Interview with Princeton Public Voices Fellow Noliwe Rooks, Champion of Education

Noliwe Rooks, a Public Voices Fellow, is the associate director of the Center for American Studies at Princeton. Since the commencement of the Public Voices Fellowship at Princeton she has published two articles: “Reframing the Debate on Charter Schools,” and “Preventing a ‘Citizen-Less’ Nation Through Higher Education.” She answers questions posed by Ravenna Koenig, Junior Fellow, below.

Ravenna Koenig: At The OpEd Project we often reiterate the importance of making an esoteric topic accessible to lay readers; learning how to talk about an issue that many readers may be unfamiliar with. You write about education: a topic that almost everyone has personal experience with. What are the challenges of writing as an expert on a topic that everybody seems to have a take on?

Noliwe Rooks: Education is one of a couple of topics that everyone believes they are an expert on already because of their personal experience. Other topics include popular culture (everyone has a favorite film or TV show that they are happy to talk about) and race (everyone has a story or a statement that, when prompted, they are happy to make).

Since my teaching and scholarly work touches on all three, I am used to having to figure out how to claim some space to speak. In writing op-eds about education and claiming expert status, I fall back on what I do in the classroom which is to try and make clear that I have a point of view or perspective that is different from what they have heard elsewhere and then present the scholarship and thinking in a way that invites engagement.

RK: And the advantages of writing on topics everyone has an opinion on?

NR: You don’t have to convince people that what you want to talk about is important or of value. If you are trying to introduce a topic that is unfamiliar to the average person, you have to do so much work to explain to them, or convince them that what you are saying is new or different that you may lose the audience before you get to your point. If people already care about the topic, you just have to say something interesting about it that convinces them to listen, not convince them that the basic topic has value.

RK: Being a thought leader can involve so much more than just publishing op-eds. It can, for example, involve being an expert source for the media, which, if I’m not mistaken, you have been (The Takeaway’s episode: What is ‘Good Hair?’). What was that experience like? How did the opportunity come your way?

NR: My first book was called “Hair Raising” and is about hair, race and beauty in popular culture. Because it has been out a while, every so often, I will get a call from a producer or writer who wants to ask me about some sort of eruption involving beauty and race. For The Takeaway episode, the issue was the negative response many had toward Sasha and Malia Obama wearing their hair in braids during an overseas trip. The response was horrible, with folks calling them an embarrassment to America.

The last time I was on a show it was because the security folks at the airport had begun to check the hair of black women who wore their hair naturally in afros. There is apparently some sort of new guideline suggesting that black women may be hiding weapons in their hair so airport security is authorized to check it if they feel it is warranted. There was quite a bit of cultural conversation about that and I got asked to comment.

RK: In your recent article “Reframing the Debate on Charter Schools,” you talk about how many alternative education models, like Charter schools, have been misrepresented in the media as more successful than they really are. Why do you think that the media is so inclined to applaud these models instead of portraying the complexity of their “success”?

NR: I think that the media like to focus on a small handful of options around education because education reform is a hard topic to get a handle on and no one wants to be wrong so it is much easier to just say the same thing that the last guy said. It’s a little bit of laziness, a little bit of a courage problem, a little bit of a fear to focus on real innovation. Sometimes the media seems to be more interested in focusing on reform (incremental change) as opposed to revolution (something entirely new).

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