One night when Maya was five-years-old, she asked me to read one of her Fancy Nancy books before bed. I’m just going to come out and say it here, officially, I find Fancy Nancy annoying. All those tutus and all that precocious vocabulary? Enough already. (Thank goodness Maya’s much kinder Nana embraces her love of Fancy Nancy and reads them tirelessly to her. Shout out to all the Nanas!) But on this particular night, I reluctantly read one of the books, which was about star gazing. When we were done, Maya said, “You know why I wanted you to read that book?”
“Because I wanted to figure something out. Ms. Minor taught us that Harriet Tubman led people out of slavery using that same constellation and she called it the drinking gourd. Fancy Nancy calls it the big dipper in this book.”
And that, my friends, is why dedicated teachers are the foundation of our society. Teachers create critical thinkers. Critical thinkers become capable neighbors and voters. And so the nation thrives (or doesn’t, as of late).
When someone sees teaching as a calling, not just a job, you can feel it in every aspect of their classroom—the way they talk with kids, the things they talk about, their expectations. Artemis Minor, known by her students now as Ahma, is one such teacher. She was my kid’s transitionary kindergarten teacher, and then went on to found her own preschool, which is a sort of training ground for collective liberation and Black power. I have learned so much from our frequent conversations, and knew I wanted you to know about her wisdom and dedication, too.
Courtney: You are taking in essential workers’ kids right now at your preschool in East Oakland, the part of the city most hard hit by COVID-19 according to recent data. Why did you decide to do that and what has it been like?
My immediate thoughts when asked if we could take in children of essential works was, “Of course!” I created my business to help children and the Oakland families that need care regardless of a pandemic. Likewise, I knew that I had some essential workers whose children were already in my care. The data that was released showing the disproportionate numbers in the amount of Black people getting COVID-19 and dying from it was alarming. But it did not make me change my mind in the least. Instead, I began working more diligently to acquire the necessary supplies and create safety procedures to ensure the safety of every child in my care. I certainly have become more strict on my wellness policies and I know the parents really appreciate all the measures I am taking to ensure the safety of their children and staff alike.
You started your own preschool this year after many years teaching transition kindergarten in public schools, in part, because you recognized that in order to really tackle educational inequity, we have to start at the 0-5 age level. Do you feel like you're finally having the impact you dreamed of having?
Firstly, I feel so blessed to have had the experience within the public school system to actually have firsthand evidence of the many inequalities within it. As an educator, my goal has always been to teach children to love learning and to acquire social-emotional skills that will lead them into being amazing human beings and scholarly members of their communities. Well, how could this happen if children are malnourished, tired, scared, or a plethora of other feelings and lifestyles that are impacting their daily quality of life? The huge opportunity gap that leads to achievement gaps are seeped in systematic racism and has increased with the radical gentrification in many communities of color like ours. So serving children from 1-5, where 75% have subsidized care, has allowed me to become a change maker within their lives before facing the cruel inequalities that will (most likely) come their way by elementary school and beyond.
Within less than a year I have been able to realize that my zeal for change was not misguided. For example, I have already encountered 2 and 3 year olds who (on paper) would be shown to be suffering from an achievement gap compared to their affluent counterparts within my very preschool. I now have confirmation that to effectively make a difference within the unjust education system, it starts with early intervention. Indeed, a quality preschool with loving educators who understand the plight of families is what every child (of color especially) deserves. This is where the work truly begins. So yes, I have definitely seen an impact and I support the child and the family alike. We are teaching the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child”; we are in this together.
Do you have any advice for people who care about racial justice and education equity and how they might have an impact right now? In some ways, I think a lot of us feel more insular than ever. It feels hard to know how to make a difference when we aren't really supposed to leave our homes.
I think it starts with acknowledging the problem first. Next, for parents in particular, have conversations and raise your children to know the dynamics of society in a tangible way. Discuss the realities of our cruel world: racial justice and education inequities, and begin to educate them, not isolate them. Trust them enough and empower them to hold on to these harsh truths about our society. Drive into areas that are vastly different from yours and use these scenes not as cautionary illustrations but, as motivation to want change. Acknowledging our past and what got us to where we are today is where it begins: redlining, school to prison pipeline, joblessness and loan discrimination. Likewise, discuss how America was founded, namely through slavery. People mustn’t shield our children from the truth; the truth will set you free. Moreover, underprivileged children of color who are attending the same schools that affluent children attend aren’t afforded the luxury to be shielded from their everyday walk. They live it.
During this unique time is the perfect place to begin: ask to volunteer where food is being distributed and continue to help the underserved in your community when the shelter in place order is removed. Since March, OUSD has passed out over 1 million meals to needy families. This was not simply an effect from COVID. This tells me that our communities of color have been suffering and now it’s being brought to the forefront. So how can people help? Have empathy, teach empathy and compassion and allow the atrocities of our past and present to lead your steps to support those who need it in tangible ways. Support the schools and foundations that serve the children and families that are underserved.
In addition to being a teacher, you are also a mother who decided to homeschool your own brilliant, beautiful daughters long before sheltering started. Any advice for us parents who are struggling with the teaching role we've been thrust in?
We decided to homeschool as a form of liberating ourselves from the systemic racism that is embedded inside of the public and private school institutions. We wanted to invoke our right for educational independence and acknowledge the struggle of our ancestors in doing so. So for parents now being thrusted into homeschooling I would say... congratulations. Now you are able to take the time to redirect, refocus and reinvent your child’s purpose in school. Focus on social emotional learning and compassion building: academics is only a part of what learning is. Get to know your child’s strengths and what they are passionate about.
In the long run, this will help with getting through this time and you and your children will have benefited greatly from this experience. We normally spend so much time away from our children. Look at this as a great opportunity to spend the quality time that we have lost in many ways.
What’s next for The Learning Forest? I can only imagine the kinds of dreams you have for expansion or trying out new ways of building community etc.
This year we have been thrown for a loop. We had several black and brown authors, a singer/songwriter, a female boxer, a local chef and a big anniversary celebration all planned for 2020 that would have taken us into the summer; all of which has been canceled and/or postponed. Field trips are also on hold for now because of the pandemic. Currently, our new focus for our students is all about character building, how to stay safe, acknowledging uneasy feelings about this crisis, also creating normalcy to ease any transition tension and getting back to the basics of reading and math foundations.
For our families it’s supporting them through this difficult time and reacclimating into our community and into greater society. I am working with First 5 of Alameda County in our continual efforts to support essential workers. I also have a new partnership with CocoKids food program to guarantee well balanced meals and meals for pick up for our families who are not yet working.
I aspire to get our family activities, community gatherings and field trips going again in the near future but until then, our overall focus is on having a germ-free safe environment seeped in love, education and empowerment. I am simply grateful to have the ability to be a part of the solution to the infinite amount of problems within our community.
Ms. Minor does an amazing job updating her Instagram and YouTube channel with inspiring content about what little ones are capable of. If you’re moved by her leadership, donate to the Learning Forest’s current Go Fund Me campaign which supports her efforts to host children of essential workers during this crisis.