It is difficult to talk about supporting and empowering students of color, because when I reflect on my teaching experiences, I want to say that the most successful support and empowerment I have provided to a student was not really based on her race. I want to believe that I worked to help her expand her professional and intellectual opportunities simply because she is a good and admirable person. But the fact is that her race has indeed influenced my treatment of her. Her character and her personality—the things that inspired me—have been shaped by her experiences in life, and those experiences in turn have certainly been influenced by her Blackness. In fact, race is at the heart of this matter, because it’s what made her become the kind of person who inspires respect and admiration.
I knew Devyn Thompson from my work as an English teacher at Northern Vermont University in Johnson. She was in my first-year composition course in the fall of 2019, just beginning her program to become a licensed middle school teacher. Although she was already a good writer, she knew that she could still improve and so she worked hard, listened to my suggestions, discussed her ideas with me, and made a concerted effort to broaden her skills. In the summer of 2020, she told me that she had finished a book of literary verse, dealing with her activism in the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as with her personal experiences as a woman and a person of color in America today.
I was immediately impressed simply because here was someone who had something to say about the society she was born into but of course had no voice in creating. And further, here was someone who took action. Besides writing and protesting, she also advocates for the interests of her campus communities, starting a coalition of minority student athletes of color who chose to come study in a rural, mostly white part of the country. And this past fall, she helped craft a statement against racism for the Vermont State Colleges system, which was approved.
All of this showed me that she was a serious person who could genuinely do a lot of good in the world, and that made me want to help her along however possible. I was inspired to help do what I could to promote her work and to find new opportunities for her. I asked the school newspaper at NVU-J if they would be interested in doing a story on her, which they did, and then I used that story to persuade Seven Days to send a journalist out to Johnson and do their own article. And then I asked the DEI office at Champlain if they might want to host her to do a reading on campus, and they did.
I feel like I have built a good relationship with this student. I believe she trusts me and appreciates that I have tried to understand her and what she cares about, and to help her get closer to her goals of being a good person and a good teacher. And further, I know her life’s experiences have taught her that because of her race she has to work twice as hard in life to get half as much. And if that is what has made her into a smart, motivated, hard working person, then I must recognize that, in this way, I am drawn to pay extra attention to her education specifically because of race.
Listening and Learning
I would hope that I try to help all of my students, and I know that I find myself compelled—literally compelled—to help students who really work hard to improve their lives and their world, which is exactly what this student was doing. So maybe the key to empowering and supporting students of color is the same key to empowering and supporting any student: listen to them, care about them, and help them get what they have earned. And show them that you genuinely want to understand them.
Devyn Thompson is the author of Soul, a poetry collection. She is a student at Northern Vermont University-Johnson, where she studies English, plays varsity basketball, and is active in student government and racial justice advocacy. The links above allow you to explore some of Devyn’s work in her own words. We are grateful to David for his reflections and his work organizing Devyn’s visit, and to Devyn for sharing her poetry and experiences with the Champlain community in April 2022.