Rethinking Schools editors and staff are thrilled to welcome Dr. Cierra Kaler-Jones as our first-ever executive director. Cierra may be new to this position, but she is no stranger to Rethinking Schools. Readers will know her byline from the recent articles “Coming Home to Ourselves,” about Cynthia B. Dillard’s The Spirit of Our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member (Summer 2022); and “Through the Lens of Those We Love: Uplifting Oral Histories and Finding Common Threads” (Fall 2021).
Cierra is also on the leadership team of the Zinn Education Project, which Rethinking Schools coordinates with Teaching for Change, and has hosted many of our Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes, which launched in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic.
Cierra is a teacher, a dancer, a writer, and a researcher. Most recently, she has been director of storytelling at the Communities for Just Schools Fund, a national collaborative that links philanthropy with grassroots organizing, which grew out of Black parents in Mississippi demanding justice for their children in schools.
Cierra remembers her first encounter with Rethinking Schools magazine: “I will never forget the moment I received my first copy. The illustrations danced off the page, the writing was rich with personal narrative and tangible teaching ideas, and the content was unapologetically radical. I felt a surge at that moment — the warmth of being introduced to an aligned community committed to education justice.”
Cierra describes how she came to her own political awareness:
My experiences growing up as a Black and Filipina girl navigating anti-Blackness inside and outside some of my schooling experiences, as well as the love and care of teachers who supported me in my resistance, shape my commitment to education justice. These experiences ultimately led me to become a community-based dance and arts educator. Dance was my tool for harnessing my righteous rage and allowed me to tell stories with choreography that made audiences contend with racism, sexism, heteropatriarchy, and also joy and humanity. In my teaching, I sought to co-create spaces with students that encouraged creative freedom and where they could generate art that named their truths and made political statements. Students shared their frustrations about the corporate curriculum they learned at school and asked if we could learn about people’s history in dance class. Together, we delved into what we would want to learn if we crafted our dream curriculum. Young people taught me what liberatory curricula and pedagogy could look like before I had the language for it.
Cierra earned her PhD in education from the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at University of Maryland. Her dissertation explored how Black girls use arts-based practices (e.g., movement, music, hair) as mechanisms for identity construction and resistance. (To get a sense for some of the issues Cierra addresses in her dissertation, see her Frontiers in Education article “‘I Rewrote Their Story and You Can, Too’: Black Girls’ Artistic Freedom Dreams to Create New Worlds.”) Her master’s in Curriculum & Instruction is from George Washington University, and she attended Rutgers University and Douglass Residential College as an undergraduate, where she received her bachelor’s degree in social work, with minors in women’s and gender studies and race and ethnic studies.
As part of the Zinn Education Project’s Teach the Black Freedom Struggle series, Cierra has been in conversation with renowned scholars like Robin D. G. Kelley on the Black Left: 1930s to the Early 1950s; Jarvis Givens on his book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching; Martha Jones on “Black Women in the Fight for Voting Rights”; Alaina Roberts on “Black Freedom on Native Land”; Ashley Farmer on “Queen Mother Moore, Black Nationalism, and the Centuries-Long Fight for Reparations,” and with poet and Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith about his book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America.
Cierra also moderated our Rethinking Schools webinars “Teaching for Black Lives During the Rebellion,” with Teaching for Black Lives editors Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian, and Wayne Au, and “Anti-Racist Teaching During the Pandemic: Lessons from The New Teacher Book,” with Dyan Watson, Kara Hinderlie Stroman, and Ikechukwu Onyema. In October, she moderated the keynote panel, “Teaching for Joy and Justice in Dangerous Times” for the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference, which featured Rethinking Schools editor Adam Sanchez and contributor Erin Green.
Rethinking Schools just began our 37th year of publication. We are in the midst of multiple book projects, and have been able to turn several books into broader organizing efforts. Our Zinn Education Project continues to offer people’s history curriculum to tens of thousands of teachers, and help educators find community to push back against despicable initiatives to ban teaching about race, gender, and justice.
Please join us in welcoming Dr. Cierra Kaler-Jones to the Rethinking Schools family at this key moment in the history of our organization, and the history of this country. There is no one better situated to be our first executive director.