Ten days into his anthropology study of an urban high school, Jeffrey Brooks, University of Idaho professor in educational leadership and chairman of leadership and counseling, realized racism was the most important social issue for the school.
He was sitting in on a mandatory sexual harassment training course for the high school’s faculty members, when he observed that every employee had naturally segregated themselves based on skin color in the way they were seated.
The book Brooks’ wrote of the study was, “Black School White School,” one of 31 books awarded the 2013 American Educational Studies Association Critics Choice Book Award.
Mary Gardiner, professor for the College of Education, is a colleague of Brooks and previously had served on the AESA panel that chose award recipients.
“The people on the committee are high scholars,” Gardiner said. “They read every nominees work closely, and are very aware. It’s a really prestigious award, and a great honor for the university and the state. I was immensely proud that the school was getting this level of visibility. I knew he was a great scholar, so this just confirmed what I already knew. Brooks is a great thinker and he has a lot of educational leadership merit, his scholarship is very impressive.”
To write his book, Brooks spent two years studying the high school. Brooks said on a light week, he was there twice a week. But most of the time, he was there every day and observed the school’s events, assemblies and games. His goal was to immerse himself in the school, to fully understand what it was like to be there.
“What I was interested in was how racism influences public education,” Brooks said. “What I realized was that decisions made in the school were based on racial stereotypes instead of what is good for education — such as merit. Instructional decisions were based on race, as well as resource distribution, instead of things like test scores. While there was one building, there were two very different schools. No one sees how race is played out as a leadership issue, but I saw how it influenced the principals and teachers.”
Brooks had originally gone to the school with the intention of conducting an anthropological study when he realized racism was a better issue to cover. He had to make the decision to go against what he had been trained to do, and educate himself by going on a different path.
“The thing that caused me the most trouble was when people would question my motivation,” Brooks said. “I am a 6-foot-3-inch white male with a shaved head. I accepted the fact that race was the most important issue, and knew I would be influenced by being white. But it was still important to get my information out there, even if I didn’t understand what the other faculty and students would experience. It’s important for white people to speak up and be interested on the issue of race, because if they don’t there is a hole in the conversation.”
Brooks said he feels he made the right decision.
Along with being given the honor of the Critic’s Choice Book Award, Brooks’ work has also been praised by his peers.
“The thing that stands out to me is the nuance and detail,” Gardiner said, “It’s a very sophisticated analysis of one high school. It’s not easy to do that sort of socio-cultural analysis.”
Brooks said he is excited and proud to see his work listed among so many top thinkers and his research heroes. The award is one that many great minds have won, but Brooks said above all else, he is humbled.
“It makes you reflect on the whole network it takes to make a book,” Brooks said. “It’s a community. I had a lot of help, my publishers, and editors, the kids and teachers. When I see it listed, I recognize all the people who helped me get there along the way.”
Erin Bamer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org