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7 Steps To Raising Confident Black Children

Acclaimed lawyer and talk show host Laura Coates touched all of our hearts with her frustrations over raising her children to be proud of their blackness. Before she even broke into tears, I was right there with her. My wife Kendra and I are raising 3 children; 12 and 10-year-old daughters and a 3-year-old son. From school choice and television intake to food choices and music consumption, we have had a several experiences of successes and missteps that I feel may help parents raise confident black children in this new millennium. I hope you find them instructive. 

  1. Curate their music

When I was an elementary school teacher, I became increasingly frustrated with parents who would drop their children off with the vilest songs playing in their car , and unedited on top of that. I am also a rapper and spoken word artist. Hip-hop is the soundtrack of my life. With that said, I cannot imagine letting my children listen to songs, hip-hop or otherwise, that have vulgarity. My children listen to songs from Kendrick Lamar & JAY Z to Taylor Swift & Lou (French teen pop artist) but they are songs we choose for them that are positive and contain no vulgarity. Kendra & I introduce new music to them.

I am not naïve. I know that at 12 and 10, our daughters are hearing other music from their friends but since they have been fortified with positive songs or even just fun dance songs, they actually find the more vulgar songs to be offensive and degrading. If we started them off with all the music out there that I listen to as an adult, we would be raising them to think it’s OK to use that vulgar language or see themselves as bitches and that was unacceptable for us. So yes parents, this may mean you’re playing Biggie’s “The 10 Crack Commandments” on the way to get your kids but switching to Elmo’s alphabet song or something from Alicia Keys when they get in the car!

  1. Curate their television

One of several mistakes we made with my daughters is allowing them to watch all the Disney films with white princess and other television shows without context. It was easy for my daughter when she was 2 to say she’s not a princess because all she saw was not only white princesses on television (pre Princess & The Frog) but white princesses with the purest of names to highlight their beauty such asSnow White, Belle (“beautiful” in French), Sleeping Beauty, and so on. When we started to “go in” on reprogramming, we let our kids watch all of the same shows but asked them questions like “Why don’t you see any black people?” or “Why are the black men acting like idiots?” Other questions included “Why are there no black fathers in this show?” and “Why are the blonde-haired women always silly?” This helped our daughters develop critical thinking skills and now, they tell us about the problems in the shows they see without our even asking.

In addition to using television to build their critical thinking skills, we did the extra work needed to bring black cartoons into the home such as Teddy P. Brainsand The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. Since Princess & The Frog, there have been many other television shows and movies portraying black people positively such as KC Undercoverand The Black Panther. I speak to those shows particularly because they show women in roles of strength as opposed to a male-dependent princess and there is a presence of fathers. Again, you have to be intentional about doing this work. My oldest daughter now calls us Queen Mother & Baba and is obsessed with Wakanda because she grew up seeing her identity as an African American celebrated in our household and then it was validated on the big screen. This also helps them being in majority white schools all of their lives. They feel validated in who they are. We intentionally sent them to private, majority white schools because we wanted them to be confident at a young age that they could compete with people of every background, but we make sure we takethem to school before they goto school by making sure they know their culture!

  1. Be intentional with your language

This is adjacent to music point. Our children are going to think they are what societies tell them they are and that includes you. If you are using terms like “nigga” or “bitch” all the time, and even calling our children these terms and others, your children will become what they think wethink they are. We live in a society that actively works to denigrate our children every single day. Why have them experience the same thing at home? Our children need to see their parents in healthy relationships. They need to be able to see their parents argue without condescending and demeaning each other. If they see or hear you refer to each other in demeaning ways or even witness physical abuse, they may internalize this in their own relationships

  1. Give them names that mean something

This is not a Bill Cosby rant about made up names. Never that. What I am suggesting is that whatever name you give your children, make sure it is grounded in something. Whether it’s an African name like Lumumba, naming your child Katherine after NASA’s Katherine Johnson, or naming your child Laquita after your grandmother, make sure your children know something positive about the history of their names. My seventh grade year was a turning point for me. I was depressed and suicidal. The main thing that turned me around was finally listening to all of the stories about black history that my parents were trying to teach me. It made me not want to embarrass my ancestors. Once I understood the origins of my name and learned my history, my entire trajectory changed. 

The same school I was held back in in the seventh grade was the same school I graduated from as a member of the National Honor Society once I knew my history. Knowing my history gave me something to be grounded in while living in a society that told me I was less than white people. The names our children are given should be the starting point of that journey towards positive self-esteem. If we do not start them with a positive conception of self, how can we expect anyone else to?

  1. Create a strong diet

To the best of your ability, introduce healthy foods and water to your children. I understand that some of us live in food desserts where healthy foods are hard to find or food swamps where junk food is abundant. That may mean that you may need to grocery shop in the places you work if the food options are better. If we are serious about building community and one person has a car on your block, maybe you can organize trips to the supermarket and cover gas. If you live in an area where this is not a challenge and you still allow your children to consume an unhealthy diet, you have to understand that malnutrition does not only manifest itself physically.

There is a correlation between diet and disciplinary issues in our children today and you need to be mindful of that. If you have a stove and a refrigerator, you can boil your own water like my family did as a child and then chill it. Of course, this does not speak to areas in severe crisis such as Flint, Michigan, but the main point is that we have to use whatever resources possible to aid our children in eating healthy foods. Some of the fast food restaurants in our neighborhoods do indeed have salads as an option, for example, but even still we choose the items that are not beneficial to their overall health. We must do better.

  1. Monitor (or ban outright) social media & Internet usage

I have spoken to thousands of students in America and across the globe. I have spoken in many K-5 schools where students have proudly told me they have Facebook pages! There is nothing positive that can occur from a 10 year old having an unmonitored social media page. Our daughters have friends with social media pages, but they have no interest in having a page at such a young age. Youshould be the one to teach your children how to use social media and the Internet or take them to the library where they can get assistance if you cannot aid them. Lastly, many parents I know do not use kid-friendly versions of search engines like YouTube Kids. Our children are more susceptible to click-bait than we are and so we have to be mindful on how exposed they can be to negative influences online. 

  1. Go beyond Wakanda

The blockbuster movie The Black Pantherimpacted our community in ways that we could not foresee. So many black children were inspired by that movie. When I was a child, we were tormented because of our African identity. Groups like Public Enemy & X Clan made it cool to be African temporarily but African kids (even American born ones like me with no accent) still get tormented just because of our names. The Black Panthermovie opened up an entire new generation to the beauty of the African continent. We as parents cannot let these affects be temporary. Many children have an interest African stories now.

 Currently, my children are watching Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ Africa’s Great Civilizationsdocumentary series on PBS. They are watching it now not as some boring parental assignment. They are seeing themselves in the stories and The Black Panthermovie is part of that. We should not lose the gains from this movie so make sure you are finding as many ways possible to bring their history into their lives. There are many free resources that can be used just from our phones but if we only use our phones for frivolous entertainment and negative news stories, we are losing a vital opportunity to educate our children beyond the school doors.

The time is now!

If you find yourself proficient in most of the seven steps here, pick the one that challenges you the most and work vigorously on making the necessary changes. Our children are worth the effort. All of us will have challenges raising our children as it relates to their positive identity development. In my 12 year old daughter’s summer camp, she said to her classmates “My name is Ngolela. To call me anything different will be disrespectful.” I do not know what the future holds, but today she is grounded in her identity. At that age, I let everyone disrespect my history and call me “O” just so I can fit in and my performance in school and society overall reflected that. I was lost and acted accordingly. We need to teach our children that they were never meant to blend in. They are meant to stand out. We have to be intentional in our efforts to keep them grounded in their culture so that they can grow up knowing that they were validated at birth. If we can do that for our children, that will be more valuable than anything we could physically leave to them. Godspeed.

The Problem With White Allies And Anti-Racist Education

I have worked in the field of cultural competency, diversity education, and teaching black & brown boys for decades. Every seven years or so, there is new terminology that develops that seeks to better encapsulate the work that so many of us are passionately engaged in on a daily basis. From cultural competency and culturally relevant education to inclusive curriculum and implicit bias, we find ourselves regularly creating new terms that best represent what we do. This is also the case in other spaces such as the corporate, government, and entertainment worlds. Two terms that have gained steam in recent years are “white allies” and “anti-racist education.” While I have used the term “anti-racist” education as recently as this year, I have never felt comfortable with the term and something never rubbed me the right way about the term “white allies” so I will start there.

The term “white allies” has come to define the need for white people to speak up more and directly challenge the racism that exists in America that is specifically expressed by other white people. There is this philosophy that some white people only will receive words that can change their racist views from other white people. I have never believed that but the bigger issue is that the way we insist on the need for “White allies” comes off as if we’re begging for a savior and this is problematic for several reasons, which can indirectly reinforce notions of white supremacy. As Derrick Bell said: “Our actions are not likely to lead to transcendent change and may indeed, despite our best efforts, be of more help to the system we despise than to the victims of that system whom we are trying to help.” To counter this, we should heed the words of Dr. Maya Angelou.

Dr. Angelou is quoted as saying “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” To me, this quotation means that the mentalities of the “ally” creates a belief that white people are somehow above black people and need to descend down from some perch to help us. White people should be actively engaged in finding an end to racism and white supremacy because their fellow human beings are suffering. An “ally” is almost like a sports fan. An ally can come to the “game” so to speak, cheer on the people on the court (black & brown folks) and then go home until they’re called on again. I know this is an over simplification but the main point is that I am seeing a certain level of arrogance developing in the “white ally” movement that is frustrating. I, for example, am not gay but I am not going to call myself an ally to the LGBTQIA community because people in the LGBTQIA are my human brothers and sisters. I’m not going to go somewhere, challenge some people, and then go home to watch my favorite tv show (with possible anti-gay themes but that’s a story for another day). I am actively engaged in the struggle for LGBTQIA rights because it’s the human thing to do, not because “they” need me. The terminology must change, which leads me to anti-racism.

The University of Calgary defines anti-racism as “the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.” There are other working definitions but I will use for now. I am committed to doing this and that will never change. The words of Mother Theresa, however, ring in my head whenever I hear this terms. Mother Theresa said she would never attend an anti-war rally, only a pro-peace rally. This is extremely important in the era of President Donald Trump. Everyone is caught up in what they are against that we often forget what we are fighting for. Language matters. I now believe in using terms such as “pro-equity” or “pro-equality” education. Again, this may seem like semantics to some but there is serious energy in the language we use and the intentionality of our work.

Several of my colleagues find themselves getting fatigued and frustrated in our line of work. I include myself on that list. Sometimes we are so caught up in the negative that our work risks getting compromised. In order to keep ourselves motivated and focused we need to change our language. We need to refocus our efforts and our energy because there is only going to be more work to do. Human beings working for equity and equality for all is much more powerful than the need for white allies to help with anti-racist education. We need all hands on deck in this movement but we need all hands in, not handouts.

 

Elevating the Black Male: Strategies to become a more culturally competent teacher

As I look back at my days as a Boston Public Schools student, and as I look at the multitudes of black male students still being excluded from the educational process today, I’m left to believe that we are dealing with nothing short of a tragic epidemic. As a seventh grader in the early 1990s, I remember a white male teacher dragging me to the office telling me: “Do you think I’m gonna put up with your s_ _ _ all year you f_ _ _ _ _’ punk?” Fast forward to 2009 and I’m speaking to a black female principal in DC. She sees one of her students from a distance and says: “He’s really gonna make a great prisoner one day.” Here we have 2 different cities, over 20 years apart, 2 different races, and 2 different genders, but one overwhelming similarity—low expectations towards black male students.

My belief is that if you develop strategies to reach your black males, you learn techniques to reach all of your students. Below are some strategies that will assist you in improving not only the participation of your black males who may be struggling, but ultimately give you a diverse range of tools to pull from in order to make for a dynamic teaching experience for all of your students!

Have high expectations for all of your students and communicate them. Many teachers fail to communicate that they expect all students to succeed in class. By default, there are students who are going to feel as if they cannot succeed. Whether it’s by their placement in the back of the class, their watching the same students get chosen to speak, or even the different levels of discipline for different students, your message will be communicated one way or the other. If you truly believe everyone can succeed, show them!

Increase your knowledge about their history. One game I play when I conduct my trainings is asking teachers to name 10 black male famous athletes, actors, and musicians. In less than 30 seconds, we have the answers. However, when asked to name 10 famous black male (living) doctors, scientists, or authors, the list often is never completed. If you widen your knowledge of black male success, you will not only develop a better picture of what is possible for your students, but you will also help them craft an image of themselves that is greater than what society tells them they can be. What you know is what you’ll show!

Utilize a wide range of equitable practices in order to involve all students. Rather than calling on the same students, utilize random calling popsicle sticks drawn from a cup so every student knows they could be called upon at any time. Students are more likely to be prepared if they believe they’ll actually be asked to participate. You can also have random grouping so students do not get comfortable with the same students. Lastly, remember that every student does not always learn solely by written exams. Develop additional ways that students can present their knowledge be it through oral presentations, musical interpretations, or group projects. Much of these practices can be found in books like The Skillful Teacher by Saphier, et al.

If you make a dedicated effort to utilize the steps above and just have a mindset that, as Donna Graves states, there’s not an achievement gap but a teaching gap, you will turn yourself into a teacher with the ability to incorporate not only your black male students, but all students irrespective of race, creed, color, gender, or religion! Teach on!

5 Ways To Reach Black & Latino Marginalized Students In Private & Public Schools

I was recently asked by The Atlantic Magazine to share my thoughts on what it means to black at elite public high schools given not only my work as a diversity consultant, but also as a graduate of an elite public high school—Boston Latin School. Contributing to this article allowed me to reflect on how schools  can reach the  most marginalized students in both our public and private schools because in many cases, the only difference in these institutions as it relates students feeling marginalized is the tuition. Therefore I would like to share 5 steps that educators and school leaders can adapt in order to be more inclusive to all students.

1. Create Free Spaces
Principals and teachers need to realize that it’s not about creating “safe spaces” but rather “free spaces” for their students. Too often, black and Latino students feel the burden of representing their entire race and have to deal with the notions that they are either at the school because of financial aid or to play sports. If principals and teachers become culturally competent then they, for example, will not have to point to the Black or Latino student when issues of race come up because the teacher will be able to provide an informed opinion on her own. So rather than saying “Jamal, what do you think about what Johnny said about the #blacklivesmatter movement?” a culturally competent teacher creating a free space would say: “There are many different perspectives on the #blacklivesmatter movement even within the black community and so we should not assume every black person agrees with your statement Johnny.” After the teacher says that, the teacher should NOT turn to Jamal for his response. Let black and Latino students be as free to participate or not participate in topics as every white student. I teach at American University and I have had several gay students who are extremely vocal on many issues but silent when we get to topics affecting the gay community. I never call on them in class because I know they are used to being the “representative” in class and it’s not fair to them. Some do speak and some do not but it is their choice.

2. Diversify Your Curriculum
It is important to diversify staff (see point 4) but it is equally important to diversify curriculum. Take Black History Month for example. It is so sad that many schools have not learned to go beyond basic black history: Slavery, fast forward (maybe) to Harriet Tubman, then on to Dr. King and now President Obama (for those schools whose leadership is not biased against him*). Some schools of course may put up posters during their particular heritage month. This again makes students of color feel like they are being tolerated with boxes to check off regarding the curriculum rather than celebrated. The history of black and Latino culture has to be woven into the curriculum. It is indeed OK to talk about Fredrick Douglass in March, Dr. King in November, and Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor in April. Beyond the curriculum, school staff need to look at their library books and the pictures they have on the walls. I went and spoke at a very elite, majority white private school in Connecticut called Pomfret and was pleasantly surprised to see posters of leaders like JFK next to posters of Malcolm X and Che Guevara in a classroom. The discussions that must go on in those classes are likely to be more holistic. At Sidwell Friends in Washington DC where I have also done work, there are elective classes such as Black Liberation and issues facing the African continent. The Black Liberation class is taught by 2 women, one black and one white and there are several non-black students in the class. Even if black and Latino students decide not to get heavily engaged in classes like this, it can be comforting for them to see that these options do exist and having a white teacher shows that it’s not just a “Black thing.”

3. Invest in authentic professional development.
School leaders have to actively offer professional development opportunities and at the very least, diversify the literature their teachers read. If authors like Gloria Ladson Billings, Linda Darling Hammond, Alfred Tatum, Geneva Gay, Glenn Singleton, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and others are not on their bookshelves (and assigned), then schools are only offering lip service on diversity & inclusion.

4. Staff has to represent the student body.
I do not care what the politics are of teachers of color. What matters is that students of all races see teachers and leaders of color in their schools. A black or Latino student needs to be able to see that science teacher who looks like them and say “If she can do it, I can do it.” The white student also needs to see that so he can see it as normal for blacks and Latinos to have higher education. Part of the reason why many schools I go to have no diversity in staff or leadership is because the leaders never saw that diversity when they were students so they resort to only have Black and Latino staff who are building services or athletic coaches because that is all they knew.

5. Have a solid and publicized diversity mission statement
When I walk into some schools, I am often impressed by those school that have their statement on diversity front and center for all to see. Doing this shows that the school is committed to being held accountable for its actions on diversity. This instantly makes the school more welcoming to the black and Latino student as well as the parents. I have spoken to so many parents of color who feel completely disengaged from their school and do not feel empowered to voice their thoughts on issues so they resolve to stay silent as long as their children get that coveted diploma. Schools thus lose out by not having these parents engaged. Some (I repeat some) black and Latino students may have parents or guardians working multiple jobs who are not able to be as engaged as the parents with nannies or a stay at home parent so the schools need to do more outreach to keep those parents engaged.

Adopting these five steps may not be easy but taking these steps are indeed worth it if school leaders and teachers want to truly create a climate where everyone believes that they belong. A parent once told me that her school could always get another black “kid from the ‘hood” to fill its quota so she never felt her school really cared about them. Is this what we want? I do not think so. If schools really believe that they are creating students with a global perspective, it is necessary that the student body and staff represent the globe not just in body, but in curriculum and commitment to ensuring that every student has the ability to reach the highest potential possible. That can only happen not from tolerating diversity, but leveraging it.

What 100 Texas teachers taught me about diversity & inclusion

Recently I had the honor of conducting an all-day professional development training on diversity and cultural competency for about 100 educators in the Houston Independent Schools District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas and the 7th largest school district in the nation. There were teachers from Thomas Middle School, led by the dynamic and powerful Khalilah Campbell and teachers from Sugar Grove Academy where “Failure is not an option, option, OPTION” for any child. Sugar Grove is lead by the fiery Lynett Hookfin. I say “fiery” because one of the stories that Ms. Campbell shared that demonstrated Ms. Hookfin’s love and fearlessness in working with students would put “Crazy Joe” from “Lean On Me” to shame! The entire day was just a reminder of why I love doing work in Texas, but there were two things that stood out throughout the day.

The first thing that really impressed me was the way in which these teachers enthusiastically engaged in conversations and exercises on the issue of creating culturally competent schools, particularly for struggling black and Hispanic males. While it is obvious that everyone may not have agreed with every single word I said (which leads to great conversation), they were willing to engage in deep reflection on the challenges their students face in schools, as well as the challenges they face as teachers too. Some staff even became emotional as they were asked to recount issues of discrimination or racism that they may have experienced in order to better understand the challenges their students may face in feeling marginalized. This portion of the day helped me realize that these educators are truly passionate about taking all of their students to the next level. As much as I hate to say it, I have been in sessions where the commitment to every child was not evident so this was truly a refresher!

The second thing that I really loved was that the teachers at these two great schools were willing to share their own success stories. Sometimes during my travels, I find that some schools (or even some teachers within the same school) want to guard their secrets to success in order to keep them looking better than other schools or other teachers in their districts. Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin made it very clear to their staff that every child everywhere matters and that we are all in this together. Because of that, I often felt like I was only working with one school and there were no competing interests that were sabotaging the process. This mindset is key for school districts working to improve success for all students and not a select few but this has to start from the leadership of the school.

Being willing to explore your own history of challenges you faced growing up with discrimination (or witnessing it) and being able to share success strategies with your colleagues are among the many steps needed towards building a culturally competent school. If your school or district does not engage in critical self-reflection, delving into issues of cultural competency will just be treated like any other subject that a teacher is not passionate about teaching but does anyway because she is told to. We need to go deeper as educators committed to a solid future for all students and not the chosen few. Sharing successful strategies with your colleagues helps kill the notion of us fighting for pieces of a small pie because by default, we’ll be making a bigger pie for all to comfortably eat off of.

This was my fourth year doing work with HISD. I am very confident that with great leaders like Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin, Thomas Middle School and Sugar Grove Academy will be able to meet their bold goals. Their efforts and, more importantly, their passion are contagious and make the job of their staff who are committed to this work very easy. All our students ask for are caring teachers and a caring community where they believe their culture and history matter. I commend all schools and school leaders who are on a mission to create that community because failure really isn’t an option, option, OPTION!