Teacher Activism as Self Care

Early in this school year, I was questioned about what I wanted my legacy to be…

The question took me into a private place of wondering…what did I want my legacy to be in a year of “unprecedented” everything…

Today, on a day of sanctioned teacher self-care, I chose to act with other teachers in the middle of the street with a hand-made sign, tee-shirt and my voice…lifting the weight of a world by raising my arms…

I am not like the sheroes who I have admired all my life

Ella Baker

Anna Julia Cooper

Ida B. Wells

Pauli Murray

Fannie Lou Hamer

But today, I understand them better…I feel the triumph of their legacy.

For the first time this week, since Tuesday, I am able to act without tears…without crying…without rage, not without pain but certainly with a clear(-er) purpose.

Rest in peace to all victims of gun violence

Rest in power to all those who have worked for change

Ode to Trayvon: Mother to Son MMXXII

I can’t imagine

How she feels, how she felt…

When she heard…

She watched him grow and appreciated his swagger

His quirks and his smirks…she knew them as she knew him. They were probably familiar and uniquely shared.

When I look at you, now 22, I feel her pain, even after 10 years.

So this I say to you..me to thee…

Mother to Son,


I love you, I hear you, I see you,

You matter

Your joys and your pains…matter.

Keep your head up even when you’re down…

A life built on concrete, sitting on bricks, will never be easy but don’t worry,

Hard is not the enemy.

Ignorance is.

Crystal stairs have never been worth the price to keep them

from being dirty, just to be clean or

saved from being broken.

Taken at Philadelphia Protest: Justice for Trayvon (2012), 12 years old
“Historically Speaking” a moderated discussion with Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother): 5/24/22


Ona Judge was a fascinating human

A freedom fighter who was never caught

Who knew opportunity when it presented itself

On May 22, 1845–49 years and a day later than the moment she “seized her freedom“–she could still tell the story about why, and who, and what would help her reach the prize

‘While they were packing to go back [into bondage land], she was packing too’ for whatever dream land provided.

Imagine that…

An entire lifetime lived beyond that moment

She still knew details

She still weighed the moment in a balance of moral fortitude

Liberty was always going to be better than bondage

Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Author of Never Caught) discussion with Aspen Institute moderator

Double Agency | V.XXI.MMXXII

05.21.2022 Double Agency by Dr. joy Barnes-Johnson | #31DaysIBPOC

This word AGENCY takes on brand new meaning when paired with DOUBLE. It leaps beyond the mundane and into the supernatural…it takes a girl with a “$30 dress and $2 suitcase” from a place of ‘out of excuses’ into the world of being seen (Thank you Ms. Davis…for giving me more words to explain who I am in your memoir Finding Me). What double does for and to a word or idea is magnificent and makes me wonder…maybe wander…through etymologies and epistemologies…philosophies and sociological imaginations.

  • Double entendre
  • Double jeopardy
  • Double trouble
  • Double minded
  • Double sided
  • Double consciousness

It evokes so much that is parallel and lopsided at the same time. It pulls me back toward a history in spite of the intensity of the present moment, so this post will share some of me and a lot of that–history.

Following the models from art and science and literature and dance, my life has always been double agentic…it has always been a type of choreopoem peppered with stories of joy and struggle and spiritual strivings but I love who I am and what I am becoming…as I admire the literate ones who celebrate words and wax poetic through books and essays, while I languish in emotions, stirring ideas in a pot or a beaker that I am not


make a difference.

I am both art and science, teacher and servant, follower and leader, like so many who have come before me.

I say I am an EqSTrEAM educator, in the margins and not–bounded by extremes but free–a science teacher but I really am a double agent. Like the pedagogues in our collected and unreconciled memory, historically and in recent times, we are fugitives, fugitive pedagogues, running from and to the systems that we want, need and challenge. We believe in education but are making our own maps to freedom because the old ones just


[seem to] work.

Our memories of stony roads and bitter chastening

Won’t keep us from returning to post-pandemic classrooms with broken windows,

mirrors and sliding glass doors…this blog is for us.

Schools are racialized organizations “that enhance or diminish the agency of racial groups” (Ray, 2019. American Sociological Review, 84(1), 26-53). Teachers, especially those of us who identify as IBPOC, are double agents with agencies we hold close to our chest like the S in sound, and super, and stressed…on the verge of breaking, we retreat to the pages written by a league of heroes, with gratitude.


I often talk about being EqSTrEAM as a humanities-loving science teacher. Pronounced  /ɪkˈstrim/, who I am is extreme, as in, ‘in the margins’, so my position outside of center makes total sense to me. It amplifies the human as it elevates the other. But it is the “r-factor” that has meant so much over the course of my thinking about who I am and what I do. Telling myself ‘Whatever it is:

  • must be relevant
  • responsive
  • REPRESENTATION (in a hip-hop kind of way) and re-presentation
  • Reflective of the people and reflexive in its goals’
  • It is righting the narratives that erase or appropriate…but, #31DaysIBPOC reminds me that it is more than that.

Starting on day 1, Dr. Kim Parker provided REASONS to perform (although that’s not quite the best word) when our students no longer experience joy

even when they “win”…

…because the pressured voices ringing in their mind “to try harder

steal accomplishment from them and call themselves underachievement…

It is our RESERVATIONS and REPRIEVE SPACES (insights courtesy of Erica Pernell) that cause us to take pause…

When we feel questioned by students whose book learnin’ turned into the nouveaux machine variety

we can only remember in a distant recollection of self…

the mental tricks and shortcuts we owned and created at 16 sit now on a dusty shelf in the recesses of our decades older mind, unconnected from real things that our adult selves use frequently…or…that (like them) can only be re-membered long enough to connect dots on a test, created by a curriculum that was disconnected all along…

It is our RIGHTING as we write. Filling in gaps about our greatness and unhiding who we are and stepping into the light, even though shade (in all its coolness) feels necessary more than comfortable.

It is my RESPONSE…to the brutality we suffer in grocery stores, on streets, in churches, in schools…feeling shame and regret not for something we have done but because of who we are…and yet, somehow, too many children, are unable to identify this or any moment where their life matters less…could it be because they don’t know their history and are becoming so numb to their present that a dissonant future not based in myth is beyond their understanding acceptance? Searching for answers like other teachers in this moment, I looked to intellectual ancestors for answers.

This post is a love letter to Leila Amos Pendleton, a woman who wrote books, curated poems and penned letters to remind and inspire us to look back/retrieve our histories, our stories, in order to better understand our present and our future. In 1912 she wrote a history book called A Narrative of the Negro which was published by her husband. After thanking almost fifty people (for what I am sure were political reasons) she explains on page 3:

In this little volume contains, in story form, a brief outline of the history of the Negro...In presenting this narrative, as a sort of “family story” to the colored children of America, it is my fervent hope that they may hereby acquire such an earnest desire for greater information as shall compellingly lead them, in maturer years, to the many comprehensive and erudite volumes which have been written upon this subject.

Pendleton, L. A. (1912). A Narrative of the Negro (21st, 1998 ed.). Press of R.L. Pendleton. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/pendleton/pendle.html

Chapter 1 (A talk with the children) gives vibes of the opening scene of the Black Panther (or maybe the 1619 Project). The telling of our origin story and the reminder to always capitalize the first letter of whatever we choose to call ourselves (p. 5): embodying the idea of KUJICHAGALIA (self-determination). In one paragraph, the text hugs the psyche like a quilt stitched to protect against insecurity. Through the next 20 chapters, Mrs. Pendleton holds up history like a magnifying glass for us to see our Diaspora unobstructed by racist hate scribbled on pages but through a lens of love and truth…

We were ‘born on the water’ and she helps us to fully see it without shame. She introduces us to patriots, artists, spiritual leaders and other heroes with African roots–reminding us that we have a stake to hold in this country. She describes the inner-workings of and names some of the lesser known conductors on the Underground Railroad (pp. 118 – 150). The conductors–abolitionists–were celebrated with the familiar and yet lesser known ‘John Brown‘s men’ (p. 156) as she named names, as if she knew them. She lauds the establishment of Black institutions of higher learning and the many people and visionaries of the time who believed in Black folks…

But at the beginning of Chapter XXI, she describes where we were in the 1910s, just as if she were writing about where and who we are now…projecting and predicting this moment with acuity, warning us of this moment and probably hoping that this knowing would keep us from this living.

…there arose the two great schools of Negro thought, which, for want of more exact terms, have come to be known as the Conservative and the Radical. Briefly stated, the Conservative school of thinkers lays most stress upon the opportunities and privileges which Negroes enjoy in this country, while the Radicals insist upon the rights of which we are deprived. Each side is most intensely in earnest and both seek the highest good of the Negro. The difference seems to lie in opinion as to how this highest good is to be secured (p. 189).

The struggle of two knights—both are right.

Leila Amos Pendleton (1860 – 1938)

Echoing an idea posed by mathematician and sociologist Kelly Miller (another double agent) only a few years before in his essay “Radicals and Conservatives”, we are in the same place 5-½ generations removed from that moment. Chapter XXI is an ode to the political nature of the Black teacher.

I once argued that schooling does not have to be political…it could be objective...that was before I really knew who I was as a teacher...or what my ‘assignment’ to teach in mostly White schools meant.

I get it now–after more than 20 years–I am there for all students but especially for the Black and Brown (Bb) students who need to see teachers who know a thing or two about history…and the stories that history tells. Thinking about @GraceKChoi in her thread about showing up…being a double agent.

Double agents are individuals willing to carry the load of responsibility…for others…

Double agents are connected to that which moves outside of them selves…

Double agency is a responsibility.

Being a double agent is:

RIGHTING while we write and

Representing while we represent the various selves we are to others and our own beings.

Those who identify as IBPOC are always somewhere educating and leading,

with and without titles

with towels and tools…

in light and love…

So what is the end of the narrative you wonder? What comes in Chapter 22? Pendleton concludes the family story with a list of names and biographical sketches that explain how the “light is diffused”.

There would be just too many to name if we were to celebrate every education double agent that possesses the “r-factor” so I will simply encourage you to look around for the ones who are busy doing the work and building collectives like this one.

Thirty-one days in May never seems quite long enough to get to know all the heroes in our multiverse multicultural universe but for now I will take it, with gratitude.

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous, Black and other People of color who live as teachers, artists, writers and scholars. Please read yesterday’s blog post, Pinoy Ako by Leah Werther (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).

Dr. joy, 2022

Dear Dissenting Parent

I wonder how well you think we are…

Sands are shifting under our shoes


We face your sons and daughters

Not knowing the foundations you laid for them

To see us

To see their peers

As humans with value and values



Living now



Bones walking

Birthed and living


In spite of the chaotic fights that took place long before walking into these rooms

In these halls, hallowed by sacrifices made long ago…

The choice of life (to live a life)

In person and in profession[al]

Impersonal and un-professed

in a space

where presence and being present is

despised, discarded, dismissed, dis-respected and dis-regarded

How do you expect us to choose this life

Where our freedom is not free to be?

Forget roaming free.

That roaming you get to do is not granted to us.

We lose


Every time.

Even in safe places, we are not secure.

We are always present in plain sight

With no place to hide

And yet we are rendered invisible



Having little value in your spaces and occupied places

In a world

U (of the ‘I owe you’ kind or ‘the me not you’ variety)


For February 1, 2022

Like the unseen forces that both hold together and distort the shape

Of a molecule

Because of their individual strengths in their own electron domains

Polar and covalently bonded

On opposite sides of the same


Sharing in the work of

Being seen, heard and felt

Like electrons being pushed and pulled together into an undeniably strong bond…


…by nature they are attracted and alike.

Molded within their environment and outside of the safety of their structure…

I celebrate

Black [American] History and

The Lunar New Year [in America]

In Black


In Red

As if for the first time.

Making sense of it all

Why does knowing international history matter in the 21st century?

I was a newly emergent adult when all of this happened but somehow, I remember… 

Not the details…

But pieces of the details 

That make it all make sense…

A hunch or a feeling you get when you don’t really understand but you know


Is not

Quite right…

I remember my 4th grade Czechoslovakian teacher

Saying something

I remember the command heard round the world when I was in college

“Tear down that wall” spoken from an American president

Very close to what I remember was a series of global citizen campaigns to

Heal the world

Amid calls to boycott

Coca Cola

For apartheid in Africa

And the release and triumph of Mandela 


I don’t remember this…

The rise of Yeltsin



It all makes sense

When these words…written in 2007 about “The real Yeltsin legacy” could have easily been written in 2022…a year after an insurrection that is being skillfully dismantled in the public memory of the people.

Written in 2007 by Archie Brown for the Guardian, you fill in the blank:

_______’s main merit as president of ________ was that he preserved many of the freedoms introduced by _______. His principal fault was that he helped discredit the very ideas of democracy which had evoked real enthusiasm in the last three years of the _______.  This was partly a result of his lack of interest in democratic institution-building. He was disdainful of political parties, and refused to join one. He was scarcely less dismissive of legislatures, most literally in ________ when he ordered the bombardment of the parliament building. He had little understanding of the significance of the rule of law. When the minister for justice was dismissed in _______ he was told by ______ officials: “You have one problem – you always cite the law.”_________ came close to cancelling the ______ presidential contest and only allowed it to go ahead when he knew that, with TV on his side and huge sums of money from the oligarchs, he could win.

He overlooked vote-rigging in both ______ and _______ elections.Although he launched a bloody and unnecessary war in ______, he gave substantial leeway to regional ______ and the _______ of the ______. He genuinely believed _______ was too large to be governed exclusively from the centre. Devolution, though, was at the expense of freedom and democracy.Popular support for democracy was further undermined by the sell-off of _______ natural resources to preselected buyers at knock-down prices, at a time when wages or pensions were often unpaid. The level of corruption was such that his main concern, when picking a successor, was to find someone who would safeguard him from prosecution. Having earned much of his popularity in the late _______ period with attacks on privilege and inequality, he presided over such a vast increase in both that he seriously damaged the cause of democracy to which, at his best, he had made a real contribution.

It sounds eerily familiar to an American president, elected by some people who did not concern themselves with democracy or popular votes, opinions or interests.

Additional reference:

Yeltsin’s legacy https://www.jstor.org/stable/40260037 

How children’s books reach us…

Dedicated to the #BlackGenius and #BlackJoy of Author & Illustrator Floyd Cooper on his transition from this life, to the next.

Quote from Floyd Cooper (http://floydcooper.com/index_files/Page332.htm)

Each one teach one only fulfills its calling when we reach those beyond the sphere of us…

Our voice, our fingertips, our gaze…those on the margins, for whatever reason, need tools that will help them save themselves.

African American girl looking at open book (half-length).
Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition Collection curated by W.E.B. DuBois. Image available online at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c24674/?co=anedub

When no one is coming for you, do you have what you need to dig out

Of the holes you fell into, or the ones you dug yourself?

Every learning environment has people in it who can hardly see (or hear, or feel) that which stands in front of them simply because the haze caused by harm swirls before them…just ahead of them.

Teaching reading, the ability to decode text, is the seed of fugitive pedagogy: the disruptor of miseducation that is historically significant. Not only does teaching, freeing, liberating people to read give them language to describe what others deem significant but it also gives them visual clues to connect the landmarks in their everyday life to the hidden meanings that symbols suggest.

Like a laboratory, a book, especially a children’s book is multi-sensory and sensational. Not quite synesthetic but maybe…

With all of the edu-talk and jargon living in our conscious about social emotional learning, culturally responsive pedagogies and critical race theory, I know the value of the work…heavy lifting…that children’s books do in every classroom.

Children’s books allow readers to see themselves: we call that representation.

Children’s books provide pathways for instructional/learning choice for a full range of interests, academic levels and content areas: we call that differentiation and modification.

Children’s books have one other very important role in the way that I see it. Children’s books help me protect my younger selves from the hurt that I feel as I heal from harm–violence whether physical, emotional, or curricular–at the hands of those entrusted to care for me.

Children’s books help us go back and make sense of who we were when we were little, when things happened to us that were beyond our control, when the world was new and unfamiliar. The world of children’s books allows us to travel across a line of reality and into a safe space that may not have been real, but felt real and important. There is a responsibility of social emotional learning that children’s books often accept.

To all of the authors who write and the illustrators who draw, thank you for sharing your gifts with us. Rest well.

Too many Cs: Thoughts on Junteenth

For a teacher at this time of year, the “C” is the truce between students, families and herself that says…’well, you are average’…I guess but it hardly ever means that to me. A C means you were less able to take advantage of opportunities to stand out and be noticed and perhaps that is fine in a system that wasn’t truly designed for you to shine any way…

Valuation (like evaluation) are judgments that mean very little in the economy of self if it is coming from a place that feels foreign…from a place that doesn’t feel like home…from a place that doesn’t hug you back when you wrap your whole being into it…we have nothing to be ashamed of and yet we feel shame.

I was asked the other day by a fellow educator to make suggestions for summer reading about Black History…I thought for several days…this is my response:

There is no singular, high quality book or set of resources on Black history. Sadly, colonization and conquest has divided the story of Black people; caste, capitalism and colorism forfeit the alliance of the people in preference for specific places and spaces…for proximity to whiteness.

I offer a short list of books that I think are magnificent but still so incomplete. There is fiction and other writing (essay, poetry, biography) that I think are important too. Amistad attempts to put all of this together but it is incomplete because it doesn’t make this point clearly.

Suggested book titles: Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower; W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folks; Patricia Hills Collins Black Feminist Theory; Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning; Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America; Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy; Keisha Blaine & Ibram Kendi’s Four Hundred Souls

Poets: Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Brooks

Artists: Gordon Parks and Ernie Barnes


Biographies of Black women every human should know: Anna Julia Cooper; Ida B. Wells; Mary McCleod Bethune; Sadie Alexander

There are too many perspectives divided by our pain and our joy

There are too many voices that publishers refuse to elevate

There are too many stories to flatten who we are into a single moment, volume or day…our histories on other continents outside of North America are LONG, rich and complex…

We owe it to ourselves to commemorate THAT fact…that we have lived before this short journey on this land…

We are not average, we are great and our value can never be counted.

Links in this piece are there to guide additional inquiry…

Crossroads: On Being Ten Years Out

Now tell me whatcha gonna do
When there ain’t no where to run (tell me what)
(When judgment comes for you, when judgment comes for you)
And whatcha gonna do
When there aint no where to hide (tell me what)
When judgment comes for you (’cause it’s gonna come for you)…

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, 1995 (Songwriters: Anthony Henderson / Bryon Mccane / Steven Howse / Charles Scruggs / Ernie Isley / Marvin Isley / O’kelly Isley / Ronald Isley / Rudolph Isley / Christopher Jasper / Bryon Mc Cane)

When you get those reminders on your phone about photos you took and places you visited 2 years, 5 years and 10 years ago, you may wax nostalgia for a few moments before the anxiety about constant surveillance and changing conditions of privacy (or openness) to which you grant consent out of convenience sets in…my moments came in two doses: a text from a colleague who was there on the day I was hooded then an email from a colleague who is in pursuit of her own degree…

I have been Dr. joy for 10 whole years! Whaaattt? I didn’t even realize it…

Busied by life and focusing on my sonshine, my students and losing track of time/days/dates in a work environment that is seemingly never ending…

Somehow, my work is coming to the light even though I am not “out there” very much…that’s how I like it actually. Somehow, people are finding me in interesting ways and my joys are all blending together…

I don’t know what to put out there or what to keep for myself (and my employer)

Heading into an evaluation meeting, what will I take away from it? I am just not sure.

How will anyone see to judge who I am, and do I really want that?

Am I ready to do things differently when what I love to do is getting harder to do?