The 180 Podcast: Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: How to Build a School Where the Goal is Youth Wellness

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade on The 180 Podcast

Listen to the episode on Turnaround for Children’s website. Also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Podbean.

In our last conversation, Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade — Professor of Latina/o Studies and Race and Resistance Studies at SFSU and Co-Founder of the Roses in Concrete Community School — explained why the purpose of education should be youth wellness.

In part two, we address the nuts and bolts: Specifically, what can the rest of us learn from Duncan-Andrade’s experience in building East Oakland’s Roses in Concrete school and apply to our own situations — as parents, educators, and community members — to rethink and reorient community education?

Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Dr. Duncan-Andrade, great to talk with you again.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Thank you for having me.

Chris Riback: Roses in Concrete. Please remind us, in your own words: What is Roses in Concrete, what’s the mission, how is it structured, who are the families, why is it needed?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: The origin story of Roses goes back, gosh, a decade and a half, maybe two decades, when I was first invited to a school called Te Whanau o Tupuranga in Ōtara, New Zealand to do some work alongside the Maori people, indigenous people of New Zealand. At the time, I’d been teaching in East Oakland for quite some time and had what felt like a pretty good handle on the kind of classroom culture, and climate, and pedagogy that I wanted to kind of polish and continue to invest in. That experience that I had with them all that time ago, I can’t think of anything that has more profoundly transformed my life perhaps outside of the birth of my twin boys. I don’t mean in terms of my professional life, I mean in terms of my life.

Chris Riback: Why was that? You were almost literally down under, almost the reciprocal of the hemisphere where you grew up and what you had experienced.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Yes, that, and I was home, that I was literally on the other side of the world. For the first time inside of an institution of school, I felt like I was home. You know that old adage, seeing is believing?

Chris Riback: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. I spent two weeks there and I wept. I was so profoundly impacted and moved that I literally wept, because I realized, maybe for the first time, what had been taken from me in school. I realized for the first time that it was intentional and that it was a choice because there was another way, and now I had seen it. And it wasn’t just one teacher. It was the entire institution, like tip to finish, edge to edge, top to bottom. Literally the name of the school, Te Whanau o Tupuranga in Maori means, Whanau is family. Tupuranga is the indigenous name of the land that the school building is on. So it literally means this is the “family of this land.”

So this is a school where kids literally sleep overnight in a sacred building. They hired a full-time social worker that was also a chef and would hand-make every meal from scratch with the children, with the families, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Chris Riback: No divide between home and education, between … Talk about whole child, this sounds like whole life.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: That’s it, right? It’s purely an extension. There was a conflict between some students and families. So then they started the restorative process. So these families would come together with elders, and that was really profound to me. One of the things that I’ve noticed about schools generally, but I think particularly US schools, is they’re so young. There’s a total absence of elders, which means it can’t be a family, and it can’t be a home.

It’s a system out of balance. Whereas at the Maori school. The younger folks that have some of that elder wisdom that can be bridge-makers between the ancestors and the history and the youth culture, all those folks then showed up for these kids and these families. Then meals would be brought to them so that they could stay, so they didn’t leave.

It took days, bro, days, day and night, and the whole community showed up to support this medicine, this healing.

Everything stopped. Like there’s no history lessons, there’s no literacy lesson, there’s no testing, everything stops because nothing is more important than wellness. Nothing. You’re not going to learn anyway. Right? You’re not going to read, write, or do math anyway. So everything stops. I’ve never seen that in a school.

And if we do get that right, the other things will start taking care of themselves. And it was true, everything that I believed, theoretically, philosophically in my bones, and hadn’t had the courage or the tenacity to be able to fully do, I was immersed in it.

Chris Riback: Of the many things that you discussed with me in our last conversation, one of them that really, stuck with me was the idea that “healed people heal people.” Was that a concept that you knew, but you hadn’t necessarily perhaps seen an action, and you saw it come to reality in New Zealand?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: I think everyone knows that at their essence. But I had certainly never seen a school that operationalized that principle as a foundational principle, not as an exploratory principle, but as a known. “We know this. We know what has happened to our people. We know how this affects our day-to-day life. We know how this affects our homes, how we raise our children, how our children are moving through the world. We know this us and we will never ignore it.”

Chris Riback: So you were able to translate that into an experience in East Oakland. What is it about you that made you able to do that?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Jerry Tello says, “Wounded children speak the most truth, and we resent them for it,” because we want them to compartmentalize their woundedness. What the Maori showed me was you can create a school where you don’t have to compartmentalize your woundedness, where you can show up and then the school’s responsibility is to create a space to teach around that and to heal. Because they know if they don’t heal you, it’s all of us or none of us. We’re all going to pay for that woundedness, and we’re all going to benefit from the healing that happens to the wounded child or the wounded family.

Chris Riback: That is such a big idea. Isn’t that what life is? How did you take what you learned from your experience at the Maori school and found the Roses in Concrete Community School? How did you connect those?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: So I come back from New Zealand and I’m teaching high school in East Oakland and I’m a full-time university professor. So I can basically teach for free, it doesn’t cost the school anything. There was a group of kids that were juniors, and this was at a school that we had started called East Oakland Community High School. So Oakland got taken over by the state. East Oakland Community High School, which is a community high school based on the Black Panther model of schooling. We became public enemy number one. So the state came after us to close us down.

Then when test scores came out the following year, we had the highest test score gains in the region. So this is like, so this can’t be about your achievement model. Right? When that school closed, our cohort, a group of kids I was working with, were juniors. And the state had no plan for placement. So these kids for their senior year were going to be scattered all across the city. I was like, “Hell no.” So I went to every single comprehensive high school in Oakland and said, “I will come bring all the resources for the university. I’m free. I’m a California “Clear Your Credential” teacher, I’m an award-winning teacher, and I’m going to bring you 25 kids, 23 of whom are guaranteed four-year college eligible. So I will jack your four-year college going rate through the roof in one year for free.” Nobody would touch us.

Chris Riback: They wouldn’t touch you?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Too radical. So we got the UNIA, the United Negro Improvement Association, and they had a building in West Oakland. And this brother named Allende Daniels said, “I will give you this building to teach those kids.”

So those kids commuted across the city into a completely different and not particularly safe neighborhood and started school an hour early, because we had to do our class and then we had to shuttle them to the actual school where they would take the rest of the classes. Two of the kids in that cohort had babies as seniors. So they would bring their babies to class. So there’s literally picture of me, video of me teaching holding the babies of the children in the senior class.

Chris Riback: Because where does education end and the rest of life begin?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: If it’s a home, that’s not even a question.

Chris Riback: Exactly.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: The only place you ask that question is in school. That’s the differentiation, are we schooling kids or are we educating them? We’re schooling them. Schooling is an institutional process by which you teach people to accept their place in life. Education is the process by which you teach them they can transform it. So anyway, so this cohort graduates made it, and we’re having a graduation party at the end of the school year at my house. This group of five of them, including the two that had babies, and their parents, hit me up at my own house. They got me in this corner, and they’re like, “We want you to open a school that starts in kinder so that we can have what this community gave us at East Oakland Community High School, but from the very beginning, because we lost too many homies before they got to high school. So it’s got to start from the beginning and it’s got to look like that.”

I’m literally looking at two mothers, there are my students, and thinking like, “Damn. I’m going to build this school for those babies, and for my sons,” who were not with us yet.

So then I started a new cohort, started with freshman at Fremont High School in deep East Oakland. So that year I sort of secretly started putting together all these meetings and just kept it really low key to start talking to people about what if at the end of this cohort, the next project was to build a school? So literally I had the big research project for this cohort, and their sophomore year was called Build Your Own Teacher.

Chris Riback: You’re working them right into it.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Then the junior year project was Build Your Own School. The senior year project was Build Your Own Community. So these kids and their families and us, we literally imagined, like, “This is what it could look like.”

Chris Riback: So what did they tell you? What did they want?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: What I saw in the Maori school. We want food. We want to come as we are and to know that whatever that is on any given day is going to be received and cared for. We want you all to expect us to be great, and then surround us with the resources that allow us to become who we already are. We don’t want you to tell us who we need to become. We want you to draw it out of us. We want the community to be here. We don’t want the gates and the walls, and we want the school to be the community and the community to be to the school. We want teachers that look like us, talk like us, move like us, live where we live, eat where we eat, that we see on the weekends.

And I would bring my twin boys, infant boys, to that class. My students would hold them while studying. There’s video of me, because I had twins, with one strapped to my chest and one strapped to my back, and I’m teaching senior English. They’re like, “That’s what we want.”

Chris Riback: Funders understood, “Dr. Duncan-Andrade, we understand the line item for desks and chalkboards, and maybe even computers. But the BabyBjorns, why do you need 20 BabyBjorns, doc?”

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Right. Precisely. So we didn’t get funded, because people just couldn’t wrap their head around what we were doing. But how is this going to affect test scores? How are you going to get more kids to take AP exams? I was like, “We’ll get all that, but I’m not going to fucking write that in my grant. And nobody would mess with us until Sandra Davis at the California Endowment was the first one. And interesting enough, the California Endowment is a health foundation. So the first foundation to fund this education project was a health foundation.

Chris Riback: That makes sense, because you’re talking wellness. Wellness is health.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Right. So literally, our core measurement, the leading indicator of our impact, was hope. That’s what I baselined. I used the children’s hope scale and I baselined hope levels, and then I studied hope over those four years. The kids with the highest hope levels had the highest lag indicators. The best attendance, least infractions around punishment, highest GPAs, all of that. The kids that had their hope most under threat, most unstable, that was also reflected in their achievement.

And then I went immediately from that to getting together a group of community folks from around the country to start planning Roses in Concrete.

So we end up launching and it is simultaneously the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever been a part of, and the biggest shit-show that I’ve ever been a part of. I mean, we had everything right in terms of climate, culture, people, and we did not pay enough attention to the stuff that I really find quite odious, which is structure, systems. And boy, did we get it handed to us, because you’ve got to have both.

I did not do a good job of really explaining to people what it was that we were going to have to do. That you’re not walking into Roses in Concrete. You’re building Roses in Concrete. And that’s a totally different prospect.

At the same time, there was so much magic at that school. I mean, so many beautiful, talented educators, the best crew. But the problem was is that we had pulled all these teachers that were not unlike me, which was that they had been functioning inside of these toxic systems. So the way that they’d done that was to go rogue. That’s what they knew how to do. They didn’t actually know how to play as a team. I just couldn’t find the school leader, because all the school leaders we were bringing in had been trained in the system.

So they’re trying to apply the systems logic using the Roses language to families, to children who are wounded, and I’m like, “No, no, no, no. you can’t suspend a kid.” So that was one of the Maori principles, right? Zero suspensions and expulsions. And they’re like, “But Jeff, I have to comply with the ed code. We could get …” And suddenly we’re bumping up against, “Oh right, we aren’t self-determining. We don’t have autonomy. We are still a state entity.” That tension was raw.

So much of our time and energy became about that — became about the dysfunction of our family. And in so many ways people really did feel like family there. There were so many people coming from all over the country to learn from us. People would come and then we could tell them, “Hey, if we had it to do over again, think about these things.”

Chris Riback: When they came asking you for help, what did you say to them?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: “You’ve got to have both. You’ve got to have climate, culture, people. But you got to have the unsexy stuff. You got to have systems. You got to have structures. You’re still an institution, and you can’t ignore those things.”

Chris Riback: Harmony.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Yes. Bingo. Spot on. That’s it, and we were disharmonious. So ultimately what we come to a head around actually was labor, because there was so much asked of everybody. Because not only do you have to do the incredibly difficult job of teaching, and teaching in a school that is saying that we want the most wounded ones. And so guess who came? The most wounded ones. And no turn away, and no turn down. So if a kid and a family come, we’re taking them. And then we’re not throwing them away. We lost a lot of our middle class families of color, because when the rubber met the road, they were all down for and the critical pedagogy, and wellness and trauma, and all that, until their son or daughter got stabbed in the hand with a pencil, from a kid who watched somebody get murdered the night before. Then it was like, “Well, what are the consequences?”

Chris Riback: When are you going to suspend this kid?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Yes, what exactly do you mean? And that’s it. Like, ” No, this kid has to learn you can’t do that.” And I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Do you remember the mission? Do you remember the vision? Can you wrap your head around the fact that maybe, just maybe, that child has way more to teach your child than anything we can offer in the textbooks? That maybe that’s the education they’re getting here.” That’s such a hard sell.

Chris Riback: You are asking a lot. That’s a big ask.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: A lot, right?

Chris Riback: That’s a big ask, yes.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: It’s a big ask. And guess what? My sons are at that school still. I’m not asking you to do anything that I’m not willing to do, but this shit is hard. It’s not a website, and it’s not for everybody. Roses was not for everybody, and I think we wanted it to be for everybody. That was a hard, painful lesson for us to learn.

So one of our commitments was that we would unionize, and that process was really, really toxic. We had a few people in I think the wrong places with the wrong interests that really drove a wedge between labor and community. That pretty much disallowed us from being able to get ourselves to a place where we were a really strong candidate for renewal.

So we merged with another school in East Oakland that was just a few blocks away from where we were that was one of the, if not the only remaining predominantly black elementary school in East Oakland. And it looks almost identical to what Roses was, almost verbatim. So this year is our first year together as a fully merged school that is now called OAK, which stands for the Oakland Academy of Knowledge.

Chris Riback: You have talked with us about the elements that help children be well, the mind, body, spirit, emotion, and that is whole child. Are you intentional about whole child design or are you maybe inspirational about whole child?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: So I’d rather start with the end in mind, and the end is not whole child. The end is community wellness. And then we can backwards that from there of what has to happen all the way down to the individual child for that to happen. That system has to be so dynamic, because when the wounded child shows up to take the instructions right from the Maori, everything stops. The whole child model pulls the individual child out to fix them, to give them what they need. The community never benefits, because the community’s not participating in the wellness because we don’t think the community actually has the medicine. The community has the medicine. So if you take the child out of the community, you’ve made them more sick. Then the model of healing is not one where when I’m wounded, I lean into my community and my community leans into me and we’re stronger for that. Right? That’s the oak tree model, if we’re from Oakland.

If you talk to herbalists and botanists, they’ll tell you one of the most profound things about the oak tree is what you can’t see. The oak tree has the deepest root system. And so in a storm, this is what we’re doing in schools. We’re building these trees, right? We’re growing these trees that are beautiful from the ground up. And that’s what we’re focused on. Nice, healthy trunk, beautiful branches, beautiful foliage, and it all looks good until the storm hits. That tree is the first to go down in the storm, because that tree is top heavy. But a system that’s committed to deep roots, knowing who you are, who your ancestors are, knowing that’s your strength, that’s your beauty, and no one sees it because it’s inside of you. So you have to see it, and we can’t give it to you. It’s already there. All we can do is pull it out of you.

Now that tree might develop more slowly in its trunk, and in its branches, and in its foliage. But I guarantee you that in the storm, that tree stands up and even more beautiful. That tree can hold up the tree that’s top heavy. The forest doesn’t collapse when the majority of the trees have deep roots. For us, that’s the metaphor, that there are times when you are going to need to lean on your roots to hold up your brother or your sister, or me, and that’s the medicine. That’s the community that thrives. That’s the community that’s well. Not the community that never faces storms. That is not the goal of schools.

The goal of schools is these models of individual achievement, wellness, metrics, et cetera. And until we get away from that, we’re going to get what we got. Whole child or not, and that is literally back to the question that I raised in the first podcast, for what? If we are not willing to fundamentally investigate that question, then we are literally just playing games with this project. And games get people killed where I come from. That’s why I feel like we don’t have a choice but to sort out how to change this.

Chris Riback: Sounds like you build forests.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: We build forests, right? No person can build a forest. I did not build Roses, and I did not found Roses. We built Roses; we founded Roses. That’s the only way we’re going to go forward. Until our young people see and understand that, and hear us saying that, disabusing them of this idea that great things happen because of great people, then we’ll be trapped in this model.

Chris Riback: People listening to this conversation might not all be, surely, all won’t be able to go out to East Oakland and see it. They won’t be able to go to New Zealand and see it. How can people start to build forests in their own communities?

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Well, I’m going to answer that perhaps out of both sides of my mouth, because I am going to say that I think the pilgrimage, the trip to Mecca, is an important part of the process. We got extra rooms, we got extra bedrooms. We are a community. So come, stay. That’s what I experienced in New Zealand. They’re like, “No, you’re family.” We feed you, we house you, we transport you, and you get to see it all. We’re not trying to put the polish on. This is the meaning is in the mess. I’ve connected so many people to that Maori community in New Zealand that have gone, and they come back saying exactly the same thing that I said.

So I really can’t think of a quality substitute for that. So out of one side of mouth I’m saying plan, strategize, be resourceful, reach out, let us get you connected.

A poet lawyer, a long time teacher of poetry at UC Berkeley, she has a poem called We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. So I would just remind people that you already have most of the medicine that you need. So you don’t need to look outside of your cells or outside of your community for the answers. And understand the difference between need and want.

So I think that those may be parallel journeys where the lines end up ultimately intersecting. In that moment, you have to be ready to harmonize. I think that if you are committed not to an endpoint, not to some outcome, but if you’re committed to a journey, then that might be the most instructive thing that you can offer to the children in your community, that wellness is not an endpoint. Wellness is a commitment, it’s a purpose, and it’s your entire life that is a wellness journey. If you’re so committed, then you’ll always embrace the mess, because you’ll understand that that is not you getting bumped off your wellness. That’s you finding more meaning in your wellness.

Chris Riback: Dr. Duncan-Andrade, thank you once again for your time and your ideas, and your ability to channel and harmonize frustration with inspiration for the rest of us. Thank you.

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade: Thank you. It’s my honor.

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org