PoCC Blogs

Writing the Narrative Ourselves: Final Reflections on the 2016 People of Color Conference



“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
― Chinua Achebe
I find it interesting how often we heard the word “narrative” at the People of Color Conference this year and were invited to reverse it, shift it, and claim a new narrative in our schools.  In our pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, Kapono Ciotti and I shared and elicited the stories of students, harnessing the power of student voice to shift educational practice.  We invited participants to plan with specific students of color in mind, particularly those they aren’t seeing thrive in their schools.  The trend continued with Bryan Stevenson, who encouraged us to shift the narrative when it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline and ensure all young people have the right to a childhood; with Richard Blanco, whose work encouraged us to “contribute a chapter” to the narrative of our nation; and with Zak Ebrahim, who made the choice to reject his father’s narrative for a more peaceful one.  And we ended on what may have been the most stirring narrative shift of all, with Brittany Packnett sharing how she turned her wounds into power and conviction.
Every session I went to included elements of narrative and story, from Rosetta Lee’s stories about her life as a Korean American to David J. Johns’ insistence that we ask students about their stories and needs so we can best support their growth.  On Saturday, I attended a session by Princess Sirleaf Bomba of the Wheeler School, who shared her experiences as an African in America, so different from the experiences of African-Americans.  Tensions arose in this session—exactly the tensions the session was trying to address—over the disparate stories of blacks in the United States (African-Americans having a history of slavery, white supremacy and limited opportunity; while more recent immigrants from African nations come from varied socio-economic and educational backgrounds and may or may not be fleeing from oppressive circumstances).  The clash of narratives is always difficult, those moments when one person’s truth counters another’s.  There is so much to be learned, however, when we can lean into discomfort and try to keep talking.
We saw this kind of discord at the end of Zak Ebrahim’s session as well. Stories are power; narratives live deep inside our hearts and memories, and while stories can lift us up or help us connect, they can also make connecting painful when our stories and truths don’t align.  It is hard to make room for all of the narratives, even among adults, to live in the kind of space Rosetta Lee described, where we recognize our need for each other in order to see the whole truth.  I think one of the most important things we can do as educators is navigate that uncomfortable place when equally valid narratives clash, and it’s a skill our students need for an increasingly complex world.  For me, the discord we experienced underscored the importance of starting from questions, and of starting by acknowedging that we can only move forward if we let ourselves hear and honor a variety of answers.  Sometimes, just modeling a willingness to live in the struggle and “live the questions themselves,” as Rainer Maria Rilke put it, provides a good starting place for our students, too, especially if we are willing to be vulnerable with them.
We ended the PoCC this year with two extraordinary experiences, both of which included the power of narrative.  We got to meet three leaders who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for civil rights: baseball giant and civil rights champion Hank Aaron; Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was a Freedom Rider and has spent his entire career as a civil rights advocate; and Martin Luther King’s only surviving sibling, his sister Christine King Farris, who taught at Spelman College for many decades.  It was like staring into the face of history to hear them speak, and each provided thoughts on how we need to move forward in the advancement of human and civil rights.  Hank Aaron told students to follow their gifts, whatever they are, and to be the best at whatever they choose, pointing out that there are no shortcuts.  John Lewis suggested that we need to get in trouble—good trouble, necessary trouble—in order to create change, telling students and teachers to “stand up and speak out” when we see an injustice.  And Christine King Farris reminded us of her brother’s dream of a “beloved community,” encouraging us to build beloved communities in our schools and beyond, to work toward communities where love, justice and non-violence prevail.
But the voice still ringing in my head and heart as I left the PoCC on Saturday was that of Brittany Packnett, Teach for America’s VP for National Community Alliances.  Her honest, direct style and oratory power made her riveting, and her history as a student of color in an NAIS school made her narrative even more important and relevant.  She shared her wounds with us, in particular telling us of the white boy who spit on her in high school–and who was never held responsible.  She talked to us about breaking down inequitable systems and building more equitable ones, of how easy it would have been for her to become the kind of person who didn’t take her seat at the table.  But Brittany was raised to speak her mind and not shrink for others, and she told the story of dinner with President of the United States Barack Obama as a moment in which she truly took her seat at the table.  “I am the lion,” she told the students, echoing Chinua Achebe; “The hunter will not tell my story; I will.”
I have a friend in education who likes to point out that humans were not meant to live in separation, that we began our existence sharing our stories around campfires in community.  The People of Color Conference and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference are such campfires, beloved communities where we have the chance to share our stories and commit to the hard work of shifting the narrative in our schools.  I hope that the SDLC experience helps to catalyze a sense of purpose for our students, that they take their place within a long tradition of peaceful change makers and feel their connection to the common purpose held by all of the exceptional people who shared their stories.  As our SDLC leaders put it in the closing ceremonies, the next Aaron, Lewis and King Farris are already in the room, preparing to take their places at the table and ready to rise.  And I hope the PoCC experience galvanizes the resolve of all adults of good conscience, helping give us the energy needed to do the hard work of equity and belonging in our schools.
We are the lion, after all, and it’s time we tell the story ourselves.

The Search for Home: Day Two at the People of Color Conference



I’ve been thinking all week about the distinction between inclusivity and belonging.  As Kapono Ciotti put it in our pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, we’ve shifted our thinking significantly over the last few decades, and our language has had to shift as well.  We started with tolerance–a word I personally hate because it suggests we only tolerate each other–then moved to diversity, then to inclusivity.  But belonging is a very different thing, a deeper and more emotional concept than inclusivity.  Rinku Sen referenced the weaknesses of the term inclusivity as well on Day One; inclusivity, she told us, suggests that one person or group has built a world they’ll allow others to come into, and that’s not the same as creating community together.  Belonging is that feeling of home, that feeling of knowing that you are an inseparable part of something, connected deeply to the people around you.

This morning, we had the incredible experience of hearing from Poet Laureate Richard Blanco, and his search for home was at the heart of what he shared.  As he put it in his keynote, he was produced (conceived) in Cuba, manufactured (born) in Spain, and imported (moved) to the United States.  He described growing up Cuban in Miami, of the ways his family tried to “be American” by incorporating elements of a US lifestyle into their home.  He made us laugh at his stories of “San Giving,” his family’s version of Thanksgiving, in which the turkey was always dry, pork was served as well, and pork drippings helped to make the turkey palatable.  They drank rum and danced salsa on Thanksgiving–and childhood looked nothing like the Brady Bunch.  He told us of his parents’ nostalgia for Cuba, for a life he never knew, and of their attempt to find home in the United States while also preserving a sense of home they might return to one day in Cuba.  Blanco evoked humor but also a deep urge for belonging as he described his search for home and his parents’ yearning as well, particularly his mother’s: “To love a country as if you’ve lost one…  It isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where you choose to die–that’s your country” (from “Mother Country”).

Blanco also described the challenges of growing up queer in his Cuban family, of being accepted for who he is–in particular by his grandmother.  One of my favorite poems was “Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother.”  The poem included endless admonishments for less-than-machista behavior from her grandson: “Don’t pee sitting down,” she told him.  “Don’t stare at the Million Dollar Man; I’ve seen you.”  Her ideas about masculinity, standards that didn’t match who he was, also impacted Blanco’s sense of home and belonging.  It wasn’t until he wrote and then read his work at on Inauguration Day that he realized the United States can be home for all, a place where everyone belongs.  “We can all write this new narrative,” he told us, “we can all contribute a chapter.  There’s a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it–together” (from “One Today“).

Our students need a sense of home and belonging as well, and I spent the morning in David J. Johns‘ master class exploring how students might contribute to co-constructing their education, particularly African-American youth, both LGBTQI+ and straight.  His focus on student voice kept reminding me of belonging as well, of how often students feel school is a world constructed by the adults that they have to find their place in.  Instead, David Johns’ workshop suggested that students should be involved in the creation of that world, of a space in which they feel right and safe and whole.  Too often, he pointed out, adults assume they know what students need–which I explored in my blog on Day One.  But when we ask students what they need from us, when we involve them in the conversation about what their education should look like, they can shift from being included (often only marginally) to a real sense of belonging.  As someone working hard to incorporate student voice into everything that happens in the schools I support, I found his ideas deeply resonant.  I found myself thinking about the power of learning from students rather than making assumptions or teaching at them, of the incredible transformations I’ve seen in schools where students have been at the table and have had the opportunity to turn their communities into communities that feel more like home.  “We need to disrupt an educational system that determines opportunities based on zip codes and genetic codes,” Johns told us, so that all students thrive and feel a sense of belonging and wellbeing, both in our schools and the world they inhabit after they leave us.

For Zak Ebrahim, the search for home was different.  As the son of a terrorist, Zak has moved 30 times in the course of his life.  In school, he was bullied constantly–which he acknowledged has created a deep empathy for outsiders.  He chose a life of peace building and constructive action, rejecting his father’s ideas about the United States and forcing change through violence.  What moved me most was the element of choice, that idea that we can choose an identity different what’s expected or assumed, even when that identity is different than a parent or the community around us.  “Isolation,” he told us, “is the key ingredient for radicalization; separation never leads to understanding.” As my friend and colleague Homa Sabet Tavangar pointed out, this was a perfect bookend to Bryan Stevenson‘s urging on Day One that we “get proximate” because only by getting in close can we really understand the lives of others.  When our students feel a sense of belonging and home, it comes from that very proximity–and from seeing our own reflection in others, something we can only begin to do when we make real connections and build deep relationships.

I grew up searching for home as well, trying to make sense of my Semitic (Jewish) identity, clashing with the politics of Israel, trying to understand my place in the mostly non-Jewish communities I’ve inhabited.  Once I stopped self-identifying as religiously or politically Jewish, it got even more complicated; I lived outside the United States for significant portions of my teens and 20s, always searching for a sense of belonging.  Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of trying to arrive at a home I never quite make it to; the dreams started when I was 9 or 10 and I still have them several times a year.  I can see some city off in the distance each time, viewed from planes and trains and ships, but I never quite arrive.

I felt that way in school as well, as I shared in my pre-conference welcome blog.  While I found ways to be included, I can’t say I felt I belonged.  And this is probably at the heart of why the People of Color Conference has become so important to me over the years.  When I step into the International Affinity group, I know I’m home; we are an incredibly diverse group, filled with people of every color from every continent, yet we share a connection to worlds beyond the United States and the experience of feeling like outsiders in places others call home.  As the only US-born international most years, who feels more at home outside the United States than in, I don’t have to explain myself with this family.  They know and understand me; I’m not just included, I belong.  And as we prepared to meet with our student counterparts on Saturday morning, we affirmed how much our students need this, too: the power of being understood and seen by teachers and peers, and the sense of belonging that comes from it.

I wonder if we might channel our childhood wounds and educate from exactly what we needed as children ourselves; the effect would surely be transformative.  Ultimately, the search for a country we can call home is the same as our students’ search for belonging in our communities.  A school can be a country, too, I keep thinking–a place where all belong and contribute and know they are home.


My PoCC family, the International Affinity Group


Unpacking the Why: Day One at the People of Color Conference



In our pre-conference session yesterday, Kapono Ciotti and I shared an interview I did with a young woman I mentored starting at the end of her 5th grade year, when she was given a scholarship to the independent school where I taught.  A Mexican-American raised by a single mother from the state of Durango, she experienced so much “othering” by teachers and tutors that she ultimately dropped out of her NAIS school and went to her neighborhood parish school.  Back among students who looked like her, and among teachers who honored exactly who she was, she thrived.

This young woman’s story is not unique, unfortunately, and her powerful words–as well as the outraged reactions of our workshop participants–have been in my heart and mind all day at the People of Color Conference.  How often do we misperceive our students’ capacities or drive, assume we understand why a student acts as they do, rather than asking the questions that might help us see the world from their perspective?  When we come to the People of Color Conference each year, we come back into a community that gets the importance of students’ sense of power and identity, of their wellbeing in their own skin and their empowerment as learners.  How might we ensure that this happens for all learners in all schools?  How we might ensure that educators engage all students with an asset mindset and try to understand their why?

Our morning keynote Bryan Stevenson explored similar ideas by suggesting that we need to look more closely at the racial divides and challenges around us.  Don’t avoid “bad neighborhoods,” he told us; get closer and try to understand why they exist.  Get proximate to the people, to their day-to-day lives, so you can understand and honor the whybehind what you see.  His stories humanized everyone, from death row inmates to the prison guard whose truck was covered in confederate flags and racist bumperstickers.  He told us of a condemned man who sang of higher ground, fueling Stevenson’s sense of purpose as a result, of how the school-to-prison pipeline exists because of the assumption that some children aren’t children.  “We have to change the narrative,” he told us repeatedly; we have to combat the fear and anger that lie at the heart of oppression so we can see every child as fully human and deserving of a real childhood.  “We have to stay hopeful,” he told us, so that when someone says “these kids can’t…” there’s always someone pushing back to insist that they can.  I found myself thinking again of my student, of how often her teachers assumed they knew her why (she wasn’t trying hard enough, didn’t have the right skills, probably had challenges in her family life), rather than starting from the kinds of questions that might have unearthed what was really going on (she had a very supportive home life but insecurity over who she was and how she fit in, the sense no one honored her as a learner and she needed to get better at everything, and intense discomfort because she knew even the teachers saw her as different).

Rosetta Lee’s sessions on racial and ethnic identity touched on similar themes; in the morning, we did an “Up-Down Exercise” to affirm our own identities, and with each set of identities she unpacked the nuances involved.  In the afternoon, she told us about her own “lunchbox moment” on her first day of school in the United States, when her peers thought her Korean food was gross and she first felt “other.”  She provided us with a sense of the stages we might see students go through as they make sense of their marginalized or privileged identities.  She reminded us that we have to do our own identity work before we can do it with students; otherwise, we run the risk of projecting our baggage onto them.  She talked, too, about the balance we have to set, especially with young children of color, between helping them understand the challenges they may encounter, what she called “protective socialization,” and making them overly scared of a hostile world.  She said that our job is to tell our students how much we love and believe in them as exactly the people they are, but that we can’t promise their identities will always be honored by the society around them.  She unpacked why so many students feel limited by the perceptions of others, particularly by adults in a position of power, and she urged us to try to understand the reasons behind the behaviors we might see in the schoolhouse.  If a student isn’t turning in homework, for example, it might be important to understand why it feels easier to avoid caring at all, rather than caring, trying, and running the risk of failing.

At Mt Vernon Presbyterian School here in Atlanta, one of their community norms is to start from questions.  Today drove home just how important that can be–not just for our students but for our broader society.  When we approach students with assumptions about who they are, we are not engaging with them as fully human–and that can have lasting and traumatic effects on the young people in our care.  Addressing this challenge means unpacking our own baggage, the why behind our own choices and assumptions.  But we also need to remember another MVPS community norm, which is assuming the best intentions.  I would like to believe that most educators want to do right by every child in their care; what they often lack is the training to know how to respond to challenging moments, how to get to the heart of why those challenges have arisen.  Like a gardener, culturally responsive teachers create the conditions for growth and learn to lean into discomfort, to be transparent with their students and model growth.  Each child has gifts and perspectives to offer our classrooms and the world beyond our walls, and educators who approach students with an asset mindset are able to draw those gifts and perspectives to the surface.  Rosetta reminded us today that while different perspectives provide different truths, the most powerful community is one where we recognize that we need each other in order to see the whole truth.

Waiting to Exhale: Coming Home to the People of Color Conference


Sarah Fukami, Wakeme (Partition). “The past is monumentalized through the dissemination of history; he or she who controls the circulation of that history limits the ways in which one can perceive it. During WWII, the War Relocation Authority manipulated how Japanese-American internment was viewed by the public through censoring photography and media depictions of what occurred in the camps. This piece displays idyllic photographs commissioned by the WRA against those from the Associated Press which reveal the reality of the Japanese-American experience. At the same time, their racist agenda is revealed ironically by the blatant display of propagandist rhetoric in the captions that were published in newspapers. By creating this contrast, the viewers are asked to reshape their own histories; and question beyond the information that has been conveniently handed down by the transgressors of the crime. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'”

“Walls turned sideways are bridges.”
–Angela Davis

I realized the other day that I’ve barely breathed since 2am on Wednesday, November 9th. That panicked, tight feeling in my chest and stomach hasn’t left since I woke up in a haze and realized what happened. I haven’t taken a deep breath, haven’t cried or exhaled completely since that morning. It’s almost like my body and mind don’t want to let me mourn. Every time I try to write, all that come out are questions: How might we empower our students to keep our schools hate-free? How might we best support marginalized students and colleagues who are living in fear? How might we open civil but meaningful dialogue that makes room for multiple perspectives without veering toward bigotry? How might we combat the “isms” in our communities, even learn to honor indigenous values and varied ways of life around the world? How might we avoid normalizing Standing Rock, hate crimes and other forms of systematic oppression and marginalization? And how might our students be a part of constructive change-making and community-building efforts beyond their school walls?

As the indices of hate crimes began to rise immediately post-election, particularly in K-12 schools, I found myself thinking of every young person who has a reason to feel marginalized and threatened by the increased legitimization of all our worst social “isms.” I thought of my former students, of all those amazing young people who are beyond the schoolhouse walls now, using their gifts to make the world a better place. I thought of my Dreamers, undocumented students from Latin America who gained access to college through the Dream Act and now find themselves dangerously visible. I thought of the children of immigrants who passed through my classroom, many of whom fear deportation or forced registration of the hard-working parents who sacrificed for their sake. I thought of my Muslim-American students, of the stories I keep hearing about Muslim mothers begging their daughters to ignore their faith and stop wearing hijab in public to keep themselves safe. I thought of my African-American students and my constant fear of unwarranted violence against them, of my Japanese-American students whose grandparents experienced internment in this country and who know just how dangerous divisive thinking can be (see the extraordinary artwork of my former student, Sarah Fukami, on this blog). I thought of my differently abled students, my gay students, my transgender students, all of whom fear mockery, violence and legalized exclusion now more than ever. I thought of the struggling public school I just started working with, a school filled with immigrants and refugees where teachers and administrators dream of equity and inclusion–and are working hard to get there.

I thought of myself, too, and what it felt like to grow up Jewish in the United States. Last week, I told my mom for the first time of the little blonde boy in 2nd grade who told me Hitler’s body had never been found, that he could be alive and might come back to kill my family. That early experience with feeling othered and threatened was so intense that I can still picture the scene down to the quality of light in the room when he said it; that little boy placed the first crack in the protective veneer of my childhood, and I have felt “other” ever since. I thought of my trip to Los Angeles on November 10th this fall, of how my inner 2nd grader felt that same vulnerability and threat as I moved through public crowds in airports as an adult. I saw a woman laughing as she watched election results on Fox News in the United Club in Denver, and I couldn’t breathe, much less respond. I am the child of activists; I was raised to always take unapologetic non-violent action to promote social change. I’m the last person to keep my mouth shut in a moment of injustice; I believe in living my values out loud. Yet that week I found myself scared and silenced, walking through crowded airports wondering who wished my family and I would just “go home” to the countries we escaped three generations ago.

PictureSarah Fukami, Kiku (Chrysanthemum). “This piece is part of a portrait series of my Japanese family, which utilize hanakotoba, or, the language of flowers. The western version of this concept is also referred to as floriography, where specific flowers are symbols for various sentiments or communications. While I use the visually beautiful imagery of the flower, I also want to emphasize the flaws in associating others with symbols. This afterthought quickly becomes the rejection of what they are perceived to represent.”

We find ourselves at a crossroads in the United States, in a country divided. As educators, our responsibilities are overwhelming, and many teachers are still trying to figure out how to talk to their students about what comes next. Much as we saw in the weeks following 9/11, many educators feel paralyzed and unsure of how to confront division and discord in a way that honors all perspectives but also encourages dialogue toward inclusion, community, and what Buddhists call “right action.”

At World Leadership School, we decided that our best line of action was to send out resources to support the teachers and administrators in our networks. These curricular resources for post-election classrooms come from an array of excellent educational and social justice organizations, and we hope you find them helpful. World Leadership School renews our intention to support schools as they find ways to challenge bigotry and teach understanding and acceptance. We believe in the power of teaching students to lean into discomfort and connect across all that separates us, and in the importance of working together to build diverse, safe, and thoughtful learning communities.

As I pack my bags and prepare to leave for Atlanta, I find myself grateful beyond words for the PoCC. As I wrote after the conference in 2013, the People of Color Conference community is, for me, the best demonstration of Naomi Shihab Nye’s “shared world” I’ve ever been a part of. I feel honored and blessed to share this common vision and purpose with all of you, with so many extraordinary people who care about the needs of students, teachers, administrators and families. I can’t wait to exhale, to breathe out in community, to let myself mourn with my PoCC family. Our students need these days together, too. Helping to foster community and a pride in who they are is the least we can do, and I hope their experiences this week will have constructive reverberations in our schools and broader communities for the next four years and beyond.

I come home to the PoCC this year ready to laugh and cry and strategize together; ready to craft plans to keep our communities safe, inclusive, and focused on constructive change; and ready to breathe in the power of our collective educational vision for the children in our care.

Sarah Fukami, Modern Mathematics. “As an artist who deals primarily with social injustices against Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, it is vital for me to also speak out against contemporary issues. The message here is clear: our government would rather create a facade of peace than to make real change and give justice to black victims of police violence and combat the inherent racism that permeates the justice system. Beneath this message are the names of the unarmed victims who were killed by police in 2015, and are specifically those in which no officer has been charged. There were 102 lives senselessly lost; if we have learned anything from the injustices of the past, we know that silence is consent.”



Life Inside the Mirror: Reflections on the 2015 People of Color Conference



“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”   –Franklin D. Roosevelt

Several of my friends had babies in the last year, and at the People of Color Conference this December I found myself wondering more than ever what sort of world they will grow up into.  I am struggling, as I did just after September 11th, with what it means to raise children in the United States, a question educators are grappling with as much as parents.  I wonder how we’ll make sure our children of color are safe.  I worry for immigrant children and the U.S.-born children of immigrants as they encounter threat and marginalization.  And I worry about whether schools can do enough to impact not just our students’ sense of safety and belonging inside our buildings, but also in the world outside our schoolhouses, where black boys are shot on their way to the store and the children of immigrants are told to go home to countries where their homes have been bombed and their lives are in danger.

Coming together with other concerned, conscientious educators every year is a lifeline for all of us in this work.  As the leaders of the Student Leadership Diversity Conference put it in their welcome message to students this year, the PoCC is like a booster shot for the soul.  The one year I missed the conference for financial reasons, I was downright suicidal by February.  We need this community; I need this community.  It reminds me that the shared world we work for is possible.

But as the challenges grow in our communities, so do my concerns and misgivings, particularly because the people benefiting from all this  fear and hatred don’t go to conferences like the PoCC .  This year, I’d like to share a few of my main take-aways, the mantras I’ll be hearing in the back of my mind as I facilitate the hard work with teachers trying to create change in their classrooms and schools in 2016 and beyond.


1.          We have a responsibility to protect our African-American boys, and to teach them how to keep themselves safe in a society that fears them.  Several speakers this year explored the challenges of teaching black boys to keep themselves safe, things like keeping their hands out of their pockets and their hoods off, keeping their hands on the steering wheel when pulled over, not getting out of the car or speaking back or running away.  But living safely in the U.S. is not as simple as being polite to cops, particularly for people of color.  There’s a deeper problem in our society that requires action, not carefully calculated moves which suggest that our current reality is acceptable.  While we want our children to be careful, and to know that quick moves can get them killed, we don’t want them to give in to systematic racism and oppression.  That’s a hard line to walk; how does a young person grow up with a strong sense of self if he knows he has to act differently than his white counterparts?  How do make sure his safety doesn’t come at the detriment of his identity and sense of self worth?

Listening to Dr. Howard C. Stevenson’s recording of a conversation with his son about a recent police shooting, it was clear he had several goals: to help his son process what had happened, to help him understand that race was a factor, and to help him feel equipped to respond to these forms of oppression while simultaneously protecting himself from similar harm.  These conversations are not just important for African-American youth, either; today, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamaphobia are increasingly rampant in our society, LGBTQ bullying continues, and gun control challenges mean that the haters have firepower at their disposal.  We need to keep all of our children safe in an increasingly volatile world.  This is not just the job of parents to have these conversations, either; it is a responsibility educators need to share and embrace as well.

2.         Children recognize differences and begin to act on social constructs of race and gender much earlier than we think.  To say I was stunned by the research Rosetta Lee shared on early childhood and when young kids develop a sense of race and gender would be an understatement, and the findings make me want to dig much deeper.  I remember noticing this with my older niece, when she announced one Christmas that she wanted a stationary bicycle with an interactive virtual course but couldn’t have one because it was a “toy for boys.”  I think she was about five—and when I dug, it turned out her impressions came from watching tv commercials and only seeing boys on bikes.  It also makes me remember a 2nd grader at Town School for Boys, who approached me to let me know he was black when I was visiting his class at the end of a project on Dr. Martin Luther King as a change maker.  (I gave him a huge appreciative smile and said, “Yes, you are!” He smiled back.)

We are holding such delicate identities in our hands, especially at an early age, and we have an incredible responsibility to do this well, to help our children see themselves in the world and their community, to help them define—and redefine—their identities as they grow.

3.          Poetry can help; communicating matters.  As a writer and former English teacher, I resonated with Sarah Kay’s closing keynote.  She reminded me of the power of poetry to help students process heavy issues of identity, both in and out of the classroom.  I used journals that way in my classroom, and I always allowed students to fold pages that got too personal to be shared with me, so that they knew they had a safe space to process sensitive topics.  That said, I also noticed that many students wanted to share what was most painful, that they even seemed to need an audience who could hear and understand them.  Over 19 years teaching Creative Writing, I was stunned by how often students shared their real, personal struggles under the guise of fiction and poetry, and I was able to help guide students to counselors and other support people once they’d “outed” their real feelings through a piece of creative writing.

The pace of our independent schools makes little room for creative self expression and reflection, yet the arts are where our students most often come to understand themselves and their place in the world.  We need to open up more space in our schedules for such expression, for students to grapple not just with math and history but with who they are and the kinds of people they want to be.

4.         We need to raise our children to stand up to discrimination even when it’s scary.  I remember speaking with a friend years ago, whose first son was born on September 12th, 2001.  I asked how she was feeling, about a month after his birth, about raising a child in 21st Century America.  Her reply was that the world clearly needed a lot more good people, so her charge was to make sure her son was one of them.

A student in my International Affinity Group talked about being afraid to push back when his school community made a poor choice, as it seemed inevitable that doing so would create more tension and conflict.  But the reality is that we can’t get to a better place without that tension and conflict, and leaning into discomfort will take us much further than avoiding the conversation. As Mahzarin Banaji made clear, the biases which put some in danger and others in power are deeply embedded in the human mind, impossible to change until we make them transparent.  It’s not easy work, but it’s some of the most important work we’ll ever do.


5.         The assumption that race aligns with privilege does not always hold true for people with an international identity, however they define that.  I heard rumblings from most of the affinity groups about a graphic shared with all of us this year, called Journeys of Race & Culture: from Racial Inequality to Equity & Inclusion.  While it may have sparked some powerful conversation, it was particularly dissonant for most people in the international affinity group.  We found ourselves drawing distinctions which didn’t follow racial lines so much as ethnic ones; for example, as a semitic American, I resonated more with the lower half of the graphic, the experience defined as that of People of Color, even though my skin is white.  We found ourselves wanting to revise the headings—would we all have responded differently had it been separated into the experiences of “Dominant and Non-Dominant Cultures” instead of “Whites and People of Color?”

None of us intend to diminish what this chart might mean for African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, or the U.S.-born whites who need to do the work of unpacking their privilege.  I’m guessing the conversations triggered by the graphic were important and meaningful for most participants for whom inequity is an issue of race, and I recognize that this conference exists to serve their needs, not mine.  My comments are not meant to diminish what is unique about those experiences.  But subjugation happens as much on an ethnic level as a racial one, particularly outside of the United States, and issues like socio-economic opportunity and belonging to the dominant culture vs. the non-dominant group resonate more for many of us.

In fact, many educators in the international affinity group went from being part of a privileged, dominant class in their countries of origin, to suddenly being perceived as a minority in the U.S. because of race.  Those who can “pass” because of lighter skin have had it easier than those who can’t, and many of my colleagues talked about passing by keeping their mouths shut so they wouldn’t be “outed” by their accents.  Frankly, the threats to immigrants’ place in America are getting worse every day, particularly if one looks Arab or is a practicing Muslim.  Many of my colleagues expressed fear and a profound sense of exclusion and alienation, particularly over the last year, and several of those individuals are white immigrants, both with and without accents, who are watching as U.S. society turns its back on their endless contributions.

For us, the conversation needed to be about this, the life of the immigrant in the United States, and the graphic triggered a lot for us.  I’ll be the first to admit, however, that it also led to some very powerful conversations many of us needed to have about life as it’s experienced by international and “third-culture” individuals, a life which often vacillates between the lower and upper halves of the graphic, depending on where we are standing and how we are perceived. (For more on Third Culture Identities, see “So Where’s Home,” by Adrian Bautista; and Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk, “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local.”)

6.          The Equity Imperative is more urgent now than ever.  The theme of the conference this year was The Equity Imperative, and I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to be part of a community so engaged in such profound dialogue about these topics.  What is even harder than dialogue is bringing our ideas into practice, and each year this conference leaves me with new tools and strategies for helping teachers walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  I am particularly grateful this year to a Mexican-American woman in my international session, who pointed out that she reframes every problem she faces in her community as an opportunity.  As a person who often gets caught up in cynicism and pessimism, I was reminded that optimistic coaching will allow me to reframe the conversation at many schools in more constructive directions.

I hope that every participant this year finds meaningful ways to bring conversations about equity to their communities, and will spark action through that dialogue.  Of all the challenges that face us as a human family, our ability to move from conversation to action is perhaps the most severe, to move past the mirror and let our self reflections turn into tangible solutions to all that ails us.  The urgency to do so grows more compelling every day.  It is our responsibility to teach and protect all children well, and I challenge all educators to find ways to implement our ideologies as good practice in our schoolhouses.

7.         There are still plenty of good people in the world, and we can help balance out the bad ones.  But our kids need to know how to recognize us amid the haters.  Rosetta Lee left me with a lot to think about when someone in her session on Old School Diversity asked how we prepare our children for dealing with the people who don’t understand or value who they are.  Her answer stayed in my mind throughout the conference.  How do we prepare our children for the haters?  We tell them they’ll encounter people who don’t know how to honor and love all that they are, but they’ll also encounter people who see them, appreciate them, and honor every nuance of their identities. Life is about learning to avoid the former and recognize the latter.  It’s about knowing how to build allies and networks with the people who get us and see our whole selves, and trying to educate the people who don’t.  And according to Gyasi Ross, it’s also about remembering that history matters, and that more of a diversity of experience needs to be honored in the retellings our children explore, so that every child sees his/her experiences reflected in the mirror.



Living in a Shared World: The People of Color Conference



This is the world I want to live in. The shared world…
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.–Naomi Shihab Nye

Each December, I beg, borrow and coerce my way back into the People of Color Conference, no matter what the personal cost.  While most conferences feed the brain, the PoCC, run by the National Association of Independent Schools, feeds the soul.  It gives me three days each year when I get to live in the world I work so hard to create the other 362 days of the year, the world I often fear is impossible to build and struggle so hard to envision: the shared world.

Inside the PoCC, people connect across boundaries of race, ethnicity, geography and every other facet of identity.  Inside the PoCC, people smile and laugh together on a journey we’ve chosen to share.  In this space, we ask hard questions and lean into our discomfort instead of avoiding the most important conversations.  When we go back into our real lives, it’s like the worst international re-entry we’ve ever experienced.  But for these three days each December, we get to reconnect with our common mission to support the needs of students and educators of color in independent schools, to recharge our common belief in a shared world beyond the walls of the PoCC, and to unite in our collective efforts to make our schools and broader communities just as open, authentic and unapologetic.

I always attend the international affinity group at the PoCC, and a common theme emerges every year: only in United States have any of my international colleagues ever felt “othered.”  The message is consistent–they never thought of themselves as “people of color” before this country gave them that message and told them which bubble to fill in on visa applications and green cards.  While conflict exists the world over, the level of division, confusion and discomfort caused by identity politics is oddly and uniquely American.

As a citizen of the world born in the United States, I experienced this outside the U.S. more than inside, but growing up as a visible minority gave me layers of empathy and understanding long before I moved to Central America in my mid 20s (see my blog, “Portrait of an Outsider: Lamentations on Growing Up Jewish in the American Melting Pot,” for a satirical glimpse into my childhood).  When we sit together at the PoCC, my colleagues and I don’t see ourselves as a myriad of races; we are a tapestry of cultures and nationalities, defined more by where we come from than the color of our skin.  We ask important questions, connect across our differences, and always discover more that connects us than separates us.  I am grateful for the time I spend in the presence of such wonderful educators, as it recharges my batteries each December and gives me the fuel I need to continue this difficult work.

The highlights at the PoCC this year were many.  Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz stirred us up by challenging the current accreditation model of education in the U.S., encouraging us to strive instead for a transformative educational mindset.  He admitted his nerd-dom and talked about the scene where Gandalf falls into the chasm in Lord of the Rings, telling us we need to “fight the whole way down” in the work of improving education, dialogue and inclusivity in our schools.  He told us that what makes art important isn’t that it gives creative thinkers a career path, but that it allows them to engage with the world.  He cussed like a madman and brought us honest, authentic nuggets of gold–and once he was finished with his fabulous rant, he offered us a five-minute reading from his new collection of stories, “This is How You Lose Her.”

In what was unquestionably the dirtiest, most raw and authentic reading I’ve seen since Kathy Acker in grad school, poet Staceyann Chinmay may have reshaped the PoCC permanently–and I hope no one gets fired for having the audacity to bring her to the event.  Whether standing mid-aisle reading childhood love letters, or up on a chair recreating a pastor’s sermon and the moment, at 9 years old, when she first discovered her own body, squatted over a pit toilet in her childhood home of Jamaica, Staceyann’s reading from the memoir “The Other Side of Paradise” was one of the funniest and most freeing experiences I’ve ever had at the PoCC.  We laughed, we squirmed with discomfort, and we fell to pieces together when one brave woman shouted an unapologetic “Amen!” to the image of Staceyann’s first urge to touch herself–right before she slipped and fell into the pit toilet.  And I’ll always remember her remark about motherhood, which resonates so much for educators, that we grow up feeling our hearts are in our chests, and then suddenly they’re wandering into traffic inside our children.

The highlights are so many I could go on for pages–I hope that colleagues, students and friends from the PoCC and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (the student strand of this event) will add favorite moments as comments below.  Only at the PoCC would we see heads of color embracing each other with tears in public support of a colleague’s first headship; only at the PoCC would we weep together over the death of Nelson Mandela with so much love and appreciation in our collective heart.  Only at the PoCC would every single tweet have so much insight and solidarity behind it (search by #pocc13 and #pocc2013).

In Buddhist practice, we grapple with how to bring our meditative calm “off the mat and into the real world.”  While Buddhist monks and nuns can easily maintain their peaceful state inside the monastery, the majority of Buddhists have to find ways to maintain that state within the chaos of their daily lives.  Like Buddhists, those of us who are transformed by the PoCC have to find ways to bring our learning and sense of connectedness back to our classrooms, schools, communities and families.  Like international travelers, we have to find ways to express our experiences to the people around us, so that we can create ripples of insight and change in our broader communities.

As transgender activist Marisa Richmond pointed out, we need to support legislative bills which strive to ensure the rights and safety of every single child, turning inclusivity into a matter of U.S. policy.  And as National Public Radio’s Michele Martin told us in the closing, we have to talk most with those who disagree with us, learn to listen to the opposition, distinguish between opinions (which vary) and facts (which don’t), and stay in the conversation no matter how uncomfortable it becomes.  We have lived briefly in Naomi Shihab Nye’s shared world, and that privilege comes with the responsibility to make it real every day for every student–and for ourselves.

This can still happen anywhere.  Not everything is lost.