Becoming your own Advocate with Deinya Phenix

[Read the previous Learning to Learn post on Building Resilience in a Perfectionist Learning Environment]

Welcome to our Learning to Learn series, where we chat with working mothers on how their own experiences at school shape who they are now at work and as parents. Today, we’re discussing becoming your own advocate with Deinya Phenix, PHD, an award-winning educator, researcher, community activist and mom of three beautiful children.

Hi Deinya, welcome! 


I’d love for you to introduce yourself to folks. 

Okay. I am Dr. Deinya Phenix. I am a 50 something year old, cisgender, mother of 3, and sociologist, who is the social directer for research at the Vera Institute. Formerly of Brown University, Gerver’s College, City University, and St. Francis College. I am a professor, researcher, policy analyst, and take some part in community organizing as well. That’s me.

Beautiful. I’m glad to be with you here, and we know each other from Batala New York.

That’s right, drumming. 

From drumming, great. As you know this conversation is around learning to learn. How you go from not knowing how to do something to then knowing how to do it, and how you’ve seen that show up in your kid’s schooling. How old are your 3 kids?

My oldest is 20 and my youngest is 13. 

Let’s pick 13. When you were a 13 year old, that puts you squarely in middle school. How did you go from not knowing how to do something to knowing how to do it? What was your reputation like as a student and as a learner? How did you think of yourself?

Let’s see. When I was 13, I was one year out of my first F. Prior to that I got all As and Bs, and I was labeled as a smart cookie. They literally called me smart cookies. Prior to that there were no serious challenges with learning. I ran face on into one that was pretty serious to the point of failure academically, which led to some cascading psychological and social effects as well. I was also pubescent at that point, my menarche was at 13 years old, a little late. I was in that space of transformation at 13. The class that I failed was Latin. It was a completely new language to me and it was also a new space. I started what was to become high school at the time that most people start middle school, so insecure during school. I was socially new to this space as well. 

The struggle with learning, there was some part of it that was technical, one part of it that was social. In particular I related as an individual girl to authorities and then also to my family and the support that they offered. From both of my parents’ traditions, the approach was just to submit and comply as much as possible. In fact, my step father came from a tradition where you got obedience and learning beat into you. 

There are some memes on the internet about how Caribbean parents are. You don’t ask questions, you just do it. If you ask “how do I do it?” , you get a shoe in the face. You know? My mother came from a tradition of staying under the radar as much as possible. Not being that tall nail that got beat down. Being as smart as you can, figuring out what you can, and finding a way to make yourself useful. If you can’t do math then you type, if you can’t type then you stitch things together in the factories. That’s just how everybody lined up. I’m kind of talking about the socio-economic ecosystem, as well as the technical process of learning. When Latin became difficult for me, my Mother just said, “What the hell is wrong with you?” and I went into that same space. Lots of tears, lots of frustration, lots of confusion about, “Why doesn’t the teacher understand that I’m trying?”, “What exactly are the things that I’m supposed to be doing?”. Because again, I was trained to be a good girl, by both sides of my parenting situation, and just getting in my feelings about not being a good girl. 

Meanwhile, my classmate who sat next to me was copying from me during tests and stuff. I remember this almost visually and she was getting good grades, I was not. How was it that she was cheating on me and I failed, and she didn’t. There were racial differences there. She was white and I was black. 

There was just a lot of confusion about the situation and figuring it out at 13. In the end, my step father broke things down very very simply. How to conjugate a verb, and stuff. I ended up seeing the language of Latin in the same way that I saw math, where it was step by step. This is not how people learn languages in other spaces like spoken languages like Spanish and whatever. I ended up carrying my language learning from how I learned Latin into how I learned Spanish, which is why I can’t speak Spanish very well. They are puzzles, where I have to go into my own space and really figure things out, and that requires a lot of negotiation with the teacher or whoever it is that’s the authority to give me the space to retreat and the puzzle things out on my own. 

Tell me, is that still true for you? It sounds like one of the ways that you learned how to learn throughout that experience. Not to go out and see what else there was, but go inward to spend time with yourself to look at what you’ve got, what you can learn, and what you can do on your own. Is that still true if something comes up at work that you are unfamiliar with. What are some of the first steps you take?

I like that question. It is true in that it is one of several methods for learning. It is still very important to me to have that space and the option of taking that space by myself to figure things out. Laying it all out, seeing what I have, and trying to put it back together. That applies to coding. Right now I’m trying to learn Aura. It applies to music as well. At the same time I also learned in that experience at 13 that there was social support. That social support I see now as a 50 something year old perspective. I learned in that time not to just submit to the rules and try to follow them, but also to submit to the process of somebody taking your side and teaching you in a different way from what you’re supposed to be taught. Asking for help, being willing to be the one that isn’t the smart one. 

Right, that’s hard. 

Very hard. Later in life as I became a teacher, as a professor but then also as a brand director, I learned that some people learn by mnemonics and games all of these other things. 

Those are 2 really strong strategies to kind of see how else you could learn it and take it upon yourself to figure it out. Let’s talk a little bit about your 13 year old. Are those strategies that you see being used at home? What’s school like for him? 

He and I and my eldest have something in common where we will stay up all night to solve a problem. If it’s a paper we get it right. We’ll spend all night, very little in the was satisfying. My husband and my middle child, they get things done and move on to playing games or whatever else they want to do. That micro-obsession is something that I see in my 13 year old. As a learner, he hasn’t had anything as devastating as my F in 7th grade. He has got into situations where he didn’t get as good a grade as he wanted on something, or he didn’t understand something that he thought he did, or ran into trouble with his assignments. Most of his struggles are understanding instruction and following through. 

How does that show up? If somebody were to ask him, “Who are you as a learner?” Or “How are you as a student in school?” Would those be the same questions for him, or are there things outside school that he’s passionate about more so than in school? How do you think he might answer that?

That’s interesting, he’s a bit of a homebody. He likes soccer outside, to actually play physically, but other than that he likes to stay home and play little games on video and kicking his little hacky sack around the house. I wouldn’t say he’s passionate about those things but like most kids, he doesn’t really want to be on all the time. Engage in the way that school engages you all the time. He likes free time as well. 

Sure. What’s his reputation like in school? Is he okay with his teachers? You know this better than me, but there’s a lot of gender dynamics there. A lot of women teachers and a lot of boys that have trouble listening or following directions when they’re just not hearing it. They want it explained in a way that they are grasping it, are you seeing that come up for him? How’s it going?

We are so blessed with that. Knowing how things go with other families and other kids. We’ve been very blessed with all 3 kids. At home, when he is doing independent work, we see that he does struggle with staying on task. Not paying too much attention, but staying on task. There is an attention aspect to it there. He likes to daydream, he likes to wander off going down rabbit holes. As do I. He probably gets that from me. This has had an impact on testing. I remember in 4th grade when he was taking the state test, the teacher called me in a panic during break in the exam and said, “He’s only done 2 questions!” And I’m like, “Oh my god, he’s going to fail the state test!” He ended up getting into a decent middle school, MS-51 over here and thank god things turned out okay. But he only scored a 2 on the test because his mind kept wandering off and just sat there with a pencil rolling it around in his hand or whatever. So he struggles with that when he’s doing homework. Just managing his time and focusing his attention. That struggle doesn’t seem so far to have any super detrimental impact with his teachers. We as parents get super frustrated. 

“Oh my god it’s midnight, will you finish your homework!” At school, his teachers seem to like him. They haven’t misconstrued any of his issues as a kid. He is typically functioning. There’s nothing clinical about his situation. They haven’t twisted any of this into him being no good, or bad. Fortunately, he has a peer group. He’s not super tight with any particular kids at this point, but he doesn’t have peer groups that have social standards that are oppositional or anything like that. 

So interesting. Do you see him managing it? How do you try to coach him? What have you seen work? I think a lot of folks have kids like that. 

We haven’t figured out a solution. We just reward him for getting through at the end. Not just reward him like, “Here’s your ice cream, you’re finally done.” But also we debrief as well. Positive feedback, “I like how you stuck with that even though you were really tired.” Positive reinforcement is our main thing. 

That is a good strategy to pause and move on to the next one. 

Yeah it is, but it’s very hard. His sister and myself are very micro-obsessive, we like to rub out that last wrinkle in everything. 

Yeah my husband is like that too. I can comfortably go to bed if most of something is done, he cannot. This is my last question for you. Does this trigger anything in you watching him play around with some of his homework, watching, hearing that he only answered 2 questions on the standardized test. Does anything come up for you as you’re hearing that in terms of your own background or your own experiences learning? 

Yeah, I did mention I’m a sociologist. I haven’t worked in direct education stuff other than the stuff I did as a vista volunteer. I can see just how volatile the learning and developmental moments are in a young person’s life. We are so privileged on top of being very lucky. He’s got 2 parents. Both parents are all in with coaching him and everything. When I don’t have time, Dad does, when Dad doesn’t have time, I do. Plus his teachers are pretty attentive, even though he’s in a big school. It’s even the reputation of the school that teachers actually care. This is all very lucky because in other situations there’s neglect but then there’s also negative labeling and then there’s also peer association which can go one way or the other. 

If the constellations were different, each of my kids would have gone down a completely different road. The jury is still out with the 13 year old because he’s young, but right now we are trying to get him into an elite boarding school somewhere in the region, thanks to this program called Oliver Scholars which gives free test prep, coaching, and things like code switching and all that. Dad went to boarding school, and the two bigger kids went to boarding schools as well at these elite institutions, Lawrenceville and Choate so far. If all goes well, he will be in this elite space where there is a likelihood of the negative peers and the negative labeling where those things are less likely to be part of the constellation, though it’s still very tender because there’s still the internal stuff that has to be just right as well. He doesn’t believe that he’s a dumb dumb. At earlier ages, some kids condemn themselves, “I’m dumb, I’m not going to try anymore.” So far he hasn’t had any internal message that has shut everything down. He’s still open, still positive. We are very lucky with that so far. Knock on wood. 

Yeah that’s big. I appreciate you pointing out that so much of it is internal in family systems and so much of it is external and happens outside of the home too. Wonderful. Any last thoughts for those who are kind of contending with some of it? You’re seeing similarities with how you do things, and how your kids are doing things, you’re hoping that things go well for your middle schooler. Any thoughts for parents who are also in the position. 

I would think that for those who aren’t as lucky as us, say a mom who’s single instead of a couple. That’s luck. I could easily be a single mom tomorrow. To those who aren’t as lucky as us, it’s important for them to recognize that it’s not their fault and to understand the structure around and how it works and how to engage and avail themselves of different parts of this structure. Tutoring, good teachers, other parents, there are resources out there where one doesn’t have them sort of land on their lap. When it’s not too easy they’re still there. They are there somewhere, and they need to insist on accessing those somehow. 

What a nice callback to your original learning on using the availability of other social or outside help. How you learned as a kid. Wonderful. Thanks Deinya for talking to me today. 


Deinya Phenix, Ph.D. is a sociologist, mother, and child of the African Diaspora. Deinya joined Vera’s Restoring Promise initiative as a senior research associate. She supports and advises Restoring Promise research in collaboration with incarcerated individuals, their mentors, and system-impacted communities. Prior to Vera, Deinya was a quantitative researcher and consultant in urban education, public health, and criminal justice. Deinya was also an award-winning college professor, who created innovative programs integrating instruction, research, community-based activism, and the arts of the African diaspora. She holds a PhD in sociology from New York University and an MA in sociology from the University of New Mexico. Deinya is also part of a sisterhood of Black women who attended Williams College. A native of Roxbury, Massachusetts, Deinya spends her spare time deepening connections with her ancestors and family around the world through percussion and dance.

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