Stepping Up to the Plate: Dialogues for All

Editor’s Note: In May, Ivan Rahman wrote “How to Engage School Staff in Dialogues in Race in Class” about his work to jump-start conversations about race, class, and privilege in the school where he worked. In this piece, Ivan reflects on that experience, what he learned, and why talking about race, class, and privilege is a necessity for all of us working in education.'

 

Last week, I went grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. The week before, I went to Key Food. The difference in demographics at both places was stark. Trader Joe’s customers were predominantly white; Key Food’s, mostly black and brown.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), I cannot walk into a space without dissecting the racial, socioeconomic, or gender makeup of the people in that space. I wish I could stop thinking about these identities. But that’s hard to do when I see just how much they shape and color almost every aspect of a person’s life experience. They affect how others treat you, the expectations others have for you, and the doors that open for you.

And that’s why I could no longer suppress my urge to provoke dialogues on equity, privilege, or bias at my school, Coney Island Prep. In the process, I learned a few things.

  • I learned that if you don’t prioritize interactions on such topics at your school, and if these conversations are not already happening in a structured way, then you can’t expect them to suddenly transpire.

Someone must take initiative. And all schools—urban and non-urban, public and private—need a tactful crusader for such conversations. Kids—both white and non-white, poor and not poor—need these dialogues to be the norm amongst those serving them.

  • I also learned that if the conversations get heated, that’s probably good.

A heated conversation indicates that people are engaged. But the purpose of the discussions should seldom be to instill any particular viewpoint. It should be to ignite more frequent thinking about the sensitive topics in the first place.

Yet, I fear that school leaders reading this post will applaud efforts to spark and sustain such dialogues at other schools, only to return to business as usual at their own school. After all, the outcome of these conversations can’t be measured on Excel, right? So if it can’t be measured, are these conversations worth having? Why rob staff of their precious time and energy in order to have these discussions when that time and energy could instead be directed towards generating more tangible results?

I understand that having these discussions may seem inefficient. Even if they were—and I don’t think they are—efficiency is not always the path to long-term productivity. Our reverence for efficiency can keep us from having humanizing experiences at the workplace. And humanizing experiences can make our work life far more fulfilling and, ironically, more productive.

All in all, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the education world. There needs to be a shift toward how we view discourse on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Instead of viewing such discourse as a luxury, we need to begin viewing it as a necessity. We need to view it as indispensable to the ongoing cultivation of the cultural competence of those who work with kids daily.

Ultimately, cultural competence is like a muscle; it’s not a quality we magically gain after attending a diversity training or two. It’s a skill, and like any skill, we need to consistently flex it in order to keep it strong and relevant.

By fostering school staff members’ cultural competence, we are more likely to develop staff who transcend a superficial understanding of the realities affecting poor youth and youth of color. By developing staff who are more deeply attuned to the context in which they work, we create a school that is less divorced from or discordant to what our youth experience once they leave their school every weekday.

So how did the sessions wrap up at Coney Island Prep? We spent our last session discussing what has been a hot topic in education these past few months: grit. The conversation was already in full swing when one of our school deans poked his head into the room we were in. “Did I hear you say race?” he asked. I told him that we were, in fact, talking about race and that he was more than welcome to join us. He did, and, by the end of the session, he encouraged us to consider involving some of our students in our discussions. Although this was not the first time I received this suggestion, it made me think.

What if we mandated periodic dialogues with our students about power, privilege, and prejudice? Currently, the New York City Department of Education is busy implementing Computer Science for All and Pre-K for All. What if we also implemented Dialogues for All? I wonder how that would better prepare our youth—on both sides of the opportunity gap—for the real world. It certainly would have helped me when I was a kid.

 

Ivan Rahman is a 2015-2016 Education Pioneers Fellow and currently serves at the Director of Data for Coney Island Prep in Brooklyn, New York. Born in the Bronx to Bangladeshi immigrants, Ivan witnessed his parents’ struggle to become citizens and make ends meet and, through that, he learned to value resilience and fortitude. Now, he works tirelessly to expand opportunities for working- and middle-class families. He is a lifelong student of what works and what doesn’t in the landscape of social innovation.

 

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