It seems that every time we white folks suddenly wake up to the racism and white supremacy that has been around us for our entire lives, there is one question that gets asked over and over again, “Well what are we supposed to do?” I believe that this question comes from a desire for concrete actions that will lead to immediate results. Well, we know those actions do not exist. We cannot possibly fix over 400 years of oppression in a single moment. However, what we can do is use this moment to propel us towards the kinds of actions that will lead to the types of changes that can work to prevent moments like this one from occurring again and again indefinitely. But we often do not know where to begin.
Many schools and school districts begin with statements. In fact, yesterday, I sent out a thread of Tweets asking school leaders to just begin there. To not remain silent. But once a statement is made, there is a danger of feeling as if that is enough. When statements are made and no action is taken to back those statements up, our words are empty. So once a statement is made, then action must follow and that is where we often feel lost and so we give up and then nothing ever changes. And so, I have spent some time over the last few days pulling together some resources that I can share with my own district as we look for actions that we can take in our journey towards becoming a more anti-racist school district. And I thought that maybe those actions could be helpful to others as well.
Let me begin by acknowledging that I am a white educator. I teach in a district that is mostly made up of other white educators. The students and families in my district are mostly white. Because of the privilege our whiteness gives us, and because of the white supremacy that exists, many of us in my district have NOT done much work to understand our own identities and the role our race plays in shaping our lives and our experiences in our school system. This reality has shaped the actions that I feel we need to take. The actions that I am suggesting are geared towards districts that are similar to my own because that is what I know. I recognize that these same actions would NOT be places to start for every district. But I want to offer these suggestions for those who might need a place to begin in places that are similar to my own.
In addition, I want to point out that the very FIRST action that I am suggesting is that districts pay for professional development and consulting that will guide districts through necessary equity work and anti-bias and anti-racist training. I suggest that when hiring people, the focus is placed on seeking out organizations that are led by Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. Every suggestion that I make after that comes from what I have learned over the past few years by listening to and learning from Black educators, Indigenous educators and other educators of color. I have learned because there are others that share generously and are, too often, not compensated for their work. They are the ones that should be guiding our work as districts. They are the ones who should be getting paid for their work. I share these suggestions of action because they have helped me to move forward and I hope that they might help others as well, but if districts want to really dig into this work, we need to be guided by those who know more than we do and whose lived experiences give them the perspective to know what is not working within our schools and districts. That is not something I can provide.
What I can provide is what I have learned from others, what has worked for me in my own journey and what I want to see from my own district. And so, I offer those suggestions here in the form of 7 actions that we can take as schools and school districts as we attempt to create the kinds of change that will last beyond this one moment and will lead to real and long-lasting change in creating more anti-racist school districts.
ACTION 1: Commit to providing our district with anti-bias and anti-racist professional development and consulting led by organizations that center and are led by people who are Black, Indigenous and other People of Color. Before we guide our students in anti-racist work, we must do this work ourselves. You have the power to bring us the opportunities that we need to do that work. A wonderful place to begin in order to find this type of professional development is with Teaching Tolerance: https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/request-a-training
ACTION 2: As you hire someone from outside of our district to help us grow, you can also begin to help us grow from within. We need books that will help us to better understand race and racism and the ways racism impacts our schools. We need practice in having conversations on race and racism with each other so that we can do better having conversations on race and racism with our students. You can allow for that by purchasing a text for us to read as a staff and providing us with an opportunity to discuss that text. Here are a few titles that might work:
ACTION 3: As we grow our own anti-racist skills, and as we grow our ability to talk to each other about race and racism, then you can help us to talk with our students about race by purchasing books written for children, by Black authors, that center Black joy and Black lives and Black history and books for our classrooms that explicitly discuss whiteness and racism and white supremacy. Here are a few to start with:
Middle Grade Chapter Books
There are so many other titles, but sometimes long lists can be overwhelming. But use those lists and help us to get those books into our classroom. As you do that, you can provide us with opportunities to evaluate the books that we are using in our classrooms so that we, as educators, can get better at reading all books more critically. This will allow us to ensure that we are choosing to bring books to our students that do not perpetuate harmful stereotypes, misrepresentations and erasures. I have put together a tool based on the work of Teaching Tolerance and Social Justice Books that can help us to do that work. That tool can be found here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1joub6JP0mF3BBAjETNCMLuyI_vwxr7nRNERP2VTjI9M/edit
ACTION 4: Form committees of grade levels teams to critically evaluate our curriculum. We can look at what is being taught across each grade level and begin to ask questions such as: Whose voices are being heard? Whose voices are being centered? Whose voices are being marginalized? Whose voices are being left out? You can provide opportunities for us to work together to evaluate our current curriculum through this lens and then when we find the voices that have been left out and marginalized, you can give us time to make the curricular changes that bring those voices into the center. Give us opportunities to do this work in regards to the history we teach, the texts that we read, the cultures that we study, etc. Have grade levels identify just one unit that feels problematic and then work together to ensure more voices, more stories, more perspectives are presented within that unit. Let teachers feel the difference in a more inclusive and anti-racist curriculum within just one unit and then allow that feeling to motivate us towards making more change. Give us time and compensation to create those changes.
ACTION 5: Provide us with a structure to look at our data. We have so much data that can help us to get a better picture of who we are helping and who we are failing as a district. We need to look at the numbers of students from specific groups in order to see who is over-represented and who is under-represented in areas such as special education, gifted and talented programs and discipline referrals. And when we can identify specific groups whom we are failing, then we need to ask ourselves HOW are our policies, programs and procedures are standing in the way or creating barriers for all students to have equal access to success. As a district, those are then changes that we need to make in order to remove those barriers for our students. Cornelius Minor brilliantly explains how we can do this work in his book We Got This.
ACTION 6: Examine our hiring process. The task of increasing the diversity of our staff is not an easy one, but we must begin that work if we truly want to become more anti-racist. So we need to examine and make changes in our hiring practices. We can start to do that by asking questions such as: What is the diversity of our staff? What is the diversity of the people who are applying for jobs in our district? Who is passing our screeners? Who is not passing our screeners? Where are we recruiting teachers from? Where are we getting our student teachers from? What are we doing to actively recruit more diverse teacher candidates? Who are we hiring? Who are we not hiring? Who are we retaining? Who are we not retaining? How are we supporting teachers once they are in our district? Digging into these questions will likely illuminate a place for us to start and then we can look to others who know more than we do in order to create more equitable hiring practices.
ACTION 7: We must commit to teaching our students to be anti-racist. Through all of this action, we also need to ask ourselves, “How are we explicitly teaching our students to be anti-racist?” One way we can do this is by critically evaluating our social-emotional curriculum. We need to make sure that we have lessons that go beyond teaching students to just, “be kind” and go beyond teaching our students how to be better students. We must teach students about their own identities and about the identities of others so that our students can learn that it is not that “color does not matter,” but that they can, instead, come to understand that a person’s skin color is one important facet of a person’s identity that shapes the way that person experiences the world. There are extremely powerful lessons within Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being The Change that can help us to do this work. We also need to make sure that we have lessons that teach students how to recognize and interrupt racist incidents if and when they see them occur. Again, Teaching Tolerance provides incredible resources for this within their Speak Up! curriculum. As a district, we need to ensure that these kinds of lessons are being taught to our students so that they have the skills that they will need to be anti-racist in a world that is still racist.
Clearly, there are many more actions that can and should be taken, but I also believe that we need to be realistic in where we choose to start. And what I know is that we have to start somewhere. It will be too easy to let this moment pass and to continue to believe that this is not work that needs to be done here. But this work is vital. I believe that it will save lives. And while we cannot fix all of the world’s problems in this moment, we can use this moment to make a commitment to action.
I look forward to joining you in this work and for doing better for our students together.