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The Impact of Abolitionist Teaching on Theatre Education

A sign at a protest that reads 'Fight today for a better tomorrow'

As educators continue to look for opportunities to make school programs more inclusive, simply being aware of cultural differences and the need for DEI work is no longer enough. At the 2023 Theatre Education Conference (TEC), Josh Streeter presented a workshop titled “From Ally to Abolitionist: Nurturing Culturally Responsive Teaching through Habits of Mind.”

In his session, Streeter explored how theatre educators can take a more active approach in fostering inclusivity in the classroom and the value community amongst educators can have for support and guidance.

EdTA caught up with him to explore the topic further and learn how abolitionist teaching can further advocacy in education.

What Is Abolitionist Teaching?

Defined by Dr. Bettina L. Love in We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, abolitionist teaching draws on the characteristics of abolitionists – their visionary thinking, rebellious sprit, boldness, and determination – and works in solidarity with communities of color to “eradicate injustice in and outside of schools.

During the session at TEC and throughout his work, Streeter has seen discussions focus on forwarding the vision of theatre education and the role educators have in “making more equitable spaces of belonging for faculty, staff, and students.”

However, making those spaces starts with ensuring those marginalized groups are at the center of the work. “Abolitionist work is with, not for,” Streeter says.

3 Ways to Make Strides in Abolitionist Work

a Headshot of Josh Streeter from his session on abolitionist teaching
Josh Streeter

Today, many educators attend conferences and virtual sessions that discuss culturally responsible pedagogy. But like the abolitionists of old, this work takes boldness and creativity, which starts on an individual level. “We don’t have to wait for a top-down system in order to begin something,” Streeter says. “Abolitionist work is very grassroots work. It’s not what we do at the conference, but what we do after.”

While leveraging abolitionist teaching can be challenging, Streeter has a few suggestions for theatre educators.

1. Build Community for Accountability

Community, particularly for theatre educators who are often departments of one, is critical for abolitionist work. “It’s not just going to a conference and trying out what you learned and that’s the end of the day,” he says. “It’s ‘My gosh, I’m trying this, it’s challenging, how do I build coalition and networks to keep going even when I’m not at Conference?’ That’s the next step of our work.”

According to Streeter, that can mean sharing resources, materials, time, expertise, or knowledge. But more importantly, it means empowering your fellow educators. “We have to find coalition and collective impact, and empower each other, because that’s the way to get through and find self-sustainability,” he says.

The idea is having a space free of judgment that can act as a sounding board and learning ground for educators trying similar strategies. Of course, having a community of fellow theatre educators is always going to be a plus. “It allows you to talk openly, honestly, and transparently, but also within a cone of silence,” says Streeter. “When someone gets you, you can be strategic and brainstorm ways to move forward rather than sitting in the muck.”

2. Understand Your Structures of Power

Another cornerstone of abolitionist teaching is understanding leadership dynamics and how our systems of power operate. For educators, there can be plenty of cogs in the education system, whether it be policy, programing, or people. Understanding how those systems work can allow us to find opportunities to insert ourselves and find opportunities for change.

In some cases, that can mean doing research and gathering data to help support a specific initiative, or in others, it means knowing who to enlist to support a cause. “One of the biggest things about abolitionist teaching is what happens outside of the room and who is leading those conversations,” he says. “Because in the room, the majority of the people with the power are white.”

Of course, that isn’t just limited to your administration. Streeter suggests finding people who, “when they go into a faculty meeting, people listen to them. When they speak, they have positional power, which isn’t the same as having power because you have a title.”

That can mean someone in your district or a more senior teacher who’s acting as a mentor and advocating for the needs of newer teachers. The ultimate goal is to shift policy and procedure so there is more diversity in the room and amongst those invited in the future. “Our role [as abolitionists] is actually to change systems of power,” he says. “I can do a lot of things individually as a teacher, but is that changing the larger systems of education? And that’s the difference between abolitionists’ work and anti-racist work.”

A group of theatre teachers networking at a conference
Theatre Educators Networking at TEC 2023

3. Network Beyond Theatre

While it would be ideal to have other theatre teachers in your school to meet with, that’s likely not the reality. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Streeter. “Abolitionist work is about people. It’s how you connect with another human and how you work together to forward X, Y, and Z.”

Breaking away from silos and finding coalition in all areas of your school not only helps with allyship but can broaden your horizons in understanding the needs of other students and faculty. For Streeter, a strong proponent of critical race theory and culturally responsive pedagogy, that’s meant exploring disability studies and accessibility advocacy.

“It’s not about mastering everything before I can use my positional power for action and good,” he says. “It’s ‘I’m taking a step and so is everyone else,’ and together, we’re going to move something forward which is bigger than me. And that’s how we change systems of power.”

Balancing Abolitionist Teaching and Job Safety

Of course, abolitionist work is not without its risks. As theatre educators face censorship, show cancelations, and funding cuts, taking on a battle that can lead to losing your role is never the right call.

“That is an active choice you’ve made through deep reflection that doesn’t change your value system, spirit, energy, and passion,” says Streeter. “It’s about self-preservation, because there are other ways you can still forward whatever cause you’re fighting for and whatever goals you have as an educator, rather than taking action, which could literally land you on a chopping block.”

It’s important to remember that not everything is producible in school theatre. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity to start conversations and open dialogue around materials that are timely and necessary for marginalized people in your school and community. More importantly, these constraints can also act as the perfect opportunity to embrace abolitionist teachings of old and come together with your fellow educators.

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