Doc Whitney : Saves One Life At A Time
1. How old were you when you decided you wanted to go in the field of being a Dr?
When I was growing up, I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer. By the time I reached college, I had kind of soured on that idea because I viewed it as highly competitive and time consuming. I ended up studying journalism and business and finding a job in education when I graduated. It wasn’t until I was completing my Masters that I started to explore the idea of earning a PhD. It seemed like the next logical step and I was really interested in the Urban Education program at the CUNY Graduate Center because I was already working in a school. If I hadn’t been exposed to the idea during graduate school, I’m not sure I would’ve ever decided to become doctor. 2. How long have you been teaching? I’ve been teaching in an elementary school for 12 years. I teach special education even though I’m dually certified. I like teaching special education because it pushes me to be creative in my approach and more understanding of the differences in the ways people learn. I have been teaching at a collegiate level for seven years. My favorite courses are the ones I design myself. I designed a course on youth and criminalization and one on disability. I love hearing the students feedback and learning new things so I can improve them. 3. What drives you to help others who have faced some of the circumstances you have faced?
Parental incarceration was very personal to me for a long time. I went through elementary, middle and high school without ever talking to a single adult or guidance counselor about it. As far as I knew, my brothers and I were the only people I knew with an incarcerated parent. Looking back now, I know that wasn’t true, but it felt like it. It felt like a personal problem that no one else cared about. When I became an educator, I started to realize that I had students dealing with the same issue I did. I didn’t want them to feel like I did. I wanted them to know that I was someone they could trust. I wanted them to know I was part of their community. When I went back to school for my PhD, I decided to focus on children with an incarcerated parent (COIP). Through studying the literature, I came to realize that the way COIP were viewed was deficit-based. Often the studies talked about all the problems we did or would have. One study even showed a correlation between lower IQ and children who have incarcerated mothers. It wasn’t a good look and it wasn’t my story. But that was the thing too- I didn’t know whose story it was because the children’s voices were missing. They were being written about, but not with. I read study after study in which there were no words from COIP. I knew this had to change. I didn’t want COIP to feel alone, but I also didn’t want them to think they were destined for disaster. I couldn’t allow this negative representation of us to continue. I owed that to my younger self and all the kids I work with and love. 4. When it comes to teaching are there any specific lessons you aim to engage students the most? When it comes to teaching, I place the highest value on being my authentic self. Kids know when you’re faking. So the number one thing I do to get children engaged, is to show that it’s okay to be myself. I have good days and okay days. I don’t always know the answer. Sometimes I have to apologize. I want to normalize being human. I am an educator, but I am many other things. They too are many things. Together, we are a wonderful mix of talents, personalities, and knowledge. Specifically, I also find I teach best when I am engaged and excited. For me, a lot of that thrill comes from taking content and making it my own. Sometimes it’s a silly voice or a prop. Sometimes it’s a personal story or a video. Other times it’s a frank conversation about a topic that they haven’t had somewhere else. I love when my kids are laughing, learning and thinking. 5. As a child how did you handle the process of your father being incarcerated?
I have a hard time remembering the first two times my father was incarcerated. Both happened before I was 10 years old. I know he was in state prison so he was nearby and my grandmother would take us for visits since my mother and father were separated. I was a shy quiet kid. When I see pictures from these visits, I looked uncomfortable, but happy. The last time my father got locked up, I was 11. He would remain there for 20 years. I have vague memories of being informed that he was gone again. No one explained exactly what he did, but I remember asking for how long. 22 years, 18 with good behavior. After that, I didn’t really see the point in having a relationship. He used to call before I went to school. Afterwards, I felt angry and I would cry so I stopped answering. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling so I just avoided it. As the years passed, he would write letters and send cards. I mostly talked to him when I was with my grandmother because it would make her happy. As I got older, I softened. He got email and I didn’t mind communicating that way. Eventually, I got pregnant with my son. Giving birth humbled me. I realized that just because you love your child, doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. Those things aren’t directly connected. I love my son deeply and yet I have failed time and time again. I am blessed to be able to get up and have the opportunity to try again the next day. Unfortunately, for my dad, he didn’t always have that opportunity. 6. Is there anything you feel you were deprived of with not having a dad present in the physical at times?
We definitely struggled financially. My mom was a single mom, with three young kids. We never went without food or shelter, but things weren’t easy. Then there were celebratory times; birthdays, graduations, where my dad just wasn’t there. I have a high school diploma, a bachelor’s, two masters and a PhD. My father was able to be present for my PhD graduation. Deep down, I think it is one of the reasons I decided to attend that ceremony. There were also sad events; the death of my great-grandmother and my aunt. My father wasn’t allowed home to attend his sister’s funeral. For me, I don’t know if I would call it deprived; it was my normal. I didn’t grow up with the memory of my father being present, but I knew there were times when he should have been there and he couldn’t be. For me, it’s the big events, but that just could be because I don’t know what it feels like to have him there daily. 7. What sparked your interest in becoming an author? I always enjoyed writing. I remember that when I was younger, I was celebrated for my writing a few times. I know some people hated it, but I never did. Now, after writing my dissertation, I could definitely take a break, but I will come back. I decided to write Anna’s Test in response to a class project I was assigned in my doctoral program. I was enrolled in a critical childhood course taught by the amazing Dr. Wendy Luttrell, and I was also working on my literature review. So I decided to look at the books that were available for children concerning mass incarceration or parental incarceration. Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson was a classic, but what else was out there? So I searched and I found some things, but that led to excitement and disappointment. I was happy to see a growing number of titles devoted to the topic, but I was disappointed in the presentation and content. As an educator, I wanted to make a book that was beautiful. One that kids would walk back and say “What’s that?” I didn’t want a book that was intimidating or triggering.
8. In your children's book " Anna's Test" what was the goal as an author? My goal as an author was to reduce the stigma around incarceration and spark conscious conversation. I wanted to add to the representation of COIP in literature, while also giving adults, specifically educators a tool to engage in this work. I wanted to present Anna as a child who happens to have an incarcerated parent. She also has an interest in school and an active social life. Anna is representative of what I found during my research, something called the Unique Universal. There are some things that are pretty universal among youth, depending on their age. This includes COIP. The COIP I worked with during my research were interested in navigating school, figuring out their identity, researching future careers, engaging in romantic/platonic relationships and participating in extracurricular activities. These interests are very much aligned with their peers who have not experienced parental incarceration. However, parental incarceration affects each COIP in a unique way and as a result they have may have experiences and skills that other youth don’t, even those who have experienced other forms of parental loss, such as military deployment and divorce. I wanted Anna to be someone that all of the children in the classroom could relate too because she is a kid like them. She has a best friend. She wants good grades. However, I wanted those who have experienced the collateral consequences of mass incarceration to recognize that Anna is part of their community and those who haven’t to engage with their own perceptions around incarceration. 9. Did you ever feel the urge to try to change laws due to how homes are broken up because of incarceration? This is something I think more and more about daily. I have done some work with legislation through the Osborne Association who has worked very hard on a number of bills in New York, including one of proximity which recently passed. I still currently teach, but I have been doing a lot of reflection about where I could best be utilized. Sometimes I think that work may be in policy. It is interesting that during my research, almost all of the youth I worked with, indicated that they want a service career and it was almost always directly related to their experience. For example, one youth who really had a rough time in the foster care system, had devised a whole plan to become one of the youngest senators in New York (this was pre-AOC). She said she wanted to become a senator to help other youth in the foster care system be quickly reunited with their families. It wasn’t the only time I heard a response like that. Many of the COIP I have spoken to throughout the years have a lot of empathy and a deep desire to help others. 10. What draws your interest to topics such as culturally relevant pedagogy? My own miseducation. I wish I had learned so much more when I was in school. Why do we hear about some people all the time and never others? Why were all my lessons about Black people regulated to a single month and solely focused on overcoming white oppression? The absence of Black people made me feel like Black people must not have contributed as much as white people to American society. It reinforced notions of inferiority. It indoctrinated me and the quicksand of white supremacy which I still am pulling myself out of. Like many of the students educated in this country, I was done a disservice often by well-intentioned people and it’s still occurring. It needs to stop immediately. We need to engage all students and stop passing our failures as educators on to the youth. My colleague, Manijeh Hart and I actually designed a series of packets for educators to use in schools that focuses on literacy and the Black experience. They are called Black History Time Capsules. I also actually co-authored a really great curriculum for COIP called Joining Forces with Pam Brunskill , another directly impacted individual that will be used in a few schools this year. That’s the great thing about educators; when we don’t have something, we will create it for our children! 11. As your Youtube channel grows. What more can people expect to hear about from you?
My YouTube channel! I need to add to that ASAP. I actually got some love for it the other day on Twitter and I was pumped. Like yes someone is watching! On a more serious note though, I started the channel because I felt there was a disconnect nationally concerning the COIP movement. A lot of people were doing amazing work, but often people didn’t know about it. There are some great organizations doing national work such as We Got Us Now, but this was and still is a problem. My first instinct was to start a blog because I’m much more comfortable behind the computer than in front of the camera, but after I got a website quote I was like oh no. It was expensive! So one night I couldn’t sleep and I came up with the idea of the “Unique Universal: A Gathering Space for Children of Incarcerated Parents and the People That Love Them.” I don’t have a fancy set up and sometimes I get on there looking crazy, but it’s good content. I hope to really just keep bringing the things that I learn about to the community. I want people involved the community to make an appearance. I really just want resources to be accessible to the people who need them. I don’t think I have made a video in almost a year though and I have been doing a lot of work so I need to get back to that. Thanks for the reminder! 12. What challenges do you face as an African American female in the field you work in?
White supremacy is extremely present in education and academia. Even in schools where a majority of students are Black or POC, the curriculum is designed to tell a white-washed version of history. We recently got a brand new literacy curriculum and the design of it is actually quite good, but the content it concerning. A lesson focused on Robert E. Lee for the Civil War unit. A discussion about the Star Spangled Banner that negates the subsequent verses and celebration of the death of enslaved people. I could go on and on, but it’s not just the curriculum. It’s white teachers referring to black students as monkeys or gorillas. It’s the constant references to the police and telling students that they will end up in jail. It is the exchanges between colleagues where white tears matter more than reason, facts, personal experience or expertise. I am actually working on a new project with Vivett Dukes of Speak Ya Truth, to discuss the experiences of Black women in education. 79% of public school teachers were white and 76% were female during the 2017-2018 school year. Right now we are hearing the call for more teachers of color and more anti-racist teachers, but it can be soul crushing to be in this space. I don’t think that is talked about enough in terms of teacher retention. What is it like to be in a space where white supremacy is so present? What does that mean for your students? What does that mean for you? It’s tough and there is a real fear of retaliation. John Lewis speaking of “good trouble” is constantly playing in mind when I’m at work. 13. If there was a person that you can help right now who would it be? Hmmm this is a good question. I’d like to help all the people in Florida with prior felony convictions exercise their right to vote, but I heard LeBron is on that.
14. If you had a super power what would it be? I wish I had the power to speak every language or at least learn them quickly. I try not to have regrets in life, but oh how I wish I was multilingual. I have tried to learn different languages and just find that I am not great at it. I love to travel and have been to a lot of different places, managing to get by on humility and a smile, but I would love to be able to hold my own in a conversation in another language. 15. Can you tell people how to follow you and keep updated on your work to come?
Sure. I can be found on instagram and twitter under the handle @DocWhitneyQ. I have a website www.docwhitneyq.com and you can also subscribe to my YouTube Channel, The Unique Universal. Anna’s Test is available on Amazon and I am also featured in Handbook on Children with Incarcerated Parents: Research, Policy, Practice. For more information about consulting, the Joining Forces Curriculum, speaking engagements or trainings, I can be reached at email@example.com.