This year has been a year of firsts at The New Century School, and the trend continues. These firsts are TNCS’s ways of rising to the occasion, of meeting the challenge and addressing it with customary courage and compassion, respect and service. Thursday, June 4, 2020 was another of these firsts. With the nation in an uproar over the senseless killing of George Floyd and all who went before him, communities needed to voice their emotions about the racially motivated wrongs permeating our society, to hear and be heard. Making this difficult time even harder, we can’t be physically together for mutual support.
In true leader fashion, however, TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan and Head of Parent Council Sakina Ligon provided a first-of-its-kind forum with a Virtual TNCS Social Justice Community Conversation. “The heartbreaking events surrounding the death of Mr. George Floyd last week, so close on the heels of other similar tragic events throughout the United States, have pointed to the unjust discrimination and systematic racism that has continued to permeate our country,” said Sra. Duncan in an email announcing the event. “As an academic institution, TNCS has a responsibility to educate our community in order to combat ignorance and intolerance in order to dismantle a system that is broken in our society.”
TNCS, as a “model of inclusivity,” is well poised to do some good here. Head of the Lower School and Dean of Students Alicia Danyali agreed, saying, “The fact that we are starting to talk openly is the first step in partnership with all stakeholders to cultivate change we hope to see.” And that became the thrust of the evening—what positive action can we make to effect change and to heal our societal wounds?
But before we get to that, here’s an abridged recap of the three-part evening for those who were unable to attend this event. All of our voices are important, and our participation in this conversation is vital. “It’s an ongoing process,” as Sra. Duncan emphasized.
Part 1: Foundation Building
Sra. Duncan, a former diversity coordinator and well-versed in these kinds of dialogues, introduced the evening by urging participants to speak freely but respectfully. “Active listening”—focusing on what is being said, not on what you anticipate will be said—is also key in such exchanges of ideas. She also laid some ground rules for “conversational norms” including definitions:
- Use “I” statements, not “you” or “we,” to speak just for yourself and avoid making generalizations.
- Focus on the topic at hand, what’s going on with racial injustice in our country.
- “Have comfort with discomfort”; these conversations are not easy.
- Use “both/and” instead of “either/or” to open up possibilities rather than limiting to only two.
- Expect and accept non-closure.
These fundamentals were then put into practice with an exercise to demonstrate how our mindsets can be radically altered when we realize that our perspectives are not absolute. Sra. Duncan asked the audience to draw a circle clockwise in the air above their heads then slowly lower it in front of the face to the abdomen. What happens? Clockwise becomes counterclockwise by virtue of nothing more than a flipped visual orientation (i.e., looking up, then looking down). Just like that, we got a glimmer of how easy it is to see things differently.
Prior to the evening, questions were submitted to the committee, which became the framework of the presentation and discussion. Topmost on everyone’s minds? What do we say to our children?
Part II: How to Talk to Our Kids
Perhaps surprisingly, earnest self-reflection is the necessary first step before we can speak honestly with our children. Acknowledge our prejudices and preconceived notions so that we can open our minds to other possibilities. This is especially important for groups of people. We might assume we’re not racist (and strive hard against racism), but do that check in. Ask yourself questions like, “What are my biases?” “What are my gut reactions to people of different groups?” “How does my privilege smooth the way for me?” “How can I use my privilege to help those who are oppressed?”
Know where you stand before you talk to your children. They are observant; are we “walking the walk?” They’ll know if not.
Ms. Ligon spoke next and reminded us that there’s an historical context to these issues. “In terms of educating oneself,” she said, “research this repeating history.” We need to make sure we have the right words and the background to broach this with our kids.
Sra. Duncan and her team gathered these helpful resources for discussing these complex topics with your children. She stressed making sure the resources you turn to are age appropriate and that they “practice and prepare.” Also examine your child’s media—are books and toys reflecting different types of people? Help your child see the beauty in difference with exposure to multiple cultures. Ask them to imagine being in someone else’s shoes to cultivate empathy. Elementary-age children can go a bit deeper; ask them to examine what they say to their schoolmates and whether they are saying things that might not always make the other person feel good (“microaggressions”). In upper elementary and middle school, monitor those social media accounts, urges Sra. Duncan. “Debrief with them,” she advises. Remind them that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable about these things.
Part III: Next Steps
Describing U.S. citizens as “standing on a precipice,” Sra. Duncan quoted former President Obama’s stirring words about “. . . [working] together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions and our hearts.” Ms. Ligon made the excellent point that if we’re ever going to draw back from the rim of that abyss, we need a fundamental curricular change. Our history books need to tell the whole truth she said.
I think of how we learn history in specifically the United States and where history starts, and, as I look ahead anticipating how this historical moment will be depicted in the history books to follow, there will be a huge gap in reality. In terms of where the history books pick up and where people who look like myself started, there’s this gray area in between and then we go straight to, ‘oh, they were looting and rioting.’ I believe that how history should be taught reflects everyone in the room. I have to do a lot of troubleshooting with my own child to explain to her that here’s another perspective and here’s how we fit in to what you learned in school. It’s hard when you’re a person of color (POC) and you’re trying to learn about who you are . . . it would be a different day and a new world if we also get it in the place where we’re supposed to be getting educated. For me, it’s very important for this to be implemented in the curriculum.
Discussions for how to achieve a better, more accurate social studies curriculum at TNCS are up and running. (For adults, the podcast 1619 fills in a lot of these gaps and is well worth a listen.) Sra. Duncan also mentioned that this a cross-curricular endeavor, as appropriate. “It should permeate everything we do,” she said.
Indeed, the biggie in this part of the forum was action—take, for example, the difference between non-racist and anti-racist. Sra. Duncan asked the audience how these terms differ, and the upshot is that anti-racism means actively combatting racism rather than simply not partaking in racism.
Following are some of the incisive and insightful questions and suggestions that participants contributed during the forum.
Questions from Parents:
- Are teachers having these conversations with students either before Covid-19 or on Zoom? What help can we as parents do to support the school in developing anti-racism resources, and coalition building, curriculum, etc.?
- How is the school staff and leadership thinking about/addressing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) issues within the school? (I am doing this at my organization and would be curious if you have set any goals for changes, etc. I am also reaching out in my community to try and bring together potential allies on antiracism—is there any interest in some consciousness-raising among parents or students, leading an aftercare class or camp on anti-racism, etc. perhaps parent and kids learning together? I am willing to volunteer to help with some sort of antiracism discussion group for adults and/or camp for kids.
- Are we looking to revamp the global studies curriculum?
- Is there a part of the school curriculum that helps guide students to find their individual role in combatting racial injustice? Parent DEI forums can help with vocabulary and navigating diversity conversations at home.
- What training will the TNCS staff have on this topic? How will they be trained to handle our kids questions?
- At one time, the students were meeting on a regular basis with Mrs. Danyali. Could that be a time where the conversations can be had with students on diversity?
- To circle back to the point about not letting this topic “drop” going forward—perhaps we could continue having these TNCS community discussions about DEI that could be virtual or eventually in person… maybe quarterly? As a way to keep the conversations and actions going?
- Is there an opportunity for students to send anonymous questions, thoughts, reactions to recent events to generate a forum for the students to participate in a faculty/ parent facilitated forum?
- How do we stay in touch and keep the conversation going?
Each of these items was addressed, and the takeaways are that TNCS stakeholders will collaborate and divvy up the action items: Teachers are increasing their morning discussions of such issues in age-appropriate ways*; parents will potentially host ECAs, book clubs, and other parent/child forums (all to be determined); and admin will facilitate these efforts as well as increase professional development opportunities in this arena. “But we can’t do this alone,” she said. “We need your help. The Parent Council is a great place to get parents involved.” Sra. Duncan also consults the Association of Independent Maryland & DC Schools (AIMS) DEI tenets as outlined here.
*The very next day, upper elementary and middle school homeroom teachers Nameeta Sharma and Daphnée Hope guided 5th- through 8th-grade students in whole-group discussions on social justice, focusing on how their generation would combat racial violence. Wrote Mrs. Hope in a follow-up email to parents:
We were blown away by the maturity, depth, respect, and insightfulness that your children displayed. Perhaps one of the most profound things that we heard was when one of our students stated, ‘No one is born a racist. It is what you have been taught over time.’ We were able to learn from each other and bear witness to the experiences of each other. It was simply incredible. I think we can learn so much from looking at the world through the lens of a child. They are passionate, hopeful, and more insightful than we sometimes give them credit for.
“We started with parents,” said Sra. Duncan, but it would be great to also have these conversations with parents and students. I think it’s really important that students see that we’re all working on this together, and it’s not just an at-school thing or an at-home thing that will gain us a better understanding of the issues.”
“We are fortunate to be a part of a caring and supportive community. Let us all take the time to pause and reflect on our role in how each of us can help move the conversation and the country forward. By examining our beliefs, our privilege, and our prejudices, which we all have, we can begin to repair this country for our children,” said Sra. Duncan. Real change for a problem of this scale requires a coordinated effort over a sustained period. “So, remember not to judge, and remember to listen,” she said.
And don’t forget to support your local businesses!
Just below is a poem that has resonated with many over the last few weeks and may help us all see a little more clearly in this pivotal year.
Lastly, we invite you to share your question, comment, or thought about discussing social justice and anti-racism with your community and your children in comments. Have a book or resource to suggest? Please, put it in the comments. We welcome your voice. And your 2020 vision.