Liberated Learning: Practicing the Technology of the Sacred
Voices from the Field | Insights 24 February 2021
By Chemay Morales-James, My Reflection Matters Village
I discovered that liberation and genius are my birthright. It’s a genius that was unshackled only through love, support, and an exploration of the past.
Founder, My Reflection Matters Village
As a student, I was often made to believe there was something wrong with me. How could I work so hard studying, memorizing, and practicing, and still keep getting everything wrong? My academic struggles became the drumbeat of my young life, and how I defined my identity as a learner.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized the loss of my free spirit, not my poor performance, was the most destructive aspect of my experiences in school. I became so focused on being the person adults expected a “good” student to be—a rule follower, unopinionated, and willing to sacrifice my happiness for the sake of adults’ well-being—that I lost touch with who I was as a young Brown girl still finding their way. I yearned for the agency to advocate for myself but yielded to blending in by being nice, sweet, and compliant.
You see, conventional education is designed to train children to conform. Those who don’t are labeled and often set on a grim life trajectory. Because of this, I hated school growing up. But, I hated being rejected or seen as “less than” more, so I worked hard at shaping myself into a round peg to fit into the round hole carved out for me. This rooted a lingering sense of displacement within my soul that’s captured in one moment forever seared in my memory. It was this moment that sparked a tangled journey toward liberation—of myself and others.
We Should Nurture (Not Shame) Young People
One by one, in order of the grade we received on a recent test, Mrs. C asked us, her third-grade class, to stand up. My “0” and the word “Poor” scribbled in red ink meant that I’d be among the last few, and the thought made me feel as if my eight-year-old heart would fall out of my chest.
Hunched over on my desk, I could see a large number of my third-grade classmates—the “A’s”—standing up proudly looking down on the rest of us. My palms started getting clammy, and I thought maybe I could run out of the room before it was my turn to stand.
“Who got a “Poor” on their paper? Please stand up. The rest of you look at who is standing. Keep working hard, so that you don’t have to be one of these students standing,” she snapped.
At first, I didn’t stand. I thought for a moment, “Maybe Mrs. C forgot what she wrote on my paper.” But, Mia, who sat in front of me and handed me back my test paper, knew the truth.
“Stand up, Chemay. You got a F,” Mia said as she shamefully shook her head at me. I wanted to hide, but I had nowhere to go. I slowly lifted my petite body and kept my gaze to the floor, avoiding my peers’ judgment.
Mrs. C marched down each aisle, leaving a cold stare and hurtful words in her wake. She was sending us all a warning. And, her public shaming of my performance is a scar I still carry in my womb—decades later.
The problem was that no matter how many warnings she sent, I still struggled to schoolishly perform for her. I quickly learned that school wasn’t a place to explore my passions and unique interests. It was about competition and survival.
By the end of high school, thanks to the love and support of my family, I eventually escaped as an “average” student. But, the effort had cost me my whole being. Conventional education can be really good at breaking the spirits of children, and especially the spirit of Black, Indigenous, or Other People of Color (BIPOC). And only recently, through exploring my ancestry and engaging in healing and liberation work with other BIPOC families and my own children, have I started to heal, fully free my spirit, and appreciate my unique genius.
A Proud Lineage
Most people who know me today would consider me intelligent, as measured by my professional accomplishments and Ivy League graduate degree. What they don’t know is how much my experiences as a young learner traumatized me and how reconnecting to my roots freed me.
The truth is I come from a long lineage of geniuses. My paternal grandfather, who “only” had a third-grade-level education, was a highly-skilled farmer who fed an entire family with his bare hands. And, my maternal grandmother, without a college degree, used her entrepreneurial acumen to build several successful businesses. This included leveraging the talents of others to create mutual aid funds from her tiny, Harlem apartment in order to feed her family and the families in her building.
My father, compelled by the resilience inherited from his Afro-Indigenous ancestors, was a self-made man and started his “hustle” at eight years old as a shoe shiner in New York City’s famed Grand Central Station—through which he survived the government neglected streets of El Barrio (Spanish Harlem). And, my mother, a nurse by trade, had incredible creative passion, artistic talent, and the ability to design beautiful spaces and objects.
This proud lineage empowered me to dig even deeper into my origins where I discovered that liberation and genius are my birthright. It’s a genius that was unshackled only through love, support, and an exploration of the past.
Finding the Light
Conventional schooling, too often, dims young people’s intuitive desire to direct their own learning and investigate their ancestry in partnership with caring adults.
My Taino and West African adult ancestors did not learn in isolation from children nor did kids learn separate from them. Children were not seen as little beings to control and manipulate. Children were treated with respect and were active, contributing members of their community. They were held in equal regard to their adult counterparts.
But, history has shown us that colonization created the system of conventional schooling as a tool to force whiteness onto BIPOC children and, over time, tricked our communities into buying into a system that was never designed to liberate us. Our ancestors were misled (and very often forced) into seeing the institution that was founded for the purposes of training a particular class of people to serve the minority elite as a means for saving them from the oppressive conditions cultivated by the very same people who designed schooling.
BIPOC communities were told their way of living and learning was “primitive,” “superstitious,” and “barbaric.” And, formal schooling was going to make them more “civilized” and “educated” (code for “white”), so they could provide a life for their family resembling that of White people (Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden).
We believe that learning is not separate from life, and children naturally learn by living, playing, and interacting with adults and other members in their community.
Founder, My Reflection Matters Village
And so it began that schools became the world’s largest and most powerful campaigning tool used to sell the myth of a “better life”—a life primarily defined by material wealth and rich, white, businessmen in need of well-trained, obedient workers.
From the backs of these workers and the backs of Indigenous and African enslaved people, America’s wealth was built. Given the twisted success this exploitative model provided America, it’s no surprise the rest of the world followed suit—globally perpetuating the myth that the “best” life was the White life.
The truth is that our BIPOC ancestors were never devoid of wealth, nor did they need saving. They had the most powerful riches in the world—the amazing capacity to live peacefully and happily in community, with nature, with very little material wealth, and a whole lot of knowledge and skills about the land, animals, farming, artistry, and woodworking. All passed on through storytelling and real world, hands-on experience.
What the colonizers who created the oppressive institution of schooling didn’t know was that light never dies. That light within me, where my genius lives, that was dimmed for decades by conventional education, bursted through the seams once I began to have children. Their light began to heal me in ways I never knew possible and forced me to question everything I was ever taught—especially when it came to parenting and education.
In 2016, inspired by this awakening in me, my husband and I made the conscious decision to opt out of conventional schooling (in this case it meant opting out of our local school) at the insistence of our young, four-year-old child who was physically resisting pre-school. This decision led me to seek out other BIPOC families that were also hungry to return to our ancestral, liberatory ways of parenting and education, giving birth to My Reflection Matters Village (MRMV).
My Reflection Matters Village: Where Parenting, Education, and Liberation Intersect
MRMV is a virtual co-learning community (that started physically as a co-operative in Waterbury, CT a year prior to COVID-19) primarily for BIPOC families and radical educators seeking support in raising and educating free people. Our mission is to create a virtual space that supports caregivers seeking or walking the path of intuition-led (or self-directed) education with their children.
We aim to provide families with access to decolonized, liberatory educational supports and resources to help them along their journey as they co-learn and co-create with socially conscious families, healers, facilitators, and other partners in our virtual space. We believe that, in community, families can support each other’s development in serving as learning guides and advocates for their children, ultimately connecting them to their innate passions.
Our goal is simple: We want families to live their happiest, free-ist, most purposeful and socially impactful lives in community with those they love. We see liberation-centered education and parenting as a pathway to this.
We believe that learning is not separate from life, and children naturally learn by living, playing, and interacting with adults and other members in their community. They learn through storytelling and engaging in everyday, real-world experiences relevant to their culture and social community. Professor of Anthropology, Alfonso, refers to this practice as the technology of the sacred—a practice my Afro-Indigenous ancestors were experts in.
Our Co-learning for Liberation Village membership supports this educational practice by offering parent coaching via monthly video calls and weekly check-ins to help caregivers shed schoolishness beliefs and actions that keep adults from embracing a more natural way of learning. We also support intuitive-led learning by offering families the opportunity to join our virtual co-operative where we co-create customized learning experiences and apprenticeships based on the interests and cultural needs of our children.
And, for those who aren’t ready to take the deep dive towards a revolutionary return to the ways our ancestors parented and engaged in learning, we offer our Decolonizing Education Village membership for both parents and educators. Through this, they can collectively share culturally relevant resources to support decolonized learning and engage in conversations and events that push them to reimagine education outside the White, patriarchal, colonial, adult gaze.
It’s my belief that through the community building, educational organizing, and healing co-developed in the Village, the light within the adults who are raising free people will shine bright and that together, they and their children will develop a critical lens that inspires them to combat institutionalized racism and other forms of oppression ailing our world.
We firmly believe that through community, critical consciousness can be reclaimed, supported, and passed on to our families. Critical consciousness, as defined by Esteli Juarez in Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, is the “ability to fight back against the norm—both in direct action and psychologically.” It is a privilege we aim to cultivate and nurture in our Village. We are in no way a school, building, or institution, but we are a sprawling village working in community to raise socially conscious, free people.
In our Co-learning for Liberation Village membership, BIPOC children (who make up the majority of our young people) decide on the types of virtual learning experiences, projects, and social meet ups they want and need. Black and Brown kids are trusted as being capable, self-directed learners and taking on the role of facilitator or instructor when they have skills they want to share with others who share similar interests.
Unlike my experience, our kids are loved, rather than shamed into performing for adults. Learning happens collectively, the way their pre-colonial ancestors learned—free from the myth of meritocracy. BIPOC kids are not expected to “prove” they know things. They are trusted to be able to direct their learning.
I truly believe that when more adults are ready to embrace how our ancestors practiced the technology of the sacred, they will begin to see that practice lives in our children’s DNA. When we create the conditions for our kids to intuitively lead their learning, they are tapping into their ancestral DNA—and that, to me, is Liberation.
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