Diversity Talks: What Happens When Students Lead Uncomfortable Conversations?

Source: Kiara Butler

Authors’ note: There are multiple voices within this article. Pay close attention to the voice that sounds the least like your own.

Change within the education system begins to take form once a level of discomfort is reached. But in order for this change to take place, it is the responsibility of the educator and student to start a conversation that includes all voices within the classroom. Educators must be willing to relinquish their power by allowing students to have a voice in their learning, an opportunity to have conversations as it pertains to diversity, and ultimately, a seat at the table.

On Sept. 23, 2016, Startup Weekend Education Providence provided an opportunity for educators and students to share ideas and come up with solutions that address educational disparities. Two students, Taiwo Demola and Taliq Tillman, joined forces with two educators, Kiara Butler and Chiquita Adams, to develop a platform that would give students of color a voice that has been silenced for centuries.

The team spent 54 hours brainstorming ways to address a major elephant in the room that has gone unattended for generations: The 21st century education system does not mirror or include modern real-world experiences for students from diverse backgrounds, which leads to the marginalization and oppression of student voices, specifically those of color.

Instead of creating a business pitch for a nonprofit or for-profit organization, the team took a different approach by creating a policy mandate that would address the lack of conversations around diversity (race, sexual orientation and identity, socioeconomic status and learning styles) and how it impacts the social and emotional learning environment.

The Elephant

Nathan Bowling, 2016 National teacher of the Year Finalist, has shed light on the lack of pertinent conversation happening within schools across the nation in conjunction with its negative impact on students living in high levels of poverty. H. Richard Milner, who directs the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, has researched the importance of diversity oriented conversations in the classroom. Through his own findings Milner concludes:

“We've really got to disrupt and confront the attempts to not address issues of race, racism and other forms of discrimination on a micro level as well as a macro level. We can't have conversations about poverty if we're not having serious conversations about race.”

The other one is that we can talk about reform, we can talk about shifts to classroom level, but we also need to make sure we're deliberate about making serious shifts on a district level as well. Because there are outstanding individual teachers who go into the classroom, close their doors and great things happen. It really is about how we make changes for black and brown children on a broader level.”

According to a recent report commissioned by the City Council of Providence, “63% of the students were Hispanic and 20% were black during the 2015-16 school year,” while only 21% of teachers in Providence identify as people of color.

This racial disconnect was also reflected in the courses offered in one of the largest districts in Rhode Island. Even though students of color make up the majority, their narratives and heritage haven’t been included in the curriculum. It focuses primarily on the dominant narrative of European and Western studies at the expense of other narratives that represent the identities of the student population. The African American history is embarrassingly summed up in one whole chapter.

Studies have shown that if teachers and school leaders reflect the identities of their students, they can establish a stronger community culture which can lead to higher academic performance. However, that’s only part of the problem. In some cases, educators are willing to teach based on a culturally relevant pedagogy but lack the adequate training. How is a space best created for this dialogue?

“I was not equipped at all to speak with my students about issues of race and equity,” said Deborah Chang, an educator who was at the event. “I wasn’t equipped to even process these issues for myself. It wasn’t until four years into my career that I received truly effective professional development around diversity and equity, and even then I feel I am but a beginner in this work.”

Educators like her are seeking professional development that's sustained over time, different ways to teach culturally relevant content, and ways to interact with students in an effective way.

Students, on the other hand, are also looking for ways to feel safe and comfortable within their own school, a platform to be heard, to be empowered, and to learn from a curriculum that is culturally and socially relevant. Today, that’s not always possible. “I absolutely hate talking about women’s rights in a Catholic school with male teachers,” remarked Katie Freedman, a student at the event. “Three-quarters of my religion teachers have been male and it’s so difficult to talk to them because they don’t understand.”

Group presentation

From Dialogue to Action

“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is a connection.” — Brene Brown

Diversity Talks is a policy mandate focused on mirroring the authentic real-world experiences of students from a diverse range of backgrounds. Furthermore, it will foster a space in which both students and educators can effectively engage in open dialogue in a classroom.

We aim for Diversity Talks to be adopted by superintendents in both ‘urban’ and ‘suburban’ districts starting as an opt-in discussion in classrooms. The discussion will then transform into school-wide facilitated conversations led by trained educators and students beginning Fall 2017. Anonymous surveys, trainings, and outreach to various community organizations will take place during the initial launch year and then extend into a five-year plan that will reach over 40 schools in a district where students hail from different ethnic backgrounds but are taught by an educator force that is predominately white.

Through conversations led by students, Diversity Talks will offer a safe space to foster a genuine level of understanding. Having an inclusive dialogue gives people the chance to address problems without the feeling of intimidation felt by students like Aujla Van Ness-Otunnu, who has attended a predominantly white school since 6th grade. As a student of color, she felt very passionate about the unit on slavery and police brutality in U.S. History but didn’t feel supported by her white peers:

“My teacher was great and he tried his hardest to make sure everyone was engaged during this lesson. But sadly it felt like I was the only one in the room who cared. He would ask my opinion about how the class was going and I told him how I felt out-numbered and all he could say was ‘sorry’.”

The conversation created in schools will also manifest on an online platform that gives students, teachers and parents the ability to share their thoughts on relevant issues. The platform will act as a database for resources including recordings of Diversity Talks that have taken place and curricula that help teachers and students learn about socially and culturally relevant content.

Already we’ve heard a great demand for creating spaces where students and teachers can voice themselves, understand each other, and change. “Being that there is an established safe space and sense of community in my non-traditional school, I feel very comfortable opening up/ and being vulnerable with students about their diversity-related issues,” said Chiquita Adams. “Most likely, I’d be able to relate and validate their feelings.”

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