Personal reflection about the work of the Right Question Institute at this time and going forward
Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein
The recent brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have pushed many people and organizations to protest the many forms of racism, police brutality, and systemic injustice that have never actually been hidden from plain sight.
We join these long overdue protests, and we also pause to think of many other people of color who deserve not only to be remembered but also to be invoked as catalysts for action.
We think about all that has happened, and we also think about all the work ahead. We know that we must do more to fight racism and ask more questions about causes, consequences, responsibility, accountability, injustice, justice, and change. We just begin with an immediate focus on:
What more must be done?
What more can we do?
We will not only push ourselves to ask more questions that shape our actions, we will work to ensure that more questions and answers to guide the way forward will come from people most affected by the impact of racism. We will continue to support, work with, and learn from people who day in and day out are doing the hard work of fighting for justice on the ground.
We must also do more. We must find ways to ensure that white people with privilege start asking questions they have for too long avoided, for people of color to ensure that their questions are voiced and heard, for all people to ask better questions questions that directly address racism, injustice, police brutality, and the inequities exposed by the COVID-19 crisis. These things are happening right in front of our eyes, everyday, if only we dare to look. An authoritarian society would not allow challenging questions to be asked. A democratic society needs to hear all questions, especially the ones that shed light on what has been kept from view or deliberately ignored.
We will call attention to the work of other organizations fighting racism and creating opportunities for black youth, such as the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC), led by our dear friend and longtime dedicated educator, Ron Walker, a former board member of the Right Question Institute. COSEBOC offers a unique model for doing the hard work, day in and day out, of making sure that more boys and young men of color have the educational opportunities they deserve. And, yet, COSEBOC, like many other organizations led by people of color, struggles to get foundation support.
Our own work that we began 30 years ago with our late colleague, Agnes S. Bain, and our friend, Ana Rodriguez, was inspired by many parents of color who were fighting on behalf of their children’s education. We will continue to ground our work in lessons we learn from people all over the country, and especially from educators of color, who show us what can be done to simultaneously fight racism and invest in the next generation so they can carry the struggle forward. We point to their work because it shows what can be done and is being done all over the country by truly “essential” workers.
We think of Isabel Morales, whose high school students in Los Angeles have used the Question Formulation Technique to ask fundamental questions about the criminal justice system in the United States. Their questions led them to examine discipline policies in their own high school and to make their voices heard in creating new policies. We think of James Brewster, an African-American teacher at the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Austin, Texas, who uses the Question Formulation Technique because he has seen that “helping my students find their voice through questioning has led directly to their academic achievement.”
“Helping my students find their voice.” That will continue to be our work. Not to be the voice for people but, rather, to work to make it easier for more people to make their own voices heard, to step into their own power. We see that need beyond the classroom when we work with parents advocating for their children’s education, welfare clients insisting on access to services and benefits, and residents of low-income communities who become determined to make their voices heard on election day.
In our work, we often cite the words of Septima Clark, the great civil rights movement educator. Clark was fired after 18 years of teaching in the Charleston, South Carolina, schools for being a member of the NAACP. She went on to set up “Citizenship Schools” to increase adult literacy in black communities. She emphasized that in order to do the work of the civil rights movement and build a more just society, “We must be taught to inquire.” Today, let’s emphasize we all must learn to inquire more about the causes and effects of racism and about how to combat it. We must also continue to keep in mind the question asked the nation by Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic Convention when she challenged the right of the segregated all-white Mississippi delegation to represent her and other black residents: “Is this America?” she shouted out to those present and a nationwide audience on TV that included the president of the United States. “Is this America?” she asked incredulously.
When we see voter suppression today — one more long standing manifestation of racism and oppression — it is clear that Fannie Lou Hamer’s question demanding accountability and the right to make her voice heard is, sadly, still relevant and is one of the many reasons why the work of Black Lives Matter is important. We must keep asking her question and we must keep questioning and challenging ourselves and our country until we get to better answers. We promise to keep at it.
Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein
The Right Question Institute