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Keeping Up with Brilliance

A Conversation with Christopher Emdin

Dr. Christopher Emdin is an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the author of the New York Times bestseller, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too.” Chanda and Chris took time to discuss the major challenges in our education system – especially for brown and black students, the positive and negative effects of narratives, and why we need to activate the imagination of our youth.

Listen to Our Episode

Souphak Kienitz  00:11 

You’re listening to conversations with Chanda, a podcast and event series hosted by Chanda Smith Baker. In today’s episode, we have the amazing Dr. Christopher Emdin, an Associate Professor of Science Education at Teachers College in Columbia University, and an author of a New York Times Bestseller. Enjoy the show. 

Chanda Smith Baker  00:35 

So I appreciate you being part of this conversation. You have done some work with us as I understand with Patrice Welford and others and, you know, Tony and others, I imagine from…  

Christopher Emdin  00:47 

I got a whole crew fam out there. Tony, I love, man, he’s such a good dude. It’s so funny because, I’ve done maybe like, four things with people in the Minneapolis area, and it’s like, you know, folks, just reach out, and I’m just so thankful folks just have a really good spirit there. So, somehow I find myself always coming back to you guys. I don’t know what it is. 

Chanda Smith Baker  01:11 

Right, I guess. Yeah. You know, Patrice made the recommendation that I reached out to you for this podcast. And part of the podcast goal is to really like elevate issues that our community is faced with and just really be in discussion with my people in the work that are dealing with issues that our communities are faced with. And with issues that we’re trying to solve collectively, we just put out new grant rounds at the Minneapolis Foundation in through the summit that you were part of with our young people. And then through some of the other work that we’ve done with the University of Minnesota with educators, we basically came up with a new grant round that really focuses a lot on the culture, right, like bringing in the voices of young people, and young people saying basically, like, yo, we’re not in an environment that’s conducive to how we learn. We don’t have relationships with people. They don’t value us, and like, you know, if you want to change education, you need to change all of the context that we’re in. And so, you know, when I, when I looked at sort of the work that you’ve been leading, it became really important for me to not just put out grant dollars, to those that are able to compete for those dollars and receive those dollars, because we know that dollars are not enough. But for us to really elevate what is happening in the classroom, so, you know, I want you to just start out and give us an overview of who you are and what you’re working includes. And then I want to just talk about, like what is happening in our classrooms? So could you introduce yourself? 

Christopher Emdin  02:42 

Yeah, so everyone, my name is Chris Emdin. I’m currently my sort of main gig is that I’m a professor of Science and Education at Teachers College at Columbia University. In that institution, I am also the Associate Director of an institute, at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. I am alumni at Hutchins Fellow, and hip hop archive fellow at the Hudson Center at Harvard University and, you know, I’m an educator at the end of the day. And I see myself as a person who was able to navigate multiple worlds and glean from those worlds a perspective on where we have been, where we are, and where possibly we may go, as it relates to education. I’m a firm believer and a radical perspective of teaching and learning, radical in the sense of like, an Angel Chiodo Williams take on The Root, like getting to the root of it, opening up space and dig into the root, and then reimagining like future thinking. So yeah, that’s me. 

Chanda Smith Baker  03:46 

So I’m looking at you, and our listeners might go and look at you. So who you are, like our elite institutions that haven’t always really been for us. And so you are, you know, not just kind of breaking the visual stereotypes of who belongs where, but opening up doors for young people, I was reminded, as you were talking of, I used to run a nonprofit, and we had brought them in, in relationship with target. Our young students right target. and so they brought some of their African American leaders to the table, and one of the guys said, yo, you know, like, I went to school at Harvard, like this is for you. And one of our Latino students, like afterward, in our debrief said, I didn’t know that there were black people that were allowed to go to Harvard to Harvard. And I remember thinking, well, Barack Obama, like right, like our president, right, but thinking about just the importance of that, so I want to just acknowledge that we still have young people that don’t even have access or an ability to vision where they belong. And so I appreciate the visibility of your work and showing them that this is a place of belonging for them to 


Christopher Emdin  05:01 

Your point is so fine, like, in many ways, right? Because I think it’s about representation in the absence of it. Fine. That’s a legitimate point. We pride that before, and you know, and if young folks are given opportunities to see themselves in certain spaces, then a path towards a possible future might open up. And so when people hear that they do things, like what you did was an amazing response, right, for them to have this moment. This is what pains me? What are the conditions in the spaces that’s supposed to activate the imagination that inhibits young folks for being able to see those things, right? And so and how is it not baked into the structure of schooling where not just representation, but active participation is part of the ballgame? Because guess what, there’s a young person in the school right now, who has been to Harvard 12 times, over the course of the academic career, have both on that campus been on that campus talk to folks they should have at Columbia, they’ve had meetings with professors. They showed up when they were 14. So from four to 14 to 24, so that by virtue of just their existence, they don’t see that world as far as who they are. And most importantly, for me, it’s not just about seeing a black person, or brown person that says, hey, by the way, I went to this school, and I’m there, it’s also seen a black and brown person that has a certain embeddedness in community, despite the fact that they are in these spaces, right? Because oftentimes, what we have is, you know, we have black folks who, you know, they scan 4k and kinfolk enter into spaces and don’t grab where they came from. And so when young folks see those folks, it’s like, yeah, I see him, but he’s not me, right? Like I see him, but it’s a person who’s had their authentic selves shift away from who they are, in the pursuance of an identity is often in the hood I come from. So, much more important than representation is a certain representation that’s attached to embeddedness. You know, I mean, like, you know, Black  Lives Matter. Yes, black swag matters as well. And, and holding those things concurrently in high esteem, so these young folks can, can not just imagine, but be like, could you imagine it like, yo, he says, some that I would say, No, I don’t know. I don’t just see him as something I could aspire to. I see this person as an extension of me. When a person becomes an extension of me, my world opens up my worldview opens up and I think, you know, my work in teaching and learning, it’s as much about introducing young folks to content areas, but it’s about expanding our worldview. 


Chanda Smith Baker  07:36 

Yeah, I mean, like, so you know, I just took my glasses off, because I was feeling like a man and all of that. And so I think that when we have young people that see others in their community that they are not relating to, right, because they have left behind or whatever those things, are. They thanks to they’ll see that for them. Right? And so when you say that, um, I guess what I’m trying to articulate that very well, right now is that they don’t want to have to leave pieces of themselves behind. Right? They want to stay true to who they are in their community, and they don’t want the option, right that’s been presented, that in order for you to be successful means that you still can’t maintain yourself. 


Christopher Emdin  08:25 

If the false dichotomies that are constructed by the system of education that makes young folks believe that their authentic selves are inherently in opposition to being academic and intellectual selves, like, that’s the thing. And so it’s a completely false dichotomy. Because if you engage with these young folks in any arena, outside of traditional schooling, you find the skill sets that can help that are that like they’re inherently equipped to be successful anywhere. Like in my work, I talk about these things I called science mindedness skills. I’m a science educator, and a biochemist by training. And I found in the world of science there, these particular skills, that those who’ve been able to shift the world of science just have like, just by virtue of existence. So for example, being anti-authoritarian, like I’m going to ask questions to authority and make sense of things. Keen observation, deeply reflective thinking and metaphor, an analogy, like, yo, the structure of aromatic compounds cannot have been developed. Unless this dude the cool he was like, Yo, I’m imagining this snake biting its own tail. That’s wild. So like, That’s crazy. Einstein was like, yo, imagine if I was chilling next is like beaming on his face. And it’s writing things out and I tell a story about that and calculate things. So like all these creative skills, innovative skills, questioning skills that have the essence of scientific innovation, I find them and hip hop artists. Like reflective observing the environment, put words together, metaphor analogy, and I’m like, yo, fam, if you could write bars, you can be a nuclear physicist. And the issue then becomes not that I’m dispatching by a boss like I still like to by myself, I still feel like I got bars, but none of the dispatching got art or  the act of writing bars, the notion that I have more options, like there’s a thing, like the robbery of options to our babies, like, if you chose to be an emcee because that’s what your heart speaks, man be the dopest MC you can be. But if you have the skill set to be anything else, and you like you, I like that more than emceeing. I just want you to have the option to be the fully actualized self. And the fact that we have a system of education that robs young folks of the opportunity to see the bevy of options, they have to be excellent. Like, that’s why I do my work. Like that’s why I do science genius. That’s why do hip hop, and that’s why I’m writing a ratchet demick it’s about the merging of multiple selves in pursuance of a future not yet realizing what is right before us. 

Chanda Smith Baker  10:46 

Yeah, so I did a podcast, A Talk With Mike Vick, Michael Vick, right? So you, know, he comes from Newport knows, right? He’s an athlete. We’re always telling young people like, you know, that’s cool that you’re like on the field, but like, you need to pay attention, right? The likelihood of you being successful, So you need to pay attention to this. And it is presented as always an option. Right? It’s presented that if you’re an athlete, and you’re good, that means you’re not smart, and you’re not serious about your academics, right? And so I was talking to him about like, my son play D-1 football, and the number of conversations I had to intervene on to say, Stop snatching his dream. Tell him that it’s unlikely for him to make it, let him dream because that dream is going to get into college. It’s going to get college paid for, it’s going to have him shooting bigger and bolder than what you have envisioned for him. And so why are we doing that? Right? So it feeds into what you’re saying you can be, you know, yourself, you can be smart you can be in the halls of our widest institutions and make a tremendous difference. 

Christopher Emdin  11:54 

Absolutely, and it’s emotional violence. And this emotional violence is not only imposed by institutions, or white folks or political structures, I think it’s all of those things, but sometimes oftentimes, most imposed by those who are in close proximity to young folks, because they themselves have had their dreams denied. They, themselves have had opportunities denied. And so they look at young folks, as almost, have you ever heard of a phrase like broken people, break people, hurt people, hurt people, like literally what we have in our communities is this abusive relationship, where folks who’ve been broken by institutions and trans institutions, and then break young people. And they look at that emotional violence that they impose on young folks, as almost a rite of passage for success. Like, you know, if I can break you enough, then you graduate, yay, but what’s the sense of graduation, when there’s no inspiration? Like, there’s no thought of possibility beyond that, and I think that we, collectively as a community, have to do some collective healing work, to say that our attachment to systems that tell us that they are the only ones that can grant us affirmation, value success and that those things cannot be created by ourselves, like, even the notion of like wealth. Right? There’s this perception, that wealth is monetary. Listen, we all like to get the bag, we all need to get what we’re worth. If I’m giving my time for something, it’s almost like if I’m giving my time to something, you honor me by saying, I think you deserve this. Yes. But the blind pursuit of capital at the expense of humanity is, is the underlying thing that robs us of our worth. Listen, for me, not just self as well. I go into any space, and this is not to brag, but I also like, I also think it’s important for us to share this stuff for folks to hear because this notion of like blackness needs to be humble, is kind of what got us where we are, like, we’re not supposed to start, you’re not supposed to think highly of yourself. You’re supposed to just be lonely and go and whatever, like, no, me. I got knowledge of self. That’s the ultimate wealth. I hang my head up high and my shoulders back and know that by virtue of coming from Brooklyn and the Bronx and coming through the hundreds in the halls of academia, I got gifts. And that will manifest itself in monetary wealth when the season is for it to come. And the young folks need to understand that early like, if you know you, if you know who you are, you know how dope you are. You know what, like, you know what coming from like, this community means, you know, Purple Rain, that changed the whole world is down the block from you, My God, like Do you know the producers in this community that have changed the world? So by virtue of going up in this world, you got that in you like your Georgia diamonds is when you understand that the glow up is inevitable, and I think schools, here’s the thing says, I think schools have to reimagine what they think of as curriculum to incorporate knowledge itself as just as essential as Math or English or Social Studies, if not more essential. 

Chanda Smith Baker  15:14 

Okay, so those are two different directions. I hope I am not going backwards, but I’m gonna go back to this whole idea of the people that are most proximate to them because their stories that you and I automatically know exist that our listeners may not know. Right? So I think about the young people that envision going off to school away from their community, and their families say just get just go get your generals at the local community college because, you know, we just want to make sure you’re safe. That’s too far away, you’re going to be by yourself like you’re going to come back and not, you’re not gonna be like us no more. 


Christopher Emdin  15:53 

You know, is trauma man, trauma is manifested in various ways. Listen, no adult should rob a young person of the opportunity to activate their imagination. If your vision sees you beyond the local space, our job is to equip them with the tools to be successful in no space, concurrently with preparedness for what’s to come. That’s a part of challenges this, like, you know, a lot of our babies are going away, but they have this false notion of what going away looks like, and they don’t have folks in their circle to make them aware of what they should be prepared for like the traps like sometimes you going away is a setup. For example, young folks are going to school, get a credit card, catches predators right on campus, but think of black and brown bodies, where we know assault on our finances as a cheap piece of how we could never get 100 is like you know, your mama got a building in her name, you’re poor. So, these are things that our communities are dealing with. You go, you get your, no one told you this. So you go, you get your credit card, you want to know your credit card, you’re running your credit, then you’re gonna get a job, you like nine, you’ll get this job on campus. I’m gonna get this on, I’m going to take out this loan because they don’t take care of that and cancel, they loan money back. You go into the space, you have imposter syndrome, you feel like you’re unprepared for this. So now I get self-doubt inhibits you from being successful in school. You’re like, who can I hang out with? I’m just gonna do social clubs, you get to social. Now, so there, the dream of going away, it’s a beautiful dream, if you’re prepared for what the landscape is of where you’re dreaming to go, you know, I mean, and I think that we have to inform young folks. Now, on the other hand, I’m gonna say something that I don’t know if you all agree with this, but I’m gonna say it. If I stay local, and I got them, and I got the playbook, I could also change the game. Like, look, I go to community college, for example, I ball out or a smash it because it’s local was close. Now I’m not close. So I could be close to my folks at home. I am closed because I’m playing the long game. The long game is I stay at the crib, I can stay with my mom’s and I got to get tuition. The tuition hers is damn low, work paid that off. No student loans are smashed this up, but he’s two years to get his associates. They pay for my bachelor’s, boom, I go a little further away, for these bachelors. Now the Ivy League is calling me to pay for my masters. So it’s like, my thing is that, let’s not, it’s important for us to tell young folks that there are multiple options, but if you get the playbook for both, you can find success rather than romanticize one over the other, and then you ended up broken anyway. 

Chanda Smith Baker  18:26 

Yeah, no, I mean, I totally agree with you, and I think my point was more to the family members that are like raining on the dream, right? Like, like not figuring out in partnership with their young person, how we can get you there and get you prepared. But they’re afraid of what going away would mean to their relationship, right like that imposter syndrome of like, they’re going to go away and get a degree and I don’t have one, and all that other sort of trauma that shows that was really more my point. Because I’m on the Northside of Minneapolis, I’m sitting about eight blocks from where I grew up. My husband is what three blocks from where he grew up. We both went to school, right in the neighborhood. So I think that you know, and I think that’s the other thing is that, you know, I’m from 55411. The zip code that gets most discussed in terms of problems to solve, and schools to fix, and students to prepare, and there are so many people from this neighborhood that are doing amazing things, including press. I keep practice, like across the street from my house, and Andre Simone and a lot of bright brilliance and community brilliance that have risen from the concrete, if you will. And I just think that we have collectively described our neighborhood as hopeless and that we need some charitable action to come in to like, fix it. 


Christopher Emdin  19:53 

And all we need is ourselves and all we need is an articulation of the stories of those who are successful in life. You know, we saw music about you and you talk about your husband like I like, this is one of my quotes that are resolvable folks, but it’s, to me it’s like a mantra is that education is not a tool for leaving your neighborhood, right? Like education is about being able to get the information that helps to improve it, like it’s not a way out. And if everybody’s making their way out the hood, who’s going through the hood. Are you going through this right now? If anybody making their way out the hood, all it does is less than the value, so other folks come by it. Now you sitting around like you know how they can pay my neighbor and they bought the whole thing out. And so it’s about reinvesting in our communities, and reinvesting our communities, not just like sort of financial sector or real estate, where we investing in the young folks to say, yo, get what you get to come back and make this better so that we can all live better collectively. And that, you know, it’s you know, it’s the Afrocentric idea of lift as you climb. At the end of the day, those premises don’t lose us like Sankofa is real. And if we learned Sankofa in fourth grade, we think of ourselves differently. 

Chanda Smith Baker  20:58 

Yeah. So, you know, so now we’re gonna talk about schools a little bit, and we’ve talked, we’ve talked about it, but you have, you know, I was stalking to your Twitter a little bit. And so you, someone talked to you about hearing your seven rights that all students should have in the classroom as something that was completely brilliant, and I’m wondering if you might be willing to share that with us? 

Christopher Emdin  21:24 

Yeah, man, I love the premise behind those rights. These are not rights that Chris Emdin made up, right? These are, here’s the thing I want everybody to understand, and particularly for those who are listening, who may be from the academic community. There’s nothing that you are creating, there’s nothing that you’re making, there’s going to save black and brown bodies, it does not exist in the imaginations the hearts and souls of those populations already, period. Let me add a teaser to preview. If anyone hears something from me that they feel as a Jew, is because I got that from the hood,  and I have the platform to articulate what I’ve heard in the hood or heard in the world. And so I have a train wreck is a little complex, and it’s ever-evolving because everything is always evolving, that includes the seven C’s of a concept called reality pedagogy, that match up with the seven rights of the body as even articulated in the Buddhist tradition, and the merging of the seven C’s of reality pedagogy and the seven rights of the body restores rights to young folks and communities that then folds into practices that should be implemented in classrooms. The seven C’s of reality pedagogy, are co-generative dialogues, conversations that educators must be having with young folks having with communities about how they’re doing, and meeting the needs of those communities. You cannot be teaching nobody, if they can’t tell you like, no I like that lesson. On this ain’t working for me. So co-generating conversation with communities with young folks so they can share with us what their perspectives are, and so we can co-construct things to do to make the next experience better, not the world better, not next year better, like tomorrow. So boom, you all have that lesson, like kill that,  was that trash, did I hurt your feelings? Did you like it? Did you not? Word us how you felt. What are we going to do about it? We’ll come up with something together, we both could do it. We’ll do it tomorrow, like an immediate feedback loop. So-called gender dialogues, co-teaching, recognizing that those who teach are not those who are credentialed, alone. That those who teach are those who’ve been called to teach and those who have been called to teach may not have a teaching license, may not have gone to college, but you hear them talk and give their sage wisdom and you understand that they’ve been called to teach, and so allow those who’ve been called to teach to teach the credential about how to teach did I mean, so reaching out in that hood, in that community to understand who the folks are. There’s that one cat on the block up there all night long because he hustling, but he has an ability to connect the young folks in a way that nobody else understands. Do not write that person often that identify that person that’s being the worst in the community. That person may be doing what they do and come ain’t got no other options. But if you gave them the platform, not saving them, the platform to utilize their gift to help young folks beatified, they will do that. And so co-teaching is allowing the hunt to teach us, allowing the babies to teach us about how to teach, cosmopolitanism, creating, and constructing community. Having schools feel like an extension of community. The extent to which a school is successful is the extent to which that school replicates the social structures of a community that school is embedded in. If the school is that place separate from we’re going to save them from that community. If they have the same language, the same discourse, the same spot to hang out at. The teachers don’t go to the same pizza shop the kids go, if there’s a separate sadness about the institution that is not embedded in the social fabric and dynamics of the community, that school is useless. Yes, I said it, it is useless. Now, this does not mean that you don’t hold young folks to loftier goals, it doesn’t mean that you’re not open up possibilities. But you can do those things without being disparaging to the community where you’re physically located. You know what I mean?  

Chanda Smith Baker  25:14 

Imagine schools that are disparaging, a community of people that are trying to serve, and the people that support the schools that are supposed to support the kids that talk about them as though they’re an asset and not a problem to solve. Can you imagine that? 

Christopher Emdin  25:28 

You know, I’m able to get through all these C’s, because if I did, like, because you and I could just talk on that. And here’s the thing, why does it take the activation of the radical imagination to do what is right to do? Like, sometimes, my heart hurts that I have to sit at Columbia, and talk about cosmopolitanism, cosmopolitanism as articulated through the framework of Kwame Apia as an extension of John Dewey’s notion of entering the child’s mind, when all I really want to say is, get the fuck out the building, and go talk to the hood, the hood knows how to make this better, pardon my language, and it’s like it, it hurts. It hurts to be perceived as radical to do what is right to do. Yeah, there has to be ostracized by the intellectual community, for knowing what is being glaringly apparent, and so oh, no, man, like I just my hope, my prayer is that this moment, socio-politically, where we are, with this voice to the articulation of the concept of Black Lives Mattering. Where there’s an understanding that those who have been called or chosen to help us be safe, make us feel unsafe, that those who hold political power, our children masked by title. That our children could not even stoop that low to be like, in a world where the cloak is being pulled to reveal the hypocrisy in our society, that what you and I articulating becomes more clear, it’s my only hope and prayer. 

Chanda Smith Baker  27:26 

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, there’s a depth of pain in there, right. And I tell people like being from the neighborhood, like people say, well, you know, talk to me about what it means to be a woman leader. Okay, I can do that talk to you about what it means to be African American leader, leader, I can do that. And then I always say, let me talk to you about what it means to be a leader from the Northside. As there is geographical problems too, right? Where you have created a narrative about a whole neighborhood, a whole community in which you are stripping it from its assets, right, as a way to demonize a neighborhood, and then you want to come in and do work, right? And so you’re getting over in your head, you have to be able to reimagine something and get to all of them, I’m not proficient. My neighborhood’s bad. Someone’s got to disrupt my trajectory, 

Christopher Emdin  28:18 

Yes, but that’s the cycle like you’re articulating so brilliantly, and clearly, the cycle that I want our audience to hear, teachers, young folks, whoever to hear, because you cannot interrupt the cycle unless you face the fact that the cycle exists. The narrative about the underperformance or the loneliness, or the inefficiency of a neighborhood is required. If there’s a financial structure that is based on saving it. If everybody in the hood passed the test, a billion-dollar industry of test prep is gone. If everybody in the neighborhood feels fully actualized, a whole community and scholarly body of work around community-focused interventions is broken. So these cats construct hills of our downtroddeness so they could create industries about our victimhood so they can perceive themselves as savior and make it a generation of income and a generation of status mechanism. Once we understand that, we interrupt by not being complicit in the articulation of the story. Look, if you’re always telling stories about my downtroddeness,  you will always see me as a victim and you will never see me as a victor. And if you make me complicit in the narrative on my downtroddeness, what then, I am doing your work for you? I’m your marketing scheme for my brokenness. This is why, look, you know, this is why a restoration of our collective humanity is the most essential piece of any revolutionary work. This is why down the line, what are you talking about Malcolm X, or you are talking about Marcus Garvey, talking a global spectrum. You’re talking about France Fernand, you’re talking about Walter Rodney, you’re talking, let me bring some sisters again, you’re talking about Septima Clark, you’re talking about Harriet Tubman. You know, any of these folks, their fundamental piece of their narratives were, Harriet Tubman, they say historically said, I freed XYZ amount of slaves. I would appreciate much more if they didn’t know that they were already free. Like it’s about the psychological work first. And so many of the books articulated so far, if you want to say what is the thread in September Clark, Malcolm X, Walter Rodney, and Fen Lou Hamer is that they all collectively understood that when our minds are free, and our souls are free, our bodies will follow. And so when you have a school system that is predicated not feeling, not feeding the mind, not feeding the heart, I’m not feeding a sense of self, it’s no, there’s no question that we’re gonna continue to replicate the cycles of oppression. 

Chanda Smith Baker  31:00 

You know, Dr. Howard Fuller, right? And so you know, Harriet Tubman and right, like, we were afraid more than they know, they were slaves. And then Howard is definitely known for saying, like, you know, my goal was to free all the slaves, but in the meantime, right, I’m gonna get all of them I can get right, like, if my job is only to get 10, that’s what I’m gonna do, right, like I’m taking this words and expanding upon them. But I think that there’s such an important understanding of both our ability to be in the work and understanding the victimization that we have had as we’re moving, right? We’re in these spaces where we both have been victimized, and we’re also creating space for others that hopefully are not going to be victimized, right? So the way that you approach schools and young people, is through a point of view that I think is very necessary for others to hear about, and so, you have brought hip hop to the classroom, hip hop to the sciences, hear a little bit more about how you, you got there with that, and what it has done to how you see teaching? 

Christopher Emdin  32:13 

Everything. So I’m gonna say this, like, when I was in high school, and you know, no shade to my high school is a great school, and it was a specialized public high school, yeah, to take a test to get in all of that. The thing I look forward to the most every single day was the cipher and the cafeteria. Like, that’s sometimes, some days, that’s why I showed up like I showed up to be on the seventh floor, that huge building, while my friends create a beats on lunch tables, and we freaked out. And there was something about the rhythm, the camaraderie, the connectedness, the creativity, the imagination, the thoughtfulness, the critical listening, the critical reflection, the nimbleness that was being embodied in that moment. And I, as an educator, recognize that those same things are what connects young folks to education and that those things, in particular, are essential in the sciences. And I also understood and I came to understand that hip hop artists are the evolution of the African grills and storytellers that our communities have always had. Folks who put words together to construct narratives that makes the soul feel free. And our people have always had slaves on slave ships banging chains against the halls of ships to collective rhythm to escape the oppression of that space. Then on the shores of West Africa, they are hitting talking drums to tell stories and narratives and position themselves in circles the way that contemporary hip hop artists do and ciphers. And when you understand the magic of the extension of the spirit of blackness, over time, when you understand that on the shores of West Africa, or in the hood and Philly, it is brothers and sisters getting together to rhythms to make words and rhyme and tell the story. I understood then that this is a part of our collective DNA. As a scientist, I can also recognize that epigenetically, we’re epigenetically pre-coded, to respond to rhythm. It’s a piece of who we are, and words and prose, and so I understood that if our babies were underperforming in classrooms, and underperforming in science classrooms, it wasn’t a function of the absence of the intelligence, it was the absence of the simplicity. The absence of complexity and the approach to the delivery of information in school. Now, I want you to make those, it’s important to make that distinction. It is not that the young folks were not able to rise to the expectations of schools, is that the schools were so simplistic in their methods of delivery, it could not capture the complexity of the ways our kids needed.  

Chanda Smith Baker  35:05 

Can you say that one more time for the listeners in the back? 

Christopher Emdin  35:09 

I’m gonna try, Sis. It’s never been that our babies are not able to rise to the high expectations of schools, is that they find it difficult bending to the unitary, rudimentary methods of the delivery of information of schools. Like I’m operating on here, now, I’m gonna just sit down and take notes. So damn boring, so I’m disengaging. Like, the kids are, the kids are saying to the teachers like I’m so so where’s the artistic piece? Like when am I moving my body? What am I reflecting on deeply? What am I being creative? What am I drawing connections? They’re neuro scientifically operating on such a higher plane that is challenging to divorce myself from my high thinking, to lower myself down to just taking notes and listening to you. And so all I’m doing with the hip hop approach is challenging schools to catch up to it a hook already is. Like, listen, you all, we’re rhyming, freestyling, got rhythms, making connections, join connections, thinking forwardly like, how about shall consider something a little bit more advanced for once. And as the schools slowly start catching up, they’re getting closer to match up to the interest of young folks. They’re not there yet, because the young folks are still operating on a higher plane. And so in my work, we’ve had young folks, I had a kid, literally write a rhyme about the whole damn science textbook. What’s required then reading the textbook, mind you, he wouldn’t do three pages of homework before, because it wasn’t functioning on the intellectual stimulation playing he was at. And now he’s smashing the test through these bars because these bars is heavy my G like, and so, so for me, it’s again, it’s his training teachers and training schools to catch up to the intellectual veracity of black and brown folks, and utilizing hip hop as a catalyst for that process of catching up. 

Chanda Smith Baker  37:15 

Yeah, so let’s, let’s unpack that just a little bit, right? Because number one, you reminded me as a student, you know, at North High School, and, you know, granted, I was in an advanced program, but I was not a great student, right? And the classes that weren’t necessarily advanced, I wasn’t necessarily sitting, right? I would leave, right? So I’m leaving, and I remember having a long conversation with my dad, he’s like, so let me get this right. You’re leaving the class, you’re skipping class? Yes. You’re skipping class to go to the library? Yeah. Why? Because I love to read, right? Like, and I can find more in these books. And I get more from the librarian who’s engaging me while I’m not in class, and giving me books about the class I’m supposed to be sitting in, and I’m getting more information from doing it this way than I would have if I would have sat there, right? So I’m not recognized, I’m gonna recognize that I probably should not have been that student, but what I’m saying to you is that I will often say to people, I was a smart kid that was at a school that didn’t recognize it.  

Christopher Emdin  38:16 

Facts. That’s the very word. 

Chanda Smith Baker  38:19 

And there’s a lot of them, right? And as my mom and I, you know, I’ve recently lost her but you know, saying and she’s like, don’t, you need to be reminded, there’s a lot of smart people that are sitting in jail. Right? They’re brilliant people that did not have the opportunity or the nurturing, and we confuse that with them not being brilliant and smart and capable, right? Like there’s other things that are at play here, and so when you are talking about… 

Christopher Emdin  38:46 

Hey, Sis, I’m gonna push off real quick. I know you got a question I just wanted, I just had this hot move. I wanted to stop for a second. Could you just take a deep breath with me in and in one time and out. In and hold it a little bit. And then I want to say, I want to honor the spirit of your mother that you recently lost. Then we will not mention her and keep engaging in conversation but we will mention her and honor her. What she’s done to bring you to where you are, how you are the living embodiment of who she wants you to be. How, with your time left on this planet, you will continue to make her proud and move towards her grandest visions, and may her soul rest in eternal peace and power.  

Chanda Smith Baker  39:58 

Amen. Thank you for that. It’s been a time. It’s been a time and so, you know, what my question was, is that you’re saying that the schools need to catch up with the students. What the schools think is that the kids aren’t proficient, and therefore, they’re patient, and so there’s a framing problem. There’s a reality problem, there’s a gap in understanding. There’s something here, right, and so it goes into the way in which we have defined and articulated success based on capitalism, right? The test. And so, you know and I, you know, I’m not sure the test was designed to be used in the way it’s being used. So let’s talk about that, then. 

Christopher Emdin  40:53 

It was not, first of all, any assessment that only captures the expression of intelligence in one mechanism is a faulty assessment, that’s number one. Number two, any assessment that’s being used to assess the intelligence of a young person that is not considered a variable of the interest of the young person in what is being assessed, is already automatically inaccurate. So for example, if I go to a school in the community, and I give them a test to see how proficient the kids are, the information I’m receiving from that assessment is fundamentally flawed, because the young folks are not performing in a way that is based on the interest on the assessment. So if the assessment is inherently flawed because the variable of student interest and passion has not been included into the mechanism for the assessment, so because here’s the thing, even the assessment, that’s so let’s say, let’s say like, okay, this is the assessment, we acknowledge, that doesn’t capture the complexity of the experience. We recognize that is inherently biased against different ways of knowing and being. But let’s just say the kids got to pass a test, though. Even in that instance, even in that instance, the method of the preparation of the young folks or the information of the test inhibits them from being able to showcase their full intelligence on the test. Yeah, I mean, like so then the variable has to be the interest, then the pedagogy then will shift. So the pedagogy has to shift. Without a pedagogical shift, you cannot capture accurately the content knowledge of the person who’s taking the assessment, is what I’m saying. And I think all these nuances are just absent from the discourse around how we equate intelligence or lack thereof. The whole joint is just flawed. Now, the thing is, like, yeah, I mean, it’s broke, families bone is broken completely. And, you know, for me, it’s like, what it does is he goes to a young person, so first of all, they don’t want to take exams. They did take it and then a vise is the be all and end all this tells you who you are for life. And then sort of internal damage is being done. And I’ll tell you this part, which is really intriguing for us to sort of name most people who do well on it says, like, think about you when you went to school. The kid who smashed all it says got all the A’s was perfectly everything. Where are they now? Yo, it’s a real question! 

Chanda Smith Baker  43:06 

The C and D students are talking.  

Christopher Emdin  43:06 

Let’s like, let’s keep it a buck, the one that everybody’s trying to follow. They’re the best at this, they got all 90s all hundreds because guess what? Sometimes the kid who finds the most success in traditional schools is not the strongest child. It’s the one that’s most complicit in identifying and naming and performing somebody else’s norm. I would argue the weakest kids are oftentimes the most successful. Oppress me more, give me more information, let me just do what you say. Let me spit it back out. No, no, no, I got 90, you know how many valedictorians I know that dropped out of school, switch majors, can’t figure themselves out because when their whole entire life being affirmed, not for thinking critically, not for being smart and intelligent, before regurgitating somebody else’s information and playing passive. I got a whole paper about this but I’ll you know, I’ll see it for another time and that’s just in our own lifetimes. Let’s also think about this historically? Anybody who’s done anything to change the world? Let’s say you’re into tech you know, you talk about you know, the Gates or you’re talking about the Einsteins? Are you talking about whoever they are? Not of them, Katz was great at school, because we’ve learned really quickly that school is about teaching folks how to be docile. Teaching folks how to be able to memorize spit back out. And by the way, why do you still teaching kids to memorize stuff when we all got iPhones, and really just google whatever the hell you want. The skillset at this point is creativity, application, connection, innovation. Memorizing is stupid. This is not going away. This device can give me more information. The first computer is about the size of the room I’m in, times 10. This does more than that computer. I’m not, why am I bother young folks that we’re going to see this Sunday, have direct access to, if my intention is not just blind complicity? Oh, 

Chanda Smith Baker  44:54 

Well, wait. So okay, let’s go with that because I have experienced teachers and I have five kids. I’ve been in a lot of schools, I used to say, I’ve been in every school system except for homeschooling, and the pandemic has kind of changed, right, like private, charter, all of it. I’ve been through it, I have lots of feedback and real-life experience in that right, but in these times, I’ve had teachers call and say, well, you know, have you checked the parent portal? Or have you done this? Or I’ve had teachers say, well, I really don’t really know how to use, they don’t even know how to use some of the technology that’s available for them as teachers, right? So what brings me to the point is that the only way that schools can really advance to what we’re talking about, is if the way teachers are taught changes relate to students, because that’s really important to the culture. Like I said, we were going to get to we’ve been getting to it in an ongoing way in this conversation, but how do you think that we should be thinking differently about how we educate those people that want to be in front of our kids? 

Christopher Emdin  46:03 

We need to expect from them what we’re saying that they should be doing for young people, period, in schools of education. And people ask me all the time, you know, why am I still in academic? Like, why am I still in higher education for that reason alone? My heart is with young folks, my heart is in communities. But I’ve gotten to this work from the vantage point of higher ed because I get a chance to work with aspiring teachers, teach people teaching right now, and those who are trying to get their doctoral degrees to be training teachers. And for me, I knew that if I said this, a couple of steps back, I can create more of a web, and there are some things you could do differently. I mean, the first is, you know, school teacher education programs, just like, look just like classrooms. They come in and they learn some theory, they memorize it, they write final papers, they keep moving on. There’s no piece of that, that’s about reflection. I in my courses, we open up with helping my teachers to understand who they are. And if need be who they are. That’s a whole other conversation, but who you are, what brought you to teach? Who was your favorite teacher? Who was the teacher you hated the most? When you are teaching, are you closer to the person you hate, or the person that you love? Why did you love them? Why did you hate them? Who do you aspire to be? What do you see teaching as? Is it activist work? Is it replication work? Are you relying more on the lesson plan or relying more on your, like, just ask them questions to question. Ask them questions is a metacognitive kind of thing, asking them questions to question why they’re doing this and what their practice is. Because oftentimes, you know, back to the broken people break people they’ve been broken themselves. You know, it is a societal thing. You know, like, societally, we don’t value teachers. You know, how we don’t value black and brown children? We don’t value teachers. Like, you know, like I so sizes by training, blah, blah, I go to work with my friends who still in the sciences, whatever, yo Chris, you still doing that work with the schools and the kids and all that? You are? you know, oh, he’s such a good, oh, like I literally now I get an, oh, he’s so nice, he’s so sweet. Like no one recognizes the intellectual veracity of understanding the complexity of delivering information to other people, at least decidedly, we do that. So when you devalue teachers, they don’t have value in themselves, so they don’t go train themselves. Like teachers don’t see themselves as needing to go and develop their practice. Like they just don’t, like my teachers, they record themselves while they teach. They go back and watch game tape. Like I saw, I feel like, you got Lebron James, to your classroom fan. You can’t just go practice and go play. You got to go and watch game tape. Oh, man, look at that point, right, then I can ask that question. Like, I asked this question instead, not gonna ask that person. rewrite the playbook. Like you got to look, no love what you do. Like, when I give keynotes, I give a keynote talk. I leave it alone for bed, I go back and watch my own keynotes, on slide 17 on man, Chris, that that metaphor and hit that analogy was kind of wack, you’ll get this one story, you should put that in there. And this is what I did in the classroom. So teaching teachers to be reflective, teaching them to be nimble, teaching them to be innovative, and teaching them to be able to understand that education is localized. It was never intended to be standardized. So when you standardize your teaching, you can’t bend it to the kids in front of you. You know, I mean, so that’s down to your education. 

Chanda Smith Baker  49:20 

What about critical race theory? Right? We have teachers that are going into classrooms and neighborhoods that they are unfamiliar with. And so is there a responsibility? You think of higher ed to be thinking critical race theory and to allow our new teachers and teachers that are continuing their education to get familiar with neighborhoods from inside?  

Christopher Emdin  49:44 

I absolutely agree. Like, you know, the folks I love the most in the world are academics in that world. Oh, you hear my son? Malcolm. Can you give daddy about five minutes, please? A little bit longer than five Thank you, son. 

Chanda Smith Baker  50:00 

Hi, the first name is Malcolm?

Christopher Emdin  50:03 

Yes, it is. His name is Malcolm Xavier.  

Chanda Smith Baker  50:07 

Oh, wow, Malcolm X. I love it. 

Christopher Emdin  50:11 

Yeah, yeah. You know, so, look, the books I love the most, constructed these amazing theories about education like truly and I firmly believe that teachers need to be aware of institutional racism. They need to be aware of critical race theory. They need to be aware of white guilt. They need to be aware of all those dimensions of how race has constructed their identity, and how that might play out in the classroom. I’m gonna say something a little radical here, which you know, that work, in the absence of what to do with it, is dangerous. I don’t want my teachers deeply aware of critical race theory, and then holding on to all this white guilt and angst, and then I go unleashed them on my babies. 

Chanda Smith Baker  50:58 


Christopher Emdin  50:59 

I need you to understand critical race theory, I need to understand the role of whiteness, I need you to understand white supremacy, then I need you to understand what you do pedagogically to address that every single day. Because otherwise, listen, we got a whole bunch of things right now. Oh, my gosh, anti-racism, Oh, my gosh, I’m bad. Oh, my gosh, I’m carrying on myself the depths of my ancestors and grandfathers and then I go in the classroom. So a bunch of blank heads and pensive and can’t connect, and they suck. So awareness of the frameworks is not enough. Awareness of the frameworks and then arming them with strategies to be able to implement practices to undo those histories, is essential, I think collectively in the world of education right now. Because education, they move away, like this stuff is so hot, like anti-racism, culture relevance, critical race theory, like, you know, you go into education conference, you don’t core. You’re gonna hit somebody who says could agree 315 times? And while I appreciate the progress, we have to understand how that introduction to the theoretical work without emerging and the authentic pedagogical daily work can do violence on young people, and do violence on the teacher? 

Chanda Smith Baker  52:13 

And the people they work with? Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. So, you know, our time is nearing its end, and we didn’t get to all the C’s. So if, if someone went to go and find the other four C’s, where would they go? 

Christopher Emdin  52:28 

Thank you, Sis, so you all, I wrote a book. The book is entitled Poor White Folks who teach in the hood and the rest of you all too. It is available wherever books are sold. So if that’s your local bookstores, or you know, your Amazon’s, or wherever else, so please do that. And I will say this, and this is actually the first time I’ve shared this publicly, so this is a little jewel. I’ve written a book entitled Ratchet Demick, and Ratchet Demick is now on the low on pre-order on Amazon. So if you go on Amazon, and you type in Christopher Emdin, Ratchet Demick, you can actually preorder a literally, it’s the first time I shared publicly that it’s on preorder. You can pre-order Ratchet Dimmick, which in many ways, puts in word and much more detail and nuance, some of the major concepts that we had discussed today. 

Chanda Smith Baker  53:20 

Yeah, if I asked you to if you would send me a signed copy, would you do that?  

Christopher Emdin  53:25 

Done and done.  

Chanda Smith Baker  53:26 

Awesome, awesome. I like to be able to have that on my shelf behind me, and with me. I appreciate it, I could see that, again, you have the book. You have a new book that’s coming out that people can do on preorder, you have your TED talk, and you love our city. So we hope to have you back when Travel Is is is available again. But I just wanted to say knowledge, like the depth like they’re like, we could literally have five more of these conversations because we’ve hit on some really big things. Yeah. And I hope that that the listeners continue to think about what does it mean to be relevant in education and to know the students and to see their brilliance and know that your job is actually to keep up with their brilliance. Right? Like, if nothing else, your job and education job is behind where our kids are? The kids know it, parents know it, and now we got to get the system to understand what it needs to do to get caught up. And we talked about narrative, right? The importance of narrative both positively who do they need to know who do they need to see and have access to that shows them that they are this person? They’re an extension of me. But narrative is also not good when you are being developed by your deficiencies, right, you’re being indoctrinated into. I’m not proficient enough. I’m not good enough. I don’t fit here. And so narrative, right, what do we do? To the psyche of our children, which direction do we want them to go in? And do our behaviors and our practices, get them there? And if not, you need to interrupt it and find a new path. And so is this is an exciting conversation at the Foundation, we’re happy to be one piece of trying to figure out how we get our schools caught up to our kids, how do we provide them the space that nurtures, honors, respect, and, and, and develops right nurtures in partnership, and co-learning co-teaching ways, right? That that widens those seeds so that they can grow up and spread more into the communities that we love and care about? So I thank you. I want to let you get to Malcolm X Xavier. 

Christopher Emdin  55:47 

Sister, you are light, you are light. So insightful, and so thoughtful, and such intelligence and grace. And now I’m going to check out all your other podcasts. So I can be a fan you know, as well as being a guest so I can go geek out on those other interviews. But thank you so much for creating space for me, and wishing you all the best, and wishing you good healing in this season. 

Chanda Smith Baker  56:11 

I appreciate it. Thanks. Have a good weekend. 

Souphak Kienitz  56:15 

That’s Dr. Christopher Emdin and our host Chanda Smith Baker, wants to know who’s next, follow Chanda on Instagram @chandasbaker or visit This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thank you for listening to Conversations with Chanda. 

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About Our Guest

Christopher Emdin

Christopher Emdin is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. Chris is the creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., author of the award-winning book “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation” and the New York Times Best Seller, “For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too.” Chris was named the 2015 Multicultural Educator of the Year by the National Association of Multicultural Educators and has been honored as a STEM Access Champion of Change by the White House under President Obama. In addition to teaching, he served as a Minorities in Energy Ambassador for the US Department of Energy.