Leading Forward: Disrupting Systems of Racism in Public Schools
Kathy Ludwig, EdD.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today, and especially on a topic that is so important to all of us and critical for our nation.
As Don can attest, I always have “lots to say”, but I usually reserve my comments and opinions for my workplace during the week and for my family when I’m home.
On this topic, however, we felt that perhaps you might be interested in hearing how public schools in Oregon are working to disrupt systems of racism and work towards equity and equitable outcomes.
Now, remember, Don is the preacher in the family and I’m the teacher. So, this message will likely feel more like a presentation than a sermon.
Schools and churches have a long history in our nation of service to the community and social justice movements; sometimes working together, sometimes working separately but serving the same goals and families. Churches and schools can be the hubs of a community…the beacons of hope or harbors of safety. Our work on equity and anti-racism is a partnership.
As Don mentioned in the Southminster newsletter, our family has been watching select portions of the Democratic Convention. Even with empty rooms and a virtual format, the speakers, stories, music, and case for a more just democracy has been moving, inspiring, and energizing.
When Kamala Harris took the stage on Wednesday evening, both Don and I became emotional. We were watching history…and felt proud to be on the right side of it. But the emotion of the moment gives way quickly to the reality of the work ahead of us. Our walk must match our talk. Our actions to disrupt or dismantle systems of racism must be as much actualized as vocalized.
In other words, “what did we do?” “what did we say?”…for the least of these? How did we contribute to disrupting and dismantling racism? This is the question we are asking ourselves in our church and we are asking ourselves in my school district and across other school districts in Oregon.
Two years ago in my school district, we added the phrase “disrupt systems of racism” into our District Goal #1. We had been working already for about 7-8 years on equity work, reexamining our curriculum, policies, and practices. But adding this statement took on a whole new stance. It was explicit. It demands action. It expects change. It expects equitable outcomes.
Similarly, the Oregon Department of Education came out with the Education Equity Stance. A bold statement pronouncing equity across resource allocation, educational rigor, and opportunities for historically and currently marginalized youth, students, and families. Dismantling systems that contribute to the ”beneficiaries and the oppressed”. I’m proud of this statement and the stance our state has taken.
So, what does it mean to disrupt or dismantle systems of racism in our schools…how we do actualize this beyond the words in a district goal or statewide stance?
First of all, we need to acknowledge and recognize that racism and racist behaviors exist in our schools and systems. It shows up in policies and practices…often in ways that we don’t notice. Or, I should say, in ways the dominant culture doesn’t notice.
We have been using a framework in our school district on “5 Systems of Racism” to help us identify and disrupt beliefs, actions, policies, practices, and systems within each.
The first system to examine is oneself—our own personal beliefs. How we do understand the formation of our beliefs and change our beliefs about race?
One place to start…is to learn! With an open mind and heart. In our district, every member of the organization (teachers, staff, administrators, maintenance, nutrition services, custodian, grounds) is committed to reading a number of texts to help us grow our own understanding of how our beliefs are shaped and influenced. Here’s a sample of some texts circulating among our staff.
Growing awareness, confronting our beliefs, being willing to learn, and committing to do better are the first steps to dismantling individual racism. We will make mistakes, say the wrong thing at times, but that’s okay. We need to start where we are…but not stay there. We need to move forward and get better.
Which leads to Interpersonal: How do our beliefs inform our actions towards others? How do we recognize the actions and bias behaviors between us and others, between people? And how do we change our actions to be more inclusive, kind, understanding, open?
In our schools, we are using a protocol called Circles to establish community, build trust, surface complexities, and problem-solve together. Topics of friendship, emotions, conflict, social justice, empathy, inclusion, and even racism are often discussed proactively so that students and teachers can practice engaging in these conversations and listening to one another and learning from one another.
We have also implemented Restorative Practices as a way to respond to wrongdoing…by helping the student who did the wrong take responsibility but also allow him/her to be restored into their community. We have almost eliminated expulsions and suspensions as we know these types of consequences only serve to push students further away from their community and increase the likelihood of angry and isolating behaviors.
These are some ways we are disrupting interpersonal racism.
Institutional Racism – This is when an institution makes choices to discriminate based on race. We remember the Jim Crow laws, when there were segregated schools, restaurants, bus seats based on overt racist beliefs. Today we are more aware of the long-held institutional biases, violence, and racial profiling by law enforcement agencies towards people of color. Institutional biases don’t just exist out there…they also exist in our schools.
In our schools, we need to examine policies and practices that reinforce discrimination or implicit bias, so deeply embedded that we don’t even recognize it. Disproportionate discipline for one. In Oregon last year, 7% of African American boys were expelled as Kindergarteners. Expelled. As Kindergarteners, that’s 5-year-olds. There was no other comparable data like this by race or gender. This is an example of implicit bias in our institution. It needs to be addressed and changed.
Cultural – how does the dominant culture uphold certain values or beliefs about people?
Cultural racism may show up in stories, holidays, TV ads, statues in a park. Where do our schools need to examine for cultural racism?
Over the last 7 years, we have systematically reviewed all of the literature in our school libraries to both remove texts that are outdated and have language or images that perpetuate cultural bias or racial stereotypes. We have been expanding literature to include and celebrate more authors of color. We have revised our Social Studies, Language Arts, Science, and World Language curricula to reflect accurate historical events, multiple perspectives.
At the state level House Bill 2023 ensures that academic content standards for certain subjects include sufficient instruction on histories, contributions, and perspectives of certain classifications of individuals. The Oregon Legislature passed SB 13 In 2017 now known as Tribal History/Shared History. This law directs schools to create K-12 Native American Curriculum for inclusion in Oregon public schools and provide professional development to educators.
A new law being developed and finalized this year HB 2845 The Ethnic Studies Bill will ensure ethnic-studies standards into existing statewide social studies standards. And SB 664 requires school districts to provide instruction about the Holocaust and genocide starting this year.
We need to continually ask ourselves if our students see themselves in the novels we read, texts we study, the music we play, the composers we select, our theatre productions, artists we highlight. 40% of the students in Oregon today are students of color…our schools TODAY need to reflect our students of TODAY.
And lastly, Structural – or systemic racism. This type of racism may often not even be noticed by the dominant culture. It includes hiring practices, pay equity, access to education, transportation, or housing in our community. This is where the “privilege” of the dominant culture benefits from the system.
We need to be ever vigilant that structural systems in our institutions like record keeping, registrations, applications, assessments don’t perpetuate biases or exclusion…and thereby contribute to discrimination or opportunity hoarding.
This is Dr. Edgar Solares, principal at one of my schools, and an active Board member of the Oregon Association of Latinx Administrators, formed in April 2002 as an attempt to create a vehicle to support and mentor Latinx Administrators as well Latinx educators who aspire to become administrators in the State of Oregon.
In 2015 the Oregon Legislature renamed the Minority Teacher Act (of 1991) to the Oregon Educator Equity Act and required each public teacher education program to adopt specific goals and strategies for the recruitment, admission, retention and graduation of diverse educators.
In other words, what are we doing to diversify our staff so that students of color see themselves represented in their teachers and school leaders? We must begin with recruiting and graduating those educators and then hiring them!
Today, 10% of our educators and administrators in Oregon are people of color. That’s still a long way from the 40% of students of color in our state.
We have a ways to go. These are some ways we can begin to dismantle structural racism in our schools. We can’t just “wait” for change to happen… we have to MAKE change happen.
One of the most powerful tools we have to disrupt thinking and systems is to listen to the voices of our students. In our district, we regularly hold student panels across all levels—primary, middle, and high school—sharing bravely their experiences and their stories. The kids in the picture on the left are from one of our high schools. The young man on the right was from the video we saw earlier.
And while some people might disagree over how they understood what was said, they cannot deny the truth of the lived experience our children are telling us occurs for them every day.
And when our teachers are staff hear the truth of our students’ experiences, it is the most powerful motivator to effect change.
Listening is key… ACTION towards CHANGE is the first critical step.
Disruption isn’t comfortable. And it may feel at times as though we’re swimming against the stream. That we’re one of only a few voices. Or that the task at hand is just too big for us to accomplish or make a difference. And that the risks may be too incredibly high.
But sometimes it starts with the courageous few…
…but then… more join in and the movement is in full swing. And then, as John Lewis observed, “there will be no going back.” Society has made a fundamental shift.
It takes each of us, in our own workplace, neighborhood, circle of friends, church and school, favorite coffee place we frequent… to be diligently anti-racist. To notice our beliefs, our actions, the actions of others… the actions of our community.
We need to remember that this complex work is best done in collaboration with as many stakeholders as possible for it to be lasting work. I like this picture. To me, it underscores that this type of leadership requires almost literally “grasping the hands of everyone involved”…even on seemingly both sides of the issue.
A colleague of color once wisely reminded me, “this work is best done when we call one another in, not call one another out”.
So, if you heard President Obama speak the other night, he reminded us that even in the fallible Constitution, was embedded a North Star. That would guide future generations. A system of representative government.
We improved our Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And we can improve our public schools by doing the same, and our churches, and our communities.
And gradually, make this country more just, more equal and more free.