The Race Conversation

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By Kendall Wilson-Flippin, CCSSO Director of Equity Initiatives 

When we spend time at work, within the home, around our social circles, and among those unfamiliar, what do we notice about the faces surrounding us? Do they reflect the diversity and inclusion we claim to have a deep belief in when advancing educational equity and achieving systemic versus symbolic change? Is there ever a prescribed way or appropriate time to have the race conversation? Or to examine why one might affirm race doesn’t appear to be critical to how we live and move forward in a just, righteous and humane way?    

This work is deeply important to us at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). COVID-19 has shone a light on the unequivocal impacts on the racial, social, health and economic wellbeing of persons who are recipients of the education system we build, as well as those who serve to ensure it is equitable for ALL. And this moment — following the deaths of too many Black citizens, the injustices within the society we live in, and the ensuing calls for racial justice — has shown how much more lies ahead to dismantle institutional racism. The world is reminded of the reality racism creates: Society imprisons people of color with stereotypes, barriers and division on the basis of nothing but race. It underscores the imperative that we at CCSSO lead the tough work of addressing these issues for our country’s children.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion work underlies everything we do as an organization, and we made it an explicit priority in the last four years, both internally with our staff and with our state members. Our current equity work to support state chiefs, and the state education agencies they lead, has begun with fostering healthy conversations about race and racism. Through this effort, we have utilized the diverse voices of national experts to explore the unequivocal impact of unjust systems that plague vulnerable communities. These conversations inform our collective work in dismantling the systems that lead to disadvantage for our vulnerable populations. We are further supporting communities of practice in making a connection to the intersecting variables of marginalization that affect our understanding of the complexities around inequities and injustice.  

Another key part of our work in the last few months has been a series of webinars for CCSSO staff, chiefs, and employees at state education departments on: tools to develop emotional justice strategies to build sustainment in doing anti-racist work, equitable considerations and guidance in supporting K-12 education for ALL students, particularly through the lens of advocacy, while advocating and affirming the multiplicity of identities we serve in the education system.  Most recently, a pioneer in the field of racism in education, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, joined us to discuss racial equity and how states can lead on this work in education.  

Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and author of ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’, shared important racial equity ABCs:

  • Affirming identity to ensure people feel seen and don’t develop a sense there is something wrong with them, if and when they do not see themselves represented in a group. She reminded us all that we need to get in the habit of asking who is missing from the metaphorical group picture.
  • Building community to be intentional in ensuring no one is missing (thinking of who is included and who is not represented), which is directly related to affirming identity.
  • Cultivating leadership to prepare the next generation of leaders to be effective with populations other than our own (i.e., connecting, learning skills to be helpful of others) and thinking about what to ensure others are gaining; what they need to thrive in a multi-cultural society.

Dr. Tatum reminds us of the importance of self-care to sustain one’s self in this movement. If you make a lot of withdrawals you better make a lot of deposits, she says: If it works for your bank account, it can be applied to your emotional account. In our current climate we don’t need to settle in comfort, but be willing to pause, so we can continue purposefully advocating for a lasting change.  As we connect to our work, we must connect to the people impacted the most as a result of the decisions we make. Thus, Dr. Tatum says of the empathy gap, you need to really listen to the stories of people and do not make assumptions, but instead be open and respectful in your listening.  

I am a very proud alumna of Spelman College, and further proud to have been a student during Dr. Tatum’s tenure. I know firsthand the importance of having teachers and an institution that affirm your identity and provide supports in reaching your full potential and purpose, so you not only see what is within, but the world does too. I call us all to be reawakened by the lifechanging principles and skills that our earliest learners need to know, and our current leaders need to grow— the value of ABCs.

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