Take A Selfie for Racial Justice: Thoughts to Spur Reflection and Action

As an African American alumnus of an independent school, I’m compelled to look at what is happening in our world today through many lenses, but the thoughts that have taken shape in my head keep coming back to the lens of what independent school leaders can do to help make sure that the black and brown constituents in their care can breathe. While lists of resources serve a needed purpose, I want to offer something else: three strands of connected thoughts that I hope will spur your thinking and action in a new way or two. 

The Mother Teresa Standard

As I witness the current unrest sparked by the brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, my mind keeps coming back to what’s becoming my go-to reminder from Mother Teresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, not letting his knee off of Floyd’s neck despite his plea for mercy, he didn’t believe, or (at best) he forgot, that Floyd and he belonged to each other. And that malignant disregard for belonging was the final spark that set off a chain reaction. As Floyd’s last breaths were being squeezed out, he searched to find to whom he did belong. I imagine that, as a saving grace, he thought to himself in some way, “who belongs to me enough to save me from this?” He cried out “Mama.” 

When someone tells you “I can’t breathe,” it’s the ultimate cry for your help. That heart-wrenching plea is easily heard by people who understand that they belong to the person losing breath. But it is as easily ignored by people who either forgot or never believed in that belonging. This is an opportunity for school leaders to think deeply about what belonging to each other means at-large and within your school community. I’m talking about the kind of “when you feel pain, I hurt; when you feel joy, I smile” belonging, going beyond the “let’s assure that everybody participates in the trip to Italy” kind of belonging that we might be more apt to take on within our schools. It’s a “If I hurt you, I hurt everyone, including myself” kind of belonging.

I’ve come to think of it as the Mother Teresa Standard.

Chauvin and the other three officers fell far short of it, tragically and despicably. And the resulting assault on peace was the inevitable next domino to fall.

This line from Daniel Caesar’s song “Best Part” makes me think about the message that black and brown children in our schools need to hear from you right now: “I just wanna see how beautiful you are; you know that I see it, I know you’re a star.” 

How can you get this message across to them all the time, but especially at a time of such turmoil and threat, anxiety and doubt, fear and anger, when they’re feeling like they can’t breathe and they’re seeing the breath squeezed out of people who could have easily been them or their brother or sister, uncle or aunt or cousin, mother or father? When they feel like too many who control the machinery of this society don’t care about letting up off their necks? When they feel like there’s no Mother Teresa Standard of belonging that unequivocally, unconditionally includes them? 

A Thought Exercise

To help reach the Mother Teresa Standard, aggressively consider your actual, lived starting point on the belonging spectrum––not your aspirational or make-believe starting point. One way to begin is for school leaders to use Chauvin’s act as a provocative symbol for a thought exercise. Think about these four things; these are intended to be provocative, not accusatory. Keep an open mind:
Whose necks are you kneeling on?  If “nobody’s” is your answer, how do you know? In what ways do your actions, systems, or beliefs constrict other’s ability to breathe, particularly black and brown students, staff, and adults?

When black and brown people can’t breathe, can they tell you? How, when, where?  When they keep hearing that “this is not the right way to protest,” what are they supposed to do? Do you only allow their expression on your own terms? 

If they told you they can’t breathe, would you hear them? Can you make their priority your priority? What noise blocks you from hearing their pleas? What’s more important to you in the moment than listening to them?

If you heard them, what would you do? Offer thoughts and prayers that they’ll find strength to get through it? Ignore them and keep pressing? Let up and move toward recovery and healing?
If these are tough conversations to have, so be it. If these are difficult reflections to spend time thinking through, OK. If you can’t honestly self-assess your position on these questions, ask others what they think and talk about it––but be willing to just listen without defensiveness. How does your self-assessment on these points match those of your leadership team, students, faculty, staff, and others? Is what you believe about these things in step with or completely different from how others view them? Make time for the dialogue that enables you to see something that you couldn’t see before; make time to act on realities that didn’t get enough action before; and make time to gauge the gap between your reality and the Mother Teresa Standard of belongingness from a place of truth, not blindness or myopia. 

Change in Independent Schools

My last provocative notion: Take a step back from trying to solve racism. It might be too heavy a lift. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about race or racism. Teaching racism—what it is, how to spot it, how to combat it—is critically important in creating just societies, and you have access to many resources to help advance that effort. But solving the macro-level problem can feel frustratingly unwinnable. Witness that even with more than 400 years of seeking the vaccine to that plague in this country alone, its complete eradication is still far out of reach. Instead, how about we break that big boulder down into smaller pieces? How about you solve for the things that can lead to anti-racism? I’m no expert in this area of sociology, psychology, or DEI practice, but it seems to me that as school leaders, you can at least look for the daily affronts to the Mother Teresa Standard and call them out. If solving racism is too big, think about the ways that you can:
  • solve for belonging over alienation.
  • solve for kindness over cruelty.
  • solve for generosity over selfishness.
  • solve for oneness over division.
You can show teachers, staff, and parents what these things look and feel like in big and small ways every single day. But please, please, please pay special attention to people who tell you they can’t breathe when the systems and behaviors crushing down on them reek of alienation, cruelty, selfishness, or division. These pathogens flourish when they are ignored, tolerated, or encouraged. Simply put: Don’t tolerate mindsets or behaviors that are not aligned with belonging, kindness, generosity, and oneness. And over time, the Mother Teresa Standard within your school community takes stronger and stronger root. And who knows where it can spread from there.

Need some examples of what not tolerating unacceptable behavior looks like?  Look to this police officer in Florida or this football coach at Oregon State University. You do it when kids cut school or cheat on tests. What about when they damage another’s psyche or self-esteem, or when they disparage someone’s heritage, skin tone, or otherwise forget that we belong to each other?
In her TEDxRainier talk, Megan Ming Francis, an associate professor at the University of Washington, points out that “the story of police brutality and killings of unarmed blacks is not a story about black people; it’s a story about all of us.” While it is something that disproportionately happens to black people, it’s not just about black people; it implicates all of us. We should all feel the pain of that brutality and collectively fight against all the ways it manifests to disrupt the Mother Teresa Standard.

In whatever way you choose to stand with those fighting right now for systemic fairness, justice, and accountability in policing and criminal justice in your community at large, don’t forget to turn the camera on yourself.

Yes, take a selfie. A different kind of selfie.

Use this as an opportunity to reflect about your systems for fairness, justice, and accountability. Find where your system has faults or gaps––intended or unintended––and correct what’s wrong. Listen when you hear the breath being squeezed out of some child, parent, or colleague you’re supposed to serve and protect as a leader of your school community. Act quickly and boldly when the anti-racist virtues of belonging, kindness, generosity, and oneness are compromised or violated. Maybe it’s too hard to fix the world, but it should be easier to fix your school. And it should be even easier when you stay rooted in the Mother Teresa Standard that we all belong to each other. 
I believe that what happens in independent schools can change the world; one of them changed mine. But what happens in our schools can also keep so much about the world the same. What do you want to change, and what do you want to keep the same to live the Mother Teresa Standard?
Mark J. Mitchell

Mark J. Mitchell is vice president at NAIS.