Repairing the Fault Line: Making School Spaces Safe Spaces for Trans and Queer Black Students

Recognizing a Need

On Wednesday, Feb. 5, a community conversation focusing on the needs of trans and queer black students will take place at Kofi House in Detroit from 6 to 7:30 p.m. titled Repairing the Fault Line: Making School Spaces Safe Spaces for Trans and Queer Black Students. A first-year doctoral student in the joint program in English and education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is monét cooper — who prefers to use the lowercase in her name. She explained that the things that drove her to that area of study are embedded in what she and the other organizers, like The Trans Sistas of Color Project, envision for this program.

"I think if we want school spaces to be safe, affirming, learning spaces for African American [and] Latinx students who identify as trans and queer or gender nonbinary — but especially girls — we have to do better," cooper said. "We have a mandate to make spaces, and foster spaces and co-create spaces where those students can understand and realize their potential. A lot of times, those students are pushed out of school spaces because of these identities. Some students may have [already] come into their trans identity or their queer identity; others may be wrestling to identify in those ways to accept those things and embrace those things about themselves."

Unfortunately, cooper said, she has found in her conversations with students, particularly black and brown trans girls, that the classroom often is a place of violence: either they are erased because they don't see themselves in the curriculum, they for various reasons see themselves as victims or people to be ridiculed, or they are otherwise oppressed. Despite their intelligence and abilities, these students often don't view college as an option. One negative result of that is the impact on future earnings. Further, the grim matter of life expectancy for black trans women — age 35 — clearly indicates that the deck is stacked against them. As cooper stated, we must do better.

"My hope, as a black woman who is queer, but also a human being, is that this [program] can foster a discussion that adds to the work that's already happening in the Detroit area in schools, [and] also among black and brown trans people to create these spaces," cooper said. "But also to hold our educational institutions accountable for providing an education that allows us to access college and career choices."

Personal Experience

An educator for 11 years with most of that time spent teaching middle and high school English literature in the Washington, D.C./Maryland area, cooper ultimately wanted her students to achieve their hopes and dreams. However, she recognized that as a teacher and adult, she and the school system in general sometimes fell short. Critically, cooper felt the schools weren't doing enough to make the students feel affirmed.

Having been raised by parents who are teachers surely influenced cooper, but it's learning of her mother's early experience desegregating her high school that especially informs cooper's work: her mother may have found herself the only black student in the classroom, yet she was encouraged and prepared by those around her for a life beyond those four years.

"Every child deserves that," cooper asserted. "Every child deserves that amount of advocacy, and if we're not doing that for every student, especially students who have multiple identities of marginalization, then we're really not teaching our students. We're really not preparing them."

What to Expect

As defined by the organizers, "students" span the ages of 12 to 35 for the purposes of this program. That takes into account secondary education and those who return to school, as well as the fact that individuals come into their sexual orientations and gender identities at different times in their lives.

The format for the program will be for students to discuss their experiences in one group, while an  "intergenerational" group consisting of parents, educators and community advocates — who may or may not be queer or trans — will discuss their own observations and ideas for ways they can do better to meet students' needs. All participants will then gather to talk about what issues arose, recommendations and a plan for the work ahead. The goal is to organize and set goals for how this important work should proceed.

"My hope is what comes out of the discussion is that youth, in particular, are able to really speak to their identities both in and outside of school spaces, but also dialogue with people who may be educators, may be adults, or community members about what they need for us to begin organizing and planning ways that we can transform our schools," cooper said. "And for student voices to be centered in this work."

Repairing the Fault Line is an event in celebration of the annual Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools. The Black Lives Matters principle recognized on Wednesday is trans-affirming, queer-affirming intersectionality, cooper explained.

"We hope that by bringing together different intersections in the Detroit community, the Detroit area, we can have a real, brave and robust dialogue about what it means to be black and queer and trans and a student in this particular region," she said. "The whole objective is that it's not just what we do in a school space, it's how can a community and school as an institution constantly be in dialogue with each other in doing this work?"

Repairing the Fault Line: Making School Spaces Safe Spaces for Trans and Queer Black Students is sponsored by the University of Michigan School of Education, Ruth Ellis Center, Equality Michigan, University of Michigan Spectrum Center and Affirmations. This event is on Wednesday, Feb. 5, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Kofi House, located at 135 Hazelwood St. in Detroit. Refreshments will be provided. Attendees are encouraged to bring gently used clothing, accessories and shoes for the Ruth Ellis drop-in closet. All questions can be directed to [email protected] or 313-365-3325.