By Kim Haas
This interview was conducted on Saturday, April 1, 2017.
Two years ago, in 2015, Daniel Morales-Armstrong began working as a college counselor at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). Washington Heights is a predominately Dominican neighborhood in New York City. A month after arriving at the school, Morales-Armstrong asked the principal,
“What do you think about taking some kids on a trip, maybe to Puerto Rico or Cuba?
The principal responded, “If you can put it together,… that would be cool.”
Daniel Morales-Armstrong Begins “Putting It Together”
With support from colleagues, Critical Theory and Social Justice Club, was established. Its primary purpose was to encourage, support, promote and guide students as they deepen their thinking, through study and travel. The Club was popular, especially among senior high school students who made up about a third of the group. Members of the Club began analyzing messages in the media, especially visuals and what the images represented and the language used. Soon after the formation of the Club, the members began focusing on racial justice.
The Critical Theory and Social Justice Club
Daniel Morales-Armstrong: We were learning about how activism happens and what’s happening in our community, regarding gentrification. And, one of the things that kept coming up was racial dynamics in Latino communities, particularly anti-blackness. So, that developed as the theme for our first trip (to Cuba) in April 2016.
Morales-Armstrong Connects with Afro Latino Travel & Develops Afro-Cuban Curriculum
Daniel Morales-Armstrong: Afro-Latino Travel (http://afrolatinotravel.com/) is excellent. One of its founders, Dash Harris put together a mini documentary series called, “Negro” about being black in Latin America. I met her a few years before and, she helped us put together an excellent itinerary to learn about Afro-Cuban Culture. So with Afro Latino Travel, we developed an unapologetically black learning experience for our students.
I wanted to demystify Cuba as a country and see it as an opportunity for deep, reflective, and consequential conversations about what it means to be Latin American, what it means to be Latino, and how Afro-Latinos play a role in Latinos’ history. I really wanted it to be a chance for students to learn histories beyond the white washed narratives about Latin American and Latinos. Because when we see pictures, when we think of Cubans most often we think of (white) Cubans in the US.
Many of the people we meet with are black. They celebrate their blackness through their work— musicians, artists, dance, food. So, they’re modeling how to acknowledge who they are.
New York public schools are very Eurocentric in their presentation of history. Traveling makes an impression.
Every once in awhile, I’ll get a text from a student (from the 2016 Cuba Trip) Here’s one,
“Hey in my African Civilization class we talked about the area where the Yoruba people come from. And I was like, oh, I learned this when I was in Cuba.”
And they light up and so do I.
Travel Expands Students’ Experiences
Daniel Morales-Armstrong: I’ve seen many positive effects travel has had on students. It’s given them a different set of tools to analyze their experiences, using multiple perspectives. We talked about how it’s not just race but what it’s like to be an Afro-Cuban, what it’s like to be a woman in Cuba and what’ it’s like to be poor.
Goals for the Trip
Daniel Morales-Armstrong: My goal is that students contextualize what we’ve been learning, for the last couple of months. That they recognize that the research we’ve done prepares us for what they will experience on the island (Cuba), especially how we can combat anti -blackness and historiography.
Daniel Morales-Armstrong: Students are having conversations around it (anti-blackness) with their peers and families. Last year, some educators at our school and group of people from our community heard one of the juniors, who is now a senior say:
“I am realizing how often our stories get left out of history, but I’m only 16. Teachers are older and have many more opportunities to learn about this stuff, and you’ve heard about it. It’s your responsibility, when you’re teaching in a school that has brown and black bodies, to include our perspective in your teaching.”
Daniel Morales-Armstrong: Her comment struck me. From that, one of the teachers that was there became engaged in critical conversations around race. Its impact is already shaping some changes in our school curriculum, just from her comment. My goal for the kids is for them to pick up those things and come to “aha moments.” I want them to come away with a greater understanding of what it means to acknowledge blackness within the Latino context and what does it look like when people embrace it unapologetically.
Morales-Armstrong Explains the Importance of Community Support
Daniel Morales-Armstrong: We were the first public high school to go (to Cuba) since the relations between Cuba and the US changed. We are funding 65% of the students’ trip. The chaperones pay significantly more. The realities of our communities made it easy to not ask students to pay everything. I’m pretty sure we’re the only school going to Cuba that is doing that. Students pay $300 and that’s it. Everything else is up to us and our community to fund raise.
Please consider supporting the wonderful work of Daniel Morales- Armstrong and the students at WHEELS on their April 6, 2017 trip to Havana, Cuba: https://www.gofundme.com/WHEELStoCuba2
Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS)
UAlbany, 2010: Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and Psychology
Harvard University, 2011: Master of Education in Prevention Science and Practice