No Key of Life without Innervisions

Columbia University’s Christopher Emdin pointed to Stevie Wonder’s classic Songs in the Key of Life album to make a point about the foundational work that has to be done by school board members if they are to help transform education in their communities.

Before releasing Songs, Wonder created the album Innervisions. It was self-reflective, political, and innovative, and laid the foundation for the megahit to follow, said Emdin, an associate professor in the department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Columbia’s Teachers College.

If you’re going to be “an activist around academic attainment, you can’t do the work in the Key of Life without first doing Innervisions,” Emdin told attendees at the first of his two presentations Saturday at NSBA’s annual conference in Boston.

Emdin refused to stand behind a podium during the morning session, preferring to move between tables, sit with attendees, and engage them directly.

He sympathized with school board members, acknowledging that the “time-consuming, frustrating work” they do “can knock the activism out of you.” And “a lot of background noise can keep you from where you want to go,” Emdin said.

But he urged them to not be distracted from engaging in the work of transforming education. And to step up their game.

That can mean getting comfortable with and utilizing “digital activism” and connecting with and learning from others doing the same work across town or across the country. It can also mean helping your district be better engaged with and learning from community members and institutions. School board members “are the disciples connected to the community” and need to use those relationships to make schools more authentic and relevant to their students’ education, Emdin said.

A former high school science teacher, Emdin is associate director of Columbia’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education. He is a popular public speaker on topics including STEM education, diversity, and youth empowerment. He created Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S as a way to use the power of hip hop music and culture to introduce young people to the wonder and beauty of science. And his #HipHopEd social media movement is an approach to education and youth development “rooted in identifying and building upon the intellectual abilities” found in hip hop.

Emdin’s latest book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too suggests that commitment alone is not enough to make a difference in urban schools. Instead, an emphasis on teaching and learning that focuses on the realities of youth experiences is required.

Michelle Healy


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