Member of the Week: Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Todd Breland.Elizabeth09 copy
Photo credit: UIC – Jenny Fontaine

Elizabeth Todd-Breland

Assistant Professor

University of Illinois at Chicago

@EToddBreland

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently finishing a book about transformations in Black politics, shifts in modes of education organizing, and the racial politics of education reform in Chicago from the 1960s to the present. I’ve always been personally and professionally interested in African American history. I also spent time working with Chicago Public Schools students in schools and afterschool and summer enrichment programs. This project has uniquely allowed me to merge my training as a historian with my commitment to racial justice and educational equity.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Two of my favorite undergraduate courses to teach are Race and Education Since Brown v. Board and The History of Chicago. I’ve been able to draw on my research to inform the content and assignments for these classes. In these courses I require that students leave the confines of the classroom to attend local school and community meetings, conduct community research projects, and/or visit Chicago’s museums and neighborhood-based cultural institutions. The students analyze these experiences within a broader historical context informed by course readings and other materials. While I want my students to learn new content and develop a critical analysis of history and the city, I’m also always excited for them to visit and engage intellectually with parts of the city to which they might not otherwise venture.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m excited to finally be finishing my book, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2018). The last book I read was Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. It is a beautiful and thrilling novel that challenged me to be more imaginative in thinking about the space and genre of the city in the particular way that good fiction can. I’m also looking forward to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s forthcoming book Race for Profit on Black housing and the relationship between the private sector and public policy during the 1970s.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

You will be with your research projects for a long time. So, it is important that you are passionate about the topics of study that you choose. Keep asking questions. Take the time to build relationships with people in the communities where you conduct your research. Be prepared to learn more from these collective experiences than you will ever teach others.

What was the most memorable oral history you completed as research for your book project?

I’ve had the privilege of conducting some amazing oral histories for my book. One of my most memorable was with a woman named Lillie Peoples. She taught in Chicago schools for more than forty years, organized Black teachers as a leader in Operation Breadbasket’s Teachers Division, and impacted many people along the way. Over the course of several phone calls and in-person interviews, she shared her personal and professional journey with me and allowed me look through her private collection of pamphlets, newsletters, obituaries, meeting minutes, and photographs. She is a dynamic storyteller with a quick wit, speaks her mind boldly, and remains a passionate advocate for Black children and public education. Like many of the Black women educators who I interviewed, Lillie Peoples’ story has not been adequately documented in an official historical record. Nonetheless, these Black women transformed city politics and education efforts as education practitioners, theorists, community organizers, and anchors of blocks and neighborhoods. There is an added urgency to this history given recent political attacks on public school teachers and public sector employees nationally, which have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black workers and Black communities.

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