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Chapter 3: Waking Up Woke: Exploring Black Female Youth Critical Consciousness and Sociopolitical Development

by Abiola A. Farinde-Wu, Jemimah L. Young & Sam Texeira - 2021

Background/Context: Critical consciousness (CC) is an awareness and reflection of inequities, political efficacy, and agency in response to injustice. Similarly, sociopolitical development (SPD) is the process of developing a critical understanding, skill set, and emotional depth to enact individual agency against oppressive forces. Of the latter, SPD is vital in empowering youth from traditionally marginalized communities to challenge inequities. However, SPD has largely remained absent from U.S. classrooms.

Purpose/Objective/ Research Question/Focus of Study: Considering the absence of SPD in U.S. classrooms, this case study explores the SPD of Black female preservice teachers and their Black female high school mentees in a two-year tutoring and mentoring school-based program. Our study captures the woke pedagogical experiences that advanced participants’ co-constructed CC. As such, we seek to describe student exemplars of what it means to be awakened and stay woke through an analysis of interviews, journal reflections, and video data. To this end, the research question that guided this study was: What are the perspectives of Black female youth as they co-construct CC toward SPD in a two-year tutoring and mentoring school-based program?

Research Design: Through the lenses of critical race feminism and woke pedagogies, this study used a single case study design. Case study is appropriate for this study because it highlights the particularity and complexities of one unit of analysis.

Findings: Our findings capture the perspectives of Black female youth as they cultivate CC toward sociopolitical development in one educational initiative geared toward partnering undergraduate and high school students. An examination of data through the lens of critical race feminism and woke pedagogies spotlighted the perspectives of our participants as they co-constructed CC through woke pedagogical experiences. Mentors deepened their CC on race, and mentees gained heightened awareness of gendered and racialized school procedures and policies. Black girls in this study woke up (CC) and stayed woke through their activism (SPD).

Conclusions: In sharing the perspectives of Black female youth as they cultivated SPD, it is our intention that the critical approach and experiences that we have described capture the methods and strategies that one educational initiative implemented to empower and promote agency among Black female students. As an example of woke pedagogy, this educational initiative offered Black girls at the intersection of race, gender, and class an opportunity to critically question their world and become aware of racial and social injustices impacting their everyday lives and community.

Critical consciousness (CC) is an awareness and reflection of inequities, political efficacy, and agency in response to injustice (Watts et al., 2011). Similarly, sociopolitical development (SPD) is described as “a process of growth in a person’s knowledge, analytical skills, emotional faculties, and capacity for action in political and social systems” (Watts et al., 2003, p. 185). Of the latter, SPD is vital in empowering youth from traditionally marginalized communities to challenge social injustices and inequities (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Watts & Guessous, 2006). SPD is embedded in culture and social justice that fosters activism and community empowerment through CC to resist oppression (Watts et al., 2003). According to Watts et al. (2003), “equally important is a vision of liberation that is an alternative to oppressive conditions” (p. 185). Scholars have recognized that SPD is rooted in Black cultural traditions of social change and have found that SPD is broadly beneficial to the educational experience and youth development of Black children (El-Amin et al., 2017; Watts et al., 1999, 2002, 2003). However, SPD has largely remained absent from U.S. classrooms; many teacher education programs remain apolitical and do not prepare future educators to teach for social justice (Katsarou et al., 2010). Considering this absence in traditional K–12 settings, this case study explores the CC and SPD of Black female preservice teachers and their Black female high school mentees in a two-year tutoring and mentoring school-based program. To this end, the research question that guided this study was: What are the perspectives of Black female youth as they co-construct CC toward SPD in a two-year tutoring and mentoring school-based program?

Cherry-McDaniel (2017) argued that the hashtags #WOKE or #STAYWOKE echo CC and have arisen in the face of violence against the identities and humanity of Black youth. She connects woke to a social media hashtag, a battle cry for the realization about injustice and the will and desire to do something about it. Considering her definition, for the purpose of this study, we conceptualize CC as an awakening, whereas SPD, a developmental process, serves as a culmination of that awakening through agency, action, and activism. With these guiding terms, we first offer a brief overview related to SPD because research specifically on SPD and Black female youth is absent from the literature. We then describe the woke pedagogical experiences that advance the co-constructed CC of Black female preservice teachers and their Black female high school mentees. Through the lenses of critical race feminism and woke pedagogies, we use data from a two-year tutoring and mentoring school-based program to capture their perspectives. Finally, aligning with SPD, we conclude with a discussion that advances woke youth and emphasizes youth who employ advocacy and agency to combat existing structures of oppression.


In comparison with CC, SPD is relatively absent from the educational literature related to the schooling of Black female students. However, the direct influence of CC on the SPD of Black girls is an emergent research trend. In the sections that follow, we chronicle the emergence of SPD research related to Black female students by drawing inspiration from the established socialization literature on Black girls, and then we leverage the CC literature as a mechanism to supplant the absence of empirical literature directly related to the SPD of our target population of learners. In addition, although we also discuss the #WOKE classroom and its utility in developing students’ SPD, such classroom practices can occur in varying educational contexts (Murray & Milner, 2015)—hence, the SPD of Black female youth in a school-based tutoring and mentoring program.


Anyiwo et al. (2018) argued that the SPD of Black youth is shaped by the interplay between experiences of racial discrimination, racial socialization, and racial identity within the context of systemic racism. However, socialization—or more specifically, gendered-racial socialization—has well-documented acute effects on the experiences of Black female youth (Baumrind, 1972; Froyum, 2010). In light of the salience of gendered-racial socialization as a contributing factor to the success of Black female learners, we center the discussion that follows on explicating the relationship between socialization and the development of CC as a conduit to SPD in Black female youth.

According to Arnett (1995), socialization is the “process by which people acquire the behaviors and beliefs of the social world—that is, the culture—in which they live” (p. 618). Socialization is a means by which children’s beliefs, goals, and behaviors are shaped to conform to their social groups so that they may become competent adult members of that group (Parke & Buriel, 1998). This process has substantial ramifications for students navigating the K-12 educational pipeline because this socialization process may either align or deviate from perceived “normative” white middle-class ways of being. Research indicates that the socialization of Black female learners is historically and culturally vested in strength (Collins, 2000) and contingent upon the socioeconomic status of their communities (Jones, 2010). Indeed, Black girls are taught to be self-reliant, and this dynamic remains steadfast (Brown et al., 2010). Further, the socialization processes and subsequent identity development of Black female learners are distinctive because of the interaction of racism and sexism (Thomas & King, 2007). Considering these variables, gendered-racial socialization has substantial implications for the development of Black female students’ CC and SPD.  

Further, the socialization processes and subsequent identity development of Black female learners are distinctive because of the interaction of racism and sexism (Thomas & King, 2007). Gendered-racial socialization has substantial implications for the development of Black female students’ CC and SPD.  

Gender shapes the Black female students’ experience in school and society (Farinde & Allen, 2013). According to Tang (1997), female students of color routinely face “multiple jeopardy” because classroom interactions are mediated by both gender and racial status expectations. Parents and teachers contribute to gender differences in academic and professional norms by modeling sex-typed behavior, communicating different expectations and goals for boys and girls, and emboldening different activities and skills (Eccles, 1983). These contributions are not without some unfortunate societal consequences. For example, Black girls often face the same challenges as their male counterparts (e.g., unjust discipline practices, unqualified teachers), yet, because of a lack of school initiatives to promote awareness, Black girls often suffer in silence due to their virtual invisibility (Gholson, 2016; Haynes et al., 2016). While legislation, regulatory reforms, and programmatic efforts continue to disproportionately support Black male learners, scholars suggest that it is important to identify effective means to support Black girls as they navigate racialized social environments (Grills et al., 2016). The relationship between Black female gendered-racial socialization and their development of CC represents an emerging line of inquiry towards this end.


Critical consciousness is born out of Freire’s (1970) notion of “conscientização,” defined as how individuals come to understand and actively oppose the oppressive social, political, and economic conditions of the reality in which they live. As mentioned, CC has come to be associated with awareness and reflection of inequities, political efficacy, and agency in response to injustice (Watts et al., 2011). Diemer and Blustein (2006) referred to CC as SPD in their scholarship on adolescents’ career development, positing that youths’ CC can better prepare them to assess and act upon injustice in the environments around them. Drawing on earlier work from Watts et al. (1999), they argued that CC necessitates both sociopolitical analysis and sociopolitical control. Offering additional perspective, Murray and Milner (2015) conceptualized four pedagogical principles to increase youths’ sociopolitical consciousness. They argued,

1) students should be engaged in deepening their historical and current knowledge about themselves (their own identities) and those of others in their communities; (2) . . . develop cultural, community and social context awareness through projects, readings, and experiences; (3) . . . develop skills to critically analyze and examine their developing knowledge and awareness; [and] (4) . . . develop research skills to study their communities in order to act. (p. 901)

In the case of women of color, Fernández et al. (2018) posited that SPD must be examined through an intersectional lens that centers the identities, subjectivities, and racialized and gendered positionalities of women of color. This reality is especially pertinent to the SPD of Black female learners. Subsequently, “research and practice involving young people’s social development and activism must take into account Black feminist epistemologies and the ways in which Black girls may engage in ‘everyday activism’ that often goes unrecognized as a form of critical resistance” (Kelly, 2018, p. 387). Classrooms are spaces where these ideas can either flourish or, in many instances, dwindle away because of opposition from school personnel. Fortunately, a growing body of evidence is identifying factors that support the development of SPD by leveraging the CC of Black youth within educational spaces (Seider et al., 2020).

Through structural equation modeling, Harrell-Levy (2018) observe a statistically significant positive relationship between culturally relevant teaching and SPD. The author, however, urges researchers to further examine this relationship because all culturally responsive teaching is not implemented with the same fidelity. Others suggest that youth curiosity should be considered within the context of SPD as a contributing factor (Clark & Seider, 2020). In summary, SPD is a critical psychological theory that at its core attempts to theorize a process by which people understand and deconstruct systems of oppression by taking action to transform and reclaim power in these systems (Kirshner et al., 2015). However, this cannot be realized without fresh perspectives and approaches to characterize these relationships. One such approach is wokeness, as described next.


If the goal is to cultivate students’ CC through effective educational practice for the liberation of youth and their communities, then teachers must go a step further by applying wokeness, a more modern manifestation of CC, to the classrooms in which they educate youth daily. Being woke must mean that teachers help students come to learn that injustice is not an incidental and natural occurrence of fate, but connected to a broader set of actions and systems that benefit and privilege some over others. According to Grant (2018), “Woke citizenship is about being aware of how social determinants such as social exclusion, education, and income inequality are being created and how they are affecting the lives of everyday people” (p. 331). Educators must prepare students to not only understand difficult realities as they exist, but to help students navigate the complexity of their role in perpetuating these realities and arm them with the ability to fight them.

Developing a #WOKE classroom that promotes the CC and SPD of students requires acknowledging students’ individual experiences, reconciling with positionality, and creating opportunities for students to pursue their own interests and needs. Students must think of themselves as citizen actors connected to a larger community. Cherry-McDaniel (2017) asserted that if students “are presented with and groomed within a framework of citizenship in which they are not actors, but instead acted upon, we can only expect that they will be complacent, ill-informed, and ill-prepared to become critically conscious citizens themselves” (p. 43).

Self-determination and community building are the first manifestations of woke pedagogy in classrooms. This practice does not simply end at the idea that students play icebreaker games and write out a list of rules on the first day of class that everyone signs. For Grant (2018), students must be woke to effectively fight for social justice and equity in the 21st century. He envisions a form of woke citizenship whereby broad questions are being asked that challenge young people to consider how they are viewed, the materials they are learning, and the factors about their daily lives that they are programmed to accept. In his conceptualization of woke citizenship, students are not just fighting to gain individual privileges enjoyed by some in society; students must recognize and honor the culture of others (Young, 2000). Students should come to understand their inherent social connections and that their individual fights for liberation are connected to their neighbors’ fights as well, “stamping out racism, sexism, and transgenderism even if it requires dealing with the discomfort of calling-out friends and family who use inappropriate language and behavior” (Grant, 2018, p. 330).

Constructing a class environment in which students feel that their interests are mutually related to the interests of other students around them, even those with whom they may share different identities, allows students to take the first step in forming a true community of learners and of citizens. Cherry-McDaniel (2017) argued, “This is a very important step in CC and community organizing. Any movement that has had lasting and transformative change required that its players overcame differences in identities and interests to work together on common goals” (p. 43). Preparing students for this aspect of community development as young people has the potential to develop a generation of leaders who will grow to see the value in fighting for the interests of their neighbors and community members as ardently as for their own. Students should see that the status quo privileges a narrow group whose success is predicated on individual gain and not collective growth and uplift. Watts et al. (2003) finds that when the oppressed engage in activism, defined as acting strategically with others on the basis of shared values to create a more just society, they might either reform current institutions and/or create new ones. There is no narrow path to SPD and activism: “Methods and tactics include political participation…[,] operating an organization with a mission of social change or liberation…[,] building capacity through community organizing, training, educating, and mobilizing…[;] activism is…only one of many manifestations of the SPD process” (Watts et al., 2003, p. 186).

Ironically, a #WOKE classroom encourages student learning outside its four walls by preparing students for activism when they leave its parameters, not just as graduates, but through experiential learning and access to neighborhood resources and community institutions. The modern contexts in which youth are currently being socialized—technology that allows them unlimited access to information and communication and living through a volatile political climate—ensure that the classroom as an intellectual space stands to gain by leveraging what students need to know with what they already know. Indeed, the #WOKE classroom “is particularly ripe ground for students to develop stronger reading and writing skills—and not an exclusively academic mandate, but to participate in the literacies that their generation are using to read their world” (Cherry-McDaniel, 2017, p. 46). There is no intellectual tradeoff that happens when young people develop CC. The #WOKE classroom is a supplement to an academically rich learning environment, not a substitute, transitioning from gaining knowledge to taking action.


This study is guided by two analytical lenses: (1) critical race feminism and (2) woke pedagogies. Originating from critical race scholars, critical race feminism (CRF; Wing, 1997) adheres to many of the same beliefs as critical race theory: (1) Racism is endemic and socially constructed, (2) minoritized people of color possess a unique positionality that is expressed through counter-storytelling, and (3) that the of elimination of racial injustices is necessary toward the eradication of all forms of oppression (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012, as cited in Patton & Ward, 2016). However, CRF offers greater insight into how the endemic nature of racism, sexism, classism, and other systems of oppression distinctly and disproportionately impacts minoritized women of color (Evans-Winters & Esposito, 2010).

In opposition to white supremacy, CRF challenges gender essentialism: “the notion that a unitary, ‘essential’ women’s experience can be isolated and described independently of race, class orientation, and other realities of experience” (Harris, 1990, p. 585). Viewing identities in the context of experiences as linked and mutually shaping (Patton & Ward, 2016), CRF adheres to the concept of intersectionality, which is captured through the lives of women of color. Employing an intersectionality approach (Crenshaw, 1991), CRF is particularly suited for the analysis of the educational experiences of Black girls and women (Evans-Winters & Esposito, 2010) because “African American girls are in multiple jeopardy of race, class and gender exclusion in mainstream educational institutions” (Evans-Winters & Esposito, 2010, p. 13). Examining the complex lives of Black youth, CRF unearths race, class, and gender injustices toward Black girls by placing them at the center of analysis.


Palmer (2018) described the term woke as a knowledge base and sense of consciousness about injustices ranging across various forms of inequity, violence, and poverty. Grant (2018) identified wokeness as being rooted in Black intellectual thought, a consciousness about the collective racialized experience married to the fight for citizenship, and Caldera (2018) further described woke pedagogy as being grounded in Black feminist ideology, with the experiences of both the educator and the student being sources of knowledge and knowledge creation. More specifically, injustice is analyzed from an intersectional perspective, and teacher practice is rooted in activist care.

According to Cherry-McDaniel (2017), marginalized young people and those who support them are in a space to speak and act on injustices in the world around them. To do so, teachers must be willing to reframe thinking around their personal ideologies and leverage their classroom spaces as activist training grounds. For example, the pedagogy of the woke teacher entails “[creating] space and opportunity for students to name and position themselves, as subjects, and articulate their interests and needs” (Cherry-McDaniel, 2017, p. 42). An empowered urban educator builds a classroom culture where students not only recognize the complexity and intersections of oppression but also are provided with the skills to resist it and fight for their communities.


This study utilized a single case study design (Merriam, 1998). In this bounded system, we conduct an examination of the SPD of six Black girls (two undergraduate students and four K-12 students) who participated in a two-year tutoring and mentoring program. An intrinsic case study (Stake, 1995) is appropriate for this particular research because it presents a unique situation, highlights the particularity and complexities of one unit of analysis, and allows in-depth investigation and description about the case. In conducting this empirical inquiry, we, two Black female teacher educators and one Black male classroom teacher, acknowledge our positionality as researchers (Milner, 2007). Possessing a shared race and/or gender with our participants and committed to equitable educational experiences for Black children, we are reflexive in our interactions with participants and recognize how our own identities may shape our engagement with this work.


This study was conducted in the northeastern region of the United States at an urban school site that is located in close proximity to a research-intensive university. Shirley Chisholm University Preparatory School (SC UPrep) (a pseudonym, as all names in this chapter) is a Grades 6–12 school in a working-class, historically Black urban neighborhood. On entering SC UPrep, a metal detector restricts entry into the front office, a common structure in all district schools. The student population is also heavily monitored with surveillance cameras and police officers on each floor. SC UPrep has a small student enrollment, serving approximately 500 students. It is state identified as a Title I school, with teacher and administration turnover and high discipline and student absentee rates. State standardized test scores indicate below proficiency ratings in core content areas. In addition, although the faculty is predominantly white, the school has a majority-minoritized student population, with more than 90% African American students and more than 80% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Within this context is the unnecessary and tragic annual death of at least one student due to gang violence. Unfortunately, because of enduring systemic racism, SC UPrep does not receive needed additional funding to adequately serve the social-emotional and academic needs of its underserved student population. Although SC UPrep is in dire need of additional district support, the school used numerous resources in the community, especially the local education council, community organizations, and an affiliated university center, which played a role in supporting mentors and mentees in this program.


The Near-Peer Tutoring and Mentoring Program (Near Peer) was co-constructed and co-facilitated by university faculty (teacher educators), local community organizations, and elders from the neighboring community. Near Peer is a year-long educational initiative for underserved middle and high students of color as well as a voluntary teacher preparation program for undergraduate students. The program is designed to prepare future teachers to teach students in urban sociopolitical contexts. Near Peer also aids undergraduate teacher preparation in that the sponsoring university only offers a master’s level teacher education program. Near Peer undergraduate mentors work with students of color at SC UPrep. More specifically, these undergraduate mentors support students in math, English language arts, and social skill development. The undergraduate mentors receive ongoing and extensive seminar training in five program competencies: (1) urban context within the U.S. education system, (2) pedagogy, (3) tutoring and mentoring (focus on math and English), (4) participatory action research, and (5) integrating arts and technology into education. As a capstone project, the mentors and mentees co-construct an action research project and create a technological resource, focusing on the arts (literature, music, theater, media, photography, and film) that furthers the academic and social progress of the high school student.

Undergraduate mentors are paired with no more than two high school students with whom they work for 2 hours and 30 minutes per day, twice a week. The first portion of this time is spent in class (45 minutes), where participants assist teachers of record to support all students. This in-class experience for undergraduate students provides access to curriculum and instruction, while also providing an opportunity for them to observe their students in a classroom environment. The second portion of tutoring occurs after school for 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is divided into two sessions: (1) an academic session (tutoring sessions) and (2) a youth development session in which youth engage in various critical and experiential activities. Examples of activities during youth development sessions include Kids Cook (informational cooking sessions where students learn about nutrition and food security issues affecting their community), African dance and drum sessions (with a focus on African identity, pride, and liberation), Junior Achievement financial literacy lessons, and toolkit lessons from the August Wilson Education Project (an educational initiative that encourages students to develop their unique voice while exploring the timeless themes prevalent in August Wilson’s work).

In addition, undergraduate and high school students participate in events in and around the community and university (e.g., theater productions, historically Black Greek step shows, museum of natural history [Race: Are We So Different?] events, university public lectures led by seasoned social science scholars, community education council meetings, college campus tours, a national soccer game). Youth also served their neighborhoods (e.g., food bank [Repack], story time at elementary school, community day of service). These community opportunities allow undergraduate mentors and mentees to engage in woke pedagogy while gaining critical knowledge about their community and the larger society.


Within the Near Peer Tutoring and Mentoring Program, there existed an original cohort of 12 undergraduate male and female students and 24 male and female high school students who were of varied demographics. For the purposes of this study, we chose to examine the unique perspectives and experiences of six Black girls, two undergraduate students, and four K–12 students. The Black female undergraduate students served as mentors in the Near Peer Program and were enrolled as sophomores at the research-intensive university that sponsored the program. It should be noted that Imani self-identified as Black, specifically Nigerian American, while the other participants self-identified as Black and African American. The Black female (K–12) sophomores were mentees in the program and attended a Grades 6–12 urban public school. Table 1 presents demographic information about these participants. In selecting our participants, our focus was intentional; to our knowledge, no study has solely focused on the SPD of Black girls. Considering this gap and how Black girls are often underresearched (Muhammad & Dixon, 2008), we hope to add to the literature by offering this case study.

Table 1. Participant Demographic Information



Grade Level



SES ________________________________________________________________________


College sophomore















College sophomore















Note. SES = socioeconomic status.


In exploring the SPD of Black girls, data are used from a two-year tutoring and mentoring program conducted at SC UPrep. Data were collected from Near Peer, an educational initiative designed to prepare future teachers to teach students in urban sociopolitical contexts. Although data were collected from all participants in the Near Peer Program, for the purposes of this study, as mentioned, we chose only to examine data from Black female participants. Data that were collected from these participants included mentor free-form and guided questions, tutoring and mentoring journal reflections, open-ended, semistructured audio-recorded interview data from both mentors and mentees, and university public lecture video data.

Six interviews were conducted with two undergraduate Black female students and four K–12 Black female students. For the mentors, the pre- and postinterview protocol highlighted several dimensions, such as the participants’ educational experiences and beliefs about race and racism in education and society at large. The interview protocols were almost identical, except that the postinterview probed for the participants’ beliefs about the program and their overall growth and development. The student interview questions pertained to sociopolitical issues in their schooling. For example, students were asked, “What do you think are the biggest issues negatively affecting your educational and social experiences?” These individual interviews lasted approximately 60 minutes and were later transcribed.

Mentor tutoring and mentoring weekly journal reflections were approximately one-page entries designed to help participants debrief on, make sense of, or document in-class and after-school tutoring and mentoring participation and observations (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). Video data were acquired from mentor and mentee lecture/fireside chat debriefings with research scholars from the field of education. All participants in this study signed consent forms. Parent consent was obtained for those participants under the age of 18.


During data analysis, all journal reflections, interview data, and video data were repeatedly read and viewed so that the researchers could immerse themselves in the data. Researchers also engaged in memoing to gain a deeper analysis of and connection with the data (Creswell, 2013). While engaging in the data analysis process, our research team used critical race feminism and woke pedagogies as theoretical lenses to identify emergent themes during the coding process. Employing NVivo (qualitative data analysis computer software), we identified numerous codes through the use of in vivo coding (Miles et al., 2014). After identifying these codes, we searched for patterns among the codes, clustering the respective codes into major categories. For example, we labeled race and gender sociopolitical codes as students spoke of their respective experiences. These emergent codes were grouped by context into categories (e.g., school, program, or societal experiences). At the final data stage, interrelationships between categories were observed to solidify salient themes. Two major themes captured the prevalent threads weaved throughout the categories affecting mentors and mentees. In executing this process, investigator and data triangulation was used to ensure the validity of data findings (Denzin, 2012).


Our findings capture the perspectives of Black female youth as they cultivate SPD in one educational initiative geared toward partnering undergraduate and high school students. An examination of data through the lens of critical race feminism and woke pedagogies spotlighted the perspectives of our participants as they co-constructed CC toward SPD through woke pedagogical experiences in a two-year tutoring and mentoring program. Collectively, Black female youth experienced an awakening of their CC on race, and, more specifically, K–12 Black female mentees gain heightened awareness of gendered and racialized school procedures and policies.


Program experiences affected both the mentors and mentees. Beginning with mentors, we first highlight their perceptions prior to engaging in programmatic activities and the awakening of their CC. Future educators were initially interviewed to gauge their beliefs about race and racism in education and society at large. Judith and Imani began the program with different levels of wokeness. When asked about race in the classroom, Judith said she felt that race was inconsequential in education and focused more on class. She stated,

I don’t think race plays a role in the classroom, so I don’t think Black people are treated

any differently. I don’t think we’re treated any differently; I think we’re just a small

percentage. I’ve never had anyone try to downplay what I’m capable of or like treat me

any differently in the classroom because I’m Black. Actually, I feel like I stick out

because I’m Black and because I sit in the front and so I think that’s . . . that’s good. I

actually went to a predominantly white high school where there was like 10 students out

of like 500 that were Black, and I didn’t see [race] play a role either because I lived in a

nice, predominantly white neighborhood, so I went to a private school with a lot of rich

people. So, I think, I didn’t really see it as like, “Oh I’m the only Black person.”

(preinterview, 2014)

Unlike Judith, Imani conveyed the importance of race in educating students of color. She also acknowledged how race influences her interactions and connection with students of color. She offered the following remarks:

I think my race helps in understanding students of color, particularly because I am a

student of color. I understand how it is to be in the minority and deal with stereotypes and

negative perceptions about you and your ability. I think my social identity makes it easier

to understand how perceptions, positive and negative, affect groups of people. Because of

this awareness, I feel like I’m more open to trying to understand where people from

different walks of life are coming from. (preinterview, 2014)

After engaging in two years of program seminars facilitated by guest speakers who discussed historical and contemporary sociopolitical issues, in-school and after-school tutoring/mentoring sessions, trips with their mentees to various social and cultural events (i.e., community-based organizations, museums, landmarks), and service to the community, the postinterview responses of Judith and Imani showed deepened CC. Judith’s perspective changed drastically. She asserted, “I do not think we live in a post-race society. I do not think there will ever be a post-race society because there will always be this discussion of race because there is a lack of equity and equality within society.” Judith went on to add how program experiences have changed her perspective and given her new insight. She humbly expressed, “This program has heightened and strengthened my critical consciousness. In addition to mentoring/tutoring, the critical experiences that we have had have made me aware of racial disparities and lack of resources in many urban schools” (postinterview, 2016). Imani, who had a sense of CC at the onset of the program, was affirmed in her beliefs. On the topic of race in education and society, Imani provided a compelling response:

Race is still a humongous determinant of opportunity and access to resources. People of

color are still getting killed by authority figures and then the authority figures walk free.

Black women are still policed for their hair and bodies in the workplace and in general.

There are still huge racial disparities. Donald Trump is allowed to run for president, and

he has a huge following. We are the furthest things from post-racial in education and

society. (postinterview, 2016)

When probed deeper about the knowledge and skills she gained in the Near Peer Program, Imani explained how she grew in knowledge and awareness:

Through readings, hearing stories from community members and my engagement with students in a school setting, I’ve become more aware of race and culture in education and in the classroom, and how it affects different students. I’ve also become aware of how different systems interact and how that will affect students. It’s really helped me put into practice the “person in environment” approach and ask more questions before I make assumptions. (postinterview, 2016)

Judith and Imani engaged in numerous interactions and experiences with their mentees that informed their CC. However, both noted in their journals a poignant exchange between themselves and their mentees. Both girls, troubled by a student’s comments, connected this experience to knowledge gained from the program. Judith offered a detailed account in her weekly after-school journal reflection.

On Monday, the girls, [Imani], and I talked a great deal about college plans, during which [Porsha] implied that she would probably not do well in college “because [she is] Black.” She seemed to be referring to and feeding into the societal struggle we often discuss at seminars—teachers having lower expectations for minority students, impeding the students from reaching their full potential. It disheartened me to hear her say she would not be successful post-high school due to being Black. (4/10/2015)

The findings suggest that despite differing levels of initial CC, Imani and Judith both experienced an awakening of CC as evidenced by their mutual concern sparked by the troubling remarks of their mentees.


In interviews with the K–12 Black female students after the conclusion of the program, all the participants expressed, to some degree, discontent about their schooling experiences, conveying major sociopolitical issues that negatively affected their educational experiences. Brittany emphatically exclaimed, “School used to be fun.” She continued by stating, “The Near Peer Program is fun. We get help with homework, go to activities like Kids Cook and that big lecture down at the university with our mentors, and learn about things that affect us. I wish school was like that.” In comparing her schooling experience with her experiences in the Near Peer Program, Brittany wished for greater alignment.

The K–12 Black girls in this study conveyed concern about varying sociopolitical issues when probed; however, the main recurring themes that were frequently mentioned by all students were: (1) school closures and discipline, (2) novice teachers, (3) ineffective instruction, and (4) the invisibility of Black girls. These themes reflect an emergent SPD within the K–12 mentees.

Erica, possessing a heightened awareness of her perceived social identity, suggested a connection between school closures and the race and class of her surrounding community. She explained,

Because we Black and poor, they keep closing our schools; they keep combining kids from other schools, from other neighborhoods that don’t like each other, and they just bring them all into one school. Because of this, [students] keep fighting and being disruptive.

Porsha also shared Erica’s concern about race and school closures but added the issue of ineffective teaching instruction:

Like you throw all these Black kids in one school from everywhere, so when you put a whole bunch of kids in one class, it’s not controlled, so you can’t really learn, and then the teachers don’t really be teaching like how they should be teaching, like how the parents expect the teachers to be teaching.

When expressing issues pertaining to teacher effectiveness at her school, Jessica lamented, questioning teacher turnover issues. She asked, “Why do we always get the new teachers that don’t know what they’re doing?” More specifically, Jessica narrated a story about a fight that occurred in a new teacher’s classroom that obstructed her learning. She recounted,

We had biology, and the whole class was out of control. This was Ms. [Smith]; she was like newer. There was a fight last week in her class when we were taking our test. A group of girls came into our class because they didn’t like this one girl and like the whole school was in our classroom.

In her postinterview highlighting the lack of school resources in a majority-minority school, Porsha also stressed, “Other schools with white kids have stuff, we don’t even have books and we barely get homework, and we come home with ‘E’ (bad grade) because [teachers are] not teaching.” Furthermore, the K–12 Black girls spoke of feelings of invisibility in their school. Jessica and Brittany specifically conveyed concern about the lack of support for Black girls and Black girls’ issues in school. Jessica passionately stressed, “Man in this school, Black boys get all the attention. Everyone is so scared about what’s gonna happen to them. They [school personnel] forget about us [Black girls].” Brittany also mentioned, “Teachers forget about us [Black girls]. They pay more attention to the boys in the classroom. They don’t be seeing us.” The girls’ statements were conceived from an awakened comparison between the girls’ lived experiences and the perceived experiences of others. In the Near Peer Programs, these realizations were achieved through ongoing critical examinations of students’ school experiences, revealing the girls shared feeling of inequity and invisibility in school.

The co-construction of CC was most evident during the fall and spring university lectures attended by both the mentors and mentees. In these events, four respective nationally renowned social science scholars led a critical and compelling talk about pertinent education issues (e.g., school discipline, restorative justice, culturally responsive teaching, and deficit discourses about Black youth). Through these lectures and their subsequent fireside chat debriefings, mentors and mentees were able to share and gain knowledge, have discussions with each other, and unpack the implications of these topics.

Although students engaged in critical conversations with their mentors and social science scholars in all the fireside chat debriefings, the lecture on school discipline ignited strong statements from the K–12 Black female students and probing questions from the Black undergraduate students to better understand the high school students’ lived experiences.

When asked about school discipline issues, Erica asserted, “They think we are going to do worse stuff than other kids because of what they see on Facebook.” Brittany added, “[Teachers] see Black kids doing stuff on Facebook and they automatically assume that’s the stuff we do.” The Black girls suggested that because of stereotypes and teachers’ negative perceptions of Black students, their day-to-day activities within school were limited. Jessica further explained,

We have to ask to go get a drink of water; we have to ask to go use the bathroom; we have to ask to get up and sharpen our pencil . . . we have to ask to get up and throw our lunch away. They bring the garbage cans to us. We can’t get up, so it’s like we are in jail. We can’t do nothing. At least give us more freedom.

The discussion among Black female youth about discipline often led back to ineffective classroom instruction and management. They implied that school discipline issues impeded their daily learning. Porsha detailed her concerns when she stated,

I think our teachers don’t know how to control our classes. [The school] is all small and there are a lot of rowdy kids. I be engaged in the class and there be like people in the back that be talking and [the teacher] will stop the whole class for like two minutes and just be standing there doing nothing and by the time she gets done with the situation, the class be over. And we don’t get nothing done at all.

Confirming Porsha’s story, Brittany proclaimed, “[The teacher] don’t redirect or nothing. She just stares at [the students].” As the conversation continued, Imani asked, “What can teachers and administrators do to fix these issues; what could you do?” Brittany immediately offered the following statement: “Start talking to them kids. Like, to see what’s really the problem.” Jessica also suggested communicating to the district administration and explaining their issues. She


We could go to the administration office and tell them that we got a problem, and it

needs to be dealt with if we’re going to have a preparatory school. So, like we can’t get ready for college if we’re not learning the right things, and we’re not getting the right education.

“Woke pedagogy . . . is defined by teaching practices that integrate critiques of contemporary justice-related issues with academic content in a learning environment that encourages introspection, interrogation, and insurgence” (Caldera, 2018, p. 2). Thus, the girls’ statements and feelings are warranted and welcomed within this context. The lectures and debriefings offered Black girls space and time to reflect and formulate a plan of action. In the next section, we explicate the empirical and practical utility of the findings from the present study.


The findings from this study have practical and empirical merit. First, findings from the mentors suggest that Black female youth were awakened through the use of experiential woke pedagogy; there is an awakening of sorts that moves Black female youth beyond CC with the goal of achieving SPD (Watts & Hipolito-Delgado, 2015). Related studies support the notion that Black female youths’ CC is developed through experience and interactions with other youth and their environment (Clonan-Roy et al., 2016). This interplay was evidenced in Judith’s ideological shift and the continual growth of Imani’s CC after being exposed to others’ lived experiences and thus vicariously experiencing the challenges of her mentees.

Woke pedagogy required courage and cultural curiosity from our two Black preservice female teachers, revealing their role in the broader systems of oppression that harm marginalized people of color, including the marginalized children in front of them. As future educators, “They bravely and continuously engage in critical self-examination to not only recognize their own power, privilege, and implicit biases but also to become cognizant of how they, too, are impacted by systemic inequities” (Caldera, 2018, p. 5). Judith and Imani showed that “woke work” is not solely for white educators (Coffey & Farinde-Wu 2016; Jackson & Knight-Manuel, 2019). Teachers of color also must have the courage to look in the mirror and understand their own role in perpetuating -isms, both against students whom with they may not share an identity (gender, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic status, ableness, religion, etc.) and students who are racially and/or ethnically minoritized.

According to Kirshner et al. (2015), situating SPD within education “requires a compelling mix of theory, rigorous evidence, and practical strategy” (p. 803). Therefore, we recommend combining the theoretical underpinnings of critical race theory with culturally responsive teaching and critical interracial dialogue about race in schools because this combination has been shown to be effective in cultivating the development of CC in teachers of color (Coffey & Farinde-Wu, 2016; Kohli, 2012). This combination of theory and practice within safe spaces can facilitate the end goal of SPD. Unpacking painful traces and manifestations of internalized racism and self-hatred are important steps that teachers of color must engage in to effectively gain CC and implement a woke pedagogy for their students.


The foundational goals of SPD are dialogue, solidarity, and action (Carmen et al., 2015). After two years of woke pedagogy, the Black female preservice teachers and their mentees developed unanimity that represents the catalyst to sociopolitical action. This collective thought is evidenced by the shared observations of the Black girls related to the well-documented opportunity gaps that are widening for female students of color. The K–12 Black female learners noted four challenges or barriers to their academic success: (1) school closures and discipline, (2) novice teachers, (3) ineffective instruction, and (4) the invisibility of Black girls. Through critical reflections on their unique and shared experiences, the mentees were able to engage in critical social analysis (Watts & Hipolito-Delgado, 2015) by moving beyond their personal experiences with discrimination to examine the structural mechanisms that institutionalize and perpetuate oppression. Specifically, these Black girls identified some of the most salient opportunity gaps as well as race and gender injustices present between themselves and their male counterparts and the systems that facilitate their existence. Moreover, these findings from the present study support prior research related to SPD. Specifically, according to Anyiwo et al. (2018), youth must be conscious about social inequity to engage in sociopolitical action. The results of the present study indicate that the Black female mentors and mentees both identified various levels of social inequity within their social and educational spaces as a result of their interactions within the tutoring and mentoring program, and thus are primed for SPD. In summary, the results of the present study add further credence to prior work in this area related to the facilitation of CC development among Black girls, while laying the foundation for the unpacking of Black female learners’ SPD.


In October 2019, the Obama Foundation hosted its third summit in Chicago. During the summit, actress and Harvard student Yara Shahidi interviewed former President Obama. At one point, Shahidi shared with the president advice that was given to her by an activist about the importance of advocating for others because self-advocacy alone simply amounts to “asking for colonial infrastructures to work in your favor, a shift of privilege.” Obama presented his thoughts rather pensively and cautiously, sharing anecdotes and discussing what he viewed as the complexity of Shahidi’s statement. What caught media attention, however, were other parts of his statement:

I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of “the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because man, you see how woke I was? I called you out!” . . . that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.

Although President Obama and many others may have come to see the term “woke” as a pejorative associated with keyboard critique over real solutions, the reality is that woke pedagogy in the classroom represents a shift toward tangible action, not against it. Woke pedagogy does not mean refusing to be politically active because things are imperfect, but understanding how and why oppressive structures exist and working to eradicate them. With this understanding of wokeness, we unpack the perspectives and experiences of six Black girls who co-constructed CC as a means toward SPD.

Dually marginalized populations (for instance Black girls) continue to experience opportunity gaps in schools and inequities in their communities. To change this reality, we must prepare girls of color to develop the skills, mindsets, and abilities to act against oppression (Zion et al., 2015). The race, class, and gendered experiences of Black female students will remain a challenge until this is realized. Hence, we recommend that future studies fully embrace and monitor participant progression through the four stages of CC. Watts and Hipolito-Delgado (2015) proffered that CC is realized through four distinct stages: (a) critical social analysis or critical reflection, (b) collective identification, (c) political self-efficacy, and (d) sociopolitical action.

The results of the present study provide strong evidence to support the actualization of each of the four stages. The mentees engaged in experiences and activities designed to leverage woke pedagogical practices in order to foster CC and SPD. In gaining CC through program activities and experiences, the program participants questioned existing social systems, thus exemplifying the definition of critical social analysis by recognizing pertinent social inequalities and understanding the unjust exercise of sociopolitical power that creates them (Watts & Hipolito-Delgado, 2015). Furthermore, through collective identification, the girls activated their own agency by composing a letter to the school administration about their schooling experiences. We argue that this act is reflective of collective identification, as the girls came together in solidarity for the betterment of the collective and took action. The girls also modeled political self-efficacy by having the confidence and motivation to serve their community through various activities and programs (e.g., food bank [Repack], story time at an elementary school, community day of service).

Finally, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that these intentional acts of activism and agency ignite social change, however micro or macro, and thus represent the final stage of CC (i.e., sociopolitical action) or the “promotion of change in social and institutional policies or practices that maintain an inferior status for members of marginalized groups” (Watts & Hipolito-Delgado, 2015, p. 850). Hence, it is appropriate to characterize the SPD of the Black female learners in the present study as emergent.


In sharing the perspectives of Black female youth as they cultivated CC toward SPD, it is our intention that the critical approach and experiences that we have described capture the methods and strategies that one educational initiative implemented to empower and promote agency among Black female students. Evans-Winters and Esposito (2010) asserted,

there is a need for scholarly endeavors that not only serve to empirically validate the experiences of girls of African descent, but also make use of such findings to strengthen coalitions across academic genres and communities, transform pedagogical practices in classrooms; and, actively promote social and educational policies at the micro- and macro-level, with those in mind who exist at the intersections of race, class, and gender. (p. 15)

As an example of woke pedagogy, the Near-Peer Tutoring and Mentoring Program offered Black girls at the intersection of race, gender, and class an opportunity to critically question their world and become aware of racial and social injustices impacting their everyday lives and community. Indeed, these Black girls “woke up” (CC) and stayed “woke” through their activism (SPD).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23738, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 4:47:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Abiola Farinde-Wu
    University of Massachusetts Boston
    E-mail Author
    ABIOLA FARINDE-WU, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of urban education in the Department of Leadership in Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Farinde-Wu’s teaching and service focus on preparing urban preservice and in-service educators for diverse student populations. Her research interests are the educational experiences and outcomes of Black women and girls, diversifying the U.S. teacher workforce, and urban teacher education. She has coauthored numerous studies published in journals, including Urban Education, Urban Review, Teaching and Teacher Education, and Teachers College Record. In addition, she is the coeditor of Black Female Teachers: Diversifying the United States’ Teacher Workforce (Emerald, 2017).
  • Jemimah Young
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    JEMIMAH L. YOUNG (“Mimi”), Ph.D., is an associate professor of multicultural and urban education at Texas A&M University. Dr. Young is a research expert specializing in academic outcomes of historically marginalized and minoritized populations, with a particular emphasis on Black women and girls. Dr. Young has more than 90 published works, serves the field in local and national capacities, and is the coeditor of the Journal of African American Women and Girls in Education (JAAWGE).
  • Sam Texeira
    University of Illinois at Chicago
    E-mail Author
    SAM TEXEIRA is doctoral student in the Urban Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also a teacher and department chair in Chicago Public Schools. His research interests include critical race theory and how urban public schools can support students’ sociopolitical consciousness.
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