"I can see the history of racial oppression, and still be a lovable person"

Zoë Stemm-Calderon is education director at the Raikes Foundation. Here she shares reflections on why she signed an open letter on supporting racial justice in education reform, and what she plans to do next.

Why I spoke up.

I’m a slightly woke white leader for educational equity.  As a result, I think I get why many white people reject explicit attention to racial justice as a frame for education issues and I think that makes it all the more important that I speak up.

Becoming even slightly woke has taken me a long time.   16 years ago, I came to the education field as a fired up young person with what I thought was a conscious commitment to advancing social justice.  However, I was also a white woman brought up in a segregated community in Seattle.  While my parents made civil rights heroes the topic of dinner discussion, they talked about racism as something that was behind us as a nation.  Entering the education field, it was easy to adopt the dominant education reform frame built on sanitizing the discussion of inequality by focusing on differences in students’ outcomes by income rather than race.

Here’s how the logic went: students living in poverty are more likely to experience adversity that could have a deleterious impact on critical early development, less likely to attend high quality schools with effective teachers and rich developmental opportunities, and more likely to face obstacles like navigating and paying for college.  Increase standards, improve teacher effectiveness, expand high quality out of school time, make college more affordable and easy to navigate and voila! more low-income students will get to and through college, ending inter-generational cycles of poverty and fundamentally changing patterns of inequality in our country.  Forever.  Huzzah – cue ticker tape parade!

It’s not that this frame is totally wrong, it’s just woefully incomplete in capturing the problem I and so many of my friends were working to solve.  It doesn’t, for example, explain why in the era I have been a self-professed “leader for educational equity,” the post-secondary completion gap between black students and white students has almost doubled.  It prevented me from understanding how a portion of the completion gap can be explained by underrepresented students (including those of color) experiencing stereotype threat and a lack of belonging in schools and universities.  And it also failed to help me see the bigger picture of why communities of color are not accidentally, but systematically situated in conditions of poverty in our country through myriad forms of systemic racism.

Now my particular unconscious white education leader frame is not universal.  I have observed variations.  There is the “ALL students need better schools” frame, typically justified by its appeal to the American electorate.  There is the “it’s all about college ready expectations and continuous improvement” frame that is tempting in an era of Common Core and more easily available data.  It looks like there’s also a “conservatives can’t acknowledge our country’s well-documented history of racial oppression and its connection to inequality in our schools” frame.

But there is something all of these frames have in common.  I held stubbornly to my frame because even though it didn’t serve me that well, even though it really screwed up my vision of the problem I’ve committed my life to working to address, it kept me safe.  With those glasses on I could avoid the guilt, shame, and blame that would surely engulf me if I acknowledged race, racism and my own whiteness.  I could avoid difficult and painful truths about the history and present of racial oppression in our country, and how as a white woman I had benefitted from that.  And like most humans, choosing a way of understanding the problem that kept my identity intact was WAY more seductive then exploring what I might not fully understand and could potentially implicate me in the problem I was seeking to solve.

I wish I could say that nobody was hurt in the process of me becoming slightly woke, but I know that’s not true.  Along the way I frequently denied the perspective of people of color who bravely tried to challenge my frame (ugh, I’m so sorry).  I definitely expended the energy and patience of friends and colleagues who in their generosity, tried to help me be better (thank you!).  And perhaps, most importantly, in failing to fully see the problem of inequality as one of race and class (and gender, sexual orientation, and ableism), I wasted valuable time and resources on solutions that did not fully align to advancing the educational equity I was striving for. 

But I can also say that despite the guilt, blame, shame I still feel for the mistakes I’ve made and continue to make, it’s still WAY better on this side of consciousness about how race, racism and whiteness contribute to education inequality.  I do less harm to my colleagues and communities of color (not none, but less) and in better understanding the nature of the problem, I contribute more to this work as well.

So that’s why I spoke up.   Because as a slightly woke white person, I think other white leaders in education can wake up too.  They can start observing how they use their frame to keep them comfortable.  They can seek out and build teams, organizations and networks that value multiple perspectives, particularly privileging the perspectives of those our education system serves least well now.  When they’re in those settings, they can aim to listen more than they talk.  And slowly, they can wake up.  Because we can’t waste another era of efforts to transform our education system trying to broker a deal where white folk stay comfortable.

What I plan to do next.

We in education philanthropy do not have a great track record of being informed by the perspectives of the students, families and communities we’re seeking to benefit.  I believe that is a significant driver for why our efforts to support educational improvements have been so underwhelming.

As an engine of change efforts in education, we have an opportunity and responsibility to recognize and account for the blind spots our privilege produces.  Staying blind is not an option if we are truly interested in realizing the rhetoric of the last 30 years of school reform.  To that end, I commit to:

  • Proactively ensuring our team and the organizations and networks we support value and prioritize multiple perspectives, particularly those of the people our education system serves least well now.
  • Raising the issue when I find I’m in a conversation about transforming the education system that doesn’t explicitly address race and racism.
  • Asking for feedback on how I could be better as a leader for racial equity.
  • Working with our grantees to support them to clarify their commitment to racial equity and increase their capacity to work towards that end.
  • Building a community of other white philanthropic leaders who want to keep learning and developing their skill as leaders for racial equity. 

"The fight for excellence and equity in education is dependent on the fundamental fight for racial justice"

Abigail Smith is the former deputy mayor for education of Washington DC, and one of the co-founders of the We Are Educators for Justice initiative. Below she shares why she has prioritized this work, and what she plans to do to advance the cause of education justice and racial equity.

While I have considered race as a key factor in the conditions that have created inequities in education, and I have certainly viewed racial equity as an important outcome of the work we’re doing in education, it is only recently have I begun to view it as the other way around. The fight for excellence and equity in education is dependent on the much more fundamental fight for racial justice. So I’ve come to understand that unless we actively work to dismantle the structures and systems that perpetuate racial injustice – not work within them to improve outcomes – but dismantle them – and rebuild in fundamentally different ways, we will not get there. And that work must take place in both the personal and professional realms.

As white educators: Are we acting in ways that buy into the notion that some people deserve less, are destined to achieve less? Despite our best intentions to improve life outcomes for kids of color, are we assuming the system won’t change and preparing students to operate within that system? Or are we owning our part in the system, and doing our part to work to change it – and urging our students to do the same?

As white parents: Are we practicing what we preach? Are we buying in to the notion that the way for our kids to succeed in life is to put them in elite environments – which implicitly teach them that white people are meant to be leaders, winners – and that people of color by in large are not? Or are we putting our kids in schools that reflect the makeup of our communities – and resisting the fear that we are “sacrificing our kids for a cause”? 

"I have made a personal commitment to undoing the racism that my past inaction has perpetuated, starting with my personal corner of the world"

JCohen headshot.jpg

Justin Cohen is the former president of Boston-based nonprofit Mass Insight Education, and one of the co-founders of the We Are Educators for Justice initiative. Here he explains why he has prioritized working at the intersection of education and racial justice.

I have spent my career working to improve public schools, and that work comes from a personal, lifelong commitment to social justice. My grandfather was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska, my mother started her career in the Boston public schools, and I went to K-12 public schools in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

I'm almost embarrassed to say, though, that it wasn't until I moved to Massachusetts that I realized how foolish it was to approach school improvement without also dealing with the lasting impact of institutional racism on schools. It's hard to pinpoint moments of personal transformation, but after the murder of Trayvon Martin, my colleagues and I began having much more transparent conversations about race and racism. I subsequently led a reading group discussion of the book Common Ground, which details the saga of desegregation in Boston in the 1970s. Reflecting on the chillingly familiar ugliness of that era, I realized that our current technocratic attempts at reform were doomed to fail without a concomitant focus on the racism that lived beneath our public institutions.

I also realized that my colleagues of color had been saying some version of that same thing for many years, and that it was a failure of my own leadership that I did not shift my perspective sooner. While I appreciate the patience of my friends in the black community in particular, the other white folks in the field and I have done very little to earn such grace. I have made a personal commitment to undoing the racism that my past inaction has perpetuated, starting with my personal corner of the world.

An Open Letter

The following letter, which originally appeared at justinccohen.com, represents the opinions of the signatories. To add your name to the growing list of supporters, follow this link.

The education reform coalition has a problem. Unlike other historical movements dedicated to the urgent betterment of social conditions, the most prominent leadership and voices of the school improvement coalition have not been representative of the communities that the effort hopes to serve. The leaders of reform organizations are mostly white, and mostly from backgrounds of relative privilege, creating a stark contrast with the communities, and leaders, of color that demand rapid improvements in their schools.

Those of us signing this letter are some of those white leaders. We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change. A movement of innovators and technocrats will never have the intellectual and moral power of a movement created by, and led by, the communities most affected by inadequate public schooling. And while there is an important role for allies to play in advancing the work of school improvement for poor students and students of color, an unrepresentative group will lack the critical insight and creativity that diversity and inclusivity bring to addressing complex problems.

Despite our own mistakes, we have been heartened by recent course corrections within the reform community. When some major organizations in education reform, including New Schools Venture Fund, began to publicly embrace the need to not just diversify the leadership in the field, but also to ensure that the voices of people of color were centered in the reform conversation, we celebrated the shift in emphasis. That’s why we were so baffled by Robert Pondiscio’s article on the Fordham Institute website yesterday, which suggests a coalition problem that we don’t think needs to exist. In the piece, Pondiscio cites a string of anonymous “conservative education reformers” who are dissatisfied with the “increasing dominance of social justice warriors in education reform and the marginalization of dissenting views.” Pondiscio frames this tension as one of right versus left, or in his words, free market enthusiasts vs. social justice warriors.

It is striking that Pondiscio, and the anonymous sources he quotes, choose now to start worrying about dissenting viewpoints. For many years, the views and leadership of people of color have been overwhelmingly marginalized in conferences, panels, and other prominent education reform spaces. In critiquing the shift he is observing, Pondiscio’s piece makes many of the same mistakes that he decries. He resorts to a left vs. right dichotomy, while demanding the primacy of his own views. He diminishes discussions of social justice as “groupthink,” while asserting that markets, and the other ideas he embraces “need no apology.” Instead of wrestling with issues of institutional racism, he more or less ignores their existence. Most importantly, he worries about the marginalization of his own ideas while diminishing the voices and perspectives of the leaders of color.

When Brittany Packnett, one of those leaders, spoke at the New Schools Venture Fund conference, discussing the intersection of her roles at Teach for America and on the White House’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing, we saw a courageous champion tackling the complex intersections of issues that most affect communities of color. We witnessed the kind of intellectual generosity, coalition building, and diversity necessary to drive real progress. We should pursue transformational education ideas while also considering reforms to immigration and criminal justice, and the education reform efforts of the past twenty-five years are full of examples of unlikely alliances and mash-ups of political perspectives.

Believing that the people most directly affected by educational inequity should have an outsized voice regarding the potential solutions is not a political stance. A true movement for improving schools must embrace the leadership of the communities we hope to serve, and elevate—not ridicule—the ideas of the leaders of those communities. That doesn’t mean that we need to suddenly rebuke everything that Pondiscio and his anonymous sources believe, but it does mean their perspectives must live alongside the stated needs and objectives of the communities whose lives we wish to value in our work. Just as it was always a false choice between “fixing poverty” and “fixing education,” so is it a false choice between abolishing institutional racism and improving schools. 

Reimagining schools for all children, particularly the ones our current system ignores, will require many more years, perhaps generations, of hard work. There will be politicking, tradeoffs, wins, losses, frustrations, and celebrations. The greatest risk to our success is not the minimization of a particular political ideology, but rather the continued marginalization of the communities and leaders that most urgently need for schools to improve. We, as white leaders, have been imperfect allies in that work, but we’re committed to getting better. We hope that others will join us in this important work.

The following people are signatories to this letter. They sign as individuals, not on behalf of the organizations they lead.

Marcia Aaron

Jennifer Alexander

Drew Allsopp

Russell Altenburg

Jay Altman

Julie Angilly

Will Austin

Morty Ballen

Dara Barlin

Parker Baxter

Halli Bayer

Lars Beck

Josh Bell

Catharine Bellinger

Joshua Biber

LesLee Bickford

Kathy Bihr

Paisley Blank

Katherine Bradley

Crystal Brakke

Garrett Bucks

Maryellen Butke

Andy Calkins

Katie Campos

Matt Candler

Steve Cartwright

Kate Casas

Courtney Cass

Jonas Chartock

Katie Christianson

Lisa Clancy

Robert T. Clark

Justin Cohen

Marjorie Cohen

Teresa Cole

Eva Colen

Alex Cortez

Susanna Crafton

Marcie Craig Post

Michael Crawford

Courtney Criswell

Trey Csar

Michelle Culver

Peter Cunningham

Jim Curran

Jacquelyn Davis

Tracy Dell-Angela Barber

Josh Densen

Josh Dormont

Jen Dryer

Keara Duggan

Will Ehrenfeld

Kristin Ehrgood

Christopher Eide

Tracy Epp

Robyn Fehrman

Harris Ferrell

Bill Florio

Briana Foley

Kathleen Fujawa

Kelly Garrett

Stephanie Germeraad

Leslie Gerwin

Chris Gibbons

April Goble

Vanessa Gonzalez

Kate Gottfredson

Ethan Gray

Ron Gubitz

Deanna Harnett

Rich Harrison

Elliot Haspel

Beth Hawkins

Jimmy Henderson

Amy Hertel Buckley

Ryan Hill

Irene Holtzman

Julie Horowitz

Nik Howard

Tim Hurley

Carrie Irvin

Nithin Iyengar

Lida Jennings

Tim Johnson

Alex Johnston

Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise

Nate Kellogg

Jeff Kerscher

Paul Keys

Maryanne Kiley

Greg Klein

Jonathan Klein

Valentina Korkes

Holly Kragthorpe

Matt Kramer

Emily Lawson

Eric Lerum

Simmons Lettre

Katya Levitan-Reiner

Hilary Lewis

Marianne Lombardo

Allan Ludgate

Chistopher Maher

Maura Marino

Christi Martin

Lisa Macfarlane

Tracy McDaniel

Arthur McKee

Frances McLaughlin

Alex Medler

Dmitri Mehlhorn

Lynell Michelsen

Clare Middleton-Detzner

Derek Mitchell

Michael Moody

Scott Morgan

Alexis Morin

Sydney Morris

Nate Morrison

Jennifer Nagourney

Charlie Odom

Allison Ohle

William E. Olsen

Nitzan Pelman

Andrew Plemmons Pratt

Tatiana Poladko

Beth Rabbitt

Kyrra Rankine

Sendhil Revuluri

Benjamin Riley

Michael Robbins

Chris Rogers

Allison Rogovin

David Rosenberg

Jon Rosenberg

Kyle Rosenkrans

Margaret Runyan-Shefa

Mallory Rusch

Kristina Saccone

David Sailer

Susan Saltrick

Roger Schulman

Kristin Scotchmer

Mora Segal

Daniel Sellers

Natalie Shaw

Kimberlee Sia

Elliot Smalley

Abigail Smith

Mike Spangenberg

Ned Stanley

Zoe Stemm-Calderon

Matt Stern

Evan Stone

Chris Sturgis

Mary Ann Sullivan

Alissa Swartz

Cate Swinburn

Marc Terry

Justin Testerman

Celine Toomey Coggins

Jonathan Travers

Lisa Vahey

Patrick van Keerbergen

Michael Vaughn

Jenn Vranek

Sibo Wang

Jared Ware

Jacob Waters

Laura Waters

Eric Westendorf

Debra Wexler

Mieka Wick

David Wick

Laura Wilson Phelan

Ellen Winn

J. Gordon Wright

Elizabeth Zimmerman

Sarah Zuckerman