This month I volunteered to co-chair the inaugural equity committee for the PTA at my children’s elementary school. This decision was complicated. I felt uncomfortable taking on this role in my skin as a white woman, especially in the context of our highly racialized and politicized communities in Portland. Yet there was something calling me to explore how I might put into action the tenets of racial equity I’ve been exploring as an academic for years and am now applying as a parent.
Going into our collaboration, I started grounding myself in the pivotal moments I identify as part of understanding my whiteness and working toward anti-racist living. At the first meeting, however, my own mental model was disrupted. As we—a group of other mostly white parents and I—discussed the facets of anti-racism, it became clear that we ran the risk of centering our work on our own whiteness, instead of on empowering the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities we aim to support. We had to ask ourselves: By focusing on our own development, are we sidestepping the necessity to grapple with the ugly, painful realities of systemic racism? The answer: yes and no.
The work of understanding race, identity, and culture is complicated, and the act of growing into anti-racist practices operates on a continuum. It is developmental. That is true for all of us—regardless of our skin color—and it’s true for educators and school leaders who are continually developing awareness and fluency with their district’s equity lens or culturally responsive frameworks. For this reason, it is imperative that our interpretation and learning of racial equity be dynamic. We must be given room to learn and change and grow.
The work of understanding race, identity, and culture is complicated, and the act of growing into anti-racist practices operates on a continuum.
While adhering to an equity lens is important, it is also valuable to question the extent to which our practices adapt to the evolving needs of our local communities. In other words, to what extent is your equity lens sustaining anti-racism, inclusivity, and growth in an evolving journey of racial justice?
The need to evaluate our communities for evidence of systemic racism
Despite Black Americans’ gains in education and income in recent decades, the wealth gap continues to grow. We also know that, today, Black children have lower rates of upward economic mobility and higher rates of downward mobility. This data must be an impetus to coordinate the ways we are addressing the centuries of structural racism in our public policies, while also aiming for current equitable opportunities for learning, growth, and lifelong success.
A variety of social systems and policies reify intergenerational, systemic racism in society. In particular, the coronavirus pandemic and current renaissance for racial justice have shone light on the long-standing Black and white disparities in health, job quality, homeownership, wealth, and other areas of well-being. Social science researchers have evidenced how exclusivity among white families results in profoundly negative impacts for Black and Brown communities, from childhood settings to adulthood outcomes. For example, as long as there are systemic barriers to equitable income and wealth for Black and Brown families, high-rent neighborhoods will block racial integration and the related life benefits.
Pragmatic ways to center educational systems on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students
There are ways to mitigate disparities through large-scale government actions, as well as grassroots efforts. Policies and practices can actualize our growth toward anti-racism and equitable opportunities in the current moment by honoring the generational disparities that are embedded in our social structures. Here are four things to try.
1. Focus on inclusivity
The goal of increasing representation of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse educators, leaders, and local officials in our communities can easily be disconnected from the deep learning and growing around racial equity and justice. For example, people can sometimes believe that the addition of merely one diverse member to a teaching staff, leadership team, or board isn’t enough to make a difference. But it can be a consequential start.
[T]his work doesn’t end. […] That, in itself, is proof that we must undertake it.
Research evidence illustrates that even a single racially and/or ethnically diverse school board member will have a meaningful impact on systemic decision-making. Moreover, an increase in racially and/or ethnically diverse school board member representation results in increased student achievement for Black, Brown—and white—students. While addressing inclusivity in school board representation alone—or among school leadership and staff—will not dismantle the intergenerational disadvantages that our Black, Indigenous, and Latinx families have faced, it can make a difference. We must remember that this work functions on a continuum.
2. Develop transparency by acknowledging land ownership
Some state and local organizations choose to begin their official meetings with a land acknowledgement. A land acknowledgement formally recognizes Indigenous communities as stewards of the land, as well as their long-standing relationship with the land and their traditions. Some Indigenous peoples may interpret land acknowledgments as performative acts, which is a reason to use them as a catalyst to engage in deeper exploration and gratitude of the territory where our communities reside. Ultimately, land acknowledgment practices, when built on appreciation and trust, can provide a consistent way to honor how our present social structures interact with Indigenous lands and traditions.
If you’re a school or district leader, how can you begin this important conversation with your team? If you’re a classroom teacher, how can you incorporate activities on land ownership and the history of this country into your curriculum, regardless of the subject you teach?
3. Reveal and acknowledge the context of historical accounts
Whiteness and anti-Blackness are embedded in the dominant US culture. They are operationalized in small ways that result in bias and microaggressions, as well as systemic ignorance about the strengths of our diverse communities and cultures. We have to call this out.
In a recent Portland Public Schools board meeting, for example, I witnessed education leaders disrupt this harmful paradigm. The superintendent’s leadership team started the annual budgeting discussion with a detailed, intentional presentation of the historical account of racism in the region. The team then transitioned to a discussion about why it is critical that fiscal decisions include maintenance of equity, an active choice not to divest our Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students.
4. Honor perspectives by centering on lived experiences and building trust
While our communities are increasingly aware of sociocultural and racial consciousness, white allies aiming to advocate for Black lives may sometimes miss the mark. In other words, actions that are performative may lack the necessary teeth to change structural racism and the intergenerational impact from misguided public policies.
[E]ven a single racially and/or ethnically diverse school board member will have a meaningful impact on systemic decision-making [and on] student achievement for Black, Brown—and white—students.
Oregon’s model for building a diverse educator workforce through their Regional Educator Networks provides an example of working to change this. It applies an important step in understanding local context by conducting empathy interviews and outreach. By centering on the lived experiences of our Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities across the state, this relational work with individuals is grounding future policy reform in the lived experiences of our diverse communities.
Embrace that the work will never be finished
As my colleague Vanessa Peterson, vice president of DEIA at NWEA, recently said, this work doesn’t end. It will continue to demand our time and effort long after our careers as educators have ended. That, in itself, is proof that we must undertake it. But don’t despair. Every little bit helps.