Leading for racial equity

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

-Paulo Freire

I think a lot about race.  Not just because of recent events, but because I believe that education is the key to changing the views of the ignorant.  Racism is ignorance.  It’s the inability to see that we all have value.  Most of us probably believe that you can’t change a racist person’s heart.  That doesn’t mean we stop trying.  As an educator, I must believe that people can evolve.  It’s what we do.  We help people evolve.

I feel a sense of urgency to speak and write about racism, but only if it will lead to action, not just the actions of others, but my own.  Speaking and writing require thought.  Thinking hard about something requires reflection.  But speaking and writing aren’t enough.  We must do something.  What can school leaders do about inequities and racial injustice in their schools?  The answers are not simple, but they are incredibly important.

The first step to fighting for social justice is the recognition that all students do not have the same access to a quality education.  The second step is understanding that even when students do have access to a quality education, their race impacts their ability to take advantage of it.  The longstanding belief in America is that everyone has an equal chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  They don’t.  Deep and longstanding structural and institutional barriers still exist.  If teachers and school leaders don’t recognize this, they are unlikely to do anything of import for students of color.

If you recognize and accept the first two premises, then you are at least ready to do something about racism and racial injustice.  If you accept that inequities exist in the quality of education available to students, then you can commit yourself to improving the quality of education for marginalized groups.  If you see how education is not enough, then you can work to break down the barriers that keep students from having the same chance at success in life.

The ability to recognize racial inequities is easy for some, harder for others.  You need an awareness of others and the world if you are going to be an advocate for all students.  Overt racism is easy to recognize and confront in schools (or let’s just say it should be easy to recognize and confront).  That doesn’t mean justice is always achieved, but if a student uses a racial slur, most schools have a discipline code they follow to apply consequences.  Subtle bias and racism, however, are much more difficult to identify and address.  Schools are reflections of their communities.  Anti-racist administrators and educators must be willing to talk about what ails their community.  When schools ignore the quiet murmurs of bias and prejudice in their buildings, they give power to the ignorant.  If you have lived a sheltered life, you will be challenged to see the racial inequities that could be right in front of you.  We don’t know what we don’t know, but we can’t use that as an excuse to disengage.  So…

Educate yourself

You don’t need a racially diverse group of close friends to care about and advocate for others.  You do, however, need to believe in the value and importance of all people.  We can’t assume that everyone has those values.  If you believe in the value of others, then you must also be willing to learn about the world outside your little bubble.  You need to be well-read and seek knowledge and understanding from a variety of sources.  While you can learn a lot from committed study, you can learn even more if you…

Listen to your students

The best listeners look for meaning beyond the spoken word.  How much knowledge could we gain from our students and their families if we truly listened to them?  Listening takes time.  Listening requires commitment.  As important as relationships are, they must go beyond the superficial level.  The only way to get beyond the daily niceties of teaching is to have real conversations with students.  That means you will sometimes have to put down the curriculum and open yourself up to spontaneous discussion.  Yes, that’s scary, but those are the times you will get unexpected insight into the lives of your students.  Once students know you are listening to them, you’ll be able to…

Make sure they know you believe in them

All students need to know that someone believes in them, but students from marginalized groups need to know it and feel it more often.  If you grow up being told that society doesn’t value or accept you, you develop coping skills that make you question any feedback, including positive feedback.  If you foster trusting relationship with your students, they will believe it when you tell them how great they are.  When you tell them, tell them specifically why they are great.  Telling them “why” reminds them that someone they respect knows who they are.  If you tell them you believe in them enough, it will…

Help them believe in themselves

When we help students believe in themselves, we equip them with the skills to take on the world.  The world can be harsh and unforgiving.  It can also be inclusive and inspiring.  When students believe in themselves, they are prepared to take on bigotry.  When students believe in themselves, they have the confidence to break through barriers because they know it’s their right.  We can do this for students.  We can do this every day for students by consistently challenging their thinking.  The ignorance of bigotry and racism can be overcome by school leaders and educators who are willing to speak up and speak out for their students.  I believe this because, like Paulo Freire’s quote below suggests, it is the only way we can make it possible for students to become themselves.

“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
― Paulo Freire

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