Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: A day of celebration, remembrance, and service

We are in the education sector because we want to serve kids. However, despite the efforts of millions of adults in schools, districts, and education support organizations, we still have a system that perpetuates inequity and oppresses children of color. If we really want to serve kids, we need to do better— and fortunately, we can do better.

What does it mean to “do better?” In the education sector, one thing each of us can do is to bring a racial equity lens to our work (and lives). Equity is ensuring that everyone has what they need to be successful. Equity is also acknowledging, understanding, and working to dismantle the systemic, intentional, and institutional discrimination, often based on race, language, class, and learning variabilities, that have created today’s inequities.

Understanding Ourselves to Understand Each Child.

To give each child what he or she needs, we must know what each child needs. And in order to know what each child needs, we must get past our assumptions, unconscious biases, and overly simplified narratives about communities each child belongs to. We have to look in the mirror and examine ourselves: how do our own racial identities inform our beliefs about the world? What biases have we held about kids? How do our personal privileges blind us in how we understand the experiences of others?

When I was teaching for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., it took a student asking me why our class spent so much time writing about rap lyrics and basketball players for me to realize that bias and assumptions were informing my work. Even as a black woman, I had internalized racist messages that our culture tells us about black and Latino kids: that they only cared about rap and basketball and that they definitely weren’t interested in academic learning. My biases were holding my students back.

Understanding Equity.

Every adult who serves kids can engage in the self-reflection necessary to disrupt inequitable systems. At New Teacher Center, we are fully committed to this journey. Since the fall, our whole organization has been collectively learning about the history of racism and inequity in the U.S., to reflect on our racial experiences and assumptions, and to have honest and uncomfortable conversations together about race. We know we have a steep learning curve ahead of us. We know it will be mentally, psychologically, and emotionally challenging— it already has been. And we know that if our goal is to support teachers, school leaders, mentors, and coaches in bringing an equity lens to their work, we first have to practice bringing an equity lens to our own day-to-day work.

Dr. King believed in the power of love, compassion, and service to bring about justice and equity. These are foundations for dismantling inequity, but we need to do more. We can want to serve, but just wanting to serve is not enough. We can be loving people and simultaneously hold racial bias. We can be compassionate people and still unwittingly perpetuate systemic and institutional racism. We have to reflect on our identities, examine our beliefs, and challenge ourselves and one another to replace any damaging assumptions we might hold about students of color with belief in their potential for greatness. Once we do that, we’ll get closer to the mountaintop that Dr. King envisioned for us all.


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