Unwelcomed. Uncomfortable. Cowed into silence. These are not the words I’d ever use to describe conservatives, especially those in education reform.
The conservatives tend to be the ones running the game and are the quickest to assume lots of space and power, and to create polarizing spaces for people who do not look like them, do not agree with them.
So when I read those words in Robert Pondiscio’s piece on how the Left is trying to push the Right out of the education reform community, I couldn’t contain my simultaneous laughter, anger and disbelief.
This Isn’t About Politics, This Is About Unchecked White Privilege
Relegating this to Left or Right politics is lazy. It lacks self-awareness. It’s also code. Let me translate: the Lefties, aka the people of color, in the room and informing the agenda are finally speaking up, making the Righties in the room uncomfortable.
This victimization of conservatives is a backhanded, though clever, way of trying to silence education reform leaders of color who are finally assuming space in this national conversation.
It must be hard to have that inherent privilege questioned. It must really be unsettling to have those you’ve tolerated begin to voice their thoughts, which challenge you, your work, your previously unchecked expertise, which assumes whiteness is the only hue that should be recognized, valued.
This is about race but you can pretend it’s about politics if that makes you feel better. But, to quote my teenage daughter: I see you, Robert.
Face the truth. Ed Reform communities, we’ve had a problem.
For years, folks of color have been relegated to sitting at the proverbial back of the bus of the education reform community. Ironically, we have been the ones trusted by the communities we serve. Rarely have we been invited to the decision-making table. If we are invited, because we are “democratic,” we are often outnumbered and our voices downgraded to a kind but condescending, “let’s keep talking about that” status.
Being tokenized is just as difficult as being marginalized.
Being the only one at the table is a big responsibility. It’s a responsibility many of us have assumed with grace and frankly, real Christ-like tolerance.
Checking White Privilege, Working Together
In certain safe spaces, our white allies have done their work. It’s often uncomfortable and requires a commitment to self-reflection–some would call it, yes, personal responsibility. We have had difficult conversations that start with humility and humanity. These conversations build more than bridges; they have built movements.
I would fight alongside them whenever, wherever. Again and again.
Do you have bonds with people of color in this space? Are they part of your circle? Have they come to your home for dinner, a cocktail or been invited to birthday parties? If not, ask yourself honestly, why? Do they make you uncomfortable? White people are supposedly doing all of this for their children, right?
Unchecked White Privilege is Just No Joke in Education
The conversation about race and public schools in our country is one that people in the education community rarely want to have. This is true for education leaders in the traditional education space and the education reform space. White folks are uncomfortable talking about their privilege because once it is on the table, it has to be addressed and then, negotiated. When the obvious is ignored, it is only people of color who have to navigate their feelings and thoughts about the fundamental unfairness of racism in education.
This anti-honest conversation about racism isn’t only happening in education reform. It is happening in all education circles. Teachers of color push within their unions to raise issues affecting students of color such as English language learning reclassification rates and the disproportionate rates of Black students in special education and adversely affected by school discipline policies. School Board members of color have to go so far as to start their own organizations, such as the California Latino School Boards Association, in order to have safe space to talk about issues affecting the Latino community.
The California School Boards Association is controlled by white folks who are not willing to address the realities that the majority–54 percent–of school- aged children is Latino in our state. Organizations like the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents exist for the same reason. Traditional associations of educators don’t want to listen to and or really incorporate the voices and experiences of people of color. Since majority rules, given the sheer numbers, people of color always come short when it comes to decision making, agenda setting.
How often are women of color overlooked when leadership positions need to be filled in your community? How often do you hire firms owned by education reformers of color? How often do we struggle to find qualified leaders of color for organizing groups across the country who are… wait for it: organizing parents of color?
An Example of Doing It Right:
I helped build Green Dot Public Schools, arguably one of the most important entities in education reform in our country’s history. I was employee No. 5 at Green Dot’s central office, which was co-located with a senior citizen daycare program. Steve Barr, Dan Chang, Tiffany Johnson and I shared a small office. Hoa Truong worked in a nearby attic that we called the Crow’s Nest. Marshall Tuck, the CEO, was the only person who had his own office, which must have been a negotiation chip that Steve used to convince him to come work for the startup. As a team, we reflected the diversity of our country. We were unique. I knew that then but appreciate it so much more now.
As we built a political movement for education reform in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world, we had to confront our differences.
We had emotionally exhausting conversations about race and privilege in the context of our work at a time when some wanted to demonize the white reformers coming into the “community” to build schools and when, frankly, we disagreed on tactics and strategies.
It was as hard for the white leaders as it was for me. It was hard for the team I built and led: the Latina and Black women organizers whose work put Green Dot on the map as a political machine.
Since we live in a segregated country, the workplace is often where people of diverse backgrounds have the opportunity to convivir, a beautiful Spanish word, which expresses the idea that we share space and each other’s company. We learned together as we worked on building great schools, creating a political agenda and building political will for excellence in education for all in Los Angeles.
I’ve been involved in education reform for 15 years. I have been one of the most visible Latinas doing this work not just in California but in our country. Our movement has grown in large part to those of us, pioneers of color, who used our personal and community credibility to build this movement. We used our community organizing skills, our passion as survivors of this broken education system to convince community to trust the white people with whom we were aligned.
Our color cracked the doors open. Our integrity opened the doors into the community.
Yet, we continue to be challenged by the same assets used by this education reform movement: The color of our skin and our ethnicity.
Enough of us have shared this frustration that we can no longer be ignored. Hence, the relatively new commitment to addressing racial inequities as a part of the education reform conversation highlighted by the New Schools Venture Fund.
To have conservatives now try to minimize the real impact of race, racism and inequity in education in the United States is unethical and un-American. We have to find the courage to deal with our demons. We cannot be in denial no matter how smart we want to pretend to be.
We have a responsibility to make right the historical injustices and the current injustices perpetuated against people and women of color. People of color aren’t going to be invisible or silent in education reform anymore. And really, that’s what made you feel… Unwelcomed. Uncomfortable. Cowed into silence.
Sorry not sorry.
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Alma V. Marquez
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