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From Philly With Love: UW’s First Black Woman Tenured Education Professor, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

“I’m actually not totally sure what led me in that particular path,” says Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings of her decision to go into education. “What I do know is I’ve always had a passion for writing and I’ve had a passion for history and it turned out that the only sort of logical thing to do with those passions was to teach. I didn’t really think I wanted to be a teacher, but once I started doing it, I fell in love with it.”

Ladson-Billings was a tenured professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the first black women to reach this level, before her recent retirement to focus on a new role as the head of the National Academy of Education. Before becoming a world-renowned expert in education, she was born Philadelphia and that’s where her road to becoming a teacher started.

“So I kinda came to the profession in a backwards way,” she says. “I didn’t come to it loving it as a way to earn a living. I just came because it seemed one of the logical things I could do, but being in a classroom, being with students, seeing the excitement of students and their learning, that helped to change me.”

When asked what inspired her, she says, “I had some wonderful teachers. I grew up in Philadelphia and starting out in elementary school I actually went to a very segregated elementary school so it was mostly all Black students and a lot of Black teachers back then. I had a fifth grade teacher who would always tell me, ‘You can do whatever you want to do. You can be whatever you want to be,’ and she just wouldn’t allow me to make excuses for not getting something done.”

Thanks to that she started her job as a teacher in her home city. “I taught ten years in the school district of Philadelphia,” she says. “I taught middle school and high school. I even taught elementary school for a little bit. I taught a few years in a school district called Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto, California. I taught at Santa Clara University. In fact I was teaching at Santa Clara when UW recruited me. So yeah, I’ve taught a number of places.”

She also talked about how her experience thought her teaching life and how different each school was.

“Philadelphia of course is my home, so I knew it, I knew the neighborhoods, I knew the people,” she says. “So there were things about Philadelphia that made it somewhat easy because I just knew the community, I knew where I was. When I moved to California, California is very different. It’s huge and their approach to teaching in terms of the school districts was a little bit different so it took some getting used to, but after a while I realized that in some ways teaching was teaching and I just had to do the same kinds of things. I had to learn who the community members were and what their desires were. When I went to Santa Clara University and that was my first full-time university job, that was very different because Santa Clara is a private school and it’s a Catholic school, so it would be the equivalent of like being at Edgewood here. So it was smaller. Most of students were themselves Catholic, so they had a particularly orientation. It was a very White university. It only had five Black faculty in the entire university. It had very few Black students. So it was in some ways a struggle because I was always trying to make myself understood and the experiences of Black children understood because I was teaching people how to be teachers. I was trying to make them understand the experiences of Black children when they themselves had no experience with Black people.”

When she moved to Madison and started teaching at the UW-Madison she said it was the crown jewel of schools for her because she met people from different place and different backgrounds.

Asked if she’s faced discrimination as a woman or person of color, she says, “I’ve had a few incidents, not many, mostly because people know who I am and I’ve made a national, indeed an international name for myself, so in some ways I get a pass. But when I talk to students of color and hear of some of their struggles and how difficult it is for them to live in the dormitories or interact with their classmates, I certainly understand some of the stuff they’ve gone through. Like I said, I’ve not had the same challenge because I’m a faculty person, at least not from the general public with the students. I’ve certainly had to let some colleagues know that they couldn’t just treat me any old way, that I was entitled to the same level of respect as any other colleague.”

Dr. Ladson-Billings has worked hard to be the first black woman tenured at the School of Education at UW-madison but when asked about it she says, “Well, I don’t know simply because I didn’t know what went on with the women before me. What I do know is it was an honor. In some ways it was a little disappointing because it’s taken us this long to make that happen. The School of Education or the education department has been on the campus since the beginning of the University so that was more than 150 years ago and they were just getting around to tenuring a black woman.”

We went on to talk about how women even though they might have work as hard as men or hard are still looked as less. She talked how that makes her feel.

“I have a personal connection to women in sports because my eldest granddaughter is an elite athlete,” she says. “She played basketball for UCLA and just this past spring she was drafted into the WNBA. So of course my entire family is excited and we’re celebrating her and we’re happy, but she’s hardly making any money.”

There are many problems facing and race and gender two of the biggest and I asked Dr. Ladson-Billings what she thought about it.

“I think as a nation we are afraid to have honest conversations about race,” she said. “In fact, as soon as you bring up race there are many people who shrink from the conversation, they don’t want to talk about it or they presume that you’re a racist because you want to talk about race. It’s the idea that if we stop talking about it, everything will be okay and we know that’s just not the case and until we have some honest dialogue about it we’re gonna keep having these same problems. This whole issue of calling the police on every Black person you see just because they’re existing, whether they’re have a barbecue of sitting down in the coffee shop or going to a community pool, why are people feel compelled to call the police on them? The fact that athletes have decided that they’ve had enough of seeing Black people shot down in the streets unarmed by law enforcement and then for people to turn that around and say, ‘Oh, they’re unpatriotic.’ Well, it had nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with race. So I think our biggest challenge is having honest conversations about race.”