“It’s okay to be uncomfortable, it’s okay to take risks. You have the power to do something about the injustice you see.”
I recently heard statements like this in two very different ends of our education system. First, two NYC Leadership Academy coaches facilitated discussions aimed at building skills for talking about race with a group of aspiring principals in New York City.
A few days later, my son’s fifth grade teacher said those exact words to her students and their families during the culmination of a months-long study of black civil rights movements in America. Since November, the fifth graders at Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, NY, had been studying the history from Jim Crow laws to Brown v. Board of Education to today. Students wrote research papers on topics of their choosing. My son, Oliver, wrote about the role of young people, highlighting 6-year-old Ruby Bridges’ courageous journey into an all-white elementary school flanked by U.S. Marshalls. One of his classmates wrote about the role white people played in the movements, including perspectives on white people participating in #BlackLivesMatter.
Before beginning their study, the teachers and students brainstormed strategies for coping with studying uncomfortable history – “deep breaths; be aware of your identity; take a break but don’t quit” — and reasons for studying that history — “So we learn from our mistakes; learn to respect the suffering of others and not think it’s no big deal; helps us experience and deal with hard feelings. We can handle it.” (These lists hang on the classroom wall as reminders.)
I could see they were developing a racial self-awareness. When another parent asked Oliver how he related to his research, he said, “As a white person, I see that I have it easier.” At age 11, he was articulating an awareness of how race affects everyone, something so many adults struggle to do.
Grappling with racial consciousness is a process. At the NYCLA session for aspiring principals, when the facilitator asked how often race affects their lives, one white participant said 20 percent of the time; an African American aspiring principal said, “Race affects my life 100 percent of the time.”
“You need to start with the personal, local, and immediate,” said the facilitator, quoting the work of Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Educational Group, who has trained our staff to coach for equity.
The school leaders at Community Roots, Allison Keil and Sara Stone, have prioritized developing and nurturing consciousness about race and all identities by encouraging open discussion and developing trusting relationships. “The way we talk about race is a piece of [the school leaders] asking us to bring our whole selves to our teaching, which makes us feel like we can bring our whole selves to those conversations with other teachers,” said one of my son’s teacher, Michael Gervais.
The staff formalized the work a few years ago by, at the principal’s suggestion, creating a working group of teachers, social workers, and the principal, to facilitate conversations about race and identity and maintain a curriculum that is both aligned to the standards and responsive to the diverse population the school serves. The group is an integral part of the school today. “We discuss how we think about our own identity, and how that work starts with us,” said Gervais, a founding group member. “We talk about how we can proactively talk to students about identity and how we react when we hear students sharing things about identify with each other. This has really deepened our sense of what it means to have an anti-bias education.”
The working group facilitates teachers sharing practices and observing one another’s classrooms. They examine how teachers create space in their classrooms for exploring identify and how those explorations grow from grade to grade. In kindergarten, my sons learned about each of their classmate’s families and backgrounds and celebrated their similarities and differences; in 3rd grade they wrote poems about how they identify themselves, learning more about each other. When they talk about government, they discuss how it has affected different groups of people throughout history.
This work is not easy. “We have had hard conversations about what feels developmentally appropriate when talking about race, about how kids are responding to conversations and how to support them,” Gervais said. “But we feel like we all need to be on the same page moving forward, that we all want what’s best for the kids, so we welcome those hard conversations and can easily navigate them. In hard moments, I don’t question that someone is not supporting me. Or not sharing what they are honestly thinking.”
At NYCLA, when we work to develop educational leaders’ skills around tackling inequities, our facilitators say up front that developing racial consciousness is not a feel-good experience. It is a slow and deliberate process of discovery that requires vulnerability and trust. But it’s critical. As a parent, I have seen the impact it can have on children when educators lead with anti-bias in mind. My sons can talk about race openly and honestly; when they hear something that sounds racist, they call it out and we talk about it. I feel forever indebted to their teachers and principals for modeling and moderating the conversations that have made them open-minded and accepting of all people. It makes me hopeful that this generation will be able talk more openly about the issues that so intensely divide our country today.
Senior Director, Strategic Communications & Policy
Jill Grossman is the Senior Director of Communications and Research. Prior to joining NYCLA in 2016, Jill worked at New Leaders as Senior Manager for Research and Writing, where she helped write Breakthrough Principals: A Step-By-Step Guide to Building Stronger Schools, a book outlining New Leaders’ framework for effective principal and school practices. Jill also co-authored a series of case studies and a white paper on the practices principals have used to effectively begin to implement new college- and career-readiness standards. She has conducted research for other nonprofit organizations and school districts on principal training programs, school autonomy and teacher teams.
Before working in education research, Jill spent 15 years as an editor and writer for several New York City news outlets, examining the challenges and achievements that urban communities experience, particularly around housing, schools, and politics. Jill has taught graduate and undergraduate journalism courses at New York University and Columbia University, as well as GED classes at community-based organizations and community colleges. She has also served as president of the board of directors of a Montessori preschool in Brooklyn.
Jill holds an MA in education policy from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a BA in sociology from Vassar College.