How do we talk about race and schools? A SXSWEdu Review

I think about race a lot, especially as it relates to education, students, and school choice.
To be honest, I think about race a lot more than I talk about it. With people of all backgrounds, I tread the waters of race and ethnicity lightly, not wanting to push buttons, ignite triggers, or say something ignorant.
This is why I was excited to attend a session called “The Messy Living Room of Racism: Time to Clean Up” at SXSWEdu last week.
The session, led by Catherine Wigginton Greene and Andre’ Robert Lee of Point Made Learning, was filled with about 60 educators and wonks of all different colors, mostly women.
When I walked into the session room, I was pleasantly surprised to see our seats positioned in a circle – we were all facing each other! This was a refreshing break from the traditional panel/audience setup, and it helped us quickly dive into a deep conversation about some common phrases about race and identity we hear in our work. (One phrase, for example, was “white people experience discrimination too.”)
After about 15 minutes of group discussion, we partnered up for 30 minutes of role playing to practice having direct conversations about race.
My partner was an awesome principal of a well-respected New England private school. We got written prompts about race and identity to discuss using these conversational guidelines:

  • It’s not just about you.
  • Ask questions – with curiosity, rather than judgement.
  • Then, listen.
  • Allow for a first draft – what you and they say doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • Don’t try to win.

Following these “guiding lights” (as the facilitators called them), my partner and I waded into difficult discussions in a way that felt positive and respectful. We learned how to say what’s on our minds while really listening to another person’s ideas in a curious and open way.
Personally, I learned to lead with questions rather than answers.
For my partner, the exercise was just as helpful. The students at her school are 50% white and 50% of color, so issues of race, identity, and equity come up often amongst parents and staff. After our role play, she told me she felt better-prepared to tackle some challenging issues at her school in a way that would help everyone involved to feel respected and heard.
Even though our jobs are different – mine is in policy, hers in school leadership – learning how to have productive, if challenging, conversations about race and equity, especially as they relate to the U.S. education system and our students, is a critically important part of our work. The more we can model grace, compassion, and courage in these conversations – and the more we actually have these conversations – the better off our students will be.
Honest conversations about achievement gaps can lead to education laws and policies that create more and better opportunities for low-income students. Now is the time to lead by example, showing young people that it’s not only possible but fruitful to have real conversations about our country’s most pressing issues. Conversations in and of themselves are not sufficient change; they are, however, a prerequisite to creating policies that give all kids the excellent educational experiences they deserve.
Photo credit: Howard Fuller, Margaret Fortune, Chris Stewart, and Rehema Ellis – SXSW EDU 2018, Black Education In America, Policy Forum session. Photo by Tico Mendoza

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