by Alexis Mburu and Eva Herdener
What happens when those tasked with teaching also need to be taught? Our education system has always had to adapt, whether in regards to who was allowed in the doors or how we kept them safe. And we can always find ways to improve the quality of education students are receiving — especially regarding race and equity.
As two members of the NAACP Youth Council, we spend a lot of time focusing on working towards racial equity in the education system. One of our group’s key issues is the need for mandated racial equity training in schools. We are youth currently in the education system. Most of us identify with one or multiple marginalized communities and we have seen firsthand the damage done to students due to the ignorance of those who are “authorities” inside schools. Racial equity training is one way we can help ensure the system we rely on for our educational and social growth is a safe place for all of us.
The 2013–2014 Civil Rights Data Collection starkly demonstrates the need for these trainings. As young as preschool, Black children are 3.6 times more likely to face school suspension in comparison to their white peers. Similarly, Black students are more likely to face expulsion, even though overall, Black students tend to make up less than 20% of the student population. This data exemplifies the need for more race consciousness among our school administrations, to ensure that disparities such as these do not exist. Racial equity training is able to teach such consciousness and further kickstart the development of policies and practices that properly protect students and staff of color, while also checking and educating white educators.
In a post-George Floyd era where terms such as “racial equity” and “anti-racism” have become common language for many, it begs the question: How do we break down the ever-so-prevalent white supremacy culture that inhabits our schools system?
Like many other things in life, it starts with knowledge. Racial equity training (including but not limited to topics such as stereotype threat, implicit biases, microaggressions, intersectionality, etc.) are a crucial factor in furthering the momentum, brought on by the 2020 uprising, into our children’s daily learning. Mandating racial equity training in schools is a way that anti-racist values an become embedded in our culture, rather than treated like a checkbox.
Racial equity training is when people reflect on the systemic barriers that are built within our institutions against certain people and develop consciousness and skills in order to better interact with and eliminate said negative circumstances.
The Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) is an entity that serves educational institutions in Washington State. They strive to be an “Anti-Racist Mulitcultural Orginization” and towards eliminating the opportunity gap by leading with racial equity. They provide a multitude of equity-driven programs and services from leadership coaching and professional development to racial equity tool implementation. In our own Tukwila School District, PSESD will spend three years infiltrating the layers and stakeholders involved in racial equity work, at a pace designed for long-term and customized progression towards equity. We have also worked with PSESD on things like student panels, paid internships, and projects based around community engagement that center and uplift student voice.
The quality of the racial equity training implemented within our schools is crucial. No two schools are the same, meaning tailored training is necessary. Mandating the inclusion of students of color in training development and decision-making is a way of ensuring high-quality, effective, equitable approaches.
It is important that white educators gain awareness of the systems of privilege that benefit them so they can educate their students on those same systems of privilege and oppression. It’s also important to note that white supremacist attitudes pervade institutions and are not only upheld by certain groups of people, so school- and district-wide education on these matters are crucial.
One way to approach this learning is through affinity groups, bringing people together who have some trait of commonality, like race, to ensure that people holding different identities are able to speak and learn in a way authentic to their lived experiences.
Equity trainings aren’t exclusively about race and ethnicity, but they also help students navigate and understand other forms of diversity like gender, sexuality, class, and religion. Facilitating these routinely occuring conversations — which should center BIPOC voices and youth — should lead to advantageous growth and development, which then creates safer learning and working environments for all students and staff.
When asked what an important component of effective racial equity is, Eileen Yoshina, the director of Equity in Education for the PSESD, says “It’s important that school leaders are champions of racial equity training, and that they work collaboratively with students, families and teachers of color to really amplify the voices of people who have real expertise [the people most impacted by racism].” She also says that “[m]any districts and schools say they value racial equity, but without meaningful support, such as prioritizing time, providing funding, or assigning staff to racial equity efforts, people who care about it are often left with the job of convincing people to participate.”
Oftentimes it is easy to fall into the trap of one-hit-wonder work — one really good training, one really powerful panel, or one committee which claims to be doing the important work. However, it is obvious that lasting change does not come overnight, nor from scarce opportunities to do the heavy lifting. The key to any type of progress is consistency, and advancing towards an anti-racist school system is no different. One or two professional developments a year won’t cut it. There needs to be targeted series of training that emphasizes continuity, reflection, and accountability.
Racial equity and anti-racism work always has self-reflection at its core, because the systems we are attempting to dismantle are made of imperfect people who need to have the awareness to know and undo the ways in which they perpetuate systemic harm. What comes with reflection is accountability to both yourself and those around you.
All that to say, as personal as this work can be, there still needs to be a level of guidance and expectation from leadership. Important movements in history have often been led through grassroots operations, but in schools, this pattern can end up siloing groups and putting undue amounts of pressure and work on those who care — which also is, more times than not, staff of color.
Whether from principals or the superintendent, there needs to be messaging from the top stating that anti-racism is an expected standard. Those in positions of power need to create collaborative partnerships with community stakeholders and organizations like Educational Service Districts, and they need to invest the financial resources required to really move forward in creating an equitable future.
It’s time now that we start looking at the standards of education through a broader lens than was designed. One beyond student-teacher hierarchies, beyond textbook curriculum, one of true liberation that transcends to the learning that matters most.
Alexis Mburu is a high schooler in Tukwila, Washington. She is a member of the NAACP Youth Council and on the Advisory Board for Washington Ethnic Studies Now. She is a part of the Tukwila Children’s Foundation as well as a co-facilitator for her district’s Race and Equity Committee.
Eva Herdener is a 17-year-old full-time Running Start student at South Seattle College and began working for the NAACP in the late summer of 2021. Eva is also a part of a competitive rock-climbing team here in Seattle by the name of Vertical World.
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