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We have come to an unparalleled moment of definition as a country. There is no middle ground for us to seek, or cower for refuge.
With structural inequities laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, now worsened by further evidence of racial terror being waged against Black bodies, followed by maligned indifference to demands for justice… We can no longer deny the violence, pain and loss that is being disproportionately beset upon Black people and Black communities.
As citizens of this promising yet conflicted nation, it is time for us to go for broke!
We each must make a choice: take conscious action to learn about and dismantle injustice and the winding tentacles of white supremacy in our lives, families, workplaces and communities; or stay asleep, seek comfort, look away and in doing so – perpetuate racism and the racist systems that produce the inequity and injustices we face.
This moment does not represent a fight for the humanity of Black people. Black people have long demonstrated our humanity in the face of unrelenting injustice and oppression.
America, we are fighting to reclaim our collective humanity!
It is time to put our collective stakes in the ground for racial justice, belonging and freedom.
We speak the names the most recent victims of state sanctioned unjust policing: George Floyd. Tony McDade. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. We speak their names to invoke their memory, to link their humanity to our own. We speak their names to summon the courage and conviction we need to speak, engage, connect, change, heal. To act in service of our own liberation.
As a mother of three beautiful, brilliant, Black young adult men, I find myself sitting with acute rage, horror and heartbreak simultaneously. Our sons have been preparing for this their whole young lives. We have raised them in community to know who they are (these were not lessons learned in school); to understand their history and systems of oppression (here schooling usually provided case in point examples of ignorance, racism and bias); they have been taught how to maintain their personal safety and that of their peers in public spaces (for as much as they can control it). In this moment they are speaking out, teaching, protesting, stepping into their role as the young rebel leaders we’ve raised. I am both deeply proud and at the same time overwhelmed with shame and sadness that they are inheriting this centuries old fight – the fight for their right to be seen, admired, respected and treated as men… as human.
As a former history teacher, I know that these are not isolated incidents but rather a continuation of a long history of anti-Black oppression our communities have had to endure. Its roots are structural and interrelated; our education, healthcare, and justice systems are equally imbued with the same roots of white supremacy and othering.
As a Black woman of deep and abiding faith, I also know that in this moment, we have the opportunity, agency, and power to transform these crumbling public systems into resilient, antiracist, equitable institutions committed to our ensuring our basic human rights and collective wellbeing.
We cannot afford to wait for someone else. There is no one coming to save us, inspire us, or tell us what to do. We must be willing to build communities of resistance, love and belonging to make the progress we need and deserve.
The fight for our collective future will not be fair or gentle – power concedes nothing without demand. We are already witnessing the callous and negligent responses to demands for justice and accountability. We must not be deterred. As we press forward with the wisdom, courage and tenacity of our ancestors, we must commit ourselves to designing a new way forward. We get to choose who we will become.
In 1963, James Baldwin told teachers: “I don’t think anyone can doubt that in this country today we are menaced – intolerably menaced – by a lack of vision.” While many of his words still ring true, I don’t believe this holds for us today. Instead, I see examples of a shared vision for a just and inclusive world in the streets, in my sons, and in my work with educators and leaders every day. Let’s keep working towards this vision, towards creating a world where everyone belongs.
On behalf of the National Equity Project, we hope you and your loved ones are in a position to remain healthy and safe. We offer our unending gratitude and affirmation of well-being to those charged with caring for the health, safety, and food distribution of our beloved communities across the country. We also acknowledge the devastating choice too many are being forced to make between economic survival and physical safety during this time. As we confront the deep structural inequities and racialized impacts as well as the creative ingenuity and loving spirit that is simultaneously unfolding, I can hear the prophetic wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words reverberating…
In a real sense all life is interrelated.
All [of us] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The COVID-19 pandemic is providing us an acute global lesson about the undeniable interconnection of all our lives. Our linked fate rests on our collective and conscious action to be one another’s keeper. “What will we be willing to notice?” asks Margaret Wheatley in Walk Out and Walk On. What have you noticed in this moment about each other – about the people who make our lives work, about the earth, about your family, about yourself? What will we do now as we bear witness to such demonstrable evidence of structural inequity acting as a double-edged sword – deeply and devastatingly impacting those who were already most vulnerable in our unjust systems? What have we noticed about our collective creativity and capacities, and our need to connect, make art, demonstrate love, be of service – to say thank you?
Weeks into this crisis we are still teetering on chaos relying on moral, decisive public leadership, and an unprecedented social agreement (individually, collectively and globally) to keep one another safe. The crisis is far from over but if we are lucky, things will never be the same again. That will depend entirely on each one of us. This moment of crisis, like all those that have come before, begs a question and offers us a choice: who will we choose to be once the storm is over?And as we pick up the pieces from this great reckoning: what future will we create by the conscious actions we take today?
The future is not an escapist place to occupy.
All of it is the inevitable result of what we do today,
and the more we take it in our hands,
imagine it as a place of justice…
the more the future knows we want it,
and that we aren’t letting go. adrienne maree brown
At the National Equity Project we believe in the possibility of a new future – a world that works for everyone. We lead and move guided by Arundathi Roy’s whisper, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” We believe social and racial justice can be achieved. And we believe that leadership is required. Not the kind of leadership where “you’re the boss” and you [wrongly] believe that everyone is supposed to do what you say. Not the kind that makes decisions for others or the kind that issues mandates without consideration for conditions and supports needed. Not the kind that goes along to keep the trains [and status quo] running on time regardless of who is harmed along the way. No, not that kind of leadership.
We’re talking about Rebel Leadership – the kind where your palms are sweaty, your ears hot, and your voice quivers. The kind of leadership where you have the courage to say out loud, “I don’t really know how we go forward, but I know we can get there together” and actually mean it! The kind where something feels like it might be on the line [it is your freedom and it always has been] and you take conscious action with others anyway. Rebel leadership requires us to make inequities visible; disrupt discourse, practices and policies that perpetuate harm; and create new ways to engage and co-design with our communities so that each of us and our children can develop, thrive and experience a sense of belonging. Rebel leadership now requires that each of us SEE the system, ENGAGE and ACT differently than we ever have before.
Rebels are people who break rules that should be broken. They break rules that hold them and others back, and their way of rule breaking is constructive rather than destructive. It creates positive change… Rebel leadership involves positive deviance. Francesca Gino, Author, Rebel Talent
If we are to learn any lesson from the most extraordinary disturbance in recent history, we must pause and consider this; in our rush to a more familiar state, to “get back to normal” – exactly which part of “normal” are we prepared to return to? “Normal” is code for status quo. Normal has never been neutral, objective or fair. Language of going “back to normal” and “new normal” are dangerous propositions for all of us. Paulo Freire has long warned us, “There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” We cannot pretend we didn’t witness and/or experience the gross inequity and vulnerability, the disproportionate impacts on our brothers, sisters and siblings all over the planet. We must take the position as rebel leaders, in the words of the great freedom fighter Ella Baker that,
In order for us…to become part of a society that is meaningful,
the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms.
So how do we think (and practice) in radical terms?
In response to this crisis, many organizations and systems have paused their “equity initiatives” to tend to immediate needs of students and families. But, what if this tending IS the “equity initiative”? How can the urgency of this moment – and emerging forms of virtual collaboration – re-center us around our core purpose and accelerate transformation? We can’t wait until we have taped our inequitable system back together to begin looking for ways to make it more equitable. What if this is our moment to catalyze more radical approaches to designing together with our communities? Can we learn from this moment of explosive innovation how to create more liberatory experiences in our organizations, schools and classrooms and advance the sacred work of creating a new future for ourselves? What if, together as rebel leaders, we start designing for the future we want to live into now? What changes if we commit to being more radical in our thinking and action now?
It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Kindness eases change.
Love quiets fear.
And a sweet and powerful
And engages each of us
In the greatest,
The most intense
Of our chosen struggles.
– Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
At the National Equity Project, we bring people together to design and create resilient, thriving and liberated communities. We believe change happens when leaders connect and collaborate to create thriving places of belonging and value for every child and family.
In light of the rapid and emerging developments around the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reimagining what it means to gather people and groups to do their best thinking, designing, and healing while maintaining physical distance. We have made the decision to shift all of our upcoming open-registration events to virtual convenings. We have also cancelled all work-related travel for our client engagements and continue to support our staff to work virtually while balancing care for their children and families. While we will not be physically gathering, we hope to provide meaningful and impactful virtual experiences that will support people to learn and build relationships and community in these complex times.
We’re only as strong as our most vulnerable. This is the time to focus our equity lens on all our decisions and conversations. Who is most impacted by our current systems and structures? In this moment our “vulnerable populations” aren’t othered but belong to all of us – our aging parents, our favorite restaurants and small business owners, our nurses and doctors providing care without adequate protections.
This is a moment of great disruption. We encourage you to find comfort in leading for equity as “our chosen struggle.” Use this time of physical distance to learn, heal, observe, question, imagine, design, and continue to take courageous action toward creating the just and equitable systems and communities we need and deserve.
Crip Camp on Netflix – March 25– there is so much to be learned from our disability justice activists in these times. Look to their leadership as we all explore new modes of access to community and resources.
Last year, my colleague LaShawn Routé Chatmon and I wrote this piece in EdWeek — “5 Steps for Liberating Public Education From Its Deep Racial Bias.” We made the case that in order to support the social and emotional well being of our students, we need to acknowledge and confront the legacy of racism and exclusion in our schools and communities — and its continued impact on all of our students. Doing so provides us with the opportunity to develop what Rob Jagers at the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) calls “Transformational SEL” — engaging our young people in a critical exploration of the issues that confront them and nurturing their sense of agency to lead positive change.
As we prepare to welcome students back to school it is critical that we take time to consider what has happened in the world, in the United States, and in each of our communities since our students were last with us. Our students are paying attention; they watch and listen to what we say and what we don’t say. Many of them will look to us for guidance and a safe space to make sense of the painful, frightening, and confusing things that have been happening in our country, at our southern border, in El Paso, Gilroy, Dayton, and in so many of our racially segregated communities plagued by violence.
Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to hear from young people from across the country about what they need from us now. In every instance I’ve heard students asking for space to have meaningful dialogue, learning, and debate about the issues that impact their daily lives. One student shared her discomfort at going through an entire school day without a single adult mentioning the bombing of a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Another shared her upset that the use of the “n-word” went uninterrupted and undiscussed in her school. Yet another wished there were spaces to talk about the racial segregation within his own school.
Our young people have so much to say and we have so much to learn from them.
It is certainly true that our students of color and their families are more directly affected by the violence of systemic racism. These students need us to prioritize making the structural changes in funding, resources, tracking, and discipline policies necessary to create a more equitable system of education. They need us to create learning environments that embrace diverse perspectives, affirm who they are, and build on the assets they bring to school for learning. Those impacted directly by violence need time and space to grieve and to heal.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that it is only those most proximal to the violence or targeted by racism who are impacted. Most middle and high school students, including our white students, take in a steady stream of images and news through their phones and Instagram feeds. And most have little opportunity to process what they have seen and read. Without structured opportunities to do so, they are not learning to question and think critically about the systems of oppression that give rise to the hateful and violent acts we have witnessed, the current inequities in their schools and communities, or their role in it.
Our white students are watching to see how or if we will mention what has been happening in the world around them and in their own schools. If we don’t, they are left to assume it is either unimportant to adults in school, not relevant to their education as white students or worse, that it is not relevant to their lives — that conversations about hate, race and racism are only important for students of color.
“There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”
– Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
Systems of oppression are reinforced by harmful narratives and stereotypical depictions of people of color that go unchallenged in our homes, schools and classrooms, by the narrow history that we most often teach, and by the textbooks we choose and from whose perspective stories are told. For those of us who are white and raising and educating young people who are white, not talking about the atrocities of separating families at our southern border, the unrelenting racism coming from the highest offices of our government, and the steady uptick in hate crimes in schools is not a neutral decision. Not acknowledging the effects of historic and current racism sends a message that these issues are not white people’s problem — when in fact, the hateful violence we have witnessed and the inequities that exist today in our schools and communities are directly tied to our shared history as white people. And, the health and future of our communities, are, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “inextricably linked”.
As Dena Simmons points out in her piece, “Why We Can’t Afford Whitewashed SEL,” students need the skills to navigate unjust realities. This includes our white students. Talking about race, racism, and acts of violence brings up strong emotions for adults and young people. White students in particular are unlikely to have had many opportunities to build their muscle for having difficult conversations about race and racism and for engaging in productive cross-race dialogue and learning. As adults who are raising and educating white students, we have a responsibility to model honest and productive conversations about the history and effects of racism and all forms of systemic oppression and to teach our young people how to tackle tough issues.
White students need to learn our history as white people, the way that “whiteness” was constructed to advantage those who were designated as “white” and disadvantage people of color — systematically denying people of color the right to vote, the right to own property and build wealth, and the right to live in communities with well-funded schools, transportation, green space. They need to understand the way that government policies created and sustain the racial segregation and systemic inequities we see today and they need opportunities to confront these truths in ways that support them to be curious, to acknowledge their emotional responses and not fall victim to the defensiveness, guilt and white fragility that often arises when white people come into consciousness about our true history.
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious… My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”
– Dr. Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Engaging our white students in learning about race and racism takes commitment on the part of adults to go against the grain. As Dr. Peggy McIntosh notes, white people are taught to not notice systems of unearned advantage and this not noticing has negative impacts for both white people and people of color. We need to engage in our own learning and critical self-reflection to understand how our lives and views have been shaped by our unearned advantage and experiences as white people and actively build our knowledge of how the legacy of race, racism, and systemic oppression are operating in our schools and communities today. As Dr. Ibram writes, “one either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.”
Doing our own work as white educators will prepare us to meaningfully engage our white students in rigorous learning and dialogue about race and racism in their own lives. This will increase their self-awareness, develop critical thinking skills, and build emotional stamina for talking about hard issues. Providing students with opportunities to reflect on complex topics impacting their lives supports healthy adolescent development by nurturing what researchers at the Chicago Consortium for School Research have identified as key factors for young adult success: agency, competencies, and integrated identity. In teaching about systems of oppression and talking about current day inequities, we can also highlight stories about white allies and co-conspirators who have stood up for justice throughout history and lift up stories that emphasize our shared humanity. It is our responsibility to provide our white students with opportunities to explore their role and responsibility for interrupting racism and all forms of oppression in order to create more equitable schools and just communities within which we all belong and thrive.
Resources for Learning & Teaching About Whiteness, Race, and Racism in the Classroom
“We must be impatient for change. Let us remember that our voice is a precious gift and we must use it.” – Claudia Flores, Center for American Progress
America is facing a humanitarian crisis at and within her borders. As citizens, we are bearing witness to dehumanizing and unjust treatment of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have survived the trauma of fleeing their home countries, journeyed thousands of harrowing miles only to be met with disdain, deplorable conditions, unlawful detention, lack of due process and most devastatingly – the unconscionable separation of families from their children by our government. At the National Equity Project, we believe that our fates are inextricably linked – that what happens to members of one part of our human family is connected to and impacts the survival and wellbeing of our own. We also understand the complicit nature of silence in maintaining systems of oppression and so we join the voices of millions to denounce the inhumane treatment and the othering of our Black and Brown neighbors both at the border and within our cities recently targeted in a new wave of ICE raids.
History, despite its wrenching pain Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again. – Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning
We have seen this before. Indeed, the imagined border was created and defined by the colonization and genocide of the First Nations people across Turtle Island. The violence, crime, and disenfranchisement that Latino/x refugees are fleeing are the result of over 100 years of U.S. policies and practices in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Asylum seekers from Haiti and Central Africa are leaving home countries that have been desecrated by slavery and colonial domination without restitution. The corralling and caging of our fellow humans conjure devastating memories of concentration camps in Germany and Internment Camps that held Japanese Americans on American soil.
We must not allow round-the-clock news cycles perpetuating normalcy at the present atrocities to result in desensitization of the human condition. The consequences of the oppression and trauma being inflicted on children and families will stay in their bodies and with all of us for generations to come. We may be tempted to seek self-preservation in “the violent act of looking away” (Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia), yet the opportunity for us to manifest the espoused American ideals of freedom and justice depend on a few irrefutable truths…
We must survive. We must resist. We must fight. So that we can thrive.
America’s history of oppression is ours to bear – and to reconcile with our history of freedom fighting and justice. We must respond to the ongoing injustice in our cities and at our borders as our ancestors have – with unyielding resolve, moral conviction, decisive action and together…in community. We determine what is possible when we decide what we aren’t going to tolerate anymore. At the National Equity Project, we are exploring ways to take action both in our immediate and broader community and urge you to do the same. We invite our partners to share practices and unite our creative and catalyzing efforts against these dehumanizing practices and policies.
Let’s fight this fight. Let’s also continue to dream, design and create the communities we aspire to: where all children and families belong and where every single one of us lives our right to thrive and be safe, loved, and liberated.
Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time.
– Joanna Macy
Implicit bias has been in the news a lot lately. At the National Equity Project, we think it is an important topic that warrants our attention, but it is critical that any learning about implicit bias includes both clear information about the neuroscience of bias and the context of structural racism that gave rise to and perpetuates inequities and harmful racial biases. As leaders for equity, we have to examine, unpack and mitigate our own biases and dismantle the policies and structures that hold inequity in place. We call this leading from the inside-out.
Most work on implicit bias focuses on increasing awareness of individuals in service of changing how they view and treat others. This is important, but insufficient to advancing greater equity of opportunity, experience, and outcomes in our institutions and communities. Rather, in order to lead to meaningful change, any exploration of implicit bias must be situated as part of a much larger conversation about how current inequities in our institutions came to be, how they are held in place, and what our role as leaders is in perpetuating inequities despite our good intentions. Our success in creating organizations, schools, and communities in which everyone has access to the opportunities they need to thrive depends on our willingness to confront the history and impacts of structural racism, learn how bias (implicit and explicit) operates, and take action to interrupt inequitable practices at the interpersonal, institutional and structural level.
We believe the work we need to do begins on the inside — inside of ourselves, inside of our own organizations, and in our own communities. We offer the metaphor of a window and a mirror (developed by Emily Style of the SEED Project) for increasing our equity consciousness and understanding what is needed to take effective leadership for equity. Each of us needs to look in the mirror to notice how our particular lived experiences have shaped our beliefs, attitudes, and biases about ourselves and others. And, with increased knowledge of ourselves, we also need to look out the window to understand how racism, classism, sexism and other forms of systemic oppression operate in our institutions to create systemic advantage for some groups (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, etc.) and disadvantage for other groups (people of color, women, LGTBQ+ people, etc.) in every sector of community life.
Kathleen: As a white woman, my own work on implicit bias starts with myself and a look into when and how, despite my twenty five years of working in the “equity” field, my own thoughts and decision making can be impacted by implicit bias. For example, when out for a run recently, I saw a woman who appeared to be Latina walking out of her home. The immediate thought that popped into my head was “housekeeper.” I had to stop and consider, how did that happen? Regardless of my stated and lived commitment to fairness and justice, my close relationships with Latinx friends and colleagues, and my knowledge of implicit bias, my brain made a potentially harmful snap judgment about who someone was.
Hugh: I am a mixed heritage Latino. Years ago I was co-directing a youth program that focused on what we called “unlearning racism.” We worked with teenagers to develop their consciousness about oppression, build alliances across race, gender and other social identities, and create young leaders who would work to eliminate racism. As adults running this program, we went through intensive training to become conscious of our own racial identities and work to eliminate our biases so that we could help youth eliminate theirs. One hot summer afternoon I was driving to lunch, windows down. I stopped at a red light and I immediately noticed 3 young African American boys crossing the street in the crosswalk in front of my car. They were 6th graders, 11 or 12 years old. As they crossed, one of them looked at me and yelled “go ahead, roll up your windows!” I was livid with him for assuming I would be afraid and roll up my windows out of fear. But as they walked past me and finished crossing the street, I calmed down, stopped staring at them, and was shocked to see that my hand had moved from the steering wheel to the window switch and I was ready to roll up the window. I had moved my hand to roll up the window without conscious awareness that I had done so. Even after all my training and consciousness raising to eliminate racism, my unconscious mind reacted with fear to these young African American boys. How could this happen?
To understand how this happens, it is important to understand that our brain is like an iceberg with the conscious part of our brain being the smaller part of the iceberg that we can see above the water line, while the larger part of the iceberg, where our unconscious processing takes place, is below the water line. Research shows that the unconscious mind absorbs millions of bits of sensory information through the nervous system per second. Our conscious minds are processing only a small fraction of this information and doing so much more slowly and less efficiently than our unconscious minds. This means that we have a lot going on in our brains that we are not consciously aware of. Have you ever driven all the way home from work, but not had any memory of doing so? Your brain was processing all of the information needed and guiding your decision making for your safe arrival home even when your conscious mind was not active. In order to process all of the information needed to survive, our brain creates shortcuts to quickly assess our environment and respond in ways that keep us safe from danger. For example, if you were walking down a path or on a street and heard a strange noise or a rustling in the bushes, your amygdala would immediately send a danger alert which would activate your fight, flight, or freeze response. This would all happen before you had consciously processed the danger. If we were to count on the much slower processing of our conscious brain in these instances of perceived danger, the human race wouldn’t have survived very long.
How does all of this connect to implicit bias and structural racism? Let’s start with a definition of implicit bias:
Implicit Bias is the process of associating stereotypes or attitudes towards categories of people without conscious awareness.
Note that this is not the same as explicit, conscious racism and other forms of conscious bias which still exist and need to be addressed. Here, we are talking about people who consciously and genuinely believe in fairness, equity, and equality, but despite these stated beliefs, hold unconscious biases that can lead us to react in ways that are at odds with our values. These unconscious biases can play out in our decision making regarding who we hire for a job or select for a promotion, which students we place in honors classes and who we send out of the classroom for behavior infractions, and which treatment options we make available to patients. We know from extensive research that this kind of biased decision making plays out all the time in our schools, in hospitals, in policing, and in places of employment. The question is not if it is happening, it is when is it happening and what can we do about it.
Implicit bias and its effects play out through three keys processes: Priming, Associations, and Assumptions.Priming is a psychological phenomena in which a word, image, sound, or any other stimulus is used to elicit an associated response. Some of the best examples of priming are in product advertising in which advertisers prime us to feel an affinity or emotional connection to a particular brand that leads us to choose that brand over others even when there is actually no difference between the products. We buy Nikes because we are compelled to “Just do it.” We think we are consciously choosing, but our unconscious mind is doing the shopping. But product selection is not the only thing influenced by priming — so are our beliefs, views and feelings about others.
When it comes to people, the associations our brain makes works the same way, creating shortcuts based on how we have been primed. The way our brains create shortcuts to quickly make sense of data is innate. How we have been primed to make harmful associations about different categories of people is not, but is rather the result of messaging, policies and practices that have been applied throughout history to include or exclude groups of people.
The United States has a long history of systemic racism — since the founding of the country stories that dehumanized African Americans and Native peoples were used to justify genocide, slavery, racial segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality. Negative and dehumanizing stereotypes about women and people of color and stories that “other” are rampant in the news media and in popular culture. For example, we have been primed throughout history by our own government, by popular culture, and through the media to think of African American people as less intelligent, aggressive, and more likely to commit crime. We have received unrelenting messages that people who are immigrating to the United States from Central America and Mexico are criminals. Likewise, we have been primed to think of women as less competent, overly emotional, and their bodies as objects to be judged. For every stigmatized group of people, we have been repeatedly exposed to stereotypes that most of us can readily name that have been used to justify policies that have further stigmatized and marginalized.
“Implicit biases come from the culture. I think of them as the thumbprint of the culture on our minds. Human beings have the ability to learn to associate two things together very quickly — that is innate. What we teach ourselves, what we choose to associate is up to us.” – Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaj
Think back to the autopilot moments we shared in our own stories. Consciously, we knew that the woman coming out of the house was most likely the homeowner, on her way to work, and that the boys crossing the street were simply on their way back to school, but our unconscious brain created shortcuts based on repeated priming about who Latina women and Black boys are — thus producing harmful associations and reactions in both of us. This priming is then reinforced by the current structural arrangements in our communities in which people of color and people living in poverty have been disproportionately cut-off from high quality educational experiences and high-paying jobs. Consider who we most often see cleaning our hotel rooms, busing our tables, and landscaping yards and who we most often see being sent out of classrooms, pulled over by police and jailed. The more we see (or hear) two things together, the stronger the association — this is the way neural pathways are built. Brain cells that fire together, wire together. What associations are being created in our brains based on how we are primed through everyday experiences in our own communities, through news coverage, advertising and other forms of media?
Our brain is scanning our environment for who belongs (and is safe) and who is “other” (and a potential threat or dangerous). Who we come to categorize as belonging or threatening is learned as a result of structural inequities and messaging we have received about categories of people. These harmful associations we carry can lead us to make Assumptions that have life and death consequences for people of color. We saw this when:
The police were called by a Starbucks manager because she made the association that Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two African American men, were dangerous, resulting in their arrest when they were simply waiting to meet someone.
Two Native American young men, Kanewakeron Thomas Gray and Shanahwati Lloyd Gray, drove from New Mexico to go on a college tour at Colorado State University and a white mother who was also on the tour called campus security because they looked like “they don’t belong, they were quiet and creepy and really stand out.” Security came and questioned the young men and confirmed that they were registered for the campus visit, but by the time they were released, the tour had gone ahead without them and they ended up driving home without a tour at all.
These incidents and many more like them sit in a larger context of racial segregation, exclusion, and systemic inequities in which society’s benefits and burdens are distributed unevenly depending one’s race. Professor john powell of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society calls this “structural racialization” — referring to institutional practices and structural arrangements that lead to racialized inequities — as we see in the case of education, health, housing, criminal justice, and even life expectancy in the United States. These two phenomena — structural racialization and implicit bias — work dynamically to hold inequities in place. This is why we believe learning about implicit bias is an important, but an insufficient strategy to advance equity.
“Those who practice leadership for equity must confront, disappoint, and dismantle and at the same time energize, inspire, and empower.” – Sharon Daloz Parks
Making progress on equity will require us to both mitigate our own biases and change structures. For example, structural inequities in the way we fund our public schools mean that students living in affluent communities (most often majority white) attend highly resourced schools with extensive opportunities for deep learning and extra-curricular activities while students living in neighborhoods in which we have disinvested (often majority people of color) attend schools that are underfunded with fewer academic and extra-curricular opportunities. When these students underperform, the fact of their underperformance reinforces our conscious and implicit stereotypes about their intelligence, the extent to which their parents value education (they do), and their effort. This is an insidious cycle whereby the structural inequities produce inequitable outcomes which then reinforce harmful stereotypes about students of color and students living in poverty and which are then used to justify inequitable practices such as holding low expectations, academic tracking, and punitive discipline in schools.
“Biases not only affect our perceptions, but our policies and institutional arrangements. Therefore, these biases influence the types of outcomes we see across a variety of contexts: school, labor, housing, health, criminal justice system, and so forth….These racialized outcomes subsequently reinforce the very stereotypes and prejudice that initially influenced the stratified outcomes.” – john powell
As leaders for equity it is our responsibility to look at how our own biases and biases within our organizations contribute to structural inequities and advocate for policies that increase access to economic, educational, and political opportunity. We must expand our notion of success to include diverse perspectives and values. In education, this means providing culturally sustaining opportunities for rigorous intellectual work and healthy social emotional and physical development for all of our young people, not just those born in affluent zip codes. Many schools and school districts are actively engaged in efforts to change structures to mitigate the effects of bias and increase educational equity within schools and across communities. Some examples of these changes include:
Eliminating subjectivity in placement decisions for AP/Honors courses by requiring students to “opt out” rather than relying solely on teacher recommendation, thus increasing the numbers of students of color and students living in poverty in high-level courses.
Implementing policies in which the most experienced and talented teachers are teaching the students with the highest level of academic need, and not the other way around (as is often the case).
Enacting laws that make it harder for childcare centers to expel preschoolers and creating diversion programs in which School Resource Officers refer students to social service agencies for support, instead of arresting them.
Changing discipline policies whereby only the most serious negative behaviors are subject to suspension and implementing a system of checks and balances in which a trusted adult is called to the classroom when a behavior challenge arises rather than sending students out of class in order to mitigate racial bias.
Examples of structural changes across schools might include:
Enacting legislation providing for competitive federal grants to districts to support voluntary local efforts to reduce school segregation.
Bolstering Fair Housing legislation to reduce discriminatory zoning policies that effectively exclude low-income and families of color from high performing and well resourced schools by banning apartment buildings and other multifamily units in nearby neighborhoods.
Mandating a federal review of efforts by wealthy and predominantly white school jurisdictions to secede from integrated school districts.
Strong efforts to acknowledge, interrupt, and mitigate the effects of implicit bias will require us to engage in on-going mirror work, exploring our own biases and paying attention to how we are primed to think about categories of people while simultaneously engaging in window work, looking at our current context with a systemic and historic lens so that we can dismantle inequitable policies and structures and create new structures in which we all experience belonging and can thrive.
NEP is proud to fiscally sponsor the ongoing growth and development of Kingmakers of Oakland as they work to improve educational outcomes for Black Boys in districts across the country.
“I began to frame the conversations within the system around this: I wanted people to consciously begin to think about and identify what is a profile of a successful African American child, and what are we doing to create the culture and conditions that lead to all Black children experiencing that success. If you’re not talking about that, and all you do is talk about the deficit, all the behavior, then that is what you end up cultivating and perpetuating and priming other people to think that’s all they can do.”
Every meeting we would go into, we would ask, “How are you engaging Black boys? How are you encouraging Black boys?”
– Chris Chatmon, We Dare Say Love / A View from the Inside (p. 108)
Last weekend, National Equity Project was honored to host America to Me’s Oakland Training in partnership with Participant Media. The free training convened over 60 educators, students, administrators, activists and others at Oakland Tech High School. Participants came together to learn how to use the America to Me docu-series as a catalyst for discussions about race, racism, and racial equity in America today.
America to Me is a 10-part docu-seriesexploring the complexities of race, identity, privilege, and education through the stories of 12 students at Oak Park and River Forest (OPRF) High School, a large, affluent and diverse school outside Chicago. The series illustrates structural racism, teacher biases and blind spots, and other equity challenges through the lens of the student experience. It’s a powerful artifact and tool to use in equity discussions as the series highlights the drastically different experience of students within the same school building depending on their race and social background. It also showcases the needs and experiences of teachers of color, parents, and classified staff in the OPRF community.
We were especially grateful to have Jess Stovall, one of the OPRF teachers featured in the film, join our facilitation team! It was a joy to have her lend her voice and expertise to our team and the Oakland community.
We grounded the day in The Art of Conversation,adopted from Arrien, A. (2001) “The Way of the Teacher: Principles of Deep Engagement”.
We acknowledge one another as equals
We stay curious about each other
We recognize that we need each other’s help to be better listener’s and to act with more courage
We slow down so there’s time to think & reflect
We remember that conversation is the natural way humans think together