In the Works: Brian Lozenski on liberatory Black education


Dipakshi Sarma and Nina Rogers

Brian D. Lozenski is an associate professor of urban and multicultural education in the educational studies department. His research explores the intersections of critical participatory action research, black intellectual traditions in education, and cultural sustainability. As a teacher educator and researcher, he illuminates the historical realities that have created current educational disparities while aspiring for social justice. Dr. Lozenski’s recent book, “My Emancipation Don’t Fit Your Equation”: Critical Enactments of Black Education in the US, was published in February, 2022. The following is part of an interview The Mac Weekly conducted with Andrea. The transcript has been slightly edited and revised for clarity.

The Mac Weekly (TMW): What is the key focus or argument of the work that you are involved in? 

Brian Lozenski (BL): My approach to education and educational studies is to understand it from two lenses: one being the use of education particularly in the settler colonial context. That is, the use of education as a tool for coloniality, for maintaining control and domination and a set of relationships that are about asymmetrical distributions of power, and how education, particularly in the form of schooling, is a primary mechanism for maintaining that set of arrangements. I also look at education from the flip side saying that, if there is that set of asymmetrical arrangements, then there’s also a demand for education to be seen as resistance and through a liberatory function and liberatory capacity. My work tends to study both of these perspectives: how education is used for control and how education is used for liberation. Where these things meet and where those tensions lie are the most interesting kinds of spaces both historically and currently.

I’m African-American; I was raised in a community that was very much embedded in taking seriously the Black freedom struggle. My philosophies and my ways of thinking have been informed by the Black freedom struggle, particularly the Black radical tradition, as I’ve gotten older and more sophisticated in my analysis. Historically, I look to the Black freedom struggle and particularly how Black folks have used education in the United States to work towards their own liberation psychically, socially, economically and physically. 

That translates into the work that I try to do here at Macalester by teaching courses that expand educational imaginations, understanding that we are here at a selective, private liberal arts college where nearly every student that comes has done very well in what I would describe as a colonial education system. How do we rethink from the perspective of people who have done very well, including myself? I’ve done very well! I have a PhD in this colonial education system. I can’t remove myself from that – how do we use the privileges that we’ve been able to build and create and benefit from to transform and reshape this whole thing that we call education?

(TMW):What is the most interesting discovery or realization that you’ve had so far in your work?

BL: One of the biggest realizations is that education is amorphous; it’s totalizing. It doesn’t just happen in school buildings. There’s informal education that happens in everyday interactions in the world where we learn about our natural environments. We learn about our social conditions, we get socialized in the cultural practices – all kinds of things are happening without being said. Education is a human pursuit that is transcendent  and is happening all the time. When we look back with regard to human history, education has been used to perpetuate a way of being and a way of seeing the world. However, when communities and people come into tension with each other and come into conflict, that’s when education can take on this role of domination.

I use the experiment of the United States as a nation state to study that tension. This is happening globally, so I’m taking a very thin slice of human history and particularly looking at the educational experiences of the formerly enslaved in the United States to figure out how we can make sense of this balance between domination and liberation. What I found is that when we particularly look at people who’ve been racialized as Black in the United States, there has been a causal link between education and freedom. And once we lose that link – when education becomes about getting a good job or about just getting a basic skillset in whatever discipline we’re talking about – we lose that causal link to liberation. Then we actually undermine the entire educational project that Black folks have been developing, not just since emancipation from slavery, but since the inception of this idea of Black folks in this nation state. 

Part of my realization is that there have to be people constantly providing that consciousness, or reminding folks that Black folks have been the conscience of US education from its very inception and that we continue to play that role. It’s a vital role because without it we’re very much capable of doing even more harm than we’re currently doing.

The important thing too is that it’s not just white folks that have to be able to understand this, it’s everyone. It’s anyone who’s facing some form of educational dispossession, whether it’s indigenous folks, the descendants of Asian migrant workers – folks who have, in some way shape or form, been dispossessed of their educational capacity are part of that conscience to remind us about what education truly could be about.

That’s one of the greatest realizations. Black folks can forget all these things too. I think a lot of people actually have. We can still operate in our own  domination, by continuing to perpetuate ideas where education is not linked to liberation.

TMW: Did you ever reach a low in your work and in your engagement, and if you did, how did you address it? 

All the time. If you engage in political organizing, if you engage in educational justice organizing work, we’re having losses all the time. It’s not about winning and losing. I mean, yes, you want to win, right? You want to be able to change things and transform and be more self-determined for the communities and people that you care about. If you only struggle for things where you think you can win, we wouldn’t struggle for very much, because historical evidence is very much weighted against us. There are low points all the time. There are points where I find myself very frustrated, actually more with my own community sometimes when they are accepting and acquiescing to the kind of education we’ve been given.

People know it’s about cultural stripping. They know it’s about language degradation. They know it’s about demeaning who young people are, particularly minoritized young people in a lot of these schooling spaces. They know it’s about that and they still do it anyway in the rationalization of access and the rationalization that somehow we will be able to overcome these gaps and these obstacles even when we know that they are being created very intentionally. 

The lows often for me come in talking to people in my own community. These are very intelligent people. I think that’s what hurts more. You can argue with people who are adamant about social hierarchy because they feel the need to dominate people and they feel a need to make life difficult. I’m not as concerned with them because they’re a part of a tradition to maintain those [hierarchies], and it’s very obvious who they are. My low points come more with people who I would want to be working with who are supporting very problematic policies and structures and practices. I think I can point to quite a lot of low points in this.

The other thing too though, is that working in communities has always been difficult, but it’s also very beautiful. I try to gravitate toward people who are really about this educational imagination. If you’re spending all of your time in the structures and institutions hitting against the brick wall, you’re going to get burnt out very, very quickly. But if you’re in spaces where you’re imagining, you’re building with people who are like minded, trying to grow a different kind of garden, I find that that’s actually a healing space. That’s why I really love teaching. I try to build a classroom community of imagination, even when we’re talking about very difficult topics and very difficult things. I find some generative possibility  every time I teach. That’s one of the beauties and joys of being an educator. 

TMW: Is there something that you wish you knew before you got started?

BL: In the very first part of my book, I talk about that. I say, “I wish I’d had a book like this when I first was getting into education, because it took me years to learn a lot of these traditions and realize, ‘oh, that’s the reason these things are happening.’ Starting points, I think, are very difficult to figure out.

Both of my parents were public school teachers in Philadelphia, and I always credit them as my first teachers, and seeing them engage in education in very different ways than a lot of the teachers I had in my own school. They were involved in their students’ lives and knew their families. I remember going to events and community gatherings, where my parents were talking to students, families. That’s actually part of a history and a lineage of Black education, where it was about this community space. Education was about building community. It was about knowing your students’ lives outside of the classroom. Those things were kind of implanted in me, and then, through the teacher education processes and the credentialing processes, it’s kind of beaten out of you.

I want to know about these different kinds of traditions that are about education in a humanizing liberatory space and what the kind of mundane realities of that are  from a day to day practice. When I first went into teaching, I did go in from a very naive perspective. It was always about justice. It was always about wanting to transform and help young people make their lives a little bit better. It was very much about access and very much about helping young people jump through the right hoops, whereas today I think it’s about destroying hoops– stop all of the hoops that people have created to make our lives more difficult and actually prevent us from engaging in the very human interactions of teaching and learning.

TMW: If you could manifest one wish/vision about this work, what would it be?

BL: There are just so many things that could be done! In Martin Luther King’s final book, “Where do We Go from Here?,” he ends the book talking about what he calls educational parks. Educational parks are educational environments that are not about grade levels. They’re not about scripted curriculum. They’re not about summative assessments and they’re not about standardization. They are spaces where people come to engage in very authentic kinds of knowledge exchange, where people are curious and they build curriculum with each other. It’s not about how old you are. We say, “what are you interested in? What do you bring to this space?” There could be spaces where young people are teaching people much older than them, about something that they understand.

This again falls into this tradition of liberatory education because when Black folks were emancipated and when formal enslavement was ended, often younger people had more access to school then their elders. So there was this very deep and rich exchange that didn’t have so much to do with, “I’m the adult with all the knowledge, you’re the kid with no knowledge and I’m going to impart everything onto you.” I could imagine something like that existing in really powerful ways. Macalester could be very much connected to building something like that. Schools can send their students there, businesses, religious institutions; folks could come to these spaces to be able to engage in these forms of knowledge exchange, in the purpose of building a liberatory capacity, where we reimagine our social world. 

We’re at a time where people are banning books at a higher level, and a space like that would be meant to just be a pause where we’d say, ‘okay, let’s rethink some things here.’ It’s maybe utopian but we’ve still got to keep fighting.