Akasha Saunders is an educator and development coach fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizations. The MAYA team has partnered with him on a project to build civic leadership for education in Austin. We spoke with Akasha about growing up in Jamaica, inclusive masculinity, cultivating connnection in virtual spaces, and where he is finding unmitigated joy under quarantine.
MAYA: What are some of the biggest inflection points on your journey in education?
Akasha: As a second grader in Jamaica, I loved playing. One day, the principal of my primary school called my mom to say, “I think you may need to take your son out of school because I don’t think he can learn. He plays so much. I don’t think he’s going to amount to anything.” I was seven years old, witnessing this conversation. At that time, I couldn’t make sense of the reality. I thought I was disappointing everybody. I couldn’t see this person with so much power in essence was predicting my life. My mom did take me out of school, but she put me into another school. Another point of inflection is when I started my doctoral degree in a distributed school model. During new student orientation we started by sitting in a circle. There was something antithetical sitting in a circle with the faculty and my peers. In Jamaica I was so used to the power dynamics, especially in the classroom. But here I was sitting with the faculty and it felt like they were co-learners with me. It was disorienting. This was one of the first times I had such close contact with white faculty. There was this switch in my experience that I could be peers with faculty. It inverted my whole experience up until that point. When I became a teacher, I was so much more interested in who my students were becoming. I did not want to subscribe to the banking model. I wanted to engage with them and find out what they are giving life to [in the learning process]. As a teacher in a literacy program, I witnessed 20 year-olds and 70 year-olds reading and writing their names for the first time, an unlocking of who they had been and who they were becoming. There’s something so magical about that. There is joy and honor to be a part of that experience. It is life changing.
MAYA: Tell us about your work with men and diversity, equity and inclusion. What is inclusive masculinity and what does it look like?
Akasha: So my journey on inclusive masculinity began in undergrad. I went to a private, Christian institution and I would witness my Christian friends committing violent acts against my homosexual peers. I could not reconcile that for a while. Jamaica, historically, has been quite homophobic. Some of that is slowly shifting. There is this threat of any sort of a sexuality that defies heteronormativity and it is so powerful that it leads to physical violence. I started dreaming of a world where men can accept the broader spectrum of sexual orientation and gender. One of the first things I did to enter this space was to hold a retreat that brought together men from the LGBTQ community and straight men. I invited these men with the intention that while being together without hurting each other, can we learn something from each other? Can we also grow in that sort of developmental, inclusive, and transformative learning space? There’s a lot of power in creating an inclusive space. My son has cerebral palsy, and I witness men exerting a lot of power over those who are in the world differently abled. The idea is like you’re broken, because men get to say what your worth is in our societies. But the other dimension to this is we actually oppress ourselves. We exclude parts of ourselves. The first step in inclusive masculinity is how can we include those parts of ourselves that we have excluded, oppressed, and severed. I know this will sound contradictory, but can I include those perspectives as just a part of how I’ve been socialized? Can I include those perspectives while also including those parts of myself that are representative of those -isms? Can I include that part of me that thinks poor, the part of me that is disabled, the part of me that thinks or even is homosexual, can I include all of those parts of myself? A step to inclusive masculinity is to include myself as a man.
MAYA: In your opinion, how can educators build connection and intimacy through virtual learning?
Akasha: The most recent program that I facilitated was a virtual session between five Black men and five white men. One of their common concerns was how will I experience resonance in a virtual space? Intimacy, connection, trust, and even transformative learning can happen in a virtual space. The question is, “What are some essential ingredients to make that happen?” We can still privilege human-to-human connection in a virtual space. Whatever the design of the content or practices are, they need to privilege human-to-human connection. Some of the ways we do that is by having people talk with each other, not us talking to them as facilitators, educators, coaches or whatever role that we play. Setting some guidelines is important to establishing trust. We do that in-person and that intention is transferable to the virtual space. For example, having people talk to each other in small groups as opposed to trying to find themselves in a larger group. Zoom breakout rooms are perfect for that. So what I did with those ten men was split them into groups, so they can go deeper in their stories. That practice deepens the intimacy. So privilege human-to-human connection and have people talk early and often to each other.
MAYA: During quarantine, what’s your JOMO (joy of missing out) right now? Where are you finding unmitigated joy right now?
Akasha: One JOMO for me is virtual dance lessons with my family. So we’ve taken on African dance. I love African dance and African music. We found something on YouTube and we get to play, to be with each other in that experience. It brings unmitigated joy because I mess it up, even the simplest instructions. I mess up and my son has a lot of fun watching me mess up. My wife also has a lot of fun watching me dance. It is a great pleasure for me. My son loves to dance. That’s what is the best for me, watching someone with cerebral palsy dance is one of the best things to witness because the joy behind my son’s movements is like nothing in this world. If it wasn’t for quarantine, we would just be planning for when we go do African dance together. But now we’re like, let’s do this!
MAYA: When you’re not working for equity, what do you enjoy doing?
Akasha: Connecting with people. I have a bias that deep learning and development is available when we engage across our differences. When do we engage with intention? Curiosity for curiosity sake. When do we privilege this type of connection? I love being in that space and that exploration. When I think about my meditation practice, there’s this question: why do I meditate? I meditate to touch life. I meditate now to connect with life, people and nature, at the deepest level. So even my meditation practice is still connecting.