In the face of a civil revolution against racist police brutality, I sat down (virtually) with Mo Sanderlin, a music educator in San Diego, CA, to discuss the role educators, and the school system play in dismantling systemic oppression against Black people.
Natasha Weiss: First things first, who are you, Mo?
Mo Sanderlin: I am a Black, queer, music teacher, daughter and sibling. I’m also a PK (Preacher’s Kid).
I feel like this part is still being built and understood, but I’ve been exploring my gender identity — and identify as gender fluid.
NW: How do the intersections of your identity affect how you navigate through the world, and how you do your work?
MS: I think they’re a blessing and a curse. They put me in a lot of environments I didn’t expect myself to be in. I was in Christian college with a bunch of white people. But also being queer, it brought up a lot of conversations in my environments in college.
After I finished college and entered the profession of teaching, there was a time where I was at a Black educators conference, and I went to a LGBTQ workshop. When I walked into the room there was a white, straight, cis man teaching the session, and a panel of queer Black and POC teams. He opened the workshop by asking everyone what their pronouns are. That’s awesome, duh, but when you’re in a room of mostly Black women in their 30s and 40s who have never heard of this, it doesn’t make sense to lead with this.
From what I’ve experienced, in the queer community coming out feels very outward. There’s an attitude of, “I won’t silence myself about coming out and being who I am.”
But in the Black community, in the past it’s been that the best way to live fully is to lay low and be kind of quiet. And so in that setting, to be so outward with people who know nothing about the queer community, it’s like going into a first day of a history class and asking them to recall the Great Schism.
NW: What about in the classroom?
MS: Some educators want to be saviors, some just want power, others want to accommodate, which comes with passivity. I’m trying to find and embody this middle ground of letting go of that ego, to realize that this profession isn’t all about me.
I think that’s where some of that power hungry shit that cops do comes from. They literally saw people shamed in their classrooms everyday, in a way that says “because I hold whatever it is that you hold” — for cops it’s a gun, for teachers it’s education and their future, and how students view themselves within that future. Because there are millions of kids who said, “My teacher told me I’m not going to amount to anything.”
If you send someone outside of your classroom — which is usually a 9th grade Black boy who has ADHD, which I’ve seen in the classroom, and in the case of my brother — it sends a message that is as clear as choking someone in the middle of the street.
My thesis was on culturally relevant curriculum in the classroom. Within those studies, one of the biggest things that scholars say is that a lot of times white teachers will take a job not knowing that it’s really important to have cultural context — specifically how students’ backgrounds interact with their education.
So they expect students to act a certain way in the classroom: just sitting and writing on a piece of paper. There’s so much research and proof out there that most students don’t learn like that. While some may sit there and allow it, and some will learn well regardless, other kids get antsy, they stand up a lot, and wander around the classroom.
If you were to ask them the real story behind it, their backgrounds and home life play a huge role. Thinking of a specific student, he can’t sit all day because his dad is in and out of the house, and the mom is not doing well emotionally, and the kid has to hold it together for his family. These kids are up and down in their chairs, and it’s because that’s their place to get away. It becomes more complex than just learning the quadratic formula.
NW: How do you individually hold space for these students?
MS: My first day teaching, I came in with a fresh haircut, new glasses, and a bright blue polka dot shirt. My twenty-two-year-old self said, “I am coming into this classroom to instill music in EVERYBODY!”
And from my experience, teaching is about teaching, but at its core is more about interactions than it is about forcing someone to love something as much as you do. It’s important to look more into what they (students) like, to have a lot of days of just listening to your students, and allowing them to disagree with things that I agree with so deeply.
The connection between teachers and students is the most important thing. By making one on one connections within my classroom, instead of trying to change the entire world.
NW: What sort of conversations do educators and administrators within the school system need to be having to support these kids?
MS: The thing I would tell all teachers is to get the f*@k over themselves. I’m still developing my understanding of power. Because there are negatives and positives to it. There’s a fine line between asserting dominance and using righteous power to benefit yourself, versus being able to expand somebody’s worldview in a way that’s like, “Oh I’ve never thought of it like that.”
NW: What does your dream vision of the future look like?
MS: Wow, does it have to be realistic?
What I think about is lots of circles. Ones that do and don’t overlap. Everybody being able to look at each other — and to be able to in every setting; education, policing (if they don’t get abolished), community and households.
Understanding how to be interchangeable between three roles: the educator/speaker, the learner/listener, and the intersection of those two.
Everyone is learning and educating all at once. I think that sometimes you aren’t meant to be the educator, even in settings where you should be. Like I should be the teacher, but some kid may have such a good story to share, and they just need someone to listen to them. So that’s when I say to myself, “This is my day to listen, not educate.”
In the case of police officers, they need to be listening, and understanding who they’re around. That the people they “police” are not just being defiant for the sake of being defiant. Some people are just so tired of not being listened to. They get angry.
My mom is frustrated because, “Now officers are getting scared, they’re shooting because they think someone is against them.” The result of a police officer experiencing fear means being able to take someone’s life. While on the other side, a civilian experiencing fear is them saying “no,” and it being taken as defiant or aggressive, which is a whole other thing.
There needs to be lessons on how to be a listener, so that we all really know how to do it. Once we feel more comfortable doing something, it gets easier. We need to find a way to teach everyone trauma-informed practices, in a way that’s tangible and digestible.
NW: Thank you so much Mo, for sharing your experiences, wisdom, and vision for the world.
Inspired by my conversation with Mo, here’s my message to white people and non-Black POC:
Now (and always), is the time to take action and dive into anti-racism work. Educate yourself on the history of racism against Black people in the U.S., and around the world. Learn about the role of local and state politics, as well as in your individual industry. Speak up and out against your local police department, representatives and policies that perpetuate systemic racism. Sign petitions, have tough conversations, and pay necessary reparations for the generations of harm committed against Black people in the name of white supremacy.
Continue to amplify Black voices, center Black experiences and celebrate Black joy.
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