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A Conversation With Penn State Social Justice Professor Ashley Patterson

Penn State College of Education professor Dr. Ashley Patterson has certainly seen her fair share of accomplishments so far in her career. Most recently, she created the social justice in education minor, which immerses students in Washington, D.C. public schools to learn about social justice issues first-hand.

Patterson is also a black woman, a mother, and one of the many voices speaking out against racial inequality. We sat down with Patterson to hear about her perspective on current events, her own experiences, and what she believes needs to happen in the future to address racial inequality.

Onward State: How are you doing these days? What are you doing to keep yourself in good spirits despite the overwhelming climate?

Dr. Ashley Patterson: There is a lot of emotion, certainly. It kind of changes from moment to moment for me. There are moments where I’m so sad, moments when I am angry and furious, and also moments where I am just empty. However, I have been giving myself the freedom to feel whatever emotions I have. There have been a lot of thoughts that I have had that I had to suppress because I couldn’t handle them all, but one regarding my two-year old son has popped up more recently.

As I was pregnant with him, and it may have just been because the pregnancy felt different due to it being seven years since I was last pregnant, but I felt like I was having a daughter. So when we found out we were having another son, my initial thought was, “Oh no, I have another Black man that I have to be responsible for. I’ve already done this, can I have a break?” It’s not fair, and it’s not how it should be.

I carry the weight of being a black woman, a black mother, and a black mother of two sons. These feelings are always there, but they are being brought up in new ways. So when my friends, particularly my white friends, ask “how are you,” I think to myself “if they only knew.” There’s a lot more weight to that question than they may realize.

OS: What are your thoughts about the reaction to George Floyd’s murder outside of the African-American community?

AP: This feels different. The various colors you see in the streets being involved, I haven’t seen that much universal participation before. My hope is that’s what is going to make this movement different than others we have seen in the past.

I felt similar to the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, but attention and motivation faded away, and here we are about six years later doing the same thing. I am hopeful, though, that this is the start of more actions, conversations, and cross-racial conversations.

OS: As a professor, what resources do you have to combat racism in the Penn State community?

AP: I don’t know, honestly. I have a lot due to necessity and my own personal interest, but others may not. In the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction that’s focused on elementary education, there is a group of faculty members who are infusing equity into our program redesign. But that is just a small group of people.

I truly don’t know about other resources that are going on. There is a gap, honestly. It’s a lot easier to say we want everyone to feel all in than it is to do the work to make everyone feel and know that is the case. It is definitely an area we fall short on.

OS: What are your thoughts on the video of a Penn State student allegedly using racist language? Do you think the university responded appropriately?

AP: Something that I am constantly reminding people about why social justice work is so necessary is the fact that our system is not broken, but rather it is working in the way that it was intended. Our societal structure was created so that some people were on top, and some people were on the bottom. So it’s hard to get justice when the mechanics to get that justice do not facilitate that.

The Penn State administration has consistently said they strongly condemn this language, but condemning just means that you strongly disagree with what was said. There’s no action behind it. What the administration is adding is that their hands are tied as far as further action goes.

Do I think that it is satisfying to hear that our only response is going to be a strong condemnation? No, it’s not satisfying, it’s not enough. I would be so heartened by seeing a bold, heartfelt reaction from the university, but I would be very surprised if anything like that happened.

OS: What are some ways Penn State can become a more inclusive space for black students? How can it promote more meaningful conversations?

AP: This is a question that I have for myself and there are two layers to it. I think more people have to feel comfortable having conversations like this. I think there have to be more human connections. Sometimes these conversations feel like a burden if there is no level of trust there. If we can’t create a community, it is really hard to get to the institutional level for change.

Relationship-building is very important, even if it sounds so simple. It’s so much more difficult for someone to hate a group of people if you have someone you know and love in that group. Not everyone has the opportunity to build those relationships, so giving them a chance to do that is very important

OS: How can professors encourage conversations about social justice issues beyond the classroom?

AP: Personal education is paramount. In order to effectively engage in a conversation like this, you have to really understand the systematic nature of racism. Education. Unfortunately, since the education system does not actively teach this issue, it is reliant upon yourself to read and understand.

When having these conversations with family, don’t do it alone. I know a lot of people say that the subject matter is too dark and they don’t want to expose their children to that just yet. But that is a privilege that they have. I, and any parent of any brown-skinned individual in this country, do not just have the luxury to not explain the racist nature of the world. It doesn’t mean I’m raising a child who hates white people, it means I am raising a child who is aware of the system.

The fact that I have to teach my child that when interacting with the police he is not to talk, not to move quickly, and not to put his hands in his pockets, at only nine years old, is something that parents of other children won’t understand.

OS: What recommendations would you suggest for people trying to educate themselves on the U.S. experience from a black person’s perspective?

AP: Ta-Nehisi Coates has an article in The Atlantic on reparations, which is a really good read. His book, “Between The World and Me,” is also something I highly recommend, although you will have to come with some prior understanding. Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist” is also really powerful and informative. James Baldwin is a great resource, as he has plenty of books and Youtube videos to educate people. There is also a Baldwin documentary called “I Am Not Your Negro.”

It’s also important to read some white authors who have had this introspection themselves. So books like “White Fragility” are really important to read as well.

There is a podcast called Codeswitch from NPR, which talks about race issues from a lot of different perspectives. On the documentary side, “13th” is a must-see. There is a great PBS documentary about the Black Panthers that is on Netflix. “When They See Us,” also on Netflix, is a show based on real-life events that is really powerful. Also, any Toni Morrison novel is extremely important to engage with because she is writing with a Black audience in mind.

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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