28 Days of Black Excellence: Chezare Warren

28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence: Chezare Warren

“Before you can talk about a charter school or program or curriculum, there has to be some philosophy with respect to social constructions of Blackness that are funding your thinking and approach to the work. If you think something is broken, you’re gonna respond to it that way. If you think something is whole, you’re gonna respond to it that way.”

Chezare Warren


Chezare Warren is an associate professor of equity and inclusion in education policy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development in Nashville. He received his doctorate in policy studies and urban education from the University of Illinois Chicago in 2012. He is a scholar of race and intersectional justice with an interest in understanding the conditions that facilitate Black students’ educational success in urban schooling contexts. He is the recipient of numerous national recognitions for his scholarship, including the 2018 American Educational Research Association “Teaching and Teacher Education” Early Career Award. He was selected as a 2019-2020 National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine/Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellow, and has held visiting faculty appointments at Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania and New York University. He’s the author of more than 35 articles, reports and chapters, and his most recent book, “Centering Possibility in Black Education,” was published by Teachers College Press in April 2021. 

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Tariq El-Amin  00:01
Welcome to “Black Excellence: at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.

Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King  00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.

Clips from 1995 movie “Panther”  00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here? 
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.

Aisha El-Amin  00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin

Tariq El-Amin  00:29
Welcome to “Black Excellence.”

Aisha El-Amin 0:35
Greetings, UIC family and friends, and welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It’s my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, past faculty and staff. So, each day we have a new guest, as you know, who will share their story. And today, I am so elated to recognize, and honor, and talk to, and hear the story of my dear friend and just an exceptional human being, a scholar, a trailblazer. I don’t even have enough words to describe you. But Dr. Chezare Warren, he is class of 2012 from education. And so what have you been up to since you left UIC? Fill us in on the details.

Chezare Warren 1:34
What have I been up to? Well, first of all, I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to be in community with you, Dr. El-Amin, and to share a little bit about where I am, who I am, and sort of reflect on my experiences at UIC. So, what have I been up to? In 2012 I left UIC, and I think it’s worth saying I never imagined the possibilities for what a PhD could do for my life. I entered the program, sort of really unsure about if I would even complete it and fell in love with the project of learning in terms of reading and writing that’s expected of a researcher and scholar. And so I finished the program and went on to do a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, where I had a joint appointment in applied psychology and human development and the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. I work with Howard Stevenson and Shawn Harper, and from there, left the postdoc in 2014, to join the faculty of Michigan State University in the department of teacher education as an assistant professor of urban and teacher education. And I was at Michigan State for seven years. I earned tenure there, and recently started my latest professional opportunity as the inaugural associate professor of equity and inclusion and education policy at Vanderbilt University, Peabody College. So, in a nutshell, that’s what I’ve been doing, and lots of other fun stuff in between.

Aisha El-Amin 3:05
[Laughter] You say that was like it was tying your shoe. So, now tell us a little bit about who you are … what’s even your journey before you came to UIC? Are you from Chicago, South Side? West Side? I’m not gonna be mad at you, I promise, [laughter] you know, I’m gonna be your friend.

Chezare Warren 3:25
I am from Chicago. I’m very much a Chicago man. I’m not from Chi-raq. And I make a note to say that I reject that sort of languge framing about the city that I love. As I’ve traveled around the country to do talks and be in community with various groups of people, I rep my city, very proudly. And I tend to say anything you love about any city, you find it in Chicago. Anything you might not like about any city, you might also find that but certainly the good outweighs the bad. I was a middle school high school math teacher. I’m a product of Chicago Public Schools, taught in the system. And one of the things that attracted me to UIC and the program… I was trying to find a way to actually leave Chicago and I said, “If I’m going to go to school in Chicago, there’s only one place that I want to go and it was UIC.” And part of that was because of the folks who were there on the faculty at the time, and most of them are still there. But also because I knew I could still keep working in the system and in Chicago Public Schools. And so I went to class at night. And that was really formative for me, especially now having been my tenth year post PhD, which is kind of crazy to say, knowing that my training placed an emphasis on practice and the commitment to impact on real people in real communities.

Chezare Warren 4:50
It is in many ways intention with what the expectations are for a faculty member at a major research institution and trying to really make sure that the work that we doing in the classroom and the institution, in some ways has lines back to the places and the people that inspired the work in the first place. So that’s important to me — that’s who I am. I’m a scholar who has a real commitment to practicing policy. And part of this latest transition professionally is an opportunity for me to expand my intellectual palate, and create more space for me to imagine and otherwise, with respect to what it is that we can do on behalf of in service to Black kids and Black communities. So, that’s a huge part of who I am, and very much of that was incubated in Chicago. Now I was born in Rogers Park, but I can’t claim that I’m a Northsider, I’m a Southsider, went to high school on South Side, my family’s from the South Side. I’m very much claiming the South Side.

Aisha El-Amin 5:55
All right, so we even close the homies now, because Southside is yes, that’s, that’s where it’s at. You’re settling in, contextualizing kind of who you are. Right. And I know that if you know the praxis like Friere powerfully talks about not just theorizing but how does that relate to what we’re doing and how that looks in the classroom. Now … I have to give you a chance to give a shameless, but not shameless plug, like, tell us your title, your book, give us a little bit of a sneak peek, and that I want viewers to go out and to buy it because I think it’s just so meaningful and impactful the work that you’re putting out in the world.

Chezare Warren 6:39
I appreciate you saying that, and giving me an opportunity to talk a little bit about it. Because it is work I’m really passionate about. I think one of the great things about having an academic career is being able to just allow myself to evolve. So my latest book is called “Centering Possibility in Black Education.” And the thing that really inspired that book beyond time that I spent in New York City in Harlem, really beholding and being a witness to varieties of Blackness, that was just so incredibly moving was this dominant discourse in relationship to the ways we talk about Black people and Black children and Black schools as sites of perpetual pain and suffering, endpoint, period. And I struggle with that, because there is a pragmatic concern around the well-being of Black kids. And while some folks will say we got to move away from the pragmatic for a moment to really understand the depths and texture of the problem. I think that it’s still a pragmatic concern that we need to be holding core to whatever theorizing and research that we’re doing, that may take place primarily in the ivory tower in the academy.

Chezare Warren 8:00
This book is my attempt to respond to this conversation around schools and sites of pain and suffering for Black children, that holds a lot of weight, is incredibly compelling. But that is supposed to tell us something then, about how it is that we orient ourselves to responding to that issue moving forward. And this book is me as I talked about, it’s the substance of my freedom dream. I read a book called “Freedom Dreams” by Robin D. G. Kelly. He chronicles the Black radical imagination. And he talks about artists, activist orders in the Black radical tradition tended to be motivated more by a commitment to what they were fighting for, rather than what or who they were fighting against. And it really got me thinking about when we see Blackness and Black people and Black kids, what pictures form in our minds.

Chezare Warren 8:59
And before you can talk about a charter school or program or curriculum, there has to be some philosophy with respect to social constructions of Blackness, that are funding your thinking and approach to the work. And so if you think something is broken, you’re gonna respond to it that way. If you think something is whole, you’re gonna respond to it that way. So, this book is an opportunity for me to sort of talk about Blackness as full of possibility and what would it mean to start any sort of form of Black education transformation from the perspective and position of young people’s possibility rather than the stretch of their problems.

Aisha El-Amin 9:35
Wow. I’m just thinking we got to get you back just to do a book talk around your work.

Chezare Warren 9:41
I’m ready…

Aisha El-Amin 9:42
[Laughter] We have a Black faculty bookshare that we have going now and just a powerful you know, from across the campus. And so I know that part of your your ecosystem of UIC and the College of Ed and how these questions percolated and how the critical kind of scholarship that you do was able to grow and be nourished. If as you look back at that time, pull out some of your fondest memories and tell us about what that looks like.

Chezare Warren 10:19
There are several. One thing that immediately comes to mind is the crew of people that connected during the time that I was in grad school that would include you, that would include Martin Cummings, and Jen Olson, and Candice, her maiden name is Canon, I’m blanking on her married name. But the folks who were there, the Black folks who were there and other folks who were there, we just develop the community, because what’s hard is when you go to class at night, and you work full time, it can be really difficult to develop an intellectual community. And I remain really grateful to have had the opportunity to be in relationship with some incredibly dope thinkers and scholar-activists and scholar-practitioners during that time. And we just find ways to celebrate everything, we finished coursework, let’s get a cake. And let’s go to Jack’s, you know, like [laughter], there were so many reasons that we made to celebrate.

Chezare Warren 11:19
And the longer I’ve been in this, the more I reflect back on how important that was, in my own persistence, particularly because I never actually thought that I would finish. And I say this, I don’t know that people believe me, especially if they look at my CV, but I really struggled to feel confident that my contribution… that I had a contribution to make, and that my voice would carry weight in the academic marketplace. And it was in the conversations that we had as a group, walking to and from class or going to Jack’s or doing whatever going to ARA for the first time in 2010, where those ideas began to incubate, and I was stretched. And I really just appreciate that part of my graduate school experience. And, I’ll say that this is one night in particular, I think everybody was just sort of at their breaking point. And we went to the lounge, and we decided, we were just going to like, throw papers around and dance and act silly just as a stress relief. And it was so much fun. And it was like what the doctor ordered. So, it was those moments that I look back on really fondly.

Aisha El-Amin 12:35
That’s the medicine we all need. I think I had a physical reaction when they closed it, because it wasn’t just the closing of a building. It was like a closing of an era. Right? I completely … I’m there with you. And with any journey, there were challenges, right? And so as, as we have other kind of doctoral students, people thinking about becoming a students, people at the end, like, “I don’t know, if I could do this.” If you could talk about some of your challenges and advice to Black students who are currently thinking about coming to UIC, what would that what would that look like?

Chezare Warren 13:19
I love that UIC is almost smack dab in the middle of the city. What that represents for me is that it’s pulling and pushing in many different directions, which creates an opportunity for lots of perspective. Lots of contradiction, thinking about Bill Ayers and the significance of writing into the contradiction. While that’s going to be challenging to be a push to think or experience learning and engaging with content in ways that may feel really deeply unfamiliar, and challenging in the sense that if, you do a program like this one, you’re working full time. And I didn’t have a life for about four years. I was a serious student and I was a serious educator and I wore both of those hats really proudly. But I think what’s beautiful is the relationship between scholarship and practice came together in a way at UIC that I’ve not seen anywhere else that I’ve been. And at this point, I spent time at Stanford, I spent time at NYU, I spent time at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m at Vanderbilt now … I’ve been in some really elite places and I don’t see where how the faculty and the institution has made strides to really ed schools in particular to really make that connection between one’s scholarly development and one’s commitment to public education and being on the ground and being in the work and communities. And then being in relationship with and learning from faculty who are themselves very much engaged in public debate, and occupy public space in the city, that lends a credibility to the sort of thinking that they do in the classroom and in the papers that they publish. So, I really valued that as a space.

Chezare Warren 15:24
And now again, having been out of school 10 years, I was not socialized in ways that I think, are universally valuable to the academy. I didn’t learn how to publish the paper at UIC, necessarily, but I developed other skill sets and political commitments that have been really important for keeping me grounded, such that I’m not distracted by all the other fluff, that folks sort of say, is a necessary part of advancing an academic career. I say this to any graduate student: “You write papers, and you do your best thinking, and you do research not to advance a career, but truly to advance the knowledge base and the move practice and policy forward.” That became really clear to me at UIC. And I will say, I don’t I don’t always see that everywhere. So I think there’s not very many things that I will say in terms of challenges that are not just gonna be universal challenges. Grad school is hard. Reading 100, 200 pages a week is hard. [Laughter] And then doing that, if you’re a full time working person is really hard. But I think it’s also not impossible. And you can do it at a high level and the folks, and I’m gonna say something about Black faculty, Black doctoral students who’ve come out of the program, at least in the last 10 years, 12 years that I’ve been associated, I can name multiple people who are doing exceptionally well, they were exceptionally trained academics, but who also have an ethos of care for Black people and Black communities that drive their work. And it’s visceral, like we know it when we see it.

Aisha El-Amin 17:11
Wow, well, you got a fan over here. I’ll always be a fan of yours. And I appreciate you. I appreciate what you put out into the world. I appreciate the connection that we have and the connection that you have with building that legacy at UIC of doing great things in the world. Just thank you. Thank you for being part of this series. Thank you, from me to you. And just thank you for everything that you’re doing.

Chezare Warren 17:38
Thank you. Thank you for the invitation. I think this might be well I’ve been back once or twice, but this is special. So I appreciate your inviting me.

Tariq El-Amin 17:48
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.

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