- Disrupt and Dismantle: Transforming Higher Education through Culturally Responsive Education
culturally responsive education, disruptive education, Trill or Not Trill?, leadership, inclusion, higher education
jeffrey dessources is the director of the Center for Leadership and Engagement at our home institution, New Jersey City University. He is also the co-founder (with Lenny Williams) of Trill or Not Trill? a culturally responsive leadership institute that focuses on “integrating unconventional audience driven and culturally relevant content into student success and professional development.” Jeff is also a poet, spoken word artist, rapper, keynote speaker, and academic. He is the author of five books, including his latest—co-authored with Lenny Williams—We Wear Kicks to Work: When Pop Culture Meets Education and Leadership.
We spoke with Jeff in August 2020, in the midst New Jersey’s pandemic lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of the murder by police officers of George Floyd. Both events signal a reckoning within higher education where faculty, administrators, and students are contending with existential, foundational questions about their economic future, their purpose within their communities, and their role in addressing social justice. As an educational leader who is committed to dismantling and disrupting “traditional” academic structures and whose work traverses institutional and disciplinary boundaries, Jeff is clear about what the path forward could look like. Our conversation with him was enlightening and energizing, and inspired us to view this challenging time as an opportunity to envision and enact transformative and purposeful change.
One of the main reasons why we wanted to talk to you is because you’re such a multifaceted educator—a campus leader, a teacher, an organizer, a poet, a workshop leader, etc. Is there a perspective that brings all of these elements together? [End Page 182]
It starts with understanding community development. Just being able to recognize how we can bring various cultures together: How can we make sure that there is movement happening among those cultures? Is there an actionable step toward change? That’s really been the guiding principle for me—figuring out how to bring all of this expertise, this talent, this excitement together and use it to develop leadership in our community. As a poet, speaker, writer, and educator, I bring all of these facets together to reach future leaders.
Making sure people enjoy themselves while they’re learning is also important to me. Education should be something that is fun. A major piece of what I do is figuring out how to integrate education into the community in a way that’s palatable to whoever is part of that community. Wherever they’re from I make sure I test them in as many ways as possible.
How did your approach to education and community leadership develop?
I started out wanting to be a rapper. And I was for about two years. I stopped rapping because the record label I was working for made me choose between grad school or going on tour.
I didn’t see my future as a hip-hop artist at that time. And I really wanted to go to grad school. I was blessed to get a graduate assistantship and I attended grad school for free. I went back to my Haitian heritage. Growing up, my parents said that education is the key to everything. Even when I was rapping, I was speaking these educational values into the raps. That’s where it began.
I never wanted to stop being a spoken-word artist. I never wanted to stop performing poetry and writing. What graduate school taught me was how to integrate all these worlds. My master’s degree in English showed me how to mix it all together. I can bring elements of hip hop into Don Quixote and bell hooks and perform on the side. I just started to see how interdisciplinary it all is.
It all came together when I started working in higher education. I worked in student housing and taught in the English Department at the College of Mount St. Vincent. I was also still performing. This was the first time where I...