Finding Empowerment in Community

February 10, 2022

There are many times when students teach adults big life lessons. This is one of those stories. In it, a group of elementary girls benefiting from special education instruction teach researchers (and the rest of us) that power is about relationships. And true power is within yourself.

Dr. Amy Ferrell, associate professor in the School of Education & Human Development Special Education program, recently authored “Exploring critical literacy for elementary students with disabilities” in the Journal of Equity and Excellence in Education. The article is striking a chord with educators, equity researchers, and anyone seeking social restoration during a tough couple of years.

“The students in this study—three girls of color in special education, living in Denver—went against my structural definitions of advantage,” said Ferrell. “Instead, they focused on interpersonal levels of power as they spoke to the necessity of truth, vulnerability, and self-worth when understanding who has an advantage. We studied topics like Indigenous erasure, gentrification, untold history, even friendships. They insisted that they have advantage because they know the full truth of their situations, are empowered to change, and can stay committed to their passions when faced with racism and sexism.”

This investigation ties into Ferrell’s other work on community. Her study published in 2017 in Harvard Educational Review showed that many of the goals for people with disabilities are assimilative ideals toward nondisabled norms, such as independence within “the community.” Community is often described as something outside of individuals or schools, as if it is only a static social establishment based on geography or common affiliation.

However, the girls in the recent study teach us to conceptualize community as fundamentally relational. Because “community is the antithesis to oppression,” Ferrell says the girls’ insights speak to the need to continually examine power at both the structural and interpersonal levels, focusing especially on self-empowerment.

“Community is what people do together more than what people are together,” she said. “As we navigate massive power imbalances in the world, we need to understand that community heals us when there is reciprocity and agency. Everyone’s gifts are valued, and people speak their truth, especially during conflict, in order to continually attune to both individual and group needs. So, it’s a dynamic formation. The girls in this study spoke about advantage as being empowered and seeing the truth. We can all learn so much from that characterization.”

In her research, Ferrell challenges common conceptions of literacy, success, inclusion, and community. She uses Freirean principles to offer critical approaches to literacy education for students with disabilities. She disputes ubiquitous purposes for education, such as capitalist presumptions of job attainment and U.S. dominant ideals of independence and competition, and suggests education is instead the liberation of becoming beloved.

One of Ferrell’s greatest joys is advising CU Denver doctoral students who are studying racial equity in education from a variety of vantage points in their respective roles. All are gifted leaders with tremendous expertise and passions. “What I love most is that we can be real with each other, given all of the struggles and joys of the doctorate journey. Being researchers allows us to ask tough questions and try to learn something that can facilitate our own and others’ liberation. For instance, one of my advisees, Karen Jaramillo, may use photovoice as a research methodology, where marginalized communities take photos of themselves to communicate their stories and situations and advocate for change.”

Dr. Amy Ferrell (center) stands with her doctoral students, including Assistant Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Gabriel Castaño (left), Executive Vice Chancellor of Administration and Strategy Jennifer Sobanet (left), Karen Jaramillo, Christina Sigala, and Erin Lynne in front of St. Cajetan’s on campus.

Doctoral students say that Ferrell’s classes stand out due to the high degree of interpersonal trust and kindness, as they have fun, laugh, question, learn from each other’s brilliance, talk about serendipitous challenges, and scheme. They describe themselves as a buffalo herd, running straight through storms to find rainbows waiting on the other end. They yearn to build their supportive interactions outside of the classroom, on mountain hikes and more frequent weekend get-togethers.

“Special education students in my research and doctoral students in my classes have different ways of teaching me about the edification of each person’s belovedness and the importance of enacting community,” said Ferrell. “I’ve found that intentional community results in liberation through wholeness and truth, and that the important outcomes aren’t found on test scores. They’re found in happiness, safety, curiosity, health, students’ agency to discern their paths forward, and visible tenderness toward ourselves and others who are experiencing life’s losses and transitions.”

This story was featured in the School of Education & Human Development’s Edge Magazine.