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The Beauty of Acting Out of Character

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This story is a part of our month long exploration of the criminal legal system. Our COO, Kelechi Ohiri penned this piece about the connection between the carcernal system and Black women educators.

This piece is centered on an experience Dr. Addie Ellis had while working in a school district in Sacramento - you can find Dr. Ellis here:

LinkedIn: addieellis

As a Black woman, I find the concept of acting out of character so interesting. Acting out of character, what a phrase. Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, all the men and women merely players.” On this metaphoric stage called life there is such a hefty penalty for refusing to continue playing the part you’re assigned. Even questioning the character you’re assigned can be cause for rebuke. Let alone questioning who assigned it to you and who has a stake in your continued performance.

To act out of character is a signal of sorts. It’s the Starbucks cup in the Games of Thrones series finale, a reminder that perhaps this is all make believe. It is to say that there’s more to this performance than meets the eye. It’s an admission that we are all acting in one way or another. There are times when the inside wants out and it becomes far more crucial to express who we really are than it is to flawlessly perform the characters we have taken on. February 1, 2023 was one such day for Dr. Addie Ellis. But we’ll chat more about that in a moment…

There’s a reason the school house is one of the most hotly contested arenas of public life. In the United States, we require students to begin formal education from the age of 5 or 6 and publicly subsidize it through public schools until the 12th grade, age 17 or 18. The story we’ve most repeated is that this allows for an educated populace. School is where you’re supposed to learn reading, writing, math, history (lol), and other useful subjects to prepare you for continued formal education, work/trades, or a life as a productive member of a bustling democracy.

I call cap. Ideally, it does some or most of these things. But if we were to say the quiet part out loud, the school house is the arena for the most important fight of our lives - for the hearts and minds of our young people which represent our future. During my graduate studies in education I pondered the ways in which universities are centers for the production of knowledge and therefore the power to state, with authority, what is so and who should determine that. Dr. Shaun Harper, one of the foremost scholars of higher education, has contributed a lot of public intellectualism and writing to how universities contribute to the cyclical reproduction of racism in society. Plato, a Greek philosopher whose thoughts helped form the foundation of modern Western thought, said that education is a means to achieve justice, not just social justice but individual justice.

School is about more than learning your times tables and if you’re a little older like me, probably cursive too (why did we ever remove that from 3rd grade education?). School is where we teach our young people what it means to be in a society. Education is our means for teaching people how to think, not only about the society that they are in, but how to dream and even dare beyond it.

Let’s hold on to this distinction between education and teaching. It will become very essential in just a moment…

Carcerality in Education

Throughout our nation’s history there has been careful deliberation about who was permitted to receive education, what education they were permitted to receive, and strict punishment for daring beyond those boundaries. Let’s remember how entire segments of our society have been barred from education for various reasons along this nation's history - Black folks during the time of slavery and beyond, white women until the 1840s and 50s and even then only in certain subjects, poor folks whose parents could not afford education which continues to this day, and countless other groups and subsets of folks.

It’s no secret that white men were the first to be “educated” in this nation. The nation’s first university, Harvard University, founded in Massachusetts in 1636 was intended to educate white clergy as they were the only ones permitted to be clergy at the time. Christianity was still being used as a defense for the enslavement of Africans that would only grow more brutal over the coming decades. In fact, slavery is inseparable from Harvard’s rise considering that enslaved Africans helped to build the grounds - the irony of which is dizzying considering the punishment for reading as an enslaved Black human being could be death.

Surely it wasn’t Latin and the musing of Plato that were being so fiercely guarded within those walls at that time. Carcerality has been in education from the very beginning because of the power that education holds. Fast forward to the modern era and the landscape of education looks far different - students from every race and creed fill public schools across the nation. And yet their experiences in these schools are vastly different even in a post Brown v Board world.

Locally, the Sacramento Unified School District has been marred in controversy around its treatment of students, Black students in particular. In 2018 the district was under threat of state takeover while boasting the highest rate of Black student suspensions in the entire state. Many schools have sworn officers on campus or on standby ready to take students who “act out of character” off to juvenile hall and into the formal carceral system.

Schools are a precarious place for our students, without a doubt.

And yet, very rarely do we as a society consider the precarity of working at these schools. Recall the distinction made earlier between teaching and educating. It’s precarious enough to teach students the material they are to learn in class with limited resources and the changing pressures that society is putting on our youngest and most vulnerable members. It’s another thing entirely to be a committed educator, a willing bearer of the responsibility for teaching our young people how to be in a society, the truth of this society, and for the most daring and true of educators - how to dream beyond it.

February 1, 2023

My soul will die if I stay there, my soul will die

- Dr. Addie Ellis

Dr. Addie Ellis has a reputation that precedes her in the Black Sacramento community. I’d heard about her long before I ever met her. Words like kind, impressive, witty, smart, and “icon” are evoked when Dr. Ellis is mentioned in conversation. When I spoke to Dr. Ellis for this piece, I tried to act less excited than I was to finally have some 1:1 with this woman I’d already grown to admire from afar.

This piece is already running long and if I had to list out Dr. Ellis’ credentials it would double in length. Just know she has been a professor, consultant, educational leader, and mentor to damn near every dope Black woman in this city for going on 30 years now. She’s the one, not the two. And at the time this story takes place, Dr. Ellis was serving as an educational leader in a school district in Sacramento.

So when Dr. Ellis acted out of character on February 1, 2023, no one really knew what to make of it, Dr. Ellis included.

Let’s set the scene…

February 1st of 2023 was the first day of Black History Month and also the funeral of Tyre Nichols, a 29 year old Black man fatally beaten by 5 Black police officers in Memphis, Tennessee as he yelled for his mother. Dr. Ellis is reading the live updates of Tyre Nichols' funeral on the Washington Post as she’s preparing for another day on stage, at work. She felt within her that she shouldn’t go to work but had been asked to lead a DEI training on that very day. During the car ride over she cried hysterically, considering the 5 young Black men in her own life, but still committed to remaining in character. Recalling the moment she entered work that day she stated, “I dried the tears, I’m going to perform. Okay, showtime.”

Dr. Ellis decided to start the DEI training on this day with a warm up exercise. She asked the nearly 50 teachers and educational leaders in the room how they felt about attending the DEI training that day. Did they feel like an explorer knowing this work would contain curves but we a worthwhile investment, a vacationer who was glad to be in this room rather than doing work anywhere else, a shopper who wanted to pick up some tips and tricks before leaving or a prisoner trapped in a training they didn’t desire to take part in.

In a room of elementary school teachers and educational staff nearly all of them said they felt like prisoners. Simultaneously one educator proceeded to open their laptop and engage in a whispered side conversation. It was at that moment that the curtain fell to the floor, the house lights came on, and suddenly all the intricacies behind the stage that made the performance oh so convincing were revealed. Dr. Ellis broke character and according to her, “something in me snapped.”

She cursed them out, read them downnnnnn, proceeded to finish her presentation and assigned them homework. In a room full of teachers her inner educator jumped out.

When she got back to her office she broke down. Two young Black woman educators came to meet her there and said, “Thank you so much because you are always holding it together and you let me know that it’s okay that I don’t feel okay.” Simultaneously, emails were already being sent to her supervisor about her behavior by other staff in the room who were offended . Preemptively, Dr. Ellis has sent an email off to her supervisor herself acknowledging that, “my container broke. Thank you so much for holding that space for me.”

What an acknowledgement that was, to know that we are each human beings who have finite containers and that sometimes, those containers break. And what a radical act of self love to thank the powers that be for bearing witness to the glorious thing that is a Black woman acting out of character.

So where is Dr. Ellis now? Despite the precarity, she maintains her commitment to being an educator and that meant her stepping away from a role where that proved impossible.

I could not have orchestrated how things have lined up, it has had to be divine…I have not had to search for anything. It has come to me. Opportunities have come to me

- Dr. Addie Ellis

Long story short, since she broke character her life has been trending on the good, better, and best side of things.

I’ve thought long and hard about the call to action here.

What should I tell y’all to do with this newfound information. I have a few thoughts…

To Folks Who Are Not Black Women

  1. If you haven’t already, understand make peace with that fact that every child can benefit from the presence of a Black woman teacher

  2. Considering their importance to the wellbeing of all children, work toward the improved working conditions of Black educators. So many of us (me included) have walked away because despite loving our young scholars, the working conditions were not conducive with the life we dreamed for ourselves

  3. Continue to think about the distinction between teaching and educating. Support and encourage the educators in your life, they are navigating so much to teach our future generations priceless skills

To Black Women

  1. Know that we gon be alright and that educating is a sacred responsibility. You are engaged in some of the most divine work our society requires and though it may often be thankless, we see and appreciate you

  2. Say "no" more often

  3. Selflessness is a beautiful trait but a pivot to support your own wellbeing, happiness, and mental health benefits not just you but every single student you come into contact with as well. Your wellbeing is essential for our community. What’s good for you is ultimately good for us

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