Teka Lark Lo is an educator, cultural programmer and diversity consultant along with being the founder and principal diversity consultant at Feminist Preschool. She founded Feminist Preschool when she saw a need for educators to empower girls in early childhood education settings. Lo also gives workshops to provide early childhood educators the tools to incorporate inclusive and reflective practices on the issues of LGBTQ, race, autism and physical disabilities.
Vanessa Leigh for Adios Barbie (VL): You have coined a phrase around your Feminist Preschool workshop series: The revolution starts small, which is fantastically appropriate. Why is Feminism the ideology behind your re-visioning of Preschool?
Teka Lark Lo: When people think feminist or when they hear feminist pre-school, they think it is just about women, but feminism is intersection. Feminism is about decentering whiteness, middle-classness and acknowledging that our social system is oppressing people. Feminist pedagogy in feminist preschool is about changing the system of education. It is not about one classroom or one teacher. It needs to be feminist because we need education to be diverse and inclusive. And feminist pedagogy includes the LGBT+ community, it includes people of different races, genders and abilities.
Preschool was always a women-centric world, based in your neighborhood and your community. With Feminist Preschool, what I want is for women teachers, because they have been running early childhood education, to take that power back and take the classroom back. Not just in the classroom around early childhood education but in public policy. Feminist women who are teachers need to be creating that public policy not just for the children but also the people who teach the children and the mothers of the children.
While what I’m doing is intersectional, I want to make sure that women are in the front , that women are included. Because often times in social justice women end up being last. Putting “women issues” to the side to deal with race or LGBTQ+ issues. Even though lesbians and trans people and queer people and disabled people and people of color ARE women. If your feminism isn’t intersectional you don’t understand what feminism is. The typical mainstream is male, middle class and white and that paradigm isn’t open at all. Feminism is open to different ideas of how to change the system. Again it isn’t about a classroom, it’s about changing the system from the ground up.
VL: It sounds like you are interested in centering women and marginalized people in Feminist Preschool, can you speak to that a little more.
Teka Lark Lo: In our society, we have this view that as women you are most valuable when you are taking care of children or a mother. If you don’t have a child, you are not valuable. For me, a statistic that I found surprising was that people think having children makes you poor but that’s not true. You can have no children but the single determinant of poverty for women is not being married to a man. That is a problem, and we need to start small on changing that, the revolution starts small and we need to start working with girls, boys–all young children–on the value of women dominated fields and teaching them the value of their voices. We need to be teaching them about gender oppression, ableism and racial oppression. Tolerance is no longer enough.
We have to be inclusive of transgender children. Of all the issues that I discuss I got pushback when I posted a meme referencing a Washington article about a five-year-old transgender girl that said, “You don’t have to be eighteen to have an identity.” People who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, people who are transgender know this when they are five years old. As a society we make it seem like they can’t say who they are, it has nothing to do with sex. Society teaches us to whisper that someone is gay or black, for that matter, lesbian isn’t a dirty word, black isn’t a dirty word and you can be five and say who you are. That’s what Feminist Preschool is.
VL: What inspired you to develop Feminist Preschool?
Teka Lark Lo: I taught early childhood education and I love the fact that because I taught moderate to severe special education, my class was diverse. When you teach children with low incidence disabilities, which means less than 2% of the population in California these classrooms are called moderate to severe. I was the only teacher qualified to teach children in the San Gabriel Valley, what was great about it was that I had a truly diverse class in a truly public school. I had very rich kids whose parents had chauffeurs and nannies and horses and others whose families lived in motels. Parents who had lots of money who would ask “what can I do?” to contribute to the class and share their resources with other families. I was qualified to work with children who had autism, with children who had visual impairments and with children who were deaf and hard of hearing. So if your child was in the San Gabriel Valley and had a disability, they were going to be in my class, and parents wanted them in my class. My class was not only economically diverse and racially diverse, I recognized having LGBT students in my class and had a transgender student in my class. When I was teaching, I would call students friends, not to erase gender, but erasing gender roles. It was a microcosm of everyone in society in one class, and it was beautiful. I thought it was sad that we couldn’t have that in every classroom.
I had a very open classroom where parents were welcome to stay or go. My primary interest was not to control the classroom or enforce rules. If a kids is crying for their mom they need their mom. I was trying to live and practice my feminist point of view. When I had teacher’s assistants, who were paid very little, if they had issues with child care, their kids were welcome to come to school with them. Or if for some reason they had to leave early they were able to. My class reflected the change I wanted to see. But I realized also later, that women teachers need to be making public policy. We need the community to be on board, not just the school community, but the progressive community, the economic community, the whole community on board to make change.
VL: What do the workshops actually look like? This is the perfect time for Feminist Preschool, right now we have a reactionary anti-immigrant racist is running for president, anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-Native and anti-Trans violence and police brutality are epidemic. How do you talk to children about justice under eight years old?
Teka Lark Lo: Really my focus is on children two years old to six years old. That is how early primary education or preschool is defined. Kids early on start making distinctions between people and they are not always a good distinction. They start oppressing each other. “You’re the poor person,” “I’m the pretty person” they “know.” How do we dismantle that from the get go? The revolution starts small, when a person gets older it may be too late, but when a kid is little it’s not.
There are different stories you can tell, you can use persona dolls, and then there is modeling which is literally showing them how you treat people in your classroom. How do you treat the staff, how do you treat the parents? Make sure you are asking different people different opinions about different things. Another thing is, how are you inclusive of different ethnic groups in your classroom? We don’t want to put people on display. Racism and sexism isn’t just a lesson. Everything that you teach, whether it is about coloring, or playing you can incorporate diversity into that. We want to stop people from making a “lesson on race.” One lesson doesn’t work, anti-bias should be in every segment of the day. For example like lunch, are we sharing lunch? How does your mom make your lunch? What is unique about your lunch?
Kids learn by modeling but you can also speak frankly and directly, “that’s racist.” You can say that to a three year old and even if they don’t know exactly what it means then, they will know it when they see it later. You have to actively teach kids not to participate in oppression. People say, ‘I don’t want to bring up racism, or sexism or homophobia because kids are too young.’ But my response is: they see it anyway. So it’s okay if they are learning it and seeing it, but you as an adult don’t call it out? There is a reason that all of the kids like the pretty teacher. Why? Why do they all like the pretty young teacher? Who is teaching them that? Society and culture.
VL: We see very clearly the need to have direct conversations with kids about oppression, especially when they experience it directly, like the candid discussions Black families are having around racist police brutality with their kids who are at risk. Children know racism exists so it makes sense to prepare all of our children not for racism to exist, but to prevent it. And the same goes for homophobia and gender oppression. You’ve talked about public policy, what would those initiatives look like?
Teka Lark Lo: We are teaching parents and teachers to be inclusive and give their kids the tools to be social justice warriors, but also we’re going to deal with public policy that impacts kids. We need to be involved in that conversation. I was always a teacher and it is a woman dominated field so the oppression of women is magnified.
They want to standardize preschool and they don’t want to pay people. I don’t want a standardized preschool, but if you are going to require additional licensing and uniform standards you have to pay the teachers. Because I was performing special education in preschool, I was paid a little more, like a k-12 teacher because of my speciality, but traditional preschool teachers are paid nothing.
How can you expect women to help your children when they can’t even feed their own children? What example is that for children, when you are essentially saying women aren’t valuable? The reality is that most women are either teachers or secretaries. Those are still the fields that we work in, and we get paid so little in these fields. Again, what are you showing children? That being a mother is not valuable, being a teacher is not valuable. That shapes how people view girls and women.
Also we need to address public policy around advertising, advertising is a constant of sexist, sexualized, racist images. In Sweden and Denmark, it is illegal to advertise to children under thirteen years old. We want to demand that social justice extends to access for the mothers of the children that we teach. Access for the people who are doing the teaching and access to the child care centers. Funding and technical support for every kid who has a disability. We should have real paid family leave, you shouldn’t have to drive 20 miles from your home for adequate child care because your child has autism.
VL: The Standardizing of preschool education or universal preschool is somewhat controversial because much of the assessment and testing speaks of discovering “disruptive or dangerous behavior in children.” Do you fear this is another method of categorizing and polarizing children from one another and labeling already marginalized children in a detrimental way?
Teka Lark Lo: With the effort to standardize preschool, kids creativity are being beaten out of them. Instead of testing them on if they’re happy we’re testing them at their Abc’s at four years old. Children who are economically oppressed are play deprived. We wonder why we have so many children in special education who shouldn’t be there, well it is because we have gotten rid of recess and free play. Again, I believe in special education, I taught special education. I taught moderate to severe special education, my children had autism, my children had down syndrome, and developmental delays, but not being able to sit in your chair is not necessarily a disability.
Behavior modification is not education for me; even if the issue is behavior modification I believe in inclusion. I don’t care what the disability is, I don’t care if your child wears a diaper, especially in preschool, kids should be together. If a child needs extra help, give them the extra help before school, after school, but they should always be able to socialize with their typical peers.
VL: How can people take a Feminist Preschool workshop and how can we connect with Feminist Preschool online?
Teka Lark Lo: The next virtual workshop is scheduled for September 1, 2016 and you can register for it on our website Feminist Preschool https://feministpreschool.com.
We hold Twitter chats every Tuesday at 6:30 pm PST/ 9:30 pm EST. Please use the hashtag #FEMece to participate in the chat or to share any feminist early childhood education news.
Lastly, we are also accepting submissions for a Feminist Preschool anthology and we want you. Are you a mom, preschool teacher, paraeducator, speech pathologist, nanny, aunt, grandma?! We want to hear from all of you and are accepting nonfiction that discusses how you and or your child’s early childhood education experience intersects with intersectional feminism. Submissions are open to all socio-economic classes, regions and experiences. The deadline is Sept 3, 2016, please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org
VL: What gives you hope for the future?
Teka Lark Lo: What gives me hope for the future is that we have so many young people now. There are more millennials than there are baby boomers. We now have a chance to make revolutionary change in how we operate in this country.