Resource Articles and Books Written by Dr. Vajra Watson

Dr. Vajra Watson is the author of Learning to Liberate: Community-Based Solutions to the Crisis in Urban Education (2012), Censoring Freedom: Community-Based Professional Development and the Politics of Profanity (2013), The Black Sonrise: Oakland Unified School District’s Commitment to Address and Eliminate Institutionalized Racism (2014), and Literacy is a Civil Write: The Art, Science, and Soul of Transformative Classrooms (2015), among others. 

Transformative Schooling
Towards Racial Equity in Education, 1st Edition

Discussions of achievement gaps are commonplace in education reform, but they are rarely interrogated as a symptom of white supremacy. As an act of disruption, award-winning scholar Vajra Watson pierces through the rhetoric and provides a provocative analysis of the ways schools can become more racially inclusive. Her research is grounded in Oakland where longitudinal data demonstrated that Black families were sending their children to school, but the ideals of an oasis of learning were being met with the realities of racism, low expectations, and marginalization. As a response to this intergenerational crisis of miseducation, in 2010, the school district joined forces with community organizers, religious leaders, neighborhood elders, teachers, parents, and students to address institutionalized racism.

Seven years later, Watson shares findings from her investigation into the school district’s journey towards justice. What she creates is a wholly original work, filled with penetrating portraits that illuminate the intense and intimate complexities of working towards racial equity in education. As a formidable case study, this research scrutinizes how to reconfigure organizational ecosystems as spaces that humanize, heal, and harmonize. Emerging from her scholarship is a bold, timely, and hopeful vision that paves the way for transformative schooling.


The Black Sonrise

To uncover the seeds of courage and determination that spurred a school district to make an unprecedented commitment to the education of African American male students. We invite you to Step Into the Light of The Black Sonrise.

In 2011, the Office of African American Male Achievement piloted the Manhood Development Program, an elective course offered during the school day, taught by African American males for African American males. Today, the Manhood Development Program serves more than 450 students at 15 school sites and the program is making great strides in engaging, encouraging, and empowering African American male students.

This research project was funded by Open Society Foundations, The Institute for Black Male Achievement (IBMA), and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and was led by Vajra Watson Ed.D., Director of Research and Policy for Equity at the University of California, Davis.



“A bold call to action, a passionate plea for justice, a discerning document of wise witness, The Black Sonrise tells the inspirational story of African-American men and boys building a community of trust, respect, and accountability that nourishes self-esteem, human agency, relationship building, and student achievement. Educators will find compelling insights, challenging truths, practical lessons, and reasons for hope in this work.”

-Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education, Harvard University
Author of The Good High School, of I’ve Known Rivers, and Respect

“After generations of systematically punishing and failing Black males, Oakland Unified has implemented a program aimed at addressing its egregious practices.  The Black Sonrise shows us the specific strategies that make a difference in the lives of young men who have been marginalized.  While there is much work to be done to eliminate racism in Oakland Unified and in other school districts across the country, this report shows us some of the best practices for coming a step closer to creating dignity-enhancing practices for all students.”

-Victor M. Rios, Associate Professor of Sociology, UC Santa Barbara
Author of Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys

“This groundbreaking report demonstrates what is possible when a system intentionally engineers the conditions for Black males to thrive in today's urban educational context.  While other systems have attempted to change the so-called structures, the work in Oakland makes a compelling argument that we MUST fundamentally focus on the practices that facilitate engagement, achievement, and excitement among students.  This is a must-read for urban school leaders and policymakers across the U.S.”

-Louie F. Rodriguez, Associate Professor and Co-Director, Doctorate in Educational Leadership at CSU, San Bernardino
Author of The Time Is Now: Understanding and Responding to the Black and Latina/o Dropout Crisis in the U.S.

“At a time when there is much discussion about how to address institutionalized racism and the education of Black Males, here we see a shining example of a culturally caring commitment that is doing something for young men that is literally changing their lives. Kudos to the Oakland Unified School District and all the change agents on the ground in schools and classrooms for having the vision and the courage to do something different for young Black males.”

- Tyrone C. Howard, Professor and Faculty Director, Center X
Director, UCLA Black Male Institute, UC Los Angeles
Author of Black Male(d): Peril and promise in the education of African American males

Learning to Liberate

Few problems in education are as pressing as the severe crisis in urban schools. Though educators have tried a wide range of remedies, dismal results persist. This is especially true for low-income youth of color, who drop out of school―and into incarceration―at extremely high rates. The dual calamity of underachievement in schools and violence in many communities across the country is often met with blame and cynicism, and with a host of hurtful and unproductive quick fixes: blaming educators, pitting schools against each other, turning solely to the private sector, and ratcheting up the pressure on teachers and students. But real change will not be possible until we shift our focus from finding fault to developing partnerships, from documenting problems to discovering solutions. Learning to Liberate does just that by presenting true and compelling community-based approaches to school reform. 

Drawing on over three years of ethnographic research, Vajra Watson explores the complicated process of reaching and teaching today's students. She reveals how four nontraditional educators successfully empower young people who have repeatedly been left behind. Using portraiture, a methodology rooted in vivid storytelling, Watson analyzes each educator's specific teaching tactics. Uncovering four distinct pedagogies―of communication, community, compassion, and commitment―she then pulls together their key strategies to create a theoretically grounded framework that is both useful and effective. A poignant, insightful, and practical analysis, Learning to Liberate is a timely resource for all educators and youth-serving practitioners who are committed to transforming "at-risk" youth into "at-promise" individuals who put their agency and potential into action in their schools and neighborhoods.


References and Additional Reading

Alim, S. H., & Pennycook, A. (2007). Glocal linguistic flows: Hip-hop culture (s), identities, and the politics of language education. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education6(2), 89-100.

Banes, L. C., Martínez, D. C., Athanases, S. Z., & Wong, J. W. (2016). Self-Reflexive Inquiry Into Language Use and Beliefs: Toward More Expansive Language Ideologies. International Multilingual Research Journal10(3), 168-187.

Elbow, P. (1998). Writing without teachers. Oxford University Press, USA.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review84(1), 74-84.

Stuckey, J. E. (1991). The violence of literacy. Heinemann Educational Books.

Thaiss, C. and Zawacki, T. Myers (2006) Engaged Writers Dynamic Disciplines: research on the academic writing life. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann.

Watson, V. (2019). “Liberating Methodologies: Reclaiming Research as a Site for Radical Inquiry and Transformation.” In Community-Based Participatory Research: Testimonios from Chicana/o Studies. Editor: Natalia Deeb-Sossa. The University of Arizona Press.

Watson, V. (2018). "Cultural Keepers as Movement Makers: Towards the Alignment of Artists, Activists, and Academics.” Public: A Journal of Imagining America. Volume 5, Issue 1. Online Journal,

Watson, V. (2018). Transformative Schooling: Towards Racial Equity in Education. New York: Routledge.

Chatmon, C. and Watson, V. (2018). "Decolonizing School Systems: Racial Justice, Radical Healing, and Educational Equity inside Oakland Unified School District," Voices in Urban Education, 48. Online access,

Watson, V. (2018). “#schoolismyhustle: A youth movement to transform education.” In Lift Us Up! Don't Push Us Out! Voices from the Frontlines of the Educational Justice Movement. Editors: Mark Warren and David Goodman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Watson, V. (2018). “Artistic Resistance: Creating a Transformative Teaching Praxis Through Hip-Hop.” In Hawai'i Review

Watson, V. (2017). “Life as Primary Text: English Classrooms as Sites for Soulful Learning.” Invited submission for The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English. Download the pdf.

Watson, V. (2016). “Literacy Is A Civil Write: The Art, Science And Soul of Transformative Classrooms.” In Papa, R., Eadens, D. M., & Eadens, D. M. (Eds), Social Justice Instruction: Empowerment on the Chalkboard. New York, NY: Springer Publishing. (Book Series on Education, Equity and the Economy)

Watson, V. (2014). The Black Sonrise: Oakland Unified School District’s Commitment to Address and Eliminate Institutionalized Racism. Final evaluation report submitted to Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African American Male Achievement.

Watson, V. (2013). “Censoring Freedom: Community-Based Professional Development and the Politics of Profanity.” In Equity & Excellence in Education, 46:3, 387-410. Download the pdf.

Watson, V. (2012). Learning to Liberate: Community-Based Solutions to the Crisis in Urban Education. New York: Routledge (Michael Apple Series, Critical Social Thought). Purchase on Amazon.

Winn, M. T. (2015). Writing in rhythm: Spoken word poetry in urban classrooms. Teachers College Press.