Before joining the StriveTogether team, I taught ninth-grade algebra in a low-income school district. The students I taught are amazing, passionate, smart and driven. I still care deeply about them, and during my time as their teacher, I felt that I was making an impact on their academic and social-emotional well-being. But while in the classroom, I saw how structural inequities prevented some of my students from achieving their highest potential. The institutions that claimed to support them, didn’t. It is because of my time working to support my students that ensuring that every child succeeds is now the focus of my career.
A component of moving toward educational equity is working to change education systems to achieve better outcomes. But another equally important and complicated component is understanding how mental models affect the work we do. We each hold mental models — perceptions and ways of organizing the world around us — that are largely influenced by our identity. A combination of our race and ethnicity, gender, age, income, religion, sexual orientation, place of birth and more, our identities have many layers that have been formed over many years and will take a long time to fully grasp. But our identities impact our work — which is why it is so crucial to unpack their implications.
Recently, I attended a weekend-long retreat for people who identify as white to confront the ways in which our white privileges can reinforce systemic racism and cause harm to the communities we work with. At the Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) White Anti-Racist Summit, we also discussed how white folks can do anti-racist work with courage and humility. In the aftermath, I feel as though I have taken one step forward and two steps back, because truly understanding the effects of identity is difficult and hazy. I’m a member of a nation whose laws, policies and practices are set up to serve one group of people while oppressing another, and taking responsibility for the subsequent negative consequences is critical. Here are two key insights from the summit.
- I am responsible for perpetuating systems of oppression. The People’s Institute‘s definition of racism was shared with the group at the LEE retreat: racism is power plus prejudice. Based on this definition, you could argue every white person is racist. That’s a hard idea to grapple with, let alone accept, especially as a former educator who worked with students of color and now is working to change the education system to improve outcomes for children and families. But I have benefited from systems, institutions and interpersonal relationships in ways that others haven’t and want to take responsibility by working to prevent the continuation of this inequity.
- From the beginning, systems of oppression have been designed to control power. Thomas Jefferson, known to many as a founding father and strong advocate for public education, proposed “A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest.” His proposal sounds equitable and democratic, but Jefferson also suggested creating a scholarship for only a select few of the laboring class to advance by “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.” This last quote illustrates a critical and often forgotten point: since the foundation of this country, systems were established and preserved to keep power in the hands of one group while preventing any other from obtaining it. You can find other examples of laws and policies designed to perpetuate discrimination and inequality here.
The effects of systemic racism can be seen in communities across the country, including those in the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network. But our local community partnerships are dedicated to eliminating gaps and disparities in academic outcomes, economic mobility, health, housing, employment, criminal justice and more. Disproportionate outcomes between white people and people of color are the result of generations of discrimination and racial inequality, beginning before the foundation of this country and persisting today.
As I move forward in my journey to ensure opportunity for every student, I am bound to make mistakes, but I am committed to approaching this work with courage and humility. I cannot stand idly by, not doing or saying anything at all, when some of my students, and students across the country, are not able to fulfill their dreams because of systems, structures and people in power. Being non-racist is no longer enough. I want to be anti-racist, meaning I am committed to working to combat systemic, institutional, interpersonal and internalized racism. Learn more about the difference between the two in this video with author Marlon James.
There are many frameworks to consider your place on the continuum of being complicit to actively anti-racist, but the one that I find most beneficial is the ladder that illustrates the path from being innocent/ignorant to building a community to “heal the remnants of racism.” While new to this space, my former students — and all the students out there — are my main motivation to keep trying to get it right. And if I do not embrace being anti-racist at my core, I am responsible for prolonging unjust systems and institutions that I claim to be working to change.