About 50 individuals from School Districts 65 and 202 attended this year’s National Summit for Courageous Conversation (NSCC) held on Oct. 14-18 in Detroit. Staff and Board members discussed their experiences at the conference and how it relates to the Districts’ work on equity during the Oct. 23 joint School Board meeting.
The annual summit, “brings together leaders for racial equity from around the nation and across the globe to engage in a deepened conversation about systemic racism and its impact on opportunity and achievement in schools, colleges, business, government and community,” according to the NSCC website.
District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren spoke first about the summit. He began by telling the Boards that District 65 is committed to “intense training” of all staff. He said that the District is working on school climate in regards to safety and building relationships and trust. An “equity lens” is being used in the hiring process and in making other decisions, he said.
“For me, the Summit was a wonderful opportunity to dig deep with fellow colleagues,” said Dr. Goren who spoke about sessions he attended with school board members, administrators and superintendents from other districts where each spoke of their “equity journeys” and challenges of being in leadership roles.
Two members of District 65 staff spoke about their experiences at the Summit as it relates to the District’s equity work.
Importance of Student Voice
Ismalis Nunez, Director of Equity and Family Engagement for District 65 said she “came home wiped out and is still recovering” from the hard work at Summit which she characterized as “the most transformative experience ever as a woman of color to date. … I had to lean into the things I thought I knew,” she said.
Looking forward, Ms. Nunez said she will challenge herself to incorporate more student voice and respond to the sense of urgency in addressing the achievement gap.
Reflection is Action
Peter Godard, Chief Officer of Accountability, Equity and Organizational Development for District 65 said, “It’s important to me to acknowledge how emotional the experience was. I’m always cognizant of the emotional burden we put, I put, on my colleagues of color for our learning.
“As a White person, I must honor that gift by doing everything in my power to teach other white people.” He said he took away from the summit a “further deepening of my learning” and an understanding that “reflection is a form of action.” As the District goes forward with urgency in its equity work, “cycles of reflection” must be built-in so that the work is “authentic and has a long-lasting change for our District.”
Several members of both School Boards spoke about their experiences at the summit as well.
The Work is Ahead, Not Behind
Pat Savage-Williams, District 202 School Board President, has attended all but the first summit, making this year her eighth. She said she is proud of the fact that for the first time there was recognition at the summit that equity work begins at the Board table.
The District 202 Board sent five members and District 65 sent four.
“The work is ahead of us not behind us,” she said. Ms. Savage-Williams, who went to summit not only as a District 202 School Board member but in her capacity as staff at New Trier, was not only an attendee but presented a session on responding to intense opposition on equity.
The two keynote speakers are the people who are doing the work nationally and internationally, she said.
“For me, one of the most important part is just being in a space where everyone is doing this work,” Ms. Savage-Williams added/
Too Much Talk
“It’s a personal commitment; it requires you to be bold and vulnerable and start with self,” said District 202 Board member Monique Parsons of her two years of attending summit.
“I am in action,” Ms. Parsons said, referring to the compass used in Courageous Conversations as a tool for participants to discuss engagement with the content, whether they are thinking, feeling, believing or acting.
“I come back a little frustrated that we are constantly talking. We talk too much. We have enough data, we know who is not succeeding, we know where they live… and we know what happens by chance. I’m ready to move and give the community what they are asking for and be responsible for our kids and do everything we need to do,” Ms. Parsons added.
Too Many Students of Color Labeled with EBD
Sergio Hernandez, District 65 Board member, who said he has been both a victim and perpetuator of institutional racism, attended sessions on English-language learning and special education.
There are many educational policies “with good intentions but that perpetuate inequity,” he said. “Many of our students of color are disproportionally labeled with emotional behavioral disorders (EBD) and end up being isolated and segregated from class.”
Mr. Hernandez also said education values the English language more, an “explicit message we send to families,” and that the TWI (Two-Way Immersion) program needs to be looked at “from implementation to delivery.”
Failing to Unpack What History Has Done
“As White people, we have a level of freedom not to think of some things like our colleagues of color have done. We don’t unpack what our history has done,” said Pat Munsell, a former history teacher and current District 202 Board Member.
She named two speakers at the summit, Debby Irving and Robin DiAngelo, both White women and educators, who, “both unpacked so much of how this world is and how we can begin to take the journey to change it.” she said. “We need to get to that. There is a sense of urgency.”
Speaking the Truth
Jude Laude, a member of the District 202 Board, called summit a transformative experience.
“Growing up in Evanston I knew something wasn’t right; some doors opened for me, some did not that could have,” he said.
The Detroit summit was his second; he went to the NU session in July where he said his take away was the importance of speaking “your truth” and letting others speak their truth. “As we make these decisions and formulate policy, we can figure curriculum, but we really need to ensure we listen to those who we are looking to impact. People will tell you what they need.”
Mr. Laude said at the Detroit summit, he learned that, “as a Black man, it is critical that I continue to personalize race there by using myself as an example, to tell my story and tell my journey. This is the charge I have.”
A Three-Legged Stool
“There is a power in presence. We can’t hear truth from one another when we are not in these conversations together,” said Anya Tanyavutti, District 65 Board member. She encouraged all Board members to attend a future summit. She said equity work is like a three-legged stool that can be off balance if all legs are not in support. To be successful, “we need a governance body and District that understand and value equity. We also need to support our community in the values they have.” She said the Districts need to see how they are using resources, “why don’t we have a Director of Black Student Achievement if we know this is an issue.” She reflected on the 2016 presidential election and the current political environment. “Participation in the summit was heavy, that we are doing this work in a national environment that does not have an agreement on the value of differences in humanity.”
The Districts Are Ahead
District 202 Board member Mark Metz attended the summit for the fifth time. He said he understands the frustration because “we want this to happen faster, but I’m encouraged and honored to be on a Board that shows leadership. In Detroit, it was clear we are providing leadership on a national level. We are ahead.”
Mr. Metz said he talked to people at the summit who were there alone, “trying to fight this fight alone.” Just because we are turning the wheel doesn’t mean we can quickly change course, he said.
“We are dealing with culture change which is slow hard work. We have to be relentless in our persistence and we are doing that. I feel the culture changing.” ETHS is a different place from when his children attended, he said. “We are all on this journey together and individually. We are obliged to keep going down the road. Change has to happen in time and we need to keep the peddle to the floor,” Mr. Metz said.
Sunith Kartha, District 65 Board President, said she agreed with previous speakers about incorporating a student voice and that in grades K-8, it can be easy to dismiss the student voice.
She said that one call to action from the summit is to “recreate that power here” and determine how to provide time and space for those who have attended the summit “to continue to collaborate and figure out our role in this work.”
Ms. Kartha also read a comment from District 65 Board Member Rebeca Mendoza, who was unable to attend the joint Board meeting and who wanted to share her reflections of the summit.
“I don’t think we as a District have a uniform understanding of race, nor do I think our families understand enrollment forms and how that impacts the data we collect,” Ms. Mendoza said.
She gave examples of Afro-Latinos who are likely to select Black on a form about race or those who select “other” on forms to avoid the question altogether and suggested the Districts come up with a definition of race.
Candace Chow of D65 did not attend the summit, but asked what other Districts talked about in measuring progress.
Ms. Tanyavutti spoke of a student survey that a District in Washington uses to gage the social, emotional, and culturally relevance of their school experiences.
Ms. Parsons talked about how “leadership starts at the top” and when Districts are committed, solutions are innovative. Those Districts that are “all in are the most successful.”
Ms. Savage-Williams said, “At the end of the day, each District has to decide what they are going to do and how. It’s helpful to hear stories of what other Districts are doing. We have to think about who’s at the table and what our discussions are and think about equity first in all conversations. Unfortunately, there is no 12-step program.”