Michelle Molitor notes that as a nation, we are more segregated than ever. As a result, she’s become a lifelong advocate for opening up spaces for honest dialogue on race and equity, with a goal to create “community with a capital C,” as she describes it.
In her work as Founder and CEO of Fellowship for Race & Equity in Education (FREE), an organization with a mission to create equitable educational spaces for all students through honest and open dialogue across difference and collective anti-racist action, Michelle has partnered with and led work alongside several national, regional and local education agencies including the Department of Education, district offices, individual schools, and philanthropic groups.
To help further critical conversations about race and equity in education and beyond, Michelle will be a panelist at the #EP2016 National Conference, where she’ll talk about “Courageous Conversations: Race, Class, and Power in Education Organizations.”
1 | Tell us about your story. What in your life or career led you to advocate on behalf of others?
When you are a person of color in this country, you are kind of born into this conversation. For people of color, it becomes all about how you decide to pick it up.
I became a teacher because I had no K-12 classroom teachers of color in my own experience. I had coaches, but not classroom teachers. Then, in college, I did a lot of work on my campus around issues of race and equity. In my first teaching job as an elementary teacher, I found myself bringing it up a lot. It was a very diverse community, but I was, at the time, the only person of color on our entire staff serving around a thousand students, most of whom were students of color from all over the world. Eventually, while I was there, they hired more people of color. But at the time, I remember asking a lot of questions about that: How is this possible that so many of the kids who you are serving are not white, but the staff doesn’t reflect that diversity? I think that’s how I ended up being on the Superintendent’s Diversity Task Force at the ripe old age of 21 or 22. So, I’ve been on this path for a long time.
After my second year of teaching, I left to go teach on the Amistad. I was teaching the story of the Amistad revolt and how that narrative still affects people today. I went back into teaching elementary and middle school. Then, I helped found and open E.L. Haynes in the Washington, DC.
There, it became really clear to me that we needed to have these conversations about race and equity in as forthright and productive a way as possible, because while we were an intentionally diverse student and staff body, we were not necessarily inclusive. We found we were hitting all those rough patches, whether it be disproportionality in discipline, creating a true sense of belonging, gaps in achievement, or people feeling that they were being “othered” in our school community.
At the time, I was the only person of color on our leadership team. It became increasingly clear to me that we were not looking at the issues we were facing through similar lenses. We had to figure out a way to talk about it. That’s really where the race and equity work started. It was by acknowledging a problem within our own community and wanting to work thought it productively.
2 | Tell us about your work. How do you work to serve underserved students?
This is an interesting question. I think, in my mind, I am working to serve all communities.
I think when we narrow our focus to people that we think are being underserved or are being underserved, instead of being in community with one another, we cut off our nose to spite our face. It continues to create this space of othering and communicates that we can’t be in community with each other or we don’t have ways to relate to each other. To me, equity is about how can we actually be in community with each other—big community with each other, capital C community—and give people what they need without further marginalizing them, and through further segregating ourselves.
In my mind, the best way to serve marginalized communities is to recognize that marginalization is happening at the hands of a bigger community. So, how do we begin to narrate and navigate the root cause and the root problem, not just the symptoms of the bigger problem?
3 | Your conference panel will focus on: Courageous Conversations: Race, Class, and Power in Education Organizations. Why is this topic critical for understanding how to better serve students?
It’s critical because it is the most pervasive issue facing not just education, but also the nation. It’s not just people of color who are losing out. White people lose out too. It’s not just poor people who lose out, it’s also people with means who lose out because we are not in true community with one another. So, it’s not just education we are talking about. It’s health. It’s access and opportunity. It’s discipline rates that turn into incarceration rates. It cuts across every aspect of American life.
Until we start to recognize that we need to face the bigger issues head on, we will only make incremental changes and incremental progress. We can’t afford to do that. Period.
We cannot continue on this path of “slow and steady wins the race.” We are not winning the race. In many instances, we are going backwards.
For example, there was a time when our country’s laws and policies backed up integration. And though things got worse for some people, they also got better in certain ways. What if we allowed the “experiment” to really work?
I am by no means minimizing the atrocities that happened in black and brown communities when we forced integration. Certainly, people of color were fired from their jobs. People experienced deeply inequitable treatment. Communities of people that really cared about the advancement of their children were forced into situations that amplified the racism they had already been facing, making their students’ outcomes worse for generations.
That time was when the idea of tracking was born of these deep-rooted desires to continue to say that some people are more suited for a rigorous education than others. Who’s in AP classes and who is not? Who is in IB programs and who is not? Who still has access and opportunity? Had we gone about integration in a far more intentional way that didn’t further marginalize already marginalized groups and had the laws to protect people in doing that, we would be in a different place than where we are today.
We are more segregated than we were in the past. Not only are we segregating along issues of race, we are segregating along issues of economics and access. We are further stratifying ourselves in a way that increases the inequities we see playing out.
4 | Describe yourself in three words.
Motivated. Open. Growing.
I feel like these really speak to my work, but maybe not my personality. I’m also really funny, lol.
5 | Describe your vision for K-12 education in three words.
Inclusive. Reflective. Achievement-oriented.
6 | Finally, you are forced to make a choice, what do you choose: coffee or tea; baseball or basketball; the beach or the mountains; Game of Thrones or House of Cards; Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat; Kindle or the real thing; Pokémon, Go or No?
That one’s hard, the beach.
I love both of those shows for different reasons. So, all of the above.
Facebook, does that age me?
The real thing, I prefer a book in hand any day.
No, not a fan.