Equity & Diversity Q&A

Talking About Religion Is Hard. This District Leader Says Schools Should Do It Anyway

By Alyson Klein — December 12, 2022 6 min read
Shomari Jones, Director of Equity and Strategic Engagement for the Bellevue School District, at his office on Monday, May 23, 2022, in Bellevue, Wash.
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‘Tis the season for educators’ to warily walk on eggnog shells, asking themselves: How much should we acknowledge Christmas? What about other holidays that happen this time of year, like Hannukah and Kwanzaa?

Navigating cultural differences, trying to celebrate while also trying to be inclusive, can color everything from holiday décor, to what breaks are called on the school calendar, to what music the high school choir chooses for its winter concert.

But are those the right conversations for educators to have? Is it safer for educators—who have plenty of other things to worry about—to just avoid all this messy religious stuff? Or is teaching about religious differences and celebrations part of schools’ broader responsibility to educate children about the world they live in? And if so, why just in December, when holidays happen all year long?

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Education Week put those and other questions to Shomari Jones, the director of equity and strategic engagement for the Bellevue, Wash., school district, and a 2019 Education Week Leader To Learn From.

This interview—conducted over Zoom—has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Is it best to handle these important questions by just deciding, “we’re just not going to talk about this in school?” Can religion be a part of multiculturalism without making everyone uncomfortable?

Yeah. I don’t want you to seek to convert me to a religion or belief that is not mine. But I absolutely want to celebrate you for how you identify, how you show up, and for the things that are important to you.

When I was a young person, because we were in a dominantly Christian society, we celebrated Christmas in school. We had trees in school and teachers decorated [classrooms] . Well, that has evolved immensely since I was a young person. And now we just don’t do that, and won’t.

I have been in school districts that [still] do that. And they happen to be in communities that have smaller demographic mixes, smaller amounts of racial and cultural diversity. And maybe that’s OK for them. I guarantee it is not OK for all the people who they’re going to interface with. But because they don’t get a lot of [negative] feedback, likely, they’re going to continue.

And I’m not mad at that. But I would like to think that, if you’re going to celebrate religion, that you celebrate them all. Let’s talk about Yom Kippur [the Jewish day of atonement], let’s celebrate when Muslims are having their religious holidays and particularly when they’re going through Ramadan [a holy month of fasting and prayer].

I would like to think that, if you're going to celebrate religion, that you celebrate them all.

Tell me more about the community where you grew up, in Gary, Indiana. How did you talk about Christmas and other holidays?

My community was incredibly homogenous. I grew up in a Black-only community. We may have had one white kid. And there were very similar, very shared beliefs in the community. [Other students in my school] celebrated Christmas just the same way that I celebrated Christmas at home. I didn’t learn a single thing about a different culture.

I didn’t learn the nuances of different religious communities until probably middle school when I moved out of Gary to a more diverse community in Chicago. That’s where I met Jewish students. There were white Catholic students. Not that we talked about these things, and it wasn’t a part of our curriculum.

Now, [religious diversity] is incredibly hard to avoid. The racial mix [in Bellevue] is extraordinary. [Students’ families come] from a multitude of Asian countries, a multitude of African countries, some Christians, some Muslim. Lots of folks are [from India] so lots of celebration of religion and culture within the Indian community.

Do you think that kids in school districts where everybody is from the same background can still benefit from learning about other cultures?

As director of equity in education, I’ll often get folks who will tell me “Well, I don’t serve any Black kids or you know, I don’t interface a lot with those cultures. So, I should be good on this racial equity front.” I’m like, “nah, that’s not how that works.”

It’s important for us to ensure that everyone has an understanding of who the contributors to our society are, what their makeup is. I just think it is so vital that we prepare our kids for the world that they’re entering.

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It sounds like not talking about religion as a part of multiculturalism is sort of a deficit. So what should it look like, in your opinion?

I think that an education around the differences that people bring to the table would be ideal. I think about kindergarten all the time and story time and what stories are we telling? And which stories are we reading? And who does it represent and how does it represent the people in the classroom in front of you? Imagine being a student who has this specific belief, seeing myself reflected in a book or story and celebrated by others, feeling like I belong in this place and in this space. That just feels good.

It needs to be an acknowledgement and somewhere interwoven into curriculum that informs young people in particular who they are working with. They can make conscious decisions on how to celebrate one another. It doesn’t need to be our responsibility to celebrate. It needs to be our responsibility as an education institution to provide education and provide information.

Can you point to an example in K-12 education of what this looks like when it’s done right?

Outside the K-12 experience, there are things that happen on college campuses all the time that are brilliant and awesome. And it’s an opt in, the opt-in model is wonderful. It’s like ‘let’s host an opportunity for folks to expose or educate or celebrate who they are.’ And if you’d like to be a part of that, come on, come through.

The most multi-cultural school I’ve ever worked in did a culture night every year. And everyone brought everything, and they brought their whole selves. Massive amounts of food for you to explore from different cultures, varying types of dances being performed. It just felt so good. I would love to find a way to like, slide religion in there. I don’t know how I would do that, without it feeling promotional, right?

I do think that throughout the year, knowing when the opportunities are arising, where there are holidays or celebrations emerging that are representative of a particular religion, I do think it’s our responsibility to say, “maybe not you, but others in our community are celebrating this and I’d like to tell you a little bit more about it. You know, I’ll read a book, or we’ll have a class discussion or a visitor or guest who can answer some questions. Or we might watch a video.” Something that helps to really provide a removal of this veil that a lot of us have in our ignorance to other people’s lives, and perspectives and religions and experiences.

Why should schools make this a year-round thing?

If I had it my way, it’d be a yearlong or at least a substantially long conversation that includes the voices of many, many people. It’s not too dissimilar from Black History Month. Why are we talking about Black people in February right? Like, come on. Black people are still out there in March.

What about people who don’t identify with a particular religious community: atheists, agnostics, non-believers?

I think they’re in the conversation. I mean, they’re believers, their belief is that something doesn’t [exist]. I think it’s a valuable perspective to have. My hope is that we don’t seek to influence others in their beliefs. We don’t shame people for who they are, we accept them for who they are. My hope is that nonbelievers, while in the state of non-believing, are open to and willing to learn what others’ beliefs are and how others govern their lives. Because that’s the way we build community.

Our 2023 edition of Leaders To Learn From comes out in February. Stay tuned for timely perspectives from LTLF alumni. What topics should we delve into in the future? Which past leader would you like to hear from? Email aklein@educationweek.org or dsuperville@educationweek.org with your ideas.


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