In June 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the loss of too many other Black lives prompted a long-overdue reckoning about racism in America. This inflection point for our country prompted Freire Schools to begin interrogating the presence of racism in our work and our schools, and that month we made a Commitment to Antiracist Action.
We knew last year that becoming an actively antiracist school network would require a sustained commitment, as well as a long-term action plan that would keep us focused on racial justice long after the news cycle changed focus. We knew we would have to commit to the difficult, necessary work of acknowledging and fixing the real and significant ways in which our own systems perpetuate racism and white supremacy. And we knew that we did not know enough to do this critical work alone. We needed a partner to guide us.
We found this partner in REthinc (previously named Just Instruction). In 2020-21, our first year working with REthinc, 42 Freire Schools school and network leaders completed 12 full days of Equity Driven Leadership training with REthinc; 20 leaders participated in weekly coaching sessions; and we formed race-based affinity groups to provide staff with safe spaces to share their experiences, process feelings brought up by our work, and begin to develop a path forward.
The Equity Driven Leadership Cohort used Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America to explore the historical antecedents and causes of systemic racism in our country and in our schools. Paul Ramirez, Freire Schools’ Director of Digital Learning and Innovation, reflects:
“Kendi talks about how it is power and policy, not people, that keeps racism entrenched in organizations. If instruction is the core system that impacts racist/antiracist outcomes in schools, then changing our instructional practices is the most antiracist thing we can possibly do.”
In this spirit, we began to envision an educational program in which Freire Schools students and staff could be unencumbered by institutional racism, held to high standards, and supported and uplifted every step of the way. With support from REthinc, the Equity Driven Leadership Cohort designed our new Teaching and Learning Continuum to keep us accountable to making the sustained changes needed to grow into a fully inclusive, antiracist, multicultural organization in a transformed society.
A Look Ahead
Our schools were excited to kick off the new school year last month. With kids finally reunited in our buildings, restoring our community is a primary focus for the year ahead. And a safe, supportive, and uplifting community must be an antiracist one. As such, we are continuing to focus on our equity and racial justice work, including expanding our training to all Freire Schools staff in 2021-22 in continued partnership with REthinc.
This school year, all staff will participate in six full days of training in Equity Driven Teaching & Learning. Our 42 leaders will receive an additional eight days of Equity Driven Leadership training plus select coaching, and our Boards will participate in a day of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training as well. Ten staff members across the network have begun DEI Aspiring Leaders training and coaching in preparation to facilitate affinity groups this year.
Our work this year focuses on three network-wide goals, each of which supports the creation of a Freire Schools community based in racial justice and antiracism:
- Raising the Bar Academically for All Students — With every member of our Freire Family united and empowered to raise the rigor in our classrooms, we are excited to accelerate student learning this year. From a new culturally responsive English Language Arts curriculum to an emphasis on discourse in our math classrooms, a recommitment to rigorous, student-centered teaching and learning is our highest priority and most important act of antiracism.
- Revisiting the Freire Schools Nonviolence Policy — The Culture Teams across the network will lead a group of students, who will be compensated for their work, to evaluate and refine our Nonviolence Policy for 2022-23. The goal will be to prevent violence and ensure that our policy and practices humanize rather than criminalize our students. We will develop restorative support systems as part of our commitment to peace.
- Embracing Generative Conflict — The capacity for healthy, generative conflict is essential to antiracist work. Conflict that creates new possibilities and connections rather than shutting them down is a powerful tool for deconditioning binary, either/or thinking within ourselves and embracing our different cultures, experiences, and viewpoints as we build a path forward. As such, we will cultivate generative conflict values and skills within Freire Schools’ culture, staff, and students.
In Our Own Words
Last year, the Equity Driven Leadership cohort experienced how eye-opening, reflective, difficult, rewarding, and consequential this work can be. Below are some of their year-end reflections that inspire us to do more for our kids, our schools, and each other every day.
On White Supremacy Culture:
“The elements of white supremacy culture are things that I’ve applied a lot. I think that tool gave me language to consider where white supremacy culture is showing up at our school, specifically around either/or thinking, perfectionism, and a sense of urgency. I think one of the biggest things I’ve applied this year is that often when it feels like there are two choices, that’s a binary that I’m making up in my head. This has allowed me to think more creatively about systems and structures that seem stuck. Similarly, I think this year I was really able to let go of some elements of perfectionism. Before, I was so worried that as a leader, I had to have it all together in order for people to trust me and my leadership. But now, I am intentionally showing my humanity more at work and being willing to say when I don’t know something or am figuring something out.”
“In reading Stamped, I was reminded how Black people can also hold racist ideas. This was a moment of clarity and a reminder that Black people, too, contribute to upholding white supremacy. This made me reflect on the ways in which I have and still do uphold white supremacy culture and my role in combating anti blackness.”
On Assimilationist Thinking:
“Related to the goal of rejecting the mindset of assimilation, I have embarked on the journey of making changes to my approach to teaching. In particular, in the area of building classroom culture. More specifically, through the Stamped readings, I have become more reflective on my approach to student behavior and the origins of my thinking, and want to work to become a facilitator of learning who embraces my students for who they are and instills in them a sense of value in their culture and heritage.”
On Generative Conflict & Either/Or Thinking:
“Generative conflict has been really supportive. It’s easy to fall into narrow thinking, especially in busy or challenging times. However, utilizing generative conflict strategies has supported me and my team in navigating challenging situations. In my own team, I’m working to eliminate this or that thinking.”
“The most powerful lesson was where we explored either/or thinking within white supremacy culture and created ‘vent’ diagrams. An ‘Aha’ moment I had this day was that there is always a third way and finding it may be difficult or not within your realm of thinking, but it is there. Vent diagrams allowed me to get to that point by realizing that we can hold multiple truths.”
On Equity in Action:
“Equity is in every. single. thing. we. do. Full stop. This has helped me to get set in my current role — to develop buckets of work and ways of working that are centered in equity for our students. One concrete example has been developing the ways we disseminate data to teachers, and the ways we collect data, reflect on it, respond to it, and use it to inform our practices. Through these sessions as well as the coaching, I’ve been able to grow as a communicator to staff and also rethink some of the ways we test students, why we test, and what we do with the results.”
“I think the most actionable item for me has been how I go about making decisions for the school. I am more deliberate and intentional about who I am speaking with to get input, creating space for either verbal or written feedback, trying not to rush important decisions. Getting input from stakeholders outside of the staff (students, parents for example). I think and rethink before and after on whether the way in which we do things is fair/equitable/open.”
On Being Your Authentic Self:
“As an African American woman in education, I know how important it is to remain true and be authentic with those around me. When it comes to my kids (yes, my kids) I will always be true and authentic. My kids are everything to me and I will be damned if I do not show them the world through a different lens. My goal and passion are to show my kids that there is more to the world than the four walls they see every day. The world is there and I want them to understand and feel that.”
Antiracism is a process, not a product, and the goals we have set for this year are substantial. We are deeply grateful to come together this year to advance our commitment to antiracism and racial justice, and excited to continue to update our community on our progress.
Thank you for your support as we continue to learn, grow, adapt, and continuously become the best we can be — for our kids and for our shared future.