Minnesotans are often proud of reports ranking our state in the top 10 states in terms of housing, employment and education. But scratch beneath the surface and we have striking racial disparities to reckon with. Our state ranks in the bottom five for Black, Indigenous and Latinx students graduating high school in four years. And while there are many systemic inequalities that contribute to startling statistics like this, the situation is not hopeless.
Last month more than 2,000 people — educators, parents, youth advocates and community leaders — gathered over Zoom to listen as bestselling author of “How to Be an Antiracist” professor Ibram X. Kendi shared some hard truths, some actionable advice and, yes, some hope. While the virtual speaking event, hosted by Teach for America Twin Cities and Educators for Excellence, was geared toward educators, it was effective at encouraging all adults who have influence on our community’s children to take purposeful steps toward anti-racism.
As educators, we couldn’t keep all this tremendous learning to ourselves. This is why we are sharing some of the essential lessons learned at last month’s event. But first, a word of warning. These lessons we gleaned from Kendi are not exhaustive and won’t be a cut-and-dried “to-do-list” to reach some imaginary anti-racism “finish line.” In fact, that may be the most valuable takeaway from the whole talk. Anti-racism is a commitment to continuous learning and unlearning.
Anti-racist isn’t who you are; it’s what you do.
Anti-racism is not a state of being. It is not the passive notion of “not being racist.” Instead, anti-racism is about making a conscious effort every day to take action in the pursuit of anti-racism.
Anti-racism is an act of love and truth telling.
Anti-racism is engaging with others and constantly examining and re-examining our own ideas, beliefs and truths. It’s listening to understand, not to debate. It’s also about sacrificing one’s own comfort in an effort to get a more complete story that includes multiple perspectives, particularly those that have been marginalized or excluded over centuries.
Teachers are uniquely positioned to be anti-racist role models.
Kendi was particularly optimistic about the influence teachers can play in modeling and elevating anti-racism as a north star to foster an affirming environment for all students. Aspiring anti-racist teachers must hold every student to high expectations. Studies have shown that teachers of color – or someone trained in culturally relevant teaching practices – create a positive impact for students of color, as they tend to hold high expectations for students as well as identify with them as individuals. However, white teachers willing to invest in anti-racist learning themselves commit to learning about a student’s culture, their beliefs and values, and can create meaningful relationships across lines of difference.
Schools have a unique opportunity to reimagine schools as anti-racist institutions.
A constant refrain of the pandemic has been the projected learning loss for students, particularly Black, Indigenous and students of color. This is an opportunity to reset as we plan for a return to “normal.” Every school leader can and should prioritize collecting racial demographic data on their disciplinary measures, achievement gaps, representation in gifted/talented programs and professional development to name a few areas where we know we can and should be getting better. Curriculum specialists and school leaders should be auditing curriculum to ensure the inclusion of multiple perspectives and developing curriculum that is conducive to various learning styles and teaching techniques. This is the time for educators and school leaders to investigate themselves, their policies and their practices through an anti-racist lens.
As we reach the one-year anniversary of the shuttering of school buildings across our state, we’ve learned that our kids and our teachers are incredibly resilient. This is a testament to the potential for positive change. Over the course of Kendi’s talk he certainly left the audience with a lot to grapple with, but he also left us with hope — the ultimate anti-racist act. In order to bring about change, we must understand the magnitude of problems and also believe in the magnitude of possibilities to tackle them head on.
Mikisha Nation is the executive director of Teach For America’s Twin Cities region. Nation, whose career has been centered around health and educational equity, has 20-plus years of experience in corporate, government, and nonprofit leadership. Paula Cole was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, a place she left to pursue her dream of a college education in the United States. After six years as an E4E member and teacher leader, Cole joined the Minnesota chapter as executive director. Prior to this role, she worked as an elementary education teacher and academic coach at Minneapolis Public Schools. Paula serves as vice-chair at the Richfield Board of Education.
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