Many parents are homeschooling their children due to the pandemic, but Chemay Morales-James beat them to it. She has been home-schooling for years, not due to coronavirus, but due to another seemingly incurable pandemic: racism. And she’s not alone.
“Parents are deciding that the way school is designed doesn’t work for most kids, especially kids of color. They are not hearing the true history of who they are, the history of the country. They are not hearing what affirms their identities as Black and brown children,” Morales-James said.
In 2016, Morales-James, a former teacher and mother of two from Watertown, started My Reflection Matters. The consulting service helps parents and educators find classroom materials and tools that are culturally responsive and affirming.
Her business has expanded to include My Reflection Matters Village, a membership co-op of parents who agree that public schools diminish kids’ self-esteem, teach them ineffective educational methods and indoctrinate them into a traditional whitewashed, racially insensitive version of history.
“We are Black, indigenous and other people of color on a journey toward liberated education, which we also call decolonized education,” Morales-James said. “I consider this liberation work. If we really want to raise free people, it would have to happen outside the system.”
The parents, and their kids, mutually help each other’s educational goals, and support each other in developing teaching methods that will resonate with their children. The parents also have become friends. About once a week the families meet to socialize and talk about their mission.
Helena Sasso of Woodbury is one of those MRM Village parents, who met recently at Heaven Skate Park in Hartford. What drove Sasso to pull her daughter, Lily, out of public schools was Columbus Day.
“I come from an indigenous culture in Colombia. Columbus Day is still celebrated. People keep talking about what a hero he is, after all these years, after what he did to the natives,” Sasso said. “I couldn’t let them finish the education of my child.”
Sasso bounced around to a few home-school parent co-ops, and then found My Reflection Matters.
“What she does is many steps beyond home schooling. It was right up my alley,” she said. “My daughter is learning indigenous life ways, ancestral teaching. That’s the most important thing.”
Rachael D’Agostino of Bristol is another parent. At Heaven, her 13-year-old Afro-Latino son, Miles, played with other MRM Village kids while D’Agostino hung around with the parents. D’Agostino said in addition to culturally sensitive education. MRM Village is better than other co-ops she joined because it lets her son get to know other children of color.
“Often my child was the token Black child. When I would make natural statements in a conversation, me expressing my beliefs, I was met with opposition and negativity. I understood that I had to toe the line if I was going to be welcome there,” she said.
“That doesn’t help me or my son or the other children who are growing up alongside my child. They are being raised in such a way that they will not have my child’s back when they are teens and young adults. Their relationships would be superficial,” she said. “We had to pull away from that.”
Jen Moyer of Hartford said in other home-schooling co-ops, her son Cayden was the only child of color as well as the only child with same-sex parents. “It was great to find a space where he would not be the only one,” Moyer said.
Morales-James said a lot of the work she does, which is less of a problem with kids who always have been home-schooled than it is with kids who went to public school and then left, is “unschooling.” This involves changing kids’ indoctrinated ideas about how education should work.
“Unschooling is a form of self-directed education, the belief that children can be leaders of their own learning. They don’t necessarily need someone to dictate what they need to learn or how to learn and by when,” she said. Morales-James learned the traditional process herself during her training as a schoolteacher. “I chose to throw that out the window.”
In addition to teaching at schools in Watertown and Waterbury, Morales-James worked for a decade at NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. She called that job “a life-changing experience.”
“Instead of being a schoolteacher, I was an equity coach and consultant, supporting schools that were experiencing racialized inequities in their districts,” she said. “We would find out why they were having these racialized outcomes, the causes.”
She brings that experience to MRM and its Village. The parents in the Village share teaching duties, helping with the lessons that fall into their areas of expertise. Often, kids direct the lessons, learning subjects that interest them from older kids. As a result of the pandemic, much of that work is done virtually, among the dozens of families who participate.
“The idea of liberation is different from the idea of equity. Equity [work] is working within systems that are designed to produce inequitable outcomes. People who do equity work are doing harm reduction, helping districts and schools change policies and practices and to reduce harm to students,” she said.
“Liberation is when you create completely new systems. We are doing that. Kids and parents can decide what education looks like, as opposed to the reins being held by quote unquote professionals,” Morales-James said. “Those who have been oppressed by the system need to be leaders defining completely new systems to liberate us from systems of oppression.”
Susan Dunne can be reached at [email protected].
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