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Oakland's Black Literary Collective is reshaping classroom conversations on race

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Although rhyme, reason, rhythm, poetry, hip-hop, rap and all manner of wordplay are involved in the Black Literary Collective, there are no riddles or questions to its purposes.

The Oakland-based initiative—led by 10 Black authors in the Bay Area—has spent the last two years bringing a more robust curriculum to public school districts, charter school systems, literacy organizations, community colleges and other educational institutions. Its primary objective is to provide students with new perspectives that have not been part of the traditional education model in the U.S., which has historically relied on a white, colonialist approach to history.

At a time when President Trump just last month called for "patriotic education" courses and later banned diversity training across all federal agencies, the work of BLC couldn't be more necessary.

Tyson Amir, a founding member, poet, educator and activist, says the mission of the BLC organization traces its roots to South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who once said, "The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

"It's a reflection of our system of education," Amir says. "It's about the way the information is being imparted and what the information is."

Admittedly "uninspired" by his experiences as a young learner, Amir turned to hip-hop and poetry. His father was a Black Panther and his mother, Marsha Powell, was an avid reader and active participant in the Black Liberation struggle. She gave him a copy of Richard Wright's book, Black Boy, and Amir "ignored it for a long time, and then read it and it became one of the most powerful experiences I ever had," he says.

He went on to build a career as a rapper and titled his first book Black Boy Poems.

"I decided to do my work to pay respect to the person who inspired me and bring it into my language, hip-hop," Amir says. "It was showing respect for history, ancestors, the past—and carrying on that tradition while writing from my Black experience."

Joy Elan, who like Amir is a poet and BLC author, also found a way to express herself personally, culturally and, as an adult, professionally through written and spoken words. Born with severe hearing loss and growing up in the Oakland public school system as a Black girl during the 1980s and '90s, she found little or no representation of Black people in hard-of-hearing classrooms.

"Instead, I looked to movies that told stories of Black people and films made by Black directors I could look up to," says Elan, who has a bachelor's degree in African American Studies from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in Education from Stanford University. "My family told me there wasn't anything wrong with me, even though I was disadvantaged. My mom was my advocate. I became a writer because reading helped me understand what was being said. Writing became my way of communicating."

BLC's members specialize in a wide range of genres: poetry, prose, hip-hop, spoken word, children's literature, journalism, science and technical writing, and more. The authors include several people with advanced degrees, a mental health specialist and writers who work primarily in academia. Amir's Black Boy Poems and four primary "sessions," or programs, meet Common Core Standards, but a pivot was made regarding the content and how it is delivered to make it more relatable for young learners of all races.

Perhaps the most crucial component to this effort is connecting learners who are young people of color with real authors who look like them and reflect their life experiences. These connections help encourage students while they build literacy, comprehension, analytical thinking and core-skills mastery, as well as gain familiarity with the process of book publishing.

BLC started by serving two school districts—Hayward Unified and San Francisco Unified—but has since expanded to nine districts that include parts of the Bay Area and public schools in Stockton, San Diego, Fresno, Tracy and Sacramento. Amir's Black Boy Literacy Curriculum is robust and well-researched: 16 chapters feature six different learning experiences, five common learning practices to create continuity, and unique "deep dive" concepts to approach key text selected for each chapter.

Funding for the BLC comes primarily from district school systems and grants from community groups, and Amir and the other authors are optimistic about the future. "Now, we're training teachers, redesigning social studies, history classes, government, ethnic studies, English departments. Because of our backgrounds, we knew there were certain areas we could plug into," Amir says. "Now, I have math and science teachers I'm working with." A plan to build a "nonprofit arm" is also in the works.

The curriculum is not confined only to learners who are Black or boys, though. Amir says the program is also designed to help Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, East Indian and white people, as well as girls of any race.

"I design learning experiences accessible to anybody," he says, "It comes from a specific cultural context, but if we're honest, everyone we teach is the same. I take what I do and open it up to everybody, regardless of their demographics. We settled on BLC and there will eventually be the BBLC, as we bring in the Latino (and) Brown bodies into the collective. And then that could be replicated in Asian communities and others."

BLC has also expanded beyond literacy and classroom instruction by getting actively involved in teacher training and assisting curriculum overhauls in districts eager for content that addresses the full range of the Black experience in America. The goal is for lessons to provide context for contemporary struggles with race and racism in the United States.

"The full history of the country is not told and we don't have enough Black teachers to teach these stories," Elan says. "Right now, before we expand with more authors, we want to have our foot in the door, our foundation in primary school classrooms set."

Because the coronavirus forced classroom instruction to go entirely virtual, she says, BLC has "gotten in the back door by putting our hard book copies onto the digital platform."

The curriculum requires Canvas, a free educational software created by Instructure and used by schools worldwide. "We're picking up the banner of an online platform and running with it," Elan says.

Amir believes that literacy delivered in "the language of the people"—in his case, hip-hop—can be used to empower self-determined learners and build culturally and socially relevant schools, which can then create a greater sense of community.

"Currently, the information is being delivered in the language of the oppressor," Amir says. "It alienates and disenfranchises so many people. It's a white, colonial norm and that isn't the language of the people. You have to give them language that reflects the moment that we're in now."

Because one of the program's cornerstones is to guarantee that the voices and literacy developed in young learners will not be lost for future generations to study, all of the work is archived.

"Students publish a book of their written work; physical, digital and audio," Amir says. "They're being empowered (and) putting their voices into the community. They have the skills to replicate that ability either on their own or collectively again. Our stories must be out in the public so we don't have to rely on the institutions to give value to our work. We make sure we're not replicating the negative aspects of the capitalist system. BLC has a social, community aspect to how we engage in business. We want the entire community to rise up, not just one person."

To learn more, visit blacklitcollective.com.

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