Experts share best practices to address racial injustice and promote equity in schools
Insights and free resources from students, educators, and counseling professionals about facilitating productive conversations about race.
Over the past few months, our team at The Social Institute (TSI) has been hearing from schools nationwide looking to address the recent injustices in our country with students, faculty, and families in constructive, thoughtful ways.
We’ve held weekly 60-minute Zoom brainstorms with student leaders who are inspired about what they’re seeing on social media. We’ve huddled with counselors who are meeting 1:1 with angered students. We’ve hosted a widely-attended PD webinar series featuring diversity & inclusion experts and alumni leaders from our partner schools who are championing positive change.
From these rich conversations, we’ve unlocked three key insights that can help your community sustain these difficult, yet necessary conversations about racial disparity and equity as you head back to school in the fall (and beyond). Let’s dive in.
Insight #1: Classrooms are the ideal place to address racial injustice
During our conversations with students and educators, many acknowledged the collective desire to bring these conversations into the classroom — that simply having these conversations at home is not enough.
Kharynton Beggs, a webinar panelist and one of TSI’s summer interns, shared, “Part of the issue is that we don’t often talk about racial injustice in schools, which is when students are the most malleable. That’s when educators should expose us to these concepts, so we can form our own opinions in a safe and supportive space.”
According to a recent EdWeek article, students are demanding that schools embed anti-racist curriculum into core classes such as science, literature, and history. Schools are also leaning into advisory or seminar to allow for synchronous, interactive discussion community-wide. What matters most is that by dedicating time to it, school leaders signal that it’s a priority.
On Change.org, a platform dedicated to taking action and sparking change, nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition asking public school boards to incorporate racism education into school curriculums. During TSI’s latest PD webinar, panelist Chastity Rodriquez, Upper School Counselor at our partner school Kingswood Oxford School in Connecticut, doubled-down on this point and added: “Schools have a sacred obligation to address this topic. This is life-changing and world-changing work. If we don’t provide room for these important conversations, we are just complicit oppressors.”
Our first insight is rooted in the need to create a school environment that allows students to have open and honest discussions about race. Once this happens, students can begin to become informed change-makers and positive influences.
The majority of 5th-12th graders (97%) would consider or have already taken steps to support others during this time.
Insight #2: Face our fears of being uncomfortable
One of the most essential parts of having a healthy and constructive conversation about race is the willingness to ask questions. However, we’ve heard from both students and educators that there is a fear of saying the wrong thing when we’re huddled together in a 10-person advisory or 25-person history class.
One of our TSI student ambassadors shared, “I’m typically willing to talk about a lot of things, but this is one of the few topics that I always tense up about. It makes me nervous. I feel like if I phrase something incorrectly it will be interpreted the wrong way, even if I had good intentions.” This fear of saying the wrong thing can lead to passivity or inaction, which are the antidotes to positive change.
The latest #WinAtSocial lesson shows that the majority of 5th-12th graders (76%) are either somewhat or very comfortable talking with others about racial injustice and equity.
Student mentors offered advice to younger students, and even adults, sharing how if people ever correct you for how you said something, take the corrections graciously and avoid shutting down mentally. As educators, we cannot let students’ fear of being corrected overtake the end-goal of understanding where others are coming from.
One of TSI’s student ambassadors shared a great example of this when they described a recent story: “During #BlackOutTuesday on Instagram, I saw a lot of people being corrected for using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. It was cool to see how the person who got corrected simply changed their caption and said ‘thank you’ to the corrector. They didn’t take the correction personally.”
Another TSI summer intern shared, “Asking questions is another way for students to generate a healthy dialogue about race and become better informed. My friends have asked me ‘What can I do to be better?’ and ‘How can I make you more comfortable?’ I think these questions are important because I’ve never been asked them before. It made the conversation invaluable.”
Earlier this month, The Social Institute’s partner schools ran our #WinAtSocial LIVE lesson about identifying healthy ways to address racial injustice and promote equity. Results from the lesson show that the majority of 5th-12th graders (76%) are either somewhat or very comfortable talking with others about racial injustice and equity. Also, a striking 97% of 5th-12th grade students say they would consider or have already taken action to support others during this time.
While students may feel relatively comfortable talking about racial injustice and equity, the most constructive conversations about this topic are dependent on the facilitator creating a safe and supportive space. So, let’s talk facilitation.
Insight #3: Educators need training and a safe space to be “messy”
During TSI’s webinar, it was clear educators across the country want to empower students during today’s intense climate, but might not know-how.
“Teachers need a safe place to go and be messy and learn. My heart goes out to our teachers who are suddenly expected to be skilled at race literacy and race relations. That’s not easy,” says Rodriquez.
One student recalled how her most memorable teacher admitted how the conversation wasn’t going to be easy. “My teacher shared at the beginning of our discussion, ‘This is an uncomfortable topic, so sit in that uncomfortable-ness and ask questions if you have them’. Honestly, it was one of the best classes I’ve ever had. She did a great job of structuring the conversation without telling us what to think,” shared Kharynton.
Many students and educators echoed that we have to preface a conversation and let students know that the conversation will likely be uncomfortable, and discomfort is okay. “If you’re going to jump into an uncomfortable topic, you have to acknowledge it’s going to be uncomfortable at the beginning. You can’t just jump in and jump out quickly because the room will get tense,” said one TSI student ambassador.
Students also recommended that teachers acknowledge that they do not have all the answers and that they have things to learn as well. One 11th-grader shared, “The teachers are always seen as the adults with all the answers. What students might forget is that teachers are just like us. They don’t have all the answers either, and they might be just as confused or uncomfortable as we are.”
Educating ourselves is a powerful step in the right direction, and there are many books, podcasts, and curriculums that we can leverage.
During TSI’s recent webinar, our panelists applauded the following resources to help students, educators, and parents address racial disparity and promote equity:
#WinAtSocial LIVE (gamified, student-led SEL lessons)
“Stamped” by Jason Reynolds (for students)
“Raising White Kids” by Jennifer Harvey (for parents)
Zinn Education Project (for educators)
We can also lean on resources already available within our schools, including a counselor or a colleague passionate about Diversity & Inclusion. You can also encourage your school to outsource workshops and training for your faculty. Educators must receive the necessary training to lead students through these conversations.
Change requires a long-game strategy and short-term wins.
Race conversations cannot end when protests stop. They cannot end when the world is “back to normal.” We must lean into these three insights to embed equity (and discussions about it) into our communities and classrooms.
Candyce Owens, the Dean of Students at our partner school Gaston Day in North Carolina shared, “You can come at this conversation from many different angles. For example, you can spotlight art and music that are rich in culture, and then you can address the history and problems of the time while easing the tension.”
Inspired by these conversations, this spring, with the help of a diverse and talented group of students and researchers across the country, The Social Institute launched a real-time, student-led lesson dedicated to addressing racial injustice. It has received positive feedback from both students and adults, and we are eager to help schools continue this conversation into the 2020-2021 school year and beyond. We look forward to providing schools with year-round, real-time SEL lessons dedicated to this important topic, and we hope our lessons can be one of the many tools your school deploys to have healthy conversations about race, racial disparity, and equity.
As one student thoughtfully shared, “These are the conversations that will transform our society for the collective benefit. They will allow us to be more mindful about how our actions and rhetoric influence the emotions and actions of others.”
Our team at The Social Institute stands for inclusion. We are listening and we are learning. We believe black lives matter, and we look forward to continuing this important conversation to help students, parents, and educators create and sustain positive change in our world.
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About The Social Institute
The Social Institute partners with schools nationwide to empower students, parents, and educators to navigate social-emotional health, social media, and technology positively through comprehensive, gamified lessons that meet students on their level. We have partnered with forward-thinking institutions across the nation, including Ravenscroft School, Gaston Day School, Miss Porter’s School, Gilman School, Woodward Academy, U.S. Olympic athletes, Duke Men’s Basketball, ESPN, and others. For more information, contact us.