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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 29, 2019 by

Restorative Justice in the Classroom: An Interview with Cassie Schwerner

It’s been six months since Dr. Cassie Schwerner became the Executive Director of the 37-year-old Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City and she has many items on her organizational to-do list. The group’s mission – to promote equity in public schools through reliance on restorative justice over suspension for rules infractions; increase social and emotional learning in the classroom; and inspire honest, well-facilitated discussions about the impact of race on everyday interactions — is enormous, but Schwerner says she’s up to the challenge. 

She and Eleanor J. Bader met on a dreary May morning in Schwerner’s light-filled Brooklyn kitchen. Their discussion covered a range of topics, from Schwerner’s personal history, to the current state of public education in New York City and beyond.

Eleanor J. Bader: One of your first jobs was as a research assistant to writer Jonathan Kozol, known for his groundbreaking work on education and racial inequality. How did that happen?

Cassie Schwerner: I graduated from Earlham College in 1987 with a degree in Peace and Global Studies. My focus was on the violence of racism in our culture. When I graduated, a bunch of my friends were moving to Boston, so I joined them, and started applying for jobs. One ad, in The Boston Phoenix, was from writer Jonathan Kozol. The ad said he was looking for an assistant, specified that a car was needed, and gave his contact information.

My friend Jennie, who attended Earlham with me, prodded me to call him. I’d been unemployed for four weeks at that point, so I did. The truth is that Kozol recognized my last name. My uncle, Michael Schwerner (1939-1964), had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi, along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, in July 1964. After the murders, Kozol dropped out of Oxford, where he’d been a Rhodes Scholar, to take part in the civil rights movement.

I had an interview with Kozol and it was as if it was meant to be. I worked with him for 10 years.

EJB: What did the job entail?

CS: When I started the job, Jonathan was just about to launch the book tour for Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America. I was hired to help organize the tour. Then, after he was on the road for about three months, he asked me to start researching racism and economic inequality in public education. The result of this research was the book, Savage Inequalities, which came out in 1991. I also managed the Education Action Fund that Jonathan had set up to assist low-income families. We met once a week but it was a very independent, even isolating, work.

A year into it, I started graduate school at Boston College to get a PhD is Sociology. I worked full-time for Kozol while I was in school and finished my doctorate in 1996. For a while I worked for Jonathan and taught as an adjunct at Boston College and Simmons College but by 1997, I knew it was time to move on. I wasn’t sure what to do because I didn’t want to teach.

Meanwhile, a friend had started the Schott Foundation for Public Education (schottfoundation.org). He and I had done organizing together on single payer health insurance—yes, 20-plus years ago this was already a demand—with a group called Neighbor to Neighbor and I had given him some leads as he established the Foundation. It focused on many of the same issues Kozol worked on. When he offered me a few discrete, short-term projects at the Foundation, I said, ‘yes, sure.’ This led to a 22-year career there!

EJB: So, you’ve pretty much made political work your full-time occupation.

CS: Yes. Early on, I knew that my work would involve racial justice, gender justice, and economic justice. I did not want my career to be separate from my activism; I wanted to combine them. I’ve always known that public schools are a key site of racial injustice and exist at the intersection of economic inequality and racism. At the same time, public schools are the one place we mandate that young people go, making them a logical place for social change. 

EJB: Why did you decide to leave the Schott Foundation?

CS: I loved my job at Schott. I loved moving millions of dollars to education justice groups around the US and I loved the fact that I worked with many inspiring organizers, but I’d been doing the work for a long time and was looking for a new challenge. I led our team in the launch of a report called Loving Cities index: Creating Loving Systems Across Communities to Provide All Students an Opportunity to Learn. Shortly after this, I saw the Morningside job description and it spoke to my heart.  I knew of their work in restorative practices and shared their desire to end the school-to-prison pipeline. I wanted to be part of it.

EJB: How does Morningside envision doing this?

CS: Since joining the team in November 2018, I’ve learned that Morningside has developed a Whole School Transformation process that has racial equality at its core. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a necessary component of this. This involves teaching kids how to resolve conflicts nonviolently and develop the interpersonal skills they need to relate to others, make good decisions, and build empathy. Many people, of course, see these skills as a distraction from acquiring academic knowledge, but we know from adolescent brain research that learning happens best when students feel safe and are in community with others. Still, although profound learning can happen when these two measures are met, it is not enough.

EJB: What do restorative justice practices entail?

CS: Restorative practices rely heavily on a facilitated circle process in which students learn from one another and develop the ability to be good listeners, something that is essential to developing empathy.

Once students get used to the restorative circle process, they develop a sort of memory muscle that helps them know what to do to resolve conflicts, a process that is far better for everyone than suspending a kid from school when he or she gets into a flight or has an issue with someone. Morningside goes one further, however, using a concept developed by Glenn Singleton: Courageous conversations around race.

EJB: What does that mean in practice?

CS: We’ve learned that if you only work to reduce school suspensions, you’ve sidestepped the racial disparities that exist. By having courageous conversations about race, we can begin to address the racist structure that is inherent to the public education system and build a model that is more culturally responsive and that truly embraces different cultures, sexualities, languages, races, and genders.

To create Whole School Equity, we need to weave these elements together. You can’t promote courageous conversations without building a safe community in which these conversations can happen. But if you take a more colorblind approach, focusing only on creating community and safety, you typically miss a chance to interrupt the racial injustices that happen every day in classrooms and in communities.

That’s why Morningside believes that Social and Emotional Learning cannot stand on its own. SEL needs to be infused with an understanding of the unfair playing field and work to change it.

EJB: That’s a huge project, but I know that the Morningside Center also creates model lesson plans for teachers. Can you talk about that?

CS: The Morningside website has posted more than 900 Teachable Moment lesson plans that are free to teachers. They provide a well-thought-out plan to incorporate history, social studies, science, and current events—things like Trump’s immigration proposals, are one example–for real time classroom instruction. We also offer a three-day Deep Dive workshop for educators that is specifically focused on the nexus between racial justice, teaching, and learning.

EJB: Has feminism been incorporated into the lessons?

CS: The work we’ve done on racial equity involves having courageous conversations on racial justice among our staff. We started meeting once a month more than two years ago and continue to meet monthly to discuss race and racism. 

As we’ve delved into this, we’ve realized that we need to do something similar around gender, to bring insights from feminism, especially as articulated by feminists of color and gender-non-conforming people, to teach one another how to be more culturally competent in this area. We know that kids of color and queer kids are being suspended and subjected to harsher discipline policies than straight cis-gendered kids, so we’ve just started a Gender Equity Working Group for staff. I’m excited to be in on the ground level of this.

I feel really lucky.