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Dr. Monique W. Morris wants to deconstruct the stereotypes of Black girls

Dr. Monique W. Morris wants to deconstruct the stereotypes of Black girls
Watch: "Dr. Monique W. Morris wants to deconstruct the stereotypes of Black girls" | 3:51

A Q&A with Morris and Dr. Lateshia Woodley delves into the issues raised by the documentary and book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School.


In preparation for Dr. Monique W. Morris’s signature event with the Kansas City Public Library, she was invited to join Dr. Lateshia Woodley for a question and answer session. Morris is an award-winning author of a number of books and social justice scholar who is executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color. Woodley, Kansas City Public Schools’ assistant superintendent of student support, first encountered the book and documentary titled Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School, several years ago, which catalyzed work in her school system.

Tune in for the livestream event

Learn more about the event with Dr. Morris and watch a recording of the livestream on the Kansas City Public LIbrary’s YouTube channel.

Morris and Woodley talked about the inequities faced by Black girls within schools, who are judged more harshly for their behavior, face disproportionate discipline within the schools and juvenile justice system, and so face life-altering consequences.

Dr. Lateshia Woodley: I had an opportunity to be introduced to your work a couple of years ago. In Kansas City Public Schools, what we’re doing is we’re really trying to transform the way we do discipline in our school district and really create a culture of caring. We are looking at equity audits to identify our data to see where our gaps are and where we’re seeing the students are being disenfranchised from our educational system.

As part of this process of digging deep and really pulling back the onion, we identified that in one of our signature schools, they were suspending more girls of color than they were any other demographics. In that research of trying to find resources for different things we could do to address those issues, we came across your work.

We did a district-wide viewing of the documentary. We had some of our students come on stage and give some talk-back or conversations about how they felt and what their experience has been in our schools. It was a very powerful experience. So, I’m excited to have an opportunity to really engage in conversation with you about this work.

What was the catalyst for you to begin this work related to Pushout?

Dr. Monique W. Morris: I have always held a space for girls in this conversation about school to confinement pathways and around some of the unique challenges that they experience in our nation’s schools. I was once a Black girl, and I’m the mother of two Black girls.

I think that in much of our public discourses about what our schools need to be and the type of institutions that we are trying to build, we started to focus in on the boys. I was never one to say that we shouldn’t focus in on boys. I just was always one to say that we couldn’t focus on the boys to the exclusion of the girls, that we have to recognize that many of the conditions that were impacting the wellbeing of boys also impacted the wellbeing of girls, but we weren’t seeing them, because we weren’t asking the questions about them, we weren’t engaging them in the discourses, and we certainly hadn’t built out rubric for measuring their wellbeing and assessing their wellbeing in our schools.

So, around 2010, 2011, we started to see data that was showing that Black girls were disproportionately experiencing exclusionary discipline. And yet in almost every public conversation about what was happening in our nation’s schools, people would routinely dismiss girls and say, “Oh, the girls are fine. We have to focus on the boys. The girls are fine.” And there was a small group of us who were looking at the data and arguing, “Actually, the girls are not fine. We need to, number one, shift our narrative, but also shift our understanding for how we’re capturing data, such that we can see our girls.”

There was a small group of us who were looking at the data and arguing, ‘Actually, the girls are not fine.’ 

— Dr. Monique W. Morris

And so in 2012, I partnered with the African-American Policy Forum to write a piece about that. It was basically an invitation for us to expand our lens to include Black girls. And in that literature review, I tried to just locate Black girls. I wanted to know where we were seeing Black girls? And when we did see Black girls, how were we seeing Black girls?

Because we were starting to see in ethnic media an increase in the number of stories that were emerging about girls being handcuffed, girls being suspended. People would share, in social media, the girl fights. A lot of people enjoyed watching the girls fight, but they didn’t really want to engage in the conversations about what was sparking those fights and how we were responding to those fights. For me, it just felt like it was time to do a deeper dive, both into the historical context for this violence that we were seeing manifesting among our girls, but also how we can locate our girls in this conversation about equitable schools.

Woodley: Powerful. I often say that I lead through my trauma and that my trauma is tattooed on my heart as a mechanism that drives the work that I do. I’m wondering, how does your personal identity show up in this work?

Morris:  I think we bring who we are to inquiry, we bring who we are to our work, whether we acknowledge it or not. There is this push, particularly in academia, to divorce yourself from yourself in order to engage in inquiry, and that to me has always been culturally incompetent. It’s actually a point that I argued in my own dissertation, that I argue in many ways in Pushout, where being able to tap into the Black girl in me, allowed me to tap into something with those other Black girls who are experiencing conditions of harm in community and in school.

It’s been a way for many of us who are interested in finding solutions to this crisis to get into a deeper connection and to build relationships such that we can identify where there are opportunities for interventions that will be both promising and effective. I try to be who I am everywhere I go, and I try to bring with me the learnings from my own past experiences to how I interpret conditions with others in this space, and certainly with those who are trying to bring healing to this conversation.

Woodley: You talk about this perception of the good girl versus the bad girl and the impact on the educational experience. Can you expand on that?

Morris: We’ve constructed ideas about Black girlhood in our contemporary consciousness and public discourses that really relegates Black girls to a space of both not being a good girl because they’re masculinized and/or present themselves and express in ways that have typically been associated with masculine identities, or they are relegated as hyper-sexual and unfortunately regarded as disposable because they’re not seen as good girls, they’re girls who are somehow deviant in our public consciousness.

It’s not something that we openly discuss. It’s a stereotype and trope that informs how we work with and engage Black girls. It’s something that I describe as “age compression” that impacts how we interpret behaviors and volume and other modes of expression that often come from Black girls. And that work has been built out certainly by Dr. Jamilia Blake and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality that has since shown that Black girls experience “adultification” when they’re as young as age five. So a reading of their behaviors is more adult-like when they’re as young as age five and it peaks when they’re between the ages of 10 and 14, which impacts then how we respond to them, whether we recognize their traumas, or if we think they just have attitudes, [and] whether we respond to them when they’re in moments of crisis with comfort and care and nurturing and love, or if we regard them as disposable because they should know better.

Black girls experience ‘adultification’ when they’re as young as age five… which impacts how we respond to them, whether we recognize their traumas, or if we think they just have attitudes, [and] whether we respond to them when they’re in moments of crisis with comfort and care and nurturing and love, or if we regard them as disposable because they should know better.

— Dr. Monique W. Morris

Woodley: Even as a mother, we sometimes identify or expect our girls to take on a more mature role than the boys, and they have higher expectations for them. They have that loss of innocence early on because we push them to this “good girl” mentality.

Morris: Yes. We see that across the board with many girls of color. As you know, I lead Grantmakers for Girls of Color. And when the pandemic first hit, the first things that we did was try to move forward in identifying how the pandemic was going to impact girls and femmes of color. One of the first things that came out across the nation was that so many girls and femmes of color were being asked to take on additional responsibilities because they were at home, which impacted their capacity to be present in the learning that was now virtual.

So, on top of all the other impediments to equitable access to learning, there was this way in which the adultification of so many of our girls was also just making them unavailable to focus. It’s really an important thing for us to consider how we are responding to girls, how we’re grooming girls to take on these additional responsibilities. And when they reject those responsibilities, how our responses to some of that can also lead to a deepening of harm.

Woodley: In your TED talk, you mentioned education is freedom work. Can you speak to that?

Somewhere along the way, we lost our narrative and moved it away from centering education as a liberatory tool, and started to focus on school discipline and control of children as the primary function of our schools.

— Dr. Monique W. Morris

Morris: I talk about education is freedom work mostly because when I started doing this work around Pushout, it was clear to me that so many of our school districts across the country were finding creative ways to keep children out of school, creative ways to suspend, ways for us to take them in in-school suspension versus out-of-school suspension, step out of the classroom for a moment. But either way, they were losing instruction time and they were not really being engaged in the learning process.

What we found from the body of research that’s been looking at the impact of all of these actions, is that obviously, a loss of instruction time, a removal from school, a placement in juvenile detention or contact with the juvenile court system, these are all ways that we are exacerbating the impact of the carceral system, that we are deepening, not just their criminalization, but also priming them for futures that are not free, that are stagnant, that are harmful. What we know from the body of research with girls is that education is a critical protective factor against contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system.

We don’t think about education through a liberatory lens. We think about education as something that must happen, or we think about it in the context of preparing future students to be effective citizens, without really thinking about how education can also liberate the mind and soul and opportunity for so many people. And our ancestors knew this, which is why they focused on education so intentionally. Somewhere along the way, we lost our narrative and moved it away from centering education as a liberatory tool, and started to focus on school discipline and control of children as the primary function of our schools.

If our minds are free, and if we are taught critical thinking skills, and if we are able to engage in these particular modes of inquiry with our young people, then we don’t have to be afraid of them and we don’t have to build out structures that are led by fear.

One of the things that I often say is that students have experienced disruption are the students who are disrupting. If we can get to the space of understanding how to mitigate the disruption in the lives of students, which I do believe is our responsibility as a collective community, then we can talk about what our institutions need to be in order to facilitate the kind of healing, intentional, educational practice that produces critical thinking, amazing adults.

Woodley: We have an awesome opportunity to really transform the lives. I always say, if you transform the lives of a young woman, you transform generations through that opportunity that have that impact. And behavior is a symptom and not the disease, right?

Morris: That’s right.

Woodley: One of the things you did mention was this is a community effort because schools can’t do it alone. So how could the community help uplift this work?

Morris: I think it’s really important for schools and communities to see themselves in partnership with each other, rather than competitors for the attention of young people’s engagement. There are ways in which the school is currently structured that is not inviting to adults and community. There are volunteer opportunities that are created, for the intention of the school, rather than thinking about the school as the location for a community effort toward healing that would invite other ideas for how young people can be in relationship with those who can also be a part of this work.

In Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues, I talk about a school that I visited in Southern California that invited grandmothers in instead of law enforcement agents to help guide students to class, to help hold them accountable. As I wrote in that book, I thought that was absolutely brilliant, because we all recognize the power of the grandmother. Watching these elder women escort students to school and ask them about their day and build relationships with them was actually a beautiful way to invite in a different kind of conversation. It’s something that I’ve seen also in other countries. I had the opportunity to visit a school in Kenya that is exclusively focused on educating girls, and bringing in grandmothers is a central part of how they build community. Because the way they put it, “the grandmothers are the keepers of the stories, the grandmothers are the keepers of the culture.”

When we think about how many of our schools are operating within a tapestry that has been harmful to communities of color, to Black communities in neighborhoods where some of the parents may not have had good relationships with that school, where some of them are living with a narrative of harm in association with the school, that inviting and bringing in opportunities for us to explore how we rebuild that connection, how we repair that harm is really important to this work in order for us to establish the kind of trust between community and school that is needed in order for everyone to show up in the best interest of the children.

It’s important [for administrators and educators] not to pathologize those [young people] who are doing the best they can.

— Dr. Monique W. Morris

I also think it’s really important for administrators and educators who are working in communities, particularly in those communities that are impacted heavily by violence and poverty. It’s important, I would say, not to pathologize those who are doing the best they can. And so in a lot of ways, our frameworks around who is worthy of showing up and participating in conversation is filled with all types of respectability politics that sometimes prevent us from actually building relationships that are meaningful with folks who may have experienced school differently than we hoped, and play a role in how their young people are showing up in school and what we can do to repair that work.

I had the opportunity years ago, a few years ago, to visit a school where I was talking to a group of girls about what they needed to be present in school with community members. And a lot of them just really had no idea how to start those conversations, how to be in community with each other, who they could actually trust in school beyond themselves.

They were taking on various leadership projects and inquiries in their own right just to try to say, “Well, this is what I do know. So this is how I can hold it, but I need somebody to also help me engage in some of these other questions about why my healing is central to my education, why I feel so agitated when that girl looks at me in the hall and I want to fight her, or why I feel like these teachers don’t like me, why I feel like whenever I cough or whisper to my friend, that I’m uniquely singled out when I see other girls who are not Black next to me doing the same thing and they don’t get in trouble at all. Why am I in trouble when I pull out my phone or I’m chewing gum, and she’s not in trouble when she does the same? Why can I be wearing the same tank top as another girl and I’m the one who gets in trouble?”

So, there are all these questions that our young people are exploring that involve some of the historical ideas that have been harmful about Black women and girlhood and femininity. And, some of the things that the schools could do differently to engage in conversations about differential impact of their policies, but also ways of bringing in members of the community to elevate some of these conversations and hold space with them in ways that I think can be helpful.

Woodley: I love the way you really speak to using students’ voice and having students be in the center of all policy and changes that need to be made because they have the answers. Listening to those students’ voices was so very powerful in this process. And I think back to looking in the beginning of your book, I think, the foreword of your book that started off talking about the story of Maya Angelou, and the impact of her losing her voice as a result of trauma, and then regaining her voice as a result of an educator. Can you speak to that whole process of student voice and the impact that it has on our ability to lead this work?

Morris: The piece about Maya Angelou was written by Melissa Harris-Perry in the introduction with Mankaprr Conteh. I’m really excited that I was able to have student and teacher write a foreword for a book about the need for deep relationships between student and teacher. I do fundamentally believe that engaging a participatory practice and leading with a participatory worldview is how we step out of stagnant situations, and also, they’re closest to this issue today. We were once students, but we are no longer students in many ways. Although we should always be in a process of learning, the power is different now. So, it is important to intentionally shift the space and the intention behind who is asking what questions and who has the answers to those questions using participatory practices.

Anybody who’s done work with young people… recognize that young people are always creating new language, always. Always creating new ways of thinking about systems, defining those systems, challenging those of us who created those systems to rethink the power dynamic of those systems. So, it was really important in this attempt for me to bring a conversation to the fore to really locate their voices in this space.

— Dr. Monique W. Morris

The study upon which Pushout was based was a participatory study, and I wanted to bring that into the book and into the film. I do think that in Pushout and Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues, it was really important for me to just locate, at the center, those Black girls whose voices are typically marginalized in this conversation to give them an opportunity to share in their own words, how they have been impacted by these conditions, but also what they think is possible.

Anybody who’s done work with young people – those of us who’ve been educators, those of us who’ve been youth development workers, those who’ve been involved somehow with young folks – recognize that young people are always creating new language, always. Always creating new ways of thinking about systems, defining those systems, challenging those of us who created those systems to rethink the power dynamic of those systems. So, it was really important in this attempt for me to bring a conversation to the fore to really locate their words in this space. It was never something I considered not doing honestly.

There are different ways that we use the film to help center the voices of girls. There’s one little thing that we do in the film where, the girls, when they’re speaking, they speak directly into the camera because it was important for us to have the girls speak directly to the audience, to the viewers, about what their experiences are. But the adults, when they speak, they speak off to the side. Because we really wanted to make sure that the voice that people hear most that is the most direct voice, and it’s a subconscious thing, but it was an intentional thing, is that of the girls.

Woodley: Listen, we just really enjoyed the opportunity to engage in watching that film, and it just really has impacted our worldview and our work here in Kansas City Public Schools. One of the byproducts was bringing girls together for conversations about what their experiences were in our schools and getting deep in understanding from them: how can we support this change and change this narrative? And I’ll never forget: We brought students from all across the school district, and there was a table of eight girls, and those eight girls said collectively that they had lost almost 50 family members, in that circle of eight. And they said they were experiencing this pain and they didn’t know what to do with this pain.

In Kansas City, we’ve had no less than 100 murders every year since 1966. And the students spoke to hearing gunshots at night while they’re asleep, walking home and seeing the yellow tape, or seeing the bloodstained spot on the walls – and then we expect them to come to school and walk in a straight line and focus on the educational process like those outside variables are not affecting them every day.

A lot of our educators are not equipped with the knowledge and the expertise to really and truly address these issues. That has prompted us to transform the way we look and supporting our girls and boys in our school district for creating this culture of caring. So, I’m just so honored to have the opportunity to engage in this conversation with you on this work. And thank you so much for being a catalyst for the work that we’re trying to do here in Kansas City.

Morris: I so deeply appreciate that. And I do think it’s important, and probably something I’ll spend some time on when we are in conversation later this month, is really understanding why it’s important for us to focus on healing in schools, in order for schools to be the locations for learning that we want them to be.

This piece is part of the Foundation’s “Uncommon Voices” series, which features viewpoints from those working hard on issues that reduce racial inequity and support economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.