Lizbet Simmons: 3 Questions and a Fist Bump

We asked Lizbet Simmons, recipient of the first annual Curvejumper of the Year award at this year's Curvejump event in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, three questions and a follow up who is jumping curves in their field.

Lizbet is a sociologist and author of The Prison School.  Lizbet gave a phenomenal talk at this year's event about her book - 14 years in the making - about a New Orleans public school located inside the Orleans Parish Prison and run by the sheriff. Lizbet explores the connection between education and mass incarceration at the margins of our society, and in doing so, encourages us all to consider how we can make school more about education and less about discipline. 

  1. For your book The Prison School you spent years getting to know people and their stories. How did you gain trust from people coming from a very different community than your own?

I took my time building relationships in New Orleans where I did the research for my book, and I let those relationships grow organically. I didn’t expect locals in the African American community there to accept me immediately, if ever.

I was a white woman studying the criminalization of black youth in public schools, and there were good reasons for locals to mistrust me. For hundreds of years, white people have taken advantage of African Americans, so it made sense to me that people would be cautious around me.

So, I took it one day at a time.

I walked into historically black neighborhoods in New Orleans, like the 9th Ward, to listen to people’s stories, and I found people who wanted to be heard. The stories came rushing out one after the other. Together we found something in this river of storytelling that felt like humanity itself. It was something we could trust.

2. What's the biggest issue you want the average citizen to be aware of when it comes to public education today?

When it comes to judging the quality of a public school, people often focus on the wrong things. They look at school rankings on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest) without asking what these numbers really mean.

To a large extent, quantitative rankings represent the socioeconomic class of the community. As a group, good test takers are wealthier test takers; these children have all the advantages of their social standing – housing, health care, nutrition, educated parents, English fluency – which makes it easier to do well on a test. A 10 ranking doesn’t necessarily mean that the school as an institution is truly exceptional. Rather, it often means that a student body has access to exceptional resources.

So what, then, makes a public school great?

It is not a number between 1 and 10; it is an institutional culture of care, where children feel recognized and nurtured. Those are schools where teachers take time to know each child; where classrooms are brimming with materials for exploration and discovery; and where children are filled with wonder and excitement about learning. When judging the culture of learning at a school, we could be looking for these qualities, and they may come with the benefit of socioeconomic diversity.

3.    How do you decide what projects to take on?

I take on all kinds of projects, but they have a few things in common. They all start with a question; they are all quite a bit beyond my reach (i.e. failure is a distinct possibility); and they all make me feel something deeply.

4.    Fist Bump: Who is someone jumping the curve in their respective field(s), and why would you give them a fist bump? 

I can be a bit literal at times, but I don’t think I have ever actually given a fist bump to anyone. I think the fist bump comes from boxing, and that might be part of why it feels so masculine to me. And when I think about who is jumping the curve in their field, I see a huge set of women.

Dr. Jessica Green, for example, is a woman who has excelled in the sciences, a male dominated field. She is a biodiversity scientist at the University of Oregon and holds a Ph. D. from UC Berkeley in Nuclear Engineering. She was my next door neighbor when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, and we have been friends ever since.

She studies how humans relate to microorganisms, and she has been thinking about ways to redesign spaces, like hospitals, to include rather than exclude microbes and encourage beneficial interactions. It is not just what she studies that is compelling; it is how she talks about it. When she talks about science, she is talking to you not at you. That makes all the difference. On top of everything else, she is a really excellent friend.

See how she jumps curves as a Senior TED fellow.

Megan Beck