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Tunette Powell: Creating A Safe Place for Black Parents

In 2014, Tunette Powell was featured in a video feature on CNN that discussed the preschool-to-prison pipeline that begins with the suspension of preschoolers. At that time and as of now, the rate of suspension of Black children and youth has been three times the number of white children and youth. Powell, who was then living in Omaha with her husband and two young sons, discussed the fact that her three-year-old had been suspended five times from preschool. 

“I was expelled from school when I was three-years-old,” Powell told CNN. “When I first got the phone call about [my son], I immediately thought back to that. 

“At a young age, I was told I was a bad kid in school… My biggest fear is that [my sons will] be labeled, and they’ll believe it.”

Despite these obstacles, Powell ended up achieving her bachelor’s degree in speech communication from the University of Nebraska Omaha, writing the book, “From Daddyless to Destiny: Finding Freedom in Your Story,” and even giving a TEDx Omaha talk on her experiences growing up with a drug-addicted father, and the encouragement she received from him to develop her gifts as a storyteller. 

This month Powell, a native of San Antonio, will graduate with her PhD in Urban Schooling from the UCLA Department of Education. She will also represent the Class of 2020 from that department as a commencement speaker during the virtual commencement celebration of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. 

Powell currently serves as the interim director of the UCLA Parent Empowerment Project, an initiative housed in UCLA’s Center X. She and Tonikiaa Orange, Ph.D., a lecturer and field supervisor in the Principal Leadership Institute at Center X, co-present a series of talks on Facebook Live titled, “Conversations for the Soul,” to provide a supportive and safe space for Black parents and their concerns in the COVID-19 pandemic environment. Their next event, titled, “For Black Mothers Parenting in the Pandemic that is Racism,” will take place at 6 p.m., PST on Friday, June 5, followed by “The Marathon Continues,” a special event in recognition of Fathers Day, at 6 p.m., PST on Friday, June 19. This date also marks Juneteenth, a holiday established in 1866, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in Texas. 

Ampersand had the opportunity to have a conversation with Powell – now the mother of three sons – as she looks forward to taking a well-deserved breather after graduation, but also to launching her new research project on the experiences of Black parents in South Los Angeles, funded by The Eisner Foundation; teaching writing a community-based book on school suspension in early childhood education and to ensuring, as she says in the CNN clip, that her sons stay on a trajectory that is more “preschool to pre-med.” 

Ampersand: How has it been for you – about to become a newly minted PhD – taking on the responsibility of teaching your kids at home during these school closures due to the pandemic? 

Tunette Powell: I have a five-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a ten-year-old. And I am teaching 5 grade, 3 grade, and kindergarten. I’m very active at my kids’ school. I’m the president of the School Site Council and I’m even on the governing council. I know exactly what they need for next year. And even still, it has been and is still the most overwhelming experience of my life and I’ve experienced a lot in my life. But this has been very difficult. My emotions are all over the place. It’s so up and down.

And my kids go to an excellent school. Their school just won the California Distinguished Schools Award. So, they’re at a top school, and it is a mess. It’s not the way the teachers planned it, it’s not the way I planned it. I think my kids have done a really good job, the best they can, considering where we are but it has been tough.

&: Has this inspired any new threads in your research?

Powell: Yes! I think that a couple of things have happened. My research has been pretty much focused on school suspension in early childhood education – that’s what my dissertation is about. I’m mostly interested in thinking about collective trauma. Collective trauma is around this idea that when there’s a disaster, how does that damage and destroy those intimate bonds that we have with other people. This is how I study school suspensions.

We know that [the pandemic] will be another form of a collective trauma in time. And in some cases, it already is. There has been such a toll, not only when you think of lives lost, of sickness, and economically, but from a relationship standpoint. So, being able to capture some of those things has been really interesting.

It has also had me thinking about how we use social media and technology. I’m a person that really loves doing research in person. I’m a qualitative researcher more often than not, and I value being in the same space with other people, but that’s not the reality now. 

I have a lot of research projects that I’m going to be working on, and because I want to create that level of intimacy that we’ll be lacking [without] that in-person contact, I’ve started a “Conversations for the Soul” series, which is all about parenting during the pandemic.

We are hosting these twice a month. Our first one was, “Waiting to Exhale,” playing off the movie [title]. We just brought parents together, to have a moment to breathe and to be very vulnerable and very honest. Just getting people together and comfortable … sharing and being vulnerable in a safe space – these are some of the things I’ve been working through and that I think are going to be important as we think about humanizing [how] we do research going forward. 

&: How do “Conversations for the Soul” aim to capture and support the experiences of Black parents, particularly in our current COVID-19 environment?

Powell: There is a researcher named Walter Gilliam. He said that there is not just one COVID-19, meaning that all of the different inequities that already exist in society show up and are only further revealed in a pandemic. 

Considering right now what’s happening in the country as a result of police brutality, it has come to me that we have to help Black mothers all over the country. George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer [last] week, his last words… he said, “Momma.” Just thinking about what that means, as we’re going through a pandemic and worrying about the disproportionate number of deaths – Black bodies – everything is compounded when we think about the racialized experiences that we’re having in America.

So, we’re using our next [meeting] to really just uplift and give space to Black mothers everywhere, to come together to share. We have Black mothers who are going to be a part of this Facebook Live event all over the country. We have D.C., we have Georgia, we have Texas. And the whole idea is how do we give these parents spaces to share, feel, think though parenting in the COVID pandemic while also parenting in a racial pandemic.

&: Tell us about the work that is being supported by The Eisner Foundation.

Powell: I’ll be working on a project with Black families and the history of parenting in South Los Angeles. I am interested in how we think about research with and for communities that have been historically marginalized and how we can continue to push qualitative methods to support those communities, as well as how do we go on what we have right now and further humanize the experience, especially for people of color and other groups that have been marginalized.

There’s an intergenerational component. We’re going to have focus groups and interviews with Black parents of adult children and Black parents with young children. And the reason it’s become so important is because every time we talk about parent engagement with people who work at schools who are a little bit older, they always say, “Well, the reason we don’t have parent engagement is because we have young parents.”

And it’s interesting, because I ask, “Who is a young parent? Am I considered a young parent?” They say I am. I think there is a stigma or a single story about why parents are not engaged and sometimes age gets thrown into that. When I call them out and they say, “young parents,” then people will say, “You know what? It’s a lot of older parents who are not engaged either.” And then we could see that the issues are a little bit deeper than age. What I want to do with that work is to start thinking about what we can do as a collective to disrupt some of those issues.

If we want to build communities and [create] “village engagement,” I think we have to start being able to unpack and deal with some of these things as well.

&: How does it feel to represent the Class of 2020 during the GSE&IS virtual commencement?

Powell: There’s a part of me that … you feel like you wake up and maybe you realize that it was all just a dream because everything went by so fast. During the process, it felt like it was slow, but now that we’re here, it’s like, wow. How did I go from this parent who just wanted to share a story because I was so pissed off at the moment so, I wrote about it. And then it became a national story. That [CNN] video… my life just shifted after that. I wasn’t thinking about pursuing a PhD, or thinking about educational policy or how we transform public education – it’s just not where I was. And now, I’m getting a PhD. 

I feel so honored to be representing our department, it’s a huge honor for me. I’ve had great experiences at UCLA. I feel like this department is pushing back on a lot of traditional ways [of thinking] about what education is and what it could be. 

&: Who has helped you the most on your UCLA journey?

Powell: I would love to thank Dr. Amy Gershon and Harmeet Singh. They have been so important on my journey, in so many different ways. Making sure that they get a shout-out is really important for me. 

What they do day-in and day-out – I wouldn’t be here without them. I told Amy in my last email, “I feel like I always have a question for you, I’m sure you see my name way too much.” They always give a quick response and always have the answers. The level of care they put into the work that they do is extremely important.

My advisor was Professor Kim Gomez – wow, just a qualitative guru. That was a beautiful thing for me, to be able to study under somebody who has the type of qualitative knowledge that she does, and who also gave me the freedom she did. I came into the program already a parent of three and I’d lived a full life, so it was a little different, advising me. So, I thank her for the guidance, but also for the freedom.

And Jaye Darby, who is an adjunct housed in Center X. In my dissertation, I used hip hop as a presentation method. Originally, my committee was like, “What? Why?” You have to have a specific reason on why you do something and I didn’t know if I had enough of a specific reason. I had it inside of me, but I didn’t know how to share that with others.

Jaye, who has been a real mentor while sharing office space with me in Center X,said, “Wow, Tunette, you already know why you have to do this,” and she just pulled it out of me. What she did for me was such a gamechanger. 

Hip hop has already been a storytelling method in the Black community, and so this was an appropriate and correct response. I’m doing qualitative research and it’s all about storytelling – why would I not use a storytelling method that is part of the community that I am writing about?

&: What are you looking forward to the most?

Powell: I’ll give myself a little bit of time to breathe. I’ve been working, I’ve been [in school], I’ve been wifing, I’ve been mothering. 

But one project that I’m really excited about is the UCLA Parent Project will be working with Black and Pink a national organization that works with LGBT people and people who are HIV-positive and have been formerly incarcerated or are incarcerated. 

We thought about parent engagement for parents who are incarcerated and what that looks like. My father was incarcerated when I was growing up, so there’s a piece of it that is personal for me. But also, it would be very interesting for us to explore parent engagement in its many different facets. If we want schools to be forward-thinking about parent engagement, we’ve got to be willing to think about all the many different forms and ways in which parents are engaged. 

&: What do you hope your sons – and your future students – take away from this moment in time, when you are graduating with your doctorate degree and on your way to a career in academia that will transform so many lives?

Powell: Freedom is the first word that comes to my mind. I want my kids and future students to have the freedom to choose and I believe we make choices based on what we know and what we see. I’ve given them another option, another choice. And to me, it doesn’t mean that any of them have to pursue PhDs. But just for them to know that someone they know did it and that they saw me do it my way – and that I did it for my community – this is what I hope they take away from it. 

Photo by Brenda Lopez