‘Education is Freedom Work’: Dr. Monique Morris anchors gender and sexuality conference in education equality

Monique Morris — educator, scholar, author, and founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute — spoke to an attentive crowd on the Wichita State campus Friday. Morris was the highly anticipated keynote speaker for the sixth annual Gender and Sexuality in Kansas Conference.

Hosted by the WSU Sociology Department along with co-sponsors, the event showcased statewide scholarly and creative work within gender and sexuality studies. The full day affair kicked off in the Rhatigan Student Center, offering multiple lectures — many of which focused on the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and class.

Researchers hailed not only from WSU, but also from Kansas State, the University of Kansas, Fort Hays State, and Iowa State.

Presentations dove into a variety of intriguing issues under the umbrella of gender and sexuality. Titles ranged from “Understanding Community Climate among Transgender Youth in the Midwest” (Megan Paceley of University of Kansas) to “Sexual Consent in the Age of Grindr” (Nicolette Zangai and Charlene Muehlenhard). Short, animated discussions took place after the talks, as participants asked the presenters questions and engaged with the rest of the audience.

Morris’s talk was titled ​“Education is​ ​Freedom Work (and Other Critical Reflections About Responses to School Pushout for Black Girls).”​ She shared her research with a perceptive audience, pulling from her recent book, ​“Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.​”

“Black girls are overrepresented along the entire continuum of discipline,” Morris said. “Why are we seeing this pattern?”

The rest of her talk dug into that question. Through a series of slides, narratives, data, and stories, Morris made a case for obliterating school policies that perpetuate the adultification of black girls. She pushed for a school system that would not play a role in the “the tapestry of hurt,” but instead provide safe spaces for ​all​ students.

“When girls feel safe, they can learn,” Morris said.

After her presentation, Morris took questions from the audience. One participant asked what she could do as a member of the general public.

“Live this out in your personal spaces,” Morris answered.

She expounded that we can all enter this conversation at the community level. Not only do policies in schools need to change — we have a collective responsibility to do “deep internal work to address personal biases,” Morris said.

Another audience member asked what we can do as instructors to create safe spaces for black girls.

Morris encouraged teachers to learn how to code switch and to bring other voices into their curriculum.

“Disrupt the canon,” Morris said. “Include other voices in your syllabus and also other forms of expression. There are multiple ‘ways of knowing.’”

Morris also warned against seeing oneself as a savior.

“Nobody’s a savior for black girls,” she said. “Not even me.”

As the keynote address wrapped up, a few more lectures were offered to the community, concluding a day of rich academic work for both presenters and attendees. Although the conference may be over, the scholarly work continues. Research inspired by this 2019’s Gender and Sexuality in Kansas Conference will likely be showcased in the years to come.