It is never ok to control the narrative of someone else’s trauma or oppression–not as an individual, not as an organization. Furthermore, it is not ever ok for White, affluent, Ivy-League-connected people of power (particularly those who claim to be “equity-driven”) to attempt to silence and shame the narrative of those who have been marginalized. Therefore, Teach for America, it is NOT OK–as an organization or as individuals–to minimize and marginalize the counter-narratives written in Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak up and Speak Out. If you are a change agent and committed to ending systemic and institutional inequity in this nation (this is the claim of TFA plastered on its website), then please learn more about the role of dominant and counter-narratives (they are foundational to racial, gender, class, and LGTBQ equity work) and LISTEN to the counter-narratives.
Dominant and Counter-Narratives
“There’s really no such thing as the `voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Arundhati Roy
There are dominant voices, the voices of power and privilege, the voices of those with resources. They are amplified and believed. Stanley (2007) describes dominant (master) narratives as scripts that dictate how things work and how stories are framed. This includes how problems are defined (like problems of equity) and the best ways to solve them. The dominant narrative is created by the dominant culture that has privilege, access, and power in society.The dominant narrative tells the experience and the perspective of the dominant culture as truth. Most importantly, the dominant narrative is used and perpetuated by the dominant culture (at times unintentionally/subconsciously) to maintain its dominance and power.
Counter-narratives, on the other hand, deconstruct the perspective and script of the dominant culture that is deemed “normal” and “right.” Counter-narratives present alternatives to the dominant discourse (Stanley 2007). They seek to entirely reframe how problems are defined and solved, often finding that the framing of the problem is problematic. Counter-narratives are born out of the experiences of people and groups that do not fit and are critical of the dominant narrative. They are the voices of those who are often silenced and marginalized.
Equity work, at its core, involves listening to, validating, and amplifying the voices of those who are systemically suppressed and institutionally ignored. Therefore, when TFA posted this response on its website, I felt more confident then ever that my counter-narrative,“Perpetuating, Committing, and Cultivating Racism: The Real Movement Behind TFA” was very accurate–in essence TFA had just validated with it’s response that it perpetuates the status quo. TFA’s response was attempting to suppress the counter-narrative, and what’s more is TFA wrote this without even reading the book (I logged on on July 10, 2015 to read TFA’s response and at that point not even the editor had a copy of the book!)
In its attempt to control the overall narrative by minimizing our counter-narratives, TFA labeled our perspectives as “misconceptions” and stated that we, the authors, have “chosen to focus on past experiences that are not in line with how we [TFA] operate.” This strategic wording asserts that our TFA experiences (conceptions)–what we thoughtfully described as happening/happened–are wrong (mis). Furthermore, TFA framed our counter-narratives as choices instead of accepting them as valid perspectives. By stating that the authors of the counter-narratives “chose” to focus the past, TFA seeks to blame us and shame us. Lastly, TFA seeks to negate our perspectives (without even reading them) by declaring that our main criticisms are no longer “how we operate” and, therefore, our counter-narratives are not valid.
In a final bold move, TFA posted 20 narratives of TFA alumni that exemplify the dominant TFA narrative. While I do not think TFA should take them down (it is always good to have multiple perspectives), I do think it is interesting to consider their role and purpose. The dominant narrative that “TFA is a solution to educational inequity” is well established (and well-funded). Our counter-narratives were published to show other perspectives, to make the dominant narrative about TFA and education reform more complex, nuanced, and to amplify the voices that–until now–have not been heard. Similarly, when Fredrick Douglass wrote his [counter] narrative, The Narrative of a Slave, it would have been very curious if a counter, counter-narrative was published: a narrative of a slave owner that described how slavery was working well for those in power. Forgive me if you find my example hyperbolic, but the point is the dominant narrative is already dominant…is it not possible to make room for another narrative? If not, why? What is the cost to those in power?
TFA must examine the ways its current incarnation sustains and promotes the status quo and the supremacy of the dominant culture. I truly wish TFA could have written a response that noted that:
- TFA had not read the book yet.
- The counter-narratives are valid perspectives of corps members, and all voices deserve a chance to be heard.
- TFA undoubtedly will not agree with every criticism, but TFA is committed to social justice and education equity and, therefore, will consider the emergent themes thoughtfully.
- TFA values all of the leaders it “creates,” including the ones who are critical of TFA, for they help the organization and society challenge injustice.
Until TFA can write a response that does not try to minimize the counter-narratives and control the narrative about education reform and justice, TFA will run opposite to equity work–work that extinguishes the dominative narrative running through our minds, hearts, communities, schools, and systems. In attempting narrative control, TFA actually perpetuates the dominant oppressive narrative it claims to fight; TFA becomes the voice that seeks to control and silence those of us who dare scream out for true justice.