Nation & World

HGSE sponsors alumni of color conference

6 min read

Student-organized event is in its fifth year

In a crowded banquet hall at the Cambridge Center Marriott, William Demmert Jr. Ed.D.’73 — a Tlingit who grew up in southeast Alaska — finished up a detailed lecture on Native American languages, culture, and early childhood education. And as soon as the talk ended, the 72-year-old writer and researcher was on the crowded dance floor, celebrating the last moments of a two-day (March 3 and 4) Alumni of Color Conference (AOCC), sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

The AOCC, a student-organized event, is now in its fifth year, and has attracted about 1,000 participants since 2003.

Most of the AOCC, following the design of the ones before, was pure academic conference. There were scholarly panels, a plenary, and presentations — 16 altogether — at the Gutman Conference Center. Topics ranged from literacy, race, and culture to conceptions of adolescent masculinity to Russian bard Aleksandr Pushkin (he was part African). The overarching theme was “image and knowledge — constructing power in communities of color.”

Part of “image and knowledge” comes from the media, said Joseph Blatt, lecturer on education and director of the technology, innovation, and education program at HGSE. “We should just accept the fact that all media are educational media.”

Blatt moderated an AOCC panel that looked at young students who produce their own music, films, and Internet media.

That’s “quite different territory” from a world in which just a few years ago students were only consumers of media, which — if they were Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, or blacks — did not portray them frequently or well, said Blatt. Although people of color are seen more on the air now, the portrayals still often distort reality, he contended. “It matters how you’re seen.”

An academic conference for students of color in graduate education is unique in the United States, said Richard Reddick, a fifth-year doctoral student at HGSE who is one of 39 founders of the AOCC. “We couldn’t find anything to copy,” he said of inventing the format a few years ago. “So we made our own.”

Demmert took some time out in a quiet hallway at the Marriott. “My Harvard education took me on a path that was different from most paths I would have taken,” he said. The experience gave him rigorous research skills, as well as entrée to other Harvard graduates — people “with authority and responsibility,” said the former federal education official, who is now a professor of education at Western Washington University.

Demmert’s presentation, the last academic echo of the conference, was “Kill the Indian, Save the Child: A Modern Dichotomy.” He argued that teaching Native American languages to very young students improves language development of all kinds, deepens a sense of heritage, and enriches the family and community support a child needs to grow up ethical, responsible, and bright.

“You don’t have to kill the Indian to save the child,” said Demmert, who is principal education investigator for a consortium of seven U.S. schools using Native languages in the early childhood curriculum. “It’s just the opposite: You have to strengthen the Indian to save the child.”

Half the 250 AOCC registrants this year were graduate students at HGSE. They came to learn from the other half: onetime HGSE students like Demmert — scholars who are already out into the wide world of research, teaching, and policymaking.

Some of the lessons were hard to hear, including a few in the March 3 plenary session on methodology. “Racism is alive and well,” even among professionals in the academy, asserted Heather Harding Ed.M. ’00, Ed.D. ’06, now at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “It’s important for [researchers] to think as nonracists.”

Lionel Howard Ed.M. ’02, Ed.D.’06 — now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — said that that lesson applies to everyone. He told an assembled 70 listeners at the plenary that scholars of color should be “fully aware of our own biases and assumptions.”

At least one lesson at the AOCC was sunnier, and addressed a common complaint among scholars: how to get research off the campus and into the classroom.

Almudena G. “Almi” Abeyta Ed.M. ’04 — now principal at the Donald McKay School, a largely Latino K-8 school in Boston — watched five of her eighth-graders on a panel. They talked about choice and autonomy in what they read, which recent HGSE research shows can boost literacy and motivation.

“This veers from the normal curriculum,” said Abeyta of her school’s reading-autonomy project, developed by visiting Harvard scholars since 2004. “This is action-based research.”

“I open the doors to researchers,” added the onetime kindergarten teacher in New Mexico. “I end up benefiting so much.”

“It’s very inspirational to see people come back,” bringing real-life lessons and experience, said James P. “Jay” Huguley Ed.M. ’04, a third-year doctoral student at HGSE and one of the AOCC’s three student organizers. “They walk the same path you will as a student of color.”

Young scholars who aspire to education research face special challenges, said Huguley, a Providence, R.I., native who studies issues of racial identity. “The research we are interested in may not be considered mainstream research,” including attempts to study race as a cultural experience, he said. “Not everybody wants to have that conversation. It can be divisive.”

In his own career, said Huguley, “I’ll try to do the best research I can — the kind of work people can’t deny.”

Young researchers being inspired by older ones is the heart of an event like the AOCC, said Laura Carmen Arena, the Argentina-born assistant director of multicultural affairs at HGSE. “From the beginning,” she said, “there was a sense of [the AOCC] as a place of academic research, and a place to celebrate the success of alumni.”

Organizer Kerry Venegas, a fourth-year doctoral student at HGSE and a onetime Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, called the conference “a celebration of partnerships.”

“No matter how hard the boundaries may seem” in doing education research on communities of color, she said, “we can, and we do, and we will.”