What is your name? Where are you from?
My name is Zakiyyah Ali. I was born in Norfolk Virginia, grew up there, moved to Alabama, and now I live in Brooklyn.
What kind of projects are you working on here at SPACE?
I work at NYU in the metropolitan center, specifically in the technical assistance center of disproportionality. I’m working on creating the programs and the training that I’m going to be using for school districts that have been cited for having extreme disproportionality that impacts black and Latino males. I’m also writing some briefs to continue to develop my voice around school equity and school justice and disproportionality. I’m also preparing the team I work with on the summer institute, which starts May 19th 2017. We need to make sure that the documentation and the flyers we are using are written correctly.
What are some reforms you hope to see in education?
The goal is to dismantle and eradicate disproportionality. Disproportionality is the under representation and the over representation of a specific group of students or a specific demographic inside of schools where there may be a particular demographic that’s being suspended from school, or over classified for special education, or not having enough representation inside of AP and Honors classes. This is problematic, it doesn’t insure that all students receive an equitable education, but we’re talking about black and Latino males being affected, but it hurts all students inside of the school when you don’t have black students in the classroom to engage in discourse with white students in the classroom about issues, not necessarily race related. It cheapens and reduces the value of the conversation that students can be exposed to.
Is your work local to New York or on a National Level?
The work we do is funded by a federal grant throughout New York state. We working with school districts throughout the state. We do attend the AERA conference which is the American Education Research Association, which is international. There are people there from schools in the caribbean. The work that we do is a national and international phenomenon. The work that I’m doing in America is focused on disproportionality with black and Latino males in New York, but when I was doing curriculum development and teacher development in Malawi in Southeast Africa, it was gender disproportionality.
Do you have any examples of districts you’ve worked with that made progress?
The first school district I ever worked with on my own was the Riverhead district in Long Island. It’s a great community and it's an excellent working community. And I like the assistant superintendent, Mr. Wicks, showed up with a commitment to actually want to do the work, and he assembled a team of leaders, principals, assistant principals, directors of special education, all different types of practitioners and educators that came in willing and ready to do the work. We saw a change in the attitude and the way they approached how they would utilize the data that the school was generating. They were driven and open to understanding data is important to creating the shape and story that tells how successful your school is in providing equity to all students. I’m really excited to be working with them again. I’ll see them in October to start the second phase of training. The 1st training I implemented with them was called Root Cause helping them to understand the root causes of disproportionality, the second phase of training is called CRE Culturally Responsive Education. So giving them the tools and showing them how to become more culturally responsive for all of the students inside of the school district. And making sure that it’s not just implemented inside the instruction, but also throughout the culture of the school building and the way they think about student’s abilities to learn. Whether they are English language learners, or whether they speak with black vernacular, or whether they have different cultures that riverhead is not accustomed to seeing, showing them how to be more culturally responsive and culturally sustainable in terms of making sure the students can learn through the use of their culture. And seeing the culture as a profit, not a deficit to learning.
Where does your passion for history come from and how do you relate it to the work that you’re doing?
I love history. To me, there is no other subject matter that can help you to understand any topic better than history because everything has a source, and everything has an origin. I think sometimes what happens to us in society and in our lives is that we often want to make meaning of what’s happening to us in the present, without even looking back to see what the source is. Because there is nothing new under the sun. I love Malcolm X, and he said, “of all of our studies, history is best qualified to reward our efforts.” If we use and discuss life through a historical prism, we can always understand the answers. We can always arrive at the answers. It’s common sense, people lived before I lived, so they clearly went through some of the same things that I went through, because I’m not the first woman that’s going to have a problem when it comes to understanding a man’s mind, I’m not the first teacher that’s going to have a problem trying to make sure that I can implement the best teaching strategies for my students. America, we’ve been here, according to our historical text, landed here in 1607.So even if we just use that date, at least since then, people in the united states of America, not including the natives who were long before that, just in the context of America being shaped as America, or becoming America, people have been going through the same problems since 1607, and finding the same solutions, and having the same successes. History is the place you go to for all your answers because I know we’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just going through different cycles. In order to understand the cycle that you are in, you have to look to the past to get the answers. And it’s fun! When you read, and you learn about history, you’re just connecting all of these dots. Because I’m looking at these trees right now, imagine if these trees could talk, what conversations they eavesdropped on. My mind starts to wonder about those things, is this the hottest day that they have ever seen? I doubt it. What cold days have they gone through, what were the people doing when it was extremely cold, etc. I think about all of those things, that’s why I’m driven by history.
What made you want to be an educator?
I love learning and I am so nosy. Learning for me, is one of those places that allows me to tap into my curiousity, my inquisitive nature, but it also allows me to be nosy without people actually thinking I’m nosy. First of all, I learned at home a lot, my parents really believed in education for my sisters and I and we could not slack in school. I went to public school but I also went to Islamic school so I was in school year round. We were always in a state of learning we were always in school. My parents really believed in it, and to us it didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything because it was the norm, that was what all of the children in my community did. I also remember my teachers, I loved my teachers. I remember all of my teachers names. I think it was when I got into high school, I really started to have an affinity for wanting to be a teacher or an educator. My band teacher , Mr. Fitzgerald made me fall in love with everything about nuance. Paying attention to details because when you’re playing music, and the music is giving you direction and telling you how it should be played you have to pay attention to how you’re playing each one of your notes. But it’s not about my instrument, it's about all of the other instruments around me so I have to constantly be listening to make sure that I’m making a joyful sound, rather than trying to stick out because then it doesn’t become a composition, it’s just a solo. My history teacher, Mr. Mosley, he was the funniest man on the planet. He made me fall in love with History in a deeper, more contextual way, rather than just hooting information from a book, he went deeper. He brought in outside resources, things you wouldn’t get in the text book. My world history teacher, Mr. Davenport, he was so smart, his vocabulary was so extensive and expansive. I always tried to mimick him, so whatever word he used in the classroom, I would use it back to him the next day in a sentence, so I could develop my own vocabulary. So he made me fall in love with words. And then there was my Gym teacher Coach Conley, who was also my track coach. He made you have fun with life, because he didn’t take anything serious but he always wanted you to do your best. These teachers were all in the same school and they were all black men. Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of black male teachers. I was in trouble a lot at school, I used to get in fights because kids are mean. I wore my Hijab to school and some girl would rip it off of me and take of running, so I would run after them. Then my assistant principal Mr. Edwards would come to in school suspension and see me and take me into his office and work with me. He would talk to me about ways in which to respond differently to people in situations where people were mean to me. He encouraged me to use my oratorical skills. They said, you have a mouth and a brain on you, you need to be in an oratorical competition. I entered the competition and I won it on all levels. I also won scholarship money to go to Virginia State University. I knew my teachers really loved me, so I knew when I was in college that my trajectory was to go into the classroom and become an educator because is the grand equalizer, and provides you and affords you with the opportunity to be able to see the world through somebody else’s lense. But also, the fact that somebody would be able to trust you to impart knowledge on them because they trust in your ability to be able to do it. To me it was a no brainer that I would be an educator. I knew I wanted to be an educator because I had some of the best examples. My Grandma was the best teacher, she really was a stickler for my sisters and I when it came down to diction and pronunciation of words.
What would you/do you say to young people today?
I don’t cast any aspersions on young people because I was a young person at one time. You go through a process of discovery. And I’m sure that if I could go back in a time warp, and watch myself as a young person, I’m sure that I had ideas that would considered radical to older people who would say, I’ve been there done that, you think you know but you have no idea. I realize that you have to go through your own journey. The only thing I would say to any young person is that same thing that would say to any old person, any person that is still walking on this planet, is that you still have to study. You have to always be a student. Nobody knows everything just because you’ve been on this planet for a long time. So even with young people now with all of this movement we have around social justice, and what young people want immediate answers. Sometimes the immediate answer is not what you are going to get. If you want to get the answer that you are looking for, it requires that you go back and do a lot more research. So that you can see that the struggle you are going through right now, has already happened. So there are answers that already exist. For me, with anybody it is always, be a student first. Have you done your homework, and do you know what has happened before? You have to be your own historian at all times. Sometimes I feel that’s what's lacking with young people, because we live in a sound bite generation. Anything that you think you know, you can find it in the headlines, or in a sound bite or in a meme. The problem with the information that is on social media is that it hasn’t been contextualized. It’s just presented as, this is the facts, and it also takes away from the ability to utilize critical thinking. Because it’s planted right in front of your eyes, so that you see this great visual, but you don’t understand the context behind it. But I would say that’s true for adults to that just utilize social media as the end all and be all for information. You still have to contextualize it. And the only way to do that it requires that you walk into a library, you sit down with some rectangular objects called books, and you go through the pages. And you look at what those pages say on that word, so that you can begin to develop some sources. Since we don’t know everything, we have to stop acting like we do. That’s what I would say to young people, you don’t know everything, I don’t know everything and I’m a teacher. The creator makes sure that we know what we are supposed to know when we are able to handle it. Cause right now we are not about to handle everything.
Where have you been spending most of your time at SPACE?
I’ve been utilizing the picnic table a lot working. I was in the hammock earlier. This whole farm is gorgeous I also really love my room. I’ve been taking a bunch of pictures all over, I took a great one by Peach Lake.
How has being at SPACE impacted your work?
It has provided me with some quiet time and some serenity to actually really focus my mind. But also to dump out stuff on my mind and be free. I can really be in the moment and not think about an hour from now and if some store I need to go to will close by then. I can really be present. I like hearing nature and I like to see stars, I like the cool breezes, I’m a nature person. My train of though is not being interrupted by a siren or something like that.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I am writing a grant with some of my team members so that we can money so we can implement a project that will positively affect the lives of black and Latino boys. I’m looking forward to this busy year of work.
If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
I would probably be one of these pretty birds. Because when I was walking down to peach lake I saw a beautiful Cardinal. I like the way the birds have the freedom and the autonomy to get up and go. The birds also have a great view of everything, so I would be a bird.