Episode 17: Opening the Shades — Confronting Systemic Racism
Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.
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Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.
I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.
Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest. I’m your host, Ken Bond. In this month’s episode, we, as the Department, are going to be looking at confronting systemic racism.
The episode starts off with an interview between Tonya Breland and George Guy, the principal in Cherry Hill. And then we end it with a conversation between myself and Dan Tulino.
These are difficult times for a lot of us. We’re confronted again and again with brutality, of murders of black men and women around the country. We’re trying to think about how we can make lasting change. And lots of folks are angry.
As we think about that anger, we’re also thinking about what we can do with it and how we can change systems of education and of society that are inequitable and that are biased.
So these two conversations will hopefully help you as you’re thinking through your own context and your own locus of control. And hopefully it will also add to the statewide conversation about making our state a better – a more equitable place.
As we jump in, I want to thank George, Tonya and Dan. They share deeply personal narratives, and I’m grateful that they trusted me with their stories.
George Guy, Cherry Hill Public Schools and Tonya Breland, New Jersey Department of Education
George: So I’m George Guy. I am the Principal of Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I also serve as the co-chair for our district’s cultural proficiency, equity and character education committee.
Tonya: I am Tonya Breland. I am the Director for the Office of Professional Learning at the Department of Education. I also lead a number of equity related initiatives.
I first want to start by just asking “how are you doing…through all of this?”
George: How am I doing professionally and how am I doing personally are the ways that I will probably try to answer that question.
Professionally, I’m in an environment in which a school district has already made a statement about George Floyd and, uh, is already working vigorously to try and put resources in the hands of our…of over a thousand staff members. And trying to reach out to all of our students, we have close to 11,500, but particularly our students of color.
We have been reaching out to our staff of color just as recently as today. We will be putting out employee assistance program information, uh, specifically to support staff of color.
As we look at things like racial battle fatigue and issues around, uh, systemic racism, that particularly people of color, with Ahmaud Arberyater in Kentucky with Breonna Taylor and some of the pieces that we saw in New York City and Central Park.
Folks, uh, professionally, here our staff and students have been struggling with those things. But I do experience some racial battle fatigue. But I feel like I’m in a good place with a lot of support systems within the school district. Colleagues and supervisors that understand, uh, systemic issues around race that are being dealt with not only within the police, but some of the systemic things that we deal with within a school system as well.
Personally, it’s a struggle. My most vivid memories of this in 1992 and Rodney King. But now I have an 18 and a 20 year old at home who are African-American males. Who are seeing these things firsthand with, uh, Avery Taylor and now Floyd. And seeing the protests.
So, I thought in 1992, after there was some resolution, supposed resolution around that, I wouldn’t have thought that I would be speaking to my 18 and 20 year old sons about the same things decades later.
So, I’m struggling with--with that, that I seem to be in Groundhog’s Day personally, over and over again, seeing some of the same things that we’ve seen. Even though I wasn’t alive in the sixties, but the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and now in 2020.
Tonya: Yeah, I know exactly what you—what you’re experiencing. I am 50 and I remember, um, the Rodney King situation and the riots that came as a result of that. And it’s really unfortunate that we continue to see situations where police brutality seems to disregard black lives.
You know, you use the term racial battle fatigue.
Tonya: I think that’s a really good word to describe a lot of what African Americans in this country would probably say they’re experiencing. And you know, as educators, I feel we have a responsibility to educate, as well as to support and provide resources.
As you navigate through the pressures of running a school, you know, first there’s the coronavirus. It’s still here. It hasn’t gone away.
At the same time, you know, you’re seeing these examples of systemic racism. And I’m sure that the coronavirus has probably brought to light some other inequities. And then we see these senseless murders that continue to happen.
You know, how are you navigating all of this?
George: With—with our students, what we’ve been trying to do is use the standards of instruction that we have from the state to be able to open up dialogue.
We’ve made some concerted efforts to try and use our curricular focus, especially last week and the beginning of this week. And we’ll continue through this week to use supplementary materials from Teaching Tolerance and other supplements to be able to get kids to talk specifically about race.
We’ve not been shy about using the language of allies and accomplices with our children. And when we talk with them about race, because we are predominantly a Caucasian school district, so that they understand some of these things that their classmates’ families are going through.
I’m glad that you brought up, you know, COVID-19, Tonya, because, especially from an African-American standpoint and our Latino brothers and sisters as well. When we talk about COVID-19 and the state has closed school since March the 18th, we’ve been adversely affected with both black and brown bodies, who have not only been ill, and many of which have recovered and we’re thankful for that. But many of which have passed. And I know that has hit my family personally, um, and it has hit many of our families personally.
We’ve already as a district worked, especially our high school. High School West has done some great things with restorative practices. Some of us have worked with trauma-informed education.
But now we’re looking at what ACEs…how ACEs, adverse childhood experiences, have increased with children. Because many of these children have been hit with the coronavirus, and their families, like my family has, there have been deaths that they’ve had to deal with. Many of their parents have been essential workers, and essential workers of low-paying jobs.
So how we do education, even in this remote environment, we’ve been very careful about, uh, how we’ve registered attendance. Because that can be a systemic issue.
We’ve tried to adjust when we’re talking with families and kids because 8:00 to 2:00, 9:00 to 3:00, families may not be available, and children may not be available if they’re supporting other kids within the household.
You—you talk about the issues, uh, that have been happening across our country that deal with systemic, uh, racial injustice from the police force, but you also deal with systemic health inequities, systemic unemployment inequities. And what is our role and responsibilities within that.
Those are the conversations that we have with our leadership teams and with our teacher leaders, so that we can be mindful when we are trying to do this thing called education, uh, that we’re taking all these things into consideration.
Tonya: I – I was sharing with my, um, my family just this past weekend, how difficult it’s been. Because it’s like the rage has been unleashed in a lot of people. And you know people are angry about the inequities, and they’re tired. And you know, like Fannie Lou Hamer said, they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.
And when we think about the rage against racist systems and racist people. And as educators we have to be very responsible in how we guide our staff and how we guide our students in addressing and responding.
You know, how do we help leverage that rage and use it as a catalyst for change?
George: Using scenarios of the current events, and not shying away from having those courageous conversations, like Glenn Singleton talks about in his book, that deal with talking with our kids about their racial identity.
I think many of our kids, especially between 11 and 14, are coming to grips, um, with the dominant race in this particular district and throughout our country, with – with their whiteness.
If we don’t open up the doors for those conversations, and predominantly that’s going to happen, most of our research shows that, um, our teaching force are middle-aged white women. If we don’t prepare those teachers to respond when rage, uh, happens, with children. Last week, this week. Uh, and it comes out in many different ways and we don’t have an answer for them. And I think that the answer can just be validating the anger, at times.
We talk with, uh, we have a coach proficiency in equity elementary and secondary group. And we met with them. We had, from their colleagues, who were people of color, male African-Americans, who were very frustrated. And they were able to say, as allies as accomplices, these white women, “I hear you and it’s wrong and it’s –it’s frustrating. And this is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna say it’s not right, it’s wrong, in my English, you know, in my ninth grade English class. In my tenth grade English class. In my eleventh grade US History 1 class.”
And just that validation from our staff to young people and to their families is enough for people to know that this is real.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on ESPN with Scott Van Pelt. And he said that racism is like dust. It’s all around us. You – we’re choking on it. But only when we go into a room and we open up the shades do we start to see where the dust actually is.
So when we validate that the dust is real, that what we’re choking on is real, even if you can’t see it. And then when we open the shades and see the light shining on the dust, we can certainly do some different things about quelling how it takes over that room. So that we can have healthy, clean air.
Teaching all of our children how to validate that the frustration that, particularly African-American males are having, that the frustrations that I have to have conversations with my two sons when they go out to drive about where their hands need to be on the steering wheel. What timbre of voice do they need to have with the police officer no matter what the circumstance. And if there are friends in the car, what those friends need to, uh, need to be able to say and do to be able to get out of that scenario alive.
If we can tell our children and our white colleagues to validate that, that is something real. If we can start to do that on a more whole scale level, um, and not run away from these conversations, not try to skirt around these conversations, not think that we’re going to be fired because we’re having these conversations, or that there will be some innate racial animus that will come to us because we’re having these sorts of conversations.
I think that’s a good beginning that we can do for our young people and for our staff as it related to trying to validate the inequities that people of color have been facing, and will…and will continue to face even after our conversation and beyond.
Tonya: I really like the dust analogy because it makes it relatable, that anybody can understand that.
When I listen to you talk about the conversations that you have with your sons. You know I have a 24-year old son who, you know, is out on his own and he lives in another state. And we’re constantly having conversations with him and –and—and with our daughter, who’s a little bit older. We’ve had, you know, similar conversations with her as well.
And I can tell you the fear that our, um, young black men in particular feel when they think about the police is real. And that is something that’s really hard as parents to have to deal with. It’s—it’s a burden that’s hard to unlift and…and to be free from until change happens.
I think some of that change comes about, you know, I’ve heard a number of experts and other allies say that it is not black peoples’ responsibility to solve racism because we didn’t create racism. And so it’s really important that our allies are there advocating and working towards helping create solutions around racism.
How do you promote allyship within your district? And how do you create environments where students feel comfortable stepping forward and saying “Yeah, I want to stand beside my black and brown brothers and sisters and support them, and help change the system that has created oppression for many of them?”
George: Within our school district we have coupled with the Anti-Defamation League. We’re closer to Philadelphia, so that’s the area in which we’ve partnered with. And specifically, Cherry High School West, being a “No Place for Hate” school has taken their peer leaders to “No Place for Hate” conferences at the anti-defamation league. And they have learned how to be allies and accomplices.
I think there’s a – there’s a difference between the whole ally and accomplice piece. The ally piece is more where they have—the peer leaders have been taught to kind of validate, which is what I talked about earlier, Tonya.
But the accomplice piece is more of, um, our white brothers and sisters doing more as it relates to getting into systemic racial issues and being more of a doer than just validating verbally.
We hope to spread that work because we have several “No Place for Hate” schools where we’re having a meeting and we’re gonna to be talking with how – how are with white accomplices who are moving kids, who historically have not been moved into those upper level classes.
And that comes from a focus that Cherry Hill Public Schools has that believes that, systemically, we need to be accomplices in this work. We can’t be gatekeepers to historically underserved students.
So, um, those are some of the things that we’re trying to accomplish. We wouldn’t want you all to believe at the NJDOE that—that we’re there. But I think that we’re in a position where COVID is forcing us to kind of not just reform what it is that we’re doing, but try to be more revolutionary.
Tonya: I know that it’s still a journey for you, but it sounds like your district is moving in the right direction towards helping students to feel like they can be comfortable and that they can be themselves, and they belong in a community.
And I kind of what to shift gears a little bit. You know, thinking about, you know we have over 56% of our student body who are students of color in the state of New Jersey, and yet there are less than 20% of teachers of color in the state of New Jersey.
I think about teachers of color who are currently trying to support students struggling right now with all that’s happening, with the coronavirus, all that’s happening with the social justice issues in our – in our country. And then I think about our, you know, our teachers who are not of color.
What are some ways that you might recommend districts across the state support teachers of color? And then help empower teachers who are not of color to be able to join in as accomplices, if you will?
George: Mmm hmmm. A goal within our district plan that deals with, not only recruitment but retention of teachers of color, the biggest question that we ask ourselves as a committee, is “what is it that we’re doing to be able to retain those teachers?” Because many of them are going to be experiencing social isolation where they are the only person of color.
One of the things that we have worked on in the past that we need to get back to, is we had gatherings every—twice a year, for staff members of color. And then those allies and accomplices who wanted to come and hear those voices of staff members of color.
Uh, we haven’t done it as much as we had done in the last decade. But when we did do it, we would have our own staff members. We would invite other surrounding districts. And we would fishbowl activities that deal with support systems and building up your support systems. And if a microaggression happens to you, like during the course of a day, who do you reach out to to vent at that time, because you may not have anyone within that building.
Those are some of the pieces that we need to be able to put back together. I think when we talk about our, uh, staff members who are not people of color, to be allies and accomplices, one of the things – we’re in our third year of working with elementary and secondary cultural proficiency and equity team leaders. And we have them at all nineteen of our schools in our elementary settings and in our secondary settings. And they meet six times a year with an outside consultant, her name is Dr. Barbara Moore Williams. An incredible, incredible resource for the district.
She has done modules with us that really deal with cultural competence. That really deal with inequities and equitable understandings of what we do with teacher leaders and building leaders.
And then in professional learning opportunities at our elementary, they have a specific space of professional learning every morning that these particular modules can be implemented.
So what I would say to districts is “You – you -- you’ve got to start somewhere.” If you don’t keep the conversation in front of you, like I keep the conversation in front of me -- in faculty meetings, in department meetings. We are constantly having the conversations. We’re weaving it in no matter what the circumstance.
And it’s not always racial inequities. Sometimes it’s access and opportunity inequities that we’ll be talking about. But we are – we are talking about equity in some form or another. If we are talking about budgets, which we’re all talking about right now, we are talking about inequities and what is that we’re gonna keep sacred as it relates to budget, to be able to support opportunity and access for, especially, historically underserved students and families who have already been beat down by coronavirus.
We don’t have it all together, but we certainly feel like we’ve asked enough questions about the struggles of inequity to be able to come up with some answers that – that – that make sense. But that is always evolving and changing. And believe that here in Cherry Hill Public Schools, we are a group of learners and that unlearning, we’re finding, is probably the hardest thing that we are – we are struggling with.
So I think you put the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to more interactions and more dialogues like this.
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Transition to Part 2
Ken: George and Tonya talked about allies and accomplices, and those are two terms that are important to think about as an educator. If we’re not people of color, or not from marginalized backgrounds, we need to think about how we can become an ally and accomplice.
Part of that’s unlearning. Part of that is relearning. And what I talked to Dan Tulino about in the next section, is about some of those lessons that we need to learn.
You’d be able to make a difference where we teach and where our lives happen.
Dan: My name is Dan Tulino. I am a dad, a husband, a father, a brother, son, an educator in many different spaces, currently in South Jersey. I work as an instructor at the College of Education at Rowan University. I serve as a Professor in Residence at West Deptford Middle School. And I also work with many districts in the region on equity councils and curriculum redevelopment teams.
Ken: So how-- how are you in these times and how are you processing through things?
Dan: Well, thank you for asking, Ken. It’s important for us to make sure that at all of our meetings we do exactly what you just did, is to check in with our people to se how they are doing. Because even showing up to work right now, for some folks, is it’s – it’s a challenge, you know.
For me, things have bene, you know, I’ve gotten used to some of that things that are happening, you know, the global things, the immediate things. I would say that the events with George Floyd and the other murders around the country, that of our – our black Americans have impacted me and my home greatly. My work greatly.
I think, my, you know, my wife is African American as are my children. And we have an older son who’s 25 and he’s [in] North Jersey. So we worry about him daily, and he’s called us with some every serious emotions that we kind of feel helpless to support him. Because, he’s, you know, he’s distant. But he’s been working through all this through the last few months. He’s an essential worker, so it’s been difficult, you know.
So anxiety is a real thing that people deal with. I’ve had some, but you know I’m thankful in general for my position in this world. I’m healthy. My family’s healthy. We’ve had, you know, one passing, um, of an uncle.
Um, but, you know, right now my main concern is my wife and my children and their well-being. And that’s real – it’s a daily thing right now.
So there are moments, uh, that have been less anxious than others. But also, you know, the work and my friends, a lot of my white friends not understanding what’s happening. So they’ve been reaching out to me a lot. So a lot of text messages and emails asking questions. Asking what to do.
And, um, it’s really engaging and it’s meaningful. Um, but it’s just a lot. But of course it’s so very important.
It’s a tough question to answer, Ken, but I think it’s a great question.
Ken: Thank – thank you for sharing. And – and I’m thinking about you a lot and, um, really appreciate the way that you support those around you.
You do a lot of work with white educators. So, what have those conversations been looking like around the – the police brutality that we’ve seen? The murders of – of black people?
Dan: Um, it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s been very individualized.
I have students on Twitter who’ve been reaching out and trying to understand how to critique systems and critique individuals, while also taking some sort of action.
Without being able to converse like this, like there’s a conversation where we talk and we build off one another. It’s been difficult to really articulate some of the things that over a course of a semester, or a year, or an internship, that you can do. But they are concerned and that was inspiring to me.
But that’s, you know, the good side of it.
There have been other situations where I’ve worked with educators, white educators, who absolutely do not know what it means to center someone else’s experience.
The word “but” comes up quite often in meetings after a black individual might share their experience with their feelings, and, um, which further marginalizes people. And I’ve heard that, uh, often this week in some meetings.
And it hurts to see that happen, um, because the end result is that we continue to uphold some of the systems that have been traditionally marginalizing people. Causing trauma. Not culturally sustaining people.
And then we sit on equity committees and we sit on climate and culture committees, and we try to do good, where sometimes we’re reinforcing some of the things that we see being protested.
So even right now there’s resistance to alleviating trauma in some of these situations and in some of these spaces.
Ken: Thank you for highlighting that. Next -- the next thing I want to talk about, is that -- I’ve heard multiple folks in the last week or so talk about the guilt that they feel and that recent events have exposed, related to their own privilege as white folks.
And also, you know, maybe even part of that is based on the biases that they have held and – and they’ve realized that they held, as they’ve been challenged on some of their beliefs.
How can educators turn those feelings of guilt, maybe even wrongdoing, how can they turn those feelings into action and-- and activism? Instead of just feeling guilty or maybe even sorry for themselves?
Dan: Yeah, I think you may have sat in on a meeting once with me, with Shelley Zion where this kind of came up. We were reading White Fragility and something like this came up.
And, uh, Shelley Zion, my advisor, she had an interesting point about, you know, Christianity. And many of – in this area, there’s many Christians. And, you know, oftentimes we – we sin and repent, and we move forward with a better course of action.
And I think that analogy is important to understand that it’s not about necessarily feeling guilty. It’s about reflecting on that guilt and being reflexive in our praxis.
So we go back to Freire, right? And the idea of the word praxis: action plus reflection, reflection plus action.
I really the think the most important thing educators can do is keep a reflective—a reflection journal. Um, whether it’s they’re a first-year teacher or they’re a twentieth year teacher. And reflect on the week, whether it’s two paragraphs for the week, or whether it’s a paragraph a day, or whatever.
But being reflective in our practice, because the guilt is not productive. We have to forgive ourselves of whatever it is that caused that guilt, but we have to move forward, otherwise we’re just going to continue to perpetuate that.
So what does that look like?
That looks like writing down our thoughts and our feelings. Working into and with and throughout those contradictions in our minds.
So if we don’t understand “Black lives matter,” instead of just saying, “I don’t understand ‘Black lives matter,’” write about what you don’t understand. And then, investigate the Black Lives Matter website. See what they’re doing. Sign up for their text messages and see all their calls to action.
You know, oftentimes, a lot of my white friends reach out to me and say “I never see ‘Black lives matter’ when this or that happens,” and I say, “Well, that’s because you haven’t signed up for their website. You haven’t signed up for their text messages. You’re not actually invested in what they’re about and what they’re doing.”
So I think you could take really easy steps. They have calls to action weekly with podcasts and webinars and resources that are sent out. And not just one thing they can do.
We as educators can look at our curriculum, our individual curriculum. We can look at the assignments we’re doing. Are we incorporating all of the perspectives of a certain time period?
Instead of watching certain shows, I mean Netflix and Amazon Prime alone has countless, endless, really well-vetted documentaries that we can watch for further information. We can look at other peoples’ bookshelves, right?
So one thing I like to do is send out pictures of bookshelves because until you audit your own bookshelf looking for other texts, having conversations with your family about what it really means to be racist or not racist.
I really think so much of this work is done on the individual level, but also maybe challenging our policies. So if you’re part of your association within a building, challenging some of the the – the rules in the school, as far as discipline’s concerned, as far as draft codes are concerned. Little things like that.
And then also listening to the people in our buildings who are of color: our black teachers, our black staff members. Listening to their perspective. Centering that perspective. Not saying “but.” And taking action on that perspective.
Now, so many of our policies and procedures that were written by people that continually marginalized others. So holding tight to these policies in our buildings, and holding tight in our districts to certain – certain policies that were never written with certain people in mind, and perspectives in mind and experiences in mind. We continue to further marginalize by holding on to the policy as the reason to not post the “Black lives matter” on our school property. Right?
If that’s the only reason why we’re not doing it, maybe we should listen to the perspective of the people being negatively impacted in our district, in our schools. Using that as our center, just for right now at least. Right? Seeing where that takes us.
And I know it might sound a little bit radical, and it might be unlawful in the eyes of some people, but I would also say there’s been plenty of laws in our country’s history, that unless they were challenged, would still be really terrible laws in our country right now.
So I think, as white educators, one thing I will offer is, “take some risks right now. Take some risks to step outside your own experience, your own centering of being, and take a risk to lose something, to sacrifice something of your own – your own power and see where that goes.” Right?
The one thing I would just say to anyone out there who is still just pushing back against black lives matter, is just to make it explicit that just because we’re centering black lives does not mean we’re against anyone else… we’re against anything else. It’s just that we need to center experiences.
And I do also bring this up often. Our native and indigenous people as well. That we just, if ever it’s a time to center these experiences, so when you see “black lives matter” hashtags, you see people who put that on their front lawns, or on their street, or wherever they’re posting it or saying it, that it’s not against anyone. It’s centering and supporting specific people.
Some of this is also difficult because all of us have been miseducated, regardless of our ethnic or racial makeup, our backgrounds. All of us in this country have been miseducated.
So I think it also needs to happen at the university level, in our, uh, education – our preservice education programs and our—our Masters programs and in our mentoring programs.
Like I know you’re working on some stuff mentoring, Ken, in our mentoring programs as well, it needs to be explicit in those programs.
I could tell you right now that I don’t know of education programs that every single person who goes through them reads Miseducation of the Negro or reads Souls of Black Folk.
I would say those are two crucial texts to becoming an educator – the educator we want out educators to be. That those would be two foundational texts that I know are not being read. Right?
We all cite Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky. And I love doing Vygotsky, right? But we don’t cite Du Bois and Woodson nearly as much as we cite them. And I wonder.. I know how much they impacted me as an educator and other educators that I know, whether they’re white, Filipino, black.
I know the people who’ve read those texts are very similar minded folks. And I wonder how much of that…so that’s a specific thing I think can be done in our education programs. But also making sure that we’re culture sustaining. We’re understanding the importance of pluralism in all of our decision-making.
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Ken: I want to again thank our guests, thank the organizations that they’re a part of and invite all of you to join me for the NJ Ed Partners Twitter chat on June 16 at 8:30 PM to talk about the subject.
We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.
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