My teaching practice is about making things. For more than two decades now, I have been deeply engaged with the communities most impacted by HIV and mass criminalization. On the frontlines, I have partnered with thousands of community leaders to co-create more livable futures together. Most intimately, that work landed me on the intake housing units of the Philadelphia jails to provide education, care, and a community of support for people awaiting trial. Most expansively, I spent years on the move from New York to Chicago to New Orleans to Los Angeles helping to stitch together grassroots religious communities into a national network for mutual mentorship. Now, as a university professor and public scholar, I work to bring this extensive knowledge and experience of co-creating to my students. I enter every classroom with the understanding that my students are already actively producing knowledge about their own lives. Our semester’s work is to learn how to make meaning together through active learning experiences that benefit our local communities.
When I joined the faculty of Florida State University in Fall 2019, I got to work creating an abolitionist teaching program, starting with the foundational undergraduate course “Religion, Prisons, & Abolition.” Bringing my organizing expertise to bear at FSU, however, was no straightforward process of translation. As any ethnographer knows, place matters. Here in Florida, we have an incarceration rate that is higher than that of every other country on earth. That means that any classroom at FSU renders visible the deep fault lines that run through our country and the histories that have produced them. There is no way to teach about abolition as a disembodied, intellectual exercise. There is, however, an opportunity: to enlist students in the experimental work of building a community engaged classroom in which we can imagine and make the world otherwise together.
Co-creating that kind of learning community demands a very different sort of professorial authority. As a professor, I am not the holder of content. I am the builder of infrastructure through which we can all come together as co-teachers to learn from one another and our communities. My classrooms center the practices that my longtime organizing comrades use to change themselves and change the world. This includes the emergent strategy principles curated by adrienne maree brown, the practice of descargando learned from Latinx organizers in California, and the assessments of self and world that have guided formerly incarcerated elders in Philadelphia. We open every class with a check-in, and we close the same way with a check-out. We build community agreements for holding this experimental space of praxis together, and we revisit these agreements regularly as a form of mutual accountability.
Students flourish in this learning environment, because every dimension of it is of their own creation. The groundwork that we lay together underlines for them that community engagement starts with getting into different relationship with each other. They learn to value community elders and knowledge keepers as experts by practicing the tools that they have developed to better themselves. When my students begin the series of self-directed, iterative projects that are the backbone of every course I teach, they do so as apprentices to our local community, and they move with intention to develop resources that build on the work already happening on the ground.
Learning from my students and watching them grow has truly been an awe-inspiring journey. In the 2021–2022 academic year, I was recognize with a University Teaching Award for Community Engaged Teaching. I also recently published “The Ground on Which We Stand: Making Abolition” with five of my students, which centers our journey to create abolitionist futures in real time at Florida State University and in our home communities.