Windows and Mirrors, Roots and Seeds

by Jennifer Dunn

I’m packing my bags this morning for the third time this summer and it’s still July. On August 1st I will have traveled through six states in 30 days. I just returned from a week-long training for new leaders with the National SEED project (created by none other than Dr. Peggy McIntosh)  in San Anselmo, California. One of the most important takeaways from this SEED experience for me was this: windows and mirrors. It is a practice that works well for Ethnic Studies and racial equity work because it is a flattening of power dynamics between two people. I can now see myself in relation to anyone and ask myself am I a window or a mirror to this person? Is my story a window or a mirror to their story? We are all in relation to one another.

Storytelling is a centerpiece to SEED work. In one session called “Schooling Stories”, I was asked to write about a time in school where I witnessed or experienced oppression and to write in the present tense. This is what I wrote and shared that day:

“I’m in the 8th grade. It’s 3rd period and the subject: Texas History. Today, we are learning about the Alamo. I sit and listen to my white teacher explain how the brave white men Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William B. Travis all came to save the Alamo from the encroaching Mexican army. My heart hurts. I become so aware (once again) that most of my classmates are white. I look at their faces for reaction to this story but their faces reveal nothing but acceptance of the heroism of these men by the storyteller. I feel embarrassed and ashamed of being Mexican, of feeling like the defeated, of being the other, so I flip through the pages of my textbook looking for any story to counter this one. It isn’t there. As the story goes on, the capture of the Alamo by the Mexicans is clearly not the point, and includes the eventual triumphant capture of General Santa Ana disguised as low ranking soldier hiding in the grass in a nearby… I just can’t even listen anymore. I slide my hand into my pocket to reach for the headphones through the hole I have cut in my jacket packet and up through my sleeve from my walkman to listen to Selena belting out No Me Queda Mas.”

I wonder…Is this story a window or a mirror for you? As a student? What about as a teacher?

I cried while reading that story to a circle of strangers but mostly I think because it was the first time I got to tell it in a space that was honored rather than dismissed as insignificant. The first time that anyone had even asked me and ultimately revealed the roots of my pursuit of education justice. Then I had to have a real long look at myself in the mirror as a teacher and cry all over again wondering how many times I have been guilty of doing the same thing in my own classroom- controlling the narrative; telling other people’s stories. When I was 13, I didn’t have the tools to resist or even name the “master narrative” or the “single story” of white supremacy in curriculum and institutionalized racism. Today, I do.

This incredibly powerful activity of windows and mirrors at SEED training was presented first with artwork. As participants, we were asked to approach a table of copies of paintings and then to find a partner and discuss whether the image was a window or a mirror for us. This is the painting I chose:

Barbacoa para Cumpleaños by Carmen Lomas Garza.

This painting is a mirror to my childhood.  A childhood I felt joy at home and then shame about when I was at school. For years, I literally hid my home stories away at school and downplayed my roots. The Mexican and Tejano traditions practiced at home were assigned no value in my classes. Indigeneity was a thing of the past and the only way to “succeed” was assimilation. The decision I was forced to make in school was to accept and assimilate or rebel and be labeled a troublemaker.

My brother (a BRILLIANT mathematician) stopped attending school in the 10th grade.

Circa 1986: One will reject the system early, the other will work to dismantle it.

I assimilated.

Today, this “Schooling Story” reminds me of how I would like to be in relation with students and other people in public education. Another important part of SEED work is being in “just” relations with others. Windows and Mirrors is a tool in pursuit of just relationships but the road ahead is long because the system is so powerful. As an educator I am STILL pressured to assimilate to institutionalized norms and have been guilty of perpetuating assimilation in my own classroom when I have done things like teach AP and complied to testing culture. The pressure to produce “rigorous” content at “high standards” is very strong. The call for uniformity and the polished appearance of “excellence” – so loud. Still, I reset my practice mantra today that education is for liberation-not assimilation and that I will receive much criticism along the way in search of the real thing. Already I am labeled “not a team player” and a rogue with a bad attitude and, of course, the wrong tone when I do not consent to the status quo.  

Ultimately, our stories are not something we can see or hear by simply looking at one another and yet it seems more and more that we are creating a society where we are judged mostly by our social media profile “appearance”. I am suddenly aware of the irony of adding something to my “story” on Instagram and how many of us are probably faking it so we can appear successful. I also feel sad when people say things like “You look nothing like your name” and sigh when people look at me and ask, “what are you?” (Decolonizing Mixed Chicanx, btw.)

Stories involve investment in relationships. This SEED work reminded me that I need to make more space for storytelling in my classroom and in my adult relationships. Telling our stories is how we become centered in our roots and invested in the work authentically. It is how we can connect with one another- and ultimately a seed for “just” relations.

But I must tell my own story-not the story I have in relation to another-that is their story to tell. When I speak for others, I am not in “just” relations with them.

As I recommit myself to the cause of racial equity over assimilation in public education, I am also now writing my own education liberation story. I move forward as a teacher but as a co-researcher in indigeneity and honoring storytelling with others. I vow that I will not tell people’s stories for them. How about now? Am I your window or your mirror? Just checking.

Windows and mirrors came with this caution:

Be mindful of who you are in relation with.

Too many mirrors is vanity.

Too many windows. Voyeurism.

Now I am back to packing my bags for Tejas/Texas to spend time with family, but also in search of the stories I was never told or asked about in school. As I return home, I come to dig at roots. As I dig, I endeavor to go deeper than the Spanish (colonizing) language that was deemed unacceptable at school to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. I look beneath America, to Aztlan and to Turtle Island and I am not alone. Already I have met a lot of other people looking for surfacing the same thing- their missing or erased stories.

Finally, my thoughts return to the first bag packing of the summer. After the last day of school, my partner and I set off on a road trip to Wyoming via Idaho and Montana. I am definitely also going through some eco-anxiety right now and have had this fear lately that if I don’t see some of Turtle Island now, I never will.  On the road, we listened to Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. In this novel, Butler reveals her philosophy called Earthseed in a not too distant future (2024, y’all) where climate change and broken government has led to societal breakdown. Butler says, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” I have also been reading adrienne maree brown’s (she does not capitalize any part of her name like bell hooks) Emergent Strategy (hopefully the subject of my next post!) where brown harnesses social justice leaders from past and present and weaves together the intersectional issues of climate justice and racial justice.

Seeds taking different flight patterns in the breeze on a morning walk. Some go together in a cluster. Some go in pairs. Some go alone.

In brown’s work, she looks to nature for solutions to heal our planet, ourselves and our communities-by being like dandelions, through our roots and seeds. Brown also repeatedly mentions in her book that “what you pay attention to grows.”

The response that forms in my mind right now to that is “The future is in the past.” I need to check out the roots but pay attention to what seeds I plant for others.

Everywhere I look right now:

windows and mirrors, roots and seeds

Follow Jennifer @JenniferisDunn.

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