“Diversity is difficult. Washington talks about it” is the motto for Washington School’s “Courageous Conversations.” And that is exactly what the school did on Jan. 21, when Washington School hosted about 40 District 65 parents, teachers and administrators for an evening of discussion about race and racism.
The workshop was part of Courageous Conversations, an initiative established in 2011, which reflects a proactive approach towards addressing incidents of racism that children were experiencing at the school.
We both feel the program was worthwhile. It is very encouraging to see parents and teachers brave, not only the cold arctic temperatures, but also the cold hard reality of racism in our community. For most adults, talking openly about race and racism in front of people of different races is loaded with risk. This level of transparency and trust calls on us to overcome our fears, hidden insecurities, and our own assumptions about these sensitive and divisive topics.
Race and racism are controversial topics that undermine preferred notions of diversity in Evanston – “drive-by diversity” its been called. Despite its diversity, racism in Evanston is a reality, which makes this a very difficult conversation for most of us to have. These challenges and questions are compounded when we consider engaging in these discussions with children and teenagers. In this session we were able to take steps towards lifting the veil of denial off the face of racism in Evanston schools.
It is not a question of if, but when, we should initiate having developmentally appropriate discussions about race with children. It is essential that we not wait and react to incidents only after they have occurred. We must take a more proactive approach to dealing with these issues. And in situations where adult caretakers do not encourage children to openly discuss their concerns, children will create their own context with misinformation from their peers, stereotypes perpetuated on television, and subtle racial messages that linger in society.
Courageous Conversations is driven by the energy and needs of our community. In my discussions with different parents, teachers and other administrators it became clear that we needed to work, not only with the students, but also with our entire community.
Our hope is to help parents and teachers gain awareness and develop skills for having discussions with children about race, culture and language in a safe and constructive manner. Our aim is to empower children to be confident with their racial identity, and to prepare them to navigate cultural differences on the Washington School playground and beyond.
For the past three years parents and teachers have expressed the benefit they have gained from attending these sessions.
Parent John Sweeney said he felt that using real-life examples of racism helped participants because they were offered in the dual framework of broad context and everyday lived experience.
He and others expressed gratitude for the energy and dedication of the parent advisory committee, which helped implement the workshops as well as for the facilitation, which, they said, “created both context and content for thoughtful reflection about how we should move forward as a school community.”
Parent Meagan Novara said, “I have never encountered another venue that compels such straightforward, unflinching honest discussion about what we are already thinking about anyway. I couldn’t name a more valuable tool for such a diverse community.”
TWI, Two Way Immersion, first-grade teacher and parent Eva Martin said, “This conversation was really eye opening for me. It reminds me to keep these talks present at all times instead of waiting for an issue to happen. It gave me some strategies for empowering my children with the development of their heritage, pride and racial identity.”
Parent Heather Sweeney summed it up best saying, “Dr. Logan makes conversations on race, culture and language accessible to all participants. He naturally creates a safe and empowering environment that promotes dialogue, questions, reflection and action.”
She echoed the sentiment of many saying, “Parents around Evanston have expressed interest in what Washington School is doing with Courageous Conversations. It could only benefit our schools, our children and our communities to formalize these conversations and make them available at this high-quality level across the district.”
— Ms. Ellison is principal of Washington Elementary School.
Dr. Logan is a diversity consultant, writer and speaker. He is founder of S.O.U.L. Creations, and a former teacher in the Evanston public schools. He also serves as adjunct faculty of social justice and diversity at Northeastern Illinois University and Harper College. His upcoming book is “It’s Time for the Talk: Strategies for Discussing Race and Racism with Children.”