Tampa, Florida — People naturally walk in circles when they’re lost. That’s the finding of researchers who conducted several experiments: One group trekked through the middle of a forest, another group hiked across the Sahara Desert, and others were instructed to walk blindfolded for 60 feet. No matter the scenario, the results were strikingly similar, Gyasi Ross, father, essayist, speaker, activist, and lawyer, outlined to more than 2,000 rapt attendees in his session at the 28th NAIS People of Color Conference, December 3–5. The evidence shows that continual visual cues are crucial to point the way forward.
Today, we appear to be spinning in circles as pernicious cycles of discrimination, injustice, and violence ravage communities across the globe. Yet in the midst of despair, there are moments of hope. Each year, PoCC is such a moment.
This year at PoCC, we all saw a bright visual cue when three NAIS leaders, Board Chair Katherine Dinh, Interim President Donna Orem, and Vice President for Equity and Justice Caroline Blackwell, shared the stage with more than 20 heads of color at NAIS member schools — and honored the heads’ achievement and service. The panoramic snapshot sparked huge buzz on social media.
Cues, or guideposts, can take many forms. Here I share 10 additional guideposts — for individuals, schools, and communities — that I spotted at PoCC.
Guideposts for Individuals
An awareness of our hidden biases. We all have unconscious attitudes that we bring to situations, particularly when we face crucial decisions like hiring and voting. We must uncover our biases and then take practical steps to counter them, explained Mahzarin Banaji, coauthor of the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Consider her example of a man who found a creative way to handle his unconscious attitudes during freewheeling conversations in meetings. He sketches a picture of the group and writes each person’s name at his or her place around the table. During the meeting, he jots down a few notes next to the name of the person speaking.
Now, instead of automatically attributing ideas he likes to individuals he likes, “he is able to give credit where credit is due,” Banaji said. Humans have an innate desire to learn and improve, she told attendees. Banaji offers a tool for all of us to understand our biases at implicit.harvard.edu.
An acknowledgment of the deep hurt of discrimination, racism, and injustice. People of color report that racial microaggressions and discrimination take a toll on their physical and mental well-being, said Howard Stevenson, author of Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a Difference. “We tend to avoid or overreact to face-to-face racial conflicts,” Stevenson said, adding that the legal dismantling of racism won’t heal people’s trauma. Moving forward requires racial literacy, which begins when individuals share their personal stories about race. In his session, he asked us to “tell the person next to you what you heard about race in your childhood.”
A desire to draw out the unique gifts that lie within each one of us. Teachers and mentors can be valuable guides, but students and mentees must have the will to contribute their talents. Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, told us about such an experience while she was teaching. A boy diagnosed with autism was isolating himself in the corner of the classroom, not speaking to classmates or to her. After she took an interest in him and taught him her craft, he asked to deliver a poem he wrote to the class — and received a standing ovation from everyone.
Guideposts for Schools
An intentional, nurturing approach when recruiting and retaining young faculty of color. When recruiting, it’s vital to “target and build relationships with local colleges, be honest with candidates, and don’t assume that people of color want to do diversity work.” These recommendations come from Brandon Jacobs of The Hill School (Pennsylvania) and Ashley Bradley of The Baldwin School (Pennsylvania), who conducted interviews with several young faculty of color.
When it comes to retention, Jacobs and Bradley recommended that “a school prove its dedication to diversity through committees, professional development, its strategic plan, curriculum, and student groups; establish and support faculty of color groups; and support professional and personal development” for faculty of color. All their interview participants cited the importance of mentoring.
A new institutional paradigm that results from asking critical questions. Marin Horizon School (California) developed a unique “framework for institutions.” It’s designed to push beyond an “exclusive community” and “symbolic change” toward “analytic change” of critical thinking and “structural change” of executing, according to the school’s presenters Stevie Lee, Angela Evans, and Beth Anderson. Having a diversity director in name only and a diversity committee without a clear mission or funding are examples of change that is merely symbolic, they noted.
At Marin Horizon School, critical thinking on inclusion and equity began by everyone asking investigative questions, including the following:
- “What pictures are on the walls of your public spaces?”
- “How do you refer to families?”
- “What lesson plans do you describe or feature in open houses?”
- “What holidays do you honor or ignore?”
- “What do your calendar priorities speak to?”
- “Who is on what committee?”
- “What experiences/traditions/events cause students to be reminded that they are different?”
Presenters also pointed to several actions Marin Horizon School has taken, including “empowering the diversity director; retooling events such as class parties, parent presentations, and school-wide brochures; and conducting a curriculum analysis and innovating.” The new paradigm is helping the school on its “path to authentic and productive inclusion and equity.”
An immersion model to attain cultural proficiency. Unlike typical one-day workshops, immersion programs require being steeped in diversity and cultural proficiency work for a sustained period of time, said Lewis Bryant and Ross Clark of Buckingham Browne & Nichols School (Massachusetts). They cited Peggy McIntosh’s SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) as an example.
BB&N has developed a multifaceted immersion model. For example, some faculty have formed a monthly book club; after reading part of a diversity book, participants come with a question and highlight something new they’ve learned. In addition, faculty can take part in summer institutes and the White Privilege Conference. They can design a freshman seminar focusing on cultural proficiency. Also, they can join the school’s cultural proficiency think tank.
Student immersion activities include holding four community-building assemblies and sharing personal stories. Some students can work with a local Boston group to learn how to facilitate discussions on diversity issues. All of BB&N’s immersion initiatives were borne out of survey data collected from the school’s stakeholders.
Guideposts for Schools and Communities
A push for girls and students of color to pursue careers in STEM. “We’re operating with one-third of the potential in the workforce,” said Mae Jamison, the world’s first woman of color to go into space. This needs to change, she added, because professionals in the STEM fields determine the topics we cover, the data sets we use and discard, the national and global problems we solve, and the order in which we solve them. In a warning sign, research shows that females report feeling the most discouraged from choosing STEM careers by their college professors, Jamison said.
A comprehensive understanding of history. We have to embrace all of history, the good and the bad, Ross said. This means exposing “the skeletons,” including the injustice toward Native Americans, and it means having meaningful discussions about history. “You can choose to acknowledge its importance, or you can wait until it shows up at your doorstep,” Ross said as he alluded to recent events at the University of Missouri. “How do we make history a tool of liberation in our schools?” he asked us to consider.
A design-thinking template to engage in difficult conversations about race. As discussed in one session, design thinking is outlined in four steps: explore, identify, generate, and learn. We explore by empathizing with others’ stories. Then we identify key issues and reframe with “How might we...?” Next we brainstorm answers to the question and suspend judgment. Then we learn and iterate toward improvement.
Presenters Paul Kim and Tom Thorpe from Colorado Academy (Colorado) shared an example of a key question: “How might schools and educators bring more voices into conversations about racism, privilege, and oppression?” Colorado Academy decided the answer was to screen the documentary “I’m Not Racist…Am I?” about how the next generation is going to confront racism. In these discussions, the group observed community norms adapted from NAIS. They include:
- Be fully present.
- Lean into discomfort.
- Assume positive intent from all speakers.
- Use the “I” perspective.
- Take risks, be raggedy, make some mistakes – then let go.
As the facilitator in the documentary put it after a teenager got emotional and ran out of the room, “It’s OK to leave the room, but you must come back in.”
The presenters said that since Colorado Academy has engaged in these conversations, the school feels like “a radically different place … in terms of race and racism.”
Guidepost for Individuals, Schools, and Communities
Ongoing conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The importance of continual conversations among individuals and within schools and communities echoed throughout the conference. To that end, I invite you to share your reflections from PoCC and what your school is doing to address inequity.
We must be persistent warriors to keep walking on the path toward equity and inclusion in our schools and communities. Educators, onward!
For more coverage of PoCC, visit my blog on NAIS Connect.