By Alejandra Gómez
“How did you contribute to racism (or white supremacy and the structures which fuel racism) yesterday?” This was the closing question posed to audience members at the fourth and final event of this year’s Color of Education Virtual Summit. I think that William Jackson, Chief Dreamer at Village of Wisdom, left us with this question because the more equitable school system we want to imagine is in all of our hands. Those of us involved with our schools, students, and families in any capacity are in a place of power. But in order to be able to dismantle the structures which make students feel unwelcome, powerless, and ignored, we have to be able to name in ourselves the harm we may also perpetuate. Or else we cannot do the messy, challenging, and often scary work that is questioning and deconstructing the systems which govern our country.
The theme of the event, “Racial (In)Equity in North Carolina Schools: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, and Where We Go From Here” brought engaging and thought-provoking panelists together to reflect on the educational strides that have been made in our country, and the turning point at which we find ourselves to do even better for our students. Amidst a global health pandemic and a national racial pandemic, our country is hurting. Our students, particularly our Black and Brown children, are disproportionately harmed by the educational inequities that are even more evident now with Covid-19 turning our world – and our schools – upside down.
I want to start this conversation at the end of the panel discussion because that’s where the call to action was named, and where I invite anyone reading this to make a commitment. A personal commitment to acknowledge that many – if not all of us – have internalized racism and act on these biases in harmful ways, even if it’s unknowingly.
Dr. Dudley Flood opened the event and made clear that we’ve come to a fork in the road. People are more willing than ever before to publicly acknowledge that something has to be done about our school system. In case it’s not yet crystal clear, it’s failing to equally educate and provide access to opportunities for children across all walks of life. I especially appreciated his intentionality in articulating what should be a collective vision: we should be “striving towards success, not just toward avoiding failure.”
But what does success look like? The panelists, and engaged audience members in the chat, unpacked this a bit tonight. Jenice Ramirez, from Isla NC, shared that when Black and Brown students walk into their classrooms, they don’t feel affirmed or valued. Rather, their identities are overlooked, or even worse, dehumanized. Similarly, Leslie Locklear from UNC Pembroke and the NC Native American Youth Organization, emphasized how crucial it is that we work in decolonizing educational spaces, and value students’ backgrounds and identities as an asset to the learning community. On this note, Cherrel Miller Dyce from Elon University, noted that culturally responsive curriculum and an asset-based framework must be at the heart of teacher preparation programs. It’s not enough to teach content to pre-service teachers, they must utilize this equity lens to unpack what and how they teach their students.
We all know the landmark Brown v Board of Education (1954) case ruled school segregation unconstitutional. But do we realize how our communities continue to be segregated regardless? While students of color make up 52% of the total student population in North Carolina, they make up 77% of those who attend high-poverty traditional public schools across the state. Tracking students from an early age keeps students of color out of advanced courses, and each year, the opportunity gap (also known as the achievement gap) widens.
William’s analogy was especially illustrative of the issue at hand. When we talk about educational change and new policies, we are always trying to “fix the fish” – our students – using the next intervention tool. But what about the dirty water that the fish are swimming in? What about the system which was not built or designed with Black and Brown students in mind? We should be examining social justice issues in our classrooms. And racial justice. And climate justice. And refugee justice. And indigenous justice. And environmental justice. And restorative justice.
We can heal collectively and rebuild together. Students, educators, and families are all on the same team. What commitment will you make to your community?