In response to protests motivated by the death of George Floyd, the rapper and activist Killer Mike delivered powerful remarks during Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s press conference late last week. Although his primary audience did not include teachers, administrators or other members of the education community, Killer Mike spoke to us nonetheless, reminding us of the enormous responsibility we bear.
“Mad as hell” and “tired of seeing black men die,” like so many of us are, Killer Mike nonetheless emphatically discouraged acts of violence and vandalism. “It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy,” he said. “It is your duty to fortify your own house, so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization.”
Certainly, education is not the only way for individuals to fortify their own house, yet higher levels of schooling are associated with higher earnings, better health outcomes, higher levels of community involvement and other indicators of well-being. This is assuredly what drew many of us to this work, a desire to be part of this mechanism for individual and societal advancement. What, then, is our responsibility to the learners who come to our institutions and our individual classrooms seeking to fortify their houses? How do we do right by them?
The work of advancing equity requires humility and candor. We must acknowledge, for instance, that our institutions and individual courses are often the sites of considerable inequity. We will also need to acknowledge the role each of us has played in allowing educational inequity to persist. Admittedly, eradicating educational inequity is a daunting challenge. Like our fellow Americans who riot and resort to violence because, as Killer Mike noted, “they don't know what else to do,” we might turn to unproductive efforts, or perhaps worse, give up.
What’s the alternative? I, for one, am reaffirming my commitment to fortifying my own house and institution, and to using my privilege and platform to encourage others to join me. To you, dear education colleagues, I offer two suggestions: (1) take the time to look inward and (2) do your homework.
Jan Arminio, Vasti Torres and Raechele L. Pope explain why it’s essential to look inward in their 2012 book, Why Aren't We There Yet?: Taking Personal Responsibility for Creating an Inclusive Campus. “Self-knowledge is the first necessary element,” they write. “Only after educators are honest and knowledgeable about their own cultures, beliefs, values, privileges, and biases can they begin to interact with others authentically in their daily contexts.”
Whether you look inward by taking Implicit Associations Tests and reflecting on your results; reading Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White or Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi; partnering with a trusted colleague or relative to discuss your experiences and beliefs; or another form of reflective practice, there’s no shortcut for investing time and energy in yourself.
It won’t be easy. As Stephanie Long acknowledges, “It takes intention, deliberate action, accountability and humility to do this internal work.” It also tends to uncover beliefs and actions/inactions inconsistent with our stated and aspirational values. When you feel shame or guilt, remind yourself that neither is productive and channel your feelings into action.
One broad category of action is my second suggestion: do your homework. To use a term coined by James Gray, chair of the math department at Community College of Aurora, most of us are “first-generation equity practitioners.” This means we have to learn how to do equity work ourselves.
Thankfully, an increasing number of institutions are engaging in diversity initiatives and offer pedagogical programming and support in inclusive teaching practices, and online resources abound. As you engage in these efforts, resist the urge to find a quick fix or list of best practices. The effectiveness of any strategy will depend on its alignment with your discipline, context, teaching philosophy, etc.
Some of my favorite resources, for administrators and teachers/faculty alike, are the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education website, including links to recordings of a recent webinar series highlighting racial inequity in online environments.
Specific to pedagogy, you’ll find guidance within various frameworks, using terminology such as inclusive, equity-minded, culturally competent and culturally responsive teaching practices. As I see it, each of these pedagogical approaches is a means to the same end: equal outcomes among all student groups, the definition of educational equity. I find the Transparency in Teaching & Learning framework, Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, and Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity especially useful.
Killer Mike proposes one additional action item: “Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize,” he declared.
In the United States, higher levels of education have historically been associated with increased civic engagement, yet individuals least likely to be civically engaged include racial and ethnic minorities, the children of parents with less formal education, and individuals living in poorer neighborhoods.
This fall let’s leverage the attention generated by civil unrest and health disparities to encourage students to exercise their right to vote, to take part in this democracy, to make sure their voices are heard and counted in local and national elections.
It may seem naive, even absurd, to suggest that we commit or recommit to equity right now, in the middle of a pandemic. Yet COVID-19 has not only exposed the inequity in our country; it has exacerbated it. If not now, when? We all need shelter in these unstable times, and by fortifying our houses, we can create the refuge we need and deserve. Join me.