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The assignment is an ethnographic interview and ethnographic reflection. Reflection must be based on the interview answers, professor Shange’s book (which I attached as well) and professor Appel’s lecture. I have attached a document which provides all the guidelines of the assignment. I have also attached one example paper that you can look through and get an overall idea about the paper.

School, Identity, (Covid)
Due Sunday 11/15 at midnight
4-5 pages double spaced
ethnographic interview
each of you will be paired with a classmate by your TA
you will need to find two 40-minute windows over the
coming days to conduct the interviews (including
section time)
you will interview your partner, and take notes (ideally
on a computer) while they are speaking (you can also
on 11/15 you will turn in your paper & your interview
notes or recording
where did you grow up? talk a little bit about your relationship to that
place and your family’s relationship to that place.
where did you go to school before you came to UCLA? What kind of
schools were they? (Public / private / charter). Describe the student
body in terms of class position, racial / cultural / linguistic identity.
what are some of the communities you identify with—racial, cultural,
in terms of language, or any other community you feel you belong
how have those identities affected your experience of school? your
relationship to teachers? your relationship to other students? your
relationship to the material being taught?
(to answer the above, think of two specific stories to tell your partner
– at least one should be from before college)
make up a pseudonym for the person you
interviewed, and use that pseudonym in your
your TAs will not check who was partnered with
whom after partners have been assigned
you should feel free to be honest about your
schooling experiences
the paper
use your parter’s interview responses to write an
ethnographic reflection on their experience of schooling
Prof Shange does this throughout Progressive Dystopia.
She tells Robeson students’ stories in their own words, and
then she analyzes those stories and those experiences
Your analysis must use: (1) concepts of racialization and
racial meaning making as discussed in class; (2) at least
one of Professor Shange’s ideas or approaches.
for both (1) and (2) state clearly which concept you’re
using and define it using the relevant author; how you will
use this in your paper to analyze the interview material
Assignment # 3: School, Identity, (Covid)
The concept of ‘social justice,’ ‘Frisco,’ ‘place making,’ ‘progressive politics,’ ‘antiblackness,’ and ‘whiteness,’ are several concepts that stood out at the time of interview
completion. In addition, the interview inhibited the incorporation of these concepts, as we have
learned from Shange, as well as lectures that discussed these ideas and approaches. It is
significant to note that each individual’s schooling experience is different and what one may be
experiencing can be the complete opposite of another story. As we see in Savannah Shange’s
book, she describes the Robeson students and how the hallway represents a different social
meaning to these individuals. Furthermore, in Professor Appel’s lectures we discussed abolition
anthropology, and what abolition means theoretically and as a strategy for the organization of the
world – in this case, schooling.
As we have learned in lecture, “progressivism is fundamentally a reconstructionist politic
embedded with liberal logics” (Professor Appel; 11/2/2020). Essentially, progressivism is about
reform because its objective is to hold the state accountable to the promise of democracy and
justice. As a result, progressivism trusts the state and state’s power; for instance, as Shange states
on page 4, “we were promised democracy…justice…we are going to hold you accountable to
that promise…we are going to figure out how to reform these educational institutions”
(Savannah Shange; pg 4). I noticed that this concept tied into what Anne talked about in her
interview regarding the accountability that the school put on people if they fail a class with a
grade lower than a C. Moreover, the students basically have a letter grade put to their head,
which could affect their future schooling and whether or not they will be accepted to the school
of their choice. Instead, the progressive system and a method to “reform” these institutions is to
not focus on the letter grade (middle school and higher), or number grade (K-5), but to be
student-centered as opposed to being focused on the way the teacher teaches you to do certain
Throughout the interview, it was interesting to listen to another individual’s point of view
in regards to schooling. It was evident to me that even though schools aim to advocate social
justice, they also demonstrate forms of inequality. For instance, Anne stated to me that her
middle school had a program called GATE and this is basically a ‘Gifted and Talented
Educational Program’ where students would take the test to see if their knowledge would be
sufficient enough to proceed in honors classes as opposed to regular classes. Anne explained that
these classes were more rigorous and she also saw this in her community college in which TAP,
also known as Transfer Alliance Program, would increase one’s chance of getting in to their UC
school of choice. Thus, the idea that Shange noted that I felt could tie into this is when Professor
Shange talks about the effects of Proposition 13. Shange discusses how depending on the amount
of money a school has access to, each individual will have radically different opportunities to
take different classes. As a result, through my analysis of this part of the interview, I realized that
Anne grew up and is currently still growing up in a neighborhood that is wealthy. Moreover, the
students that are part of this district, which is the Burbank Unified School District as well as Los
Angeles Community College District, allows students to have this special access of honors
classes and student organization clubs.
At the time of interview and discussion of question # 1, I found it interesting how Anne
referred to Los Angeles as L.A. She explained how this is the place she belongs to for the past 21
years and elaborated on how she specifically lives in Burbank, CA. It is fascinating how many
people who live in Los Angeles either call it “LA” or the “City of Angels.” This can differ based
on someone’s race and I can compare that with Anne and a friend I had in high school that was
of a different race and referred to Los Angeles as the “City of Angels.” As we discussed in
lecture, Professor Appel mentioned how education is a site of racial meaning making (Professor
Appel; 11/9/2020). The way I interpret this is throughout one’s life, each individual has their
own dialect and slang that they utilize, which is the way they speak with others. Perhaps one
individual may not understand it fully; contrarily, others may be able to understand the slang and
dialect the individual utilizes. The way in which I interpreted this concept of racial meaning
discussed in class is essentially that it is evident there are different racial diversities – when we
get introduced to new settings, others may be used to it, but also other people may not be.
Professor Shange notes that San Francisco is one of the nation’s most rapid and extreme
cases of racial and economic urban displacement. As Professor Appel and Savannah Shange
emphasized, the black population has diminished in the San Francisco area over several decades
due to the fact that the median home value is $1.4 million. Similarly, it can be researched and has
been researched by me that the Burbank area and surrounding cities such as Toluca Lake and
Glendale, is also around that amount, too. Nonetheless, as Anne stated in her interview, there is a
very small percentage of African Americans present in the neighborhood she lives in. Thus, as
Shange mentions the phrase “Frisco,” this is a racial and classed phrase that describes San
Francisco and the people that worked with Shange utilized this terminology (Professor Shange;
Chapter 3).
As we discussed in lecture, some people may presume that this term categorizes one’s
race and/or class. According to Professor Appel’s lecture on 10/28/2020, race is a flawed system
of classification with no biological basis that uses certain physical characteristics to divide
human populations into supposedly discrete and often hierarchically valued groups (Professor
Appel; 10/28/2020). Further, racial categories do not have a biological basis, but it becomes
culturally real. When Anne was describing in her interview that there is a small percentage of
African Americans where she resides in the city of Burbank it reminded of the concept
‘whiteness’ discussed in lecture. It is emphasized that whiteness also does not have a biological
basis but instead social constructs; in specific, ‘whiteness,’ becomes the standard against other
cultures, individuals, and groups that are measured and are then found to be inferior. For
instance, a prominent example of this is how the Robeson Justice Academy was a predominantly
Latin and African American serving school with an intentionally anti-racist mission. Contrarily,
the school fails its community and the attending students due to the fact that the space bases
itself on ‘anti-blackness.’ Moreover, ‘whiteness’ is based on values and belief, as the meaning of
‘whiteness’ has changed over time; for instance, Greek people, German people, and Jewish
people, who were not once considered white, have become assimilated into the idea/cultural
concept of whiteness (Professor Appel; 10/28/2020).
We can also say that this concept is about having certain superiority because, as Shange
describes in her book, the Robeson high school is recapitulated and reproducing anti-blackness,
even as it tries to be a social justice high school. As a result, Anne’s case of belonging to certain
spaces (place-making) refers to the notion that Burbank shows us that this area is more for the
middle to high income individuals. Earning a certain amount of income as well as the amount of
money one’s school has access to will result in radically different opportunities for individuals to
live their lives. An individual’s class position also plays a significant role in their opportunities
because of their socioeconomic status. At the time of the interview, Anne stated how there were
a lot of middle class and upper class individuals in her student body and more Caucasians were
predominantly present than individuals of European, Asian, and African-American descent.
As Professor Shange states in Chapter 3, “Education is a place where racial meanings are
made and remade where potentially they are undone but where even as educators and students
try to undo them, we may be reproducing them” (Professor Shange; Chapter 3). Essentially,
when we get introduced to new settings, in this case, racial diversities, others may be used to it,
but also other people may not be. Evidently, as it was discussed in lecture on 10/28/2020, “the
experience and category of race is created not by blood but through the experience of racial
discrimination, on the one hand, racial domination on the other hand” (Professor Appel;
10/28/2020). Race becomes a part of our mind, and specifically in this context, during the several
years of schooling; there are differences we observe in regards to what types of people we see in
school, or in our everyday lives.
In the end, there will always be different stories from individuals that describe their
experiences, whether it is in school or in a workplace; however it is important to note that there
are geographic boundaries that lock people into different ways of thinking and behavior due to
their hierarchies and levels of prestige. Moreover, there are barriers that individuals encounter
throughout their life – in this context, knowledge making – as Shange places this theme in her
Chapter Two
“A Long History
of Seeing”
the Progressive
I pretended to check the time yet again as my phone lit up under the edge
of the conference table. Josue’s text read, “They giving u a lot to write about
the two middle class white men not from Frisco — Gentrification.” Stifling a
laugh, I looked across the table at him. Josue Magtoto, a Filipino San Francisco native, was leaning in toward Jake, the concerned white parent seated
next to him, nodding and feigning interest at his hand wringing. We sat at
the table as members of the School Site Council (ssc), the state-­mandated
governing body of Robeson Justice Academy, a small public high school in
southeast San Francisco. That year, the council was composed of four parents, the two coadministrators of the school, Josue as the lone teacher representative, and myself, technically listed as a “community member,” but
granted access due to the twin credentials of my history as a staff member
and my new role as an Ivy League researcher. At issue this time was the
school’s security protocol.
Because of a vague bomb threat phoned in to the central district office,
the front door to the school had been locked earlier in the week, prompting a wave of complaints from students and staff who had to bang on the
steel door and wait for someone to let them in. Josue ridiculed the situation
at the ssc meeting. The codirector Aaron recounted that Ms. Ivy, a longtime Black parent who had come up to the school to register her youngest
child, had asked him, “What’s up with the door being locked — that’s not
the Robeson I remember!” What had been mentioned as an aside about a
specious terrorist threat became a bone of contention that polarized the
members of the ssc.
Jake was aghast when he learned that the locked front door was a temporary fluke, rather than a new protocol. “Have you seen what has been going
on on the news lately? How many times are schools not secured lately, and
all this stuff is going on?” he demanded, referencing the deadly Sandy Hook
Elementary School shooting a few months prior. After hearing from staff
about the community-­oriented, welcoming environment that they had tried
to cultivate since Robeson’s founding, Jake pursed his lips and pounded his
index finger on the table, insisting that “it’s different now than it was seven
years ago — with all respect to you, Josue — it’s different.”
I could barely suppress my side-­eye at the dismissal veiled in Jake’s gesture of respect. Robeson was certainly different, but what Jake missed was
that the difference was him. Nothing could be more incongruous than his
black-­on-­black Mercedes Benz suv speeding up the potholed hill to Robeson’s parking lot, passing a posse of kids on the left waiting at the bus stop,
and another on the right chilling on a park bench waiting for the first opportunity to spark a blunt. As Josue put it, Jake was “a middle class white
[man] not from Frisco” — he brought with him an imagined American geography, a place where kids are more at risk from trenchcoated school shooters than they are from police bullets and handcuffs.
What happens when racial geographies collide? If Jake and Ms. Ivy were
right that Robeson had changed over seven years, how had the city around
the school also transformed? How is the Frisco of seven years ago, seventy
years ago, and even seven hundred years ago refracted across one wobbly
conference table in the corner of a crowded schoolhouse? Over the course
of the rest of the ssc meeting, each of the major political fault lines running through the hills of southeast San Francisco is revealed, and I use the
meeting as a legend to navigate the historical topographies that produce
The City and the school. Part of the work Robeson does is to offer a progressive retellings of history: of San Francisco, of the US nation-­state, and of its
own institutional legacy. By weaving a narrative of how things got to be the
way they are, Robeson teachers and families are able to then make a bid for
what needs to happen next. One problem with this kind of futurecasting at
Robeson, as the ssc meeting illustrates, is the painfully divergent range of
origin stories circulating in the social fields of the school, even under the
rubric of a unified push for equity and social justice.
While Robeson was founded through an organizing effort by activist
educators and parents of color as a way to provide meaningful education
for Frisco youth, in the first decade of its existence the school itself had
come under attack both through external threats of closure and internal
reconstitution. In this sense, the institution formed as a weapon against in­
equity becomes itself a battleground, rendering the school as both a site and
a strategy of struggle. In the rest of the chapter that follows, I first position
Robeson in relation to the political economy of California and the Bay Area,
as well as its connection to national school reform processes. I then provide
a historical sketch of racial displacement in San Francisco, particularly as
it relates to the folks gathered at the ssc meeting. Ultimately, the verdict of
the governing council came down on the side of Josue and Ms. Ivy, and the
old San Francisco won — at least for now.
Imagining San Francisco:
The Political Economy of a Progressive Dystopia
San Francisco is mythologized as a land of liberal tolerance, progressive
politics, and picturesque cosmopolitanism. This image is fortified by scholars of region who, like Robert Self, reductively typecast the city as a “bourgeois utopia” (2003: 159) in order to clarify its relation to the rest of the
Bay Area. Because San Francisco’s rosy image is attended by fatal realities
for those whose presence sullies paradise, it’s more accurate to imagine
it as a dystopia,1 “a utopia that has gone wrong, or a utopia that functions
only for a particular segment of society” (Gordin, Tilley, and Prakash 2010:
1). The frame of dystopia invokes intention and authoriality — rather than
an unfortunate product of a series of arbitrary events, dystopias are always “planned, but not planned all that well or justly” (Gordin, Tilley, and
Prakash 2010: 1 – 2). Mapping San Francisco’s political economy as a left-­of-­
liberal place reveals the planned nature of the progressive dystopia, a city
where industry and state development schemes collided to produce a racialized, uneven distribution of life and death.
Glossed over in The City’s laudatory depictions is a brutal history of displacement and gentrification dating from long before the internment camps
of the 1940s. As a “quintessential post-­Fordist city” (Browne et al. 2005),
San Francisco has one of the highest per-­capita income levels of the na24
tion’s largest cities, a feat accomplished by prioritizing the fire sectors (finance, insurance, real estate) above the needs of the city’s poorer residents.
The rise of the tech economy over the past twenty-­five years and the role
of San Francisco as one of its command centers now positions it as a global
city (Sassen 2000), and these dynamics combined with a dearth of manufacturing jobs and skyrocketing housing costs has made San Francisco one
of the most unaffordable places to raise a family in the nation. In 2016, a
family of four with an income of $129,000 qualified for the city’s affordable
housing assistance, while the equivalent cutoff for Philadelphia was $64,350
(sfmohcd 2016; dhcd 2016). As a result, there has been a steady stream of
working-­class and middle-­class people emigrating from the city, including a
drain of up to a thousand children per year from the school district (Knight
2008). While San Francisco is one of the nation’s most rapid and extreme
cases of racial and economic urban displacement, it is only the crest of a
wave of population shift occurring in cities across the US. If San Francisco
is a harbinger of things to come as the urban renewal plans of the mid-­
twentieth century ripen in this season of neoliberal privatization and rollback of state provisions, then the struggle of its last poor residents against
displacement is a key site for understanding the mechanisms by which individual and collective subjects resist, negotiate, and transform the macro-­
level processes that overdetermine life under late capitalism.
Though the recession of 2008 dealt a huge blow to public funding of
basic services across the US, California had already been operating in a
chronic budget crisis for almost a decade before the market crash. An examination of the political economy that produces Robeson reveals it as a
nexus of forces that ensnare neoliberalizing California and course through
the political terrain of the US. At the federal level, well over half of discretionary spending goes directly to the Pentagon. After the cost of government operations, the largest chunk of remaining discretionary spending
goes to education, followed by health care and housing. These sectors represent the remains of the Fordist-­Keynesian social settlement and as such
are crucial sites of analysis for a robust anthropology of the state.
While most urban schools nationally are underfunded, California’s particularly meager school funding is chiefly a result of Proposition 13, a 1979
ballot referendum that sharply limited the amount of property taxes that
could be used for public school funding. Prop 13’s impact cannot be understated— the year the ssc met, California ranked dead last in national per pupil spending (Kaplan 2017). California’s rachitic school funding is reflected
in its (lack of a) welfare state. Indeed, the state’s counties haven’t been fully
Energy &
Environment Science
Food & Agriculture
Social Security,
& Labor 3%
Housing &
Medicare &
Military &
Veterans Benefits
Federal Discretionary Spending, 2015. Adapted by author from National Priorities
Project and omb.
funded for the cost of most of their social services since 2000 – 2001, resulting in fewer and fewer public contracts for community-­based organizations, smaller welfare payments, and an overall lack of adequate services for
working-­class communities (California Budget Project 2008). Thus, while
the 2008 final crisis sounded a death knell on the state’s safety net, the
structural vulnerabilities facing residents of southeast San Francisco are
also a result of compounded retraction of resources allotted to what Loïc
Wacquant calls the “nanny state” in California (2009).
In order to explain the relationship between an expansive US penal system and a withered, distorted system of social welfare provision, Wacquant
(2009) develops the conceptual frame of a carceral-­assistential state. Wacquant layers gender onto governmentality to declare that the last wave of
US policies that expanded punition “pronounce and promote the transition from the kindly ‘nanny state’ of the Fordist-­Keynesian era to the strict
‘daddy state’ of neoliberalism” (2009: 90). In the former, the role of the state
is putatively to control resources in order to ensure the employment and
well-­being of the populace, while in the latter it is reversed: the role of the
state is to control the populace in order to ensure the well-­being of capital.
Certainly, for those communities for whom “nanny” is a job, rather than a
metaphor, and for whom the state has never been kind, Wacquant’s gloss
reads a bit romantic. Still, his articulation of a shift in US government practices sheds light on how Robeson fits into these macroprocesses. In this
frame, Robeson’s institutional mode of carceral progressivism is revealed
as one way the vestiges of the assistential state can negotiate and adapt under neoliberalism.
States of Exception: Small Schools
as Strategies of Progressive Struggle
Direct service providers like Robeson function as both sites and strategies
of opposition, whereby community members use these organizations as
tools to achieve particular ends, whether for getting into college or for stopping their eviction, but at the same time overtly challenge perceived injustices in how those ends are met. In this way, community members engage
a multiscalar “politics of interruption” that prevents the smooth operation
of state power (Stovall 2016). As a public school, Robeson is funded through
the same paltry annual per-­pupil funding formula from the state Board of
Education that every school across the state is — an average of $10,795 (cde
2016). In comparison to other states, California ranks as low as forty-­first2
in terms of education funding across the US. If Robeson were a charter, it
would receive the full ada funding per student,3 or about $2.4 million dollars for 230 or so kids a year, but instead almost a third of that is routed into
the district office. Before the school’s opening, the founders decided that it
was important to demonstrate the possibility for transformative education
within the district, as opposed to seeming like an asterisk that was only
possible outside the prevailing system. A few years later, when the school
was under threat of closure for falling test scores and an acrimonious relationship with the school superintendent, a vote was held among staff
whether to convert to a charter to save the school. The charter proposal
failed, mostly because of strong pro-­union sentiments on staff, and the fact
that, unlike district schools, charters are not automatically included in the
collective bargaining agreement.
The school’s relationship with the teachers’ and administrators’ unions
has been another site of struggle. Fifteen years ago, the unions and the
Robeson staff were at odds because the latter sought to have a horizontal
decision-­making structure, a smaller pay gap between administrators and
teachers, and autonomy in terms of hours and working conditions. These
conflicts were largely quelled through the negotiation process that produced the Small Schools by Design (ssd) policy, which was adopted by the
city’s Board of Education as a reflection of the “District’s desire to collaborate with all partners in education to devise a policy for ssd that will increase options for underserved families and promises to enhance district
enrollment, attendance, and achievement rates” (sfusd 2006). The policy
defined key elements of a “small school by design” and granted qualifying
schools a measure of autonomy in five arenas: budget, curriculum, staffing,
governance and schedule. Drawing on similar policies governing Boston’s
pilot schools (Tung and Ouimette 2007) and New York City’s small schools
of choice (Iatarola et al. 2008), the ssd policy for San Francisco was produced by a working group composed of representatives from Robeson and
two other small schools, the San Francisco Unified School District (sfusd),
the teachers’ unions, and the administrators’ union. Along with the school’s
cofounder, Elizabeth, I participated in the working group meetings as an
alternate member representing the Robeson staff.4 Over the course of that
academic year, the working group hammered out riders to the collective
bargaining agreements granting Robeson teachers some autonomy in terms
of hours and working conditions, as well as agreeing for the two coadministrators to be paid roughly fifteen thousand dollars less than the base rate of
the principals’ union, thus freeing up more money for classroom operations
and reducing the material hierarchy between management and teachers.
Alongside the more typical players in public school politics, there was
another party in the room with us as we negotiated the Small Schools by
Design policy: a cadre of representatives from local family foundations.
One effect of the neoliberalization of service provision is the increased role
of private philanthropy in shoring up the welfare state. Rather than just
providing cash flow, the presence of funders in shaping the nuts-­and-­bolts
policy structures of this progressive school reform points to the interpenetration of state and private governance not only in the nefarious corners
of K Street, but in the making of leftist concessions as well. Along with almost a quarter million dollars of start-­up funds from the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation, Robeson’s annual operating budget has been augmented
each year of its existence by varying levels of privately funded grants, some
years to the tune of $200,000. Skirting the bureaucracy of the district’s
clunky fundraising, Robeson has its own shadow nonprofit that operates
essentially as an independent pocketbook for enrichment programs that are
difficult or impossible to fund through the district. Without it, any funds
donated directly to the school would have to be filtered through a central
office and earmarked for specific districtwide goals before trickling back to
Robeson’s coffers, less the cost of administrative processing. For instance,
when I was still on staff at Robeson, the nonprofit’s grant funds paid me to
build a social justice internship program that linked students with anticapitalist and antiracist organizations. Of course, what can feel like autonomy
from the state comes at the expense of vulnerability to the shifting whims
of private philanthropy.
Revolutionary Reforms:
The Infrapolitics of State-­Funded Progressivism
In the early 2000s, small schools were “hot” in funding circles, but by the
time I returned to Robeson for fieldwork in 2012, the Gates money had long
since dried up, and California public services were still staggering out of
the Great Financial Crisis. Many of the programs that had buoyed up the
school’s success in terms of academic outcomes and developing political
consciousness among students had been gutted or completely cut —not least
among them the very activist internship program that Robeson had hired me
to develop fifteen years prior. The institution’s financial scarcity reflected
the ratcheting up of pressures facing poor residents of San Francisco —
these austere times bled into the school’s institutional affect and set the
mood for the implementation of progressively carceral technologies.
Robeson is a direct descendant of the legacy of people-­of-­color and youth
activisms in California writ large, and specifically in the Bay Area. Among
the Robeson staff members who grew up in California, many recounted being politicized by the fights against Propositions 21 and 187, which criminalized youth of color and sought to bar undocumented students from public
schools. Proposition 187, dubiously dubbed the “Save Our State” initiative,
barred unauthorized immigrants from receiving any public services, in“A LONG HISTORY OF SEEING”
cluding MediCal (the state Medicaid program), welfare benefits, and public
schools. Though it was found unconstitutional days after voters approved it
and never went into effect, the 1994 effort to pass Proposition 187 foreshadowed some of the more recent nativist legislation passed in Alabama (hb 56,
2011) and Arizona (sb 1070, 2010). Proposition 21, or the Gang Violence and
Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, was passed in 2000 and imposed harsh penalties that disproportionately affected Black, Latinx, Polynesian, and Southeast
Asian youth, including a mandatory registry for suspected gang members,
“gang enhancement” sentencing that added prison time for youth offenders,
and a requirement that judges try young people accused of certain crimes
as adults. The two propositions bookmark a high tide of organizing among
youth of color in the state, and they both galvanized social movement responses including walkouts, teach-­ins, and boycotts (Kwon 2013). Several
organizations were spawned during this time of legislative repression, including Californians for Justice (cfj) and the Third Eye Movement, both of
which trained future Robeson staff in youth organizing and direct action.
Formations like cfj and Third Eye are precipitated by the Xicanx,5 Native, Black Liberation, Asian American, and anti–Vietnam War movements,
each of which are enshrined in the curriculum taught in Robeson’s humanities classes. The iconography that lined the hallways of the school evokes
the liberation movements of the 1960s with a larger-­than-­life Che Guevara
stencil abutting student-­made screen prints of Malcolm X. Legacies of social justice were ritually invoked by teachers in meetings and venting sessions: What would Yuri Kochiyama do?6
Robeson was a composite of these sectors: over half of the school’s full-­
time staff were people of color, but those folks were concentrated in lower-­
paying student support positions that didn’t require a teaching credential —
this was particularly true for those who were Black, and for those who were
born and raised in The City. The leadership, however, skewed white. The
founding administrative team had been composed of Emily, a hapa* vet* Hapa is a racial signifier commonly used in West Coast Asian American communities to denote someone with one Asian parent, and one non-Asian parent.
Derived from the Hawaiian pidgin word for “half,” hapa was first used to describe
the children of indigenous Hawaiians and European colonizers, but is now used
more broadly as a neutral term for those of mixed Asian heritage. For some, the
use of hapa by Asian-descendant communities is part of a larger pattern of cultural appropriation of indigenous lands and language by several centuries of migrants to the region. For more, see Nicole Rabin’s “Excursus on ‘Hapa,’ or the Fate
of Identity” (2012).
eran sfusd teacher; Elizabeth, who was part of the ssd working group; and
Aaron, the current coprincipal of Robeson (both of the latter were white). In
addition to white privilege, the founding team also brought a solid dose of
East Coast prestige with them, and skillfully leveraged it in their advocacy
for the school among lawmakers, academics, and funders. Among them,
only Emily was from California, and it wouldn’t be until a decade and a
half after the school’s founding that a Frisco native was in positional leadership at Robeson. The pattern of regional provenance mirrored racial demographics: most people from San Francisco who worked at the school were
paraprofessionals, custodial, or lower-­paid student support staff. Of the
twenty-­three or so core staff who attended whole-­staff meetings (including
classroom teachers, administrators, special education teachers, program
coordinators, and full-­time Wellness Center staff), only five were born and
raised in The City and had come through sfusd schools. I include information about city of origin as part of this demographic sketch because of
how social categories like race and gender were regionally inflected in the
institutional space: both staff and students cited “being from The City” as
a site of epistemic and political privilege.
A key element of Robeson’s governance was the commitment to shared
leadership, which was epitomized in the coprincipal structure, in which
two (and at times three) people shared the administrative tasks usually
delegated to a principal, and then also remained in the classroom to teach
at least one course section. The first coprincipal team was composed of all
three founders, and then Elizabeth and Aaron shared leadership for several
years. Aaron was the longest-­standing fixture of Robeson leadership, having remained at the helm for the school’s first twelve years. After Elizabeth
stepped down, he shared his office with a series of “coprincipals” of color
who switched out every couple years. This pattern resulted in school leader­
ship that was shared unequally, because Aaron’s authority had accrued with
his years on the job. The ssc was also intended to be part of a broader
checks-­and-­balances system that distributed leadership across school employees and the school’s stakeholders, as represented by parents. Rather
than elected positions, the ssc parent representatives were volunteers who
had the spare time and resources to come to daytime meetings with no
childcare provision, food, or transportation assistance — three mainstays
of any inclusive community organizing effort. Further, as the ssc was often short on members, anyone who expressed interest in participating was
encouraged to join, hence Jake and Garrett’s positions on the council. At
the ssc meeting that grounds this chapter, we hear the pillow talk of the
uneasy bedfellows that produce Robeson: public and private, political and
bureaucratic, elite and radical, white and “of color.” When these alliances
meet the teenagers of southeast San Francisco, urban social fields collide
across race, gender, sexuality, and space in a contest over the meaning of
citizenship in a transformed city.
Remembering Robeson, Remembering Frisco
The primacy of race and place in apprehending the school’s work is made
evident by Robeson’s institutional marketing; on the Demographics section of the website, a visitor is offered this commentary about where their
students live:
[Southeast San Francisco is] working-­class and low-­income, with some
of the highest concentrations of families with children in the city. At the
same time, many of these communities are experiencing rapid gentrification, which is forcing long-­time residents to leave the city and undermining community-­based efforts to stem rising crime and violence. For
example, San Francisco’s Black population, concentrated in Bayview/
Hunters Point, declined from 96,000 in 1970 (13% of San Francisco residents) to 51,000 (only 7%) in 2006. And in 2007, 25% of the San Francisco’s homicides took place in the Bayview, which has about 5% of the
city’s population. . . . Robeson serves the second highest percentage of
African-­American students of any non-­continuation high school in the
city, and a much higher share of Black and Latino students than other
sfusd high schools.
In this excerpt, we see how Robeson’s institutional discourse draws on the
racioscape7 (Jackson 2005) of San Francisco to contextualize its work. By
linking economic marginalization, displacement, and violence in a narrative of race and neighborhood, this statement from Robeson acts as a politicized counterpoint to the city’s deraced official discourse.
According to the San Francisco tourist board, the most notable facts
about the neighborhoods of the southeast is that “this area, south of the
I-­280 freeway, is home to the former Hunters Point shipyard where The
Point is billed as ‘America’s largest artist colony’ ” (San Francisco Travel
Association Bureau 2011). Gone are the “long-­time residents” and “community efforts” that people Robeson’s depiction of the Bayview, not to mention the unhoused addicts who live beneath that very freeway (see Bour32
gois and Schonberg 2010), or indeed, any mention of race at all. Instead the
travel bureau presents a thinly veiled celebration of gentrification, in which
a neighborhood of Black working-­class families battling street violence and
structural disinvestment is recast as an “artist colony,” but without a hint
of irony about the literal colonial violence that founded the city in the first
place. Indeed, in a city where around one in twenty residents is Black, almost half of the residents of public housing projects are Black (sfha 2011).
A significant portion of these public housing residents live in the very same
“artist colony” of Hunters Point, but are deftly invisibilized in the sanitized
portrait of the city painted for tourists and potential gentrifiers.
The erasure of neighborhood history is by no means exclusive to the Bay
Area, but Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg make the argument
that in San Francisco, increased material wealth and amnesia go hand in
hand. “The new San Francisco is run for the dot-­com workers, multimedia executives, and financiers of the new boom, and memory is one of the
things that is being lost in the rapid turnover and all-­out exile of tenants,
organizations, nonchain businesses, and even communities” (2000: 22). The
“new boom” at the time was based in the knowledge economy of Silicon
Valley, a few dozen miles south of San Francisco. Although in the almost
two decades since Solnit and Schwartzenberg published Hollow City the
Great Recession caused California’s speculative real estate bubble to shrink
a bit, the “rapid turnover” has by no means reversed. Instead, economic precarity has hastened the exodus of working-­class residents from southeast
San Francisco; the bulk of those who remain can only stay because they
live in government-­subsidized housing. Concomitant to this hemorrhage of
the dispossessed was a surge in San Francisco’s international standing. In
the two years after the 2007 – 8 global recession, the city’s ranking among
“global cities” edged up three notches, to twelfth place worldwide (Hales,
King, and Peña 2010), because of its role as a hub of international finance
and cultural consumption.
The conference table where the School Site Council gathered was a
crossroads of the old and new San Franciscos. Both Jake and Garrett had
recently moved to The City as midlevel tech workers, and Garrett referenced The City’s gay-­inclusive culture as part of his excitement in bringing
his son to Robeson. In the original small schools policy, parental involvement was supposed to be a central part of Robeson’s school design. Years of
budget cuts and “mission drift” did away with the two paid parent liaison
positions, as well as the parent organizer gig. What remained a decade later
in terms of parental oversight was only the mandatory ssc, the governing
body required for every public school in California (California Education
Code §52852). Deirdre was keenly aware of this shift, as she had successfully
advocated for herself to become chair of Robeson’s ssc. Her daughter was a
junior at Robeson, and was finally starting to blossom socially and academically after struggling with bullying in her previous two schools. She sat imperiously at the head of the conference table, her lilac paisley scarf looped
gently beneath her long, freshly plaited braids and cocoa visage.
Deirdre riffed somberly on Jake’s assertion that “it was different now”:
Remembering who this school is founded by, we are a completely different school. We are not the Robeson that was originally founded. Your
parents are not a part of the school anymore, and I have always said
that. . . . I have never been in a place where I had to come in and say, “No,
I am going to be here.” Praise God that there is room for me.
Here, she speaks to the contradictions inherent in Robeson’s attempt at progressive schooling. Just as Ms. Ivy complained to Aaron about the locked
front door, Deirdre agreed that the Robeson of 2013 was not that of 2006,
and dismissed the significance of her positional leadership on the council:
“Your parents are not part of the school.” Her campaign for chairship the
previous spring instantiated her affirmative refusal: “No, I am going to be
here,” long before this meeting. Deirdre’s commitment to show up for her
daughter and her vision of the school dovetailed with coprincipals Aaron
and Tina’s desire for additional support to make the ssc of 2012 – 13 one
of the most active councils in the school’s history. The divine grace she
thanked for making space for her at the head of the table could not do the
same for The City: there wasn’t room for her or her family in Frisco.
While Deirdre’s daughter Mellie used an address for an apartment on
top of a liquor store in the Moe8 on her school paperwork, they had not
lived there for years. Instead, Deirdre had driven an hour and a half from
her home in the working-­class city of Vallejo to get to the ssc meeting,
crossing two tolls bridges and passing through fifteen small cities to make
it to the Excelsior neighborhood. In the context of gentrification, her critique that “your parents are not a part of the school” underscores the gap
between the imagined population of both Frisco and Robeson; clearly the
two white parents and one Chinese American parent seated across from
her were not what she claims as the intended base of “the Robeson that was
originally founded.”
“What’s Broken Inside”: Democratic Governance
and the New San Francisco
Emoji aside, Josue’s text was more than a passing joke. The focus of the last
several ssc meetings had been hammering out a final budget for the following school year by taking into account enrollment changes, impending
budget cuts, and upcoming grant cycles. In the latter part of the meeting,
we were slated to vote on whether to allocate funds to revive the same social
justice internship program that I had developed eight years prior, Mentoring Youth in Community Action (myca). Before I left for graduate school,
myca was one part of a whole-­school service learning program in which
120 ninth-­and tenth-­graders spent a few hours a week in direct service positions like tutoring elementary school kids and playing board games at a
senior home, while a self-­selected group of twenty juniors took the myca
seminar that combined a social justice history and theory seminar with
a project-­based internship at an activist organization. myca participants
helped build campaigns for free public transit for youth, got trans-­inclusive
school district policies drafted, and created youth-­centered podcasts of Bay
Area Black Panther history. In the fat years of Gates funding and dot-­com
surplus, myca was possible because Robeson had
They giving u a lot to
more discretionary monies and was able to fund
write about the two
the program with two and a half staff members.
middle class white men
Predictable debate ensued over whether it
not from Frisco
should be a full-­or half-­time position and the fit
of the current personnel for the program, while
both Jake and Garrett remained relatively silent.
The proposal was put to a vote; they were the only two dissenters to the
measure. Explaining his nay vote, Garrett argued, “I think we could spend
the money on increased security, instead of having to create the ‘community’ aspect of it.” Putting down the finger scare quotes he used for “community,” he waved off the central tenets of the school with a manicured hand.
“I do know that that’s what the mission is, but my personal stance is we have
got to correct the internal attitudes before we can put ourselves outside. So
we need to fix that — what’s broken inside — before we go outside.”
In this frame, “what’s broken inside” is the students themselves —
unruly in their blackness and brownness, in need of corrective, rather than
collective, action. Garrett’s framework falls in line with the latest generation of deficit-­oriented theories of urban schools in crisis, where students
and families are to blame for the “achievement gap,” retheorized by Gloria
Ladson-­Billings (2006) as an “educational debt” owed to communities of
color. In the Robeson ssc, and more broadly as a symptom of the resettlement of urban areas by white elites, gentros9 insinuate themselves into the
first-­person plural as justification for a takeover of community resources.
Garrett positions himself as “we” based on a couple months of experience
as both a San Francisco resident and a Robeson parent in a political move
that strips history and power away from the notion of “us.” In so doing, he
creates a false equivalence between himself and Josue and Deirdre on the
one hand, who were raised in The City, and Aaron on the other, who had
spent the last two decades working with Frisco youth.
Though the myca proposal passed, Garrett’s eagerness to dismiss the
mission of Robeson Justice Academy in a bid for ramping up surveillance
points to a faultline creeping along the school’s foundation, one that is constitutive of not only the carceral-­progressive paradox, but also the late liberal democracy of which it is a part. As a form, progressivism prizes demo­
cratic, horizontal decision making that levels the playing field in such a
way that someone like Garrett could indeed block a proposal based on his
parental priorities. Community organizing in the tradition of Saul Alinsky
(1971), practiced by both a young Barack Obama and the faith-­based group
that helped to found Robeson, relies on just this sense of horizontal citizen
voice and can be incredibly effective at building successful campaigns. Indeed, one of Alinsky’s protégés and biographers was hired as an organizational consultant at Robeson that very school year. At the same time, this
tradition of populist inclusion has been critiqued as privileging the form of
democracy over its content in such a way that entrenched inequities of race
and gender may not be sufficiently addressed by simply bringing everyone
to the table. The “community aspect” that Garrett was so ready to eliminate
at Robeson was the impetus for the institution’s founding and was one of
the few precious autonomies granted by its inclusion in the district’s Small
Schools by Design policy. At best, he misrecognized the substance of the
school for fluff. At worst, he was strategically leveraging his relative wealth
and whiteness to “flip” an undervalued institution for his own benefit, playing Monopoly with one of the last Black-­serving high schools in The City.
By the close of the meeting, he skewed toward the latter.
Tina facilitated a group check-­out, in which she asked each board member to reflect on what had been accomplished during the meeting. Roseann,
a Chinese American parent whose autistic child attended the Special Day
program, was glad that funds for special education students to attend field
trips were prioritized. Deirdre reiterated the need to involve a broader com36
munity of parents in the budgetary process. When it was Garrett’s turn, he
said, “To be quite honest, this budget process has been very eye opening
to me, and to be quite honest, quite scary. I couldn’t imagine sitting in an
office meeting like this, I would be ripped to shreds.” Turning to Tina, he
smiled too broadly and demurred, “No disrespect to you, of course.”
Jake amplified Garrett’s corporate logic. “I agree with you — in the business world, if I had come back with a budget like this, I would have been
ripped to shreds. I would have been fired.” He stood up before the meeting
was adjourned and cheerfully announced, “I have to get my children!” Jake
left, and though the meeting ambled on for a few more minutes, his abrupt
departure made his comments feel like an ultimatum dangling over the
proceedings. Jake and Garrett used their positions on the bottom rungs
of San Francisco’s elite financial class to intimidate Robeson’s leadership: I
would have been ripped to shreds. I would have been fired.
Though they had lost the vote that evening, their closing comments
were a reminder of all that was at stake in these meetings. Jake’s insinuated threat of firing Tina was not empty. Outside of the sfusd super­
intendent, the ssc was the only body that had jurisdiction to request a
principal reassignment. Similar to the alsc (Advisory Local School Council) at Greater Lawndale High School for Social Justice in Chicago, the ssc
bore the “residuals of a decade-­long struggle for community control that
has been constrained by White supremacy” (Stovall 2016: 148). Intended as
a community-­based strategy of checks and balances to school leadership,
Jake and Garrett threatened a hostile takeover of the ssc, transforming the
governing body into another battleground of racial and economic dispossession in San Francisco.
The symbolism of Jake and Garrett joining the ssc was not lost on Josue.
The neighborhood he grew up in, Bernal Heights, was hit in the 1980s by
the first waves of gentrification, and the sidewalk leading to his mother’s
house is now clogged with four-­figure baby strollers and organic wine bars.
As he mused eloquently a few days later in our interview:
Those two, even though they could be the greatest guys on earth, if you
don’t have that consciousness, and you have two middle-­, upper-­middle-­
class men, queer or not, coming into your school, it represents a lot for a
neighborhood. For me, born and raised in The City, seeing a community
organization and them comin in and tryna take shit . . .
For Josue, “that consciousness” is the kind of political analysis central to
his own family and neighborhood upbringing. The son of a Filipino labor
organizer, Josue was the only certified teacher at Robeson who not only was
born and raised in Frisco but had also come through the poor, dysfunctional neighborhood schools of the southeast, rather than the elite west-­
side high schools that funneled other Frisco natives on staff like Simone and
Sofia into the four-­year University of California system. He had been an activist since his teen years, mobilizing against police brutality, evictions, and
budget cuts as he worked his way on and off through community college.
The caveat “queer or not” points to his assessment that the race and class
status of Garrett and Colin trumped their marginalization due to sexuality.
“Queer or not” also signals the ways that Garrett and Jake’s self-­fashioning
and location in intersecting social hierarchies is homonormative, if not heteronormative. Elsewhere, I have argued that
homonormativity often dovetails into homo-­nationalism, which we might
sketch as a hegemonic patriotism that hinges on the queer liberal subject’s investment in the Western state apparatus. . . . Homonationalism’s
“good gay subject” is not only white and bourgeois, but is also monogamously partnered, normatively gendered, and as committed to the flag
as he or she is to the nuclear family. (Shange 2014)
While homonationalism is often apprehended in relation to Islamophobic,
“America First” – style renderings of foreign Others as threats to US exceptionalism (Puar 2007), the dynamics of the ssc reveal that schools and
nonprofits are also state interfaces for homonational investments. The San
Francisco context is itself the genesis of a particular form of queer reformist politics, dubbed “militant gay liberalism” by Christina Hanhardt (2013).
The confluence of real estate speculation and the ascendance of white gay
men as a political bloc in the Castro neighborhood resulted in a protest culture in The City in which “radical tactics and liberal goals were expressed
in the same terms” (2013: 83). Hanhardt’s analysis allows us to see how Garrett can reconcile his conservative security camera proposal with the social
justice mission that attracted him to Robeson. When Josue ruminated on
his memories of Bernal Heights in the ’80s, and on sitting in the ssc seeing
Jake and Garrett “tryna take shit,” he stopped at one point to breathe and
gather himself. At that moment, the audio recording of the interview swells
with the low hiss of feedback and people chatting in the background of the
park until Josue sighs audibly. “It’s just a long history of seeing.”
The North within the North:
San Francisco’s History as an Exceptional Space
Long indeed. San Francisco is gentrification’s endgame, with the highest
per-­capita income of the nation’s largest cities, and is one of the most unaffordable places to raise a family in the US. An essential node in the financial circuitry of the Pacific Rim economy that stretches from Hong Kong
to Tokyo to Los Angeles, San Francisco is the crown jewel of neoliberal
urbanism. Michael Burawoy (2008) has argued that the split between the
Global North and the Global South is mimicked in the political economy
of California, with manufacturing and low-skill jobs concentrated in LA
and the sprawl of SoCal, while high-­tech, high-­skill jobs skew toward the
north. Even though San Jose is larger and closer to Silicon Valley, Frisco’s
ornate architecture and cultural eminence positions it as one pole of this
uneven social geography, the North within the North. These dynamics intensify the alienation of poor racialized people who haven’t benefited from
the booms of tech and financialization.
Since its founding in the eighteenth century, San Francisco has been
a site of spatialized racial difference, beginning with the enslavement of
indigenous Muwekma Ohlone people, whose unpaid labor built the famous Mission Dolores Church. Though Native histories have since been
systematically erased from the nominative and political geographies of
The City, Muwekma Ohlone descendants continue to struggle for material reemplacement in Frisco despite their lack of federal tribal recognition (Field 2013). In addition to Ohlone communities, The City functions
as a Native hub for indigenous folks from across North America to build
collective political power that reverberates through the city and the rez
(Ramirez 2007). After the first wave of Native genocide, the spatial racialization of The City continued through racist restrictive labor and housing covenants against Chinese communities that relied on heteronormative denigration of Chinese gender performance and sexuality (Shah 2001).
While Black and Chinese laborers faced parallel barriers to economic and
political participation, San Francisco’s early restrictive housing covenants
only applied to Chinese residents, producing an overcrowded Chinatown
in a city that was otherwise white with speckles of Black residents all over
(Broussard 1993).
The carcerality of Frisco geography intensified with the mass incarceration of Japanese residents during World War II, whose abandoned tenements in Japantown were filled virtually overnight with Black migrants
seeking the warmth of other suns (Brook et al. 1998; Seyer 2002; Browne
et al. 2005; Wilkerson 2010). In its wake, the Fillmore was born, and would
soon birth a jazz scene that earned the moniker “Harlem of the West”
(C. Jackson and Jones 2012). Across town, the company barracks built for
workers at the Hunters Point Shipyard were abandoned at the end of World
War II, and eventually bought by the city for conversion to public housing.
The influx of working-­class Black people from the South and the abrupt
wind-­down of military employment ended a century of relatively unrestricted African American residence and movement and led to the refocusing of racial animosities from Asian communities to Black ones.
More recently, rapid gentrification has forced the exodus of more than
half the Black residents in less than a generation, resulting in a current
population that is only 3.9 percent Black, as compared to the high of almost
15 percent in the 1970s. This demographic loss happened in the context of
the state of California, where despite its outsize presence in Black popular
culture, the Black population is proportionally only half that of the US as
a whole.
In contrast to Los Angeles, San Francisco has proportionally even fewer
Black people than the state. However, San Francisco is unique in that the
shrinking Black population is not tied to a burgeoning white majority; indeed, San Francisco is less than half white and has one of the highest concentrations of Asian Americans in the US among major cities. These demographics are amplified in the San Francisco Unified School District’s 47.1
percent Asian American student body, the highest proportion of any large
school district in the US (febp 2012).
In this context, Robeson is the Blackest school in the least Black major
city in America, and the poorest high school in one of the country’s richest
cities. Thus, not only is Robeson “majority-­minority,”10 but as a school with
a Latinx and Black majority, it also disrupts the tandem Chinese American
and white portrait of who San Franciscans are. Robeson offers a conceptual
challenge to how we study — and live — blackness. Across the US, there are
cities that have far larger Black communities than San Francisco — within
the Bay Area, Oakland and Richmond have been the sites of incredibly rich
work on race, space, and power. At the same time, attention to blackness in
San Francisco forces us to conceive of power as distinct from density, foiling cynical narratives of abandonment, hemorrhage, exodus, dispersal, and
expungement. Yes, all that, and still, blackness remains. It is this remaining-­
ness, this still-­ness, present in the lie of absence, this endurance of blackness,
that animate both the school and The City as sites of Black study.
Black Population, 2014
Black population, 2014. Created by author based on data from US Census Bureau
2016 and Los Angeles Economic Development Center 2016.
Robeson is in inextricably in Frisco, the grimy web of ’hoods papered
over by the new wave of techie arrivals and yet still palpable in the urban
palimpsest. A contested nickname for San Francisco, “Frisco” (or “Frisko”)†
is widely used by working-­class and poor Black residents and residents of
color, yet it is scorned by old-­guard white elite and middle-­class residents.
There was an award-­winning book of poetry (Caen 1953) called Don’t Call It
Frisco, and even a laundromat in the Fillmore by the same name. The book
was published at the crest of Black migration to San Francisco, and the lin† The “Frisko” spelling is Latinx-inflected and reflects affiliation or affection
for the transnational Norteño (Northern) street gang. The Norteños are loosely
affiliated with the Bloods and wear red as a primary color, while their rivals, the
Sureños, wear blue, in part because of their affiliation with the Crips. The ubiquity of k in the place of c denotes the supposed inferiority of the Crips. In the
broader geography of California, San Francisco is more red territory, as opposed
to Los Angeles, which is mixed. Within The City, Robeson was located in an almost exclusively Norteño topography, with only two “blue”-claiming students in
attendance according to most accounts between 2004 and 2012. One had already
gotten “out of the game” by the time he began high school, having spent time in
juvie as a young adolescent. He was granted elder statesman status, and ended up
starting a multiracial family with a Norteña-affiliated student, in a Citified Romeo
and Juliet twist. The other was jumped by a rare Black Norte during her first week
of school; neither of them returned.
guistic policing it indexes was in part a reaction to the shifting linguistic
and cultural landscape of the previously white and Chinese‡ city by the Bay.
Ironically, the Don’t Call It Frisco laundromat couldn’t survive the assault
on Frisco and shuttered its doors in 2011. In collusion with the remaining
Black, Latinx, and Polynesian city residents and their third-­order diaspora
spread across the twelve-­county Bay Area, I, too, call it Frisco. It is in this
layered social geography that we are able to fully apprehend the import of
a few spiky interactions at a school governance meeting. Each of the members of the ssc is implicated in one or more of the city’s histories of racial
displacement, and we were then thrust together by the political economic
forces that have emerged to produce Frisco as a late liberal city.
The ssc meeting also provides an opportunity to apply what we might
imagine as a Frisco methodology — a meaningful anthropology of The City
attuned to the array of forces that produce it as a material and cultural phenomenon. In addition to providing a sketch of the historical and political
economic context of San Francisco, this chapter also seeks to experientially
introduce readers to the formal methods I used during fieldwork, rather
than just listing them out of context in the introduction. Both the observant participation in the ssc meeting, and the narrative approach I take to
rendering that meeting ethnographically are foundational to my analysis.
Josue’s comments that provide the title to the chapter emerge from our
three-­hour interview, conducted walking through the Financial District
and to the Ferry Building as we observed the “new San Francisco” firsthand.
The text of the Small Schools by Design policy is part of my larger document review of policy, legal, and curricular texts that inform the Robeson
When Josue texted me under the table at the ssc meeting, he did so using a number he had from before I left for graduate school, back when my
classroom was down the hall from his. While Josue and I were never close
close friends, there was still an existing infrastructure of collaboration left‡ I use “Chinese” specifically here, rather than Chinese American, because of
the diversity of Chinese-nesses that circulate in San Francisco. In addition to ethnic diversity of non-Han communities settling in Frisco, the regional migration
pathway from Guangdong Province means Cantonese has an outsized presence
as a first language, although Mandarin is the official state language of China. The
texture of all this cultural specificity is swept under the rug of citizenship by the
racio-cultural term “ABC,” or American Born Chinese. The “Chinese” character
of San Francisco does not belong to any one of these cultural flows, but rather is
produced by their cross-currents.
Don’t Call It Frisco Laundromat, Hayes and Laguna, San Francisco.
Photo by FngKestrel, 2006.
over from my days as a staff member, and his under-­the-­table text message
is an example of the kind of investment several participants demonstrated
in shaping the research. Lucky as I am to be a guest in the Sucka Free City,
I have sought the guidance of Frisco natives like Josue in developing this
project. I honor their intellectual labor by taking theoretical cues from him
and other invested participants. His assertion that “2 white men giving u a
lot to write about” prompted me to spend more time on that particular ssc
meeting than I otherwise might have, which led to me analyzing his “win”
over Jake and Garrett that day as one tussle in the long fight that constitutes
The City’s dystopian progress. In the following chapter, I look to another
Frisco native, Sofia, as she tries to transform her Beginning Spanish classroom into a recruitment site for multiracial coalition building.
Chapter Three
“Why Can’t We
Learn African?”
Academic Pathways,
Coalition Pedagogy,
and the Demands
of Abolition
Sofia Torres’s Beginning Spanish class was first period, so it often got off to
a slow start as students trickled in over half an hour or so after the school
day began at 8:10 a.m. Instead of her usual attendance ritual, Sofia began
this class session by ringing a small bell to invite students to a full minute
of mindfulness,1 instructing them to breathe deeply until they could no
longer hear the ending bell. The room was silent, save for the shifting of
antsy butts in seats.
“Thanks, y’all, for doing this meditation!” Sofia gushed, as impressed as
I was that the minute of stillness had gone smoothly; it was a practice usually reserved for the school’s weekly Town Hall.
“We ain’t finna do it every day,” Pan Dulce said authoritatively, cocking
his head to the side with one hand on his hip, taking a little wind out of
Sofia’s sails.
Like almost everyone else enrolled in Beginning Spanish, Pan Dulce was
Black. At Robeson, great pains were taken by the leadership teams of each
grade level to make sure that classes and advisories were roughly balanced
by gender, race, and propensity to get “out of pocket.” A chunk of the last
day of the summer was spent trading names on white boards, with ratio-
nales and pleas going back and forth between teachers to keep certain kids
or switch them out for others, often with explicitly racialized justification —
“I’ve got nothing but Latino boys in my period 3/4 section!” “Do we really
want Lynette to be the only Black girl in her class? That’s not really fair.”
For instance, this is how I got Keenan, bemoaned by staff as a disciplinary
problem, as an advisee. When I arrived at Robeson for fieldwork, I no longer
knew most of the students, as I had been gone for several years and had only
visited briefly the previous fall. Keenan was on Mr. Agusalim’s list, and at
the class roster draft he predicted butting heads with him, while the other
eleventh-­grade teachers agreed that Keenan would benefit from a strong
Black woman mentor after years of disciplinary struggles.* Robeson’s curricular design institutionalized multiracial educational access: the school
taught all eleventh-­and twelfth-­grade classes at the Honors level, rather
than separating students into academic tracks, which are almost unavoidably skewed by race and socioeconomic status due to the sedimented structures of educational access.2
Further, ethnic studies was required for all students, and was credited
on transcripts as college prep world history and US history. Compared to
other high schools that might offer African American studies or Raza stud* Keenan is dead. The violence of his loss is compounded by its inclusion in and
exclusion from this text as a footnote, but I write of his death here because his loss
haunts the ethnographic text, the halls of Robeson, and the practice of progressivism. Of course there is nowhere to “fit in” his too-soon death on the cracked asphalt of a gas station in the Bayview, because there is nowhere to “fit” the expanse
of grief for Black children lost to the hands of their peers in any of the narratives
included herein: respectability, progressivism, or even abolition. Unlike the three
former Robeson students who were shot in The ’Sco, who are immortalized in
murals on the school grounds, Keenan is invisible in the public memory of Robeson. His involvement in survival economies and gang geographies disqualified
him from progressive canonization. Keenan was shot and killed repping a set of
projects that was demolished before he made it to kindergarten, and his death is
the collateral damage of the new San Francisco. He was brilliant and hilarious,
loved to play video games and speculate on other worlds. More than any of that,
he loved to talk. As he put it, “See, I’m a good kid. I’m cool with a lot of adults.”
However, it was the very adults he wasn’t “cool with,” who had led the charge to
get him expelled from Robeson, who were the first to inundate their social media
feeds and email lists pontificating about his “heart-wrenching” death. What is it
that makes his value, his sacredness, clear in death, but not in life? I also tell this
tiny bit of his story in this footnote because Keenan’s life and death are not for
skimming. It is a pain I have yet to fully process or mourn, that is too tender to
share with those who are not willing to labor with the fine print.
ies as electives that end up being self-­selected racial caucuses, Robeson ensured that both academic classes and advisories integrated Latinx, Black,
and Polynesian students by leveraging the master schedule and instituting
a class-­balancing review process.
However, Robeson’s careful attention to demographic representation
necessarily fell apart when it came to language classes. The school offered
Spanish as a foreign language, but since almost half the students were Latinx,
most of whom were fluent or near-­fluent, they got siphoned off into Heritage Spanish as a native speakers course.3 As a result, the Beginning Spanish classes were the Blackest academic spaces at Robeson, with one or two
Asian American or Polynesian students also present in each section. As my
research project turned on the modes of racialization and coalition at work
at Robeson, I spent some time shadowing in Spanish classes, and wanted
to choose one section to come to every day as an in-­depth observation site.
But before I could run my proposal for ethnographic research by Sofia, she
came to me to ask if I could be a support person in her first-­period class.
She noticed that kids seemed more focused when I was there and that it was
good for them to see other Black American folks who could speak Spanish.
I attributed the shift in student behavior in large part simply to my being
a more experienced classroom teacher with a tool kit to manage bubbliness
and side conversations without feeling stressed, but also to the kinds of extended family relationships I had with Sofia’s students and their peers. For
instance, earlier that school year, I ran into Dormilón’s mother, Ms. Yolanda,
and her partner, Ms. Liz, at one of the few long-­running Black lesbian parties
in the Bay Area.† Our copresence on the dance floor points to both the in-
† The last time I reached out to Ms. Yolanda was with a condolence, because
her baby is dead. A few short months after his graduation from Robeson, Bryan
Dormilón was gunned down in the streets of The Town. His admittance and enrollment into a four-year college didn’t do shit to protect him, and neither did his
high school diploma. The phrase “thousand-kilowatt smile” often brings to mind
a whitened fluorescence like that of a news anchor or beauty queen. Bryan’s kilowatt grin was warm incandescence, a joyful contagion that glinted off his gold
grill and spread in the close quarters of a classroom or hallway. Once, I heard him
addressing a fellow student outside of the door of my classroom: “Why you actin’
like a suboppressor, bruh?” He had heard “faggot” spat from one kid to another in
an escalating argument, and cut in with the Freireian analysis that was the core of
Robeson’s ninth- and tenth-grade Humanities curriculum. This is the kid whose
blood was buffed off the East Oakland pavement by a street-cleaning truck, the
dried detritus of a Black boy’s attempt to make it through the night.
tergenerational nature of queer women’s communities, as well as the fluidity
of those very generational lines. I called all Black women guardians by the
honorific “Ms.” due to their parental status, even if they were only a few years
older than me. Before they got together, both Ms. Liz and Ms. Yolanda had
sent two children to Robeson, and they met through their kids—I had taught
both of their elder daughters before I left for graduate school, and now years
later, I mentored their younger sons. I happily accepted Sofia’s invitation,
both in order to trace the way racialization worked through curriculum and
because there were several Black students in that class with whom I was eager to build a closer research relationship, including Pan Dulce.
In this chapter, I use Sofia’s class as a lens into the “progressive” side of
the paradox of carceral progressivism. Her consistent, successful, efforts
to dislodge antiblackness in the provision of Spanish-­language curriculum
mark her practice as a win for antiracist reform. Sofia was a Frisco native
and novice teacher with deep roots in Bay Area activist and arts communities. In her Spanish classroom, she engaged a mode of pedagogy of coalition,
defined by Betty Sasaki as “a collective endeavor to bring to the surface the
unconscious and buried knowledges that will ultimately complicate and
question, destabilize and open up for critique the normative ways of seeing
ourselves and others” (2002:50). In Sasaki’s discussion of feminist foreign-­
language pedagogy on a predominately white college campus, she contrasts
coalition with consensus, because the latter “forecloses the possibility for
coalition precisely because it insists upon a seamless correspondence both
within and between constituents of the ideal community” (2002:33). However, the Robeson context shifts the practice of coalition because while
some of Sasaki’s Spanish classes had only white students, Sofia’s Beginning Spanish section had none. Still, Sasaki’s observation that “coalition
work is both oppositional and relational at the same time” (37) resonates at
Robeson, where staff of color use coalition pedagogies to forge meaningful
multiracial cross-­identification and solidarity. As opposed to destabilizing
the unmarked normativity of whiteness, Sofia’s coalition pedagogy used
language as a bridge between hypervisible Black and Latinx communities
on the margins of neoliberal Frisco.
The pedagogy of coalition is one way Robeson attempted to use its school
design and classroom curriculum as tools to uncouple schooling from oppression, transforming the school-­to-­prison pipeline into a set of pathways
to college, activism, and wellness. Simultaneously, by engaging the pedagogy of coalition as both a site and a strategy for opposition, we can better
grasp the nuances of the carceral-­progressive paradox in which the same
institution can provide both culturally affirming and racially exclusionary
experiences of a state space. Ultimately, coalition pedagogies as practiced
at Robeson failed to meet the abolitionist demand for the end of captivity,
even when they succeeded at eradicating antiblackness.
A Note on Names: Race, Language,
and Ethnographic Sincerity
While it’s customary for foreign-­language teachers to call students by a
cognate, for instance calling a student named Michael “Miguel” in Spanish
class or “Michel” in French class, that tradition works mostly for biblical
names due to the imperial reach of Christianity. In the context of Robeson, that practice would have excluded most Black students, because while
some had biblical names or other Anglo names, most did not and instead
had Arabic-­derived names (e.g., Jamal, Aaliyah), country/regional names
(e.g., Kenya, Asia) or Black English neologisms (e.g., Chauniqua, DeShawn).4
At the beginning of the year, Sofia instead asked the students to choose a
name for themselves to use in Spanish class based on either a personality
trait or aesthetic preference, in a move that privileged self-­determination
over inheritance. Whimsy abounded: Ardilla (chipmunk) chose her name
because she loved her babyfat face. Dormilón (sleepyhead) took a humorous approach to his struggle with clinical narcolepsy.‡ Bonita (pretty) reveled in self-­appreciation, while Abuelita (Granny) liked to fuss at people.
There were also some names that gestured toward social hierarchies: the
only Asian student in the class insisted on his name being Chino (Chinese)
as a “joke.” And Pan Dulce (sweet treat), who ritually professed his heterosexuality, also performed his gender in ways that defied normative masculine scripts.
Sofia was a first-­year teacher, and as would be expected, she had a steep
learning curve with the mechanics of teaching high school (classroom management, consistent assessment, gauging the appropriate level of rigor, etc.).
However, in this first-­period section, which she identified as her most difficult, students almost exclusively used their Spanish names while in class,
even when talking out of turn. For instance, in the middle of a small-­group
storytelling activity, Dormilón yelled out, “¿Ayy, maestra, donde está Bonita
‡ Sleep now all you want, honey. I’ma put a tiny pillow on the ancestor altar for
tho?” Sofia hushed him back to work with an assurance she was at the doctor, but his mixed use of Spanish and Black English as a language of communication and the use of his classmate’s chosen nickname demonstrate the
varied modes of buy-­in and disruption on the part of students. His diction
is a concrete manifestation of Black-­Latinx coalition, unmediated by the
whiteness of Standard American English. This is part of a broader pattern
of Black-­POC alliance that emerges at the edges of Robeson’s white-­led social fields and gestures to the possibilities for robust multiracial cosurvivance that is not predicated on either white supremacy or antiblackness.
Because both the students and the instructor in this class used primarily their Spanish nicknames, I use their chosen names in the bulk of this
chapter. Though it may initially cause confusion for the reader, the linguistic disorientation is intentional as it reflects my experience of being with
the same young people in Sofia’s classroom while we spoke a new hybrid of
languages with new names for ourselves and each other.5 As John Jackson
Jr. (2005, 199) points to in his discussion of “real names” in Black communities and ethnographic texts, “naming can help us recraft our social reals” as
it allows us to “rethink sincerity as a powerful alternative to authenticity’s
embedded essentialism.”
My ethnographic investments in authenticity are belied by the systematicity with which I chose the pseudonyms used in the text. I wanted to
honor the diversity and specificity of naming traditions while also avoiding immediate identification. My own nomenclature system is as follows:
unlike Jackson, alliteration is proscribed — initial letters must be different.
Within Black naming traditions, the genres stay the same: Arabic-­derived
names are replaced with the same, while Black vernacular names are likewise remixed with the assistance of the most common Black names on the
census registry plus a dose of my own creativity. Place-­names (Kinshasa,
Savannah, Asia) are relocated, while biblical names stay somewhere in the
Good Book. Across the board, I tried to alter the number of syllables in a
name such that John might become Elijah and Chauniqua might end up
as LeNae. My assiduous attempts at retaining a sliver of participants’ “real
names” also point to my convoluted relationship with Black autonomy — I
initially hoped to use pseudonyms chosen by each participant. During interviews I asked folks to choose a name they would like to go by in the
book, but I was almost universally unsatisfied with what they chose. Chosen pseudonyms were either too obvious (John wanted Johnnie), too fantastic (Keenan wanted Escobar), or playfully racially recoded in ways that
exceeded my ability to reconcile them (Chauniqua wanted Becky). In short,
they were too real for my sense of ethnographic fiction. As a result, the
“fake” Spanish names in this chapter are the realest in the manuscript because they were actually chosen by the interlocutors. In a text about Black
autonomy and capture, it felt too violent for me to replace these tiny, accented sincerities — the names Abuelita and Pan Dulce signify with a levity
and sovereignty too rare to euphemize.
College Access as Social Justice:
The California Context
In order to understand the political stakes of daily classroom interactions
between students and Sofia, you gotta locate her class in the larger political
project of Robeson. Before the school was founded, a group of community
organizers, parents, and educators in southeast San Francisco had mobilized the sfusd (San Francisco Unified School District) to provide college-­
preparatory education for Black, Latinx, and Polynesian young people in
their own neighborhoods. There were two comprehensive high schools
in that region of the city, and while both sent students to college every year,
their college-­going rates were abysmal compared to the schools on the west
side. Members of this same community group eventually became the design team for Robeson, who saw a key part of “social justice” as remedying
the lack of college access for racialized youth in The City. Robeson reformulated individual, choice-­based neoliberal frameworks of college preparation
into a communal approach of college access for all.
California has a highly regimented three-­tier state college system, which
includes the ten elite research institutions of the University of California,
the twenty-­three California State University teaching colleges, and the 113
open-­access community colleges that provide transfer units for the former
two systems alongside terminal technical and vocational programs. Formalized a half century ago through the Master Plan for Higher Education in
1960 (Coons 1960), this system was intended to increase educational attainment in the state. However, the combination of abysmal per-­pupil funding
for K – 12 schooling statewide and systemic inequities across race, class, and
regional lines have resulted in only 26 percent of graduating high school
seniors of all races even being eligible to apply to the public four-­year universities in their state. “A – G eligibility” is a term that indexes academic access and equity in California, and one often touted as the marker of success
for public high schools, including Robeson. Each of the first seven letters of
the alphabet is assigned to a field of inquiry (A for history/social science, B
for English/literature, C for math, and so on), and to be eligible, applicants
to the state university system have to pass a certain number of approved
courses in each area with a grade of C or better.
With the autonomy granted by sfusd’s Small Schools by Design policy,
the founding staff of Robeson created an academic structure transformed
pipelines into pathways by diverging from the rest of the district in two
major ways. First, they changed the school graduation requirement to be
the completion of A – G coursework, rather than the far less rigorous minimums required by the district at the time. Second, Robeson eliminated
the grade of D altogether, because while a D counts as passing a course
for the school district, it is not accepted by the uc/csu system as fulfilling
course credit. The elimination of D’s is a crucial element of Robeson’s success in producing far higher levels of academic attainment for Black and
Latinx students, because there is no longer a gap between passing and being college-­eligible. As a result of these key shifts, along with other design
choices like small class sizes, increased meeting time for teachers, and an
advisory system that linked each student (and their family) with a staff advocate, Robeson boasted both graduation rates and A – G eligibility rates for
Black and Latinx students that were far higher compared to outcomes for
other schools across the city and state.
Robeson created the no-­D policy on its founding in 2003, as a result of
the racialized gap between high school graduation rates and college matriculation rates in the city — recall that the community mandate for the
school’s founding was college access for southeast San Francisco. While
there were other schools with no-­D policies across the US, particularly
among other members of the Coalition for Essential Schools network,6
Robeson was the first to make this shift in The City. Since then, several
charter schools networks and a few small districts have eliminated D’s (Hu
2010). Over ten years after Robeson’s founding, the San Francisco Unified
School District board voted to mandate A – G course completion in order to
graduate, but continues to allow D grades. The shift in district policy was
celebrated as a landmark win by Robeson staff. Even though nothing would
change for Robeson students, who were already held to the higher standard,
the board vote meant that the dream of Robeson’s founders might actually
be coming true: the success of a small school in the hood demonstrated
that it was possible to offer all of Frisco’s Black, Latinx, and Polynesian kids
a path to college. Most recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District
is in the process of moving toward the same reforms as Robeson, align“WHY CAN’T WE LEARN AFRICAN?”
4-Year Graduation Rate
University Eligibility
(of graduates)
Latinx Academic Outcomes, adapted from Robeson Justice Academy
and the Public Policy Institute of California.
4-Year Graduation Rate
University Eligibility
(of graduates)
Black Academic Outcomes, adapted from Robeson Justice Academy
and the Public Policy Institute of California.
ing A – G coursework with graduation requirements and eliminating the D
grade starting with the graduation class of 2017 (LAUSD 2016).
The shift to mandating A–G eligibility had the greatest impact on foreign-­
language and math classes, as students at Robeson were required to pass
at least two years of foreign language, rather than one, and three years of
math, rather than two. This meant that Sofia’s Beginning Spanish students
were mostly sophomores who were scheduled to begin foreign language
early enough to not only get the credits necessary for graduation and college, but with a year of wiggle room in case they needed to retake one or
more classes to graduate on time. The position of foreign language in the
Robeson course sequence is one instantiation of how the institution not
only provides a pathway to four-­year college, but actively expands access to
that pathway by building in second chances and using culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris 2012) as a way to get buy-­in to the classroom from students. A win indeed.
Carceral Schools: Spatial Models
from Pipelines to Enclosures
In the broader landscape of progressive politics, educational attainment is
lauded not just as a neutral social good that offers the promise of economic
mobility, but as a direct antidote to mass incarceration. “Education Not Incarceration” continues to be a common rallying cry at protests against budget cuts to social services, and it was the name of a now-­defunct California
organizing coalition (eni). In its founding document, eni indicts the state
for building twenty-­three new prisons and only one University of California
campus since 1980, a stat often cited by youth activists and nonprofit workers in the Bay. While the ratio of schools to prisons is a stark and compelling snapshot, it also reproduces a commonsense dichotomy between the
two institutions. Along with the parallel phrase “Schools Not Jails,” the
notion that education is the solution to the incarceration crisis has been
critiqued as a reformist repackaging of more radical propositions made in
the wake of California youth activism in opposition to Propositions 21 and
209 in the late 1990s (Acey 2000).
The commonsense opposition between education and incarceration is
also reflected in the literature and activism lamenting the school-­to-­prison
pipeline (stpp), also called the schoolhouse-­to-­jailhouse track (Wald and
Losen 2003). The stpp framework continues to be dominant in social jus“WHY CAN’T WE LEARN AFRICAN?”
tice activism and critical education scholarship, though it has been critiqued as reductive and masculinist. In particular, Monique Morris’s work
on Black girls and school discipline (2012, 2016) demonstrates the limitations of the pipeline metaphor because “a direct trajectory (i.e., ‘pipeline’)
may not be as constant for Black females as it is for Black males” (2012:
10), in part because girls are less likely to be arrested at school. Police officers arresting students for typical school-­age and adolescent behavior is the
tragedy at the heart of the stpp narrative, and one that is all too common.
But for Morris, “the primary epistemological shortcoming of the pipeline
analogy is the assumption that by addressing a pipeline, we will affect the
conditions of Black males and females alike. However, assuming that the
pathway to incarceration for Black females is identical to that of males has
failed to curtail the use of exclusionary discipline on Black females” (2012:
2). Notwithstanding her presumption of binary gender categories, Morris’s feminist critique of the stpp framework is central to theorizing carceral progressivism. No student has ever been arrested on Robeson’s school
grounds, not in small part because of the vehement opposition to the stpp
on the part of school staff and administrators. For years, the coprincipal
had an arrangement with the local police precinct that officers would park
down the hill in the neighborhood as opposed to in the parking lot if they
had business in the building, creating a spatial buffer between schools and
jails. At the same time, the very vehemence that plugs up the school-­to-­
prison pipeline can overlook the kinds of “exclusionary discipline” that targets Black girls, like punishing students for their attitude or tone of voice.
Further, in the progressive context of Robeson, Black children of all genders
are subject to more diffuse modes of exclusion than occur within the encased steel of the school-­to-­prison pipeline.
The explanatory power of the stpp framework is limited by its presumption that prisons are an immutable fact of the landscape, rather than obsolete (Davis 2003). There have been several alternative heuristics offered,
including education researcher Erica Meiners’s “school to prison nexus,”
which, she asserts, though it is “perhaps less sexy than the schoolhouse to
jailhouse track, is more accurate as it captures the historic, systemic, and
multifaceted nature of the intersections of education and incarceration”
(2007: 32, emphasis in original). Going a step beyond intersectionality to
interdependence, anthropologist Damien Sojoyner argues that the stpp
framework “neglects to interrogate the coalescence of schools and prisons
including the political, economic, racial, gendered, and sexed complexities
that undergird both of their foundations” (2016: 243). In Sojoyner’s analysis,
schools and prisons both function as enclosures of Black social, political,
and cultural life. Based on extended fieldwork in Los Angeles public high
schools, he concludes that the “first strike” against Black children does not
happen at the moment of arrest, but rather upon enrollment into an educational system designed to depoliticize Black rage and criminalize Black joy.
Pipeline. Pathway. Nexus. Enclosure. Each of these heuristics for the relationship between education and incarceration is not only spatial, but infrastructural in a way that evokes and invokes the most basic responsibilities
of the state to build and maintain roadways and water systems. Because
of the critiques discussed herein, the pipeline metaphor is insufficient for
discussing the modes of carcerality at work at Robeson Justice Academy.
Robeson is certainly a nexus of institutional and political forces, but that
nexus must be broadened to include its interrelationships with the nonprofit sphere, private philanthropy, and leftist social movements. Sojoyner’s
theory of educational enclosure is immediately applicable in the context
of dysfunctional, militarized school spaces. Educational enclosure is adaptively transforms at equity-­driven Robeson as the school attempts to uncouple, rather than conjoin, the systems of education and incarceration.
Further, the school’s practice of carceral progressivism manages and redirects Black political activity, rather than smothering it like the apolitical
institutions Sojoyner examines. As a way to conceptualize these attempts
to disrupt the pipeline/nexus/enclosure and the limits of those attempts,
I use pathways as an infrastructural metaphor for carceral-­progressive
If we imagine Sojoyner’s enclosure as composed of brick walls of disposability, punishment, and control, then Robeson breaks apart those walls and
repurposes the very same bricks as cobblestones on the path to higher education, racial solidarity and participation in social justice movements. The
transformation is dramatic, but incomplete. Robeson has indeed heeded
Johanna Wald and Daniel J. Losen’s (2003: 14) call to “reverse the flow
from the school-­to-­prison pipeline toward the school-­to-­graduation-­to-­
postsecondary-­education pipeline,” but their very phrasing belies the dismissal of self-­determination and agency as prerequisites for justice — young
people of color are rendered as raw materials like water or oil to be shuttled
to a putatively prosocial destination.
Even though the visceral experience of sitting in Sofia’s classroom left
me feeling wondrous and reassured of the capacity for a just education,
Sojoyner reminds us that the legally mandated presence of young people
in the classroom compromises Black autonomy to begin with — they, too,
are captive. As a reform strategy, Robeson’s pathways broaden the range of
outcomes for young Black San Franciscans and align them with commonsense social goods. However, pathways also function as a dual disciplinary
technology. First, a pathway, like any road or sidewalk, serves to limit the
range of movement in a spatial terrain. Pathways cut through the wilderness of possible lives lived to make mobility easier in exchange for narrowing the range of those possibilities, predetermining not only how we move
through space, but where we can go. By prefiguring the destinations (college, racial solidarity, progressive activism), Robeson’s pathways shortcut
self-­determination as a foundational tenet of liberation. Second, pathways
as practiced at Robeson depart from Wald and Losen’s mechanistic “reverse pipeline” in that paths require a modicum of agency on the part of
those walking them, unlike pipelines, which deterministically force bodies
through them. In this sense, pathways also function as a technology of the
self in which the progressive institution educates the desires of both young
people and educators to conform with a notion of justice that is deeply
compatible with the existing social order.
To be clear, Robeson’s pathways lead to objectively better institutional
outcomes for the young people of color who walk them, and I myself played
a large part in setting the bricks down beside each other in my six years
teaching and running programs at Robeson — I was a part of the winning
team. What, though, is the difference between what is better and what is
just? Can a win for emancipation (freeing youth from the enclosure) run
afoul of that which is liberatory (abolishing the conditions that produce
the enclosure)? I engage Robeson’s best-­case scenario in the next section
through a close reading of interactions in Sofia’s classroom. Though Beginning Spanish is a key pathway to college, Sofia’s antiracist pedagogy also
makes it a path to multiracial coalition by centering the overlaps between
Black and Latinx experiences.7 The institutional move to leverage culturally sustaining pedagogy (Ladson-­Billings 2014) for progressive outcomes
is challenged by the young people in Sofia’s class on pragmatic and epistemological levels. Pan Dulce (Nate), Ardilla (Tarika), Abueli…
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