A few years ago, UNC-Charlotte students and faculty packed a conference hall anxiously awaiting a guest lecturer.

Tall, stately and projecting her own style of masculine energy, Dr. Bettina Love, a renowned and highly respected Black lesbian educator, stepped up to the podium. She began her lecture with a discussion about what was then her latest book “We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.” 

“Abolitionist teaching is wanting to dismantle the prison industrial complex within education,” she explained. “It’s wanting to create schools that are loving and affirming to all children. With abolitionist teaching we take accountability for harm and then start to repair.” 

Since then Love has been hard at work on another book (“Punished for Dreaming,” due out September 12, 2023) and continues on her journey of educating others on inclusive and culturally affirming education and education policies. 

Qnotes spoke with Love recently by phone from her office on the campus of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. She shared a few of her thoughts on education, parenting and what it means to be Dr. Love. 

According to Love, her last name has represented a challenge at times, but she insists she has always maintained a good sense of humor about it all.

“You might imagine the jokes I got as a kid growing up,” she recalls with a chuckle.  “And at least 10 times a year someone asks, ‘what’s your real name?’  I arrive at an event and they think I’m the DJ or I just made it up.

“But I love it. I love that my father gave it to me – he died when I was 17 – and I love that my wife has it. 

She recalls the relationship she shared as a young girl and then a teen in Rochester, New York with her parents fondly. “I grew up in a house with a very loving mother and father,” she says. My parents were both very affirming. I played with G.I. Joes and went to Catholic school, the only time I wore a dress. I was a daddy’s girl, though. I would wash his Caddy with him on Saturdays and Sundays.

“A big part of growing up in my parent’s home was authenticity. For my mother, being authentic was equally if not more important as being yourself.  I remember once, growing up and my older sister was on the phone and changed her voice.  She was talking to someone white. When she hung up, my mother let her have it.  She told her, ‘Don’t you ever change you.’

“I don’t think they thought I’d grow up to be a professor, though they always told me, ‘go, and be whatever you want to be. Don’t take nobody’s shit and be yourself.’ They raised me to be a tough lil’ kid and I appreciate that.  

“When I told my mother I was lesbian she said, ‘We’ve been waiting on you [to finally say it] all this time.’  So, I don’t have coming out stories.  I was just myself and was surrounded by individuals who let me be myself. My mother had this saying.  She’d say, ‘You give ‘em hell.’”

Love admits she wasn’t quite sure what her long term plans were when she first entered college through a basketball scholarship program, In fact, she would eventually transfer from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia to the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. But not before a pivotal moment in her life occurred.

“I never thought I would be an educator, but I had some amazing Black teachers growing up who inspired me,” she explains. ”But the catalyst was freshman year of college at Old Dominion.  I realized I was in classes with all the boys’ basketball players. I was taking classes in first aid and outdoor recreation. I wanted to take other classes, I didn’t know what, but I wanted to take something more challenging. 

“Funny thing is, what they let me take, after I complained, complained and complained, was an education class.” 

The administration’s decision to place her in that particular class also led her to another life-changing event.

“I walked in,” Love recalls, “and there she was – my wife.”

Twenty-one years later, Bettina and Chelsea Culley-Love are still together, and they’re the proud parents of twins.

“Chels is my dream girl, kind, beautiful and a wonderful mom. If I’ve got a lot going on she has my back, whatever I need. I would do anything to keep her. I cherish her.” 

For Love, anything means growing individuality, as a couple and nurturing their relationship. Without hesitation, she happily admits the last two years of her relationship have been the best of all. 

During this time the Loves have been able to be vulnerable with each other, honing communication skills, learning to apologize and support each other with a love and respect that results in supporting each other. Seemingly, this is an evolution they’ve embraced as staunch therapy advocates who have no problems proclaiming, “We’re both in therapy.”    

The Love’s twins are two 12-year-olds (a boy and girl). When questioned about what Valentine’s Day is like in a household full of Loves, her response was fitting.

“It’s about love – spending time together and letting each other know how much we appreciate each other. [Typically] we spend a lot of time with our kids, watching documentaries and listening to the music they like. It’s another day to be affectionate, to show we love them, tell them we’re proud of them and that we’re there for them.”

The Love twins take their parent’s love and encouragement with them every day and everywhere, including to the Harlem New York public school they attend. When questioned on whether or not her ideology on education means she’s tougher on her children’s teacher’s than other parents – Love immediately credited her wife. “…an amazing educator herself. She’s been teaching for over 20 years. So, when it comes to that, it’s not me – it’s my wife. But we both try to be very compassionate to teachers and try to support them and their community of students the best we can; and know our children. So, when a teacher says, “Your child is talkative,” I know they are. <chuckles> It’s about being honest and supporting the teacher in their job and job they’re trying to do. 

As Love once said, she never expected that her college years would lead to a career as an educator. The support she offers for her children’s teachers confirms the empathy she shares for other educators, especially those working in the United States public school system.

It’s not hard to imagine the many challenges that come with initiating a progressive school of thought in today’s educational system, especially with push back against CRT (Critical Race Theory), DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and the banning of many children’s and young adult books that explore the significance of these topics; and/or focus on Black and LGBTQ historical figures and culture.

“This is what you do instead of having conversations about climate change, health care and immigration,” Love says, referring to the plethora of anti-CRT and anti LGBTQ legislation currently sweeping the United States. “We have issues in our country and governors are calling press conferences to talk about curriculum.  There’s a huge teacher shortage. Florida started 2022 with 8,000 vacancies.  Teacher pay is deplorable in this country. I’d love to hear these people talk about their political agenda and the affordable housing crisis. But they’re not, because they are not going to give people actual policy that will benefit their lives.”

Although it might sound daunting for Love, especially with so much going on and so much to think about and do, she makes it clear she finds time to step away and wind down. As one might expect, she enjoys watching a good game of basketball, particularly when LeBron James is playing. 

She also enjoys hip-hop and adamantly proclaims to be “the biggest Beyonce fan you’ve ever met,” though her daughter might describe Love as immature and someone who “plays too much.”  

Outside of all that she finds fulfillment with community friends she’s made and kept for over 30 years, sharing lasting and reciprocal affection. It’s clear, the name Dr. Love was tailor-made for her.

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