"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.