Freedom-Dreaming Initiatives Underway at CUE

Young girl smiling while writing with a pencil

Faculty at the Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education are working on new freedom-dreaming initiatives in 2022 through projects funded by the Spencer Foundation. 

One research project will examine Black communal and familial educational practices in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other research project will create programming that explores global labor strikes as a portal for freedom. 

Established in 1962, the Spencer Foundation is the only national foundation focused exclusively on supporting education research. The organization focuses on initiatives that aim to make education systems more equitable and that increase opportunities to learn across the lifespan.

“We are grateful to the Spencer Foundation for not only its support of CUE’s mutual aid vision with communities but also for how these projects will deepen our learning of Black and Indigenous knowledges as we endeavor to do justice work in what is known as urban education,” says T. Elon Dancy II, executive director of CUE and Helen Faison Chair in Urban Education at Pitt Education. “This is a testament to our collaborative relationships with creative and thoughtful faculty colleagues and graduate student assistants. I’m excited about the generative possibilities of both projects, both singularly and collectively.” 

Freedom Dreaming During COVID

Dancy says research initiatives, like those supported by the Spencer Foundation, are central to CUE’s mission.

The first project, “Freedom Dreaming: Black Communal and Familial Educational Practices in Pittsburgh’s Hill District Before, During and After COVID-19,” received a $49,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation and a $60,000 grant from the University of Pittsburgh Momentum Funds initiative.

Through interviews with at least 60 Black caregivers and community activists, the project is asking three primary questions: What were the teaching and learning practices of Black communities prior to COVID-19? How did the pandemic and subsequent homeschooling impact these practices? And how do Black communal practices reflect Black visions for youth education? 

“While every day is a painful reminder of the disproportionate impact of COVID on Black communities, we also learn from the world-making strategies of these same communities,” says Dancy, a co-principal investigator on the project. “Their agency and creativity against the odds maps for us how we might move forward in both study and struggle. We aim to highlight the importance of the need to center the work that Black families and communities are doing to reimagine education for their children. There is a rich and deep history of communities of color in reimagining education.”

The project team includes Dancy; Lori Delale-O’Connor, an assistant professor at CUE and Pitt Education; Christopher Wright, a CUE graduate research assistant and PhD student in urban education at Pitt Education; James Huguley, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion and associate professor at the Pitt School of Social Work; and Kirk Holbrook, director of the Pitt Community Engagement Center in the Hill District.

The Hill District is home to a large concentration of Black residents. In its heyday, the neighborhood experienced what was often compared to a less populated version of the Harlem Renaissance. Music was produced by Billy Strayhorn, theater from playwright August Wilson, and journalism from the most popular Black newspaper of its time, the Pittsburgh Courier. However, the Lower Hill District was decimated when the City of Pittsburgh built the Civic Arena. More than 400 businesses and 1,550 families—the great majority of whom were Black—were displaced. 

Now, the Spencer-funded research project seeks to learn how residents of this community may reimagine education. 

Freedom Dreaming through Global Labor Strikes

The second research project, “Reimagining Educational Work for Collective Freedom: The Labor Strike as a Portal,” received a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation’s conference grants program.

The project's principal investigator is Sabina Vaught, professor and chair of the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Leading at Pitt Education, and the co-principal investigators are Dancy and Nancy Glazener, professor of English and gender, sexuality, and women's studies (GSWS) and director of Pitt's GSWS program.

Inspired by the many labor strikes occurring around the world, the undertaking is intended to generate new study and dialogue around labor strikes as a praxis for collective freedom, according to the project’s principal investigators. 

“These global strikes, combined with global uprisings for racial freedom, are occurring with an intensity and an endurance that we haven’t seen in a while,” says Vaught. “We wonder what they can tell us about education writ large and what they can tell us about study specifically.”

The project will create a new study group—open to faculty, students, and dialogue partners—that will meet monthly from April to December 2022. There will also be a correlated symposium series with three dates in 2022. Potential topics include carcerality, geography, Indigenous sovereignties, and migration.

“This project is timely in a local context,” says Dancy. “As an Underground Railroad location and a Great Migration destination, Pittsburgh is a rich site of struggle around freedom and labor. Studying across peoples and time periods holds extraordinary potential to help us imagine the kind of world we want to see.”