Creating Space for Student Empowerment
Ideas by Ian Levy (transcribed by our writing team)
Third Eye Education recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ian Levy, both for this podcast episode as well as for this interview where we discuss his new book Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy in School Counseling: Developing Culturally Responsive Approaches. What we found most enjoyable was how applicable the book is to all areas of education. For the podcast, we focused on ways hip hop can be leveraged as a tool in the classroom and in the counselor’s office.
For this article—a transcribed interview and the first of a two-part series—Levy and our team focus on the empowerment of students through the creation of space.
We’d like to focus on chapter four and chapter six, if that's okay?
Yeah, absolutely. The office creation and then the cypher chapter. Yeah totally. Those would be great.
A Safe Space: physical & dialogical
Perfect. A question from Jean Prokott, our poet in residence: Could creating space translate to classrooms and to broader educational use in some way? What obstacles prevent that from happening?
When I think about creating space, I think about the ambiguous, hard to find emotional space, and then the physical space. I think about both spaces. The physical space is more the focus of chapter four, in particular. It boils down to: Why do we create spaces based on an assumption of what feels comfortable for youth rather than saying, “Hey, what kind of space do you want to come into every day?”
It is a very simple idea, but a powerful one. This came from years of experiences being in schools—we come in those few weeks before school starts and we get our room set up and we plan really hard. That is really wonderful and we get a lot of great work done in that time. But I don’t think it always involves youth voices. It is based on our assumptions, but not that next step of, “Hey, what do you want to do? How do you want to design that space?”
When I looked at the literature, there wasn’t a lot on that. When you look at differences culturally--What does it mean to create a space that is inclusive and intersectional?—that didn’t really exist at all. I found a multicultural checklist that was like: put some posters on the wall of different cultures. That was as close as it came, which was so far off the mark. So, there was this pivot to say, “Hey, I’m just going to go into school and work with the youth to define what it is that a space needs to look and feel like for them to want to talk about their emotions within that space.”
When I started thinking about where that happens in hip hop—the studio has always been that. Rappers explain studios as spaces for personal transformation: as comfortable environments where they can engage in this emotional labor. Those spaces are usually—dim lighting, comfortable seating, being able to sit with other people and process things out loud: very lounge-like. It is interesting because the little bit of literature about asking youth, even after the fact, those things came up: dim lighting, couch—all the things the studio has already been doing. There’s evidence that those are helpful, but no one has connected those things and said, “Let me take some young people and say, ‘Why don’t you help me create a space?’”
The other reason is more dialogical. What skills do educators have or lack that allow or don’t allow emotions to come to surface? If a space is a safe space, a lot of the time we conflate a space where there is no tension to be what we need. A space where we ignore the difficult stuff isn’t the answer. A radically uncomfortable space isn’t the answer, either. But I know from group processes that this storming phase of group work—that groups have to be in—this place of discomfort is needed to get to a place of cohesion. We need to be able to facilitate dialogues in a space that youth have decided is the space for them to feel comfortable. Then, conversations need to occur in that space: emotions can come up, difficult conversations can occur. Get us to a place of cohesion.
What is so impressive about chapter four in particular, but the book in general, is that any doubts you have--for example, “I could give students the voice and the opportunity to shape the room, but that’s going to take time, and that’s time that I could be spending instructing. I could be helping with skills around my content...”--you’ve gone on to show that: student voice is the skill. Their participation is helping grow their skills faster and be more productive.
What skills stood out to you in terms of the things students developed as they went through this process with you?
There are skills that students developed and skills that students had. I learned a lot about the skills that students had that I might not have seen before.
Students were putting the microphone in a specific place so that there would be some ability to have privacy. If I put the mic in a specific way, one where I am facing all the other students, then all eyes are on me while I’m sharing. But, if I’m facing this corner wall nook, I’m away from everything else. So students knew how to create a pocket of security within a room.
",,,they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others..."
But also, this act of sharing and being heard within the studio, students valued it on a personal level, but then they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others; which is something hip hop says, “each one teach one.” Youth saying, “Hey, this space is really great for us. We could use this space for freshmen when they come next year.” Youth were starting to think about how the studio itself was not just a space for them to process or work through whatever they needed to, but then [how it] could become this large component of school culture and could shift policy and practices within the school to make it more safe and inclusive for all students that come into the school building.
There was self-advocacy, the ability for youth to look out for each other—to showcase empathy and compassion for their peers, and to show they have this knowledge already.
I’ve had schools that have tried so hard to create a nice transition program for youth that are coming into the school building. While students working inside the studio figured out a more appropriate and valuable process within a couple weeks. When we relinquish power, everything happens, because youth already have a lot of the skills that we think they need to develop. Maybe they can be refined, and built upon, and explored in new ways, but the core of those behaviors exist within youth already, and that is very humanistic. We just need to create the conditions for those to then shine and be cultivated further.
Creating Bridges & Fostering Connections
You spoke about collaboration. Another question from our poet in residence, Jean: Have you noticed that creating space at school translates to creating space in the wider community? How can students owning their space exist outside of the school building?
I think that this kind of a space invites parts of youth that historically have been relegated to only exist outside of the building to come into the building. I might love hip hop, and love the cypher, but I’ve got to go do that somewhere else. Maybe I even cut school to go to a cypher or go hang out with my friends and rap. Because those forms of who I am are not welcomed in that school. So now we say—you can enter this space; which not only upholds part of who youth are outside of school, but it also naturally creates bridges to foster connections.
I’ve had parents come for parent meetings and see a studio in the corner of the office and be like, “Hey, you know I make beats,” and then offer to do workshops outside of school. I’ve had DJs reach out who are in the local community that heard student’s songs on Soundcloud somehow, and say, “Hey, I was a student in the Bronx, too. I wish we had this when I was in school. Let me come and do some work with your students.” The community will come. “If you build it they will come” [Field of Dreams].
If you create the confines for this to occur. If you validate and appreciate the skills—that youth and community, youth and families have, the assets they have—and you allow them to exist within the school, then all of the ones that exist around it—the ancillary partners, collaborators, stakeholders—they’ll come. They will flock towards the school. I’ve heard time and again from parents and others that came into the school, “I wish we had this when I was in school.”
This is again in the Bronx, where a lot of my research is done. Parents that were saying that were the same age as the students I work with in the 70s and 80s. They resonated with the culture in a huge way and loved seeing it in the school. The community was ready for it. We just weren’t ready for it. The school, the education system weren’t ready for it. So once you open that door, it’s all going to come in as long as you’re authentically engaging in it. How do you do this from an authentic place? I think those connections form and youth are upheld and their communities are upheld when you invite hip hop to exist within the school.
Opening Doors to Inherent Community Builders
The book is really good at talking about realness and authenticity--and helping the reader to understand what that means.
Part of what you are talking about also connects to something coming up. We will be having a discussion with Lazerbeak & Ilan Blanck on the podcast: they are teaching us how to build community. In having those conversations, we realized we don’t teach our students how to build the community they are desperate for. At every age level, they want to know how to belong to one, and we don’t teach them how to create one.
The work you did empowering students--showing them how to collaborate--you were teaching them how to create a community. Was that intentional? A happy byproduct? Would you have any advice to help other schools in being more purposeful in teaching young people to create communities?
Again, I would return to something I was saying before, which is that the hip hop community understands in a very deep and personal way how to create community. I don’t think it is teaching youth to create community as it's calling on the power and potential of hip hop to foster community.
When the Bronx was literally burning and falling apart, rival gang leaders said, “We’re not going to do this any more. Let’s form communities.” They came together in the midst of the chaos that surrounded it to chart a path forward and process. That is the origin of hip hop.
I like to think sometimes of the studio work as a microcosm of that much larger process. School isn’t an inviting place: it's kind of all falling apart. I’ve worked with a lot of young people who were traditionally struggling, or at risk, or however the school wanted to frame them (even though that’s a deficit way of framing our youth); then the youth came together to create community—to make sense of all of the chaos that is surrounding them. It wasn’t super intentional to form community. The intention was: let’s make a mixtape—let’s make a studio. Through doing something that was inherently connected to hip hop, through creating some physical product connected to hip culture, that community formed.
Facilitating as a group counselor, [I] naturally processed things and worked through tensions to build cohesion. I operated with a group counseling mindset, which naturally is about fostering community.
Again, I cannot understate that youth are hungry for connection: they’re hungry for community building. Yet, there are never—or seldom—authentic ways for community to be fostered. We’re asking youth to build community inside a sterile classroom where they’ve never learned real things about each other and they don’t know their teacher very well. That kind of environment doesn’t pull on the innate community building skills and tactics that youth have been given as a result of identifying with hip hop. When you allow hip hop to come in, a community is built. It is overly simplistic, but it is inherent, so it will happen whether or not intentional about it. It’s a cool thing.
Next week, you can look forward to part two of our interview with Ian Levy.
A taste of what to expect: it opens with the statement, "One of the nice things about talking to you is that you make my mind jump to places that I wasn’t anticipating."
Excited? We are...
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
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