We do not live in a post-racial society. Ask your elementary school kids.
Sometimes I read news articles or blog posts that refer to America as becoming a post-racial society. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, we elected a black man as our president four years ago, but that does not mean we live in a world that is void of racial preference, discrimination and prejudice.
And I am not just talking about relations between blacks and whites. There are racial tensions between any number of groups in America (and abroad), and these tensions will never ease until we DO something about getting to know each other and seeing each other as human beings instead of as stereotypes.
My daughters attend a public school where there are as many Hispanic and black students as white students. During meetings of the Parent Advisory Committee over the past year, it came up that some of the children were occasionally calling each other names with racial undertones. Not often, not frequently, but every now and then. THIS is the point of intervention.
These are some of the youngest members of our society, and there is no doubt that when elementary school kids are making racial remarks, it is because they have learned it at home. So, what did the school do?
Did the administrators shrug their shoulders and say, well we can’t change what happens at home? Nope.
Did the school say, okay, we will talk to the children about it, but there isn’t much we can do about the parents? Nope.
Instead, the school has begun hosting a program for the parents of students called Courageous Conversations. It is a powerful way to effect change.
The school’s principal, Kate Ellison, told me, “We held the first Courageous Conversations in the fall of last year. There were specific topics that people signed up for–such as Inclusion, Language, Blacks and Latin America. They could only attend one of the sessions, due to time constraints, and the sessions were more presentation-oriented. About 60 people came.”
The feedback was that parents wished they could go to each of the sessions, so when the second Courageous Conversations event was held last spring, there was a more global format. In the days leading up to the event, the school aggressively marketed the program. Signs were posted, each home was called, and emails were sent.
The school advertised that it would provide free childcare (it was held on a Thursday evening so that working parents would have a better chance of attending). The school also provided a pizza dinner to attendees. This time, about 125 adults attended.
After an introductory presentation about racial tensions in America, the leader explained the guidelines to all of us, including:
- Listen respectfully (not planning your own response, but just listening) to each person.
- “Tell YOUR story and speak YOUR truth; do not tell what happened to your neighbor or your friend. Avoid using “we” or “they”; use “I” and speak specifically.
- For people to feel safe participating in these kinds of conversations, confidentiality is very important. Do not leave here tonight and repeat others’ stories or words.
- Allow each person a chance to speak. Let there be a moment of silence if someone needs to gather his or her thoughts.
- This can be difficult, but try to stay engaged.
- There are NO experts here; we are all on the journey toward racial healing.
Then we were divided into random small groups and moved into classrooms to have discussions. Each classroom had a moderator and a Spanish translator. Within the classroom, we broke into even smaller groups of 6-10 people that sat around and talked.
We each received a piece of paper with the guidelines mentioned above written down, as well as the following three questions, which were used to loosely structure the conversation:
- Each person is asked to introduce him/herself. Tell your name, grade(s) your kids are in, and your racial or ethnic background. Tell one thing about your upbringing/history that affects how you respond to other races or ethnic groups.
- Within the context of being a parent at this school, (which happens to be very diverse) please tell how/when do I feel included? How/when do I feel excluded? What is the difference between events when I feel included and when I don’t?
- Hearing what other people just said in response to the last question, did anything surprise you? What could this school community do to make ALL people feel included more of the time?
Within my small group of 6, we were indeed very diverse, with parents who were black, white, Latino, gay, straight, Jewish and Christian, with various levels of completed education. So it was amazing to hear the frank and honest comments about the stereotypes that people harbor and how they want to break them down. I am so glad I went!
Principal Ellison enthused that, “The feedback is that the parents want to do more of this. People loved it. We are reading the evaluation forms, taking the information to the parent advisory committee, and seeing what we can do to incorporate suggestions. The biggest goal is the bridging of relationships.”
Ellison pointed out that the kids get these types of conversations all the time at school with programs such as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and Second Step and Steps to Respect, but the parents don’t get the same opportunities.
She observed, “We think the adults need to talk about and own these ideas first.”
I couldn’t agree more. Let’s get talking.
And so, last night, I attended the third Courageous Conversations at the school. During my small group breakout, we had a very rich and honest discussion. Within our small group, we were very diverse: white, black, Hispanic, Christian, Jewish, parents, teachers, etc. We had a beautiful discussion about our feelings and our experiences. Everyone at the table commented how they feel more included at this school than they have ever felt anywhere. It doesn't surprise me, because a school that decides to hold Courageous Conversations is clearly a place that cares about making feel included.
As October, which is National Bullying Prevention Month, comes to a close, it is a great time to think about what the schools in your community can do year-round to create a welcoming environment. Maybe you can initiate a Courageous Conversation!
Carrie Goldman is the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. (Harper Collins, 2012).