Inspirational Teacher Valencia Clay Empowers Her Students With Pride and Knowledge
This young black hero believes she’s a vessel for empowerment and educating.
The year 2015 was submerged under the relentless waves of death, brutality and injustice. The pain, outrage and empty spaces simultaneously ignited a blaring call to action for black people to dig deeper into their communities, express themselves unapologetically and command seats at tables were there hadn’t been seats before. This Black History Month, The FADER is celebrating the groundbreaking strides that some brilliant Young Black Heroes are taking to mobilize change through art, film/television, education and music.
Educator and writer Valencia Clay has made it a personal priority to infuse love and power into the children who look like her. Nourishing her black and brown students with cultural pride and awareness through information outside the confines of textbooks was an imperative for Clay, who insists that being in her classroom keeps her “sane.”
After high school, the 29 year-old PH.D and Harlem native moved to the city of Baltimore for college and following her graduation found herself at Baltimore Freedom Academy as a 7th and 8th grade Humanities teacher. In 2015, she encountered a hard emotional time and was diagnosed with a mood disorder and deep depression. On her website, Valencia's Garden and her Instagram, Clay transparently documents the challenges and triumphs she’d encountered on her path to wellness and what facing herself revealed about her “chosen” purpose to help others. In addition to her display of vulnerability through her writings, Clay also fills her vibrant Instagram grid with moving images of children, her revolutionary lesson plans and the beauty she’s embraced in her own smile.
The FADER spoke with Clay about how the case of Freddy Gray inspired her students to create art, the power of self-knowledge, and the liberation of embracing vulnerability as a black woman.
Your lessons are empowering and you take the time to give your students knowledge about their history and the history of black and brown people outside of the textbook curriculum. Where does your consciousness stem from?
Most recently, reading Angela Davis. I read it when I was like 27 and I’m 29 now. I’ve been reading radically curated content for the past 8 years so it’s not like I just woke up and decided I’m going to teach black stuff—this has been me for forever. It was when I read Angela Davis that I took a step back and looked at her life. She’s from Alabama and gets all of these amazing opportunities that we all have too but no one told us. As she’s doing all of these things, she encounters these events that made her really think about what impact she was having on the culture. That made me say okay, “I need to not only be conscious for myself but now I need to be more intentional about how this fits into my classroom.” I think my first few years of teaching the content that I enjoy teaching the most which is culturally relevant text, I wasn’t as intentional as I am now. I wasn’t really being explicit about why I was doing it.
When I first started teaching my first year, my kids thought that Martin Luther King freed the slaves. That wasn’t the last time that I heard that and even my kids talked about what happened at Missouri and I made the kids watch the videos and the whole conversation lended itself to police brutality. I remember saying, “Why are you all only talking about police brutality?” We’re not talking about that we’re talking about higher education and how we fit into this. But, it was all they knew and the scope was so small and narrow. So ever since then I’ve been taking a step back and rethinking about how I’m implementing it because we have to be so transparent and careful and we can’t allow our African-American figures to be caricatures on walls anymore. We really have to dissect who these people are so that the kids can see.
I read them Zora Neale Hurston’s book it talks about how she died poor. This is one of the most amazing legends that we know in the writing world period no matter what color she is and she died for the love of her craft—she didn’t have any money. This is something that the kids need to see. You can live for what you love and you don’t have to get a 9 to 5 but no one tells us that. That’s the story that kids need to hear. They can look at Instagram and see this huge success stories but we really need to look at people like Hurston who worked for what she wanted, worked hard for her craft and nobody cared but she continued to do it and look at who she is now.
How did some of the experiences from your upbringing in Harlem connect you to your students in Baltimore?
My great grandmother moved to Baltimore when she was in her teens. She had my grandmother and other children. She left North Carolina in the 1940s Jim Crow South and went to Baltimore. We would go and see her for Christmas and Thanksgiving and I hated it. I used to hate going down there because it just seemed so far removed from life. It was dreary, I just did not like it. When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, my first choice was Howard University. I wanted to go to Howard so bad because that’s what I was told to do. Eleventh grade came and my grades were not good enough to get into anything—no schools wanted me. So Howard was out.
You shouldn’t be learning about college in the 11th grade. You should be learning about that criteria way before you even enter high school so you know your plan before you even get there. No one taught us that and we weren’t exposed to that in my neighborhood. I didn’t get into Morgan State but I got into pre-college and if you did the pre-college over the summer then you could stay. My guidance counselor who went to Morgan and then went to Howard said that I should go because they were getting a lot of money so I just went. I got straight A’s in pre-college and I was like, “Wow, I’m smart.” That was my first time doing well in school ever and then I was paying for it myself so I didn’t want to fail or get sent back home. That was my biggest fear.
What was your biggest fear about that?
Home wasn’t home for me. It wasn’t a home. It was more a place that we were inhabiting but it was still a very hard place to live around my grandparents and my sister. Living there and growing up it caused so much of the turmoil that you read about in my pieces. It was such a traumatic childhood and if I had to go back home, I would’ve had to continue living that. Being in Baltimore was fun for me, I had friends, I was doing well in school, I didn’t have fights with anybody. In my mind, I wasn’t even going to ever go back to New York and even though I just moved back, I didn’t see that coming. I always say, “ Baltimore chose me. I didn’t choose Baltimore.” I’m grateful for that because I really didn’t know it would do so much for me. I just did my first Keynote Speech for The Department of Education in Baltimore. It’s given me so much more and I gave it 7 years of teaching but I feel like everything has been worth it. If you ask me what drew me to it I have to say, I didn’t choose it, it chose me.
I'm about to post a few clips from today's lesson. May I just say, we did not give the kids anything - no articles, no literature, nothing. We just asked guiding questions and let their voices be heard. The connections they made to things that they were previously taught over the last 3 years, since being in middle school, were incredible. I almost forgot I was in a room full of 8th graders. They are the leaders of a conscious youth.
You’re very open about the experiences that have helped you arrive to your own understanding of the world and your life. What things did you discover in yourself as you coming out of the hard emotional time you had?
There are a few things because you’re always growing and getting to know yourself. But, I really have discovered that, I’m on a narrow path. I hesitate to use the word “chosen” and if you’re spiritual you know what that means but if you’re not, it sounds a little pompous but I’m going go ahead and use it because I honestly feel like enough of us aren’t understanding that it’s a truth thing. “Us,” I mean people of color. We are the chosen people, all of us are. The Jews aren’t afraid to say, “We’re the chosen people,” so why can’t we say it?
Honest to God, that’s the reason I’ve been through so many of the things I’ve been through because I was chosen to be a light for other people. I remember going through my darkest period last year, I went to therapy, I got diagnosed but that was just the beginning. The hardest year for me was when we were in Australia and I was on the ferris wheel crying the whole time. I wasn’t able to enjoy my friends because I was still going through my trauma. Even through those periods, I would have to look myself in the mirror and say, “You’re going to get through this.” And say, “It’s not for you, it’s for someone else.” I wouldn’t use the word, “chosen” I would use, “vessel.”
I feel like that’s what I am. The thing about being a vessel is sometimes the water evaporates or you give it out too much and it needs to be refilled and that period of me basically dying and being reborn was me trying to be rebuilt. Even in that time I was still able to touch other people when I didn’t know I was doing that. So I think that’s what I learned about myself is that, everything I go through—nothing is an accident. It’s all for a purpose. It’s all because I was chosen to do this work for a greater purpose than me. I just spoke at my very first keynote ever. For it to be for the Department of Education, that in itself is amazing. I remember hearing in church, “God chooses you for things that you don’t even know that you’re ready for.”
The longer it took me to realize that I was this vessel and I was here for someone else the harder it was. “The Road Less Traveled” helped me so much and the first line is, “Life is hard, just accept it.” That is exactly what it is but if you just let it be that way—let it be. Everyone is not going to be where you are at the same time, everyone is not going to be happy when you’re happy or be able to stand you all the time. It takes other people time to understand that with you and my challenge is, “How do I remain understanding of others while respecting their needs at the same time?” That’s the next leg.
Balancing it is hard. All I can do is apologize and I have to be continue being human. I just can’t wake up one day and say, “I’m different now.” Now that I’m diagnosed I actually embrace my moods even more than I did before. As black women we have so much pride and we were at one point in life we were so apologetic when we didn’t need to be that now it’s hard for us to be so unapologetic without feeling like we’re losing our power. Being able to ask forgiveness and give it is actually where the power lies and it actually takes more strength than to walk away and say nothing.
What changes do you see in your students as black and brown children once they gain a strong understanding of the world and of themselves?
When I was in the 5th grade, my teacher showed us Roots and I was around 11 years old. We watched Roots and I remember crying like those were my family members. When I walked out of the room, my teacher held me back because she saw how upset I was at ten years old about what was happening. So, I see the same exact reactions in my students. A couple of years ago I got 12 Years A Slave and showed them and I saw them cry. At first, it’s the grieving process and denial, “How’d this happen? No, this couldn’t have happened. How come I didn’t know about this?”
Then there’s the bargaining of, “Maybe we did something to deserve this. Maybe it’s our fault.” Then it’s the anger, “Why are they doing this to us? We don’t deserve this. I have to do something.” The only stage that my kids have not hit is the stage that I still have not hit and that’s acceptance. We can’t accept it to be what it is. So now we look at it like, “What are going to do?” We continue to plan these poetry shows and invite other kids or have workshops. My 8th graders took these pivotal mock state test and they all failed. In a meeting, the teachers were being so judgmental of their scores and I was making a lesson for the next day with some graphs so that they could see their scores.
I stood up in the meeting with the other teachers and I said, “Hood kids are not naive. If they know that they are not getting a grade for a test they’re not going to take it seriously. The scantron will not be a true reflection of who they are.” Later on, I showed the kids the scores and I’m like, these are your test scores and they’re all shocked. I’m like, “Is this a true indication of who you are?” They said, “No, we didn’t care about these test scores.” I got an article about the fact that the SAT’s are getting harder and Black children aren't benefiting from these test. I told them you’re not taking these seriously and it’s going to hurt you in the long run because you’re not practicing now with these test. This is going to tell you where you’re going for high school. They’re like, “Nobody ever told us this.”
It’s the bargaining, the denial and the why didn’t anyone ever tell us this. They said, “Can we go to the 5th, 6th and 7th graders and tell them what you just told us Ms. Clay?” Now they’re taking back their same workshop that we did and they’re giving back to their small community. It’s beautiful, I’m so excited [laughs].
#booktalk a quiet classroom is not always an indication of rigorous learning and a rowdy classroom is not always the result of ineffective management. this is the sweet sound of a text-to-text connection between Sister Souljah's "No Disrespect" (p. 58-59) and Assata (p. 71-73) ... what got them so excited is their ability to connect a story we read months ago and identify the shared theme label as, self-hatred.
“We’re not celebrating Black History Month because we celebrate being black everyday.”
What are some of the things that you taught your students to instill them with pride about where they’re from despite the stories of turmoil in Baltimore that many of us hear about?
It’s hard to say what I was able to do after Freddie Gray in terms of empowering them because I feel like I didn’t do anything after Freddie Gray. I shouldn’t say it that way but, the kids really already had what they needed. I cannot say they were empowered because I gave them this—they did that on their own. I taught that morning after the uprising and we got back to school and they knew everything. They knew CNN was sensationalizing the amount of violence, they knew about habeas corpus, they understood what was happening. They had a real sense of awareness about what was happening in Baltimore so they were empowered by knowing people from the outside were trying to exploit their city. That was really what empowered them because they knew what truth was—they really understood what was going on.
What led to that prior to Freddie Gray was showing and exposing them to text and literature. I really have a passion for writing from the Harlem Renaissance from people like Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, along with Baldwin who was not in the Harlem Renaissance, but we look at writers of our ethnic background and beyond the words and figure out why they wrote what they did. If you look at Black Boy or specifically at Native Son, those books were all about exactly what was happening in Chicago at that time. One may look at the book as just a novel but if you really take that text apart you can teach so many different things and that’s what I was doing when it wasn’t even a part of my curriculum.
I was finding text, poetry and songs. We were listening to Nina Simone, Miles Davis and thinking about things like, “Why does the note go higher here and lower here? What is he saying about his community because there’s so many messages in the art of our people that weren’t always understood at the time and it was the only way that we could speak out. I think that’s what empowered them because I was not just teaching them, “You are children” but, “You are artists and everything you do is art from your writing to the paintings that we’re doing in class.”
When the Freddie Gray incident happened they decided, “What is our art going to be?” They had a poetry show where they all spoke to what was happening as far as Black Lives Matter is concerned. That didn’t happen overnight. The show was put together in a month and there’s no way I can say I did all of that in such a short time. I was asked to teach Black History Month but not to make it feel like Black History Month. I used pre-colonial Black Africa, like I really went back, “You want me to teach Black History? I’m going to teach the real thing and teach these kids who we were before we got here so that they understand.”
I told them, “We’re not celebrating Black History Month because we celebrate being black everyday.” This was all of the stuff that moved them. Three of my former students who are now in college DM’d me and said, “I remember when you said this to us.” I smiled because this has been the message and this is something that they’ve been indoctrinated with because we didn’t get that. We got black history but we got it on a scale of Martin Luther King. No one told me about Diop, I learned about him on my own.
You have to look at the state and who’s really running our programs now. They still run our schools and the curriculum is still created by them so, they’re still on some Carter G. Woodson, “If you control a man’s thinking you don’t have to worry about what he does.” So I try my best to go against that because as you can see after things happen they’re going to use what they’ve already been given to react.