People of Color Conference 2016: Some Thoughts on Power

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Identity as the organizing premise.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference is over. I’m sad because I was having such a wonderful time in the company of so many thoughtful, engaged colleagues. I’m happy, however, that I had space and time to make connections that matter.

While I was in Atlanta at PoCC I observed the following:

  • The People of Color Conference places identity at the forefront of our conversations. This is uncommon among education conferences in my experience.
  • Because identity is the organizing premise, each individual attendee is called on to  engage on a personal level within this professionally oriented context.
  • As we talk about who we are, how we identify and where we find ourselves, we also come across intersections and overlap – no one is just one thing. Each of us is deliciously complex which can make for exchanges that can be confusing and clarifying for different parties, for different reasons, at different stages.
  • This is a conference where we learn to hold tension, work with and through discomfort, acknowledge judgment when we are unable to suspend it.
  • I witnessed thousands more smiles than frowns.
  • There are many more indy ed Twitter fans out there than I realized. The multiple real-time tweets are the gifts that keep on giving.
  • Hugging was prevalent.
  • The empathy lamp was switched on.
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Many more smiles than frowns. Honored to be with Caroline Blackwell of NAIS and Hazel Symonette of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To be on the other side of this experience is to have gained a shade more insight on who I am and strive to be. One thing I struggle with, however, is reporting. I’m not a very good reporter. To be able to succinctly describe how moved I was by keynote speakers Bryan Stevenson, Brittney Packnett, Zak Ebrahim, or Richard Blanco might take me a lifetime. To share how bowled over I was by the spoken word poetry of 15 yr old Royce Mann or simply star struck in the presence of Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis and Christine King Ferris on the same stage – seems beyond me.

What I know and feel is how these voices and their messages are working inside me daily. In this way, my PoCC experience will not let me rest. Yet. Rather, it is leading me in the direction of “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the words of Congressman Lewis. I’m spending time meditating on power and identity and where these intersect with education. The NAIS People of Color Conference felt like my own personal “Identity, Education and Power” Conference.

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Brittany Packnett was the closing speaker. A godsend.

Brittany Packnett, who is a product of independent schools, told our assembly: “In this room sits POWER. You are either developing leaders, or you are one.” I have been thinking about this ever since. Yes, we – who are the ones we’ve been waiting for- have power. Gathered together in intentional and supportive community, we have power. Sharing our expertise, claiming our seats at the table, unleashing our brilliance – we have power. I thought about titling this post “Power of Color Conference” – because of the power we find in coming together over and through our individual and collective identities.

And we are people working largely in elite spaces. Several independent schools cater to the 1% and even to the top 10%  and 20%- if we educators of color are there, we inevitably need to be aware of and thinking about power – our own and that of others. Knowing that the majority of community members who finance and govern our institutions rarely look like us, and that of those same institutions very few were built to (also) support the intellect and advancement of people of color – this is a necessary and real understanding we ought to have. It does not mean, however, that these schools and academies are not excellent places for us to work, to teach, to coach in or for us to lead. On the contrary, our schools can be extremely open and hopeful places, encouraging and strategically forward-thinking places. And they are, for the most part, predominately white institutions (PWIs).

Ultimately, the People of Color Conference seeks to bridge this divide between the reality of PWIs and the still somewhat tentative and/or limited supply of educators of color on their campuses. Many teachers and staff of color come to the conference as a sort of oasis of fellowship. It can be tiring to stay in the role of the “lonely only”* or to be just one of a handful of folks of color at a PWI. PoCC provides that unusual opportunity to ‘flip the script’ and find (in every sense of the word) ourselves in the majority; to experience power in numbers.

After the fact I feel both restored and stirred up. I spent valuable time in a “seat” of power and the act of “knowing my place” is irretrievably expanded.

As I rise, stride and direct my movement forward, I’m on the lookout for justice – the kind that extends beyond ‘just us.’ Attending PoCC provided that necessary affirmation – I’m not alone. I have supporters and co-collaborators. We have power.

Let’s do the good that needs doing and remember to “fight issues, not people.”

 

*I am grateful to my dear friends in the digital humanities,  Maha Bali and Anne-Marie Perez, author of the article “Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities” for the reference to this term  “lonely only.”

 “Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.”

All images by @edifiedlistener.

Leaders of Color Roundtable – A First Assessment

Early on in my coaching venture I articulated where I hoped to be most active and with whom. My goal was to work with leaders in education. I suppose I envisioned work with title-holders: principals, chairs, heads, coordinators. In many ways, they remain a primary target group and yet I am noticing a shift in focus.

In the fall I initiated a Roundtable Group for Leaders of Color and I publicized it through a message board of the National Association of Independent Schools website. My vision was to create a safe space for participants to share and exchange ideas at the intersection of identity, leadership and education with colleagues from a variety of schools. Groups were designed to be kept small (2-5) and scheduled to meet online monthly for 90 minutes.  Two groups emerged and our conversations thus far have been especially rich, nuanced and edifying.  Our topics have included leadership, identity, hiring and being hired, collaboration and competition, and individual school context.

As the meeting convener I create an agenda and offer some reading related to our topic and share these electronically. Here’s what I have learned so far:

  • Reflective conversations can be hard to come by for all of us working in schools.
  • When educators claim the opportunity to listen and be heard by colleagues who can relate, space is created for further reflection and grounded practice.
  • Opportunities specifically for leaders of color to engage with each other in this way appear to be few and far between.
  • At the close of our session there is a mutual gratitude for the time and support that we have shared with each other.

Of all of the initiatives I have started this year, developing  these groups counts as my proudest.  As a concept and practice, the Leaders of Color Roundtable has a future. Each conversation opens the door to much wider dialogues happening in our respective school communities while providing ample room for the individual to explore related terrain.

6 months into this work – the work of  groups: of space making, support fostering and community building – this is the work I recognize as genuinely soul-stirring for me. The more I work with and in groups, the more I realize how much self-care benefits from outside support. Going forward I relish the opportunity to engage more fully with groups, with leaders of color, with the gifts of humanity to create bonds which support, uplift and encourage.

 

*If joining such a group interests you, please contact me via Twitter @edifiedlistener.

It’s Not Only White People Who Need to Learn about Race

I started to write a post about how much I still have to learn about race in the United States and quickly realized that I could not tackle that in under 700 words, nor would I like to try. For me as an African-American woman there are all kinds of assumptions out there about what I should know about race and racism. There is less talk about what I may need to learn.

That said, some recent readings have opened my eyes to the ways in which race plays such a significant role in American society still, even though much of the rhetoric around racial socialization (color-blind, post-racial) would have us believe otherwise.  My encounter with each new text revealed layers of my own misconceptions, false beliefs and fuzzy comprehension.

The first read proved to be a conceptual game-changer:

Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, by Daria Roithmayr, NYU Press 2014. This book blew me away with its sobriety and clarity in describing how current racial disparities in American society may be locked in even if all forms of discrimination were to cease today. Roithmayr’s case is well argued and draws on current research in law, sociology and economics. She writes in the introduction:

Where conventional models focus on intentional discrimination, the lock-in model focuses on self-reinforcing structural processes like social networks and family wealth distribution. The lock-in model emphasizes both the unfairness of early anticompetitive conduct and the need for significant government “antitrust” intervention to dismantle white monopoly on advantage.

Reading this book felt like an odd form of cleansing. At last I understood much more about the world I grew up in and how my family’s history is reflected in her descriptions of the early consolidation of white advantage. Roithmayr explains not just how white advantage became the norm in such areas as political participation, housing, education, and employment, but also how it perpetuates itself even when steps are taken to break the cycle. This text is essential reading for anyone who struggles to understand white privilege and every form of racial gap we can identify in current American society.

Shortly after completing the Lock-In book, this link to Black Women in the United States, 2014,  arrived in my inbox.  The report was published by the Black Women’s Roundtable of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Just reading the executive summary, I got chills while recognizing how many significant  struggles remain, particularly in the areas of health care and economic advancement.  And these disparities despite remarkable increases in educational attainment.  Although there are points to celebrate, I was struck by how much ground must still be covered by black women in the US.

Finally, I ran across an article on the National Association of Independent Schools’ website: What White Children Need to Know about Race. At this juncture I had to recognize that in spite of my efforts to make sense of my own racial experiences through targeted reading, reflection and substantial dialogue, I still have much to learn about facilitating and initiating dialogue regarding race with my students, colleagues and even within my family.  This article by Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli details the reasons why white families are likely to avoid talking explicitly about race with their children, the implications this tends to have for white children’s understanding of race and racism and then outlines specific steps that schools can take to actively support the development of positive racial identities. What I appreciated so much about this article was the authors’ capacity to show what can be done without shaming the reader for not knowing. They conclude with this:  “If we want a racially just world, we need racially aware schools.”

Here’s my lesson: it’s not just white people who need to learn about the dynamics and realities of race in America. It’s me, too. These readings alert me to the fact  that each of us has the opportunity to change and influence racial dynamics for the better, now and in the future. And before I can make a difference, I have to understand difference in many more ways than one. The buck starts here.

And I’m about to go read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”

 

Keeping the PoCC Conversation Going

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

One of the things about attending excellent conferences is that one often leaves feeling empowered, energized, ready for action.  And then you return to your reality.  Not everyone else has been where you have been, has experienced the positives you have experienced.  You are feeling warmed up and limber. Many others may be feeling lethargic and sleepy.  This is the time when our best and reinvigorated selves need to remember to be kind; to be understanding; to become bridges and not the fence.

Before coming back to school this morning, I sent an e-mail to my colleagues in the elementary:

Dear colleagues,

I spent the better part of last week attending the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Washington, DC.  In a nutshell I would describe my experience there as stimulating, resonant and uplifting.  In contrast to typical professional development conferences, PoCC provides opportunities for educators to engage in conversations which begin with social identity (race, gender, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, etc.)  as the context for addressing the what and how of our work in school communities. Equity and social justice are on the table throughout the conference.

 

This means that participants have space to consider and celebrate the intricacies of individual identity and the tremendous wealth of our collective diversity.  In this conference I was encouraged to speak about my experience as an African-American woman working in a European international school setting and to welcome others to share their unique identity and context perspectives.

 

The conference boasts high levels of participation: just over 2300 adults and 1400 students who attended their own Student Diversity Leadership Conference.  The caliber of keynote speakers is outstanding. Over the three days we welcomed activist Daniel Hernandez, award winning author Junot Diaz, Congresswoman Dr. Marisa Richmond and NPR’s Michel Martin.  Additionally, I enjoyed the privilege of co-presenting a breakout session with 3  Klingenstein alumni of color on the benefits of our online coaching experience last spring.

 

My learning from this conference has been particularly valuable and rich. I invite you to ask me about it.  We all have complex and interesting identities which we bring to work every day and the astounding diversity we create and navigate in our school community is worthy of our reflection and celebration.  In closing the conference, Michel Martin encouraged each and every participant to “keep the conversation going.”  This message to all of you is a step in that direction.

 

Thank you and it is great to be back! J

Warmly,

Sherri

 

It occured to me during my long journey back home that I wanted to share my wins and discoveries from PoCC with colleagues and friends without overwhelming them.  That’s how I began crafting this message. The response has been remarkably positive and appreciative.  “Keep the conversation going”  provides a useful perspective on how to bring our best experiences back to our very unique communities.