Equity & Diversity Opinion

Equity Fellow Outlines Plan to Engage and Challenge Educators

By Robert Rothman — May 19, 2016 3 min read
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Last year, two school networks, Big Picture Learning and the Internationals Network for Public Schools, created the Deeper Learning Equity Fellows program to engage a group of leading educators to design policies and practices to expand deeper learning opportunities for students of color. I wrote about the program here.

Over the past few months, the first cohort of equity fellows have been meeting with one another and with their mentors to discuss issues of equity, and have been developing the projects that they will be working on over the next two years. The goal is to come up with a “capstone project” that will make a difference in their communities.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with one of the Fellows, Hal Colston. Hal is the director of Partnership for Change, a Vermont-based organization that is remodeling high schools in Burlington and Winooski to be student-centered and competency-based.

In our conversation, Hal outlined his project and the need for it:

What do you hope to accomplish with your project?

We want to help and support educators--particularly, education leaders--who are white, be more sophisticated in terms of their whole approach to social analysis. We want to help them learn what it takes to be effective as leaders, so that kids in the system--there are more and more brown and black kids--can benefit. We want to equip leaders so that they are able to lead with the lens of equity.

What do you expect people you select will do in the project?

The idea is to have six education leaders come together and build a community, and have them create their own project that will have an impact on equity. Through the process, they will experience the deeper learning skills they are expected to address in schools. If they can experience it, they will have a better sense of what it takes for leadership of students who don’t have a deeper learning experience.

Any ideas of what projects they might choose?

We will facilitate the process. It has to be relevant to them, so they buy in and own it, and take it back with them to their institutions. We want to make sure it comes through them.

Will this be based in Vermont or nationwide?

We will start in Vermont as a pilot. It can be scaled up.

I’ve been in Vermont since 1969. When I got there it was the whitest state in the country. It’s rapidly changing in terms of demographics. [Recently,] two large nonprofit organizations--the YMCA and the Lund Family Center, which provides support to teenage mothers--approached me. There had been racialized incidents in their shops. They were concerned. I had done diversity training in each organization. But they really had to figure out how to change the culture in the organization so these things wouldn’t happen.

That’s how the idea [for the project] occurred to me.

Vermont is an ideal place for trying this out. It’s on a human scale, it’s very collaborative, and the need is high for this approach.

Two years ago, there was a Public Religion Research Institute study that found that 75 percent of white Americans do not have a friend of color. That speaks volumes to the challenges we face. How can we create a space so white leaders can get uncomfortable and stretch themselves so that they have a deeper understanding of the challenges people of color face? I think it’s doable. But they need to be forced to do that.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles to equity in deeper learning?

There are two barriers white people generally experience. [One is based on] a presentation I heard by Peggy McIntosh on white privilege. Why aren’t more white people experiencing this? She was blunt: we struggle with being in a community. We have a tradition of rugged individualism--I’m gonna go get mine. But by being in a community, we hold one another accountable and develop a sense of solidarity.

The other challenge, for white folks in general, is their sense of history, how things really came about. As James Baldwin wrote to his nephew, white people are trapped in a history they don’t really know.

Through this process, we will help people understand why they landed on third base. They didn’t hit a triple. What has allowed them to experience the American dream as they have? What historical movements created their outcomes, and didn’t create them for people of color? Through an understanding of history, they can see how that can impact inequity.

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