Left to Right: Eric Axelman, Oliver ‘Syde-Sho’ Arias & Taylor Lomba
The African-American proverb ‘each one teach one’ reflects a time in history when slaves in America were prohibited from learning how to read, do math, or anything that resembled gaining an education. It reflects the responsibility for every person to pass on the knowledge by teaching someone else. A local nonprofit, Pushed Learning and Media, has taken this proverb to heart- they visit middle schools, high schools, and universities, using a hip hop based curriculum to “promote critical thinking on the complexities of privilege, identity, and oppression,” and producing short documentaries and social justice based curriculum. Founded in 2016 by three friends, Eric Axelman, Oliver ‘SydeSho’ Arias, and Nikolos Gonzales, they came together as artists and educators to develop a bicultural and multiracial teaching cohort model. I had the opportunity to sit down with Eric and Oliver to talk about their organization, the evolution of their own racial biases, and their goals for the future of Pushed Learning and Media. Note: interview edited for length.
Precious: Thank you guys for taking the time to sit with me, much appreciated. Ok, let’s get started! Tell me about yourselves.
Oliver: I’m Oliver Arias, my artist name is ‘SydeSho’, I am the Program Director of Pushed Learning and Media.
Eric: Indeed! I’m Eric, Executive Director and co-founder of Pushed, SydeSho and I brought it together in 2016 and I’m also a hip hop artist – I rap; but these days I do a lot of film making as well, about half hip hop anti-racist work and half film making. It’s all anti-racist work, but right now the film making is on a variety of topics. So, right now the major film we’re working on is about the American-Jewish relationship to Israel/Palestine.
Oliver: A major part of the organization itself uses hip-hop culture as a vehicle or tool to open the conversation with youth, teachers and/or organizations about race, racial inequality, and social injustice – just about everything that’s going on in the country and what’s happening in local areas. So, specifically with Providence, we talk about the demographics and how now it’s predominantly a city of color but also touching on the fact that over 90% of the kids in the Providence public school system are of color but about 70% of the teachers are white. The racial disparity in the Providence school system and having the ability to have these conversations with teachers and students about instances people of color face every day is what we want to bring forth with our work but these conversations never happen; so, we use hip hop culture to engage in these dialogues, using relevant artists to talk about these topics.
Engaging students with a difficult yet all too common issue for people of color with instances of just ‘sitting while being a person of color’, ‘walking while being a person of color’ and ‘driving while being a person of color’ are everyday occurrences people of color will face. The reality of the matter is people of color will forever endure microaggressions and racial biases no matter how successful, well dressed, and/or educated.
Eric: You know, racism is kind of like the elephant in the room in all educational settings and all our educational settings are either majority students of color with white teachers or just all white students and white teachers. So, we basically have this system where white people are in control of the educational systems and then just never talk about it or the racial dynamics. In Rhode Island, you know, most of our work is with students of color but we also work with schools that are predominantly white. There are a couple of pockets in Rhode Island where the schools are relatively balanced but they’re the exception to the rule, and the rule is its basically all students of color or all white kids.
Precious: How have your own experiences prepared you or not prepared you for the racial disparities you see in your community and the world?
Eric: I was told a story by a white RI principal, as a kid he was caught doing graffiti once, the cop asked me where he was from and instantly *snaps fingers* he was let go. It was like he told him what school he went to and immediately he was let go. And, as a white person, I can name many examples from my own life where I’ve broken the law, not in huge ways, but clearly broken the law and cops have noticed me breaking the law and have done nothing. I think about how intensely segregated Newport and Providence are, and what we do is use the unbelievably obvious nature of segregation in American society as a jumping off point to talk about the larger impacts psychologically and structurally of how racism operates. And I think segregation really underpins a lot on how it operates because we are so physically separated, the great majority. I grew up in rural Maine, so both physically separated on a large scale and then also in our individual cities, so again, you can grow up in rural Maine and never interact with a person of color and you can be in Newport in a city that is fairly diverse and never interact with a person of color. It took me a long time to process how very racist the area of Maine I grew up in is and if a person of color would walk by in my town, the stares would be so shocking. Our white neighborhoods in the inner cities can also be racist just as the rural areas, they might be more liberal and progressive on things but they’re just as racist and ignorant of the lives of other people since they’re not interacting with them in the same way.
Oliver: When I’m on the east side.. *pauses* when I’m walking you can feel it; and that’s the thing about racial tension, it’s something you can’t point out on paper or really pinpoint but people of color know that feeling all too well.
Precious: Of the schools you’ve visited in Rhode Island and the New England area, from predominantly minority public schools to predominantly white private charter and/or academy schools, do you see there is a lack of cultural competence between the students and teachers?
Oliver: It’s interesting because a lot of the teachers that work in Providence are predominantly white but they also don’t come from here. I can safely say they are not immersed in the culture or understand the situation of the kids and where they’re coming from. There are situations where [students are] mostly kids of color and the teachers are white, I still feel like there isn’t any cultural exchange where they’re learning from each other; because they’re just there to sit in a room and learn about an academic subject. There are no talks about how they grew up, a child expressing their situation at home, and of course we don’t want to get into a student’s private life but also, we want to break down those barriers. I think when a person of color can express their experience it can open sympathy or empathy for the individual and there’s more of an understanding as to why he/she is acting out or misbehaving.
Eric: You know…Every person of color must deal with, in most cases of their life, being the only person of color in the room whereas a white person can live their entire lives and never have to be the only white person in the room.
Oliver: A person of color can almost never escape having to interact with a person who is white versus a person who is white can find a situation where they don’t have to interact with a person/people of color.
Eric: And sometimes even when the white person does go into those situations its often as a position of authority and even myself dealing with my own internalize racism and things I’ve done is a difficult thing. One of the first teaching gigs I got was I had just graduated from college, so I was very qualified being a college grad *sarcasm* and was hired by an inner-city arts program and it was my first time working with students of color – I should not have been hired. I didn’t know how to interact with the kids, they thought I was this random white dude coming in. My first interaction with them was as an authority figure, it was a five-week program and I did not do a good job, I failed those kids. But often again white people including myself come in and take positions of authority with very little knowledge of the context and it doesn’t serve the kids or the teacher. I mean I also think that white people can obviously do a good job and can interact with people of color BUT if you don’t have that cultural context then you’re just a white authority figure and it’s not good for you or for them and you’re just going to be living a stereotype to a certain extent.
When it comes to teachers, particularly white teachers in predominantly minority schools, I believe having a level of cultural competency is imperative to an overall multicultural learning experience. The ability to have awareness of your own cultural identity and views about difference, and the capacity to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families can help close the gap in education where cultural diversity receives scant attention. While some if not many students may remain in their homogenized communities through higher education and adulthood, teachers still have a responsibility not just to themselves but to their students as well to introduce multicultural curriculum that’s inclusive about ‘the other’.
Precious: How do schools reach out to Pushed Media and Learning? Are schools reaching out to you because they’re having an issue with these topics amongst the students?
Oliver: When we first started this work, you know and with every organization you must put the work in yourself and get out there. We’d done a few other schools which had given us our first opportunities, we made sure to document our time and experience with the students from past schools and from that they were really impressed with our approach, the way we interacted with the kids and of course our hip hop opening that really drew them into our presentation. Some schools have reached out to us and let us know what topics they’d like us to touch upon, like cultural appropriation and police brutality. Some schools are just more general, they just love our open discussion with the students. At this point, we’ve gotten a network of schools from private and boarding schools who want us to come out and have these conversation with their students. We also wanted to bring these conversations to cities like Providence with kids of color, Eric and I have totally different experiences and what’s great is that we’re able to come to a middle ground and talk about our experiences so openly and realize these instances happen all the time.
Eric: When we work with kids of color we are confirming this stuff is real and having outsiders confirming that is a positive thing and it’s not my place to tell people how messed up the world is and it’s a painful thing. I realize I’m a white dude telling you this and I’m so sorry this is how the world is but at least I can be open and honest and confirm what you already know. And often, we, as white people, we don’t really want to deal with the repercussions of racism and that’s because we don’t have to and I think it is positive to have white people be very real and honest.
Precious: So, what does the future hold for Pushed Learning and Media?
Oliver: We will continue to do the work with schools that we’ve been building relationships with, including expanding to Boston Public Schools, to just spread our message as much as possible throughout the country and if there’s an opportunity to go international, that would be cool. Obviously, we want the organization to grow. We want to have a broader staff, people that come from different backgrounds and perspectives that have different stories to tell. We’re giving the male perspective and there’ve been times where we’ve gotten called out by women because we don’t understand what it’s like. My whole goal with Pushed Learning and Media is specifically educate kids of color on the actual adversities they’ll face. My main goal is to educate them on American history and the way it plays a role in structural racism in America.
Eric: This is the first time we’re getting invitations from colleges and universities to share our curriculum, so that’s really cool for us. Unfortunately, we are still part time and it’ll take a while before we can be full time with Pushed Learning and Media, and we’re currently working on a nonprofit status for the organization. We really try to challenge kids to think about what their racist perceptions are of other people, even if you have good intentions they ultimately grow up in a place that’s racist, I grew up in a place that was ultimately racist. Often its painful for people to have to deal with their own internalized racism even if you don’t mean to be racist you’re going to have racist thoughts.