committed, who committed that harm, and how we make someone whole in repairing relationships from that harm. It is a different paradigm of justice. It’s not about the crime against the state. It’s not about the sort of the authoritative power coming in to declare what will make someone whole, but rather facilitating a process for the person harmed and the person who committed the harm to have a conversation about what needs to happen in order to repair relationships. There’s this fundamental understanding that we’re connected in community, and that even the person who committed the harm is not disposable.

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: And that there has to be some way of coming into being with each other that primarily centers the community…

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: …not the individual. It’s been an interesting way to sort of receive and engage in conversations, because so much of restorative practice was first introduced to it years ago, and had been an evaluator of restorative justice programming, have sort of gone into spaces and looked at and supported and created funding structures for restorative programming, partially because I believe that is one of the fundamental practices of a participatory worldview. When we recognize and see in others this possibility for the redemption and repair of a relationship, then we’re able to recognize that harm is not something that is ultimately about a sort of an unrecoverable person…

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: …but a repair of an action. Or some deeper understanding of how we come together in confronting an action that has caused harm from this person. 

So, restorative programming in schools, oftentimes, we’ll look like the circles that happen in many communities, which I think is probably the preferred modality, a singular modality. So I want to share that, that we tend to think about it as the only way that we can have a restorative program. One of the things that I write about and encourage folks to think about are all the other ways that one can restore relationships…

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: And also how we do that in a culturally competent way, particularly with Black and brown girls.

Jen: Like, for example?

Dr. Morris: For example, oftentimes, when I first started these conversations about how to sort of locate Black girls and brown girls, and conversations about restorative practice, folks would say, “Well, the Black girls don’t want to go into restorative programming.” 

And I would talk to Black girls, and they would say, “No, I don’t want to go into this restorative programming.” And I would ask why, and they said it was because they were still so angry that they didn’t want to be forced to have a conversation with someone that they were plotting to beat up the whole time.

Jen: Sure. That’s understandable.

Dr. Morris: So I was like, “Well, that’s fair and honest.” And also, if we’re being true to restorative practices, it has to be voluntary. You have to be willing to have this conversation. You can’t be forced into it. 

So for those reasons, I started to explore what are some of the traditions in indigenous African and African American spaces that have been restorative for girls and women that are not currently recognized in some of the structures that we have? Then I started to realize that the hair braiding, dance, art were part of how, for many, they restore relationships with themselves before they get into the conversation with someone else about the harm that might have been committed.

Jen: Oh, it’s good.

Dr. Morris: Because when you unpack some of the reasons why there is conflict between and among many of the girls that was leading to the need for a restorative conference in the first place, we were clear that so much of it had to do with internalized oppression.

Jen: Sure, of course.

Dr. Morris: And so much of it has to do with some of the other conditions that the single conversation about harm between two people was not able to deal with. And that depending on the facilitator of that conversation, that facilitator may not even be aware fully of the levels of historical trauma that are informing why girls are behaving the way that they are in certain scenarios. And boys.

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: So in restorative practice, there’s the modality around the circle, there are various other mediation conferencing opportunities that happen. There are, I call them more arts-related interventions that can allow for there to be this new paradigm. But also, it’s really about providing an opportunity for there to be a whole new way that we understand educational equity. 

So in Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues, I have a chapter dedicated to exploring restorative solutions, and I talk about some of the ways that other systems are thinking about or school leaders are thinking about restorative approaches. And the one thing that I share is that school leaders who engage in restorative approaches understand that the opportunity to build a strong community can happen only if there are people who are involved in the harm, who can be a part of developing the solution to that harm.

Jen: That’s good. Yeah.

Dr. Morris: And ultimately, what we’re seeking to restore is love.

Jen: That’s great.

Dr. Morris: I love the name of your podcast because it centers love in a way that I don’t often see. And what’s interesting is for those who know me, I’m so not the touchy-feely person

Jen: Yeah.

Dr. Morris: However, I know sometimes in the way that I talk and in the way that I move, I do feel that I try to lead with love. But I don’t necessarily think that it’s about assigning conversations about love to be this sort of physical exercise.

Jen: Totally.

Dr. Morris: Rather, how we begin this process of centering love in our daily practice, in our daily meditation and engagement, in our daily understanding of possibility. And as this is, I said this at the TED Talk, it’s so important right now when we are guided primarily in our public discourses through this lens of fear for us to embrace love.

Jen: I mean, I cannot possibly agree more. I think that is the lost North Star, that it would be a real fundamental solution to so many of our ailments in our culture right now. And I like that you said not this sort of just emotive, squishy concept. But deeply rooted, deeply centered love as sort of a guide. We’ve lost the narrative. 

Dr. Morris: And I can recognize, too, that love does not mean you are the savior of people.

Jen: That’s a good word. That’s right.

Dr. Morris: I think a lot of times people conflict saviorism tendencies…

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: …with love. And we can’t do that.

Jen: No, gosh, that’s a terrible approach, and will backfire 100% of the time. This is why I love hearing you talk about these restorative practices, where everybody involved in the conflict is a part of the solution.

A couple of episodes back, we talked about the ideas surrounding defunding the police and what that actually meant. It’s a very charged term, and why we need to redirect those funds to resources that contribute to actual community flourishing instead of just disproportionate community punishment to counselors, mental health professionals that have the correct tools and training to actually help in situations where force is not the best reach. 

So a lot of that discussion centered around the possibility of redirecting funds toward our schools, and the communities of color that are disproportionately affected by some of these practices. Does that feel true and right to you? Do you see that as at least one part of a greater solution?

Dr. Morris: Oh, yeah. I wrote a piece for USA Today about why police need to not be in schools. And I think when people heard the notion of defunding the police, there was this sort of instinctual way that folks responded with fear, again.

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: And concerns that there would be just rampant violence without acknowledging that, in so many ways, the police force is the primary structure of violence.

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: And the manifestation of violence, particularly in communities of color, but not exclusively in communities of…

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: …color.

Jen: Yeah.

Dr. Morris: And so it is what we’re inviting in this conversation, I think is an opportunity to consider how it is that we understand safety, and how we create modes that are not reliant upon a structure of violence to protect us…

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: …folks who have been harmed, and who therefore engage in harmful activities. And so it requires us to say, “All right, what is it that we think is possible? What is at the root of the behaviors that are problematic? How committed can we be to each other in building communities that do not call the police for every single thing?”

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: And also, it’s interesting because, as a society, we’ve just become increasingly reliant upon law enforcement to do…

Jen: Absolutely.

Dr. Morris: …things that law enforcement are never trained to do.

Jen: Which they say.

Dr. Morris: They say! They will say it openly. Like, “Why?” 

I mean, I was teaching, and this first came to me, I’d been doing sort of criminal justice research work for years, and was teaching a course, a graduate school course, where many of my students were law enforcement officers, who would get into this Leadership Program mostly because they wanted to promote up, and so wanted to increase their skill set in certain behaviors. 

And I remember one school resource officer in my class said to me, she’s like, “Professor, I get called in to break up dances. I’m here to make sure there’s no violation of law, but I’m being asked to separate two teenage kids who want to dance too close.” She’s like, “Why am I doing this work in this way? I should be doing something else.”

Now, there are those who would argue that even something else is not something that they want in their communities, but there is at least this fundamental understanding that the folks who are in schools should be folks who believe in the promise of all children.

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: Folks who are in schools should be folks who recognize that you don’t need a gun and a badge to try to get young people to adhere to the rules and policies of the school. 

I am a co-author of a report with Rebecca Epstein at Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality that looked at school resource officers and girls of color. And one of the things that we found in this participatory work was that many law enforcement, first of all, the structure across the country is just so arbitrary and different that there’s no uniform way that police even show up in schools.

Jen: Yeah, 100%.

Dr. Morris: In some, there is a police force that’s strictly dedicated to the school. In fact, they call in the state troopers to come in. I mean, it’s just, it looks different everywhere, which is part of the problem. And also you’ve got conditions where there are these folks who have never been oriented to what it is to be a youth development worker coming into schools to do youth development work.

Jen: Exactly right.

Dr. Morris: So we found essentially that the school resource officers who were good youth development folks, who had these skills, who came from communities where they were recognizing the humanity of the young people that they were working with that, obviously, they were able to build relationships that were meaningful. And it had nothing to do with the fact that they had a gun and a badge.

Jen: Of course, what an absurd approach to education.

Dr. Morris: Yes. And it also just pointed out to me that you bet that people say, “They’re a police officer, and we need those people on the force.” Yes, if they’re going to be on the force, then they should absolutely have those skills. And we don’t need people with a gun and a badge in the schools.

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: What we need are more youth development workers, and we need an investment in those, in building that capacity. We talk a lot about empowerment, and a lot of times that’s when I say there’s this conflation between the savioristic sort of way that we talk about our work, and as opposed to leading with love. And our sort of savioristic approach is to say, “We can empower these communities in schools to be responsive to our young people of color, by POC communities. And that’s how we’ll do this work. I say, if we’re leading with love, what we instead acknowledge is that no single individual can empower another individual or a community. But what we can do is work to increase the capacity of that community to de-empower.

Jen: That’s good. That’s good.

Dr. Morris: This is ultimately about increasing capacity. This is about investing in the structures, policies. Investing in the tool set development and the skill set development, that can provide the maximum opportunity for that community to thrive on their own terms. They have the brilliance and capacity. They have the brilliance and willingness to be a part of this, and they don’t necessarily need the dictatorship of the community to decide how that looks.

Jen: I love that.

Dr. Morris: Yeah, that’s part of how we reject this colonial way of considering how we build up communities.

Jen: Yes, there’s so much possibility in that approach.

Dr. Morris: Yes. Yeah. And it’s co-constructed. So I talk about safety as a co-construction, not as something that can be implemented.

Jen: Oh yeah, so different.

Dr. Morris: You can never bring in someone else to create safety for you. Safety is something that you experience as someone who is living in the condition, and sort of surviving in these spaces, as well as the person who has the “authority.”

Jen: It’s just the right and a revolutionary approach. 

You know, including yours, there are so many organizations that have been in and continue to fight this level of systemic inequality for Black kids and young adults, who are putting resources like counselors and mindfulness practices into schools, and co-creating together with the student body. I love that approach. Can you throw us an example, something that you’ve been doing recently, something you’ve been a part of, somewhere we can look to and go, look at this, look at how this is working?

Dr. Morris: Oh, yeah. So I’ve been, I’ve seen so many examples, that’s partly why I had to write them all up in that Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues, because I think that’s partly what we’re missing in much of this narrative are the examples of who’s doing it differently.

Jen: Great point.

Dr. Morris: Years ago, about six years ago, I co-founded a school in Alameda County as a partnership with the Mentoring Center, and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, and the Alameda County Office of Education to launch a program that we call Emerge, that is about working with girls who have experienced school push out, and who essentially were underperforming in all of the existing alternative learning structures. So we wanted to be the group that could respond to sort of the last-chance girl—the one that everyone has written off that says she’s not going to make it. And we wanted her, so that we could educate her and graduate her. And 80% of the girls who participated in the program were survivors of commercial sexual exploitation from a juvenile court. Deep levels of compounded transgenerational trauma. Some girls wouldn’t even talk, that the trauma was so great. And we lost one girl to gun violence. But aside from that, we have continued to graduate from high school these girls who everyone else wrote off.

Jen: Totally.

Dr. Morris: And that’s when I realized part of the problem is that when we’re talking about girls who have experienced school push out and who many of our educational systems sort of dismiss as “problem children,” we don’t center enough the sort of primary role that trauma plays in the misbehavior, and our need to structure learning in a way that can heal.

Jen: Powerful.

Dr. Morris: I routinely will invite schools to think about how they can become locations for healing, so that they can become locations for learning the way that we intend them to be. And so in that work with Emerge, but certainly I’ve seen it replicate in other spaces, I talk about the Columbus City Prep School for Girls in the TED Talk, and also in the film, the documentary film. There are a host of schools in the south that I have seen who have taken unconventional approaches to working with young people that just say, “We are going to center making sure everyone feels loved in the school.”

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: “And once we have established that young people feel loved, now our work can begin.

Jen: So good.

Dr. Morris: And it’s a departure from the way that even five years ago when I would go into communities and educators would say, “Monique, my job is not to be a healer.” And I would say, “But isn’t it, though? It’s not? Because education is healing.” Education is freedom work. Education is how we increase the capacity of folks to realize their full potential, so that means you’re a healer.

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: And if you don’t see yourself as a healer, then that’s a problem. Because if you do see yourself as a healer, if you do see yourself as fundamental to this freedom work, then your intentions hopefully can align with actions to create that as a norm in the community in which you teach. So, it’s about understanding education differently. It’s not about creating robots.

Jen: That’s right.

Dr. Morris: It’s about increasing our young people’s capacity to see who they want to be, and that’s all I got. That’s what my education was. That’s why despite the traumas that I was living with, the adverse childhood experiences, the A scores, all these things that I was living with, what the critical piece for me was that I had a group of people who understood what I was capable of, and who held me to account for when I was falling short of that…

Jen: It’s great.

Dr. Morris: …and who understood what I needed in investment, not in saviorism. Investment.

Jen: Totally.

Dr. Morris: And in support, in advocacy, in pushing me sometimes to move beyond. 

And so, we say sometimes that’s the work of the good mentor. But I also think that there’s a role for all of these amazing teachers, who many of whom already understand that to be what they do. And that’s why they are…

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: …the most effective teachers.

Jen: Absolutely.

Dr. Morris: Figure that out.

Jen: Absolutely. I mean, I love those teachers. I can spot them immediately…

Dr. Morris: Me too.

Jen: …and you know who they are. And you know who the administrators are, too.

Dr. Morris: Exactly.

Jen: The administrators who love their kids, and believe in the possibility.

Dr. Morris: And that’s why…

Jen: …in their possibility.

Dr. Morris: …it’s important to even share those stories, because it’s hard for educators to hear all this bad news about education.

Jen: Sure, of course it is.

Dr. Morris: And I’ve been in communities where, really when I talk about school push out, I’m usually in communities where there are mostly teachers in the audience. And that to me, that gives me joy and brings me life every time. Because that means that even in the work of leading with love, it doesn’t mean that we’re having easy conversations. It means that we’re willing to put ourselves in the position of having a very difficult conversation, even if we’ve been a part of that tapestry of harm.

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: And how we even correct that harm. So, talk about restorative. Part of what I offer in my work is that we can’t just think about restorative practices as the sort of repair of relationship between two individuals. That we also have to think about the repair of relationship between individuals and institutions, where those institutions have been part of the tapestry of harm, and what roles we play in that work if we are agents of that institution. So that means we have to make sure we develop relationships with parents. Parents have to understand that there’s a lot that schools are working through in this moment, right?

Jen: Yeah, of course.

Dr. Morris: And that there needs to be this deep commitment to a shared responsibility of caring for young people in a way that can provide their best chance.

Jen: What I love about your work is that it so clearly demonstrates that this is possible. This is possible. Even a system that is just kind of rife with inequalities and sort of broken elements, it can be changed, it can be re-imagined, it can be reformed. There is no such thing as a last chance girl. She has every chance still.

Dr. Morris: Exactly, every chance.

Jen: And it’s just, it’s exciting to watch. And it just, it fills me with hope and possibility for what could be. 

And I think that most of our educators get into it. I would like to think that most of our educators come into their work with this idea that students matter, and every one of them has potential. And so there’s so much raw material here to work with. Yeah, great kids, and just so much restoration of possibility. I think your work is so meaningful.

Dr. Morris: The teachers need support.

Jen: They do, you’re right.

Dr. Morris: And so part of it is, a lot of times, teachers may enter with this. Obviously, there are certain folks who enter every profession that probably shouldn’t be there.

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: But for the most part, I really believe that those who believe in education, who seek to be educators really do enter with this idea. And this appreciation for education as the sort of tool, or a primary tool to move someone’s life forward.

Jen: Totally.

Dr. Morris: But I do think that somewhere along the way, because of some of the pressures, the administrative pressures or some of the ways in which we just undervalue teaching as a profession in our society, the lack of investment in educators, they get tired and they are human beings.

Jen: Sure.

Dr. Morris: And so we have to also reconcile, certainly, the biases that we hold as individuals that inform the work that we do. But we also have to think about how we can make deeper commitments to educators to support them along this journey. 

And I’ll just offer that part of a policy conversation is about creating structures that can do just that. So we, I have partnered with Congresswoman Ayanna Presley and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman to introduce the Ending PUSHOUT Act, that is a federal policy that’s pending now, that folks can really take a look at and explore, and possibly consider urging your congressional representative to co-sponsor because it does that kind of investment in educators in schools in the alternatives that can provide spaces for responding to trauma, rather than criminalizing the trauma, particularly for girls and non-binary BIPOC youth.

Jen: Well done. That gave me goosebumps.

Dr. Morris: We’re working on it.

Jen: That’s great. That’s exciting. So for everybody listening, we will link to literally all of this. Every single thing that Monique has discussed, and all of her books, and her work, and her TED—we’ll have all of this in one place for you over on the transcript page and jenhatmaker.com.

Okay, I want to wrap this up with you. These are a couple of questions that I’m asking everybody in this series. And so, here we go, just off the top of your head. And the first one, obviously, has a million answers, so you’ll just have to select. Here it is. 

For you, who have been some of your greatest role models?

Dr. Morris: My mother. I have to say, I think I’m guided by many community mothers who are also role models for me. I would have to say, in many ways, the artist Prince has been a role model to me.

Jen: Yes!

Dr. Morris: I’ll talk about that maybe later, but at another time.

Jen: I’ll love it.

Dr. Morris: And Harriet Tubman. I love Harriet Tubman and Mary McLeod Bethune as historical figures that have also been role models to me.

Jen: Those are great answers. 

How about this? Who are some of your particular favorite artists, or teachers, or leaders that you’d like us to be watching, and listening to, and learning from and supporting right now?

Dr. Morris: Yeah, I think Stephanie Patton in the Columbus City School District is a principal who I want all eyes to follow.

Jen: Oh, okay, great!

Dr. Morris: She has a really beautiful way of understanding what young girls, Black and brown girls, are experiencing, and how to build out educational systems that respond to those needs.

Jen: Oh, I can’t wait to research her.

Dr. Morris: Yeah, I really love her work. My favorite artist is Prince, will always be Prince. I think there’s a way that he engaged in discussions about mastery and discussions about freedom that we didn’t always understand.

Jen: At the time, yeah.

Dr. Morris: Yeah, at the time, but kept going and made some unconventional ways to express it. But has always been sort of a source of, for me, challenging normative constructs.

Jen: That’s good.

Dr. Morris: And so, yeah, I’ve loved, deeply loved Prince, sometimes lecture on the legacy of his work.

Jen: I love it.

Dr. Morris: And so, for me, I have to just lead with that.

Jen: That’s your guy, and I love your love for him.

Dr. Morris: That’s my guy.

Jen: And I love that you develop lectures around him. It’s incredible, I want to sit in on that.

Dr. Morris: There’s a whole Prince Scholarship community. That’ll have to be another discussion.

Jen: Totally. Okay, last question. I actually ask everybody in every series this final question, and please feel free to answer literally however you want.

Dr. Morris: Okay.

Jen: Big, small, important, not, whatever. It’s from a faith leader that I love. Her name’s Barbara Brown Taylor. Here’s the question, what is saving your life right now?

Dr. Morris: What is saving my life right now? I would have to say hope.

Jen: Oh, wow.

Dr. Morris: Hope is saving my life right now. The work that I’m doing with Grantmakers For Girls of Color, and being able to partner with organizations in communities across the country to resource movement work led by girls of color is probably the greatest gift I could have in this moment.

Jen: Wow.

Dr. Morris: I mean, living at the intersection of multiple pandemics, girls of color are uniquely positioned to explore what’s possible.

Jen: Oh, I love that.

Dr. Morris: And I am so honored to lead this organization that can help resource that work.

Jen: Ah, fantastic. I have goosebumps!

Dr. Morris: I’m lucky. I’m lucky.

Jen: Oh, so good. What good work. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say hope before, and I love that answer and I love the reason for it. 

So before we pop off here, can you just tell my listeners where they can find you, and find your work and find your stuff.

Dr. Morris: Sure. Sure. I’m at moniquewmorris.me, but usually more active on social media. Instagram, @monique.w.morris, and Twitter @moniquewmorris. And Facebook, @moniquewmorrisedd.

Jen: Perfect. And if you’re driving and you’re like, “I didn’t get it!” Like I said, we’ll have it all linked for you. Do not panic. 

Dr. Morris: Thank you for sharing space with me today.

Jen: Are you kidding me? The honor’s mine. Like, I could listen to you talk for 100 hours. I’m so grateful, not just for the work that you do in this world, but for bringing it into our community. And just excited for my listeners to know you and to follow what you do, and to imagine how we can co-participate in our school districts, and where we’re at with our students and our communities. 

And so, thank you for all you do. Thank you for your time, today. I’m just incredibly grateful for it. And so delighted to know you, and so thankful to have had this incredible conversation with you.

Dr. Morris: Yeah, thank you so much.

Jen: Okay, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. I was just kind of leaning forward in my seat the whole time just listening, and listening and listening. That actually felt very hopeful to me, and so encouraging about what is possible for our schools. 

And so, as mentioned, if you go to jenhatmaker.com, under the Podcast tab, we’ll have this whole episode for you, including the written transcript and every single thing that Dr. Morris and I talked about. All the links, her books, her TED Talk, the leaders she suggested to follow, everything. We’ll have it all in one spot for you. 

And really appreciate your care and attention to this conversation, and also to this whole series. I’m always proud of this community for leaning in to really important work and discussions with a lot of intelligence, and attention and intention. And so we’ll have all those resources available to you for further reading, and further learning. And so glad to put them in your hands. 

And so on behalf of our podcast crew, so Laura, our producer and her team, and then of course Amanda and I—Amanda does so much work on the transcript, and building out the page at jenhatmaker.com, which is an incredible resource and I hope you’re using it—we are delighted to serve you, and happy to do it, and thankful for such an incredible listening community. 

Okay, guys, see you next week.

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