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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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?



Doing Our Own Work (February 2014 #2)

What work do we need to do by ourselves and with our own people in the name of racial justice?

Happy Black Heritage Month… well “happy” may be a relative term in this case.  While I hope that many, many of our brothers and sisters who identify as black and African American are experiencing happiness, I am reminded regularly that we have days and months of remembrance not only to remind ourselves of and to allow healing for our history but also to educate and advance ourselves continuously so as not to repeat it.

Last week, a school in Concord CA (the largest city in the same county as Oakland, CA), chose to commemorate effort to Black History Month with a menu of Fried Chicken, Corn Bread and Watermelon.

Yes. They did.

For any of you asking yourselves, “What is wrong with that?” (some have asked), it is with minimal judgment (see last week’s Monday Musing) that I offer this direct feedback: do some work.  Do some homework and research and read on your own – or with your own – as to why this is a problem.  Furthermore, do some self-work; reflect on why it is that you may not know what is wrong with this situation – today.

This story was tweeted last Thursday; I actually questioned whether or not to give it attention in this blog.  On Friday, I got a call from a distraught community member and remembered – once again – why it is so important to point out the countless subtle and not-so-subtle racist occurrences, as they serve as steppingstones to the very overt and harmful.  This community member, an African American woman called seeking critical friendship for how to handle a matter that involved one of her children, a middle school student.  The child was in class being taught by a white male teacher.  As is frequently the case, the conversation moved to a tangential topic – this time it was about differently-abled people.  In one of her statements, the child referred to the specific disability being discussed using politically incorrect terminology that was used 20 years ago, but no longer.  The student was not trying to be funny or insulting; the student also did not know that one of the teacher’s parents was within the demographic of the discussed disability.

As it was reported to me, the teacher brought the student to the hall where he asked her, “How would you like it if I called your mother a **gg**?”  I want to be clear, the man did not say, quote – the n-word – unquote.  He said the word.

After the girl returned home and shared this information with her mother, it is not a surprise that a call was made to the school.

Sadly, as it turns out, the administrator who followed up with the man also was a Black female.  In their conversation, the man felt the need to use the same word – four times – in order to share his side of the story.

Pause – anyone who is trying to rationalize how this chain of events might have occurred reasonably, please see paragraph four above.

As I listened to the story, so much came up for me.  I felt tremendous anger at the misuse of power (multiple times) and the potential long-term harm that a moment may make.  I felt sadness for the loss of a teachable moment to help a young person learn about a disability and why certain language matters.  I felt my own challenge to approach every situation with love – while, in no way excusing the situation itself.  But most of all, I felt the recurring urgent need for my people – people who look like me – white people – to do a lot of work together and on our own, and how this work we must do should start with few, if any, assumptions of what is or is not shared understanding.

Given that, I want to share something that I wish was shared understanding – and for my colleagues of color, I apologize in advance. This message is not for you as I have heard from many colleagues across difference that they are tired of being in the presence of white people doing work at their expense.  Thus, if you choose not to continue reading, I fully understand.

To my people, the message actually is quite simple:

Never – ever use the N-word.  Never.  That simple.  Right now, if you are asking, “But what if…” or, “But what about when…” or, “”But why can…” – then stop.  The answer is simple: Never.  Ever.  If you don’t know why, that is ok (actually not completely) – but it is ok because you don’t need to remain in ignorance.  You can and should read writings from or talk to other white people who have begun this work for themselves (it never is finished).  You also should read about the experiences of those not from dominant culture (it is a great way to get other perspectives without having to involve people who may not wish to engage in this conversation – yet again); there is a litany of work out there.  If you don’t know where to start – consider a google search on “The N-Word”.

Most of all, it also is ok if you don’t understand why it is NEVER appropriate to use the N-word because you now know the rule: Just Don’t Do It. Ever.

Norms (February 2014 #1)

Who are we protecting – and silencing – when we suggest that a community can thrive without judgment?

Last week I attended a mini conference for districts that were partnering “less successful” and “more successful” schools with the intent of forming mentoring relationships.  As a former principal, and later center director in such a relationship as part of the National Coalition of Essential Schools’ Mentor School project, I was excited to attend and see what progress this mentoring model has made since CES’ original program nearly 10 years ago.

Good people attended with the intentions of doing good work, so it was a good two days.  The formal learning however, left me wanting more.  Not only was minimally shared about forming formal mentor relationships, but also the facilitation modeled practices that I had long ago learned did not foster the necessary conditions for these desired relationships.  I am a facilitation snob.  I know that.  But in our work, I have long learned some basics that have the potential to either make or break a transformative relationship.  One of the more subtle, nuanced facilitative moments comes when developing group norms.  For this group, no such work occurred.  We just moved into the agenda with the assumptions that we knew and agreed on how to work together and what to do when conflict occurred.  Even though people were playing nice, neither was true as evidenced by side conversations used to debrief and release minute tensions.  Perhaps the most serious was when an African American colleague shared that she – as one of only 6 black educators in a room of nearly 200 – did not think that she belonged in the room.  She explained her feelings were based on the reactions she received when she shared her experience of school.  Others, as she noted, “were put off” and the tension was never addressed.

I know that rolling out an arbitrary list of expected behaviors does not assure those behaviors.  But in my experience, not naming and agreeing to expected behaviors almost always assures greater difficulty achieving these behaviors in an intentional way.  Furthermore, a lot more work must be done besides “naming” a set of norms – communities must agree to and must make meaning of behaviors together – up front and ongoing.  Additionally, communities must determine how are (and develop skills for) individuals to respond to a breach of norms – before such a breach occurs so that the community is not experienced as reactive and retaliating.

When the norms of a community (or relationship) are not explicit, transparent, shared, who benefits – at whose cost?

So? Norms were not named up front, and we could have used some language to navigate tensions that arose.  We were all adults.  We should be able to deal.   But dealing is not our goal – transformation is.  Te very purpose of the mini-conference rose out of our limited success with students from outside of dominant culture.  So much of their limited success is based on being in schools that don’t level the playing field by making expectations and access to them transparent and equitable. Just because we don’t name our norms – does not mean we don’t have norms. Every community has norms.  All too frequently, when not named explicitly, the norms of a community are reproductive of dominant culture – thus serving many, but not all.

Even when we do take the time, I am surprised how many times the norms being introduced include standards such as, “be respectful”, “be on time”, “do your homework”.  I consider these job expectations, not norms.   In some professions, being disrespectful, arriving late or not doing your work leads to disciplinary action.  While I am not advocating for increasing disciplinary action, I also believe our students deserve their professionals to leave such basic understandings as unstated.  To me, norms should be the behaviors for which a community and its members need to stretch in order to reach.  Especially in public education, working and discourse norms should put us into dissonance – not comfort.

When we don’t take the time to name and make meaning of normalizing behaviors that challenge us to grow, we leave room for us to normalize behaviors that seem correct… politically correct, that may unintentionally or intentionally, and unconsciously or consciously, subtly or blatantly retain the status quo.  These positive-sounding but innuendo-laden terms include, “trust/assume best intentions” or “cause/ do no harm”.  Another one that was introduced and slipped into the directions before schools were supposed to discuss their work was, “No Judgment.”

A quick online search reveals “judgment” to be defined by Merriam-Webster as “an opinion or decision that is based on careful thought.”  Why is it that we want to norm NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought?  While I understand the unfriendly environment for teachers has put the profession on the defensive, I also believe we need to distinguish between being safe from unwarranted attack and being in the discourse necessary to develop as professionals.

As noted above, we need to be clear about our purpose in our work. We have to examine and be honest about our stance.  Are we seeking comfort or dissonance?  If we say we are committed to equity, we have to reflect on the extent to which interruption and transformation are possible without judgment – and commit to work on the conditions – and norms necessary for this work.

Once we have some understanding about the stance we have about the conditions we need, I challenge each of us to compare that stance to the one we take for the students in our care. Does our theory of change play out consistently with them?  In other words, for those of us who require a norm of “no judgment”, to what extent do we exempt our students and their families from any form of judgment?

Is that what our students need – to NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought?  Is that what we really need?  I truly believe most educators don’t believe this when espousing such politically correct language as “no judgment”.  I also think we are past this negotiation for a standard of behavior and may need to think about how such language may actually encourage and reinforce the limited participation patterns we espouse to interrupt.

SF-CESS has adopted and built on the norms suggested in “Courageous Conversations About Race”, (Singleton, G. and Linton, C, 2005).   In the book, the authors encourage individuals to consider how they best can (1) Stay Engaged, (2) Speak Their Truth, (3) Experience Discomfort, and (4) Expect and Accept Non-Closure when challenged by difficult work and interactions.  In addition, SF-CESS encourages that groups identify “process observers” who can help a community (A) Pay Attention to Patterns of Participation, (B) Maintain Contextual Confidentiality, and (C) Go to the Source when conflict arises.

Google Child (January 2014 #4)

What does it take to educate equitably, as Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children” when it means making visible and diminishing the privilege (and edge) of our own children?

This past weekend, my colleague Micia and I facilitated a professional development session with one of our middle schools.  The purpose of this mid-year retreat was for the staff to engage in reflective and collaborative practices that would allow them to more honestly and urgently take up the inequities facing their students.  For this school, for this year, they identified their least-reached students as their English Language Learners.  The guiding Essential Question for the day was, “What do our ELL students need us to know, do and be in order to most equitably educate them?”

Less than a decade ago, this middle school was the worst performing school in the entire school district.  After three years of consistent leadership and very focused transformation efforts, the school is now considered a good school… a good option for all diverse families of San Francisco.  Fortunately, the school has not eased up and strives to be an excellent and equitable school.

Historically in San Francisco, school improvement opens up new possibilities and new situations that bring both benefits and challenges.  In particular, one situational shift for improving schools is that they become more attractive to families who have been privileged enough to choose alternatives school wasn’t so good.  There is the potential for greatness from a richly diverse student population – especially when a school can build from the strengths of its various cultures and educate students to collaborate and excel within and because of their diversity.  Unexamined however, radical shifts in a community’s demographics also can lead to unintended, unanticipated and undesired results.

The school we worked with on Saturday currently faces these challenges.  As a school that has made tremendous progress in serving its predominantly brown, black and poor students, closing the racial achievement gap has become a major part of its identity… and program.  And because their success is now inviting white families and upper middle class families back to their community, they are feeling the pressure of dominant culture seeking to minimize the efforts that serve other students over their own, and to prioritize decisions and design that will better serve their own children.  Experience suggests that focusing on what our most privileged children need in isolation – or even committing equal resources to these new and welcomed students – will come at the expense of the students now being better-served than in the past.

For many, the challenge of equity is that it requires us to prioritize. The problem of equity and limited resources is that priorities define not only who should get more, but also who should get less. 

Back to the retreat: we challenged teachers to consider their own experiences, beliefs, values and priorities based on their own experiences (or as we say, based on the skin they are in).  We suggest that we need to understand from where we are coming to better influence where and how we hope to change.  We facilitated a piece of work in which we asked teachers to read a series of student profiles (short descriptors for how a student might see herself or how shy might believe she is seen).  Each teacher was to identify the one profile that best represented themselves when they were students.  After grouping by their self-identified profile, they discussed the strengths and challenges for their archetype and recommended to the larger group ways to best educate the student of this profile.  One of the fourteen profiles was written specifically for this school:

“I am a Google child.  Really. My Dad works for Google and he drops me off at school on his way to catching the Google Bus.  My parents questioned whether or not to send me to public school and decided this one was good enough and could save us a lot of money for other things.  We have to make sure the school is constantly giving me the education I deserve – but overall it is worth it and that is why we stay.”

During the session, no adults were able to identify with five of the student profiles and a handful created their own. This simply served as a reminder that these underrepresented students are part of the school and led to the challenge to consider how their voices and needs would be considered. The Google child profile was one of the unselected profiles.

At the end, we debriefed the process. Two members of the community – a white woman and a white man (both who previously had identified courageously their own connections to privilege in relation to their own students) had very strong reactions to reading the Google child profile.  They found it to be judgmental and negative.  The language of the feedback soon came to equate this Google child with white children (sometimes replacing the word “Google” with the word “white” – even though race was never mentioned in the profile.

What does it mean when we automatically associate success (i.e Google child) with whiteness?  How is it actually about white, dominant culture?  But also, how might this be another reproductive way of conveying low expectations for those who do not represent or are not represented by dominant culture?

Even though some of the other thirteen profiles clearly had similarly risky language attached to them (other profiles included an English learner, a queer student, a teacher’s pet, and a student contemplating dropping out), there was not a consistent sense of resistance to how the students were represented – and throughout the day, there was quite a bit of ease talking about these “other” students.  But when dominant culture people felt as though their privilege was being made visible, the rules seemed to change.  This reaction feels like an important issue on which this school – and all of us – should keep some focus.  Some questions that continue to sit with me:


  • While on the one hand, it seems natural that a parent would want only the best for her child, on the other hand one also has to question the role of those families who only participate in a community when it is good.  How should we negotiate this tension in PUBLIC education? 

  • What does it take to educate equitably, as Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children” when it means making visible and diminishing the privilege (and edge) of our own children? 


Restorative Justice (January 2014 #1)

If we were consistently guided by the goals of restorative justice, how different would our results, our graduates, and our society look?

I know this comes late, but I have been unable to stop thinking about the case of the kid with affluenza since I first heard the story.

On June 15, 2013, after stealing beer from the local Walmart, Ethan Couch, 16, drove his seven passengers in his Ford F-350 pickup truck at 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.  Couch was under the influence of both valium and alcohol – he had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 – three times that of the legal limit for an adult.  He slammed into several vehicles – including one broken down SUV, rolled his truck and struck a tree.  He killed all four pedestrians at the site of the broken down SUV, and severely injured two of his own passengers, leaving one paralyzed and unable to speak due to brain damage.

Besides being affluent, Ethan Couch is white and while some would argue he does not represent the majority of people in America, he is a member of the dominant power and culture from which much of our societal norms and assumptions are based.

6 months later, even though prosecutors asked for 20 years in juvenile hall with parole available after two years, the teen, who admitted to the offenses, was sentenced to 10 years probation but no jail time, and mandatory treatment for which Couch’s lawyers are recommending a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation facility in Newport Beach, CA.  Defense lawyers, supported by one psychologist, claimed that Couch was a product of “affluenza” – a victim who was the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy and gave him everything he wanted.

The judge, Jean Boyd, who accepted this diagnosis, believed prison would not provide the treatment needed.


Besides feeling the outrage – that I hope and believe most of America felt with this illogical verdict, I also felt the injustice of inequity and inconsistency in this way of thinking.  I fantasize about this rationale being a consistent one in our society.  In particular, a few thoughts stand out…


  • If we truly were to attribute the cause of one’s actions so fully to one’s environment, how different might our justice system – and prison population look given the historical and institutionalized context of racism and poverty for so many of our prisoners?

  • If we truly believed that prison would not help “treat” offenders who are the victims of their environmental context, then what would social services look like – not only as a prevention but also as treatment of those who cause harm to others – be it vehicular manslaughter, or other offenses?

  • I also cannot help to wonder, if Judge Boyd believed the rationale behind her verdict was one that should be extended to other contexts besides the affluent, how might that have influenced her final decision?


Closer to home for me, I cannot help but to think about how even today, many argue that the current design of public education has proven effective for so many before (dominant culture) and therefore the problem in poor results may lie in those for whom it is not working (i.e. blaming students and parents or holding lower expectations for those with societal barriers).  If we agree that public education is, in part, meant to prepare our students for citizenship, then maybe Judge Boyd’s precedent-setting decision will open the doorway to establish our less affluent students’ cultural schema as the new standard bearer more than their affluent counterparts and should therefore inform, with less resistance, the design of what teaching and assessing should look like.

While it is unlikely that these fantasies of mine reflect what our larger system will come to be, this may be for the good as they, along with the actual reality of the case of the boy with affluenza seem to leave out one major variable – those who were harmed by the “victims” of affluenza (in this case the four who were killed and their survivors).

Over the past few years, many of our schools have adopted Restorative Practices (RP) or Restorative Justice as ways to address harm in our communities.  The goals of RP are to


  • Use open communication to build understanding of how individuals’ harmful actions have impacted others (including the community).

  • Have individuals take responsibility and be accountable with support to repair the harm that was done.

  • Develop a plan to ensure that the harm doesn’t happen again and to begin to reconnect and build relationships and to restore community.


Perhaps Judge Boyd should have extended her commitment to treating the harmed to the victims of the case before her.  Perhaps these RP goals could have helped her remember this focus.  While this tragic incident reminded me of these RP goals, it also reminded me that even our best strategies for justice are only as effective as their just application.  As usual, my wonderings lead me to more wonderings – WHAT IF… our justice system were consistently guided by these goals?  How different would prison and treatment for offenders look?  WHAT IF… our education system (not just some classes, schools or even districts) were consistently guided by these goals?  How different would results and graduates… and society look?

Doing Good (November 2013 #3)

When is doing something good, good enough?

A question of the big picture, individual example and equity. 

If you haven’t heard about Batkid (a.k.a. Miles Scott) saving the day this past Friday in downtown Gotham (a.k.a. San Francisco), perhaps you were being held captive by The Joker – or just under a media rock.  Simply put, Make-a-Wish foundation, with the help of many who found Scott’s story touching, was able to entice thousands of San Franciscans (including our Mayor and police department) to partake in turning San Francisco into a Gotham scene for a short time so that 5 year old Scott (recovering from leukemia) could be granted his wish of being Batman’s sidekick and helping to save the day.  As a friend of mine put it, San Francisco was back to being San Francisco.  And, it would not be San Francisco if we also did not have some outlier voices weigh in on the spectacle.

“One of San Fran’s own supervisors, tweeted, “Waiting for Miles the BatKid & Wondering how many 1000s of SF kids living off SNAP/FoodStamps could have been fed from the $$…”

Another local celebrity who is very attuned to social justice posted on his facebook, “Ok, I’m going to say it. I can’t take it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (sparks shooting from my ears).  It’s almost like the city used a terminally ill child as a platform for a big ass PR stunt. Even if the gesture was sincere- even if it was beautiful- it still unveils some major dysfunction in our social mind.”

Even someone in my own family questioned, “I wonder how much of the response from the public has to do with the fact that this is a white kid?

I don’t reference these comments to identify this year’s contenders for holiday Scrooges; rather I deeply support the discourse of critical inquiry.  And, what frequently results from such inquiry happened for me – uncertainty – and thus, this week’s Monday Musing.

In full disclosure – I thought the Batkid event was awesome! Besides my own lifelong commitment to supporting young people, I am a huge superhero fan – I even have a framed Batman poster signed by Bob Kane.  When I first heard the comments above, I thought, “Awe, come on.  Let a kid have his wish for god’s sake.”  Then as I thought further, I reconsidered.  While timing may have been less-than-optimal, what is wrong with taking up these questions?  After all, engaging in this discourse does not equate with accepting premises as true, but rather models the act of shared meaning making for important topics.  As I engaged in more discourse, I was reminded that we sometimes situate our world and ourselves into forced “either-or”, “right-wrong” dichotomies.

The truth is that the money that went into funding this effort could have fed many hungry mouths, but then, so would the billions of dollars held in the coffers of Google, Apple, and so many other Bay Area entities.  As I understand, much of the money for this event was donated – and the event was used as a vehicle for additional fund-raising for the foundation.  Does the fact that this event was a charitable one somehow give us the perceived right to say whether or not and how it should occur?  Isn’t this what happens with our public education system every day?  Because it is publically funded – and perhaps because most of us went through the system, there seems to be an overwhelming capacity to dictate what public education should be, and what teachers, parents and students should do – from afar. 

I am troubled by the (history-informed) hypothesis that Batkid’s race played a role in how Joe Public responded both to him and to the event as a whole.  I am troubled because I absolutely believe this is true.  But, I struggle with a response for while I wish a young black child would have received the exact same level of excitement, warmth and response, I also don’t believe that a solution is as simple as not affording this opportunity to this white child.  Those of us who fight for educational equity are well aware that the wrong way to achieve this goal is to lower the bar for everyone.  So, I do struggle – I struggle to consider how to continuously fight for equity – while not losing sight of the individual.  I wonder what it might look like to plan a celebratory event such as this one through a lens of equity – without losing the celebration and without being too political?

Ultimately, Friday represented a good deed being done for a deserving child – and yet, I believe the investment and payoff was much greater.  As I received emails from family and friends across the country sharing how inspired they were, I could only hope that this story would have a “pay-it-forward” effect.  As one onlooker stated to a local reporter,  “This just restores your faith in humanity.”