Connecting Individual Actions to Systematic Change: An Interview with Professor Rich Milner

Education thought leader and Vanderbilt University Professor Rich Milner in conversation with XQ’s Hana Beach.

By Hana Beach

What does it mean to rethink education in the midst of multiple, intersecting crises? Does it mean maintaining ground and making sure that our students don’t slide backwards? Does it mean changing structures in our schools to meet current needs? Or, does the answer rest in changing our understanding of what it means to care for our students

Since the beginning of this ongoing public health crisis, these questions have been at the forefront of our work at XQ. While we’re constantly looking for new tools and resources to support educators, communities, and students in this time, we also know that so much of the work that needs to be done begins with deeper reflection. 

To help work through these complicated and existential questions, we spoke to XQ friend Rich Milner, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, about what it means to rethink education in this historical moment.

Below you’ll find highlights from our conversation where we discuss micro and macro-level policies that shape student’s opportunities to learn, how we can recenter the decades old fight for racial justice in our schools, and how this moment has challenged our core conceptions about schooling. 

Rich Milner – Peabody faculty portrait.(John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

More importantly, Milner asks how we can each center love in our schools and what it will take to build a better school system for all.

On Systemic Inequities and the Current State of Education

Team XQ: The first question has to do with all that’s happened in the last year with COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you view the current state of education? Should schools refocus their primary goals to meet this historical moment?

RM: I know some people are talking about—and are yearning—for a return to normalcy. I’m hoping for something radically different from what many young people have experienced in education, historically. 

Particularly, I hope young people who are Black and brown—who live below the poverty line, who might have a disability, whose first language is not English—I hope they get a new experience in education. Many of these students are perpetually underserved in our educational system. 

Right now, we have a powerful opportunity to reimagine how we accomplish education in America and how we engage with these communities in order to actually improve their learning and related opportunities. We have to remember that the answers to challenges can be found in the communities in which the challenges exist. 

Team XQ: How has this moment brought to light existing failures and the education landscape? 

RM: I think it has re-centered what we’ve known for many years. I don’t buy this idea that we don’t know or we haven’t known about the issues and inequities facing minoritized communities. I just don’t buy it. We’ve known about these inequities for decades. We’ve known that Black and poor children—children from low socio-economic communities—are underserved in schools. 

This moment may have refocused our attention to inequities facing these communities, but we know that we are perpetually undeserving our minoritized students. I don’t think anything has changed about those inequities; rather, this moment has brought us to a place where we are recentering our work around these inequities. In this sense, I am hopeful that we can do better. 

For instance, this notion that some students don’t have access to technology or the internet is not new. It’s not anything new. The reality that some children from low-income communities have working parents and it is difficult or downright impossible for these parents to support their children with academic tasks during the day isn’t anything new. 

I don’t think that those issues have changed. Those issues have always been there. Unless people are walking inside and outside of education with their eyes closed, they’ve known this for a very long time. I don’t buy that this moment is somehow sparking new revelations. Rather, this moment is centering and amplifying these issues. This moment is forcing us to think about things that we may not have wanted to address otherwise.

On How Educators Can Take an Anti-Racist Stance

Team XQ: When you talk about anti-Black racism and anti-native sentiments in school, you ask for teachers to take a clear stance of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you speak to how teachers who want to take an anti-racist stance can evaluate the reach of racism in their classrooms?  

RM: The first thing these educators need to do is examine themselves and think very clearly about their own roles in perpetuating racist structures and maintaining inequality—albeit unintentionally. 

Our teachers are in a place where they are being asked to do a lot. They are asked to teach to testing standards. They are asked to implement policies that make very little sense to them. They’re asked to buy resources from their own pockets. They’re asked to work overtime without any type of release time or compensation. I want to be clear that I realize that teachers work very hard. They care about their students and they’re doing the very best they can. Structurally and systemically, we have to do a much better job of supporting them to be successful.
That being said, I think that the journey for an educator to become anti-racist has to start with self-reflection. It has to start by asking teachers to think about their own privilege—to think about how they tailor lessons and assessment practices to center Whiteness. That reflection is essential. Because if they don’t interrogate race—if they’re not constantly thinking about their own privilege—they’re contributing to inequities, whether they realize it or not. These educators operate from their own standpoint and from their own belief systems that are steeped in and deeply shaped by their own worldview.

On How Teaching Has Changed Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Team XQ: Besides the obvious shift to remote or hybrid learning, how has the nature of teaching changed in the past year? At XQ, “caring and trusting relationships” is one of our core design principles. Is there a need to care for our students better and in different ways?  

Rich Milner: bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and so many other Black feminist theorists have distinguished between love and like. Teachers sometimes believe that their role is to get their students, especially their minoritized students, to like them. 

They misconstrue success with likeness. They want their students to say, “Oh, I like this teacher,” but the reality is teachers should build a kind of love for their students. It should be an appropriate love, but it should mimic the love they have for their biological children. I want to advocate for care that isn’t like-centered, but care that’s steeped in and connected to love.

You don’t let students fail if you love them. You don’t push students out of the classroom, if you love them. You don’t let students be in the hands of an administrator, if you love that student. 

This notion of care needs to be well connected to love. And, teachers sometimes don’t see or can’t recognize when love is missing. That’s a problem. They might be caring for their students, which comes through their curriculum development and class preparation—but students need love to achieve. 


On the New Paradigm Switch in Education

Team XQ: What you’re talking about it’s so powerful. You are speaking about a need for a paradigm shift, and we are in a cultural moment that demands a paradigm shift in almost every aspect of our lives. And in this new paradigm, there’s a need to promote empathy, center care, fight for equity, and use collective action to create change. Can you explain how that paradigm switch is taking place in education? What was the old paradigm? What’s the new paradigm? Where do you think we need to be headed for a more equitable education system? 

Rich Milner: That’s a really good and important question: Are we in the midst of a paradigm shift? I hope we’re in a moment of paradigm shifting. I really do. I’m more hopeful now than I’ve ever been in my career. I’m more hopeful now for  racial justice in education than I’ve ever been in my career. 

James Baldwin said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” But when I see young people actively involved in protests and young people from all different types of racial and ethnic backgrounds—from suburban communities, urban communities, and rural communities—coming together, I am hopeful. This level of hope might shepherd us into a paradigm shift related to what and who matters. Beverly Gordon said “It’s difficult to critique the world and work to change it, when the world works for you.” But I think people are realizing that if we don’t have a paradigm shift, we’re going to find ourselves in serious trouble. 

We’re at a tipping point. People are fed up. They’re tired—both inside and outside of education—of racist, xenophobic, and discriminatory practices and mindsets. So young people are seeing how interconnected we all are. And they are not only focusing on the world working for them personally but the world working for the collection of us. If adults would get out of the way and stop trying to push the status quo and inequity, young people will continue building the heart and mind to support equity, diversity, and inclusion.  

Team XQ: 2020 has brought existential questions to the forefront of mainstream discourse—and they have given our students and educators an opportunity to examine their motivations and point out sinister aspects of the education system. For instance, at XQ we talk about the need for educational equity and educational justice, but those concepts are hard to define and often have conflicting definitions for different people. How can we bring these questions and demands to the level of institutions, schools, individual teachers? 

Rich Milner: The first thing I think we need to remember is that individuals make systems. It’s frustrating to me, when my colleagues spend a lot of time talking in these abstract ways about structures and systems, because we do know that the perpetuation of inequity is grounded in structural and systemic inequity. That’s very, very clear. 

But what’s also very clear is that these systems are produced and reproduced by actors, by people. Focusing on the macro-level and making the unit of analysis and critique large structures might allow us to theorize and to pontificate, but it does little in the grand scheme of helping individual people recognize their own role in transformation. 

Secondly, we must engage in a dialogical and discursive interaction between the micro- and the macro-level. When we talk about push out practices such as suspension or expulsion, we know that an individual teacher refers a student to the office—which is a micro-level move. Some people may argue that this action doesn’t get at the structural or the underlying sort of system that perpetuates it. I disagree with that. I think that the act of sending the student out of the classroom, and the act of the individual principal or school leader is sustaining the macro-level policy. In school, pushing that student out is a direct consequence of a macro-level policy that says this is acceptable, that says this is what’s expected, that says these are the policies in place to control particular bodies. 

I don’t think it does a lot of good to focus on structural inequity only. Most educators and practitioners are doing the best they can and find it completely nebulous to try to think about structural analysis when they’re trying to get through Monday morning. 

We have to examine both. We have to have an institutional, systemic, structural analysis, but we also have to have a very clear micro-level analysis as well. Those have to actually interact in very purposeful ways in order for us to move forward.

We need to help teachers understand that the moves they’re making are in direct conversation with the macro-level policy that’s in place. For example, if a Black body or brown body behaves in a way that is inconsistent with your paradigmatic understanding of what that student should be doing or should be experiencing, teachers are asked to react in a particular way. 

We need to help educators understand the dialogic. The dysfunctional relationship between what these policies are saying and what they’re actually doing. When teachers understand how these policies are actually counterproductive, then they may become actors in the fight against inequity.

We need to help teachers understand that the moves they’re making are in direct conversation with the macro-level policy that’s in place. For example, if a Black body or brown body behaves in a way that is inconsistent with your paradigmatic understanding of what that student should be doing or should be experiencing, teachers are asked to react in a particular way. We need to help educators understand the dialogic. The dysfunctional relationship between what these policies are saying and what they’re actually doing. When teachers understand how these policies are actually counterproductive, then they may become actors in the fight against inequity. 

Team XQ: You’ve laid out the problem in that answer, right? Teachers are very time constrained and are asked to do so much. How can we ask them to understand this dialectic? What tools can we offer educators to help place their individual work in larger systems?

Rich Milner: As we reimagine what school is, what it can be, and what it can look like—we have to step back and reflect on how teachers spend their time. Do they have time to engage with other educators? What frames are they using to engage with each other? Until teachers fundamentally understand that racism is pervasive in this country, we’re not going to make very much progress. 

Again, I’m more hopeful now, because I see some progress in terms of people standing up and stepping up to meet the need. But, if teachers are still of the mindset that people are just people and if they individually just do what they’re supposed to do from a meritocratic way of being, then they may believe that everything will be fine. It’s going to make it very difficult if they do not interrogate their beliefs about what the world is and how racism exists. 

We need teachers to deeply understand these issues. We need them to try and listen to students with a commitment to grow from criticism and critique. We have to move beyond the “They think I’m a bad person, because I’m a White person.” We’ve got to get to a place where you can understand that you may be racist—that you may be using your Whiteness to maintain the status quo. 

That’s a tough place to be. I worry that egos won’t allow teachers to address their failures. I worry that this will leave students abused and psychologically drained. I think the solution is about trying to help teachers find time to talk with each other, to examine themselves, and to situate themselves in that storyline to figure out ways to transform their practices. 


Team XQ: Education is often framed as a tool to help bring financial security and economic power to students living in poverty. What else is at stake in the discussion of educational equity? What are the pitfalls of framing education as merely workforce development? Are we failing in other ways than just creating an economically tiered country? 

Rich Milner: There’s a really important book—Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life in White Societies by Shujaa. The premise of the book is that education and schooling are different. We’ve done school for a really long time, but we need to remember that education isn’t status quo. It isn’t self-centered. 

Education is about building that critical lens and about shepherding students into a place where they engage in intellectually rigorous curriculum and learning opportunities. That’s the power of what education can do. Education provides a space for young people to build tools to engage in particular kinds of work—and by work I don’t mean trade—I mean work that’s related to a mission like fighting for social justice, interrogating gender equity, reimagining the labor market, or whatever it happens to be.

Those tools and skills can be cultivated in and sharpened through education. Rather than thinking about education in a canonical, White, Eurocentric way, we need to help our students sharpen their skill set to interrogate a range of different curricular opportunities, because those can be applied to societal issues and areas.

The highest form of curriculum and the highest form of learning is social action. What we are doing in our classes and in education has a profound impact on how we apply our learning skills to everyday problems. Teachers need to understand that they aren’t teaching some isolated math problem, but that they are preparing students to analyze and transform what our society could be through mathematical thinking.

Team XQ: Something we’ve learned from organizers over the years—is that we need to take people to new futures in their imagination before we can ask them to fight for systemic change. To that end, it would be great to hear what your “reimagined” high school looks like? How does it function? What does it center? How do we get there? 

Rich Milner: I think we often lose our imagination. I think we often suck the imagination out of students through the schooling process. We do everything in our power to help them learn, to help them write, to help them speak, and then we tell them when they can read, when they can write, and when they can speak when they should stop reading, stop writing and stop speaking. It’s a dangerous power struggle that we seem to perpetuate in schools. 

I imagine an educational system where young people actually want to be in educational spaces—where they feel like their strengths and assets are recognized and valued. I want students to feel like these strengths are allowed to be expressed through the education process. It is a place where students are co-constructors and actually have an active voice in designing the school day and the learning opportunities. 

I imagine a place where we’re not focused on test scores. A place where students have the opportunity to imagine—where they don’t lose that fire to dream and to imagine what life can and should be. I yearn for that as a possibility. I think one way to get there would be for us to think first about how teachers are compensated. We have to think about how teachers spend their time. We have to think about who is entering the teaching profession and how we can diversify on a range of different demographics. 

Finally, we have to take a moment and look at policy—and look at what those policies afford us and what we lose. We need to bring equity lenses and racial justice lenses to the floor at this moment in everything we do. I imagine a place where young people can be free of worry, free of stress and strain, and expected to find joy in their own experiences and to improve the world and humanity.