By Darrius Stanley, PhD –
The promise of Asheville’s community-based Positive Opportunities to Develop Success (P.O.D.S.) in centering Black humanity.
As Asheville City Schools (ACS) prepares for a return to in-person learning, I wonder what Black students are returning to. This reopening of schools emerges in the midst of multiple pandemics: racism, sexism, socio-economic oppression, and xenophobia.
While our past, fascist, regime denied a medical pandemic, systems across all sectors have had to reckon with the reality that racism is also a public health crisis. Locally, the lasting impacts of “urban renewal,” ongoing debates about slave owner memorials, and discursive tactics by city officials related to reparations, contribute to a racially fragmented community. Indeed, the decision to return to learn is contentious due to troubling complications.
However, my biggest concern is that Black youth seem to be thriving outside of traditional classroom spaces. The Asheville Positive Opportunities to Develop Success (P.O.D.S.) is a strategic partnership between the school district, Asheville Housing Authority, Asheville Parks and Recreation, and a host of community partners (e.g., YTL). The P.O.D.S. are built upon four key pillars: Equity w/ Positive Impact, Student-Centered, Revolutionary Love, and Changing the Narrative. They provide refuge for Black students to thrive. I worry that a return to learn might erode these efforts.
The P.O.D.S., established in the beginning of the school year, provide a community-based space for virtual learning. Due to Black students’ experiences in the P.O.D.S., I choose not to solely dwell on the damage. Instead, I find myself encouraged by the possibilities, fortitude, and resolve of Black people.
To be clear, I am not optimistic; I am hopeful. Optimism is troubling for Black people because it presumes a logical and foreseeable end to suffering. Hope is different. Hope is what freed my ancestors from bondage. Hope, in the Black community, defies logic and relies primarily on the under-theorized possibilities of Black people. It is because of this hope, that despite an anti-Black society, anti-Black institutions, and anti-Black politics—we find ourselves resolute. Here, we must question the (un)intended consequences of a return to learn and consider the promise of the Asheville P.O.D.S. in Black communities.
I am concerned about the health and safety of all students, families, and staff who are returning to school buildings. But I am thoroughly uneasy about the physical, social, and intellectual welfare of Black students. Since the closures of Stephens-Lee and other Black schools, ACS has been a site of social suffering for Black students and families. Black students are ostracized by inequitable discipline policies, under-educated by unresponsive curricula and pedagogies, and over-identified for special education, to name a few atrocities. Consequently, ACS has the fifth-largest racial achievement gap in the country.
“We have fought hard and long for integration… and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe that we’re integrating into a burning house…” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1968
District officials have acknowledged these inequities and committed resources to addressing them. Yet Black communities have seen little in the way of impact. Conversely, individual accounts suggest that Black children in Asheville’s P.O.D.S. are thriving, engaged, and loved; few children are being suspended. These parallels cause one to question the capacities of local schools to live up to their commitments to educating ALL students. I worry that Black students are returning to a burning house.
Black community P.O.D.S. fill in resource gaps by providing a remote working space, material, and human resources for students to engage in their education. Many are situated in historically disenfranchised and disinvested Black neighborhoods. These spaces, some of which were once thriving Black communities, have been pillaged for resources and forced into economic submission—due to state-sanctioned violence. Black neighborhoods have been denied basic infrastructure to repair previous harm. Ultimately, anti-Blackness is at the heart of all municipal projects designed to displace and disenfranchise Black communities in America. Yet, the disposability of Black bodies is particularly acute in Asheville. I digress.
At the intersection of Black prosperity and Black confinement, P.O.D.S. provide access to once-denied internet, supplies, food, facilitators, and most importantly, love. I remember visiting a P.O.D., at a local Black church, led by a pastor and other church leaders. Black youth were seen learning in beloved community. In a recent interview with Blue Ridge Public Radio News, Cicely Rogers and Toshia Sitton describe their efforts to teach their own. At the Relevant Education Grows All Learners (REGAL) P.O.D. in Pisgah View, these Black women educators mention uplifting Black students through other-mothering and changing the narrative about their community. In these spaces, Black students’ humanity and intellect are able to safely co-exist. This is Black resolve.
We always find ways to educate our own. We self-taught in the shades of the plantation, despite bondage and anti-literacy laws. We created Black education spaces in one-room schoolhouses and church basements. We challenged “separate and unequal resources” so that our students could learn. Now, similar to the work of the Black Panther Party, P.O.D.S. provide the space, love and resources necessary to reinstate Black humanity. This synergy of Black love, humanity and possibility is what brings me hope.
Sure, P.O.D.S. are an educational space, not independent schools. However, given the state of Black lives in the district, what opportunities might be lost with a return to “business as usual”? What possibilities exist in the P.O.D.S. partnerships? What lessons can ACS learn in the transition? To these queries, I offer a few considerations.
To ACS officials, many Black students will return to “burning” school buildings. Therefore, I recommend caution and interrogation of the return to learn process and plans for the 2021-2022 school year. Pay attention to the implications and (un)intended consequences of this transition.
I urge ACS to center Black communities in all decision-making processes. This move must be a co-constructed and meaningful exchange between communities and institutions. Train teachers to re-center Black humanity and love of Black people in their pedagogies. Educational leaders must dismantle policies and practices that spirit-murder Black students; they are predicated on the lies of Black incapability and Black inhumanity.
Finally, study the pedagogies of Black educators in the P.O.D.S. to ensure that ACS’s classrooms provide a bridge between Black students academic and social identities. To the Black staff in ACS, typically when the “house” is on fire, we are employed to put it out. However, these fires are not our own. Also, be reminded that we cannot afford to stand by while our students are experiencing institutionalized violence. Resist practices that are complicit to the status quo. Demand your colleagues pursue justice for Black students. Above all, practice self-care; this work is arduous.
I know not what the future holds for the P.O.D.S.; yet I revel in imagining the lasting impacts on Black children. When asked about the mission of the REGAL Pisgah View P.O.D., Toshia Sitton states, “To make it into a school, a real school.” I wonder what we might do to regain control over the education of our youth. Assuredly, we cannot wait for the district and municipalities to give us what we are owed. We must, as we always have, devise our own pathways to equitable Black education.
I encourage our communities to dream like Toshia and Cicely; strategize ways to maintain the P.O.D.S. Make them permanent fixtures in our communities. Throughout this process, leverage the REGAL model, which provides a roadmap for curriculum and capacity-building to support the development and maintenance of the P.O.D.S. Through this work we can be assured that Black youth are central to curriculum, pedagogy, and policy. I recommend Black communities: identify community-based educators, locate potential community-based education spaces, and plan, invest and merge monetary resources for sustainability. This is our revolutionary charge. This is our hope.
After years of abuse from systems that do not love us, it is again time to protect the spirits of our youth. In that way, I thank my people, Black people, for reminding us how to do that. Thank you for reminding us how to love and humanize Black students. I often think about the ways that Black youth will remember their time in the P.O.D.S. More often, unfortunately, I am troubled by the notion that they may have to remember them at all.