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Breaking Bread in Communities of Learners

Tanden Brekke, University of St. Thomas

Robin R. Bell, University of Northwestern St. Paul

Vivian Johnson, Hamline University

Key Statement: This article reports on a relationship between two social justice professors who shared stories of battle fatigue and, in doing so, supported each other in avoiding burnout.

Keywords: social justice education, communities of learners, teaching fatigue


Dr. Robin Bell and Dr. Tanden Brekke both work in higher education and teach in the area of social justice and equity. They recognize that a critical issue in doing this work is avoiding burnout. This article highlights the value of metacognition and reflecting on one’s teaching practice to create an inclusive participatory classroom. Unfortunately, burnout is frequent in this work when confronted with faculty and learner pushback. To support faculty in any discipline to survive this inevitable pushback and avoid burning out, they recommend developing a long-term, transformational relationship with a peer (a Table of Fellowship). Here they deconstruct and reconstruct how their Table of Fellowship developed and supported them so others can learn from and adapt their experience. The writers stress the importance of creating a Table of Fellowship for faculty in all disciplines interested in infusing social justice and equity into their curriculum/classrooms.

A Table of Fellowship

Robin: The journey of becoming a professor in higher education culture without sacrificing my cultural knowledge and identity is an issue that is not going away. I grappled with this paradox while earning my doctorate in education, focusing on teacher myths about education, teaching, learning, and identity formation of teachers and learners (Ladson-Billings, 2001). After an invitation from my dissertation chairperson and friend, I committed to exploring my teaching practice by intentionally structuring my classroom as a learning community based on Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon’s (2009) idea of a community is where learners are viewed as participants and leaders that aligns with our idea of a Table of Fellowship. Chris Watkins (2005) also encourages structuring classrooms as a community of learners, rather than a classroom built with white supremacy tools or tools of masters’ colonial house. This was not a solo adventure.

Tanden: My teaching comes from a place of authenticity and self-awareness. Through a Table of Fellowship, I have become self-aware of how oppressive systems have shaped my identity and what my healing journey can look like. In addition, I have several relationships similar to my relationship with Robin, which have taught me how vital and life-giving these relationships are for me. This article describes my relationship with Robin.

A Table of Fellowship: The Long Haul of the Messy

Daily Ritual of Cooking and Cleaning

Tanden: Writing this article in 2021–2022, Robin and I have known each other for 14 years. I reached out to Robin because he has a different lived experience from mine that could teach me. Furthermore, I desired to learn from his wisdom. For the last few years, we have met every couple of months to share stories, encourage each other, and develop our pedagogical practices. Our meetings usually occur at a coffee shop, Robin’s place, or a park.

A couple of years ago, I asked Robin to meet more regularly as I needed a colleague doing similar work to support and encourage me. As I reflect on our relationship, two key ingredients exist. First, we are honest with each other. We say what we need to say the way we need to say it. At times Robin has shared hard truths about white people. I had to hear these truths and reflect on how they have played out in my life. This required me to develop the capacity to say what I am really thinking and feeling, unlike what happens many times when white people enter into relationships with people of color. As Feagin (2020) has documented, white people have front-stage and backstage conversations about race. The front-stage conversations are politically correct, well crafted, and deemed to be safe. With Robin, I have backstage conversations without self-editing, being my true self, and acknowledging what is happening within me. Secondly, we have built a trusting relationship. The honesty between us has led to a relationship in which we trust each other with some of the most important and intimate parts of ourselves. Over time it was apparent that I could share the messy, mixed-up, confusing parts of myself, and amazingly Robin continued to embrace our fellowship. His trust has taught me that my desire to “prove myself to be one of the good white people” is an internal need, not an external demand from Robin. Even with my faults, limitations, and brokenness, Robin is not leaving. This trust has allowed us to explore our lives’ deep, complex realities.

Robin: Reflecting back, I resisted engaging in dialogue with Tanden, a white guy who I had no reason to trust. But when he invited me to “set the table,” I changed my mind and followed the advice of Jerome Bruner (1996) to view our dialogue as “an opportunity to explore and apply how and what makes it possible and fulfilling for human beings to live together, even with personal sacrifice” (p. 32). Initially, I was going to make it uncomfortable for Tanden to dialogue with me, but he kept showing up and ruptured my world. For me, Tanden represented a counternarrative, someone not interested in playing the role of overseer and not engaging in a transactional relationship.

Our Table of Fellowship provided us with a space for how I could unlearn my white social conditioning and reimagine our theoretical framework based on fugitive pedagogy (Givens, 2021) and being an abolitionist teacher (Kaba, 2021). As teachers, the essential questions for us were: How do you teach within a learning community? What communication practices invite learners, who are reluctant to engage with you and your worldview, to participate in a Table of Fellowship? Asking these questions is hard and exhausting work and without our Table of Fellowship could have pushed us to burn out. But our Table of Fellowship created a safe space to ask these questions, rest from the grind of doing social justice and equity work, and recharge with each other’s encouragement.

Vivian [Third-Party, Reflection]: Both Robin and Tanden are clear that their work is hard. Their advice for readers wanting to engage in authentic conversations regarding social justice and equity using the Table of Fellowship is to find a supportive community. In addition to increasing their understanding of themselves, Robin and Tanden explored the intersection of their evolving identities with their views of teaching and learning.

Robin: Together, we explored how to infuse our classroom cultures with pedagogies that can transform learning from teacher-centered information transmission to a focus on personal, interpersonal, and communication processes (Wertsch et al., 1995); in other words, pedagogies that Wetsch et al. (1995) argue foster learner transformation.

Robin and Tanden: To create classrooms that foster learner transformation and provide a space for instructors to heal and grow, we advise developing a Table of Fellowship (see Box 1). Finding others willing to get in the “messy kitchen” allows for sharing ideas, lending a shoulder to cry on when things are tough, and reminding us that nurturing an environment that facilitates a Table of Fellowship is worth it. Doing this messy internal and external work requires others, people that you trust and who are willing to get dirty together. For us, the African proverb, “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together” is true when creating these kinds of learning environments.

Box 1: Develop a Table of Fellowship

Prerequisites to Developing a Table of Fellowship:

  • Commit to human development with colleagues (e.g., a patriarchal, hierarchical, and colonized mindset probably will not cultivate a mutual relationship of embracing).

  • Be mindful of egocentric and ideological thinking, so that you may open your heart to reflection on your authentic identity (i.e.,. whose voice constructs/informs your internal voice).

  • Be vulnerable and gentle with your soul so you may embrace another person's narrative (i.e., learning how to distance our voice from ourselves to listen to our neighbor’s voice).

Strategies for Developing a Table of Fellowship

  • Prioritize relationships with colleagues. Make the time/space for these relationships to grow.

  • Be proactive, reach out to someone you want to include in a Table of Fellowship, and be patient, as it may take more than one attempt.

  • Practice critical self-reflection. What parts of you do you need to be aware of to develop/deepen relationships across differences?

  • Learn to be honest with yourself and others. Reflect on the ways that your socialization has created a false identity.

Additional Resources to Create a Table of Fellowship

Anderson, J. (Host). (2021, February 10). Fugitive Pedagogy in Black Education (No. 374) [Audio podcast episode]. Harvard EdCast. Harvard Education Publishing Group. Asante, M. K., & Dove, N. (2021). Being human being: Transforming the race discourse. Universal Write Publications.

Gopin, M. (2004). Healing the heart of conflict: 8 crucial steps to making peace with yourself and others. Rodale. hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge. Kupo, V. L., & Oxendine, S. (2019). Complexities in authenticity. In E. S. Abes, S. R. Jones, & D-L Stewart (Eds.), Rethinking college student development theory using critical frameworks. Stylus.

Love, B. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Central Recovery Press. Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (10th anniversary edition.). Jossey-Bass. Singh, A. A., Wise, T., & Wing Sue, D. (2019). The racial healing handbook: Practical activities to help you challenge privilege, confront systemic racism, and engage in collective healing (1st ed.). New Harbinger Publications. Viscott, D. S. (1976). The language of feelings: The time-and-money shorthand of psychotherapy. Arbor House. Warren, M. R. (2010). Fire in the heart: How white activists embrace racial justice. Oxford University Press. Williams, M. R. (2019). Practicing teaching to transgress. Teaching Theology & Religion, 22(4), 322–325.


Based on our ongoing dialogues, we have built a Table of Fellowship to allow refuge and recovery from burnout while trying to build classroom learning environments that support social justice and equity. We encourage faculty to use the stories and resources here to build their own Table of Fellowships and prepare for classroom transformations. Further discussion on how to effect this transformation will address suggestions for altering the physical environment, the role of changing classroom language and expectations, and the role of narrative in teaching.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who can you or are you having a Table of Fellowship with? How can you deepen these relationships?

  2. What internal work do you need to do to develop a Table of Fellowship with your colleagues?

  3. What structures around you limit/strengthen your ability to participate in a Table of Fellowship? What can you do to change/reinforce those structures?


Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Harvard Press.

Feagin, J. R. (2020). The white racial frame: Centuries of racial framing and

counter-framing (3rd ed.). Routledge.

Givens, J. (2021). Fugitive pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the art of Black

teaching. Harvard University Press.

Haroutunian-Gordon, S. (2009). Learning to teach through discussion: The art of

turning the soul. Yale University Press.

Kaba, M. (2021). We do this 'til we free us: Abolitionist organizing and transforming

justice. Haymarket Books.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2001). Crossing over to Canaan: The journey of new teachers in

diverse classrooms. Jossey-Bass.

Watkins, C. (2005). Classrooms as learning communities. Routledge.

Wertsch, J. V., Del Rio, P., & Alvarez, A. (1995). Sociocultural studies of the mind.

Harvard Press.

About the Authors


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