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Volume 9, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Educators in the United States? 
Making the Case Using South African Educators as an Example


Tanetha J. Grosland

University of Florida

    Teaching is a socio-political act that can be used to emancipate. Therefore schools in its many forms, i.e. adult learning centers, grade schools, or colleges and universities, are social institutions and have historically and currently been used to resist social oppression and human rights. For example, there are many untold and silenced stories of educators who taught to resist apartheid in South Africa. Also, in other parts of the world, similar stories can be told of educators who were (are) silenced in order to perpetrate oppressive systems (such as government sponsored forms of oppression).  This silencing includes serious repercussions, such as demotion, severance, or even prison. 

    Due to this problem, there is a need for a public forum for educators to share their stories, such as 21st century educator truth and reconciliation commissions. Such commissions can be modeled similarly to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was an effort to combine investigation, provide a forum for victim testimony, develop a process for reparations, as well as provide a mechanism for granting amnesty for perpetrators who honesty testified about their role in politically motivated violence (Minnow 1998). I think a TRC approach could work in many Western countries, particularly the United States of America (US), which struggle with skin color oppression (also known as racism). Speaking through my own perspective as a United States American educator that identifies as a member of a socio-cultural marginalized group, I can particularly envision how this could be useful in the US as a vehicle to alleviate problems in schools related to racism and cultural oppression in schools. Seriously engaging the multiple perspectives of education stakeholders through testimony is informative as a way to develop practices and policies that facilitate improved educational opportunity for racially marginalized students (e.g. African American, Latino, and US Indigenous populations).  The lack of opportunity and oppression is reflected through the dis-proportionality in graduation rates, over-representation in special education, and suspension/expulsion rates. In order better support and illustrate my position clearly I will do two things.  First, I will use Alan Wieder's (2001, 2002, 2002) research to lay the theoretical foundation for this approach.  In his research he focused on South African teachers who used their roles as educators to resist apartheid. Wider used research methodologies such as oral history and narrative inquiry to collect stories of teachers who engaged pedagogy to resist apartheid South Africa.  Secondly I will provide a vision of how this could be done in the US a 21st Century Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A 21st Century Educator TRC Framework

    Alan Wider's (2001, 2002, 2002) research can help us understand how the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be a model for an educator TRC.  This educator TRC could be multinational or single country, and can give a venue for teachers around the world.  For example, this would include those who educate against the US system of apartheid (current and historic), German (or European) educators who educated against Hitler's regime, and current teachers who work in segregated, crumbling and under-resourced schools around the world. 

    This type of TRC is important to give voice because educators who speak out against injustices in their schools and communities are often systematically silenced in different ways. Sometimes these educators are "reassigned" to positions that are more constraining. For example, if an educational leader speaks out against an oppressive school policy they could be unexpectedly "reassigned" to a non-leadership role and their responsibilities assigned to a new employee whose thinking is more congruent with the current administration. Besides this example, there much more serious consequences when educators speak out against larger systematic oppressions. Many of these examples emerge from apartheid South Africa. This included educators that were detained and imprisoned indefinitely because they used their positions as educators to resist apartheid (Wider 2001). There were times during this era when the school systems were the center of the struggle against apartheid (Wider 2001).

    Therefore, educator silencing is a serious issue and should be given a public venue to address these and other types of oppression against educators. As I mentioned, the original South African TRC could be a model for an educator TRC because, as Wider (2001) explains, it provided a place where the voices of people who were systematically silenced during apartheid were brought to public forum. Both victims and perpetrators had opportunities to bring forth multiple perspectives about how apartheid influenced their lives (Wieder 2003). These public voices brought a feeling of great possibility and hope for a new South Africa (Wieder 2001). This voice is important because as, Clandinin and Rosiek (2007) note, stories provide an important way of responding to macro-social forms of oppression and healing for both the oppressed and the oppressor. This public forum probably gave participants a sense that they were listened to and that their story could be heard by many. It allowed for people to have a feeling of peace and a way to reconcile years of pain. During the time of the TRC, people were very hopeful for South Africa and the world, but there was no specific venue for teachers' stories in this process (Wider 2003). A discussion will follow as to why more societies (particularly the West and as a case in point the US) needs a TRC for educators that would give a larger voice to the many educators that were (and still are) silenced. 

 Schools as a Social and Cultural Institution

    Examining the role of learning institutions can help create an understanding of the need for an educator TRC. Learning institutions, at all levels, are political spaces and most reflect mainstream society and its discourse. Similar to many scholars, Placher, Makoe, Burns, and Blommaert (2006) reiterate this when they explain that schools are a form of ideological reproduction, hence what happens in classrooms is a mirror of society at large. They explain how this is done through discourse. Placher, et. al. (2006) says that discourse is a key ideological object and that micro-ideologies are not inseparable from the larger established socio-political ideologies. The work of an educator, for example the type of conversations they allow or do not allow, represents a form of this micro-ideology, hence creating a need for those who work against the norm to be storied through an educator truth and reconciliation commission. An educator TRC would further create a deeper understanding of the role of public schools and its connection to the socio-political ideologies during times of government supported systems of oppression (i.e. genocide, systemic under-funding, inequitable policies, and apartheid). 

    Again, as a historical case in particular, during South African apartheid, schools were systematically allocated unequal resources. Schools attended by the Black (South African Indigenous) population were given fewer resources needed for teaching and learning. On the other hand, and similar to the United States' form of segregation, schools that were attended by Whites (people of European ancestry) were given more resources and provided a higher quality education. Although historical, these types of injustices continue today. In current South Africa, the allocation of resources can be correlated to teacher education programs (Johnson, Monk and Hodges, 2000). This system of inequality was defined by the political logic of apartheid (Robinson 2003). It would clearly create teachers who had a stronger knowledge, skill base, and skill level than their marginalized counterparts. Another example includes school building resources. Teachers in what were called "Model C" schools had (and still have) better resources and facilities and most teachers demanded higher expectations from their students (Johnson et al., 2000). On the other hand, schools that served (and still serve) Black students lack resources even as basic as chalkboards (Johnson et al. 2000). Historically, government supported racism in South Africa was reflective in how curriculum stressed white superiority and black inferiority, and was aligned with the social roles that each group was racialized into upon completion of schooling (Wieder 2003). This type of environment created (and still creates) inferior learning outcomes and further educationally oppressing students who are already oppressed in the larger society. An educator TRC is important because educators who worked during times of government supported racist policies, and those still working in oppressive systems today, can provide perspectives that could help continually heal injustices and alleviate inequitable education. 

 Apartheid "Education" in South Africa 

    Teachers' work has been the center of their struggle against inequality in the transition to democracy in South Africa (Chisholm 1999). This was particularly the case during the mid-1980s (Wieder 2001). Chisholm (1999) states that apartheid education created large-scale teacher resistance regarding their work. Following are some examples of teachers in apartheid South Africa who merged pedagogy and politics in their professional lives in a way that supported the struggle against the apartheid regime. Wieder's South African studies (2001, 2002, 2003) will provide many examples that illuminate this. 

    Wieder (2001, 2002, 2003) collected oral histories of teachers working against apartheid in their schools and community. He found that teachers used pedagogy in ways that taught students to question apartheid common places while also fighting to change the system (Wieder 2003). However, racism would also define the ways teachers resisted. For, example South African Indigenous teachers could only teach in South African Indigenous dominated schools, while teachers of European ancestry had a choice. Those who choose to teach in oppressed schools were demonstrating their anti-apartheid stance (Wieder 2001). Teachers of European ancestry who stood as racial allies and tried to provide voices for their students put their careers at risk. For example they could not become permanent teachers (placing them on tentative status), or they were banned from teaching (Wieder 2001). A South African teacher of European ancestry who worked in a South African Indigenous school reported:

I'd had the choice I would have gone back to a coloured school which in fact I did when I went into black education. Because I felt it was very unreal. At one point I messed up at something not really serious. I didn't get my marks in on time or something. And the Head of Department said, 'It's because you've been teaching at one of those schools. (Wieder 2001:20). 
Maybe not widely known, there are teachers who put their careers at risk working in schools that served the racially/culturally oppressed.

    In addition to stories of cross-racial allies, there are also many stories of South African Indigenous teachers who were freedom fighters. Indigenous teachers, although only allowed to teach in Indigenous schools, staged a mass protest in 1989 against apartheid education (Chisholm 1999). Wieder (2002) discusses how Indigenous female teachers who were against racism used their imposed racial identity as a way to mobilize their fight against their own racial oppression. Regardless of their efforts, some teachers who struggled against apartheid were imprisoned and/or tortured some were even killed (Wieder 2001). One Indigenous teacher explains: 

Phones were tapped and people were followed at school. The police would come and visit you at the school and just walk around your classroom. Yes, they would come in and they would say, 'No, we just want to walk around and see what's happening.' You can either allow them to do it or you could give them a whole lot of lip, which is precisely what we did. We just gave them a whole lot of lip. You know, 'How dare you barge in here.' But there was also very little you could do, because there was a State of Emergency at the time and the police had 'extra-ordinary' power to do that kind of thing. So you ran the risk of being locked up. (Wider 2002:139). 

    Although risking their lives, these are examples of teachers from all cultural and racial backgrounds that politicized their work in a way to fight social oppression. All teachers were impacted by South African apartheid and should be given a special public venue for educators similar to a TRC. This type of TRC is especially critical for educators who risked their lives and careers to teach their students about and/or how to resist oppression. 

The Struggle Still Continues The Need for an Educator TRC

    Under South African apartheid, educational system exemplified, legitimated, and served to perpetuate a form of racial oppression (Johnson et al. 2000). This racial oppression situated people from racially marginalized communities to educational environments of limited opportunities to succeed (such as teacher staffing). As demonstrated, educators of all racial backgrounds resisted apartheid using curriculum and instruction. Although, their spaces were intense political settings, they never were granted a particular space for their narrative as it related to education.

    This was dearly needed for South African, and still, is as it is for such countries as the US. This is why I believe that a TRC type of approach would work in a country such as the US as a mechanism to overcome educational inequality and oppression. The inequities that an education TRC could help our society overcome issues relates to Latino, US Indigenous, and African American education concerning a) dismal graduation rates, b) over representation in special education, and c) higher education admission and timely graduation rates. A TRC addressing inequalities would help move us into a transformation of schools and therefore society by giving voice to the stories behind the statistics as well as addressing public misconceptions about teachers' work. 

    The need to add narrative discourse to what we already know about student achievement provides a personal aspect to the dilemma of educational equity and could possibly change cause a significant shift in our collective beliefs. For example, Johnson (2000) writes that although South Africa ended apartheid with the cast of a ballot, the differences in schools are not as easily transformed. Likewise to that of the US, there are laws to address discrimination, but there is still inequitable schooling across the country from prekindergarten through higher education. In order to have significant transformation in schools we must have a change in our beliefs. Inequities are also seen in situations such as teacher placement and teacher quality in schools that serve children from certain cultural and racial backgrounds. Schools that serve these communities tend to have teachers not as culturally competent, prepared, experienced, and/or not fully supported by their administration. This results in issues such as higher than average teacher turnover and dismal student outcomes. Regardless of all of the issues that teachers face, many still persist at attempts to navigate the continuing changes that are reminisces of the legacy of explicit government supported racism in the US and South Africa (Pachler et al. 2008).  Unfortunately, our racially/culturally marginalized students tend to bear a heavier burden of these disparities because they tend to receive an inferior education. This problem is so persistent that some are questioning that even after years of resistance, transformation, and attempts at restorative justice, whether integrated equitable education still is achievable in countries such as South Africa [and the United States] (Wieder 2001). Since I am in interculturalist and integrationalist, I would argue that it is possible and maybe partially reconcilable through a mechanism such as a TRC. 

    As we know, similar to South Africa's reminisces, the US has its own reminisces after a legacy of colonization, slavery, and legalized segregation. In order to better understand how these lingering issues permeate throughout our country's school systems (e.g. segregated crumbling schools, opportunity gaps, cultural incongruence), take Minnesota as a current case in point.  Like many other states in the US, Minnesota has an over-representation of African American and US Indigenous children in special education for "behavior problems" or "cognitive disorders." Furthermore, only 45% of Hmong American Minnesotans have a high school diploma and 55% of African American Minnesotans graduate high school (Organizing Apprenticeship Project, 2005). Compare these numbers to the 93% of European American Minnesotans who graduate (Organizing Apprenticeship Project 2005). These numbers indicate that there is a current day issue of systemic racial and cultural oppression in policies, practices, and procedures as evident through student outcomes. 

    There are teachers in Minnesota and across the US who work in public schools that serve large populations of culturally and racially marginalized children who have taught against the grain. US teachers resist in similar ways to how Wieder (2001, 2002, 2003) wrote about South African teachers who created a space in their classrooms and schools for social change. A TRC for the US would be a significant addition to the discourse of truth, reconciliation, and educational equity. Hearing these stories is not only healing for those in the system, but would be healthy for the general public because they usually do not get to hear these voices first hand very often. In post-apartheid South Africa (and in other countries like the US), there are still concerns as to the silencing of teachers through routinization, depoliticization, and a reduction in the salience of their work (Chisholm 1999). Just like in the US, teachers are continuing to struggle for a more democracy in their society while nurturing both academic excellence and societal awareness across racial and cultural lines (Wieder 2003). Lingering educational inequalities and destructive ideologies, such as racism, are often "taboo" topics and are usually silenced. Most often this silencing is a way to avoid talking about racism and the ways it intersects with culture. This avoidance is maintaining a system of white supremacy and white privilege - social ills that restricting us from realizing peaceful and equitable societies. An education TRC can give this "taboo" issue a human face by educators, students, and stakeholders who share their stories. 

    Although, there is little precedent or a specific model mechanism for carrying out the type of education TRC that I am proposing, I offer the beginnings of a conversation concerning the ways that this approach may work in the United States (US). First, the federal government (along with the support of local, state, and private foundations) would provide funding support in order to cover operational costs. Second, local and/or regional attorneys with a specific focus on educational equity, human rights, and/or civil rights (I may use these terms interchangeably), as well as members from school districts (teachers, administrators, ect), scholars, and community members would cross-regionally collaborate to develop the basic details of the TRC. Judges, attorneys, community activists, and educators with specific focus on equity and human rights would also manage the venue. 

     One of the several items that would be under management consideration would be the physical security of those participating. A way to protect participants while at the same time bring their stories to awareness of the larger society could be to have the cooperation of the local police and law enforcement. The presence of law enforcement at venues and forum activities across the country would reinforce order and maintain safety. In addition to police security, there would have to be a screening process in to ensure that the testifiers were directly impacted by racism in schools. 

    Once screening is done, I envision participants sharing how cultural and racial oppression in schools influenced their personal and/or professional lives. These stories would be used as a way to make connections to how institutional racism has impacts individuals personally and professional with the ultimate goal of influencing schooling policies. Stories from TRC participants would probably not directly make many connections to specific laws or policies because of the nature of the group; but those who understand culture and society would defiantly understand the relatedness. This democratic forum would illuminate those silenced, address educational inequalities, lead to changes in hearts and minds, and influence procedures and policies in ways that would alleviate some of the current day systemic cultural and racial marginalization in learning institutions. These stories would be recorded and disseminated in ways that would hopefully give us a path to make education more inclusive. 

    Providing a TRC type of venue for US educators allows society to hear individual stories about racial and cultural oppression from people who are "on the ground" in schools. These education stories are as important today for both the US and South Africa as it was in 1980's South African apartheid system. Especially because current day racism is not necessarily found in legislation (like systems of apartheid), but anchors itself more profoundly in peoples' belief and institutional measures. In schools, contemporary racism in terms of assumptions and expectations of the "other" influence how the other is treated (Kumashiro 2000). More often these assumptions and expectations "get played out (and even reinforced) in the harmful treatment of the Other" (Kumashiro 2000:27). When these beliefs manifests themselves along racial/cultural lines, what results is what Trepagnier (2006) calls "silent racism" and Yon (2000) names "new racism." A solution to this is what Guinier and Torres' (2002) calls "political race." They argue that redefining race in a "political" way would create cross-racial coalitions of all oppressed groups with the goal of deconstructing racism, white privilege and other forms of oppression. A TRC concerning cultural/racial oppression in US schools could provide personal stories concerning the current dynamics of racism while at the same time adding to the discussion of the need to redefine racism.

    Understand the dynamics of current day racism in conjunction with stories from those most affected in schools may help educators and policy makers understand culture and race while creating more educational equity in administration, policy, and pedagogy.  A US form of an education TRC would be a way to add to a larger worldwide discourse. The framework I provided could be one of many considerations for an education TRC that would promote peace and the international interconnectedness of educators and silenced students around the world. 


Chisholm, L. 1999. "The Democratization of Schools and the Politics of Teachers' Work in South Africa." Compare 29(2): 111-125.

Clandinin, D.J. & Rosiek J. 2007. "Mapping a Landscape of Narrative Inquiry." In D.J. Clandinin, Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology. California: Sage Publications.

Guinier, L. & Torres, G. 2002. The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jansen, J.D. 2005. "The Color of Leadership." The Education Forum 69(2): 203-211.

Johnson, S., Monk, M., and Hodges, M. 2000. "Teacher Development and Change in South Africa: A Critique of the Appropriateness of Transfer of Northern/Western Practice." Compare 30(2): 179-192.

Kumashiro, K. K. 2000. "Teaching and Learning Through Desire, Crisis, and Difference
 Perverted Reflections on Anti-Oppressive Education." Radical Teacher 58: 6-11.

Minow, M. 1998. Between Vengeance and Forgiveness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Organizing Apprenticeship Project. 2005. Minnesota Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity 2005-2006. Minneapolis, MN: Author.

Placher, N., Makoe, P., Burns, M., and Blommaert, J. 2006. "The Things (We Think) We (Ought to) do: Ideological Process and Practices in Teaching." Teaching and Teacher Education 24: 437-450.

Robinson, M. 2003. "Teacher Education Policy in South Africa: The Voice of Teacher Educators." Journal of Education for Teaching 29 (1): 19-34.

Trepagnier, B. 2006. Silent Racism: How Well-meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Wieder, A. 2001. "A Principal's Perspective of School Integration: The First School to Integrate in Cape Town, South Africa." Equity & Excellence in Education 34(1): 58-63.

Wieder, A. 2001. "They Can't Take Our Souls: Teachers' League of South Africa Reflections of Apartheid." Race, Ethnicity, and Education 4(2): 145-166.

Wieder, A. 2001. "White Teachers/Black Schools: Stories from Apartheid South Africa." Multicultural Education 8(4): 14-23. 

Wieder, A. 2002. "Welding Pedagogy and Politics: Oral Histories of Black Women Teachers and the Struggle Against Apartheid." Race, Ethnicity, and Education 5(2): 133-149.

Wieder, A. 2003. "White Teachers/White Schools: Oral Histories from the Struggle Against Apartheid." Multicultural Education 10(4): 26-31.

Yon, D.A. 2000. Elusive Culture: Schooling Race, and Identity in Global Times. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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