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.