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Education Equity Starts with Critical Love

By The Editorial Team
Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz

Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, associate professor of English Education at Columbia University Teacher’s College believes that equity starts with “critical love.” This includes relationship-building and creating a culture where students know they are loved and cared for, but also that their teachers expect the best they can give. Dr. Sealey-Ruiz argues that without love for our students — transparent and critical love — change will not occur. 

Can you describe your concept of Critical Love?

The word love is possibly one of the most overused and misunderstood words of our time. It is a word that holds so much universal power, that when one hears it, one has some idea of what it is, as well as what it is not. Indeed, there are many definitions for the word love and many ways to experience it. However, I view Critical Love as being rooted in a profound ethical commitment to caring for the communities in which teachers work and serve. 

It is a love that advances the ideas that bell hooks (2000) espoused in her book All About Love, in which she declared, “There can be no love without justice. Until we live in a culture that not only respects but also upholds basic civil rights for children, most children will not know love” (pp.19-20). I am also inspired by the idea of love that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967) preached about at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Georgia. He suggested we embrace a love that is powerful and committed to justice, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

How do you think this kind of love is present — or should be present — in school, school relationships, and the classroom?

Just as there are various definitions of love, and ways that love looks, there is no “one way” that Critical Love manifests in schools. As with all good schools, they know the children and their needs and the school (through staff, leadership, and faculty) meets the needs of the children. What is clear, in schools that have managed to love their students, is that they understand failure is not an option for them, and the adults, no matter the pressure of federal and state mandates, do not blame the students when test scores are not optimal. The adults in the school take full responsibility in working with the parents to help foster success for children in the school.

Why do you argue that Critical Love is so important for the success of students — specifically underserved students?

Students who are Black and Brown (mostly) who are underserved by society and, by extension, the school system, are constantly given messages through media and elsewhere that they are not worthy of love and opportunities. This is why it is key that, when in school, they experience the opportunities and love all children deserve.

For those educators who say “I’m not there to love my students. I’m there to teach them,” what would you say?

I would ask them why they decided to enter a career serving children and spending so many hours of the day and days of the year with them if they do not intend to love them, advocate for them, and see beyond a body in a seat in their classroom. Education is a human service, and I think ultimately to serve a child with their best interest at heart is to love that child.

Can you discuss your belief in developing an “ethos of caring” and “reciprocal love?”

These two concepts are connected to research my colleagues (Dr. Wanda Watson and Dr. Iesha Jackson) conducted with high school males in NYC who were a part of an in-school mentoring program. While these concepts are very particular to that research, the “ethos of caring” that we found in the school that served “overaged and undercredited” students had their best interest at heart — from the academic programming to the community outreach to the parent engagement programs.  In terms of “Reciprocal Love” — we found that Craig (pseudonym in the study) loved the young men in the UMOJA mentoring program like they were his little brothers. He cared deeply for them and they cared for him.

What impact did these practices have on students?

The young men in the article spoke about how it felt like they were part of a family — that they felt if they made a mistake they would still be cared about at school.

Read more about an ethos of care and reciprocal love:

Watson,W., Sealey-Ruiz, Y., & Jackson, I. (2014). Daring to care: The role of culturally relevant care in mentoring Black and Latino male high school students. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 1-23.

Jackson, I., Sealey-Ruiz, Y., & Watson, W. (2014). Reciprocal love: Mentoring Black and Latino male through an ethos of caring. Journal of Urban Education, 49(4), 1-24. 

Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz (PhD, New York University) is an associate professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Yolanda is a former research associate with the NYU Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, and has worked for Business Week, The New York Times, and New York University in marketing and promotion. Her research interests include racial literacy development in urban teacher education (with a specific focus on the education of Black and Latino males), literacy practices of Black girls, and Black female college reentry students. Yolanda’s work has appeared in several top-tier academic journals and is co-editor of three books, including (with Chance W. Lewis and Ivory A. Toldson) Teacher Education and Black Communities: Implications for Access, Equity, and Achievement (IAP). At Teachers College, she is founder and faculty sponsor of the Racial Literacy Roundtables Series where, for ten years, national scholars, doctoral, and pre-service and in-service Master’s students and young people facilitate informal conversations around race and other issues involving diversity and teacher education for the Teachers College / Columbia University community. She is also the co-founder of the Teachers College Civic Participation Project, which concerns itself with the educational well-being of young people involved with the juvenile justice and foster care systems in New York. Yolanda and two of her students appeared in Spike Lee’s “2 Fists Up: We Gon’ Be Alright”(2016), a documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement and the campus protests at Mizzou.

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