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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Moving Schools Beyond Anti-Racist Words to Action

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 22, 2020 5 min read
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New question-of-the-week

Your school has formed a committee to plan against racism and for inclusivity. What do you do?

Last month, I published a series where educators shared what changes they were making in their teaching based on what they learned from the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. You might also be interested in many previous columns on Race & Gender Challenges.

Many schools also created committees to formulate their next steps in combating racism. Today, Lorena Germán has written a guest post sharing suggestions for what individual schools can do collectively—beyond what an individual teacher can do in his or her classroom.

Steps anti-racist educators can take

Lorena Germán is a Dominican American educator who works with middle and high school students, as well as supporting teachers and schools to ensure best practices in terms of inclusivity and anti-bias, anti-racist approaches. She’s been published by NCTE, ASCD, EdWeek, and featured in The New York Times, and has a forthcoming book with Heinemann (2021). She’s a two-time nationally awarded teacher and is co-founder of #DisruptTexts, Multicultural Classroom, and she currently chairs the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism & Bias in the Teaching of English:

Many institutions began new anti-racist and diversity, equity, and inclusivity work at their schools this fall. Some reignited work they had already begun. These efforts always rise when strings of killings of Black people populate the news and burden our hearts. In many cases, they feel performative, and in other cases, they really do achieve some important change.

Many of these committees are struggling, as well-intentioned as the leaders and participants may be. Members become frustrated with each other. They leave or become disengaged. Tiny steps become all that the committee can do.Those steps are insignificant in the large scheme of things, and the feeling of performativity and inactivity continue. Sometimes those steps are hiring a consultant for one professional-development session but not being able to truly design a learning process that brings about change. In other cases, the committee simply gathers titles and curates a reading list for their colleagues.

Some see these as “at least doing something,” and others are enraged at the lack of movement forward. This rage is the fruit of some of these staff members being at these institutions for years and never seeing true change, just what they feel is “talk.” It becomes a cycle, and the committee isn’t what it was meant to be. It falls asleep. It needs to be shut down because it’s now a burden. It loses any power it sought to find.

In my experience, there are some important first steps that these committees can take to ameliorate some of those issues and avoid pitfalls. First, the group has to stop. There needs to be a clear establishing of WHY—for the individuals and for the group. Why are these people on this committee? Why is this committee assembled? Why is our heart inclined to do this work? Why now? Too often, we assume everyone is on the same page, and that’s a weak foot to start on. We learn later when the work gets challenging and the demands increase how some members understood the rigor and how others had other expectations. This imbalance causes stress within the committee, and it negatively impacts the group dynamics.

Second, the group needs to establish the WHAT. What is the problem at this school/org? Too often, people aren’t clear on what the purpose of the committee is, and they all have various aims and directions they want to explore. Ask yourselves: What do we want to change? Determining why you’re here and what you want to address leads you to a real thorough comb-through of the issues at hand.

Thirdly, you move into the HOW. Too many of these committees are focused on the “how” but never answered the “why” or “what.” The HOW is the reason people often join the committees, so it makes sense that this is where members want to start, but it’s not the first step. That can cause failure. If you don’t know why you’re in the car or where you’re headed, it doesn’t matter that you know how to drive it.

Lastly, something to keep in mind is that there are horribly toxic schools and committees. Those are not the ones I’m talking about here. Those schools and those committees require your absence. Your absence speaks louder than your exhausted unappreciated sacrifice. Walk away. However, if you’re at an institution that feels stuck but not necessarily toxic, then think about the fact that as performative as these committees may be, they might offer a chance for at least a slice of institutional change. Collaborate. Make it work. Do a thing—even if small. Be encouraged because your school/committee is not alone. So many of us are doing this work at our schools and in our districts.

You’re not alone.

Thanks to Lorena for her contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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