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Empowering Educators: A Critically Important Racial Equity Convening AU Antiracist Research and Policy Center hosts virtual racial equity in education event

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Jason Reynolds

Last week, American University's Antiracist Research and Policy Center (ARPC) hosted Empowering Educators: A Convening on Racial Equity in Education, sponsored by First Book and Pizza Hut. More than 13,000 educators, librarians, and parents registered for the virtual event, which was designed to support teaching professionals in having effective, courageous conversations with their students about race and social justice.

The convening was really three events in one, beginning with a discussion and announcement of the release of the Empowering Educator Guidebook for teachers, the first in a series of resources informed by leading anti-bias and antiracism experts including Tiffany Jewell, Britt Hawthorne, Liz Kleinrock, Cornelius Minor, and Christine Platt, interim managing director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center. The ARPC is a collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of International Service.  

The keynote speaker was Jason Reynolds, award-winning author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The convening ended with a conversation between AU scholars Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy and Amanda Taylor about the importance of antiracist teaching and the hard work of dismantling institutional racism.

Malini Ranganathan, ARPC's interim faculty director, said that one highlight of the event was when Reynolds spoke about the need for courage and honesty, no matter how difficult the conversation; he said that we need to be "more accountable to our futures than to our feelings." This was poignant for Ranganathan, who also applauded Reynolds for referring to librarians as "rebels" and "revolutionaries" because librarians know, more than anyone else, that people don't have to agree with books calling for antiracism for them to exist. 

An Empowering Partnership

The Empowering Educators series idea originated from a 2019 survey of educators registered with First Book, a non-profit organization that has distributed more than 185 million books since 1992 to schools serving children from low-income communities. The survey revealed that more than half of all educators wanted to learn more about how to proactively engage their students in conversations about racial equity.

First Book responded by teaming up with Pizza Hut to create the Empowering Educator resources to help teachers have these discussions in the most knowledgeable, courageous ways. The free, downloadable guidebook is just the first in a comprehensive set of resources that will include instructional teaching videos, other pedagogical materials, and low-cost companion books for students.

Practical and Actionable Guidance

In the first session, Platt sat down with Julye Williams, founder of Project 2043 and Liz Kleinrock, the winner of Teaching Tolerance's 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching. They discussed the guidebook, the integration of antiracist and anti-bias content into curricula, and the “inner work” of understanding one own’s personal biases before having discussions about racism and social justice. “When you are talking about race, especially when you're talking to students about race, it’s incredibly important to take the time to reflect on your own experience with race before you do,” said Williams.

The fifty-page guidebook leads with the inner work, guiding users through the process of understanding the history of race and racism, as well as their own biases. History is critical to students’ understanding of how we got to where we are today, says Williams, and how we can take different steps going forward.

The second part of the guidebook focuses on the outer work of creating inquiry-based lesson plans, creating an inclusive classroom culture, and using literature to guide classroom conversation and give students an opportunity to “see” into the lives of others.

Keynote: Teaching Humanity with Jason Reynolds

Platt and Reynolds then “sat down” for a lively virtual conversation about children and how they can (and should) learn about race and history. Reynolds writes novels and poetry for young adult and middle-grade audiences. He is the New York Times best-selling author of All American Boys, the Track series, Long Way Down, For Everyone, and Miles Morales-Spiderman. His novel Ghost was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature, and As Brave As You was the winner of the 2016 Kirkus Prize, the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teen, and the 2017 Schneider Family Book Award.

Platt is a prolific and award-winning author known for using storytelling as a tool for social change. She has written more than two dozen books that center on educating readers on the history of race and racism and eradicating injustices through the power of literature.

Their conversation began by recognizing how educators have unique opportunities (and responsibilities) to impact student lives. Reynolds called for honest conversations with children about race. “If we’re going to talk about the Civil War, let’s really talk about the Civil War,” he said. “All I'm asking is for educators to make sure they're equipped with the information to unpack it and to actually give it true life. You know, Alfred Hitchcock has a famous quote that says a face is not a face if I don't put light on it. You have to change and expose the true face of who we are as a country. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Reynolds agreed about doing the “inner work” before talking to children, but also noted that educators themselves should be learning from their students all the time. “Education is a conversation,” he said. “You are teaching, but also learning about students, their stories, their backgrounds. Every student in a classroom has a different story that you know nothing about. You can be learning every time.”

Platt pointed out the importance of teaching children about race when they are young—before “lots of unlearning” needs to be done. Reynolds agreed, saying that we must teach children about things that make many people uncomfortable, like race and sex. “We don’t teach them and give them the tools early. We don’t give them the information they need—like they are just supposed to understand all of this.”

Finally, Reynolds acknowledged that talking about race can be very uncomfortable. But it’s necessary. “Lead with children in mind. Throw yourself into the fire every day,” he said.

Amanda Taylor and Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy

The event ended with a conversation between School of Education Dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy and Amanda Taylor, assistant director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Holcomb-McCoy and Taylor, who both worked in classrooms early in their careers, focused the talk on their current work at AU to develop institutional strategies, policies, and structures surrounding racial equity, so that the weight of this work doesn't fall exclusively on classroom teachers.

“We know how powerful classroom teachers are,” Taylor said. “I think the magic happens in the classroom…How do we recognize there's all kinds of structures,policies, practices that are informing the classroom context, and how do we work at all of those levels to make sure that we're really kind of doing systematic work? That's another way that we're trying to move at AU through a broader plan.”

Holcomb-McCoy described antiracism as a mind shift, a completely different way of looking at the world. Under her leadership, AU’s School of Education has stopped to listen to its students — our nation’s future educators — and in doing so, has shifted its thinking about training teachers. One example is that the school is moving away from focusing the curriculum on “whiteness” and instead is working to center it around authors who are talking about critical race theory and Afro-centric pedagogy.

“It takes institutional will from our faculty, our staff, and the School of Ed to see that shift,” she said. “It's changing how we think about our work and our practice.”

Taylor and Holcomb-McCoy acknowledged the challenges of the work ahead, in confronting the personal biases and systematic policies that reward some students and constrain others. They also spoke about antiracist teachers who are ready to move forward in antiracist work, but may not have the support of school leaders. We must do the hard work to change this at a system-wide level, they said.

“It's really exciting work,” said Holcomb-McCoy. “And although this summer has been tough, I'm really hopeful that we're in a different place in education where we are bringing more people to the table. I think I was telling Christine [Platt], like, a thousand or so people are ready to have a talk about antiracism when you said 20 years ago it might have been perceived as negative. And now here we are having a conversation. And we can say black lives matter and people are coming to the table to talk about it. I'm encouraged but there's a lot of work to do.”