Not Comfortable Talking About Race in the Classroom? Let Your Students...

Student Voice

Not Comfortable Talking About Race in the Classroom? Let Your Students Lead the Conversation

By Tina Nazerian     Sep 11, 2017

Not Comfortable Talking About Race in the Classroom? Let Your Students Lead the Conversation

From Silicon Valley to Charlottesville, race and diversity have been at the forefront of nation-wide conversations. It’s something kids can’t ignore when they walk through school doors. But it can be an uncomfortable topic for teachers—let alone those who don’t share the same upbringing or background as their students.

A nascent, Rhode Island-based organization called Diversity Talks wants to change that by giving K-12 school districts and higher education institutions student-led professional development on approaching culturally sensitive topics.

Founded in 2016, the company includes two students—cofounders Taliq Tillman and Taiwo Demola, both high school seniors in Rhode Island. Kiara Butler, the CEO and the third cofounder, feels that for these conversations to be “truly personalized” and “truly student-centered,” students have to be “at the table.”

She says students are already having conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion. “It’s the adults, it’s us as educators that are afraid to be vulnerable and have these conversations with them,” Butler, who is also the special assistant to the superintendent of Providence Public Schools, explains.

Diversity Talks has since expanded to Kansas City, Missouri, where it held an implicit bias training for educators on Sept. 6. LaQuanda Carpenter, principal of Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy,was there, listening to Tillman and Demola. She says adults and school leaders already have conversations about being fair and equitable in the school environment.

“But to have that conversation led by students was extremely powerful, because you were able to hear the voice of the student, you were able to glean from their experience when teachers and school leaders don’t come from that place,” Carpenter says.

Diversity Talks works with cohorts of up to 40 educators, providing 6 or 12 hours of in-person professional development spaced out between 4 or 8 sessions in an academic year, respectively. The company is also working with a designer and web developer to create an online platform and mobile app that students, parents and educators can access. Butler says the online platform and mobile app will fully launch in 2019. The online service will have student facilitators who are trained to do the in-person services, because the live trainings will be uploaded online.

Contingent upon funding, Diversity Talks will give student facilitators who complete their required training and who facilitate 12 hours of professional development a stipend at the end of the year and a scholarship, according to Butler.

Carpenter wants to bring Diversity Talks to her school. She “would love” for her faculty to experience the training. According to the company’s FAQ page, only students in grades 9-12 can become student facilitators.

Butlersays the organization’s target customers are K-12 school districts with high teacher turnover, chronic absenteeism and suspension rates. “We all know that students of color are suspended at higher rates in the United States than their other peers,” Butler says. In fact, 2014 findings from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights concluded that black children get suspended more than white children.

Diversity Talks also targets higher education institutions and teacher preparatory programs, according to Butler.

Demola thinks Diversity Talks' model of having student facilitators is effective. “These are students who are impacted by the way teachers engage with them, and the curriculum that they have,” she says. “And those who are affected by it should be the ones advocating for themselves, but then also, being part of a healing process."

Tillman says he hopes the organization he co-founded with Butler and Demola grows in as many schools as possible.

“I believe that right now, especially with the political climate, there is a need for a space to foster conversations,” Tillman says.

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