A Q&A with Cynthia B. Dillard
Too often in our study of teaching, teachers, and teacher education, we approach discussions and research in education from a place where Black educators are not able to bring their whole selves to the classroom. Especially Black women teachers. Dr. Cynthia B. Dillard’s The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member centers the spiritual lives of Black women educators and their students, arguing that their cultural lives and heritage can (and should!) be supported to inform education policy, practice, and theory. In essence, it is a love letter to all Black women teachers throughout the diaspora. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Dr. Dillard to chat about it.
Christian Coleman: Tell us about the inspiration behind writing The Spirit of Our Work.
Cynthia B. Dillard: The inspiration for this book? I think it is the other way round. This book has inspired me. It has literally been writing me all of my life! It is the story of what happens when teachers have the opportunity and the audacity to (re)member their stories and their culture. It is about how the awesome power that experiences with the African continent opens a space for Black folks and fills in the blank of our often anemic education. I was inspired by all of this to write the book I wished I could have read as I was growing up: As a Black woman, as a teacher, as a leader.
CC: How do you see this book in conversation with your previous books, On Spiritual Strivings and Learning to (Re)member the Things We’ve Learned to Forget?
CBD: The Spirit of our Work builds on the work of those two books, the gathering of what I have learned about how critical it is for Black women to bring our spirituality—our politics, our spiritual consciousness, and our creativity—to everything we do, to everything we live. In On Spiritual Striving, the conversation started with myself and my life, what animated the spirit of my work and the deep influence that Ghana as had on my life and work as an educator and a leader. In Learning to (Re)member the Things We’ve Learned to Forget, I put the spirit of my work into theoretical conversations with everyday concepts in research and teaching from a Black/endarkened feminist lens, pointing out the importance of (re)membering for education.
CC: Could you tell us more about what you mean when you write that, for Black women teachers, (re)membering isn’t optional, that nurturing and connecting with their spiritual lives and Blackness is a priority?
CBD: This is a point that needs to be made! Black women teachers, like all teachers, have the awesome responsibility of teaching the next generation of Black students. In order to do so, we must have the knowledge of Black people, of our origin stories, of Black identities and culture. In order to tell the full story of Black/African life, this base of knowledge must reach back to the continent of Africa and to life BEFORE enslavement. All teachers must be able to teach from the depth and breadth of Black life and accomplishment, from the spirit of Black triumph and strength. It is a priority because, in this moment where we are seeking to address inequities and justice within schools and society, Black women teachers who have engaged in (re)membering stand as the ones who can respond not only with accurate knowledge of Black legacy but also as those who will teach through experiences of inequities from a place of wellness and wholeness, from a spiritual place.
Black women’s stories matter. And most of us need as many as possible to fill in the gaps and limits of the education we received about global Black life and culture in our education in this country.
CC: (Re)membering is made up five related processes: (Re)searching; (Re)visioning; (Re)cognizing; (Re)presenting; and (Re)claiming. And (re)membering isn’t necessarily a linear process. Why is that?
CBD: It is not linear because a person can literally be thrown into any part of these processes prior to the other. In a new and unfamiliar context, one might (re)vision and then set out to (re)search the origin of that vision. One might engage in (re)presentation by wearing a piece of clothing without having really (re)cognized the deeper meanings of that act, needing to (re)search to fill in their knowledge. (Re)membering is the overarching framework: I have simply highlighted necessary processes that are a part of (re)membering so that we can see their importance in the lives of Black women teachers. But it might be more accurate to describe these processes like a Slinky (which probably tells my age!) or a coil that continuously loops back onto itself in order to move forward in dynamic ways, faced with new engagements with Black life, traditions, culture, and heritage. They are all a part of a full circle: The processes never end.
CC: Do you see (re)membering as an act of resistance Black women teachers will need until the education system as we know it has a reckoning and decenters whiteness?
CBD: You’ve answered your own question: OF COURSE (re)membering is about resistance! Any time Black people choose ourselves, choose to marshal our knowledges and to tell our stories in a system or society that devalues and has exploited all of those things, these are radical acts. But processes of (re)membering are acts of gathering ourselves, acts of healing and honoring the ancestors who have made our lives and educations possible. Those who have constructed systems of schooling honor their own exploitive purposes for education. Privilege will not let go easily. But the concern of (re)membering is to focus our attention on the brilliance of Blackness, on (re)membering who we are and whose we are as THE most important work we can do, even as we continue to work to abolish structures that don’t love us.
As Ayi Kwei Armah has suggested, exploitive systems such as capitalism are fundamentally about taking: African ways of knowing and being are fundamentally about sharing, about how I am because we are. Such a stance starts with knowing there is always enough for everyone. Knowing our origin stories helps us to stand in and move from that spirit of our strength and resilience.
CC: You lead Full Circle Retreats Ghana, cultural retreats to Ghana focused on (re)membering the beauty and traditions of Black heritage, identity, and culture. How have the retreats informed your writing of The Spirit of Our Work?
CBD: I am a teacher from the core of my being, whether I am called teacher, professor, dean, or retreat leader. So Full Circle Retreats Ghana is really an extension of what I call “the work:” The work of (re)membering our stories and our spirits, whether I am planning a syllabus for a university course that I teach, leading a department or a college, or retreating in Ghana! How do we work from a place that loves Black people and the contributions of our humanity in this world?
CC: The stories of the women who join you on the retreats and of their experiences embracing their full selves bring so much joy! This isn’t really a question, just a word of deep gratitude that they’re in the book.
CBD: *smiles all around*
CC: One last thing before we go. Next year, you’ll be Dean of the College of Education at Seattle University. Are you excited about your new role?
CBD: I am! Like this book, becoming a Dean feels like another moment where my entire life and experiences have prepared me for such a time as this. Seattle University is a very special place, and the recent inauguration of President Eduardo Peñalver has further clarified our direction as an innovative, progressive, Jesuit university. At the front of that mission and direction is the formation of the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. And the foundation of the institution is that we use our gifts in service of justice and fairness. As Dean of the SU College of Education, I see processes of (re)membering and pedagogies of the spirit articulated in this book as “the spirit of our work” as a College: Our preparation of teachers, counselors, school leaders, and other educational professionals will be guided by this spirit. I am so excited to build with the talented faculty, staff and students of Seattle University—and to (re)turn to Seattle, the city where I grew up! What a homecoming this will be, a truly sacred circle for me.
About Cynthia B. Dillard
Cynthia B. Dillard (Nana Mansa II of Mpeasem, Ghana, West Africa) is incoming dean of Seattle University’s College of Education and the former Mary Frances Early Professor in Teacher Education and chair of the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia. Two of her books, On Spiritual Strivings and Learning to (Re)member the Things We’ve Learned to Forget, were selected as Critics’ Choice Book Award winners by the American Educational Studies Association (AESA). Connect with her at cynthiabdillard.com and on Twitter @cynthiabdillard.