One of the things I’ve found most difficult as a social justice educator is engaging my coworkers in conversations about anti-bias topics. So in preparation for this school year, I compiled a reading list for new and returning staff on topics relevant to the students we serve—majority black and Latino youth who experience poverty and homelessness. Many of them have parents who are or have been incarcerated. The resources on the list address topics ranging from the prison industrial complex, to drug use, to redlining, to specific biographies and autobiographies that serve as “mirrors” for our students. Books on the list include:
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander discusses how the prison industrial complex systematically targets people of color, leading to black and brown people being disproportionally incarcerated.
- Blowout! & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice by Mario T. Garica and Sal Castro traces Chicano students’ participation in 1968 school walkouts in Los Angeles—part of their struggle for fair schooling.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson follows three black citizens’ migration to western and northern parts of the country to escape the Jim Crow South.
- High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery that Challenges Everything You know Drugs and Society by Carl Hart is an autobiographical account of growing up in a neighborhood with prevalent drug use and provides an introduction to the science behind addictions.
With this list in hand, my coworkers—who are mostly college students—have told me that they don’t have time for additional reading. Even when I bring in short articles on similar topics, they brush them aside. I’ll read this later. I’d love to learn more about this, but I don’t have the time. I know this is important, but with school and everything I just don’t know when I’ll get to it.
Putting off discussing the issues that affect our students—indefinitely—leads to silences. Somehow, as a staff, we’ve managed not to speak a single word about Ferguson, despite having one of our former students arrested earlier this year on a weapons charge after being profiled by a parent at his high school. (The parent believed he had drugs on him; no drugs were found.) We’ve managed not to speak about the gentrification of the neighborhood in which we work, or the fact that two-thirds of our students have had a parent in jail. We don’t talk about housing as a human right although a third of our students experience homelessness in any particular year, or the fact that our city’s homeless population has exploded as rent prices have risen.
In addition to avoiding crucial topics, I find myself frequently speaking up against my colleagues’ biases. I tell them that it’s not okay for us to analyze how students dress or to whisper to one another a question about a person’s gender identity or expression. I’ve talked about and modeled inclusionary language when addressing and referring to gender non-conforming students and caregivers. I’ve also gently reminded my colleagues of the destructive qualities of the “r-word” and of calling something lame.
At times, I find it difficult to keep bringing these issues up, to continue redirecting language. When I feel myself getting tired of doing all these things, I become frustrated. But getting angry with people is not productive. I’m still learning, too, and there are probably people in my life who are also frustrated that I’m just not getting it.
I try to allow myself the space—a day or two—to step back, to say to myself that this fight for reducing injustice, in whatever form, isn’t one I can make today. This space ensures that I don’t alienate people with my frustration or a lecture. It allows me to figure out new approaches—angles that might better reach someone. In the past, I’ve used parts of the Speak Up at School Guide to provide myself with support when I’m feeling silenced and unsure on how to move forward. Teaching Tolerance also provides the Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education: Teacher Leadership module, which I plan to use during our first in-service training day to increase awareness about biases.
I’m curious, what you do to help your coworkers learn more about anti-bias topics and the issues that affect the students you work with? What techniques or methods have worked best for you?
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.