Sign reads "I Teach Black Students I Cannot Be Silent"

Students of Color Can’t Wait on Us


Written by Tina De La Fe, Instructional Leadership Coach

Students of Color Can’t Wait on Us

“There is no ‘not racist’. We are either racist or anti-racist and we don’t need to mince words about that for our district”. 

The superintendent’s statement quieted the room as we took in the gravity of his charge. Our team and school district leaders in Kent County, Michigan had gathered to collaborate on goals for a year of professional learning for teachers and staff. Our collective mission: close the racial opportunity gap for students. 

Months later, that charge cuts deeper.

Though long overdue, I am pausing to more deeply investigate my own blindspots and privilege as a non-Black, mixed-race person facilitating equity learning. As our country and our community reckons with the anti-Blackness that murdered George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so many others, I wonder if I too easily applied the anti-racist label to myself. Our organization is also taking a hard look at the ways in which we have fallen short and how we can move forward. Here are a few ideas and reflections.

Lessons from West Michigan

In the West Michigan districts we serve, there are few educators of color, even in schools where the majority of students are Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, multiracial, or recent immigrants. Well-meaning white folx provide the bulk of formal learning for student populations that do not reflect their identities and experiences.

This is where our team comes in as professional learning partners to teachers and leaders. We know that systemic racism must be addressed head-on for students to succeed. There must be space for brave conversations where teachers and school leaders learn from and support one another. They must be willing to confront long-held beliefs and make transformative changes in their instructional approaches. 

And herein lies the crux. 

How can we facilitate authentic experiences interrogating racism when almost everyone in the room is White?

Some of the things we’ve tried:

  • We’ve co-facilitated or sponsored events with regional experts from diverse communities. We know that there are limits to what a white facilitator positioned as the voice of authority can accomplish when trying to interrogate bias.
  • We name the thing. When white presenters do lead learning, they are explicit and vulnerable about the boundaries of their knowledge, the mistakes they’ve made, the biases they’ve nurtured. They leverage their privilege to push other white educators toward wokeness.
  • We keep the focus close to home by including data on how inequity shows up specifically in our county, our schools and our grade level.
  • We speak carefully and intentionally, because words matter. For example, instead of an “achievement gap”, we present data and information about the opportunity gap and how a lack of access to crucial resources creates deep inequity. 

Three Grand Rapids educators discuss at a table

Moving Toward Advocacy

Yet, for all our passion and effort, we have failed as often as we have succeeded. While we have data that shows our cohort teachers’ beliefs have moved toward cultural proficiency, and classroom observations on standards-aligned practices have shown significant growth, we have a long way to go toward an active alliance of anti-racist educators. For example, we’ve learned that educators’ increasing cultural awareness and their good intentions don’t automatically translate to adaptive changes in school culture and practice. 

That also applies to our awareness and intentions as facilitators.

We are on a constant journey to know better and do better. And I am encouraged by the teachers I work with.

One recently shared, “When we come together in the fall, my goal is to engage my students with a curriculum that is liberatory and empowering…I want my students to know that I value Black lives because they see it in my actions and my words, they see it in the policy changes around them, and they feel it in their hearts because the love and respect shown to them is evident of that truth.” 

Another teacher leading learning with her peers through this historic summer admits they “started a discussion about if what we are doing in class is even relevant to our students’ lived experiences […] we want our students to know their voices matter. We don’t have all the answers yet.”

Some of the questions I am asking myself and actions I am starting with: 

  1. How do I decolonize the message and my ways of working? BIPOC are a critical part of our American story, and yet we often default to the white, hetero, male, ablelist retelling, even when advocating for inclusion and justice. Leading Educators in Greater Grand Rapids often facilitates a session on the racist, segregationist and inequitable history of K-12 education in Michigan and the U.S. Going forward, it will include not just the influence of Horace Mann and Carl Brigham, but also the contributions of Fannie C. Williams, Gloria Blackwell, and Fanny Jackson Coppin. Also, I will make time to acknowledge that we are doing all of our work on the ancestral homelands of the Ottawa/Odawa, Chippewa/Ojibwe and Potawatomi/Bodawotomi.
  2. How do I better call in teachers and school leaders to use their agency? By “Flipping the Script“, I can spend less time creating philosophical “headaches” around the problems and more on concrete strategies that provide evidence of improved student learning. For example, in order to shift mindsets and sustain impact, we can work with teachers of English-emergent students on designing scaffolds for complex texts. 
  3. How can I respond productively to “resistance”? Thanks to recent learning with Elena Aguilar, I am recognizing that detouring in white folx is often a mask for grief, sadness, fear, disillusionment, confusion or feelings of failure. In difficult coaching conversations, I can engage with curiosity and stay centered on the purpose — which is not to judge or “fix” people. I don’t always have to know the exact right thing to say or do to be a thought-partner, to explore beliefs and to identify the multiple truths at play. 
  4. How do I include, listen to and hold space for Black and Brown voices? To unequivocally honor Black and Brown lives and orient as co-conspirators, we cannot tire, shy away from discomfort or decide we are sufficiently woke. I will discover more about what I don’t know — and why I don’t know it. When BIPOC are invited to lead learning, we’ll make time to process and think about ways of applying what they shared, instead of just moving participants into the next session. Perhaps most fundamental, equity in education will not begin to be realized until we demand diversity in the schools at every level, as well as within our social justice organizations.  

Doing things differently means we will mess up, keep trying, succeed at times, and mess up again. But it is too late to do anything less. If we can succeed in building a bold coalition of antiracist educators, there will be no virus, whether of hate, ignorance or supergerm, with the power to stop us.

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