Towards racial equity in education

Vajra Watson’s (2018) book, Transformative schooling: Towards racial equity in education chronicles the work of the Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA), a unit established in the Oakland Unified School District in California in 2010.

Watson, a white woman, was invited to evaluate the work of the office of AAMA, and spent five years (2012-2017) documenting the unit’s work. Faced with major challenges in educating Black male students — in 2009-10 Black males accounted for 42% of school suspensions, while only 17% of the population (Watson, 2018, p. 1) — the district superintendent assembled a group of people that included community organizers, church leaders, parents and students (p. 2) to launch the office of AAMA.

For the study, Watson uses the methodological approach of portraiture developed by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, which she asserts differs from ethnography in five ways:

  1. The portraitist does not simply listen to the story; she/he listens for the story.
  2. The portraitist utilizes the entirety of her/his being to unearth answers to complex questions told through the lives of individuals who embody some semblance of the answers.
  3. The portraitist explicitly guards against fatalistic, pessimistic inquiries into problems but searches for solutions by examining nuances of goodness.
  4. The portraitist does not make participants anonymous, nameless factors but seeks to acknowledge, honor, and validate their stories by using the real names of people and places.
  5. The portraitist is committed to sharing findings that are accessible to audiences beyond the academy as an explicit act of community building. (Watson, 2018, p. 4).

Data included fieldnotes of observations, surveys and questionnaires, and in-depth interviews, which Watson analyzes thematically. The book begins with a preface in which Watson recounts her own journey as a researcher and her personal examination of whiteness that she began as a child. The book opens with several chapters that set the scene for the office of AAMA – including the research journey, the historical context of racism in the US, and the local context in which the office of AAMA was developed in Oakland.

Watson then includes portraits of different stakeholders involved in the AAMA. Readers learn about Christopher Chatmon – the initial director of the office of AAMA, and a key figure throughout the book. Watson describes the AAMA theory of change that works to change the culture and conditions through (1) policy advocacy, (2) hiring and training teachers, (3) parent engagement, and (4) narrative change (pp. 44-45). In conjunction with these initiatives, the program also worked to help students through (1) building self-esteem through cultural identity, (2) mentoring, (3) out of classroom experiences, and (4) opportunities to lead and advocate (pp. 45-46). Later chapters paint vivid portraits of others involved in the office of AAMA, including Charles Wilson – the deputy network superintendent for Middles Schools in the district, Superintendent Antwan Wilson, and Obasi Davis, the summer internship coordinator. Interspersed throughout these narratives are chapters that explore the approaches and practical strategies used, along with stories of student participants of the program. Chapter 13, entitled “Engage, encourage and empower school districts to transform” updates the reader on recent initiatives.

This chronicle of the work of the office of AAMA is hopeful, providing good news for educators. With concerted collaborative effort by district leaders, community members, and educators, school districts can transform. Watson notes that from 2010 to 2016, the suspension rate for African American males decreased by 50%, while the graduation rate increased by 60% (p. 122). While these represent statistical outcomes of the initiative, the book provides far greater insight into the students’, educators’, and administrators’ “insider” stories. Yet, school districts must also adapt to change, and Watson reports that with increases in Latino/a students in the district, building from successes of the office of AAMA, the Office of Equity was begun in 2016. The emphasis of this office is to broaden support for other racial and ethnic groups (p. 123).

While there is much to learn from this book concerning how one school district is working towards racial equity, it would be an error to think that it could be used as a cookbook solution in other school districts. Watson reminds readers that a key ethos of AAMA was to develop solutions through the creation of a “sacred space” in which all involved (administrators, community members, educators) “bring an unapologetic love for Black people into meetings” (p. 128). Watson continues: “AAMA had the audacity and courage to love and celebrate Blackness powerfully” which contributed to community building (p. 128). Thus, while the book provides descriptions of visions, pedagogies, action plans, sample texts and lessons — all of which are eminently useful — the characteristics of those involved in showing up for one another can’t necessarily be copied. The qualities of love, courage, and commitment are those that must be experienced. As Watson reminds us in her conclusion, “social justice is not just meant to be studied, it is here to be lived” (p. 144).


Watson, V. M. (2018). Transformative schooling: Towards racial equity in education. New York & London: Routledge.

Kathy Roulston 

3 thoughts on “Towards racial equity in education

  1. Kathy, thank you for this timely discussion of the book, the use of portraiture, and evidence of hope. The emphasis on a “sacred space” is such a unique concept for most workplaces and yet an incredibly basic concept of respect for all. Looking forward to reading the book and ordering one for our university.


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