Schools Must Be Spaces for Equity Work

One cannot be transformed solely on an intellectual level; such learning is shallow. We must allow change that can mingle in our spirits and in our bones.

As is the case for just about everyone, I’ve been thinking a lot about how classrooms and wider school communities can be spaces of truth and reconciliation. As Desmond Tutu tells us, though, truth must always come first. We have to acknowledge the injustices before we can achieve justice. We cannot heal our wounds if we insist we’re fine or ignore the world around us — it’s the one in which our students live too.


We have to insist on truly inclusive curricula. We have to make space for hard topics through children’s/young adult literature, through study of our history and the way it’s woven into our present. We have to look at justice/opportunity (or lack thereof) by the numbers in math class (Eric Gutstein and Bob Peterson have a great book on this called Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers).

And we have to keep learning; if this is a new realm for you, start somewhere. I’d recommend Ibram Kendi’s How to Be Anti-Racist but there are many great recommendations to be found; here’s one wonderful list shared by Dr. Kendi on Facebook.

We have to make our classrooms spaces where students can express their sadness, their anger, and their desire for change. And then we have to collectively work to make it better – in the classroom, in the school, in teacher prep where I work these days, in the community, and in the world.

We have to work with students to address what happens in our classrooms and the systemic issues that affect them, both in and out of school. Local and in-class issues are pretty specific to context, but here just a few of the systemic challenges that most school districts in the U.S. face:

  • persistent segregation (see The Problem We All Live With – an excellent investigative report by Nikole Hannah-Jones),
  • funding inequity (Ladson-Billings found a $10,000 difference per year per pupil when she compared mostly black and brown urban schools compared to their mostly white suburban neighboring school districts)
  • specialized schemes to defund public schools (vouchers) – and yes, the goal is to drain public schools of their resources, then label them as failing to further advance privatization efforts, which is inherently harmful to equity
  • and last but not least, standardized tests with their racist origins (see The Teacher Wars) – and outcomes related to testing that still play out in our schools today in the disproportionately high representation of children of color being labeled with learning disabilities and disproportionately low representation of children of color in gifted programs, AP classes, etc.  Then there is the labeling of entire schools and communities as “failing” based on these inadequate measures under wildly inequitable circumstances. To echo Gloria Ladson-Billings, “We don’t have an achievement gap; it’s an education debt” that we owe to communities of color.

Our schools are not preparation for the real world; our schools and the children in them are part of the real world and we cannot protect students from it. What we can and must do is to make space for the problems that our students see (whether you teach Pre-K or college, I promise your students see some concerns they can share) and then facilitate their efforts to make it better. Young people want to be agents of positive change, and they’re quite capable (See Black Ants and Buddhists and the work first and second graders can do with the support and guidance of their teacher Mary Cowhey).

If we tell students, “When you’re a grown up you can…” we disempower them and make it seem that change is something other people with more experience and more power must bring – and the status quo remains. Put differently, we can’t keep kids on the bench waiting for a game “someday” and then all the sudden when they turn 18 we tell them they’re starting in the big game: “Now it’s time for you to change the world…Go!” For our young people to be involved, we have to work with them to build and use those skills. We have to work with them to forge opportunities to actively make change. Every one of us is capable of contributing.

Further, when we act as though change cannot emerge from within the school walls, what kind of message are we sending about the profession? What kind of invitation to would-be teachers is that? We talk about teaching to change the world.  For that to be more than a platitude, we have to do the work. If we are not committed to equity work, we are (whether consciously or not) fostering the inequitable status quo.

As educators, our most important job may be to show our students ways to use their voices (and we can use our work as educators to amplify student voices) to make positive change where they see it is needed. Will talking about hard topics involve emotion? Absolutely. But those emotions are already there; if we’re going to teach the whole child, emotions are part of the work. I’ll leave with this section from my dissertation which I keep coming back to in my memory…hooks’ notion of teacher as healer is so very important, now and always.  If not in our public schools, where do these conversations take place within and among a diverse group of people? Is your school pretty homogenous? Yes, you still very much need to have these conversations; just be sure you’re bringing a wide variety of voices into your classroom through print a variety of texts, videos, and in person visitors.

I still very firmly believe these words that I wrote in 2012:

“[bell] hooks, like Banks (2008) invoking the notion of bringing together a divided nation, talks of the ‘teacher as healer’ (p. 14). I am reminded of Tutu’s (1999) concern for ‘the healing of breaches’ (p. 54). Or, as O’Reilley (1993) references Odysseus, such a classroom would be a space ‘where there are tears for things’ (p. 84). Social equity education, in this view, can heal the self. We all carry the wounds of oppression, for in the concept of ubuntu, our humanities are ‘caught up’ (p. 31) together, entangled like a grafted tree.

“In recognizing this, Wang (2004) points to a way that we might deal with the emotions, positive and negative, of our pain, without ‘getting stuck.’ Many teachers worry that emotions will surface in doing social equity work, but in this way of seeing, emotion is needed to bring the whole self into the experience. If emotions remain below the surface, they will fester like an old wound and continue to plague us. For real healing, we must help one another manage the possible pains of change and, thereby, be able to celebrate the joys of less restricted lives together with one another and less fractured selves. One cannot be transformed solely on an intellectual level; such learning is shallow. We must allow change that can mingle in our spirits and in our bones.”

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