#vted Reads: So You Want to Talk About Race

In this episode, we get real about what educators can do in their classrooms to make a more equitable playing field, how to walk that fine line between supporting student activism and co-opting it, and how to juggle the competing demands of educational and intersectional change. Also, we talk local soccer. It’s a full workout in this episode, listeners! I’m joined today by educator, parent and activist Life LeGeros — who is also my co-worker — for So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.

Because we do want to talk about race, even if we might not get it right 100 percent of the time. Neither will you, but it’s vital that we keep on trying, and use books like this to nudge us forward.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is #vted Reads: books for, by and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat!

Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Life.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Life:  So, my name is Life. I live in South Duxbury VT, right near Harwood High School up in the foothills of the Green Mountains. Lived in Vermont for about five years. I work with middle schools around the state. Mostly in the Northeast Kingdom right now, supporting them doing student-centered learning. And I have the great pleasure of working with you here at the UVM Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education. That has been one of the honors of my professional career and my personal life. I’ve loved getting to know you and becoming friends. And yeah. We help schools and then do a little blogging and researching. It’s basically my dream job.

Jeanie: Thank you very much for those kind words.  I have to say, same. It’s been such a pleasure getting to know you and your family. But also, I just love how you push me to think more deeply about lots of issues, but especially issues of equity. Thanks for that. And this book is part of that. But before we get into this book, what are you reading right now? I know your whole family are great readers but what are you reading right now?

Life: I completed a book this morning, yeah.  Not just a book but a grown-up book. A fully grown-up book. Because most of the fiction I read these days is like, YA.  But I read a grown-up book: The Overstory.

Jeanie:  Oh, I loved that book.

Life:  It was just one of those deals where friend was like part way through it and they were just like you got to read this.  You got to read this.  I’m reading it. It took me a while to get into it because it’s like, many different stories separate …that flow into one.  And I’m not sure where I sit with it honestly. Overall, it gave an artistic kind of perspective on many things that I’ve been thinking and feeling.  And I’m definitely very interested in like following up in getting a field guide and reading more about trees and their interconnectedness.

But just in terms of being overwhelmed and feeling like climate change is just a horrible thing that we’ll never get out of? I think it was a nice different perspective on that. I’ll be processing it or a while, so it was very affecting.

Jeanie: You and I both spend a lot of time out in the woods of Vermont.  And I have to say that book changed the way I see trees. It changed the way I sort of have a quiet dialogue with trees on my hikes.

Life:  Totally.  I always feel like trees are, you know, a reminder.  And then for this to say, well, they might be literally trying to like communicate something that you could tap into? Is a really cool idea. It’s true.

Jeanie:  I see, yeah, I love that.  So, let’s talk about this book.  So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.  I guess my first questions for you about this book are: who is this book for? And why might Vermont educators and students want to consider reading it?

Life:  I think broadly it’s for Americans. Part of her point is that there’s a systemic limitation/dismantling of our ability to even talk about race.  And that gets in the way of changing those same systems.  And it’s intentional. It’s there for a reason. It structures a way to think and about talk about race. Everybody in America, we live in this supremacist society. That’s a limitation.

But I think that more specifically, I think it’s best for discussion groups.  I think it’s just that’s the way I’ve read it through.  And now I’ve used it in discussion groups for the last year and a half and it’s been really, really good for that. The length of the chapters is perfect.  The way they’re set up as a question? It’s just really, really good for that.

Jeanie:  Do you want to talk a little bit more about that discussion group.  What that looks like and what came out of it? What emerged from it?

Life:  Yeah.  So, the Waterbury Public Library — I think it was through the Vermont Humanities Council — had a speaker come about a year-and-a-half ago.  I’m forgetting his name at the moment but he’s a professor from Southern Vermont.  I can figure out who he is but his talk was on the history of race. And it was a good talk. But I found myself during the talk calling up transcripts from Seeing White from Scene on Radio because I was like:

“Wait, that’s not the way I understand it. I think you might have the history wrong here.”

He got doing this talk and I was all fired up and I started like reading bits of the transcript and challenging him on stuff. But he was like really cool about it.  He was like, “Oh, I see that perspective at here.”

Anyway, it just launched into this amazing conversation with the dozen or so people who were there.  And by the end of it, that professor said, “You know, I’ve given this talk all over Vermont.  This is like the best post-talk conversation I’ve seen.” And someone else in the room was like yeah, we should really try to keep doing this.

Afterwards Judy Byron, the Waterbury librarian and I ended up chatting. She was like, “We just need a facilitator, you know. Would you would you want to do this?”  And I was like well, let me think. Then my wife helped me identify like, maybe this book could be something for that. So, we came up with this thing and start advertising it. Third Tuesday of the month, and we’ve been meeting monthly for the last year-and-a-half. Basically, we read a chapter per month until the last few months when we’ve been reading two. By the end we had a list of I don’t know 60, 70 people who had come to at least one.

Each chapter meeting was probably like between 12 and 20 people. And I would use it as an opportunity to write something up on Front Porch Forum every month beforehand with a quote from the book and maybe a link to something else and kind of, you know a way to get it out into the community even if for people who aren’t attending.

We fell into this nice rhythm where we would start with agreements from Courageous Conversations.

Courageous Conversations Compass so you want to talk about race

Anyway, at the last couple sessions, we used the compass as well and then we would do kind of an activator that could be accessible for people whether they had read the chapters or not. Maybe a little video or a quote from the chapter or something for people to kind of contemplate and then talk about in small groups. That usually left us with like 25 minutes or so to just have an open conversation where we’re making connection to the text.

Then just thinking about next steps, I think probably what we’re going to do is have a couple of people co-facilitate another round with this book. Potentially they’ll use some of the same activators and the emergent curriculum we created (or whatever you want to call it). And then maybe we’ll have another group doing something like slightly more intensive for people who did the first round or something. I think it could lead to a variety of kind of community learning experiences here.

Jeanie:  Life, I think that you get at something with this process.  It’s really interesting to me in that there’s this tension that talk isn’t enough.  But if we don’t do the talking — especially as white folks — if we don’t start having the conversations, then we also don’t act.

Thinking about our friend and colleague, Katy Farber. And our friends Christie Nold and Emily Gilmore. Our friends have been using the BARWE approach — Becoming Antiracist White Educators — to have conversations in schools about race. Again, it’s this idea that as white folks, we need to educate ourselves about race and not expect people of color to do that for us.

And while talking isn’t enough, we have to start somewhere.

It feels like we need to have those conversations even in order to sort of get underneath our own internalized fears. Racism; our own internalized stuff.

Life:  So true. BARWE, I think is interesting because that’s, you know, specifically for white educators. With this group, you know, we pose it as a community conversation.  And, you know, I think certainly the first meeting or two, everybody that was there appeared to be white. (I mean, my dad is a person of color, but he can look white or otherwise; he’s kind of chameleon in that way).

So I think when you asked who it’s for… I don’t want to say this book is for white people but I think it’s an amazing entry point into this work that probably, people of color are going to find sort of basic in some ways. With our group, we had a couple Black women, some people of color, start to dip in and out.  But the way they interacted with the group in some cases was really interesting.

One of the people had actually moved away from our community and was actually calling in from Las Vegas. She was like: “Whoa, I wish that was going on when I lived there!”

Another person, she would just say, “Don’t put me in a breakout room right now. Like I want to be here. I’m inspired by this work. But. It’s also incredibly painful.”  And she would share that with the group. Navigating that was a little tricky. But as Oluo says, figuring out how to do this work together is a big part of the work.

Jeanie:  Yeah. You’re going to read something.

Life:  On Page 230 in her last chapter which is titled, “Talking Is Great But What Else Can I Do?”  I love this passage. This was actually the one that I ended up posting on Front Porch Forum for people.

So totally what you said: that tension between “I gotta act” and “I gotta learn”. The learning is not enough. Do both all the time, just go for it. But you got to learn too.  I think that applies especially to white folks.

Jeanie: I love that. She’s ending the book in a way similar to how she starts it. On Page 45, she says, “You’re going to screw this up.”  And my question to you as somebody who’s sort of been doing this work for a while and who works with teachers who are doing this work is: how do we get past the fear to have the conversations we need to have about racism? How do we get past our own vulnerability and being scared that we’re going to say the wrong thing or we’re going to mess it up?

Life:  Yeah. I think one is just doing it enough. Once you’ve messed up a few times, you realize the world didn’t end. You’re less afraid of it.  So it’s just the practice.

And then the other thing is it’s relationships, right? The more you get out there and do it, even if you’re messing up sometimes. How you deal with those messed stuff matters. You’re more likely to have authentic relationships with people that aren’t like you because they’re more likely to trust you. They see it, you know.

But two; those relationships? You can lean on them. You can say it like, bang:

“Yeah, sorry. I messed that up and I’ll do better. And I know you’ll get to see it because we have a relationship and we’re going to hang out again.”

And I think that goes for teachers, too. If you have a relationship with students and with families, you just have that little bit of extra room. So that when you mess up you can explain yourself as well as you can.  But you’re also going to keep in there and they’re going to see how you deal with it.

For teachers, it’s like on one hand, the stakes are higher. Because if you mess up, you have young children in your church. And wow, this really seems like this is really amplified.

But on the other hand, you’re about teaching and learning and growing with your students.  So when you mess up? Those are incredible opportunities to model what it looks like to mess up and to move on and to grow.

Kids learn more from what we do than what we say, right?

If you can look at it like that, then hopefully you can see the benefits.  The benefits outweigh the risks or the drawbacks.

so you want to talk about race

 

Jeanie:  What I’m hearing from you in part — or maybe I just know this because I know you so well — is humility. Like, being able to be humble and know it’s going to be okay if somebody calls you in. I’ve had so many friends and colleagues in my life call me in gently or “call me to my better self” when I mess up, knowing that I want to be somebody who walks the talk, right?  They sort of pull me gently to my best self when I don’t realize I’m not there. That I’ve said something that’s misaligned with my core values.

So, I really appreciate that because I think it can be excruciating to be called out or called in, right? It can hurt.

And yet, you know, if we get defensive, it’s going to hurt worse than if we’re like humble and able to sort of say, “Oh okay, I need to think about that. You’re right. I have room for growth.”

So, when I looked through the chapters of this book, what I really appreciated when I first read this was that there were so many things that if somebody challenged me on — like, “Why can’t I say the n-word?” or “What about reverse racism?” —  knowing that I had an answer but not being able to sort of frame it in little sound bites? Was always hard.

But this book almost is like a cheatsheet to that.  I can imagine for some folks, reading it could be like: Oh, I’ve gotten that wrong in the past. Right.  It’s a gentle calling-in as well.

Life:  I think the way that Oluo structures most of the chapters is just so ingenious for that. They tend to usually start with a personal narrative or a story from her experience that certainly if you’re in that latter category and wondering, “Wait, why is that a problem?” Boom. It brings you there immediately.

She grabs your emotions.  She makes it personal and you’re there.

And then she kind of lays out the more technical reasons. This is why this is wrong. Or this is why you should think about it in a certain way. It kind of gives an analysis.  And then she always gives a “here’s what to do about that!”

Those parts, just within like, 10 pages? Is just so incredibly well done.  I mean, that’s why we, you know most of these sessions, we really dealt with one chapter and we could have spent multiple sessions on them and they’re just so, so rich.

Jeanie:  So, when I read this book, I read it just for myself.  But re-reading it in preparation for this conversation with you, it occurred to me so many of my schools right now are doing some sort of identity work and doing identity wheels with their students and helping kids think about their own social identities and the identities of others.  And on Page 12, I was like oh my gosh, this should be, this should be a little text that we use with our middle school students when we’re talking about this stuff.  So, I’m going to read a little bit because I really just love this section on Page 12.

It says:

Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, t was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it.  Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior.  This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people- you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole.

This promise- you will get more because they exist to get less– is woven throughout our entire society. Our politics, our education system, our infrastructure- anywhere there is finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth or opportunity. Anywhere in which someone might miss out. Anywhere there might not be enough.  There the lure of that promise sustains racism.

White supremacy is this nation’s oldest pyramid scheme.

I just think that’s so powerful.

And as I was just re-reading it, I thought of the This American Life episode, Nice White Parents. And the way power plays out in that in that story.

I thought about all the times we’re asked to focus on class instead of race because we’re a mostly white state.

I thought of a majority white state.

And I thought of just all of the ways in which we talk about race without really getting at the way in which it’s constructed for a specific purpose, which she lays out really clearly here.

My question is: do you, like me, see potential for this in use with identity units with students? What might you do with this section of text?

Life:  I love that idea! Yeah. This is a big question for me and for Vermont educators that I hear often. What’s the entry point to talking about oppression, ultimately?  And there seems to be kind of, I wouldn’t say an emergent consensus, but there seems to be a movement towards identity. Identity could be the entry point. Thinking about identity, and then social identity.  And from what I know from my short time here, that’s a big shift.

I think it used to be much more common to say it’s got to be class. Class is the entry point. Like, we have economic disparities in Vermont. They’re really obvious.

Right now during the pandemic, one in four Vermont families are food insecure. And I mean, we know these people. They’re in every single school in the state.

So I think that identity and social identity are big, and they’re linked to oppression, absolutely.  And I love that passage you read because it draws these things together. They’re intertwined but it’s pretty much always about race in some part.

If I want to go back to that question of which one is the entry point? I’ve come to the conclusion (with the help of Christie Nold and others who helped guide me on this) that starting with race is really important for a couple of reasons.

One, because it’s the sort of most central mechanism in our country, America.  It is the history of America.  It’s the way that this exploitation and oppression has been actualized.

And then two, whatever your entry point is with these conversations, the skills can transfer; these analytic skills of thinking through oppression and systems. But if you don’t start with race, you might never get there, so.

You know in theory, if you start with class, you can learn a bunch of stuff and then be like, now let’s think about race through these same lenses, oh wow —  but it’s quite possible that you just won’t.

Talking about this stuff in schools is really hard.

When you talk about identity, social identity, connections to oppression — like, who you are getting in there? And so forcing us to kind of think about what does it take to create a classroom culture, or a classroom community?  A brave and safe space where we can get into this stuff? And it’s a great shortcut to asking: what is an ideal classroom culture community? Just to recognize you can’t be jumping in there day one. What kind of classroom do we want to create to be able to have these conversations in authentic ways?

Jeanie:  It’s so interesting, you and I were on a team together at the Middle Grades Institute, and one of our participants from Middle Grades Institute, Margaret Dunne at Mount Holly School, organized this whole identity union unit. And she’s teaching fourth and fifth graders, and she was a little nervous about talking about race with her students, I think all of whom are white.

So it was the end of the day, the kids were tired and she was like, “Okay, I just need you to hang in there for a little bit more, we’re going to talk about race.”

And they got so excited. They were so eager to have this conversation that she thought was going to be super hard and they jumped right in.

And we’ve been hearing stories of lots of students in Vermont,who are passionate about talking about race and racism, in school and out. So I guess: what are some ways do you think that schools can honor that passion and find ways to help students document their learning? Maybe in a PLP or in some other way, so that so that it’s not just like, oh, you’re having that conversation on the side, but: this is important learning. How can you show evidence of all the learning you’re doing in this area?

Life:  As we’re in these learning spaces I often hear might be like: what do I do with this? And one starter step is teach somebody else. That’s an action, you know.  It could be your uncle, it could be your community — you know, my eight-year-old a few weeks ago,  just started making a slideshow, you know?  She’s got a slide like, “What is BLM?  What is Black Lives Matter?” She’s like, trying to express it, right?  And my wife and I, we were like, yeah, we got to get this out to your relatives! They won’t listen to me, but they might listen to you!

That’s a starting point.

But think too about community-based learning. Think about different organizations that students could be connecting with who are doing this work on the ground, and how they could be supporting that and influencing that. And then, hopefully, with all of those things, there’s some chances for reflection and documentation through a PLP or otherwise, where they’re consolidating their learning and charting their journey into something to look back at later.

Jeanie:  I? Love that. I’m thinking also about the Black Lives Matter rally I attended last spring, organized by Rutland High School students, right?  And then I’m thinking about the SOAR students at Tuttle, the Students Organizing Against Racism, as well as teaching those who attend Dynamic Landscapes or The Rowland Foundation conference more about intersectionality and how to call out and call in when they hear racism. Or the students at Winooski right now who are asking for a more racially diverse curriculum, right? And more anti-racist teaching approaches. And thinking about YPAR, at Edmunds and all of the students all over the state of Vermont who advocated for and agitated for flying the Black Lives Matter flag. All of that is evidence, right?

And I guess I’m wondering about: are those flexible pathways? Are those ways for kids to do personally meaningful work being honored at schools? Are they or how can they be? Or how can we start to incorporate this kind of work into our proficiency-based system and give kids credit for this hard work. B ecause it often feels like it’s extracurricular.

Life:  Yeah.  I mean, I think that that’s a tough one.  I mean, I honestly think that unfortunately, our systems are set up in a way that has white dominant culture built in so deeply that by the time they would be truly honoring this work, it almost feels like a co-opting.

So, for example, if you’re going to try to grade students on their ability to act on what they’re learning about oppression, you’re sorting and ranking them based on how well they’re responding to our hegemonic forces?  I mean, it just, it’s like almost antithetical, you know?

I’m just thinking about, like, my daughter. I just gave that example like that slideshow was for nobody, she wasn’t doing that for school, she was doing it for herself. She shared it with the family. What she did, the way she talked about BLM, I was just like, “Wow. Okay, I didn’t even know you understood it that well. Amazing!”

Or you know, Or as you mentioned, SOAR: Students Organizing Against Racism. A lot of what those students are working on, they’re not part of a PLP. They’re not part of the curriculum. It’s extracurricular, technically, but still interwoven. I mean, they’re changing the displays in the library, they’re standing in the hallways, bearing witness, you know, with signs, they’re ready to jump on those moments to speak up and speak out.

So, I tried to, like measure it, feel, you know, we’re going for a collective movement, like it’s not competitive, it’s like the opposite.  You know, when Christie a couple years ago, I had the honor of documenting her identity and equity unit and it culminated, you know, there was there was a performance assessment to see like, where kids have gotten some of the concepts and I had a chance to interview a bunch of these kids, and just the way they were talking was so sophisticated, blew me away, beyond what you’d hear from 90% of adults and for sure, but the real culmination of it was art.

You know, she brought in teaching artists, some students did spoken word stories, some students did visual art, some students did poetry and they held in, you know, a big event where students shared and there wasn’t a grade, because it was what it was, it was like we came together, you know, you expressed yourself by doing something by weaving your identity and your fire into the this expression.  That’s it.  We experienced it together.  And almost feeling like, yeah, putting a grade on that would be, you know, that was her decision and I agree with it.

 

 

Jeanie: Yeah, I’m definitely not interested in grading, this kind of work, but I am interested in valuing it and I’m thinking about how powerful it is when students do this work, that they’re demonstrating– like your own daughter — communication skills, right?  Or creativity and problem-solving, and being able to identify and advocate for a change in policy that’s racist, right?  Or in the case of students find the Black Lives Matter flag like overcoming, figuring out how to communicate to the public to the community and persevering in the face of opposition, like how is that not self-direction?

I feel like there’s so many ways in which we don’t value the authentic work of students that demonstrates deep learning.

Life:  Yeah, I agree.  No, I mean… I feel like  if we could have a transformation of the systems that flexible pathways were reality, and they were honored through, you know, story and connections with those areas of growth, you know, student led connections, that’d be awesome, that’d be fantastic like, I would love to see it go there.

Jeanie:  So, yeah, that leads to this next question that I have, which is I’m thinking about Ijeoma Oluo and also Ibram X. Kendi. They both define racism in this way that moves it away from individual hatred, or somebody saying words that are offensive…to this idea of systems of oppression. And that includes schools, right?  And you and I are in the business of systems change in schools. So, I guess my question for you is: what do systems, school systems, need to do in order for education to become more equitable in Vermont?

Life: Wow. You don’t mess around with these questions.

Jeanie: Could you just solve everything, Life?

Life:  I mean, I think what we just talked about I think the competition like ethos of schools is a huge basis for an equity.  And I think that comes out in grades but it comes out in other ways, you know, like that there’s this idea that your parent’s jobs are to advocate for the “success of their specific kids” when success is defined as somehow doing better than others.  So, there’s definitely like there’s just this like, ethos thing that is like a really big thing to tackle.  But I’m I think that some of the, you know, what’s come under the standards of personalized learning are ways to do that.

I think challenging, like grading is, is hitting that head on.  And I think that’s why it’s so hard and it causes so much controversy, because ultimately, yeah, those, you know, grading, sorting ranking, that’s all part of the whole, that’s what race was graded for.

Jeanie:  It’s part of that pyramid scheme.

Life:  That’s right, it is the pyramid scheme.  Well, how you’re bad you off you are, there’s somebody that’s below you, so you know, you’re doing good and you might be able to climb the ladder.  Yeah, all that stuff, so I think getting into a place or it could just be more of a collective endeavor.  I think that, you know, certainly like to do that we need to have investment.

Like I just I don’t know, I just don’t think we can transform our school system without further investment.  I just don’t think there’s enough people enough time or energy to go around, like if we can’t get that far from the status quo and the shifts are too incremental, as long as it feat there’s like a scarcity situation happening, you know.

Jeanie:  Right.  It seems like scarcity is one of the fundamental principles of the idea of the pyramid system too, there’s not enough.  As opposed to thinking there’s an about like, scarcity versus abundance.  There’s an abundance and how do we make sure everyone gets what they need versus there’s not enough, panic, how do I get what I need, right?

Life:  Totally, totally.  And just yeah, it’s just like, it’s a limited amount of opportunities, so we have to figure out some system for who gets those.

Jeanie:  It’s a zero-sum game, right?  Like that there are winners and losers, as opposed to thinking.

Life:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  Yeah.  We can all be learners.

Life:  Like, I think, you know, school sports, right?  So, a place where competition shows up.  And I’ve just been lately, thinking about our local high school. We had a half dozen girls be told this year: you cannot play soccer anymore. “Sorry, you’re done.” And I’m just thinking about like, how is that okay?

Jeanie:  Oh my gosh, that breaks my heart.

Life:  We have a beautiful community soccer program. So many kids play it, they get so much out of it.  And now they’re in ninth grade, you know, just young teenagers and you’re going to say, “Yeeeeeeeah, not for you anymore.”  I’m just, like, blown away. Somebody told me: “Well, you know, one of the girls came to the practice — the three-day tryout, right? And on day two, she threw up because she was so out of shape. So maybe she doesn’t deserve it.”

And I’m thinking, that is the most backwards thing I’ve ever heard.

This kid wants to come and run around *every* day and you’re going to say she doesn’t deserve it?

I’m coaching third and fourth graders, thinking: which of these kids at some point, their community is just going to say: “Hey. We know you love this, we know it’s really good for you, but sorry.” What would it take for our high school to offer another six slots? Even if we had to offer another JV team like this stipend. Like a couple thousand dollars a year?

It’s like pennies for like, what could happen!  Even if we had to say at 12th grade, okay, now it’s varsity or bust.  Like if you had to leave that room in place, you could still give these kids three more years of involvement.  Right now, during the pandemic, it’s so obvious that teachers don’t have the support they need. Or administrators.  People who are in the school, they’re just fighting. And it’s heartbreaking because it really comes back to investment and resources.

And I feel like that’s a place where Act 77 personalizes learning. If we can only incentivize people to work harder or change slightly the way they’re doing it within the confines of: you have this many kids and you’re in a classroom and you have to talk them through this many hours a day.  But unless we have investment, we can’t really change it.

Jeanie: I love the way you used sports is that analogy.  Because this whole “you only deserve to do this if you’re good at it”?  Wait, what?

I had an exchange student and she worked *so* hard to learn to play basketball. She wanted to play on the basketball team. She’d never played basketball before because she’s from Mongolia.

And she got cut from the team.

She cried for two days on my shoulder. Two days! She cried on my shoulder for two full days before she took up track. And yeah, track was fine, but she wanted a team. She wanted to be on a team, and she missed out on opportunity because of exactly what you’re talking about. And that really, got to me and got me thinking about how often we do that. Who do we think it’s okay to leave out because you’re not good enough? Right?

Life:  There’s a broader social thing going on that makes us think that we don’t have enough, right. The scarcity thing is an overarching narrative. But there’s also like this justification that: well, that’s what the real world is like.  That kid’s going to leave high school at some point and go out into a world where she’s not going to get a winner’s medal for not being good enough, so we have to toughen her up.

And so, I think that’s like another place to just say: our school system should be a place where we do everything we can to create what the world should be.

We should have this as a place to dream. To go beyond what we even think is possible at the moment. Let the students lead us. Because their ability to dream is so much beyond ours. So much beyond mine as a white male adult.

I think the other obvious thing for how to change is to bring in a truly powerful curriculum.

And that means flexible pathways. We’re talking about where kids are actually doing stuff in the real world.  But also making sure that there’s no kids in the state, white or otherwise who come out of our school system, not understanding Black history, and the history of oppression. Making sure there’s no kids not able to analyze it. No kids who aren’t motivated to think: this has got to be better.

I have a passage I want to share too.  I think it’s really related to that.

Life:  Okay.  So, this is from the chapter, “Why Are Our Students so Angry?”, which in our group was a really powerful discussion, because we had so many educators involved. But Oleo shares the story of her own child and what they’re going through and just some of the stuff they’ve experienced in school.  And she comes back at the end of the chapter, on page 188, just kind of like reflecting on how she knows a lot, but she trusts that her kids know more. They’re doing stuff that will just blow our minds if we let them. Talking about the adult generation, she says:

This is the same for our role as the adult generation in society.  It is our role not to shape the future but to not f— things up so badly that our kids will be too busy correcting the past to focus on the future.  It is our job to be confused and dismayed by the future generation.  And trust that if we would just stop trying to control them, and instead support them, they will eventually find their way. My goal as a writer and an activist is not to shape future generations.  I hope to give a platform, a foundation for our young people to build upon and then smashed to bits when it is no longer needed.  That is what our kids are doing right now with all the work we have done, all that we have dedicated to them.  They’re building upon it, so they can smash it all down and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

I think that applies to teachers.

Like, if you’re teaching about identity and oppression and analyzing systems and changing the world, you’re not just trying to create little automatons to do your bidding, you’re giving them a platform and then you’re saying, “I’ll support you, however you end up doing it, because it’s probably going to be better than the way, I’ve tried to do it, because look where we are right now.”  I think that goes double for a state like Vermont where we tend to pat ourselves on the back about our exceptionalism and say things are great. Yeah… they’re not so great.

Jeanie:  What I’m hearing and what I’m thinking about is that I’m thinking about this concept of standing on the shoulders of giants.

This way in which knowledge is always moving forward. I’m doing all this work on culturally responsive pedagogy, which started as culturally *relevant* pedagogy.  And it’s grown because people pushed on it a little further.

Like what about not just relevant, but responsive?

And then: what about not just responsive, but sustaining?

This idea that knowledge and understanding grows over time. And that’s what we want for our students, right?  We want them to see the ways we come up short and take it to the next step, or rebuild it.

Life:  Absolutely.  I think that that idea you cited from Bettina Love earlier speaks to that because when you’re saying look to queer black women.  Part of what you’re saying is they know what’s going, like if you want to stand on the shoulders of giants. They’ve been fighting this fight for a long time and you start there and you’re starting at the best possible place to then go. And shift things a little bit to make it a little stronger.  There’s so much expertise there, you know.

Jeanie:  I saw Ijeoma Oluo speak in the fall of 2019.   And one of the first things she said was specific to schools. She said we should ground our work in the non-negotiable belief in the humanity and dignity of people of color instead of the edification of whiteness.

I didn’t get that at first. But then she expanded on it. Specifically, I think she’s talking about pacing for privilege, right?

And so she says, you know, you bring up race or racism at a school meeting or whatever, and you’re going to inevitably hear from like well, everyone, except for a couple of people. And those quiet people, they don’t want to talk about it, but they’re still good teachers.

And so my first question would be like, who are they good teachers for?  Can you be a good teacher and not think about equity and race?

Life:  No.

Jeanie:  Yes, thank you for answering my rhetorical question.

And then what she says is: why are we spending so much of our energy trying to change one or two people?

Like why not just continue to do the work and make these resisters obsolete? And so, I guess I’m asking you if you’ve seen schools like that? Because it seems to me a lot of times what we do is we back off because we’ve just made a couple people uncomfortable. Meanwhile all the people of color, either on faculty or the students are already uncomfortable. But we’re pacing. We’re backing off, because we’re doing that edification of whiteness. We’re making the white people feel comfortable.

Life:  Um, have I seen places that are like pushing it forward in a sustained way? I think that the edification is far more common and typical.  Even in places where there’s a collective commitment and a certain amount of investment. I see folks who really want to move, or feel like this is just so slow. And so, I get the concept of saying you got to move at the pace of the need. But um, it’s just super complicated.  I mean, there’s a whole urgency of white dominant culture that you don’t want to fall into.

But the real paradox, especially in predominantly white institutions, is how to do the work without amplifying the harm, right?  I mean you know from the outset the harm is going to fall disproportionately. People of color are the most impacted; that’s a given.  But the faster you go, does it hurt worse?

If you’re saying there’s some people that we’re just going to move forward and those people are going to have to either move to a different school or they’ll eventually retire?

Well…. what happens in the meantime when they have students of color in their classrooms?

Because even the most skilled teachers, when that stuff comes up, there will be push-back.

When it comes up in your classrooms, and students of color are being harmed right in that moment? It’s a really difficult thing to address and to make better.  So, you look at that spectrum from those people through to the people who  don’t even believe in it and don’t want to deal with it at all.  …I haven’t really figured it out.  I think it’s really tough.

Jeanie: The other thing Oluo said at that presentation that I think goes hand in hand with this — and that I think you and I have had some recent sort of related experience with — is she said that if you don’t at least have a process written down for how to deal with racial aggression, you are failing your students. You can’t come up with a process when emotions are high.

She said she recommends that you imagine that the worst will happen and plan for it.

I think about this. I suspect that most of our Vermont Schools do not have a plan in process specific to racial aggression against teachers or students of color.

We haven’t always handled that well when student athletes of color go elsewhere and get called names. And so, I’m thinking directly around that. But then I’m also thinking about some experience you and I have had recently where teachers plan some anti-racist curriculum, right?  And then they go teach and they get pushback from families, or *a* family.  It’s usually just one family, right?

And so how do we prepare in advance, whether it’s for racial aggression, or for when we get pushback on our curriculum, because we’re teaching about Black Lives Matter, we’re teaching about racism and families are like whoa, whoa, whoa that’s too political or that doesn’t belong in school.  How do we prepare ourselves with that because we know it’s going to happen?  Instead of being surprised and then not handling it very well.

Life:  Yeah.  Um, drawing on those surprises come up a lot.  Christie Nold and Netadhe Stoddard, who’s somebody who’s doing this work in the Northeast Kingdom, they suggested one way to look at it is as a sort of tiered system of intervention. Some students, particularly white students or students who are steeped in internalized dominance? They’re going to have a reaction and they’re going to need extra support. Just like we would with you know literacy or math.

Tier One instruction, this is what we’re doing for everybody. Here’s the goal of it. Here’s what it looks like when it’s good. That’s where we’re putting a lot of energy.

But what happens when it’s not working? And here are the signs when it’s not working. The kid is asking these kinds of questions or the kid is pushing back in these kind of ways exhibiting these kind of behaviors. What do we do?

so you want to talk about race

Here’s Tier Two.  Here’s our plan. Let’s involve the families.

And if that doesn’t work and it’s going way sideways? Okay, what’s the next level. What’s the Tier Three. What’s the intensive support.

To me that’s a helpful analogy because it says yeah, you got to have a plan. But it also says that this is a non-negotiable, right?  We’re not just like hey let’s expose more people to this and it will be better! It’s like no, like every kid is going to come out of our school system with this kind of understandings and these skills of analysis.

Really when I look at it it’s even more crucial in some ways than math and literacy. A kid comes out without math and literacy, in some ways that’s a bummer for them. The kid comes out without understanding how racism operates in this society and that they’re right back in there contributing to it and possibly in the worst cases like really doing a lot of harm to people around them and themselves? That puts them in a really bad place.

And it’s not always about reactions. It’s about the pro activity, right?  Getting really serious about:

  • What kind of classroom culture do I need to create to have these conversations?
  • What kind of school culture do I need?
  • How do we be proactive about this?
  • Can we have affinity groups for students of color facilitated by expert educators of color to create healing spaces for these students?  To have a little bit of one space where they can come and share about the inevitable stuff that’s going to go down.
  • How do we be proactive about how we communicate with our community about this?

It shouldn’t it be just one teacher sending home their curriculum letter and oh and, you know, by the way we’re going to be dealing with these “tough topics” this year. It should be: where is the administration going to come down? How are they going to offer some community learning and some communal spaces?  How are they going to signal the community?  Hey if you have a problem with this go to this person.  Don’t be going to the teacher.  Don’t be going to that person.  He’s seen the teacher.  Don’t go to the school board.

But, you know, here’s the process because again this is non-negotiable.  This is part of the central purposes of schooling.

So, I think yeah, there’s a lot of thinking to do. They’re both proactive and having plans in place for how to react to specific situations.

Jeanie:  As a former school librarian, one of the policies I leaned heavily on in instances like this was our collection development policy.  And what it meant was that if somebody objected to a book in my library collection, they couldn’t just say, “Remove that book!”

They had to submit in writing.

We had to form a committee. The committee had to read the book.

We couldn’t just look at the title or take somebody’s word for it.  We had to read the book.

What it meant was that when somebody challenged a book, and the knee jerk reaction always of the administration was to pull the book, it was my job to say wait a minute, we have a policy.  “Family, I understand totally. I’m willing to listen to you about the problem you have with this book. Could you please fill out this paper?”

Nine times out of ten, they wouldn’t. Because then they had to write the thing down that bothered them, or that scared them. But when they did there was a whole process in place. It made it easier for me to rest assured that I could purchase books the way that professionally I am trained to purchase books, but in a way that was responsive to the needs of my students.

Without worrying that somebody was going to get mad that I purchased a book about sex ed for my high school students or a book about that had queer characters in it that kids deserve to see themselves and their family members in books.  And so, it makes me think about we need to rethink policies in schools and think about how our policies preparing us to deal with the inevitable which is, you know, racial aggression or other kinds of aggression in schools.  And then also, how our policies preparing us for when we get pushed back on our curriculum.

Because more and more I think teachers want to be teaching about this stuff.  But they don’t necessarily feel like the system will have their back.

Life, we’re out of time, but I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed having this conversation with you.

Life: …that was over an hour? That went so quick. I love talking with you.

Jeanie: Let’s do it again! Let’s talk later! I really appreciate your insights, I really appreciate you sharing your session-by-session guide on how to use this book with a discussion group. Thanks for coming on the show.

Life: Thanks for having me.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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