How to be an anti-racism school system leader

“We live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal… for if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” -- James Baldwin 

When I first saw the images of the racist men walking through the University of Virginia campus with lit torches, a shiver went down my spine. This weekend our country experienced an act of terrorism in Charlottesville as a car plowed into a group of protesters bravely speaking out against the white supremacists who marched through the city, tragically killing one young woman and injuring 19 others. I looked to the news to see what our nation’s leaders would say. Unfortunately, it took President Trump two days to condemn the hate groups, and then it was too little too late. It was a missed opportunity to set an example, to stand against hatred.

As the mother of a black son and daughter, I must teach my children how to maneuver within a country that will judge them based on the color of their skin. While I grew up in a middle-class family, am a college graduate (my generation was the first in my family), and worked hard to get where I am, I know that when I am walking down the street, none of that matters. All people see is a black woman. For me, silence is suicidal.

As educators, we cannot miss this opportunity.

With a new school year beginning, school system leaders are consumed by school walkthroughs, student admissions, professional development, and envisioning the best first day for students and staff. However, if your plans do not include how you will speak about and give space for others to speak about the events of Charlottesville, you have become part of the problem.

To be a school system leader in our country today means to actively combat racism in and outside of our schools.

When thinking about how to initiate and facilitate discussions about Charlottesville with staff, consider the following:

  • First, recognize your privilege in this country – race, class, culture. What has this privilege afforded you? Do you have standards for how people should interact and behave that are based on white culture, therefore alienating standards from other cultures? Do you have beliefs that are limiting your ability to see, hear and embrace others who do not look, talk or act like you?
    • From your vantage point, what impact do the events in Charlottesville have on you professionally and personally?
    • Establish a safe space with shared agreements on how to speak to each other confidentially, so that stakeholders can share their feelings without judgment. Once the safe space is established, invite stakeholders to share how the events affected them personally and professionally.
    • Encourage movement towards action. How can the community of educators respond to the events?
    • Continue the conversation individually and collectively. Speaking openly about race is important and shouldn’t just occur when a race-related incident occurs. Regular conversations about race is all about being an active, learning organization.

Having conversations about Charlottesville and race is important, but that’s not enough. Those discussions must lead to action. Charlottesville was an overt, socially unacceptable act of white supremacy that is easier to address. However, there a multitude of covert, socially acceptable acts of white supremacy happening in our school systems and as a system leader, you must examine and continue the necessary anti-racist work:

  • Curriculum: How are major racial and cultural events depicted (i.e. slavery, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement)? Is significant time given to the stories and experience of a variety of races? Can students choose books that are representative of their culture and experiences?
  • Access: Are students being disproportionately recommended to special education but not to honors and AP classes? Are there opportunities for bias that may be limiting students of color from being recommended to honors and AP classes?
  • Engagement: Are you offering a variety of ways for families to engage with schools? Are community-based organizations partners in district decision-making? Is student activism encouraged and supported?
  • Resources: Are the schools serving the neediest students receiving the necessary resources to be successful? Are there policies in place to encourage high-performing teachers to teach in the neediest schools? Are there initiatives in place to recruit and retain teachers and leaders of color?

Charlottesville was not the first instance of racist behavior we have seen and it will not be the last. You may have already experienced some “Charlottesville-like” incidents in your district. How have you addressed them? How have you used them as a teaching tool rather than just disciplining or suspending participants? How are students learning a new culture and way of interaction rather than replicating what they are seeing in the media? As a system leader, you must be actively engaging in conversations about race with all stakeholders across the school system and closely examining how institutional racism is impeding the progress of students of colors in your district. Please remember, this work is not just for districts with large minority populations. Racism is a learned behavior and as educators, we all have the responsibility to teach our students that race-based hate is unacceptable. Silence was never an option and today more than ever it’s time to speak-up and act. The future of our country depends on the example we set and how we teach our children. 

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About the Author — Mary Rice-Boothe

Mary B. Rice-Boothe is the Vice President for District Leadership Support at NYCLA. With more than 15 years of experience in education, Mary has been a teacher, principal, and a designer and director of school leader development programs. She is a graduate of NYCLA’s APP program.

As the school year starts, if your plans do not include how you will speak about and give space for others to speak about the events of Charlottesville, you have become part of the problem. The future of our country depends on the example we set and how we teach our children.

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