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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 55, Number 3 Summer 2022

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Community Practitioner

Edited by Olya Glantsman, DePaul University 

Power Building Through a Dreams Assessment-What can Community Psychology Learn 

Written by Dawn X. Henderson, Village of Wisdom

Black children’s capacity to dream and to keep dreaming while attempting to survive racism in the U.S. education system is unparalleled. A focus on surviving and fighting something all the time rarely creates space to rest and dream. Francois (2019) further writes, “the true power of racism [is how] its force encompasses everything, seeping into our dreams at night and deflating our capacity to envision a better future.” The ability to rest from constant survival seems impossible when schools across the U.S. reify anti-Blackness. As a result, schools in the U.S. commit the most egregious abuse—deflating and diminishing a child’s capacity to dream. Similarly, the dreams of Black mothers, fathers, parents, and caregivers hang on the precipice of hope and faith in a long-standing fight for justice in the U.S. education system.  

The power to keep dreaming has fueled decades of Black families fighting for justice in the U.S. education system (Butler, 2020; Fairley, 2003; Kelley, 2002). Unfortunately, too many dreams remain deferred and disrupted. For example, though legal segregation ended in this country, Black children find themselves placed in classrooms with subpar or no instruction in the very same school district as their white peers. Black children are overwhelmingly under-referred to advance and college-preparatory classes while left to occupy the basement, an old storage closet, or a trailer where they live out in-school suspension. Some are “pushed out” of these same school districts through out-of-school suspension and ushered off into the criminal justice system. And, when classism and racism collide, Black children disproportionately fill up alternative, overcrowded, and under-resourced schools. Yet, dreaming is ancestral veneration, and for Black people in the U.S., dreaming is a continued exercise of collective power. Butler (2020) further explains the power of dreaming:  

“Enslaved people constantly refused to accept the terms of the world as it was, or as it had been decided for them…Their ability to imagine new forms of resistance meant that the power of white supremacy over them was never absolute—it kept the seemingly impossible dream of freedom alive (p. 37).”  

Building Power through the Dreams Assessment

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass coverage of racial injustice in 2020, dreaming may have been distant for Black families across the U.S. In North Carolina alone, Black families faced employment challenges and had to make the difficult decision of going to work when it would jeopardize personal safety, the health and wellbeing of their families. Black families were experiencing higher rates of exposure and deaths related to COVID-19 (North Carolina Community Action Association, 2021). The move to online and remote access further exacerbated individual and family stress and health. It was during this time Village of Wisdom, a community-driven nonprofit in Durham, North Carolina, wanted to respond to the well-being of Black families and develop and pilot a model that would shift power away from researchers in higher education institutions and from majority-white knowledge-generating institutions and place power and solution generation into the hands of Black families and parents. 

“The dreams assessment was so necessary [because] we were looking for ways we could execute and leverage power in a system that is, right now, just not designed for Black parents and Black people to have power over it,” Dr. William P. Jackson, the Executive Director of Village of Wisdom, a community-driven nonprofit in Durham, North Carolina, voiced in a presentation for SCRA back in January of 2022. 

Village of Wisdom piloted the dreams assessment to understand and assess the dreams for ideal at-home and online learning environments during COVID-19 and barriers to those dreams. The organization engaged Black parents in their dream potential across two counties in North Carolina by providing learning experiences centered on participatory action research and user-centered design. Five self-identified Black women, mothers received training in ethics, qualitative research methods, and analysis. These Black parent researchers convened focus groups with Black students, parents, and teachers of Black students. The dreams assessment allowed Black parent researchers to wrestle power away from higher education institutions, which often generate knowledge, and allowed these parents to generate their own knowledge. 

Village of Wisdom actualized dreams by placing Black parents into research positions where they had the power to co-lead the dreams assessment and co-create tools and actions. In the focus groups, the parent researchers observed the teachers’ difficulty in articulating “the dreams, aspirations they hold for Black students.” It was during the focus groups with teachers, that the parent researchers gained insight into the barriers teachers face in protecting the genius of Black children. The parent researchers asked teachers why was this difficult in the most direct way. It was from their careful crafting of the questions that these parents were able to facilitate the teachers’ dreaming for Black students. In the end, that diverse group of teachers, articulated dreams they hold for Black students. The parent researchers also identified a consistent pattern among the Black students and parents in the focus groups; together they dream of Black students existing in environments that value Black bodies, and minds, having their needs met, and being treated fairly (Barrie et al., 2021). 

As mentioned in the quote from Dr. Jackson, the dreams assessment was necessary to leverage the collective power of Black parents. The findings that emerged from the dreams assessment did not end with a production of a report. The Black women, mothers along with another group of Black parent designers were asked to translate these findings. Now, Black parents had the power to translate findings from the dreams assessment into accessible materials and tools. Findings were translated into a social media campaign, with the hashtag #KeepDreaming, which combined visual depictions of Black children dreaming with key posts. The Black parent researchers translated findings into ten conditions, called the Dreamandments, that outline distinct policies, and practices needed to promote racial equity and build culturally affirming learning environments. The Black parent researchers convened local education leaders and facilitated sessions on the findings. The parent researchers were able to ask these education leaders, “what do you believe that you can do in the next 5 minutes? 5 days? 5 weeks? 5 months? to affirm Black youth?” The researchers worked alongside Black parent designers to use the findings from the dreams assessment and co-create a toolkit with culturally affirming learning strategies for parents and educators

Dreams Assessment Potential for the Field of Community Psychology

Transforming systems of oppressive first happens through dreaming, a visualization of a future world of what ought and should be when these systems no longer exist (Kelley, 2002: Thomas, 2021). The dreams assessment as a model for transformative change may be limited by who legitimizes the work, community organizations, members, or researchers in higher education institutions. Right now, this language and the term dreams assessment are absent in the field. For example, using the language “dreams assessment” in the search tool of the American Journal of Community Psychology yielded 0 compared to 150 related articles using “needs assessment.” The potential of the dreams assessment in the field of community psychology is limitless in its application; however, researchers in the field must be willing to redistribute and relinquish power. An evaluator, by the name Dr. Courtney Bolinson, writes, “the main impacts of a dreams assessment are empowerment of local partners….” It is in this quote that Bolinson articulates how impact is most evident when power is transferred into the hands of those most proximal to the issue and challenge. A dreams assessment is community actualization and those most proximal to issues gaining power over knowledge generated, the resources created, and the tools used to enact systems change. The limitless potential of a dreams assessment fosters the capacity to keep dreaming while tying it to tools and actions for transformation and justice.

 

Positionality Statement. Dr. Dawn X. Henderson, the co-author of this article is a Black Community Psychologist and serves as the Director of Research, Power Building at Village of Wisdom. She spent more than a decade of her scholarly career doing community-engaged and community-based participatory research in her faculty appointments in higher education institutions prior to her transition into the nonprofit sector. She writes from the position of an observer and participant in leading this work. You can contact Dr. Henderson at dxhenderson@villageofwisdom.org

 

References

Barrie, R., Mays, R., McLaughlin, C., Page, D., Porter, N...Majors, A. (2021). A dreams assessment: The dreams of Black parents, Black students, and teachers during COVID and beyond. https://www.villageofwisdom.org/research

Bolinson, C. (n.d.). Dreams assessment. http://courtneybolinson.com/dreams-assessment

Butler, I. (2020). Black dreams matter: An experiment in educational possibilities​ (Unpublished Education Studies capstone). Yale University, New Haven, CT. 

Fairley, N. J. (2003). Dreaming ancestors in Eastern Carolina. Journal of Black Studies33(5), 545-561.

Francois, J. (February, 2019). Reparations for Black people should include rest. https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3bbay/sleep-gap-black-slavery-reparations-black-power-naps

Kelley, R. D. (2002). Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. Beacon Press.

North Carolina Community Action Association. (2021). Assessing the impact of COVID-19 on low-income households and communities in North Carolina. https://kenaninstitute.unc.edu

Thomas, E. E. (2021). We have always dreamed of (Afro) futures: The Brownies' book and the Black fantastic storytelling tradition. The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth14(3), 393-412.

Turner, J. D., & Griffin, A. A. (2020). Brown girls dreaming: Adolescent Black girls' futuremaking through multimodal representations of race, gender, and career aspirations. Research in the Teaching of English, 55(2), 109-133.