I’m interested in exploring cultural practices for my second year in the program. Part and parcel of our everyday cultural practices is Critical Race Theory (CRT) which has formalized how race and ethnicity can overtly and covertly impact our personal, social, and political. For me, coming from a majority white conservative town in Indiana, learning about CRT through contemporary Asian American Feminisms was cathartic. But I only learned about CRT through academic settings or books. I only started to learn CRT in everyday contexts through working at a youth neighborhood design program, Your Street Your Voice, where we heavily relied on the groundbreaking work from Space Matters, a student participatory action research project by Dr. Amara H. Pérez and her students.
Local organizer, researcher, and educator Dr. Pérez has been working in and with communities of color, especially youth, for over 25 years. She was contracted last year to work on the Portland State University Gateway Center project where the new Art + Design program will be housed. In this, she created a paid temporary cohort of art students of color to connect CRT and Spatial Theory and apply it to the plans of the new building. I immediately applied to be a part of the cohort to learn from Dr. Pérez and I had the capacity to be part of 3 meetings. As expected, Dr. Pérez held space and change for her students. The following interview dives deeper into how and why Dr. Pérez melds the everyday and theory to shift culture and therefore power.
Lillyanne Pham: During the summer as one of your BIPOC student cohort members to help design the new Art + Design Building at Portland State University, you asked us to find a “hidden curriculum” in our everyday routines that shows space serving the dominant cis white hetero ableist English-speaking culture. How do you show the definition of and power of “hidden curriculum” to your students?
Dr. Amara H. Pérez: I learned about the hidden curriculum as a student at Portland State University when I was getting my master’s in the PACE (Postsecondary Adult and Continuing Education) program. I took a curriculum course and one single article in there was about the hidden curriculum. This concept comes from the late 60s and this article applied it to space. It was research done by a scholar who was comparing the built environment of a law school to the built environment of a social work school on the same college campus. It blew my mind. It helped me to consider the idea of the hidden curriculum and built environments for the first time. I was able to think about how space is essentially communicating socializing messages.
Flash forward to many years later, I am a doctoral student in a program and I took a course outside of my department about spatial theory – the idea that space was not neutral. It brought me back to the hidden curriculum of campus space. I was teaching at the time and I thought this is really fascinating. If the built environment is a hidden curriculum, that means that everything around us can essentially be imagined as text, or as a lesson plan, that is teaching us dominant value and belief systems.
I thought, I don’t know exactly how to teach this except to invite my students to actually help me explore this question. So, I started developing methods to engage students in the conversation. When I was teaching that term, I had six students in the class, they all identified as women, and they were majority women of color. We decided that would be one of the focuses of our term together. We had class in a different space every single week, and they got to pick where we would have class. We spent the first 15-20 minutes looking around together and asking this question, “how is this built environment communicating socializing messages?” We had class once at Bojangles, a fast-food restaurant. We had class at this outdoor bell tower and at the library. We just started doing it together as co-researchers. It helped all of us understand what this particular concept meant, as it applied to the built environment.
I was also learning more about the hidden curriculum in the doctoral program, and began to understand it in the more traditional way, which is the basic idea that school is teaching you more than reading, writing, and math. And it’s teaching you these things that are often not discussed. My approach to teaching the hidden curriculum has actually best been facilitated through discussions about space.
What has been the most powerful for me is to invite students to pay attention to their everyday routines and built environments, take pictures of those, and bring them to a collective collaborative process where we analyze them together. I think what became the clearest were bathrooms because bathrooms were so intimately and in familiar ways, tied to gender. Bathrooms and fences were really good starting places, along with traditional classrooms. These were three spaces that anybody could sort of say, “Yeah, I can see how it’s doing this work of socializing us into dominant values.” What gets more interesting is when we can move beyond those spaces and start looking at other less obvious signs of that curriculum.
My approach has been to create an opportunity where people are applying it right away to their own routines and lived experiences, but then we’re analyzing those in a group. It’s more of an engaged kind of applied theory. And the hidden curriculum has been less of a theoretical framework and more of a conceptual framework for understanding hiddenness – how power hides. Very little of the hidden curriculum literature goes outside of educational settings, nor does it look at built environments. I love taking that concept out of education and putting it in other places and spaces. So we can see it as a socializing mechanism, not just living in educational settings, but in all settings.
Lillyanne: I love how your class got to choose their own spaces to learn. This helps to make things click even more because they have the power to choose where they can learn and what they want to learn. Is this a part of your process? To use their personal experiences as part of your curriculum rather than have students navigate their personal experiences on their own?
Dr. Pérez: The other part of that is to invite and acknowledge identity to that conversation. When I use the hidden curriculum, what I love about it is it invites the concept of “reading space”. When we talk about our identities and our lived experiences, that informs how we read space. For some people reading space as in service to the gender binary is really clear depending on their lived experience. Others may be totally oblivious, which is why I think analyzing space through the concept of the hidden curriculum ought to be done in collective, collaborative ways. So we can begin to understand how space is acting beyond our lived experience and find the commonalities in that.
What I love about reading space is that we all have spatial sensibilities, but they can be dormant. To me, social justice curriculum activates those spatial sensibilities to increase critical awareness of space. This feeling of having lived experiences, feeling validated, learning a new language to name the things that we know are happening, but maybe don’t really know that there’s a word for like hegemony and systemic oppression means something. All this language can help validate our lived experiences. But more importantly, this helps us understand how power and privilege sustain themselves. The hidden curriculum is that entry point that’s really accessible because it’s grounded in your lived experience. And it is validated by a collective lived experience. And it lends itself to an increased awareness in ways that I think are often hard to design a curriculum around as an educator.
Lillyanne: You had our cohort go through a whole day of training on Critical Race Theory with Spatial Theory. While we had varying levels of racial equity consciousness within a U.S. context, you were still able to help us find solidarity with each other and increase folks’ consciousness within a day. What do you think it takes for educators of all levels and disciplines to have the tools to do this type of work? You mentioned educators should work with the everyday to make learning more accessible. I was wondering about educators who have no experience in social justice education, but there are students who are demanding it. How do you start this type of work?
Dr. Pérez: Great question. I’m so glad you asked that because I don’t often get to talk about it. I am a former Youth Community Organizer. I was trained through an organization in Oakland, California called the Center for Third World Organizing where I got an internship to start my career in grassroots organizing. After that internship, I worked at Sisters in Action for Power for 12-13 years.
Part of my training as an organizer was in popular education, a methodology most associated with Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator. Organizers do an incredible amount of education. But it’s often very theoretical. As people who are trying to change and transform systems of power, we can’t do that work without theory. But it often gets named something else, and we often don’t recognize it as theory.
Popular education is an approach that brings people together to talk about issues, to understand those issues as problems, to talk about lived experiences and perspectives, to think about the causes, to understand the consequences, and ultimately get to a place of action, and an action that can be facilitated and coordinated by the very people who are most affected by those issues.
For me, that training was parallel to my training as an organizer. I spent a lot of time being trained at Highlander, which is very famous for its contributions to social justice work in the South. And my training happened from the work I did at Sisters in Action. My role there was to help create a comprehensive educational program that would teach middle school and high school girls of color about systems of domination and systems of inequity, all as a way to have a critical eye towards organizing campaigns, issue campaigns, where, members of Sisters in Action, were taking on the housing authority, Portland Public Schools, and other institutions to fight for local change.
What’s important to that action work is an analysis of understanding power and privilege. If you don’t understand power and privilege, you’re likely to say we don’t feel safe, we need more cops. But nobody going through an understanding of power and privilege would be demanding that. So we realized early on that an ongoing comprehensive political education program was critical, and all of that curriculum was developed in-house and not just mostly through me.
As girls grew up in the organization, I was able to work with a cohort of teenagers who had been involved at Sisters in Action since they were 11 years old and who worked with me and without me to continue to create that curriculum and facilitate those conversations across a range of issues that we addressed in those 13 years.
So I think, again, part of that is really formal training in popular education. And then I think it came from 15 years of practice. It’s also why I don’t feel comfortable in an academic classroom. I’ve tried teaching in universities and colleges and it doesn’t click for me. It’s harder to practice popular education in a formal classroom. So I love trainings and leadership programs because it’s perfect for that. I think that those kinds of conversations, as you can imagine, always lead to action. So I would say popular education is not just about curriculum, it’s about understanding your role as a facilitator. I call myself an educator, but I probably think of myself more as a facilitator than a traditional educator. So I attribute that training and that experience, early in my career, as part of what I think makes for really transformative workshops and trainings that I’ve been a part of.
Lillyanne: My first exposure to your work was Space Matters. It was especially important to me in my work with Jackie Santa Lucia and ridhi d’cruz at Your Street Your Voice, and it also became your Cultural Foundations of Education, Ph.D. dissertation. I was wondering how that project transformed your present-day practice? And what was an underlying lesson from it that isn’t usually highlighted?
Dr. Pérez: That project changed everything for me. It was initially supposed to be a four-month project. The project came about when Portland Community College (PCC) wanted to introduce Critical Race Theory (CRT) to the Office of Planning and Capital Construction.
What many people don’t know and is really important is that in this project, none of us knew what we were doing. To some extent, none of us knew what we would learn, and none of us knew the answers. I knew how to build a leadership team, to train students, to create curriculum, and research methodologies. So there are a lot of things I knew how to do that would get the ball rolling, but we didn’t know what we would discover.
I have to tell you that I thought many times, What if we discover nothing? What if there’s no answer to this question that we have, which is, what’s the relationship between race and space? What I appreciate most is that there was nothing we were trying to replicate. It freed us up to do some fabulous work, and to really see it as an exploration of questions. And we had support from the college to do that. We also felt like anything we learned would at least be more than what we knew when we started. We learned to trust the process.
There’s so much we learned that you can find and read about when you search Space Matters at PCC. I came to really appreciate and lean into the “we don’t know.” I think it’s helpful to say, We still are trying to understand how the built environment normalizes whiteness. We’re still trying to figure that out. What I know is that CRT says it does. I believe that and so I’m just trying to figure out how. I really push back against outcome-driven processes, and lean into more of the process-oriented approach to any given project.
I think CRT not only helps us understand how space acts, but can help us understand how our institutional practices are getting in the way. That’s the real change that we need to be focusing on and I love that too. It’s not about, “What’s inclusive space?” It’s about, “What’s inclusive design?” Forget the outcome because that’s our problem. We think there’s a checklist waiting to be discovered that would just give us the formula for inclusive space. There’s no such thing. Never gonna happen. But every single project helped me to see how the design practices are the problem and the educational institution is getting in the way.
Lillyanne: Your work has been deeply connected to institutions. Over the span of years, how have you defined your role in and personal barriers against institutions?
Dr. Pérez: As a young organizer, I saw myself working outside of the system to make change. I would say 6-7 years into it, I started realizing that the organization we were building, as much as I loved it, non-profit was being modeled largely from a business/corporate structure. In that, there were many complexities, contradictions, and problems. Are you familiar with The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence?
Dr. Pérez: So, there was a group of us who contributed to that text. I realized it’s not just the institution. There’s something about building an institution and building an institution that is funded by philanthropy. You’re likely going to replicate the very same structures and culture and system you are working to change. So I got really disillusioned and decided I didn’t want to do my organizing work in a 501(c)(3), nonprofit structure.
That was not a popular position at the time. Many organizers believe that being paid as an organizer was a victory that people fought really long and hard for. And building our own organizations was going to help us build the power we needed to bring about the change that we wanted. My experience was I saw us replicating the very harmful cultures that won’t sustain a movement. So, when I left Sisters in Action, I decided I would not be part of a nonprofit to do grassroots community organizing. Then it’s like, how am I going to take care of myself? I thought I’m still going to work with students to make a change, but within an institution and within education.
So, I started working at Portland Community College as the Director of the Multicultural Center, and loved the work then realized too much of my work is about trying to improve and build an institution again. Let’s be real. That’s never gonna happen. I’m like, there’s no escaping it! Every institution is a problem. So, you just have to decide what your niche and role are going to be. Then I went back to school and found myself doing consulting more and more.
The advantage to consulting is my energy is not going towards building or sustaining an institution. I get to work on a project that I can stand behind and put my energies into supporting it without feeling like I am promoting an institution, or improving an institution that I know is never going to happen. I identify as an educator. My parents are educators. I love educational settings. I felt like this is where I want to be but as a consultant. There are disadvantages. I miss being part of a team. As a consultant, I don’t have that. My team is always changing. They’re often interdisciplinary teams of people learning about power and equity for the first time.
What feels right to me is the distance between me and the institution. I respect people who are doing work in institutions. It’s just not where I want to put my energy. I definitely want to partner with institutions and organizations and firms. I like to help people think about how to change the culture of the firm, and the organization, and change practices and policies. I feel like I’m good at that. But I want to see the end date of my time on that project. I am now in my early 50s. I think that my role is different in that regard. You know, where I want to put my energy and focus is much more project-based than anything else now.
Lillyanne: I definitely resonate with everything you’re saying. I’ve been trying to run away from non-profits and universities and find myself back in them but with a new boundary between myself and them. I’ve also found myself experiencing the downsides of solo consulting.
Dr. Pérez: I’ll get emails that say, “I heard about your work. I was wondering if you will partner with us on a project, We’re going to be working on X.” I’m thinking to myself, I don’t know you. I don’t know if we have a shared lens and understanding of practicing racial equity. I don’t work like that. But the pressure to work like that… in this world of design and planning, you don’t have to know each other. It took me a while to be confident. For me, I had to stay true to myself and true to my practice, knowing all the contradictions exist. But seeing myself, I work for critical race theory, that’s my boss. You’ve got to be your own moral compass, your own political compass. You’ve got to be turning inward all the time to make sure that what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and who you’re doing it with is congruent with your values and your commitments. So, you can do the work you want to do on your own terms, especially as a woman of color.
Lillyanne: That’s so true. At the end of the day, sometimes you just want to give up and quit being an organizer too. Then you’re back in these situations and you find a little bit of magic. It’s the cycle and you need to constantly be attuned to yourself. I was also wondering throughout this whole process what or who has been exciting in your present-day practice?
Dr. Pérez: I would say that what I find most exciting is working with students as co-researchers. I find that the students I get to work with are so fucking brilliant, so thoughtful, and so curious. And I am inspired by how being a part of a cohort changes their understanding of systemic inequity, the trajectory of their own research, their own studies, their own sort of career goals, which excites me and motivates me so much in ways that nothing else does. That’s my first answer. Others include Mabel O. Wilson, an architect, designer, and scholar who writes a lot about race and architecture and legal scholar and geographer, David Delaney. I love their work. I also love my favorite CRT scholars: Daniel Solorzano, Lindsay Perez Huber, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. And I think people who are using art as their sort of tool for change inspire me in ways that other methods don’t. I felt really excited about working with all the art and design students this term. I’ve never worked with this community before. And being involved with these students for a whole term in analyzing studio space and gallery space has helped me to understand whiteness in ways that I wouldn’t have understood. This co-learning feeds me.
Lillyanne Phạm (b. 1997; LP/they/bạn/she/em/chị) is a cultural organizer and artist living and working in East Portland. Their personal work centers on ancestral wayfinding, nesting, and communicating. Her current collaborative projects are a queer teen artist residency program at Parkrose High School, a canopy design for Midland Library, and a youth program at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. LP’s work has been supported by Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Mural Arts Institute, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the City Arts Program – Portland, and the Dorothy Piacentini Endowed Art Scholarship. For more work visit: https://linktr.ee/lillyannepham
Amara H. Pérez, PhD Critical Race Spatial Educator, Researcher, and Strategist. Amara is a long-time social justice educator, community organizer, community-engaged researcher, and critical strategist. For over 25 years her work in and with communities of color in Portland has been informed by popular education, critical theories, and participatory action research. Drawing from critical pedagogy, critical race theory (CRT), and spatial theory, her research examines the role of planning, design, and built environments in maintaining structural oppression. She also studies how critical race spatial praxis can be used as a methodology for spatial justice within educational institutions and local communities. Her professional experience advancing equity strategies within educational settings combined with her community–based experience working for local social change, has enabled her to work with diverse interdisciplinary teams across sectors. In 2017, Amara partnered with Portland Community College to use CRT in facilities planning and design to further the college’s strategic vision for equity and inclusion. Working closely with students as co-researchers has resulted in institutional change at the college including the use of CRT as a central strategy for community engagement in a range of district-wide planning and construction projects. Since then, Amara has partnered with other educational institutions like Seattle Public Schools, Portland State University, and Portland Public Schools to introduce and use a critical race spatial lens in facilities planning and capital projects aimed to support racial equity and social justice. https://amarahperez.com/about
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