How can we build a more equitable society? An education expert shares his thoughts
Turnaround for Children's MenSa Ankh Maa shares his experience as an educator and a parent, and the work we all must do to create safety and equity for all.
The nonprofit Turnaround for Children translates knowledge about how children develop and learn into integrated tools and strategies that enable every child to reach their full potential. Their 180 Podcast features leading voices in education exploring how to transform the systems that educate our children using 21st-century science. The Renewal Project is publishing a series of interviews featured on the podcast to highlight the perspectives and experiences of educators who are striving to build equitable and positive learning environments.
As the nationwide, indeed global, protests for police reform continue, the core questions remain: How do we end racial violence? How do we create an equitable playing field where all citizens can prosper and feel safe?
I sat down with MenSa Ankh Maa to discuss these questions and more. MenSa is a former principal and consultant to schools on cultural proficiency. Today he is a partnership director at Turnaround for Children and his role is to deliver Turnaround’s professional learning series to principals and their leadership teams in DC Public Schools in our nation’s capital.
As you’ll hear, MenSa’s perspective and experience–focusing every day on keeping himself and his family safe–just might point a way to some answers.
— Chris Riback, host of The 180 Podcast
Chris Riback: MenSa, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time and your insights at this moment.
MenSa Ankh Maa: My pleasure.
Chris Riback: You have a lot of roles. Educator, husband, father, citizen. I’ve asked this question elsewhere, but I think it’s important to set the context for a conversation like this. To what extent do you feel those are uniquely intertwined at this moment versus to what extent do you feel the need to keep all of those roles compartmentalized?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I think that’s a good question. I mean, I think definitely, it’s very difficult for me to compartmentalize per se. So, I try to be my best and I guess most authentic self in all of those spheres, but definitely there’s been challenges in all those roles. As an educator, I guess I’m one of the lucky ones, as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and I automatically became a stay-at-home full-time worker and full-time educator at the same time. But of course, they bleed together. So, a lot of the ways that I’ve even tried to be the best father have had to be reexamined just to make sure that I’m doing the very best for my kids and the generations to come.
Chris Riback: All the roles really inform one another, don’t they?
MenSa Ankh Maa: Oh, absolutely. I don’t believe it’s really possible for me to really be one without being all of those things at the same time.
Chris Riback: When did you learn about George Floyd’s death? Can you describe that moment for me?
MenSa Ankh Maa: Yes, it was in a way that I wish I didn’t have to learn about it, but I was actually sitting on the couch watching the evening news and I had kind of heard about it on social media earlier that day. And I was watching the news and the news announcer made an announcement as they often do in terms of what you’re about to see is graphic, etcetera. Didn’t really know what I was about to see, but my oldest daughter was sitting there with me. And before I could really realize the totality of what was happening, we both watched that together. And I did not intend for her to see it.
Chris Riback: You said this is your older daughter. How old is she?
MenSa Ankh Maa: She’s a sixth grader or actually going into the seventh grade. She’s 11-years-old turning 12 at the end of August.
Chris Riback: How does an 11-year-old even begin to process something like this?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I mean, in that specific instance, she doesn’t have the context nor do I believe she really understood exactly what was happening. And there’s historical underpinnings of it, but she of course saw a White police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man. We have definitely had conversations even in terms of other things that have unfortunately continued to occur and be part of the current events of the day in the past years since she was born. So, she knows that race is a thing. She knows that I in particular am racialized and my body is weaponized and in many aspects. So, even recalling back to when Philando Castille was murdered in broad daylight in his car and in Minnesota. And we were actually on a cruise during that time.
MenSa Ankh Maa: These are things that I’ve had to kind of tell my daughters and explained to them why sometimes, I always make it my number one objective to get home safe and why sometimes that’s a challenge for me and how I have to navigate. So, these are the things that both my nine and my eleven-year-olds have had very explicit conversations with them. While still, of course, trying to allow that space for them to be children and to learn about these things on their own. But definitely as a parent there are things that you have to express to your children. And I’ve tried to be as transparent and honest as possible.
Chris Riback: What do you say to them? What does a conversation like that to a nine-year-old or an eleven-year-old sound like?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I’ve told them, “Hey, unfortunately, for lots of reasons, many people may be fearful of daddy just because of how they were brought up, things that they believe. A lot of times, even just watching TV or watching commercials, I give them a voiceover and explain to them what I see and how some things are problematic. How a lot of times in movies, for example, it’s always the white characters that everything in the plot is all centered around and very, very rarely is that true of women, of Black women, of people who look like their mother. And I tell them that I’ve had to go out and make sure that they have books and dolls and things that will represent them. And that it’s become easier in the past decade, but definitely even 15, 20 years ago, would have been a lot more difficult for me to find the Black dolls or to find children’s books where they’re represented and that they can read and not feel as if they need to find what their space is.
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, we talk about a lot of different things, but simultaneously I try to not give them the conclusion per se. They need to kind of make sense of it on their own. And I think it was after Philando Castille was murdered, how I very purposely just started to do a lot of things very consciously so that I would be considered quote unquote “as safe as possible.” If I was going to be pulled over by the police where I would dress up, wear a tie, even though it was not necessarily because I wanted to just prevent any kind of thoughts that I could be a danger which honestly still today persists. But I’m definitely at a place where I feel that the world is what needs to transform and I may need to do certain things to remain safe at times, but as I’ve grown older, even in these past months, I am more so dedicated to living fully in my humanity and not doing a lot of those things just so other people can feel safe around me.
There’s a lot more work to be done in terms of really creating an equitable society. This concept of the American dream is something that has never, never been realized for United States citizens. It’s still something that we are in pursuit of and have been for a long time.
Chris Riback: MenSa, we’re talking, not in person and people are listening to this and not sitting in front of you. Describe yourself and how does the way that you perceive yourself, how does that end up potentially affecting the way you behave?
MenSa Ankh Maa: Sure. I mean, honestly, I describe myself as an African living in the United States. I was born here. I was born in the New York at Mount Sinai Hospital at the same hospital that my mom worked as a pediatric nurse for over 25 years. There are a lot of reasons where I still do not feel fully as a United States citizen or fully as an American per se. I’m a six, three, dark-skinned Black man with dreadlocks that I’ve been growing for close to 20 or 30 years now. So, because of my stature there are a lot of things that I’ve learned to do to make others feel comfortable around me. Very rarely do I ever talk to someone when I’m first meeting them standing up because of the fact that my height may be intimidating. I’ve even found even sometimes subconsciously that my voice might go up a couple octaves, or I may just try to just not look as threatening because of how we have been socialized within this world and especially within this country to fear Black men.
Chris Riback: What does that mean to have to alter one’s own self, one’s own appearance, voice, sound, the portrayal, I mean, just in listening to you to accommodate somebody else’s interpretation? I mean, that’s a heck of a thing to have to do and feel and say.
MenSa Ankh Maa: Yes, our current context is built on very racist and white supremacist ideals. Sometime I discuss these things with my children, so that they can see it for themselves. But definitely that’s been my experience where a lot of Black men would and lots of Black and Brown women as well, will tell you of all of the microaggressions that continue to occur, whether that’s someone feeling that we are going to cause them harm, clutching of a purse, the ways that I’ve been searched when I go to an airport, I’ve had to take off my head wrap if I’ve had my hair wrapped up, or there’ve been times when I’m the one person being pulled out to be searched. So, all these things play out, but there are definitely choices that I make, some choices I continue to make.
Chris Riback: In listening to you, and that’s interesting to hear that perhaps part of what’s happening with you in this period is a transition of sorts within yourself. Are you always having to think two to three steps ahead, whether that’s regarding your daughters, whether that’s regarding how you dress, whether that’s how you interact with somebody, how you and your wife enter rooms? Are you always on?
MenSa Ankh Maa: Absolutely. And I guess I have that choice. But am I always conscious of how I’m racialized in this society? Absolutely. I mean, there’s not a moment when I step out of my house when I get up, when I go to sleep, when I am not also thinking about what it means to be in my skin, to be someone who for lots of faulty reasons is continued to be falsely considered a threat. And a lot of these things have their roots in slavery, and it’s a weird psychology where the ones that are actually doing the most harm are not the ones that are feared, that there’s not a well-rounded view of the full humanity of Black men and Black women. It’s because they’re not portrayed in the media. And it’s a very new concept to even have an equitable playing field there and it’s going to take a long time if you look at the individuals and the corporations that are in charge of these things. They’re not Black men, they’re not individuals who often even share a positive perspective. So, there’s definitely a lot of work to do, but yes, there’s never a time when I do not consider my race because it’s dangerous to do so.
MenSa Ankh Maa: Even, I live in Prince George’s County which is the most affluent African-American community in the United States. And I’m still very conscious of what can happen here. I mean, I would not be surprised and it hasn’t happened yet if I’m cleaning my own lawn and someone might believe that I’m the gardener, but I don’t live there. Or I’m walking around my own house and there might not be even within the Black community that may not be some individuals who may suspect that I’m being a burglar or doing something sneaky when I’m checking the gutters or walking around my own yard.
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, there’s a lot more work to be done in terms of really creating an equitable society. This concept of the American dream is something that has never, never been realized for United States citizens. It’s still something that we are in pursuit of and have been for a long time.
Chris Riback: How do you keep from being overwhelmed?
MenSa Ankh Maa: Well, I try to work towards the balance. It’s not easy. There are definitely moments when I need to just be mindful of where I am is where I am and staying in the present, resonant and breathing. Sometimes even recognizing where my emotions are coming from. Sometimes I may realize that I have an elevated heart rate, but I’m not quite sure why. And I have to really slow myself down and think back to is because of what someone said, someone did, something that I read. But being mindful has definitely helped. And now, absolutely, I mentioned earlier that my number one goal for a long time has been coming home safe every day, which at times, it’s just a challenge within these United States and even throughout different parts of the globe.
MenSa Ankh Maa: But I simultaneously try to keep my humanity in check because I want to be around to not just be a good father now, but hopefully to walk down the aisle in a couple of decades as well.
Chris Riback: You’re talking about a citizen’s rights. A right of each of us is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A fundamental right for each of us is the ability to come home at the end of the day safely. That’s a conscious goal of yours every day?
MenSa Ankh Maa: Absolutely. And I guess, this current day this reckoning that we’re in now, I believe it is a time when that is being made evident to a lot of people who did not have to consider that. I’ve had lots of conversations with co-workers and others as we have gone through these recent days. And there’s a lot of perspective taking that is going to continue to be needed because, for a long time I’ve asked the same question that I believe a lot of those considered Black in America have asked. What is it really going to take for us to overcome this? What is it really going to take for us to be everyone to be able to achieve this American dream? For there to be full inclusion?
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, I think how the dominoes have fallen recently have definitely been one of the reasons. I mean, with COVID and the fact that there are no sports, there are minimized distractions that people can engage in. And cell phone videos. Those are some things that are relatively new historically, but those are some of the reasons why I think everyone is now seeing something that I believe a lot of us have seen and had to experience for some time.
Chris Riback: How do you think about the balance of the role that the pandemic plays at the same time as the George Floyd police brutality moment?
MenSa Ankh Maa: Yes, I guess, the COVID-19 piece is new but the ongoing racialized violence is not. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery, not by police but by one ex-police officer and his son, that took weeks to even bring about any kind of change. And the only reason why change occurred was because of the ongoing protest that happened because of the cell phone video again that was seen. You have the murder of Breonna Taylor in her own home, where she was shot. And if I remember correctly, also the false imprisonment of her boyfriend even though that they came into their house and murdered her.
MenSa Ankh Maa: Then you have George Floyd and the entire moment recorded even as this man calls out for his deceased mother, when he says that he is dying, when he says that he cannot breathe, when the medical examiners who were there, actually tell the police officer that he does not have a pulse, and this person continues to kneel on his neck and takes his life.
MenSa Ankh Maa: I was reading one article about a gentleman like myself who has done implicit bias trainings in San Jose, California. Who in the middle of a protest of these trying to be the peacemaker, he’s shot by a police officer with a plastic bullet, and now this 29-year-old African-American man may not be able to have children. And he was one who was really trying to be the peacemaker. Who can look at the sequence of events and not say that there’s a problem?
Chris Riback: You’ve been a school leader, you’ve been a principal, other roles, you’ve trained educators about implicit bias and stereotype threat. Why do you think this is important work especially now?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I mean, this is critical work always. Again, I kind of frame this in a larger picture of where we really want to leave the world? What kind of society do we do want to leave to our kids and our grandchildren? And specifically, in the United States, we have not – we are the worldwide hypocrite – we have not dealt with the history of how the United States was even founded. We have not dealt with the continuing inequities that continue to present themselves. And even within our system of mass incarceration, we are continuing to just essentially commodify Black and Brown bodies. And that’s exactly what’s happening with mass incarceration so that we can keep driving this capitalist train without acknowledging what we’re doing in order to prop this up.
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, I really do hope that this is a reckoning for the world. I hope that this is a moment when this empire, so to speak, has to really grapple with its history and its destiny and where we’re really going. And again, seeing these progressions and regressions in the history, going from the inauguration of the first Black president in the United States in Barack Hussein Obama. And then eight years later going to this 45th president, we have to grapple with that history and really define, decide, who would I be as a nation? I remember one thing that a college professor told me, that just continues to resonate: “When all else fails to unify the people, conditions will.”
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, while we’re looking at the thing about the COVID-19 pandemic, highest unemployment rates here in the United States since the great depression. The ongoing racialized violence, the inequity that we continue to see within our educational systems and our society at large, this is not the issue of individual people. This is not the issue of people being able, not having the skills and mindsets and dispositions to pursue the lives that they choose here in the United States. This has to do with the system that has very purposely been oppressive of vast parts of the population in order to continue to tell a narrative that’s false. I’m a proud United States citizen, I was born here and I hope that this is a country that I can be proud to leave to my children, but currently we are not, and we have a lot of work to do.
There is often this false dichotomy between academic learning and social and emotional learning. When really you can’t have one without the other.
Chris Riback: What school’s role in all of this? What are the conversations that schools should be having with teachers with parents and I guess most specifically with children?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I think the duty of schools and school systems is really to dismantle the oppressive structures on which they are built. I mean, our school system, frankly, was not designed to be equitable. It was designed to really educate a very small portion of students well. Frankly, white men, women were not initially even included, and though that design has continued to perpetuate itself. So, I think the duty of schools are to be liberatory institutions where every child, every family can really be embraced and where the learner can reach their fullest potential and be developed to their fullest potential. So, this idea of education even going back to Paulo Freire who wrote Pedagogy of The Oppressed, and he talks about this notion where there’s an owner of knowledge and the students per se, they are just depositories.
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, they kind of come into the classroom and the structure is the power of the knowledge that they know. And then, they get a degree and get certification what have you. That really is not the duty. That’s not what school should be doing. We need to be teaching children how to think. And, of course, there are some things to be memorized, of course, but do students really know how to really critically engage with different types of information, communicate across lines of difference and actually work cooperatively? I think that is really the duty of schools.
Chris Riback: Are our school’s up for the challenge? And are there certain principles from perhaps the science of learning and development that are integral to how you think about this?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I think, historically everything has at times been at times been placed on schools. So, I don’t think it’s just up to schools to do this work. There is often this false dichotomy between academic learning and social and emotional learning. When really you can’t have one without the other. Hopefully that is something that all schools, all educational institutions can really embrace because that’s what the science tells us.
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, for example, it’s absolutely necessary for the teachers and the educators of my daughters to have strong relationships with them. They have to know my children, not just in terms of what they know, but they need to also know about their daily lives. And my kids need to know that these teachers, these educators actually care about their well-being.
Chris Riback: You’ve mentioned your two daughters. Have they internalized how Black girls are perceived maybe by schools, certainly by our society?
MenSa Ankh Maa: In some ways, yes and in some ways no. I think we, my wife and I have done very purposely, tried to shelter them from a whole lot that we were not sheltered from ourselves necessarily. So, both of my daughters, they’re doing very well academically. They love to read, they’re both have been selected for gifted and talented programs.
MenSa Ankh Maa: The one thing that I have not been able to avoid even though we surround our daughters with dolls and things that really reflect their beauty and books that do the same,this concept of beauty and how that is defined. I have dreadlocks that I’m extremely proud of, I have been growing them my entire adult life, close to 30 years now, my wife is the same. And my daughters, they are not proud at times of their kinky hair. And that is a direct result of a lot of the images that they see on TV in terms of what is, or is not beautiful. And even within the current context, there have been even legislation that has been proposed so that institutions cannot force Black people to fit into a White standard.
MenSa Ankh Maa: There’ve been lots of things in the media, even in terms of a young wrestler several months ago, who was forced to cut his hair before a match, literally take out some scissors and cut his hair before a match. There are just these ridiculous notions regarding what is, or is not beautiful. Even just the concept that I had to learn growing up, tall, dark and handsome. I thought that folks were talking about me, until I got to high school and I realized that I was not the tall, dark and handsome that society was necessarily always referring to.
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, yeah, it’s difficult. It’s difficult. Socialization, even with all that we’ve controlled for our kids there are still lots of things that get through what we try to create and the barriers that we try to put up to protect our children.
Chris Riback: Where are the places that you’ve been a principal?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I’ve been a principal in Washington D.C, which is where I started. I grew up in New York in Mount Vernon. I’ve also been a principal in Holmes County, Mississippi. And then I came back to Prince George’s County. So, I’ve been a principal in those three States, all pre-K through eighth-grade institutions.
Chris Riback: And what would you be doing right now, if you were a principal of a school right now?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I’d be encouraging my staff to make sure that they’re taking care of themselves so that they can show up in the best manner for the children and communities that they serve. I’d be making sure that my teachers and my staff are building strong connections with the families, even in the virtual environment now given the pandemic. I would be thinking creatively about what this upcoming school year would look like and how I can ensure that we’re setting ourselves up for success when school buildings do fully reopen.
MenSa Ankh Maa: So, I will really be focusing in on strong connections with families and the children that they’re going to be serving. As well as really becoming experts within their content so that they can translate that knowledge and really make sure that their children are set up to master the standards that they’re charged to master.
Chris Riback: There’s a lot of work to be done. There are a lot of steps and it’s not lost on me that the first step that you outline is make sure that teachers and staff are taking care of themselves. One has to look out for oneself to be able to help serve others, I assume.
MenSa Ankh Maa: Absolutely. Similar to the plane analogy, you have to put your mask on first. But simultaneously even with that metaphor, we need to be careful of what we’re breathing in, in terms of the information that we’re consuming and the pedagogy and ensuring as well, that it’s culturally relevant.
Chris Riback: MenSa, what changes do you hope to see come out of the moment that we’re in?
MenSa Ankh Maa: I would hope to see us take a real critical look at our society, and where we’re putting our resources and where those resources may need to be redirected. I think the issue of defunding the police and really getting underneath the issue of mass incarceration is something that is not spoken of a lot within public discourse. And we have hundreds of thousands of individuals who are locked away in some cases for doing things that are now legal within these United States. And I think that that’s something that’s just not right. It’s not justifiable.
MenSa Ankh Maa: I mean, race has no scientific backing. This race is something that was created, frankly, to justify the enslavement of millions of African people throughout the 17th Century and then leading up to the late 1800s. I think this is a time that all these things need to be reexamined. So, maybe we do need to defund the police and put that money towards counselors and social workers within schools and more educators? Maybe we do need to really look at this prison industrial complex and look at what it really would mean to have this large group of individuals reenter society and be successful? Maybe we really need to do away with this concept of race and really speak about who we are and not perpetuate this caste system frankly, that we were born into So, those things, those possibilities and the world that I hope to leave for my children and my godson and all children, those are the things that keep me hopeful.
Chris Riback: MenSa, thank you. Thank you for your time and thank you for the ideas and insights that you’ve shared.
MenSa Ankh Maa: Appreciate it. Thank you again so much, Chris.
This article and podcast first appeared on Turnaround for Children’s website.