Women to Watch Series
Ms. Adrienne Wallace
There’s a glint in Adrienne Wallace’s eye. It’s not a dangerous glint, but it’s one that tells you to pay attention. If not, you may miss out on something. On what? You have to stick around long enough to find out. When you meet Wallace, teacher is not what comes to mind. Revolutionary, freedom fighter would better describe her. Although a teacher by training, she sees teaching as her way of fighting against injustice and inequality. For Wallace, the war on poverty never ended, and like her father – teaching is her weapon of choice: “I didn’t want to be a teacher, probably because my father is one.” Wallace said, “I imagined myself as the type of professor who would lead students changing and fighting down the streets. I wanted to propose and try real solutions.”
And for those solutions, after graduating from Mt. Holyoke, Wallace entered into to a Ph.D. program in Sociology at Yale University. At 21 she stood as the youngest member of her class, determined to infuse some much needed diversity into the department. She struggled through her first year when professors discouraged her research. More than once a professor advised her against studying the socio-economic issues that impacted her own life: “I came to theory because I needed it,” she says. That burning desire to understand herself and the world around her through scholarship kept her going, but instead of encouragement, she heard, “Your research is too much about you… that’s not a good research project.” Confused, Wallace took some time to reconsider her path, but continued on to finish her second year. With time, Wallace realized the PhD would not provide her the tools she needed to continue the fight, saying, “I realized [the] degree [would be] way more theoretical, I could be using the knowledge, which people don’t have access to, to build something. I didn’t want to be buried in Foucault for the rest of [my] life.”
Prior to delving into the political side of inequality, she worked to understand how education works in this country. Enter Teach For America (TFA). With her fight for justice in mind, Wallace applied to teach in Oakland or Baltimore. Given the racial histories of the cities, she felt she could make the best impact in those areas. She wound up in Oakland and set to work. Wallace excelled at teaching her middle school science and math classes. Shandra LaMotte, a fellow teacher in Oakland, says, “She’s a rigorous teacher. She had 92% of her students performing at grade level.” When frustrated, Wallace found herself saying, “If I had a school, I would do this…. If I had my own school I would…,” and the idea settled on her. This would be her revolution. Wallace searched for a model and learned about MEDICC, a program enabling young students of color to receive medical education in Cuba. MEDICC’s model of creating a new avenue for for allowing students of color access to education appealed to her as “a creative hustle to move around an oppressive system.” People identified the problem and solution – and Wallace and Hip Hop Education co-founder Hannah Groce thought “why can’t we figure out the way to do the same thing for kids?”
With the goal of opening the school in 2016, Wallace is so eager to get started on her vision that she and LaMotte are hosting a summer camp in Oakland in July. The camp focuses on youth leadership – youth teaching their own courses on history, dance, music and science. Wallace and LaMotte developed the Hip Hop Education Project. Together they will be teaching younger kids about “Stereotype Threat” — acknowledge that stereotypes are real, and identifying how to overcome them, and become leaders in the community. The camp, staffed by six high school students and three directors, will focus on 30 students from grades three through five and begin to address the holes Wallace and LaMotte see in the current education system. The people of Oakland believe in the Hip Hop Education Project so much that they are already donating camp space and food.
The difference with Wallace is her approach -she thinks not only about the students she teaches, but also about who she wants those students to be in 15 to 20 years. In her science classes, Wallace asked students to develop a video about about a particular problem in the Oakland community. Before you ask what’s so special about that, consider that Wallace managed to encompass social activism, media skills development and science into one project. She wants the students to learn science, but she also wants them to learn about themselves as they learn the subject matter. LaMotte adds, “She holds the students within appropriate boundaries, but still gives them the space to be themselves.” As a special education teacher, LaMotte witnessed the impact of Wallace’s teaching methods when she reassigned one of her students to Wallace’s class. The result was a noticeable increase in the students abilities to keep up with the work.
Though personal matters drew Wallace back to the East Coast in 2012 -she’ll find her way back to Oakland via road trip this summer to kick off her camp. There the education revelation will begin. As Wallace says, “know your history and build on the history,” and that’s just what she will do – you just watch.
**To donate to Hip Hop Education Project, visit their website: www.hiphopeducationproject.org