As a Black man, I have intentionally waited to write this post for several reasons. Among them: first, to allow myself time for slightly less scathing tongue-lashing in my writing in an effort to professionally suppress my intense frustration, disgust, and anger (which, in itself, speaks to systemic oppression!), and secondly – and related – I’ve been wrestling with the embarrassingly absurd notion that a post like this may be “permitted” during this current social time and place, but may have faced harsh criticism and/or consequences just a few months ago – or potentially a few months from now should the issue of equity slowly and gradually again recede from the news of the privileged and return to its forever home in the systemic imbalance of everyday experiences and lives of the oppressed and marginalized, “quietly” in the shadows.
Although I share this disclaimer, I will not apologize for the hurt of my experiences. I will not apologize for being hardened by a society that systemically perpetuates oppression by repackaging the last generation’s anguish and rebranding it to a new generation, giving a false sense of evolution and progress.
As the everyday lives and experiences of the oppressed and marginalized have recently gone viral as news to some, conversations around equity have again resurfaced as a buzz word priority for many organizations. With the scores of hands of leadership that have been uncomfortably forced to give the topic of equity some space near the top of priority lists, a spot on meeting agendas, and some roundtable time at gatherings for the time being, I would like to offer two assumptions to avoid in these surface level efforts to take a step toward doing the right thing.
Assumption #1: Declaring a space safe makes it a safe space.
Uuuuummmm….no. That’s not how safe spaces work. Not even close. If we have to or feel the need to declare our spaces safe, there’s a reason: because it’s probably not! Spaces are inherently declared safe as a result over time of daily practice creating culture. If we’re in a position to declare a space safe, we are probably also in a position – purposefully or not, knowingly or not – surrounded by some yes people. As such, we are at risk of only being privy to self-fulfilling perceptions and feedback. Leverage relationships, personalities, and status levels throughout and across the organization as liaisons for feedback and information. Offer various avenues and platforms for input, and give time. Respect and honor that the space may not be safe, and the time may not be right. And afterwards, follow up with prompt communication, responses, and action so people know they’ve been heard and trust the process. As this becomes routine and daily practice, oratory situational declaring of space as safe will no longer be necessary; people regularly engaging and communicating with trust will silently inherently declare our spaces safe.
Assumption #2: We need a list of new things to try that prioritizes equity.
Nope. Sure don’t. We don’t need lists of “new” things to try. Save your meeting. I’ll give you your (bare minimum that I hear every time I have to sit through these!) list: build relationships, put culturally diverse posters on our walls and books on our shelves, provide professional development, and review our hiring practices. Those tend to dominate the lists of organizations who repeatedly find themselves scrambling to call a meeting in response to a viral video of inequity to proclaim how important equity is and gather some ideas to try moving forward equitably. Whether it’s those “new” things or others, if you find yourself in an organization just now claiming that equity matters and called a meeting recently for ideas, I can tell you not only will your brainstorming list be the same as the list you came up with in response to the last viral video, and the one before that, and the news story before that, but it will also be accompanied by the same action plan: 1. Feel great about the meeting you just left. 2. (optional) Wipe away the tears of being emotionally caught up in someone else’s lifetime of plight for 60 minutes. 3. Try not to lose this list – or maybe try to remember at least one of these items – so the next meeting in response to a viral video can be shorter. 4. Back to business as usual tomorrow – the same business that leads to meeting scrambling in response to viral videos of inequity.
We don’t need ideas. We need candid conversation about obstacles. We need to look each other in the eye, and ask why we didn’t implement these ideas after the last viral video when we made a list. Or the one before that. Or the one before that. Or simply void of viral attention and do so simply because it’s the right/humane thing to do?? These ideas are not new – but if they are new to our organizations, then the candid conversation must be around why these ideas are new. What have we been doing instead? Has what we’ve been doing been working to make education accessible and equitable to all students and families? We have real time data at our fingertips – in our pockets, for crying out loud – that suggests that the people in the viral videos are not the only ones experiencing these travesties. These people have family members. These family members live in our communities. They graduated from our schools. They have kids at our schools. Some are kids in our schools. Some work in our schools.
If recent events over the past few weeks or months have reinvigorated our value of equity, then our candid conversations need to be around why. Why was the value of equity in our organization at a level that needed reinvigorating? Values are fundamental unwavering commitments. Values that come and go are not values at all – they’re fads. Equity of human life is a value, not a fad. Look each other in the eye and ask why equity of human life has been a fad in our organization. Look each other in the eye and ask how our organization can claim to put kids first unconditionally, yet treat equity of human life as a fad.
To clarify, when I reference human life, it is all encompassing: life that is physically tragically taken away, as well as life that is metaphorically tragically taken away, such as, living in a society that restricts freedoms and prohibits opportunity, and an educational system that sifts and sorts with tremendous advantages to the chosen ones and excruciating hardship for the denied.
Why haven’t we already built relationships? Why haven’t we already put culturally diverse posters on our walls and books on our shelves? Why haven’t we already provided professional development that empowers staff to transition posters on walls and books on shelves to culturally relevant and responsive teaching and learning? Why haven’t we already reviewed our hiring practices? These are floor level basics. Do hard and soft data justify and support the continued practices that define our organizations’ cultures? Or do they suggest years – or decades – of shackles, obstructions, obstacles, and excuses to implementation of our equity ideas lists?
One common obstacle(?) I hear around building relationships, getting to know our kids, and prioritizing the social emotional wellness aspect of our kids and families as human beings is, ” I’m not a social worker. I don’t have a degree in social work. I am not comfortable.” I struggle with this citing of non-expertise as a valid excuse on many levels. I’ve seen staff members darn near come to fisticuffs and friendships deteriorated over the soccer coaching position – when none of them had played competitively. I see staff without hesitation race to a student who has fallen off the playground equipment – and I know they do not have nursing degrees. I see staff magistrate magnificent creations in their classrooms, doors, windows, hallways, auditoriums, gymnasiums, cafeterias, and offices, and do so without a background in interior design. I see staff speak and debate as union members, emphatically demanding the floor, without ever having been in speech and debate. Why then, can’t we reach across, connect with, get to know, and put our guard down for a youth who spends anywhere from 41 minutes to 5 hours per day with us “in our care”?
Questions to candidly ask ourselves:
Is our mission and vision filled with buzz words, fads, or values?
Does our School Improvement Plan reflect and support our mission and vision?
Does our daily practice support our School Improvement Plan?
Do our systems support effective implementation of daily practices?
Do our assessment measures capture what’s important (i.e., student outcomes, adult fidelity of implementation)?
Is what we’re doing working?
How do we know?
Who benefits from what we’re doing? Who’s excluded? Does data support the responses?
For questions answered in the negative, follow up with:
Why has this been allowed to happen?
What needs to happen NOW for this to be different by TOMORROW?
These are not rhetorical questions, but questions to look each other in the eye and ask. And answer. And awkwardly stare and wait in silence as long as it takes for a response. Because taking action to support fosters equity, and removing barriers transitions to liberation. Human life deserves and is worth it.