Faculty voice:

Django Paris: Language, literacy and urban education

Dec. 17, 2014

Django Paris is an associate professor of language and literacy in the Department of Teacher Education. He is the author of “Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools,” and co-editor of “Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities.” He is an adviser to graduate student Raven Jones Stanbrough, recently featured in the Grad Factor

I have been studying language, literacy and urban education for more than 10 years now, beginning with my graduate work at Stanford in 2003 then my three years as a professor at Arizona State University and now here at MSU for the past four years. But I see my focus as much more long-term, growing from my own public school experiences as a student of color (Black/White biracial) with a White American mother and a Black Jamaican father, as well as my years as a classroom teacher.

Oral and written language are central to our identities as people and members of communities. Unfortunately, the languages and literacies of some students, particularly students of color, are not highly valued in the school curriculum or in many classrooms. Therefore important facets of these students identities, their sense of worth, is not valued and made a part of school learning. Studying the intersection of race, ethnicity, literacy and urban schools is an opportunity to show the cultural wealth of communities of color and argue for its rightful place in United States education.

I hope my research helps us foster cultural, literate and linguistic pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling. In too many ways our urban schools ignore the rich pluralities of our young people and instead ask only for monolingual and monocultural outcomes.

The opportunity to work with Raven and other brilliant doctoral students was one of the things that brought me to MSU. One important thing to mention is that we need to diversify the racial and ethnic makeup of our K-12 teaching force and our professorate in U.S. colleges and universities to be representative of the communities we serve.

More than half of public school students nationally are students of color, compared to only 20 percent in 1970. We can't hope to teach, research or live in an equitable society if we all are not represented across that society.

Connected to this, Raven joins experiences as an urban educator, as a native Detroiter and as a Black woman to her scholarship and her practice. While Raven and every other doctoral student of color I work with at MSU (and there are many!) are of course highly qualified across a range of areas to research and teach at the graduate level, it is crucial we continue to see racial and ethnic diversity, community membership and life experiences as crucial qualifications to do this work with teachers, students and schools.

I hope our work in the department can help students strengthen their own efforts to make education for students of color more just. For Raven, I know our work has influenced her wonderful continuing collaborative research on empowerment among African American high school debaters. I know that work has also helped influence the knowledge we build in my project.

I learn as much from my students as they from me, but it is an amazing feeling to be a small part of the work students do as they move into being professors and educational leaders committed to social justice.

I study and teach and live what I care about most deeply—educational and cultural justice for communities of color. I hope my work as a teacher and researcher can be part of the long struggle for social and educational justice in the U.S, a struggle that has taken on renewed importance in the face of continued inequality for students of color in urban schools.