decentering whiteness may require us to focus on whiteness

Author of the widely popular book, Culturally Relevant Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond once shared that a common question asked of her is, “How should I best teach Black students?”

Knowing that the question, in and of itself, is problematic in its over simplified reduction and continued othering of black students, she offers that at the very minimum a first step can be to

stop teaching as if all students learn the same; specifically, stop teaching first and solely to normalize and to align with dominant or white culture learning styles.  

2020 has been a perfect storm of a year that offers us the opportunity to not do school as usual.  The shared harm of COVID-19 along with the uprising against systemic racism and harm specifically to our black community has led to schools and entire districts adopting a focus on anti-racist teaching and healing.  This must be commended.  Period.  And… at the same time, such a commitment will be difficult as it requires more than just the rhetoric.  Even now, I constantly am defending that decentering whiteness does not mean the same thing as disserving white students.  

As with most difficult work, we must prepare for resistance.  Some resistance comes from individuals – a few (and too many) who do not wish to commit to racial justice, equity or interrupting white supremacy, and more who automatically resist (even with “good intentions”) that which they find difficult, scary or vulnerable.  Some resistance comes from what NYC Chancellor Richard Carranza calls the “elasticity of the status quo”; this is the impact of our need to go back to our original systemic design when we are unsure of what to do. 

If we are unsure of our original design, keep in mind that in “1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a two-track educational system, with different tracks in his words for ‘the laboring and the learned.” Scholarship would allow a very few of the laboring class to advance, Jefferson says, by “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.’”   Furthermore, if we are unsure of how our history of colonization plays out… and for whom, schools were designed to benefit white people at the expense of people of color and today this intent persists.  Even with our commitments to equity and anti-racist teaching, our very design – or school as usual – is for the purpose of preparing those in and who benefit from dominant culture to profit from those who do not. 

So, if we want to consider NOT doing school as usual, we will need to commit to studying and learning about the role whiteness, white culture and white supremacy has on our schools and classrooms today, for if we are educators, we are agents of this system so many of us so desperately seek to disrupt.  Even if whiteness is not our identity, it is most likely the identity of the system that provides many of us our paychecks.  

Already, we are hearing the pushback.  With a focus on antiracist teaching, we are hearing comfort in talking about antiracism which can be studied, academically, through a window… but discomfort talking about antiracist TEACHING, which requires us to look into our mirrors.  When pushed, we are hearing white-ally teachers exclaim, “I am not a racist.”  

It is not a new idea that the, “am I am a racist” question should be retired.  We know enough now – the question we need to ask ourselves is “am I actively being antiracist? And if yes, how?”  To this question – not one of us should have an answer with finality.  Again, we now know enough – the work requires us always to be in progress.  Yes, there are right answers.  

It is important to know where our work begins. 

Do we collate the base language of white, white culture, white supremacy and white people?  Do we interchange the terms race, racism, racist, A racist?  Perhaps we need to start with some basic study or readings.  Perhaps we need to determine which terms mean which things for the discourse we need to have.

Do we have basic knowledge of the academic terminology but lack the connectivity to our own and others’ stories?  Then perhaps we need to commit time for story sharing.  We can start with hearing stories of those not within our circle through text. Then we can share our own stories while discussing the texts.  Perhaps we are ready or needed to benefit from making meaning of our racial reality in racial affinity.  Affinity groups can be powerful places for healing and mentorships – and to prepare us to better work across racial difference.  

Do we know and value teaching about anti-racism but do not know how that looks in our own pedagogies?  More importantly, do we continue to see racial discrepancies in the experiences of our students?  Do we have the will and capacity, but do not yet have the experience?  Do we not lack the cultural humility by following those who know better (including the students and communities themselves)?  There are many, many resources that help us to rectify this.  Many resources over many, many years (from Howard Gardner, to Geneva Gay, to Gloria Ladson-Billings, to Zaretta Hammond, to…)  

When we, especially those of us living in white skin privilege, have not yet demonstrated success, what keeps us from following those who know more?  Each us who is failing students predictably by demographics has firsthand access to experts who can help: the very students we are failing predictably by demographics.  

Now, in 2020 when everything is on the table and we say we are committed to NOT doing school as usual, let’s really commit to anti-racist teaching.  Whether our antiracist teaching takes the form of project based learning, or restorative practices, or collaborative learning, or community circles, or intentional scaffolding, or academic discourse, or peer mentoring, or ill-structured problems, or subject integration, or authentic assessment, or personalization/ advisory, or… we have work to do. Done with integrity, that work can lead to the results we have espoused to want for generations.  So, let’s work.  

Let’s commit to the work each and every single one of us needs to do to actively be working to be an anti-racist.  Let’s – each and every single one of us – commit to the constant study, practice and reflection for continuous improvement in our classrooms, schools, districts and boardrooms to demonstrate and model actual antiracist teaching pedagogies.  Let’s elevate the voice and history and excellence of the students and communities we are accountable to serve.    

Stop Schooling

School has not worked for our son, D.

Don’t get me wrong, our family has found many adults at his schools who love him and are committed to educating him, but they – and he – need to work extra hard. They work much harder than those for whom school was designed – and that does not include D – a brilliant and strong, young black, male child who we recently adopted out of the foster care system where he has had a history with trauma.

Our experience is similar to those of many, many… many others. Schools and school systems have repeatedly proven that they were designed to provide the best education to some while preparing many others to serve those few who are intended to maintain power and privilege. I also have learned to trust the predictability of demographics – in other words, without intentional interruption, a child’s demographics serve as reliable predictors for the quality of education and/or the intensity of barriers provided to students. Our pandemic crisis only has both crystalized and intensified my learning – pushing me to a radical opinion: we need to stop schooling our children.

When our district first closed schools, my husband and I made a calculated risk to create a schedule for D that strove to replicate much of the schedule and many of the daily rituals within school. We decided on this course of action even though school has not worked for D because our district had closed schools only for two weeks and we felt it was important to maintain some resemblance to the school structure to which he might soon be transitioning back. Those two weeks were painful.

As career educators, my husband and I were embarrassed by the mistakes we seemed to believe were necessary to remake:

  • Even though we knew his process for learning was not supported by precisely timed and pressurized increments for engaging in and finishing work (part of his trauma manifests in the equating his own safety with the need to not make mistakes), we replicated a rigid schedule of moving stoically between activities with work completion (and rewards) attached to end times.
  • Even though D is a social learner, we faced a logistical challenge of his being an only child and trying to support his learning space while simultaneously participating in our own work tasks and challenges.
  • Our son is a deep critical thinker; we saw and agreed that much of the emergency lessons being provided seemed more like busy work than curriculum to which he could make meaningful connections.
  • Even though our schools had little choice, unfolding new technology before there was deep understanding and experience with it was fraught with challenges as students were expected to refrain (sometimes to the point of consequences) from engaging with many of the bells and whistles that they actually knew more about).
  • In the process of trying to school in a new platform, the aura of unfairness was exacerbated between the spoken high expectations for students and the actual leniency of accountability.
  • Perhaps most importantly though, we were trying to maintain ineffective-at-best design at a time when each-and-every student also was going through their own meaning making bout what the hell was happening around them. For an 8-year old child who has experienced great loss, this was the challenge that sat most seriously with our family…again, and for so many more.

After the initial two weeks, our school district extended the stay at home order for another two weeks. This time however, the uncertainty of the timeline for returning to school changed on minds and direction. We decided to stop schooling and focus on educating. We have a meeting with D’s teacher and asked a couple of key questions:

  • At the time of this initial stay-at-home order, where were students academically? What could they have been expected to know, do, and be as a result of the year to date? What of the annual outcomes have they been provided enough instruction and practice to be expected to have mastered?
  • Given the probability that many students would be denied equal conditions and access to education, was there yet an assurance once conditions and access were assured, students would be held accountable only to that which was covered before the shelter in place orders? For example, if students returned to their physical schools in September, would fourth-graders’ curriculum begin with second semester of their third-grade curriculum – or would it be expected that enough instruction was provided to all students to reasonably expect all students to have progressed?

We did not get answers to these questions, but rather we got answer to the expectations of structure – of school. We were told that D was expected to do schoolwork for about 4-4½ hours a day. Later in that same week, the teachers’ union finalized a COVID-19 agreement in which teachers were expected to work 4 hours a day and during that time, no pre-set schedule could be required – nor could it be required that their time had to include live interaction with students. I support the negotiated agreement for teachers, yet I don’t understand the incongruence behind the thinking for educators and their families as compared to the thinking for students and theirs.

Given the responsibility on families to carry so much of the schooling plan for students, where is their union. Who is negotiating on their behalf? How is their voice leveraged?

It seems to me that after years of evolving from commitments of equality to visions and struggles for equity, we are slipping back to a conflation of understanding. Understandably in this unprecedented situation, schools and districts must first ensure equal access: Does every student have a computer? Does every family have WIFI?

Without a vision for equitable outcomes however, we may rest our laurels on numbers of students who have or have been provided opportunity to have either. Without a commitment to equity, we reproduce the structures of school that have us asking “what did we do” rather than what did we achieve?

School has not worked for D. Reproducing school – or designing a new school based on reproduced, white supremacy culture mindsets embedded in…

  • the urgency to show we are doing something done, rather than to getting our intended results,
  • the idea of one right way, or at best either-or thinking, for designing school by adapting technology but not interrogating and interrupting biased design and mindsets,
  • the persistence of individualism even at a time when social distancing is causing emotional harm to our communities,
  • the political power hoarding and fear of open conflict that continues play out for adults in their negotiations at the expense of our young people,
  • and the notion of quantity over quality in assuming there will any resemblance of curricular coverage during this time versus sitting in the here and now to prioritize healing and well-being.

So, if the first month-plus of shelter-in-place has taught me something, it is that even those who espouse and commit to rethinking school may be too confined by their connection to its construct. This is a perfect time to interrogate these connections – to question everything…including the purpose of school itself. This is a perfect time to recommit to education and liberation – and perhaps the first thing to liberate is our connection to the construct and confines of school. As a parent… and educator, a few first steps come to mind:

  1. As we adopt new platforms and technologies for teaching, maintain a wide-open inquiry for how and when these means remove previous barriers – or create new ones. Sadly, our newness with these technologies may cause further distancing at a time when connection is so desperately desired and needed. As an example, teachers cannot both facilitate lessons and discussions and also monitor chat boxes and engage individually. How might we rethinking teaching to have more adults present (even parent volunteers) to engage more personally with students throughout virtual learning?
  2. As my original questions suggested, focus on learning outcomes and not tasks. Make these learning outcomes transparent and public for all who are newly involved in students’ learning.
  3. Do not – do NOT – hold all students accountable for new learning that cannot be assured to be facilitated for all learners. Until our technology – and skill – catch up to our situation, students should be held responsible to have learned what was expected up to the day of the original shelter-in-place order (with some backslide). Once it is clear – for ALL – what was expected of all students at that time, current resources should be used prioritize catching up or maintaining that level of competence/mastery with the majority of resources committed to those who were behind and lesser resources committed to practice or enrichment for those who are ready to move forward.
  4. Schools should be planning at least as much for how they intend to re-introduce students to school upon return as they should for current lessons. Personally, I believe there should be an additional week of professional development just for healing and reorienting the adults, and similar planning for students – perhaps a retreat, before committing the entire first semester to a heightened integration of academic and social-emotional learning.
  5. Finally, there is an opportunity to rethink the voices of teachers – all teachers. What would it look like – and what would it take – for school design to truly integrate the voices of families in its design and decisions? A committed effort to be inclusive is deserved – beyond token seats – to those who now are picking up the “other half” of the education work during these times. This is not to say that every – or any – parent knows more about curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, school design, etc. but parents do know what is and is not working for their children.

Perhaps it is time for our communities, in collaboration with our educators, to take back our schools – and focus on education.

Black Boys (February 2019)

(if you want schools to be “safe” from black boys, make schools safe for black boys)

The parents of our second-grade class called an emergency meeting. One of the other students, a small black boy, hit his teacher in the nose and a number of the class’ parents are concerned about safety.  Even though our principal makes it very clear that we will not discuss other people’s children, the sense of urgency from some parents leads to a more impromptu conversation with our principal (prior to the meeting) in a manner that conveys a desire to fix the problem of safety but also could sound like suggestions to fix or assess the appropriateness of the child’s family as part of our community.  In reality, these pointed questions and suggestions in a non-structured setting risk (un)intentionally and falsely validating assumptions held of this family. Such conversations always risk “othering” our most disconnected community members, and I fear, set the stage to oust them. 

I know the boy.  He is totally cute, sweet… and fragile.  He is tiny in stature and in voice.  Because it seems that he has – somewhere at some time – experienced more trauma than a child of 7 should, he is not tiny in emotions.  Because he is black and is not tiny in emotions, he is not tiny in how people see and experience him.  The boy’s mother, a black woman, is at the meeting.  She speaks with heavy emotions of her own; she speaks of the fear she feels being in this very meeting.  She shares about herself as an educated, professional woman (“a therapist, a good mother”).  She shares about the child so many want to but will not discuss as a beautiful and brilliant child who is going through something bad that neither defines him nor represents who he is when he is out of school.  It is good that her witness checks assumptions the other parents made of the child and his family just a day before; it is not good that she even had to do this. 

As I mentioned, it seems that this child has – somewhere at some time – experienced more trauma than a child of 7 should; yet, regardless of where the trauma originates, it has become overwhelming clear to me that our schools are places where a cumulative trauma is experienced and compounded for our black boys every day because of its very construct.

My husband, Gary and I have a son in this same class – actually at the same table of this child.  Our son, another 7-year old black boy, has experienced and is working through his own situational and inter-generational trauma.  We actually know where and how some of his trauma originates… and just like his tablemate, school has been a place that both reignites and compounds his previous trauma while it also introduces and reinforces new and compounded trauma.  School is not designed to educate or benefit black boys.  Rather, it continues to be a place where we dehumanize some by normalizing expectations that are not culturally relevant and by criminalizing behaviors which do not align with white culture. 

Even then, we hold these expectations and standards unequally with students based on the skin they are in.  My observations as an educator for the past 20+ years, and even moreso as a new dad for only 1+ year, have validated what research has proven time and time again: Systemic racism manifested through our internalized biases disproportionately favor some students and disadvantage others simply based on their identity.  The fact that our teacher force is a steady 75-80% white and female even as our student bodies become more and more diverse is not just an interesting fact, it is a manifestation of a system which is designed for reproducing disparate results.

The realization of systemic white supremacy in our schools occurs as tangibly within our day-to-day classroom exchanges – even amongst our most well-intentioned teachers and schools.  In my frequent observations.  I continuously see black (and brown) boys (and girls) called out, checked, controlled and ultimately pushed out for infractions to a dominant culture’s code of conduct (even when these children are acting in age appropriate ways) and white children and (those who align with dominant white culture) ignored or addressed more therapeutically when displaying the very same behaviors.  On the other side, I see those who identify with white culture recognized and praised for all levels of “positive” engagement and “success” while their black and brown counterparts’ successes go unassessed and ignored because it is good enough that they are not “acting out”.  I have seen this dynamic in the classroom, the office, the hallway and the yard. 

This patterned dynamic is systemic, and it directly relates to our predispositions and beliefs about students based on the skin they are in.  Regardless of the behavior, when we educators (primarily from dominant, white culture) see a behavior – any behavior – from a black boy, we see it through the lens of our internalized, unconscious (and sometimes conscious) beliefs, fears and stereotypes, and that observed behavior immediately becomes distorted, exaggerated and criminalized because as a society and as a profession, we are irrationally afraid of black boys.  Furthermore, our desire to control students through a cultural standard that is natural only to some, results in some children being supported to be independent learners and others cajoled into being dependent learners – assuring access to high level success to the few. 

So, Gary and I attended this emergency parent meeting – and we did so for many reasons.  We support our son’s teacher and his class, and we want their shared learning experiences to be joyful and effective.  We support the boy who was involved and want to serve as allies to his family.  We also know fully well, that if the problem were to be put solely on this child, it wouldn’t be long before similar tactics would be used to ostracize our own son as the next problem for this community “to solve”.  Ultimately however, we attended because we believe our job to assure a quality education for our son requires us constantly and consistently to partner with his school and its community. 

At the meeting’s start, our principal asked parents to share their hopes and fears.  During this time, and later while smaller groups of parents talked at their tables, multiple parents stated, “I just want the class to be safe for everyone.”

I just want the class to be safe for everyone.

This phrase really stuck with me.  As a lifetime educator, I have heard it (and said it) more times than I can count.  But this time, it really stuck.  I could not agree more!  Of course we want the classroom to be safe for everyone, but still, there was something in this politically-correct-who-could-argue-with sentiment, that felt less than genuine.  At first, I thought it was my unease with how “not being safe” has become code to rationalize pushing students out (without the burden of feeling guilt) for unwelcomed culturally diverse behaviors even if those behaviors are responses for feeling unsafe themselves – or even if the behaviors are age appropriate but just culturally different.  Then it hit me.  “Everyone.”  Every-one.  This perfect catch phrase (“safe for everyone”) was being weaponized and used as leverage to explain why any single child’s behavior could be deemed unacceptable or unwelcomed.  So, when we say, “safe for everyone”, we really mean everyone except THAT one. 

Still, one could argue this as a rational standard if we actually believe that a child’s “unsafe for others” behaviors come from a raw, unprovoked desire to cause harm.  Yet, this simply is not the case.  In my own experiences, every time we have explored why our son has behaved in any way that could be regarded “unsafe” for himself, for others or for property, he points to a trigger event in which HE did not feel safe.  For example, there was the time we got a call because our son was climbing the fence to get out of the school.  “He was being unsafe.  Can you pick him up?”  When we asked what was happening 5 minutes before any attention was given to him, he shared that an older child, probably playing, was choking our son who has a real fear of being killed (compounded, situation trauma).  In this case, our son actually could make the case that climbing the fence was actually being safe.  In fact, I can recall no incident in my entire career in which a student who was considered unsafe for themselves or others did not have a root issue that was itself based in distress, fear and lack of safety – either at the surface or deeper in their experiences. 

So, by definition, when we want a school that is safe for every student, we must include even the one student we thought did not count.  Disproportionately, we think our black boys do not count, and yet, as stated above, school is a place that dehumanizes black boys and therefore is for them, an unsafe place.  So perhaps to reach our goal of making our schools safe for all (from the black boys who don’t feel safe), where we actually need to start is making our schools safe FOR our black boys.

Perfection (January 2019 #1)

Guest Bloggers Camilla Greene and Jo Brownson share in an ongoing dialogue below about the concept of perfection. Camilla Greene co-founded the Center for Urban Excellence as Senior Associate with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, and currently serves as a National Facilitator for SF-CESS. Jo Brownson joined SF-CESS in 2013 from the public high school math classrooms of Philadelphia and Oakland, and currently serves as the Operations Manager and Equity Facilitator.


In the skin you are in, how do you experience the concept of perfection?
An Ongoing Conversation


As a visibly brown skinned African American girl with natural hair and the only African American student in my kindergarten class at Brooklyn Friends School in the 40s, I learned from a white kindergarten student that I was “dirty.”   So If brown skin is dirty, then white skin must be clean…perpetually clean. Perfection lesson number 1. In the same kindergarten class, later on I learned that my hair was a “Bird’s nest” from another white kindergarten student-actually it might have been the same kindergarten student who made both comments. My black hair was shoulder length and natural then.  My mother neatly plaited my hair in 3 braids with a ribbon at the end of each braid. My hair did not lay flat on my scalp the way other white children’s hair did. My hair was puffy before it was confined in its braids. So flat hair is preferable to puffy hair. White people have flat hair therefore that is the world standard. And in my young mind there were sooooo many white people around me at school who had the preferred hair, I with brown skin, puffy hair, larger body frame must be different and not the preferred norm.  Perfection lesson number 2.


I was about 11 when my mother took me to a Black owned hair salon in Bedford-Stuyvesant to have a Lye chemical placed in my hair so that my hair could lay flat against my scalp and so that my hair would not become kinky, wavy, and wild when wet.  Having been the first African American student to graduate from Brooklyn Friends School; having attended the white run, white controlled school of learning for 13 years, I received an excellent European education where the domination of whiteness was a clear and consistent message.  Today, at the age of 76, I still have an overpowering urge to see whiteness as the standard of perfection. Intellectually and emotionally I know that white is not perfect; however, I have to fight stereo-type threat and the notion of the normalcy of whiteness every minute of every day.  I am very conscious of my conditioning into the normalcy of whiteness in Amerikkka and I have to consciously push against further normalizing whiteness with every breath I take.


In my experience a majority of white women I encounter give off the vibe of being polite and perfect.   Fortunately to counter balance being in the white world to be formally educated, I grew up in a solid, middle class Black family and I was part of a middle class Black  community in NYC that exuded Black excellence at all levels. Hence today I describe myself as a conscious, unapologetically Black elder who knows how to interrupt the white supremacy narrative in real time.  I am still on my journey to fully regain my full humanity and to help others of all colors regain their full humanity. My question to white women is: How hard is it to be fully human when you are deemed to be the pillar of perfection all day long?  

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As a pastor’s daughter in a white, protestant church, I would sing about Jesus’ perfection; how he was the only person who ever lived without the stain of sin. That was how he was able to “wash my sins away” and make me clean. Jesus’ perfection was heavily emphasized in my community growing up – much more than his humanity. I think, then translated through the prism of white supremacist thinking, this idea that I was born into sin, but that I could become perfect, and that it was all or nothing – like salvation – was deeply ingrained in me from my community. It also meant that “achieving perfection” is what morality is rather than ethical behavior towards other people (after all, Jesus didn’t do anything to become perfect, he was born that way). Very subtly in ways I am still trying to figure out, I was made to believe that perfection was a state of being that I could attain if I just tried hard enough, had the right belief system, and had enough people who approved of me.


I feel that for white women like me, the mythology that perfection is a possibility that is attainable for us (but not for other women) is reinforced in every direction. Our bodies have been the object of “perfect beauty” since the concept of race was being constructed by racial scientists. It is the other side of the coin from what you are saying you get from every direction, Camilla – that for women with your skin, your hair and your build, it is an impossibility but for me, I should be that, could be that and if I don’t, it is because there is something wrong with me. It is an everyday battle for me to not translate this perfectionist thinking into other areas of my life: that there is such a thing as a “perfect partner”, “perfect friend”, or a “perfect life” and I should be or have already or be actively working to achieve. So because I battle with this notion that perfection is something I should “be” when I do mess up, get called out, commit myself to take action against white supremacy in my life and then fall short, it is incredibly difficult for me to separate my behavior from something essential about me, bad about me, an “original sin”. As a result, I don’t have a very good practice of self-forgiveness or self-worth that comes from somewhere other than how well I measure up to this myth of perfection. When your self-worth is given to you by society and is rooted in capitalism and white supremacy, it is very fragile. So the potential to lash out in resentment when my identity is called into question or when I fail to meet society’s expectations of me is ever present. I know I always have the option to exploit the system’s willingness to protect me and my “innocence” when it is challenged, even if I know taking advantage of it will directly harm people of color (and my own sense of self).

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Camilla – I’m wondering if you’re feeling or thinking anything differently now? I’m thinking about your last question to white women about how hard it is to be fully human when you are seen as the pillar of perfection. I think in our work it makes white women approach facilitation very differently than women of color. As we know, the best balance in facilitation is between structure and responsive constructivist learning – it’s not an either or. But I notice constantly that what white women (myself included) tend to emphasize or pay attention to disproportionately is structure. And for all of us, what we pay attention to grows. So, I think this is about the way we internalize perfection. We pay so close attention to whether we stack up to an ideal that it blocks our ability to “see” other pathways to humanity. If we can control our environment, no one will know we aren’t perfect.


On a personal level, I feel frustrated that so many of the avenues towards self love available to me emphasize curating an appearance of loving myself when in reality I am just  competing with other white women to live up to perfection – particularly in how we look. Being healthy, doing “self care”, yoga, etc. which we should be healthy and take care of ourselves. But I am rarely in deep healing spaces with other white women. Often it feels like there is too much self consciousness to go there – so much attachment to doing it right that we do nothing or do harm. In our work with teachers it worries me because I think that translate into not knowing how to hold healing spaces in our classrooms. That anxiety gets mapped on to our students in different ways based on the skin they are in. What an addiction to perfectionism gets us is guilt, shame and self hatred which, if we live there, we know we make it impossible to be in solidarity with other white people and people across difference. Not to mention those are not the energies I want to be putting out in the world and infecting my children with.


What do you think and feel?

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Jo- Your deep reflection; the humility with which you reflect; and your willingness to be vulnerable…in a heart place…in your heart place, is healing.  Because in my mind always is the perfection standard of white women and to have that white woman perfection held up under a microscope; explained, examined and deconstructed from your perspective is healing.  In my heart I know white women are not perfect however our society and in my world white space all is done to epitomize white women.   For me to deconstruct white women perfection moment to moment is extremely exhausting and I more often than not choose not to go into white spaces because of how physically, intellectually and emotionally exhausting that space is for me.


In reading Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming,” I am struck by how often she asks herself “Am I good enough”  As a conscious woman in dark skin identity living in racist Amerikkka where I am bombarded with the perfection of whiteness, I would be insane if I did not ask myself the question: Am I good enough?  As a descendent of enslaved people who endured the middle passage where each of my ancestors were stripped of their humanity; where- since we did not speak a common language, all we could do was moan, and wail in unison.  Because of the dehumanizing aspects of enslavement, I feel we grew humble, we grew vulnerable and we grew into our creative expression of our pain in every creative venue we could imagine.  I believe that most of us have maintained, nurtured and grew up in our humility, our vulnerability and our collective creative expressions.  


There are two powerful songs “I know who I am” and  “Something Inside So Strong”  Both songs were written in opposition to what Toni  Morrison refers to as the white gaze.  I am strong and I do know who I am and I need to fortify myself every minute of every day to maintain my humanity, my sanity, my full self in racist, white supremacy driven Amerikkka.


The intergenerational accumulation of shared experiences among conscious formerly enslaved African Americans, keep us focused on the heart and our humility and the humility and heart of others.   In my facilitation, while I appreciate our agenda, I prioritize the feelings of the group over the structure of the agenda.  I also sense the emotions of the participants and the emotions of the other facilitators and prioritize recalibration of the emotional needs of the group over getting to the next item on the agenda.  We need each other across the racial divide because we need to model what it looks like and sounds like as we balance the head and the heart in our work.  And we need to be in authentic relationship with each other in order to do our transformational race work.  The ultimate beauty in our work is that we have developed over time both our intellectual capacity to do this work and we have maintained, nurtured and sustained the humanity in each of us to do this work.  I am grateful for every opportunity I get to work with you.  

Peace and Love, Camilla

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I wanted to continue this conversation in light of some reflecting I have been doing over the past two weeks.


Camilla, your last response has been resonating with me deeply; your words often stay with me long after they are said. That is a gift you offer to the world and to me specifically that I seek to not ever take for granted. The particular words this time that have stayed with me are these: “Because of the dehumanizing aspects of enslavement, I feel we grew humble, we grew vulnerable and we grew into our creative expression of our pain in every creative venue we could imagine.  I believe that most of us have maintained, nurtured and grew up in our humility, our vulnerability and our collective creative expressions.” The idea of “growing humility, vulnerability and creative expression” is the opposite of perfectionism, which is stagnate, fragile, and arrogant.


I spent a lot of the past two weeks with white family members and perfectionism was on full display, particularly from my white female elders. It took the form of micromanagement of other people’s time, bodies and ways of being (i.e. “Are you going to do it that way?”, “You look like you lost weight…good for you”, “Let me show you the right way to do it”, “Ugh, I hate my body”, “Aren’t you worried you will spoil your dinner by eating that?” “Take another picture, so-and-so looks bad in this one.”) All of these small actions and comments are so deeply rooted in the standard of whiteness you are talking about that, let’s be honest, individual white people can never attain either. But we are so addicted to the illusion that we can (and society keeps feeding it to us) if we just work hard enough. Or if we can’t really attain it, then we better curate the appearance of it so that we won’t be exposed to criticism and punishment from other white people (most often our family members and immediate community). Keeping up that farce is exhausting and takes constant vigilance and policing of ourselves and others to ensure we are not exposed. That is what my white aunties and mothers have been practicing their whole lives – policing of the norms of whiteness inside their homes. It brings me back to what you said about growing into vulnerability, humility and creative expression. I believe that spending so much time policing ourselves and others (“Am I doing this right?”; “We should do it another way”; “Are you sure this is the best way?”; “I’m so bad at this; I’ll never be good at it”; “I don’t want to try until I know how to do it perfectly”) is part of what stunts white folks’ ability to grow into vulnerability, humility and creative expression. Which is also why theft and exploitation of those things when we find them in people of color is such a characteristic of white, dominant culture.

Curious about any of your thoughts…


Love you,


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Fearless leadership: not a thing (December 2018 #1)

Guest blogger Lena Van Haren reflects here in the skin she is in on her experience as a school leader and an alternative to the notion of “fearless leadership.” Lena Van Haren is a leadership coach for San Francisco Unified School District’s new TLEE (Transformative Leadership for Equity and Excellence) professional development and support program for new school leaders, and has been an SF-CESS partner for several years.


As I opened my inbox, I cringed – my heart beating rapidly, palms forming sweat, jaw clenching.  They were still coming. Mean and full of hatred… from strangers:

“You’re complete scum”

“…your twisted view of diversity…”

“…you’ve taught your students how to be racist in the name of ‘diversity’”

“Forcing diversity is fascism.”

“You sick, twisted liberal white idiots that hate white people…you are a f-ing bigot.”

“Quit being a stuck up liberal b*tch.”

“You are one incredibly stupid woman…you don’t deserve your job.”

Then I opened the last email, from my boss:

“You are a fearless leader but there are instances when you have to take a step back. This may be that instance. Send another email that you have reconsidered and that you will honor the election and that you will have a forum with students about diversity…this is a teachable moment!”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  I was confused and tired, but also clear with conviction.  A new principal, I was in the midst of a right-wing media storm that reached far beyond our local context and stemmed from my decision to pause on sharing our student council election results with our community (our racially and economically diverse middle school elected a student council that was nearly 100% homogeneous, representing mostly those from dominant culture) until we’d had an honest and open conversation with all the candidates about diversity and representative voice.

It’s funny that my boss called me “fearless” when in fact I was straight up scared.  But having some fear doesn’t mean we don’t act with courage. It doesn’t mean that we give up when our efforts to interrupt the status quo are met with hatred and resistance.  Working through fear to access our courage is central to equity leadership.

In SFUSD, there are a set of common core values we’ve adopted as a district where the “F” in SFUSD stands for “fearless”.  This word as a value or a descriptor who we want to be has never totally resonated with me, especially as a school leader in today’s climate.  Fear is real and exists for a reason inside us as leaders…so I don’t think being fearless is a worthy aspiration. Developing courage however, which feels like something we need to muster through struggle as well as cycles of self-doubt and challenge, seems like the real and lofty goal.

As leaders, we should question:

How do we recognize and acknowledge fear, sit in collective acknowledgement of it, name it in community, not let it hide inside of us….and then work towards nurturing the collective courage to address the fear and move past it into action?

As leaders (for equity) in today’s climate, it may prove foolish to ignore our fears related to our leadership.  The right-wing media assault related to our student council election was a more public example, but there are many others.  Other examples include…

  • Fear of being personally attacked because of your identity or because of those with whom you choose to form alliances:

As a first-year principal I made it clear to a white parent with socioeconomic privilege in our community that I wasn’t interested in building and expanding an “honors” course structure – which would have kids segregated by race and class within the walls of our diverse school.  Rather, I explained that we were investing heavily in building teacher skill around differentiation and creating collaborative learning structures in the classroom. This parent, miffed by my answer, had powerful connections to the school board and was able to bring a topic of whether or not I was the right fit for the job to the closed session school board meeting later that month.  Luckily the board and enough of my superiors knew my work and recognized this as one person’s biased point of view, but the power of one privileged parent’s “dislike” of our equity mission was eye opening for me.

  • Fear of getting on the “bad side” of superiors when expectations and decision-making structures for our work aren’t clear or focused on what’s best for our children.  

As our school transformed from underperforming to higher performing, many more parents were interested in sending their child to our school. The size began to grow slowly which was challenging but manageable. Then suddenly, unbeknownst to our school’s leadership team, there was a decision made to double the size of our incoming 6th grade class. This was a last minute, adult-centered decision that would have the most negative impact on groups of vulnerable students such as our newcomers.  I was practiced in relentlessly saying yes to things that seemed they would move our school towards our equity mission and pushing back hard against decisions and proposals that would hurt us. When I pushed back, I was met with “disappointment” that I wasn’t a team-player, that I needed to step up to the plate and accept more students, and that there was “no time to meet with me.”  I was left with the decision, similar to above, where I must choose between protecting political alliances necessary to stay in my job and fighting for what I knew would be best for our newcomers and other vulnerable student groups.  

In each of the above cases, I had to face my own fears as a leader. I was able to “cope” and overcome, and continue to lead our school.  AND it’s also essential to name that my own white upper middle-class heterosexual privilege allows me to avoid and frequently not even be aware of a multitude of fears that are real, daily and insidious (or not) for my colleagues who belong to marginalized groups.  Privilege that allows me to push back and still have best assumptions made about me at every turn. I think about the fears of my colleagues across difference and the questions I never have to ask myself when confronting challenges.

I think about the fears of our leaders of color…”if I say something will I be seen as “that black woman”?”

I consider the fears of my LGBTQ colleagues…”If I am my true self out in open will there be consequences to my safety?”  

My leadership question evolves: How should we, as equity leaders, recognize, manage and lead with courage in spite of fear?  

And as the new year approaches, I’m specifically asking myself: How do I make 2019 a year of cultivating collective courage?

I’m in a brand, new role coaching first year school leaders, and I aim to offer concrete ideas, probing questions and antidotes when fears arise as they do…all the time.  One antidote is in leaders coming together and acknowledging that we are not alone.  The feeling of isolation or “it’s only me” is common amongst school leaders who have no peers at their school site.  Learning and reflecting as a community can provide great rejuvenation and strength. As educators, we must be adamant about creating conditions for genuine connection, healing and transformational learning just like we want for our young people.  Also, we must refuse to sit in meetings or ”learning” spaces that don’t meet our needs, that don’t meet the standards we expect for the learning spaces of our students. By coming together, we can experience universality, and we gain the strength and courage necessary to lead for equity.

Another important piece of work is to remind ourselves frequently of our own personal “why?”:  Why we are in this work?  What brought us to this work originally?  How is our purpose evolving over the months and years?  

For me, part of my “why” includes continuously working to make sense of white allyship, continuing to widen paths of leadership for women, and first and foremost bringing about radically different outcomes for our least-reached students.  When I’m feeling stuck and anxious, taking time to journal, to talk with a colleague, to reflect silently about my “why” helps to ground me and “fill up” my “cenote” (what Elena Aguilar calls the resilience reserve that each leader must cultivate and tend to).

Something about leadership also seems to position us to forget to call upon our elders.  Taking time to listen to those who have been in the work longer than we have can be cathartic and can help us see ourselves as part of a bigger web of interconnected efforts to make change.  In today’s fast moving technological age, accessing the wisdom of those before us may require us to check our assumptions – assumptions that we can have all the answers, and assumptions that those before us have less to offer simply because she or he hasn’t mastered all the ins and outs of Google drive.

In order to work collectively towards racial justice, we as school leaders must be honest with ourselves about our own fears and build ways within ourselves and our communities to maintain conviction and strength in the face of them.  Maybe we should move from being fearless to cultivating courage collectively.  It doesn’t work quite as well with the SFUSD acronym, but I propose it may more accurately describe the equity-centered value our community of educators aspires to.


Rebel With a Cause (November 2018 #1)

“A rebel needs to say something.  An activist needs something to be heard.”

As a principal, my office was in the middle of the school.  Whenever a student left or was pushed out of one of our classes, s/he had to walk by my office, and it was not unusual for a student to make an unplanned stop to let me know what s/he thought about the incident that preceded their referral. One interaction I had with a particular student, still irate at being treated with less than the respect that he believed he deserved, stands out to me:

“Mr. Peters!”


“This is Leadership High School, right?!”


“And we are supposed to be learning to leaders, right?”

“Still, yes.”

“Then why, when I am just sharing my opinion, do I get kicked out?”

“I’m not sure – let’s go through exactly what happened.”

“Well, the class was boring and I shared that with the teacher.”

“How exactly did you share it; what were your words?”

“Well, I kinda said out loud, ‘This class sucks!’”

“Ahh. I think I see the problem.”  

On that day, a mantra was born.  While, the exact accurateness of it may be up for question, it has taken me a long way in the days and years since.  I shared with this emerging leader that “a rebel needs to say something; while an activist needs something to be heard.”  We talked about how there are times when one may be more appropriate than the other, but given the reality of power dynamics, his choice may not have been the most effective given how upset he was that the teacher did not hear and respect his opinion.  

How do we offer feedback so that it can be heard?  

I remember learning about feedback principles, years ago from a longtime Coalition of Essential Schools Educator Joe Macdonald.  His research suggested we should offer a balance of warm, cool and hard feedback.  

Warm feedback offers information about something that is effective and working well.  Warm feedback is offered in a supportive and appreciative manner and is authentic, meaningful, tangible.  Here is an example of warm feedback we might offer a teacher we just observed:

“It was great to see your classroom expectations and agenda posted before class began.  This really seemed to help students stay focused when you were taking attendance – every single student was on task!   When the one late student wanted to use her out-of-class pass, all you had to do was point to the classroom expectations.”

Cool feedback offers someone a different way of thinking about a situation.  Cool feedback is a little more distant and may raise questions about the situation but still is readily actionable.  When invited, cool feedback may sometimes include realistic suggestions without a lot of judgment. Here is an example of cool feedback for that same classroom observation:

“Answering students homework questions at the start seemed to help students move into the class work.  I noticed that all the homework questions came from the same 6 students – who sat at two tables in the front.  How do students determine where to sit – or how did you design your seating chart? I wonder if using a call and response structure would change the pattern of whose questions and answers you hear?”

Some time ago, we decided to change MacDonald’s “hard feedback” to that of “hot feedback”.  Besides completing the metaphor, “hot” also more represents the radical discourse we have come to recognize as essential if we are going to seek and attain educational equity in the face of the systemic racism and other forms of oppression well established in our school systems.  Hot feedback is intended to get to the heart of a matter – the root issues behind situation that may be more at the surface. In giving hot feedback we seek to challenge one’s thinking behind an issue and help them look in a mirror to consider how they may be situated within their own dilemmas.  Again, when invited, we may use hot feedback to raise concerns. One thing that we have learned about pushing people with hot Feedback is that it is best heard when the receiver of the feedback feels some ownership and thus, hot feedback often is heard best when put in the form of authentic questions.  Finally, here is an example of hot feedback:

“When TJ blurted out a question about the lesson, you reminded him that you already warned him not to interrupt the class – again referencing your class expectations.  You sent TJ out with a referral. Later, Mary interrupted your lesson with less volume. You stopped your instruction to clarify her concerns. Was the different response due to repeated behavior by TJ?  I am wondering to what extent are we more alert to some students’ interruptions because of their cultural norms for communicating. To what extent might this result in inequitable behavior management and or access to information?“

Balancing these principles have served those in our schools quite well, and now I wonder, how might these principles serve us outside our classrooms?  Given the nature of discourse in our society right now, and given the temptation to distance ourselves from those who disagree with us at a time when we need to find more ways to come together and have radical discourse across difference – including difference of opinion, what is it for which you are being a rebel and spouting your perspective regardless how it is heard?  In the spirit of activism – for whatever you seek to be an activist – how might you better engage in radical discourse with those across difference of opinion… so that you may actually be heard?

Filipino American History Month (October 2018 #3)

Adding to this month’s theme of identity awareness, guest blogger Nicole Magtoto reflects on the skin she is in – in the context of her relationship with the San Francisco Unified School District.  In addition to graduating from and currently working in SFUSD, Nicole is SF-CESS’ Board President and, as she puts it, “an SF-CESS Kid”.


October is Filipino American History Month. As it closes, I’ve been reflecting on my complicated relationship with being a Filipina educator and product of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

I am an almost model minority. This is a refrain I often use when sharing my own experience as a student from the late 1980s through 2001. As a third generation, native San Franciscan of mixed-race background, I experienced nearly every type of schooling one could that our public school system has to offer – alternative dual-spanish immersion, traditional public and public charter.

But, I also entered those experiences with the added bonus of carrying generational expectations as someone who was Filipina, Chicana and to a lesser degree Irish and Afro-Portuguese. Lesser, because in our larger context I could not pass as either, lesser because I did not experience the privileges of being white or white-passing, nor did I encounter the systemic racism of being black or passing for black.

“Almost model minority,” because my parents never fully enforced stereotypical Asian American values on me, all the while speaking Spanish and being visually read as Latina. This meant that I simultaneously lived up to societal expectations when I got straight A’s but also, consciously avoided getting involved in our systemically built sorting systems for brown folk like the gang affiliations that caught up some of my Latinx peers – San Francisco in the early 90s was an interesting time to say the least.

“Almost,” because even as a teenager, I had a complicated relationship with being Filipino – not quite Asian, not quite Pacific Islander, certainly not like other Latinx diasporas but still colonized by the Spanish. All things that I’ve spent years reckoning with.

As I reflect however, as we recently lost a pioneer in Filipino American studies, Bay Area native and local professor Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon – I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a young Pinay (Filipina) in our schools now, in 2018.

I’m not the only Filipino who has a complicated history with being Filipino. Yes, being mixed certainly adds to it, but we as a people have had an ancestry that involves a lot of negotiation. Our history is one that’s been dotted with migration and influence from all over the world – our indigenous traditions poking through Malay and Chinese influences, Japanese and Spanish wars and U.S. military installation.

But here, in the Bay Area, we have found a second home. Since World War II brought so many of our grandfathers, uncles and family members to San Francisco (and the west coast of the U.S. in general) our families have easily (and not so easily) settled in the area and we have staked our claim. Like many other diasporic communities, we spent years trying to assimilate and simultaneously hold on to whatever cultural traditions we brought here with us.

In SFUSD, this manifested in the opening of the Filipino Education Center in accordance with the Lau Action plan in 1977 and a push to recruit and hire Filipino teachers, something that though diversity and inclusion have continued to be important, there has not been a specific focus on recruiting Filipinos.

I was in late middle school/early high school during the late 1990s when we saw a shift in how local Filipinos both saw ourselves and wanted to be seen by others. A push to recognize that there was no F in our native tongues (of which there are at least 185 languages) and a movement to spell Filipino with a P began in local higher education circles. We started to embrace the terms Pinoy/Pinay to describe ourselves – a term that could be likened to Mexican Americans calling themselves Chicano/a.

In the academic world – and in the spaces where young college students supported youth empowerment of Filipino young people (my own entree into the community beyond my family) there was also important dialogue about Filipino’s relationship to Asian America. Were we Asian? No. We did not experience the privileges that our brethren from mainland Asia did. We were darker, had complex histories as a colonized people, had indigenous roots that more similarly reflected the Pacific Islanders we were around. But, we still didn’t quite fit there. Our indigenous background had been – in comparison to our cousins in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – watered down or hidden publically by years of territorial rule. For a time, it made sense that we were potentially grouped with them, or alongside them.

I don’t believe 2018 is much different, and I have cause to think that maybe, for Filipino young folks it might be just as complex if not more so.

We’ve set a priority in SFUSD, to focus on closing the achievement gap for African American students, which, regardless of being an SFUSD employee and alum, is something I fundamentally believe will change ALL of our students futures. If we can find ways to do right by our African American students, all students will benefit.

But, the reality is that while that’s a district priority, and we are still wrestling with what that looks like, the experiences of other students are rising to the surface and people are calling for action.

Earlier this spring, the SFUSD Board of Education passed a resolution in support of better serving Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NHPI) students. Though this group may be statistically small in our landscape of SFUSD, they are deeply underserved – their community is concentrated in the same areas of the city as our Black families and students, and though there is no basis for direct comparison, these students and families are disproportionately impacted by academic neglect, health issues and unemployment like their neighbors. Though the resolution was initiated by a collaborative between different City and County stakeholders in San Francisco, from a variety of backgrounds, the efforts are specifically targeting students whose lineages trace to Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – which when considering that the resolution aims to increase graduation rates and post-secondary success, commit to collaborative partnerships with community-based NHPI Organizations that support our young people and hire more NHPI staff – this request is necessary it is also innocuous to our district priority of closing the achievement gap for African American students.

It is impossible, in that sense to not get behind this initiative. Yet I have a sticky feeling about it. I have a slight unease. There’s a nuance to the experiences of our most marginalized communities, that requires that we not begin to play some twisted version of the oppression olympics, that by calling out what communities need, we cannot also create a hierarchy of trauma – at least not when we are trying to serve entire communities of young people who inherited that trauma from all of us adults.

Statistically speaking, Filipinos are doing fine academically – fine relative to their other POC peers. Statistically speaking, the chronic health issues our community may experience are not disproportionate to our population size. Except for one thing that’s become more and more transparent. The 2017 survey results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey have indicated that  Filipino middle school aged students in San Francisco Unified may be experiencing disproportionate rates of suicide ideation. While 19.4% of the 1,627 middle school aged students who took the survey overall indicated they experienced feelings of suicide ideation, 32.4% of the Filipino students had seriously thought about it. In a time when anxiety across the board is clearly at an all time high for people living and breathing in the United States, this particular data point has stuck out with community members in San Francisco and many are partnering to destigmatize mental health supports and dialogue in the Filipino community. Does that mean then, that this issue should somehow qualify them for their own inclusion in NHPI supports, should it somehow be compared to the needs of our island kapit-bahay (translation: neighbors)? Absolutely not. It’s merely worth noting.

So, when I consider my own experiences navigating among my kababayan (translation: countrymen), the stances, beliefs and customs I have inherited and, at times, distanced myself from – I can’t help but wonder, what world do we now have to create to better support these young folks? How do we create spaces where young people, of any background can inherit the truly best parts of our communities and arrive authentically in their own skin? Can we disinherit them from the trauma, the racial hierarchies we’ve created, and give them a space to know themselves and support each other?

As the movements for Black Lives have expanded over the last few years, there has been a small and quiet contingent of Asian/Pacific Islanders for Black Lives. To me, what this has demonstrated was that there is a possibility – in 2018 America where breathing as a young person of color is a risk factor- to dismantle the either/or paradigms which we are so enmeshed in.  There is a space for both/and, and it’s imperative we cultivate it for, and with our young people.

This is how I begin every day, in the work and in life – arriving everywhere as authentically as I can, carrying with me the layered experiences of being in the skin I am in – Filipina, Chicana, Irish, Cape Verdean, Native San Franciscan, Woman, Spanish speaker. Though I graduated from our school system 17 years ago, I recognize that our young people today, are similarly intersectional, similarly complex and know that it’s my duty to investigate and create educational spaces and conditions that allow them to discover their authentic selves.  Perhaps I can reach to this goal today by posing the following to you:

  • In the skin you are in, when have you experienced the complexities of conflicting identity politics?
  • In the skin you are in, how are you cultivating conditions for young people to authentically be who they are?
  • In the skin you are in, how are you showing up for those across difference, who may be experiencing disproportionate challenges, even when your own community’s needs are heightened?


Monthly Musing (October 2018 #2)

Back in 2013, I wrote a Monthly Musing calling into question the use of others’ cultures in the name of Halloween costumes.  The reflection was filtered through my professional lens as a teacher, administrator and coach.  In the past five years, a lot has changed – professionally, socially and personally. As a result, I am revisiting this topic through a slightly wider lens.  A little over a year ago, my partner and I expanded our family with a beautiful, 7-year old son across race from foster care who we hope to adopt this coming year.  For those keeping track, that is a family with one Mexican dad (Gary), one white dad (me) and one black son (D), (and a one Pekinese dog, Mimi). While my stance on the appropriateness of appropriating others’ cultures – in general and in particular on Halloween – has not changed (don’t do it), D has pushed us to think even more deeply and critically at our reasons why and how those reasons are relative to the skin we are in.  

A few months ago, while the family was swimming, D looked at my pale legs and said, “I wish I had white skin”.  Even our breaking hearts could not delay our responses to reinforce his incredible and unique and incomparable beauty and value – in the skin he is in.  We also sought to understand, so we questioned him, “Why would you want white skin?” He calmly responded with a tone of obviousness and seeming simplicity, “because its better.”  The conversation that followed included a call to our black family members who have committed to being a force of black excellence in D’s life.

As this conversation has evolved, D’s vocalized desire for white skin only surfaced one more time – a few weeks ago when we asked, “What do you want to be for Halloween?”  

Without a thought, D responded, “A white person!”  

The ensuing conversation clarified that this time D was not wishing to be white, but rather saw the opportunity to be white perhaps similarly to others who wish to appropriate cultural artifacts of others to perpetuate distorted caricatures of our most biased stereotypes.  Our first thought was to question what artifacts did this 7-year old associate with being white?!? (What came to mind for you just now?)  Was his idea rooted in aspiring whiteness, stereotyping whites or just telling his truth?   The whole situation reminds me of two recent stories.

A Tulare, CA high school, required by the state to change its mascot from “The Redskins” renamed their new mascot “The Tribe” (I’ll wait), continued and still continue to use images of Native Americans and Native American Costumes in their promotions and sports events arguing that the Redskin mascot is part of their tradition.  Around this same time, Frederick Joseph, an African American business owner in New York City, in trying to expose the hypocrisy of a similar conflict at the national level with the NFL’s Washington Redskins, wore a “Caucasians” mascot t-shirt.  The response from white people was quick and clear with one person calling him disrespectful even though she felt differently about the Redskins image because it was the team’s logo… it was owned by the team. Additionally, many on social media responded to Joseph aggressively including making multiple death threats.  Clearly It was difficult for those in positional and systemic power to understand that making a people the mascot for other people was dehumanizing – until it happened to them.

Whether it be simply donning the cultural garb (from sombreros to saris to kimonos to serapes to Native American headdresses amongst many) or actually using kits to take on physical and stereotypical features of specific cultures (i.e. Chinese, Jewish or even gay), there is no shortage of consumables in our Halloween or popular online stores.  After our conversation with D, a quick search at local and national sellers resulted in no comparable outfits or kits for those who might want to dress as a white person. While they may exist, searching for them does not come with the same ease or in the same saturation of results. But, why would it? Whose culture is for sale – and who has the right to benefit from others’ cultures is based on systemic power… and therefore, race.  

So obviously, our conversation with D was complicated by the tension between the brilliance in his vision for flipping the script and the risk in actualizing it in the skin he is in.  

This time, we decided to spare the 7-year old of the conversation WE wanted to have.  Instead we explored other costume ideas. And D, this little black boy in 2018 U.S. decided he wanted to be… a cop.  Ever since D joined our family, his love of the police has been explicit and intense. We don’t want to squash that – we push him to talk to and say hi to peace officers whenever he sees them.  We also know we have a responsibility to educate him on the reality of the relationship between the police and black males in this country. As part of that education, we decided to take a slight left turn this time.  We agreed to D being a police officer – and the family members, including Mimi, would go as the rest of the Village People. (See that?) Oh, and none of us will be going as the Native American member.

And yet, the story expands.  This weekend, visiting friends asked D what he was going to be for Halloween.  He replied, “A white police officer!”  As Gary and I did a double take, he continued to tell the story of how he wants to see others’ reactions when a white police officer tells them they are under arrest.  The next day, before we could revisit the conversation with D, his social worker came for her regular visit and asked D what he wants to be for Halloween. He replies, “A white supremacist police officer.”  My own mind exploded with questions.   

Where did he pick up the language? Us? School?  How is his image of the police changing? How is that safe?  How is it limiting? What does he now think about white people in general?  What does he think about the white people in his life? What does he think about me in his life?

We asked D to expand his thinking.  We learned that D does not have an exact definition for white supremacy or white supremacists but believes they are white “like ghosts” and as a result can go and be anywhere, “scaring off people like ghosts… Boo!  Boo!!!” We still are interrogating where and how D is learning these concepts (we don’t object, just wish to be informed supporters). But as importantly, D is pushing us to inquire, interrogate and expand our beliefs about appropriation – especially in today’s context.  

I cannot escape that my reactions and feelings when D said he wanted to dress as a white person, while still intense, were very different than my feelings when a white person wants to dress as a person of color.  (What are your feelings and reactions in either of these situations?)

On the one hand, interactions with D push me to recognize that we all want to be seen and heard as valued and valuable beings – not to be dehumanized.  On the other hand, I cannot forget that there are realities – and emotions – associated with these different experiences based on our histories and the power structures attached to them.  I do think it is different when a person from an historically, marginalized community seeks to objectify the identity of those who systemically oppress them. I am not saying it is right (or wrong), just different than when those who are backed by the longevity of systemic and unearned power and privilege seek to objectify the identity of those whose identity they are pathologizing for the sake of maintaining unearned power and privilege. For example, what it must feel like for our Mexican and Mexican American (or Muslim or LGBYTQ or Jewish or female or….) brothers and sisters to experience the daily deluge of false and invalidating statements, images and attacks on their identity only to witness some of those same people using their very same identity to profit either monetarily or experientially?  Seriously.

I move into this Halloween season, challenged by the innate wisdom of a 7-year old to make connections AND to differentiate.  I am reminded to hold with complexity the paradox that we all want to be treated with humanity… and how given our histories, dehumanizing acts are not experienced equally.  

In seeking humanity for all, those of us with historically and systemically unearned privilege and power have unequal responsibility to embrace and understand our own narratives while not weaponizing them to invalidate the narratives of those who are not like us.


  • In the skin you are in, what are your feelings about the appropriateness of appropriation?
  • In the skin you are in, how do your feelings differ depending on who is appropriating whose culture?  
  • In the skin you are in, when have you taken from others’ cultures?  For what purpose? How do you feel when others take from yours – in the skin you are in?  


Educational DNA (October 2018 #1)

What Is Your Educational DNA?

With a new school year underway, I am thinking about new beginnings.  It is not unusual for our educators, students and families to consider this time as an opportunity for fresh starts – a reasonable and hope-filled thought of wiping a slate clean of past incidents, behaviors or patterns.  With this thinking also comes a risk of over simplification that erases the impact of our history. I believe history should be respected – even painful or challenging history. Specific to our work as educators, I contend it is impossible to consider how schools reproduce biases and inequities for our current youth without considering how the institution that is school has played out in our own lives.  Psychologist Carl Jung suggests, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Specifically, as we consider our histories, I push us to consider our educational history – or more complexly, our educational DNA or the educational values, beliefs and expectations espoused and modeled by our families, tribes and cultures (informed by their own educational experiences) and the educational messages and practices we actually have experienced in our own schooling.  The work of exploring our educational DNA is constant and continuous identity work that pushes us to explore and interrogate our individual and collective histories to better understand our schemas and cultures, values and biases as they show up with and around us each day – consciously and unconsciously. Towards the goal of making the unconscious conscious (or the invisible visible), we at SF-CESS ask our partners to name “the skin they are in” as well as to unpack their equity and leadership stance in any given situation.  As participant facilitators, we constantly ask the same of ourselves.

So, this “new year” I wish to make transparent my own reflection of my educational DNA and equity stance – in the skin I am in.  I offer this – not only to challenge you to do the same, but also (hopefully_ to Illustrate how constant and continuous personal identity work (as it relates to our professional work) requires imperfection, incompletion and vulnerability – conditions that continue to be counterintuitive in our school and leadership models.  While this reflection comes on top of years of exploration and interrogation, it looked very different when I first started and is sure to look different in the future after additional the mistakes, successes and reflection I have yet to have.


On My Educational DNA… An Incomplete and Ongoing Reflection

I am a product of public schools.  As a product of public schools, I both have been overtly a benefactor of the racism and sexism historically and systemically embedded within our educational system’s design, and simultaneously a target of its inherent, complex and regenerative classism and homophobia.  My experiences growing up as a working poor, gay, Lebanese/ Italian student in white male skin has served to construct and instruct my perspective of the work in which I now find myself.

White and male, I heard explicit and implicit messages that conveyed expectations for me to succeed in school (e.g. “You’ll make a great doctor,” lawyer, etc.).  Yet gay and closeted (and despite well-established statistical evidence that suggests at least one LBGT student can be assumed to be in any class of 30 students), I heard the consistent message in classrooms, cafeterias, schoolyards, and halls that school was not a safe place for people like me – and therefore, not a place for me.  My “dual” identity gave me the privilege of being in the room, unknowingly undercover, as those around me discussed their intentional hatred for and fear of a group of people that included me.

My parents wanted me to excel in school even though they struggled to find their own access to my formal education in a system that had not always served them.  My mother earned her GED, and thanks to the GI Bill, my father attended night school for his Associates Degree – but never left his role as a factory worker.

I attended a college-prep high school that predominantly served wealthier students from the East Side of Providence, RI.  The assumption and expectation was that my family, from the west side, would be the primary support for my journey to college. I was to be the first in my family to attend a four-year college right from high school.  

After repeatedly trying to meet with my counselor to begin my college application process, I finally caught her in passing.  She told me she did not have time for me; “Besides,” she reasoned, “your family cannot afford college.” That year, I had scored in the top 10-20% of standardized tests.  

Finally, after years of hearing and rebelling against the message that school was not for me, I listened.  I cut 80 days of school in my Senior year. No one seemed to know. No one checked on me. No one called my family. No one failed me.  Invisible, ignored and de-humanized, I heard that my education did not matter; I learned that I did not matter.

My family’s message about the importance of education was consistent.  Their messages about school were different, as they saw education coming from not only school, but also home.  While they recognized that the two did not always align (school was for book knowledge and home was for life lessons), they did expect us to be respectful and obedient in both places.

As my education advanced and my social skills matured, assumptions about my background perpetuated.  Simply by looking at my skin color and hearing me talk, those around tended to be quick to assume my history – including the assumption that I came from a family more affluent and formally educated than was true.  It was less frequent that these assumptions were checked, and as a result, I once again found myself amidst people who discussed my life (welfare/ food stamps, working class values, multiple-language families, worthiness to have certain privileges such as recreation, transportation and food) without actually realizing I was in the room.  

So much of our Educational DNA is determined by the skin we live in.  In America, the skin we live in is defined first and foremost by race; it also is so much more.  It has been my experience that unexamined, the skin I am in can be baggage weighing me down; examined, the skin I am in serves as a source of great pride and strength – of liberation.   Exploring the skin I am in both excites and frightens me. That is the first thing I need to remember.

The skin I am in is so much more than the skin you see, and yet the skin you see is so much of who I am.  Even in all my complexity, the institution that is public education automatically and inequitably favors me as a white man.  Furthermore, I purport, that regardless of my espoused and sincere values and beliefs, I always have the option to discount my less visible target status by embracing and taking advantage of my skin privilege. Absent intentionality, I ultimately will.  Thus, I must commit to the continuous self-examination and consistent work towards serving as an ally, agent and accomplice across difference.

My professional stance has evolved from a culmination of experiences – my own, my family’s and those of the people with and for whom I work.  Beyond my own formative years as a child and student, my professional identity is challenged and transformed by the stories of my students, colleagues, and families.  These experiences influence my decisions, results and reflections. I carry them with me whenever I walk in a room.

What I know today is that I am committed to the equitable education of youth – specifically and first for the benefit of those who are not provided equitable access & opportunity (most often our black, brown & poor students). Growing up in a working poor family taught me the value of humility as an essential leadership trait. AND ALSO, given the repetitive & predictive data in our schools & communities across difference, I believe I need to build on and from my actual experience & knowledge gained over nearly 30 years of service, study and results.

Thus I, in the skin I am in as a queer, white man, bring to my work a tension of recognizing that I always will know less than I need to know – particularly in service of communities to which I do not belong – especially across race, language & gender, AND ALSO that, I feel urgency to use what I do know to vigorously & unapologetically interrupt & transform inequities when they are in front of me and constantly work with and for others to create conditions for them to do the same. 

So, what is your educational DNA?



Awareness (March 2014)

In what ways does your community deepen its collective and individual awareness?
How do you intentional build community and trust in your school? How do you intentional build community and trust in your classroom?  What is common or different? 
To what extent and purpose is your adult community committed to adult instruction and reflection?  What does that look like? 

School reform is complex. It is more than any one “right” curriculum, standardized assessment or legislation can solve.  Furthermore, given the history of power and privilege in America and American institutions such as our education system, even the most effective curriculum, assessment and instruction must be supported by dynamic conditions in support of constant inquiry, interruption and improvement – transformation.

A wise, local funder supporting a family engagement project of ours told us, “Don’t tell me that this family engagement plan will improve math scores.”  She had done enough of her own homework not only to recognize that many conditions and systems are needed to impact any such improvement – and authentic family partnership was a one such condition, not a direct cause for accelerating success and improvement for students.

With a mission to interrupt and transform our current reality in public schools, SF-CESS’ work intends to name, model and help create these conditions.  In the next weeks, Monday Musings will review the four stages (Awareness, Interruptive & Catalytic Experiences, Meaning Making, Action & Assessment) and related conditions we consider necessary for teacher – and school transformation.  This week, the focus is Awareness.

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates



Before we can transform who we are or what we do in any intentional way, we must know not only where it is we wish to go, but also from where we started.  We must be aware not only of our current reality but also of our own stance and schema of this reality – in the skin we are in.

Schools spend tremendous time and resources assessing the current reality for their students and exploring prescriptive efforts to change those results – yet the patterns of who is served and not served in our schools persists across every corner of this country. Understanding our current reality requires an understanding of our history and how it impacts (intentionally and unintentionally) our present situation.  Educators and families and the larger community (including legislators) must learn about and discuss the history and design or public education in relation to our current results.  And as long as our equity gaps are inseparable from racial demographics, we need to speak openly and courageously about the legacy of slavery and the reality of race and power in America (and our schools) as well.

Given that the experience gap between so many of our educators and their least reached students includes an educators success within the very system they are challenged to change, schools also must be places where individuals can engage in ongoing inquiry and learning about their own histories – in the skin they are in – that inform their schemas (believes, mindsets, values, stances, etc.), which play out in their daily interactions and decisions.

This type of inquiry and learning is frequently de-prioritized or dismissed as “touchy-feely activities”.   When done well, this characterization could not be further from the truth.

When done well, this work does invite us to engage our affective domain – an essential component to work in today’s educational system.  Why should we not create space to do affective work given that the current reality – if looked at with honesty – should cause outrage, sadness and fear?   Still, such work is a leap from business as usual for many schools, so time and attention need to be committed to creating the conditions for the honest exploration of our histories and current realities – individually and collectively.

We have learned that some conditions and their related strategies support and develop individual and shared awareness. While not exhaustive, these include Intentional Community and Trust Building as well as Instruction and Reflection.

Intentional Community and Trust Building
To move a school culture from the limited paradigm of head and hands work only to that of including the work of our hearts and histories requires a deeper level of honesty and risk taking.  This requires an investment in developing community and trust between individuals and as a collective. There is a litany of resources for developing trust and community, the least of which include:


  • Calibrating and using a common purpose for the community – this work occurs at many levels, from the organizational mission and vision to objectives and goals for collective meetings and work.

  • Developing, agreeing on and actively using community and discourse norms and expectations – perhaps more important is also agreeing on and actively using responses when norms or expectations are not met.

  • Agreeing on definitions for the community’s common language – it is especially important to share understanding of power language such as accountability, collaboration, culture, engagement, equity, leadership, respect, etc.

  • Engaging in meaningful and intentional and meaningful trust building work – this needs to occur regularly in a manner and should model the community and trust development needed with our students and families.

  • Providing ample time and reflective prompts for regular and meaningful storytelling about our experiences, values and beliefs – these could include simple think-pair-shares, panel and fishbowl presentations, or larger group discussions such as Socratic Seminars.

  • Developing and using transparent decision-making and conflict-resolution practices – decisions and challenges arise normally in-group dynamics and conflicts frequently arise because of how we respond.


Instruction and Reflection

We can no longer reinforce cultures in which it is unacceptable to say, “I don’t know”.  Our learning must include data discussions and direct instruction in the areas where community knowledge is limited or isolated and reflection of our history/ histories – as a system and as individuals. Effective efforts include but are not limited to:


  • Engaging in regular equity-centered data based inquiry – one of the few benefits to NCLB is that our schools and districts have gotten very good at collecting, disaggregating and doing quick analyses on its data.  What still lacks is collective and courageous community discourse about the results and their root causes.  These conversations require time, care and strong facilitation.

  • Including the expertise of others – while it is true that public education’s systems do not naturally foster the trust and empowerment needed for educators to develop answers to their dilemmas, it also is important to recognize that as educators, we don’t always know what we don’t know. Just as important as it is to support peer-led professional inquiry and learning communities, we must create communities in which outsiders and outside expertise are welcomed to provide direct instruction and diverse perspectives – especially when our insiders have not demonstrated sufficient knowledge or representation to serve students unlike themselves.

  • Naming and reflecting on the skin we are in – simultaneous to deepening our awareness of our current reality and systemic design, we must reflect on our own experiences in this system and our resulting operant theory or schema for how we navigate within it – from our values and beliefs to expectations and biases.

  • Expecting and fostering humility – given the vast representation of dominant culture within our schools, many are challenged to adopt the humility necessary to fully embrace the multiple and divergent experiences, perspectives and truths about school and the conflicts these may surface between our espoused and operant theories of action.  Towards more equitable schools, humility is not a sign of uncertainty or weakness, but rather a necessary leadership quality that should be modeled and supported and evidenced in how a school looks at core systems from hiring to collaboration to supervision.