Beyond Diversity in Grayslake 127 pt 1: Start With The Why

This will be the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on our experience with "Beyond Diversity,"  a two-day workshop based on Glenn Singleton's "Courageous Conversations about Race." 
I have posted my thoughts as a podcast, but I've included the transcript of my comments below.


This will be the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on our experience with "Beyond Diversity,"  a two-day workshop based on Glenn Singleton's "Courageous Conversations about Race."  In January, over 50 D127 teachers, counselors, social workers, coaches, and administrators attended the workshop that is "....designed to help leaders, educators, students, parents, administrators and community participants understand the impact of race on student learning and investigate the role that racism plays in institutionalizing academic achievement disparities." (Pacific Educational Group, 2020).

The selection of the group was intentional: all of our district and building administration participated, as well as our department chair administrators from both Grayslake North and Grayslake Central. As leaders who interact with a wide spectrum of our community, we must be the start of the change we want to see. Furthermore, staff members from our District Equity, Diversity and Inclusion team and coaching staff participated and provided critical perspectives. I'm very glad they were able to attend.

I'd like to first address the "why" we are interested in "Courageous Conversations" and Beyond Diversity in this post, then in further posts discuss the focus of the training itself, and finally reflect on the impact I believe it's had on members of our district. Most importantly, I want to address why it's so important for us to continue working and learning. A two day training isn't the end of it. More than ever, I see this as being a long process to change our system, and make sure we are not just focusing on equality (every student getting access the same resources), but being equitable as well (making sure every student has what they need to succeed and that's individual to each student)

This year, one of my mantras has been Simon Sinek's "Start With The Why" That is, people don't care what you do or how you do it, unless they know why you're doing it.  So, why did we do it? Why focus on race? Honestly, it's a lot easier not to talk about it. For me anyway. I'm a white male in a leadership position. Let's be honest: I can avoid these discussions probably indefinitely.

But that's not healthy. It's not healthy for me personally, but it's also not healthy for our schools. Just because I can sidestep these topics, that doesn't mean I'm serving our students, their families, and our staff well. It's an issue that we need to have tools to address, because these issues aren't going to go away by ignoring them.

I'd like to reflect on the message I sent in my opening statement to our staff in 2019:

"Our students (of color) may be looking at a wall we don’t see.  But just because something isn't right there on the surface, doesn't mean it's not something we need to continue to discuss and address. This is work that takes a long time and a commitment at all levels of the district. We need to be honest and confront these issues as we come across them......

We need to try to equip ourselves to help our students work through (these issues). We also need to have constructive conversations around equity and diversity of all kinds. This is not to say that we should ignore gender issues, issues of sexual orientation, issues around sexual identity, or religion, wealth, and ability level. 

Those are all extremely important conversations to have. Today I am focusing on our students of color because I think race is the stickiest of all of these issues. I think it's the one we have the hardest time talking about, and getting our heads around."

When we better understand  the lived experiences of our students in one way  - in this case we are focusing on race - it makes us more open to understanding the experiences of all of our students. There might be more going on under the surface than we realize from our limited perspective, and once you crack that, and once you can get yourself over that hurdle, you're more open to notice all forms of inequity and injustice.

In terms of our educational mission, students of color do not on average achieve at the same levels as our white students do. This is true both nationally and locally. This is not a secret. To paraphrase the words of Rick DuFour when he was talking about professional learning communities, it is our obligation to understand deeply 1) what we want our students to learn, 2) whether or not they've learned it, and 3) most importantly to this discussion, determine what to do if they haven't learned it. If groups of our students are struggling, it is our professional and moral responsibility to understand why, to learn more ourselves (and learn more about ourselves), and to actively work to change our system to address it. And again, WE are the system. It's not an anonymous set of policies and procdures - the system is human beings making decisions in real time. 

As human beings, we have to constantly ask ourselves: Are our students seen? Are their experiences understood and valued? Do they feel safe? Are ALL students learning, achieving, and prepared to launch their futures - as our Mission Statement demands.

We have to be able to talk to each other, and stop pretending that implicit biases don't affect our decisions. This is true for every single one of us. Once again, this isn't something that we can simply take care of with a handout, an assembly, with the perfect YouTube clip.

 It's about humility, self reflection, and being intentional about listening to voices that might otherwise be dismissed. It's about examining our own role in interrupting racism - whether it's overt and intended racism or, more subtly and more in my opinion more prevalently, the result of a lack of knowledge and opportunity for self reflection.

So back to the tools we need to move forward. It's more than a vocabulary list - or a list of words we should avoid. For example, if we have conversations that don't go as planned - if emotions become too heated, if we leave the conversation upset or experience non-closure - how do we proceed? Can two people in that situation ever return to that discussion? Does that shut off the relationship entirely? Doe it mean we can no longer understand each other or learn from one another? Does it mean we retreat to our corners and never try to come together? Can we never make a mistake?

We would never, ever, tell our students that. We are better than that. We have to be. We have too many good people in our district to believe any differently. We can tackle this. It's just going to take time.

If I've made mistakes in what I've said here - if my statements in any way have hit a wrong note or rely on assumptions that I've made because of my white male perspective - I apologize and I'm happy to be challenged and corrected. That's part of the process of learning and personal growth. I believe we have get to a place where we feel safe to express ourselves, or "speak your truth" as is one of the principles of "Courageous Conversations".

Next post: What are some of those principles? I'll discuss the general focus of the Beyond Diversity training, and how I believe it's one of our initial steps in the work that we have to do.