Q&A with Tiece Ruffin, educator and activist

FREEDOM FIGHTER: "I consider myself a scholar-activist and freedom fighter for justice, especially educational justice," says Tiece Ruffin, recipient of the 2022 Rosa Parks Award. Photo by Adrian Etheridge Photography

by Nizarah Caddick 

During her recent acceptance speech for the 2022 Rosa Parks Award, Tiece Ruffin, director of Africana Studies and professor of Africana Studies & Education at UNC Asheville, described herself as a publicly engaged, scholar/activist.

“I don’t believe I should stay in the ivory tower institutions of higher education, where I simply research and problematize issues,” she stated in her address. Instead, “I take action, influence policy, use my scholarly expertise as protest and as a disrupter to propose solutions and engage in work with the community to transform.”

The annual award, given by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, honors women in Asheville working to foster a culture of inclusion as part of a larger effort toward a more just society. Additional winners of the 2022 prize include Kathey Avery, founder and owner of Avery Health – Education and Consulting; Sophie Dixon, a leader in the Shiloh community; and Asheville City Council member Antanette Mosley.

A recent press release from UNCA highlights Ruffin’s advocacy for school-age children. Her accomplishments, the press release states, “include serving as an elected board member for the Public School Forum of North Carolina, co-directing an after-school community-based learning program in the Pisgah View community with UNCA professor of mathematics Sam Kaplan and three community-based leaders and co-curating the delivery of hundreds of STEM fun packs with funding from the Dogwood Health Trust Racial Equity Community Grant, an initiative to tackle the ever-widening opportunity and achievement gap between Black and white Asheville and Buncombe County Public Schools’ students.”

Below, Xpress speaks with Ruffin about the award, motherhood and her ongoing community advocacy and educational work.

What does receiving the 2022 Rosa Parks Award mean to you and your work?

I consider myself a scholar/activist and freedom fighter for justice, especially educational justice. So it’s a true honor to receive an award under the namesake of Rosa Parks. We know that she resisted injustice and was strategic and uncompromising. Parks really forged ahead despite criticism, fear and violence that could be inflicted. So for me, the award is a true honor.

So much of your work focuses on school-age children. What inspired this? 

My experience as a former high school teacher, particularly as a special education teacher and inclusive co-teacher, is why I focus on school-age children. When I first became a special education teacher it was clear to me that difference in our society made a difference in K-12 schooling and that difference did not equate to equity or  recognizing one’s humanity and value in education. I’ve been a teacher educator now for 17 years preparing pre-service teachers for the K-12 classroom, and my work has a cornerstone of justice. I firmly believe that education is a human right, and I believe it could be a common good if it was designed for everyone to thrive. I believe everyone deserves an education rooted in humanity, a human rights-based education, where all are respected, valued, included and enfranchised .

How do you go about encouraging inclusivity within your work? 

I talk to my teacher licensure students about making sure they facilitate inclusive, equitable and justice-based learning spaces. They must be equipped with tools in order to be effective teachers for diverse learners in K-12 education. Tools that provide choice, flexibility and variety, with multiple paths to engage students in learning opportunities. We can’t just do direct instruction or just be teacher-centered; we have to be student-centered, inclusive, equitable and just. That means using a variety of strategies and techniques because we teach a variety of learners.

Do you find that your background in academia helps or informs your activism?

I do believe my role at UNC Asheville supports my activism because I work in solidarity with various communities of practice within academia as well as community groups, school districts and various nonprofits. I have a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction in education, so people understand that I have studied what content and approaches are appropriate for our schools. Also, I think people understand that credentials add to the practices and tools that I present in the community, but it also adds to the action-oriented work of what needs to be done. Because I don’t just talk theory or all the theoretical frameworks and books that you need to read, I’m able to drill down to concrete and practical practices and specific things that we can do to move toward justice and equity-based learning spaces.

What advice do you have for those interested in doing similar types of work within the community? 

Within two years of arriving in Asheville by 2012 or so, I joined the Asheville City Schools Foundation board. At the time, my sons were in kindergarten and second grade, and I thought, “You know, let me get connected to the school system.” Through the foundation, I got connected to other people concerned with education and supporting a local school district. It’s important to join organizations that connect you to  communities and being unafraid to recognize people you see in community — reaching out to them and telling them you’d like to connect.

And what about youths interested in community work? Where would you direct them? 

I would urge them to get involved in organizations, too. The Asheville City Schools foundation has a group called REAP [Racial Equity Ambassadors Program for young people], and they support racial equity work at Asheville High and the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences. I’ve also worked with My Daddy Taught Me That, My Sistah Taught Me That, Umoja Health, Wellness, and Justice Collective, Christine W. Avery Learning Center and the Delta House Life Development. But if similar opportunities do not exist within someone’s community, I would encourage young people to start their own organization. Rosa Parks was part of organizing with the NAACP, being strategic and intentional. Not giving up her seat on the bus wasn’t by accident!


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