Should I lead, facilitate, or get out of the way?
Expert is a term often thrown around in variety of professional circles. In education and edutwitter world “expert” implies a variety of things and often is tossed around rather freely and sometimes brings along with it some pretentious behavior. I believe many individuals (especially in edutwitter land) have self-designated expert labels almost as similar to the hearing someone of referring to themselves in third person. Now when discussing someone in education who might be an “expert” of a edtech tool or teaching strategy it can be somewhat easier to quantify or “show my work” similar to how one would earn a MAT, Ed.S, or Ed.D. However when we get into complex, multi-layered topics like racism, equity, or social justice who should be considered or labeled an expert or leader tends to become a little more tricky.
This past Sunday, I posed the following poll on Twitter. The results were interesting and the comments that followed even more intriguing.
When framing the question, I purposely used the verb lead. When one leads, it brings with it the connotation that a person has an extensive amount of experience, deep knowledge, understanding and expertise about a particular topic. So based on these 1000+ votes you would think that people of color should be leading most professional development sessions regarding racism in schools. Let’s just say our educational conferences, professional development sessions, and teacher speaking circuits, if this topic actually does get addressed, who commonly leads the conversation is not the demographic with the most votes in my Twitter poll.
Racism, equity, and social justice in education have been all the buzz in the world of edutwitter and even within our brick and mortar buildings. While many educators have a variety of breadth and depth with these topics, often I’ve noticed the ones who should be front and center are not always tapped for opportunities to share their expertise and wisdom. These topic are too serious to not require expertise. Why do conference organizers, school districts, and other event planners continue the charade of saying race and equity are important while rather clearly and publicly demonstrating otherwise? Below are a few examples of how this happens:
- Sessions related to race, equity, social justice and their presenters are asked to “rephrase” or “soften” their presentation for the comfort of attendees.
- Sessions which marginalized voices are leading/facilitating are placed in smaller rooms.
- Racism, equity, social justice are treated like a bowl of jelly beans. Those with decision making power regularly pick the colors and flavors (i.e. more comfortable framing of these topics) they want most often.
- Regularly inundating conference programs with fluff sessions led individual(s) who are notorious in education circles or have written books but are not necessarily relatable to or creditable with current practitioners.
- Sessions with marginalized voices discussing topics of race, equity, social justice are scheduled during particular (non-peak) times (early morning/last session) or even during the same time as others, creating conflicts for attendees.
- Constant behind the scenes “pick your brain” conversations, emails, direct messages with individuals of color that never see public light or are not properly credited to the person of color.
- Conferences offering little or no compensation for speakers color or still requiring full payment of conference/travel fees by presenters.
Recently, I worked hard to gather together a panel of six individuals who represented marginalized groups and wrote a proposal for a major educational conference. Our topic was anti-racism, social justice, and creating inclusive classroom learning experiences for all students. The manner in which our panel was handled by the organization was completely unprofessional (I will spare you the specific details). I know in my heart that our panel would not have been handled in this manner: if our session did not talk about anti-racism in the classroom or if our session was led by white individuals. I eventually decided to leverage my privilege and hold this organization accountable for their actions, instead of catering and bending over backwards (which many POC have to do to get included and invited to these spaces). I know the accountability and truth speaking done via email with event planners will not make me wildly popular with them and maybe other individuals connected to this organization, but anti-racism and equity work isn’t popular, liked, or lauded yet more of us speaking truth to power has to happen for change to occur.
I wish more white educators and event planners would become true accomplices within conference, social media, and professional development spaces and take a stand against the many overt and subtle ways whiteness helps racism and inequity thrive. Racism is not only a daunting, omnipresent, and omnipotent institution in our country but also includes individual and collective acts that encourage, force, and sometimes violently displace anything non-white from the center. As it relates to our educational professional development spaces, centering is the hardest part of anti-racist and racial equity based work for non-POC. I must truly divest from something so deeply ingrained within my personal being. Whiteness maintains such a powerful choke hold on mental and emotional mindsets in addition to having significant impact on our egos and navigation of most public spaces. Publicly removing this massive albatross of whiteness from around my own neck is never a one and done event and is full of setbacks, pitfalls, mistakes, and discomfort. It is always ongoing, if you are really about being anti-racist. Understand though, if you have difficulty receiving pushback, critique, and questions in regards to your knowledge, understanding, and lived experience with racism, are you really anti-racist? Should you be leading and facilitating sessions for others on racism and racial inequity if you are not truly anti-racist? The deep levels of humility and dramatic shift in personal power required to be accountable to others is huge as it relates to anti-racism and equity work.
“Accountability feels like an attack when you’re not ready to acknowledge how your behavior harms others” -Natalie Patterson
In addition to the defensiveness that ensues when being publicly held accountable by others, projection is just as harmful and alarming in regard to white educators being engaged in this work. Usage of projecting statements by some white educators (e.g. I have a Black friend, I have biracial children, I work in an urban school setting, my neighbor is Latinx, etc.) have become a hopeful means to send bat signals that I’m okay or a good white person for people of color to trust. Instead these statements totally miss the mark and actually send signals and red flags that you are more vested in whiteness and not as fully ready to publicly engage in anti-racist work as you might believe. Defensiveness and projections negatively impact my relationships and interactions with people of color, thus making me ill-equipped and ill-prepared to lead and facilitate others in an understanding and complete pursuit of an anti-racist way of life.
“They [white consultants] may not and perhaps are not prepared to acknowledge their limitations. This is not work where you can simply ‘train up’ your competency.” -Sherri Spelic
So who are experts in regards to racism, equity, and social justice in schools? Can white people really lead conversations on race and racism in schools? To be honest, experts are those whose lived experiences and perspectives have been and are continuing to be shaped by systemic and individual racism. They also publicly and consistently take action to disrupt both systemic and individual racism that harms, dehumanizes, penalizes, and stifles people of color. So, you’ve decided you want to facilitate sessions on race and you are white or you are a conference organizer who wants your event to be anti-racism, equity, and social justice minded? Here are a few suggestions for white educators/event organizers/conferences to demonstrate their commitment to and passion for anti-racism and equity work in educational professional development spaces:
- You must engage in anti-racism work personally first through unlearning and interrogating your own investment in whiteness and actively continue to do so.
- If you want to personally engage in this work you must have an inclusion rider and accountability partners.
- Make sure marginalized voices are amplified and included first as well as are safe when involved with sessions/conversations on racism, equity, social justice, and any other negative -isms.
- Make sure marginalized presenters are in large rooms and scheduled during peak conference times.
- Make sure instead of leading conversations or publishing writing on racism which usually re-centers whiteness and can paint racism as an arbitrary or fantasy big bad wolf that I am not complicit in, lead more uncomfortable conversations that are introspective, decenter self, and tackle white privilege or white fragility instead.
- Make sure if you want to engage in anti-racist professional development/conference facilitation/writing you always decenter whiteness. If you are white, you should never lead or facilitate a session on racism alone without a POC co-facilitator. An even better choice would be humbling yourself and having a non-white person lead and while you do the non-glamorous work of handling and shutting down any white fragility or discomfort from white audience members.
- If a person of color questions your intent or says what you are doing is problematic, IT IS! It is pretty difficult to reflect while you are still engaged in conversation with them so, instead be quiet, listen, reflect, apologize, then do better.
Let’s shift the needle on anti-racist work in our conference, social media, and professional development spaces too. Expertise is a matter of deep knowing but consistently doing quality work, with racism, social justice, and equity being no exception. It is okay to not be an expert in this arena because passing the mic and illuminating others is always free.