Get Uncomfortable: Talking About Race, Inequity, and Injustice

The National Education Association 2017 Equity Leaders Summit.

More than 150 educators from 50 states gathered in Chicago on Oct. 21-22—on behalf of their students—to attend NEA’s Equity Leaders’ Summit. The summit’s goal was to build action plans that push against issues of inequity and injustices.

Why? Because “It’s the corner stone of everything we want to be as a society,” says Gabriel Tanglao, a social studies teacher from New Jersey. “What we’re realizing now in the 21st century is that people put a period after the civil rights movement, and that’s not where it ended.”

For example, recently a teacher in New Jersey was filmed telling her Spanish-speaking students to “speak American” to which the offended parties walked out of their classroom in protest. The video was posted to Facebook, where it’s been met with mixed reviews. These aren’t isolated cases, either.

Instances of inequities and injustices shared during the summit highlighted how quality programs are inaccessible to many students of color, students as young as five are telling Spanish-speaking classmates to go back to Mexico, schools with large populations of students of color lack access to technology, and some teacher attitudes perpetuate ideas about what certain groups of students, such as kids who have a disability, can and cannot do.

Intensifying these issues are national statistics that show 50 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, black students are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students, and 60 percent of the nation’s Bureau of Indian Education schools lack access to quality digital broadband.

While the education landscape has some roadblocks, not all is lost, as more and more educators work to identify the tools and skills needed to help level the playing field so that every student has equity, assets, and opportunity.

Arun Puracken, a middle school social studies teacher from Maryland, says these types of gatherings are in place because educators care about equity, and it’s up to people who care, like him, to organize around issues that benefit their students and get more people involved.

Arun Puracken

Arun Puracken

“If an educator isn’t involved in the union, and may care about equity, but doesn’t go to a conference … it’s up to individuals who are involved in the union to go back and advocate in the buildings, hold workshops and seminars, and develop personal relationships to get support,” says Puracken.

And NEA’s Equity Leaders’ Summit provided a safe space to have honest conversations about the work educators could take back home.

Summit Takeaways

It’s not easy to talk about race, inequities, and injustices, but it’s a conversation that needs to happen, and it takes courage.

“If we are considering the questions of racial justice, equity, and social justice, the fundamental needed for that fight is courage,” says Keron Blair, national director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and guest speaker at the summit. “Courage isn’t easy … [it’s] a muscle. It’s not poured into us like a liquid. You’ve got to build it … daily.”

On hand to help build this muscle were NEA leaders, members, organizers, and policy analysts, who armed participants with the tools and skills needed to address inequity and injustice within their school and community.

Part of this learning is to lean into uncomfortableness and …to do something with it because you don’t build social justice warriors from just saying ‘we have a problem,’” Maxine Mosley, school counselor, New Hampshire

Specifically, participants learned how to identify inequities and injustices, hold a conversation around these issues, handle an oppressive situation, engage others, and develop an action plan focused on achieving equity and justice for all students. These action plans will be submitted to the NEA, and some will be selected to receive funding from the association.

To push these plans to action, participants focused on leveraging the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which provides an opportunity to lead,” says Johanna “Hanna” Vaandering, a physical education teacher from Oregon now serving as an NEA executive committee member. “It tells us, we can lift up our voices, we can bring parents and students together and we can thrive.”

The federal policy can be used to help ensure opportunity for all students regardless of ZIP code, as it requires state accountability systems to include at least one indicator of school quality or student success. School improvement plans can examine resource inequities, school wide program plans, which may include strategies like school-based mental health programs and district plans that improve learning conditions.

The Road to Equity and Justice

NEA has developed various indicators that helped guide many of the action plans developed by summit participants, such as the association’s Your School Checklist, which helps educators think through what schools need.

The checklist, for example, can identify the resources needed in schools, such as libraries, world language, or science labs. Summit presenters pushed participants out of their comfort zone to come up with concrete ways to organize around inequities and injustices.

“Part of this learning is to lean into uncomfortableness and learn to be OK with that and to do something with it because you don’t build social justice warriors from just saying ‘we have a problem,’” says Maxine Mosley, a school counselor from New Hampshire.

To “do something with it,” as Mosley indicates, means educators can use ESSA and NEA’s checklist as a conversation starter with parents about what their school is missing. Ask them to fill out the checklist and compare the results with your checklist. End the conversation by brainstorming ways to move forward, such as organize to pass a school board resolution or speak at a school board meeting on the need of more funding for a full-time nurse or advanced courses in math and science.

Depending on the school’s environment, educators can advocate and organize around several issues, such as a safe and welcoming schools, which ESSA recognizes as a measure toward student and school success.

One participant from New Jersey, for example, shared how educators organized the community that led to the firing of the local police chief after several reports of police brutality. The tipping point came when students were maced by police officers.

Lindsey DIckenson

Lindsey DIckinson

NEA’s Checklist also officers ideas around healthy and modern schools, well-rounded curriculum, school climate, and quality educators.

Lindsey Dickinson, an eighth-grade math teacher from Illinois, is hopeful that through ESSA’s accountability plan she could move toward creating a safe and welcoming school for her students, especially for those whose parents are undocumented.

“Our local union has been pushing the district to reconfirm the Dream Act and adopt a local policy about welcoming school,” says Dickinson.

This issue came to the forefront last year when a student shared how she feared immigration officials would deport her parents. Dickenson encouraged the student to share her story with school board members and how her life would turn to shambles if her parents were to be deported—impacting her learning opportunities. The student also urged school officials to adopt friendlier language when it comes to the status of undocumented students and families and stop using language that is divisive, coded, and used to dehumanize immigrants.

Today, the issue has made some gains and steps to create policies to support students of undocumented families will be explored at the next school board meeting.

To get connected and engaged on the issues you care about go to neaedjustice.org. NEA EdJustice engages and mobilizes activists in the fight for racial, social, and economic justice in public education. Readers will find timely coverage of social justice issues in education and ways they can advocate for our students, our schools, and our communities.

Other Tools

Gone are the days of using a single test to measure student and school success. NEA’s Great Public School (GPS) Framework addresses research and evidence-based resources, policies, and practices that are proven to narrow opportunity and skills gaps. Specifically, the Framework elaborates on the criteria integral to school and student success, such as quality programs and services that meet the full range of all children’s needs so that they come to school every day ready and able to learn, as well as a qualified, caring, diverse, and stable workforce.

NEA’s “Opportunity Dashboard,” also looks at more than just test scores. The Dashboard look at things like robust arts and athletics programs. Full time counselors and nurses and librarians. Strong parent and family engagement programs. Rigorous AP classes and engaging electives.

Another tool is the union itself. Ana Batista, who teaches bilingual, talented, and gifted students in Connecticut, says she wants to use recruitment and retention to increase teachers of color in her district, and plans to “see our state president and her executive board who could guide me in this area.”

Other participants have also recognized their unions that help push the needle toward equity and justices for every student.

“If it wasn’t for the union giving me opportunities like this,” say Maryland’s Puracken, “I wouldn’t have the courage to do what I’m doing now. When [the union] talks about being a leader, activist, and change agent … I listen and I hear it loud and clear … and I owe a great deal of success to unionism and union work,” which has given him the opportunities to build networks of support, grow his skill set, and raise his voice as a leader in the profession and union.

Photos: Jim West