Education Through the Lens of History: Calinda’s Story

A Q & A with Calinda Lee, Head of Programs and Exhibitions, Center for Civil and Human Rights and ANCS Parent

1. Are you from the Atlanta area? If not, how long have you been here and what brought you here?
This is my fourth tour in Atlanta! I’m originally from Baltimore, but I lived here for a few years growing up. After my parents split, my mother decided to move to Atlanta to pursue graduate studies at Atlanta University (now part of Clark Atlanta University). While in grad school, she met and married my stepfather, and we ended up leaving the city when he was offered a job in Zaria, a small city in northern Nigeria.

After spending my high school years as one of a tiny minority of black students, I came back to Atlanta to attend Spelman College, and then I moved to NYC for grad school. Then I came back to Atlanta to earn a Ph.D. from Emory. After heading off to work in Maryland, New Mexico, and Chicago, I came back in 2008 and have been here since. My husband, Ben, and I made a deliberate decision to build community and raise our children here since 2008. We like Atlanta’s ease of living and advancing diversity and cosmopolitan feel. We also have close friendships and family ties here and wanted to surround our children with the loving support of family.

We chose Ormewood Park because we recognized that Atlanta is one of the most residentially segregated major cities in the nation. We wanted to find a place intown with diversity and neighbors who seemed to appreciate diversity.

2. What makes ANCS special to your family?
Our son Malcolm is a third grader and has been at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School since kindergarten. We are also parents of a ninth-grader, Cinque Elijah. He attended ANCS from second through eighth grade and is now a freshman at Woodward Academy. We love the culture of kindness, mutual support, and accountability (solidarity) among children at ANCS. ABCs and 123s are certainly important, but character development is at least as critical. We love the ways that kids are encouraged to care about each other and help each other. We love how kids are encouraged to examine their choices and understand that they have the power to make a change in their own lives—and the world.

3. What influenced your love of history and civic engagement?
When I was growing up, I lived in five cities on two continents before heading off to college! And on top of that, we moved quite a bit within a single city. I’ll be honest in saying that I hated always picking up roots and being the new kid. But, looking back, I can see how these experiences helped shape my interest in people and cultures. These experiences also made me keenly aware of the inequities of opportunity between people—and that made me mad! I saw the extremes of poverty and wealth and understood that they had nothing to do with anything anyone experiencing them had done, right or wrong. And I saw extreme consequences. When we lived in West Africa, for example, I knew children who died from preventable diseases. That all formed me.

I decided early on I wanted to become a doctor (MD) to help change some of these things. In college, however, it became clear that I was drawn to history. I loved digging into the past to help understand why things were as they are now. What’s the context? How might we use those lessons to understand each other better and to change the things that aren’t working? Are there methods that worked brilliantly in the past that we can share now? How can an honest investigation of the past help to reshape our understanding of who has created the world we now inhabit? How can we share the contributions of people who have been overlooked and, in some cases, deliberately disregarded? It is everything to see yourself—to see people like you—represented and understand how their lives mattered and that your life also matters, that you also deserve to be seen. That truth-telling is my work, and I love it!

4. Can you describe a bit about how your career influences your lens on education?
The Brazilian educator and social justice warrior Paolo Freire said something to this effect: “Education does not change the world. Education changes people. People change the world.” I see my work as educational work. It’s not always curricular, but it is absolutely about teaching some specific information and, what’s much more important to me, sparking curiosity and providing resources so that people can make discoveries for themselves. As a museum professional, I’m always thinking about how I can offer insight that reaches people across identity (age, race, nationality, gender, etc.), economic status, and educational level. I’m always thinking about ways that I can provoke people to share their unique insights with me and others. How do we get to that? What if we can make it fun? How about making it “sticky” so you remember and reflect for a long time to come?

5. How can parents support children being informed citizens and learning about various cultures and history?
In my opinion, the best way parents can support their children in being informed citizens and learning about various cultures and history is to educate themselves. You can’t teach much that you haven’t learned. Take the time to investigate. Let your kids see you posing questions and seeking answers. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know something and even explain why you don’t know it. You never know what they may be able to teach you.

Keep telling them that pluralism is essential. You are important in the world; you are not the center of the world to the exclusion of any others. This is so important because people take on these attitudes without even knowing it! It’s not essential because its PC or because you have certain politics or because someone called you to the task. It’s important because you want to know the truth, and the truth cannot possibly be derived from the experience of a tiny fraction of the world’s residents who happen to have derived power in this moment in history (primarily from military might). That we all have always had something valuable to contribute, and the reality that, ultimately, our destinies are interlinked seems to me a central humanistic lesson. When we understand that, I think we are provoked to want to learn more about histories and perspectives that differ from ours.