11/14/2014 04:28 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Reflections From the First International Conference on Urban Education

As I was watching the ship roll in (think Otis Redding), I was curious as to why it was getting so close to the shore. After about a few minutes a very fit Black man jumped off the boat into the water, and then reached back into the boat to grab two oxygen tanks and toss them ashore. He then walked, in his wet suit, to the shore and retrieved two (I assume) full oxygen tanks and loaded them back onto the boat. The boat then proceeded to motor back out to the Sea.

For those who have been to Jamaica or any other seaside local, this scene is common place. What stood out to me was that all the men on the boat were Black, and were fishermen and or deep sea divers. What is wrong with this picture? As a Black man living in America, in this country this scene would have been virtually unheard of. Not only do many Black Americans not swim, I am positive that the percentage of Black fishermen and deep sea divers in this country has to be an extremely low number.

What brought me to Jamaica in the first place to witness this wonderful exchange was because I was attending and presenting at the first International Conference on Urban Education (ICUE), Interestingly enough, Black scholars are also a rare breed (although becoming increasingly greater numbers in the past few years). According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, our numbers are roughly 5 percent of the overall academic population.

The first session I attended was the Keynote Dinner. The speaker was one of my mentors, favorite authors and speakers in the education arena, Dr. Pedro Noguera. His book The Trouble with Black Boys, has continued to serve as an inspiration about how important this work is, and how necessary it is to not only reach an academic audience, but practitioners, policy makers and the public. He focused his remarks around the recent election debacle on Tuesday November 4th. He stressed that "politics matter profoundly" and that we must be, as educators, willing and able to speak up about educational inequities. He also emphasized the irony that in today's education reform climate, those with the least amount of experience have the most say. Perhaps his most important comment, especially considering his audience, was that, while seeing the diversity of positions Black people have in a majority Black country like Jamaica (from President to fisherman), he implored us to consider why being "poor and Black is an obstacle only in the United States?"

Another highlight of the Conference was the Keynote Luncheon given by noted Scholar, and active social media participant, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings (@gjladson). Her remarks were a remix of her groundbreaking work on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (which is a culmination of 20 years of work). She emphasized the three main components of the pedagogy - academic achievement, cultural competence and socio-political competence, but also advanced the pedagogy to include what some of her more contemporary colleagues (which she named individually) have updated. Included among this update, or version 2.0 as she called it, were the concepts of "hip-hop pedagogy" and teaching 21st century students who are what she called "shape shifters." She implored, especially those who were born before Generation X, to become acclimated to today's fast-paced, technological age. One example she cited is the difference between the professor having a flip-phone and the students having smart phones. It is important to not just become familiar with technology, but also with their culture. It is of critical importance that teachers become culturally competent, before they can even begin to teach students how to do so. At the very least we (educators and students) should be bi-cultural, and educators should not be so stagnant or stuck in our ways that we become "caught up in" our own culture.

One of the biggest differences between ICUE and many of the conferences I have attended as an academic, were that there were a cross-section of ages and skills present. Thus, participants ranged from practitioners, policy makers, professors and (most exciting) high school students. The host Committee from the University of North Carolina Charlotte and the Urban Education Collaborative headed by Dr. Chance Lewis, did an amazing job of not only organizing the event, which ran extremely smoothly, but also created an environment which was both relaxed as well as extremely academic and informative.

I am excited to be an emerging scholar at this critical juncture in the educational history of not just the United States, but the world. As our world increasingly becomes more connected, it is critical to continue the work of both Drs. Noguera and Ladson-Billings and to continue to redefine and remix the work of those who came before us to adapt and advance deeper into the 21st century. It is only with a strong knowledge of their foundational work, and that of others of their ilk, that we will be able to truly make education available to and relevant for as many students as possible.