The racial reckoning of the last year has caused many schools to reexamine their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies and priorities. Often, one of the biggest challenges that schools face in doing this work is getting their entire faculty and staff on board. When there isn’t agreement on why these initiatives are needed or what they should try to accomplish, it lessens the possibility of systemic implementation.
For DEI work to be systemic in schools, schools need to establish professional learning communities (PLCs) working together to tackle the most pertinent items in their school context. But this type of work isn’t easy. I have personally witnessed faculty meetings erupting in anger around race and privilege when conversations weren’t framed respectfully and agreements were not made beforehand by each of the participants. Although it’s normal for difficult conversations to create tension and discomfort, I don’t believe there’s ever a place for us to break collegiality by harming others with our words. It doesn’t create healing or get us closer to the purpose of DEI.
Having Difficult Conversations
You’ll want to start small because systemic change takes time. Therefore, set realistic goals and focus on small, high-leverage steps that yield tangible shifts in the interpersonal dynamics between the staff. Improved discourse between educators and making faculty meetings intellectually safe spaces are two important goals. This way, teachers and staff won’t be afraid to voice their views and get constructive feedback.
An important takeaway here is that the adults collectively need to take the necessary time to create positive change in school-wide climate, culture, policy, routines, and rituals before it can occur with students.
Successful outcomes in school climate and culture will require conversations, resources, and actionable steps both in faculty meetings and classrooms.
Difficult conversations in schools pertinent to DEI vary depending on school context (e.g., population demographics). Some may include, but are not limited to, defining antiracist work, improving inclusion for various groups, managing diversity for making schools safe, carrying out equitable practices, and enabling diverse narratives across the curriculum.
When dealing with topics involving race or others where the adults don’t agree (e.g., social justice, emotionally charged current events, systemic racism), it’s critical to establish equity of voice, set ground rules for continued discussions, and define microaggressions in order to develop a school-wide culture of inclusivity that is free from harm for all. The term microaggressions often refers to both intentional and unintentional verbal, behavioral, and environmental insults perpetrated against people of color.
It’s important to note that microaggressions are not just about race. Dr. Derald Wing Sue wrote in his paper on the subject, “While microaggressions are generally discussed from the perspective of race and racism, any marginalized group in our society may become targets: people of color, women, LGBT persons, those with disabilities, religious minorities, and so on.”
Try using circle practice to provide structure for difficult conversations between educators. To make a safe and inclusive environment for staff, these are some of the transformational norms and agreements I encourage school leaders to model and implement with their staffs during circles:
1. Everyone participates. This does not mean that everyone will speak, but it does mean that everyone will look and pay attention to whoever is speaking.
2. Don’t require people of color on staff to share their traumatic experiences or lead the work. Instead, provide us the opportunities to contribute according to our comfort levels, and be mindful not to tokenize us. Consider bringing in experts who have checked their own biases and who have valid DEI expertise—regarding research, methodology, and facilitation.
3. Speak from the heart, and be open to feedback. Staff members are encouraged to speak their truth respectfully. They will also need to be open to receiving feedback when their perspective needs to change because it limits students and thus causes harm to them and other colleagues.
4. Listen from the heart. Staff members are encouraged to listen to their colleagues without allowing their personal views to write them off completely. This will be difficult, but the structure and norms will allow for constructive feedback and dialogue to occur over time, which will cause some people to eventually change their limiting beliefs (implicit biases) that harm students.
5. What is shared in the circle stays in the circle. Often staff members do not express themselves for fear of how their words may land, or they lack the confidence to advocate for themselves or others. By everyone agreeing to leave what’s shared in the circle, trust is established over time.
Curating Antiracist Resources
To keep these conversations going, educators must commit to continuous growth (individually and collectively) and also to working with students. This requires excellent resources along with structure for their use.
These should include videos, how-to blogs, published research, and replicable activities for the classroom and teacher professional development.
Before undertaking antiracist work with students, the adults will need to do their homework. We can’t be the lead teachers on DEI issues and learn alongside the kids. We need to be deeply informed about the systemic structures and barriers that have marginalized the folks we are trying to empathize with—along with the effects (data) of the inequities and trauma caused.
A simple structure like the text-based seminar or circle practice, along with tweaks to the abovementioned norms and shared agreements, works well for small and grade-level PLCs doing professional development. Here are readings and resources covering multiple contexts.
- Addressing Anti-Asian Racism With Students: Tips for talking about anti-Asian violence and racial equity, with ways to begin the conversation in classrooms.
- #31DaysIBPOC: Indigenous, Black, and People of Color (IBPOC) controlling our own narratives.
- Disrupting Your Texts: Why Simply Including Diverse Voices Is Not Enough by Tricia Ebarvia.
- Teaching Materials on Antisemitism and Racism from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- 9 Resources for Teaching Anti-Racism by Jerry Fingal and Samantha Mack.
- A Guide to Equity and Antiracism for Educators by Hedreich Nichols.
- More resources can be found at this link.