Abolitionist Teaching: An Interview with Sarah Abdelaziz

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"Abolition" is the word of the moment. But what does it mean? How should it be taught? Robert Sirvent and Sarah Abdelaziz discuss.

Roberto Sirvent: Can you please share a little bit about your background, including how you became involved in community organizing?

Sarah Abdelaziz: Sure! My parents emigrated to the US from Egypt in the 90s and I was raised mostly in the suburbs outside of Atlanta. I have lived in the city for the better part of 12 years. Because of the intersections of my identity and the way I related to that, I was curious about the underpinnings of our society and world persistently and early. When I was 18, a 26-year-old named Mohamed Bouaziz lit themself on fire in Tunisia and eventually died from their wounds. Mohamed was fed up with the life they led, day in and day out, assaulted and harassed by bureaucracies, police, and unable to make a decent life for themselves and their family. Mohamed’s pain spoke to millions. It led to a revolution in Tunisia against the dictatorship and so much more. This revolution spread throughout the Arab world, eventually finding itself in the heart of Cairo, where my people still resided and are from, for as far back as I know. Within a matter of 18 days, Egyptians had successfully forced the dictator of almost 30 years out. I was astounded. As a young person who was seeking answers and actions to lead to fundamental change, the idea of revolution was dusty to me. I had lazily read about it in textbooks that felt far away and foreign. The Egyptian revolution opened a new door in my mind: change could and should be fundamental, from the ground up, and sweeping. I began to hungrily seek out different ways “to get involved” than had been laid out to me previously (raising money, canvassing for politicians, writing to congress people, etc.), which is how I happened upon radical community organizing. This led me into a journey that I am still on. I first got involved with organizing at Georgia State against an impending ban on undocumented students & budget cuts. Not too long after, Occupy happened, and I was very involved with it in Atlanta. Occupy helped to develop and birth a series of long-term organizing projects against eviction, foreclosure, & gentrification. My organizing has taken many forms. Most recently, I organize in education with Abolitionist Teaching Network (ATN), and towards police abolition & the decolonization of Georgia land in my free time.

Much of your team’s current work is focused on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Cheating Scandal. For readers unfamiliar with the controversy, can you please provide a little background?

Yes! That was our major campaign for most of this past year. The APS Cheating Scandal is a selectively told story by the judges, prosecutors, and state officials of Georgia in order to starve this city and state’s public education infrastructure while hastening the gentrification of Atlanta overall. Back in 2008, the AJC (Atlanta Journal Constitution) began to point out what it felt were statistically unlikely jumps from one year to another on the standardized test for 3rd to 8th graders across various GA schools. This led to a multi-million-dollar investigation into Georgia teachers by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), in which the GBI accused hundreds of educators of erasing students' answers and replacing them with the correct ones. The investigation placed the blame on the Superintendent at the time, Beverly Hall, for creating a culture of intimidation. Meanwhile, the governor of Georgia at the time, Nathan Deal, had underfunded the education budget by about $1 billion a year in addition to a series of other austerity measures; No Child Left Behind had been implemented just a few years earlier, enshrining high stakes standardized testing into law, and judicial law was being amended on the state and federal levels to make cheating a misdemeanor and to be able to use something called RICO (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act) to accuse people of criminal conspiracy more easily. Despite the fact that over 75% of Georgia educators at this time are White, in 2013, 35 non-White educators are indicted. Twelve end up going to trial because they refuse to take plea deals. They are all Black and they are all from Atlanta Public Schools. Those who accuse others during the investigation are offered immunity from criminal charges. This trial becomes the longest and most expensive criminal trial in Georgia history, and it concludes in charging 11 educators with RICO–the argument is that these educators criminally conspired for material gain, even though several were ineligible for bonuses, and those who were eligible had bonuses on the line that amounted to a couple hundred dollars at most. Since then, two educators have served over two years in prison combined, and until recently, seven more were waiting on an appeal. Abolitionist Teaching Network was able to effectively fight against prison time for Dana Evans, who had her final hearing earlier this year, but six other educators could potentially go to prison any day now. This is seven years after the trial has ended, and as a national teacher shortage, a pandemic, and the true toll of high stakes federally mandated testing policies have resulted in national education cheating scandals in almost every single state in the US and Washington DC, but wherein no one, but Georgia educators, have had to face, much less serve, prison time.

What does it look like to approach schooling from an abolitionist perspective? So much of U.S. education aims to teach conformity to dominant ideologies and institutions. How can children, teachers, parents, and communities work together to build an alternative?

That’s a great question and your assertion is really true. Rather than education teaching critical thinking & problem-solving skills, how to fix societal ills, creativity, or how to fundamentally alter economic wrongs, education is a place wherein students are trained to believe a particular & mostly false narrative about this country and to learn skills that will help them to be obedient and hirable. There are some positives about education in this country, but unfortunately they pale in comparison to the extraordinarily long list of what is not right. Building an alternative looks different ways, as it always does. Abolition has become a more accepted approach, particularly after the 2020 George Floyd & Breonna Taylor uprising, and in that popularization, organizer & thinker Mariame Kaba has come to the fore. One of the things she says about abolitionist work is “we need a million experiments.” So briefly answering how to build an alternative is difficult, because it could look a million ways. But I believe the questions to govern our approach are: 1. Who does this build power for? 2. What transformation does this lend itself to?, and 3. What is our vision?  So, liberation in education can look like freedom schools built by Black parents who are fed up with putting their children in peril in school buildings, and it also looks like supporting and elevating the walkouts in high schools all over this country earlier this year against sexual harassment and youth censorship. We see white supremacy show up time and time again in schools across the US from curriculum to school policy. We also see time and time again a fundamental distrust of youth and their educators to make decisions to govern themselves and their needs, which is a constant theme across a capitalist and necessarily culturally hegemonic society like ours. Imagine how different schooling would be in this country if it were not determined by policy makers and bureaucratic administrators but by students? That fact alone would transform this country. And if that’s an end goal, then what are the steps to get there? We need to work on ourselves as adults, to believe and trust young people. We need to help young people to create student groups and unions and establish processes that will amplify their power. We need to look at policies like book bans, anti-CRT legislation, & don’t say gay bills and fight against them on every level because that robs children of knowledge and is ultimately enshrined in a belief that youth are not to be trusted with truths and facts. We fight against this, but we also build boldly, without fear. Forget the right, what do we want? Let’s lose the fear when fighting and building the alternative.

What role can freedom schools and unschooling movements play in struggles for liberation?

Oh man, too many to state. Freedom schools have long been the place where Black, Brown, Indigenous, and even white working-class people have gone to learn because they were being denied any semblance of schooling, and in that vein, they have continued to be vehicles for learning outside of the tightly regulated US education system. This has taken on the form of pod and home school learning for young people who might choose for themselves or in conversation with their caregivers that traditional schooling is not right for them, but it also takes the form of adults learning about movement history, transformative justice, and alternative medicine. Freedom schools trouble this unquestioned notion that seriously continuing to learn should end at 18 or 22, which is a fundamental part of our ageism in this society. Why would it ever make sense to stop seriously learning? Freedom schools and unschooling goes beyond content–it has the ability to be experimental in even understanding what learning looks like. Who is a teacher and who is a student? What skills are most fundamental for a being to grow up in this world? Abolitionist Teaching Network has put on a few freedom schools created by the brilliant Ashley Woodson wherein young people learn about freedom fighters and how to be an anti-racist ally. Freedom schools are also oftentimes a hub for community and for organizing. A couple of the Activists in Residence that ATN has worked with over the last year have their own freedom schools. For example, blackyard, opened up by ashley herring in Cambridge, MA started off as a space for art and healing and has morphed into a place for learning & unschooling for young people. It is connected closely to local Black Student Unions and is grounded in self transformation. ashley has created a refuge for local Black and brown youth to affirm their dignity. Another former Activist in Residence, Keedra, opened up the Young Peoples’ Liberation School in Cincinnati. Keedra’s mother ran a local daycare in Bond Hill, a historically Black enclave of Cincinnati, for decades, and when she came to retire, Keedra, an educator of a couple decades herself, continued the lineage and presence in the neighborhood, but now with an explicitly liberationist and afro-centric approach. The school was a community hub, and now the hope is to expand the meaning of that. So freedom schools and unschooling movements have played vital roles be it in Cambridge or Cincinnati today, or amongst The Black Panthers or the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau & Cape Verde independence movements. Freedom schools are often a component or an infrastructure that interacts with liberation movements consistently, and they will always exist, especially so long as domination is the norm in a given society.

How does abolitionist education connect to other abolitionist struggles (e.g. police, prisons, capitalism, imperialism, etc.)?

It is inextricable. When Abolitionist Teaching Network was beginning, we found ourselves asking what fights won’t we get involved in? And we had to ask ourselves that because abolition in education is connected to the pursuit of abolition overall. That is because education is a reflection and solidification of a society and its norms. So, in a capitalist & colonial society where patriarchy is the norm, schooling will reflect that. In a society where we treat poverty with jails, police, and death, then schools will treat poverty with suspensions, policing, and punishment. No being, entity, process, or infrastructure exists in a silo. So when we demand the abolition of police, then that means the abolition of policing in schools–the type that comes with an SRO badge and uniform but also the type that looks like a teacher punishing a young person for acting free. I can’t remember where I read this, but a scholar once said that education is looked at to solve problems of social & economic mobility, but it didn’t create those, so how could it? We won’t get free through education alone. To me, a prison abolitionist is an education abolitionist, and you actually often find that organizers in a city fighting to close down a jail, are the same students or educators in a school raising hell. We need to not only understand our struggles as connected, but act like it. A win in one part of an abolitionist terrain is a win that educators, students, and their caregivers should and can jump on to propel their fights further forward. It is no coincidence that this country experienced its largest mass mobilization and uprising in 2020 and then found itself a year later in the throes of legislated book bans and the further restriction of teaching about race, sexuality, and history in the classroom. I think schools and youth autonomy have emerged as decisive battlegrounds in the last couple of years between the pandemic and the uprising, and the right are not shy about making those links, so we can’t be either. When prisons and police are abolished and people’s health and ability to be self-determined is the norm rather than the exception, then you and I won’t even have to talk about the compartmentalization of abolition in education.

What other forthcoming projects by the Abolitionist Teaching Network are you most excited for?

We are preparing to give out grants soon! ATN has been around since 2020 and each year we have given out grants to abolitionist educators & students, single moms, incarcerated organizers, and more. In 2020 we gave out $60,000 and in 2021, we gave out $90,000. We are also excited to expand our connections to this brilliant pool of people that ATN decides to invest in as part of our network. This year, several of the ATN grantees were featured speakers at our annual conference. Next year, we hope to roll out even more ways to integrate these people, their work, and their ideas into our network. Folks can find out about how to apply and how much we will be giving away in the next few weeks via social media.

How can BAR readers support your work?

Folks can subscribe to be on our mailing list where we send out updates about campaigns and upcoming projects. You’ll subscribe to the mailing list via our website, where you can find a bunch of resources. For example, one of our Activists in Residence, Ruth, spearheaded an opt out resource page. If you are a parent who is interested in opting their child out of standardized tests, you can find instructions, frequently asked questions & concerns, and letters to send to administration in Spanish & English.  Our social media is also an excellent way to keep up with us. We are on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I have a feeling we will be sharing a lot of really exciting updates about the work we are doing over these next several months. If folks are moved and able to, you can donate to us here. Lastly, a huge way to support our work is to be an abolitionist or an advocate for young students of color where you are. Then link with us so we can learn and grow together!

Sarah Abdelaziz is a former educator as well as an organizer/activist who has worked in fostering and supporting community centered struggles for over 10 years. Sarah is from the global and national south and finds inspiration and meaning in fighting alongside the communities they find themself in: queer people of color who are rowdy because they know they deserve more. It is the realization of the abolition freedom dream that keeps them connected and accountable to our collective liberation.

Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.

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