Our motto, “Learn by doing, learn by caring” encapsulates the ethos of the Nueva education. Understanding how others experience life is woven into all that we do. You can find it as students learn to close read in every English and history class. Empathy is a major category in the design thinking process that we all learn and live by. In required social-emotional learning classes we explicitly teach the value and skills needed to listen to and understand others. Observation skills are front and center in the sciences. Problem solving is an hourly practice. We take our meticulously trained students to places outside of our carefully constructed nest to afford them first person experiences that stretch them in age appropriate ways. That’s a lot, but it still isn’t enough to break through the finely crafted, centuries old lies about White supremacy that all citizens of the United States of America have succumbed to during our lifetimes, directly and indirectly. The social construct of White supremacy is the root of many of the social ills of our society. As is stated in a recent article, Peace, Not Quiet: A Call to Educators, “We must acknowledge the huge disparities that perpetuate White supremacy across all systems, face the truth, and address the root causes.”
How can that be? How can the fundamentally flawed, unscientific, deep-rooted, systemic principle of White supremacy be so difficult to eradicate from our country and from our carefully curated nest? When a concept is taught as if it is the truth, for generations, for the purpose of diminishing one group in favor of elevating the empowered group, there is no impetus to change until the empowered group can feel the burdens of the oppressed. Thus far, in most of history, systemic changes require a deeper, emotional rationale rather than only academic solutions.
How do those in power positions who have not wrestled with and understand the African American plight feel the need, have the desire, or become motivated to make changes for justice’s sake—when the status quo is working well for them? Why would one want to evaluate the destructive power of group privilege, especially if there is a notion of losing some? How do you change the hearts and minds of a people who are barraged daily with subtle (and overt) racism? How do we reach people that are so brainwashed that they unknowingly say, do, think, or perpetuate racist behavior? It takes a significant startle to disrupt ideology that lives at the molecular level inside of every American’s cells. And if we are lucky, along with the startle, empathy erupts, simply because that feeling, once evoked, like love, cannot be ignored.
If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you know the feeling when the plane hits turbulence and drops several hundred feet. The term “white knuckle” comes to mind (an example of a hidden microaggression shrouded in a colloquialism – my knuckles NEVER turn white). And if you aren’t phased by turbulence, envision the pilot yelling, “May Day. Assume positions for a crash landing.” Imagine living with that kind of tension. Every. Single. Day. I understand if that seems unbelievable. It seems that way because African Americans have had centuries to learn behaviors that hide this pain, terror, and anguish in order to survive. We are really good at it, to the detriment of our health, many of which are stress-related chronic illnesses. If we aren’t killed by hate, we are killed by the fear of hate.
Today, under the coronavirus shelter-at-home guidelines, I decided to pick a few of the gardenias growing in my front yard of 25 years. The gardenias are along the perimeter of the yard, so I was picking them from the sidewalk. I realized, as a white couple approached my house along the same sidewalk, that my actions, as a Black person, could be interpreted as stealing the gardenias. I felt an immediate urge to demonstrate that I lived in the house. Without any provocation from the passersby, the very fact that I had that thought is troublesome, learned, and an example of the day to day African American experience.
Experiences like these happen to African American students, to African American teachers, and to African American parents in our carefully curated nest called Nueva. The microaggressions are so ingrained that perpetrators don’t even know when they happen. And Black people either don’t want to make a scene for fear of being labeled “trouble," “sensitive”, “angry” or are too tired to yet again start a lengthy discussion about something those with privilege cannot comprehend in just a few minutes.
So where do we start?
As with other topics that we discuss at Nueva, racism should not be sugar-coated for the sole purpose ensuring that those in power, white people, actually don’t have to feel the discomfort and pain. The privilege, the pain, the guilt, the horror about being duped into believing lies for centuries needs to be FELT. We need to transit through these rough waters together. They cannot be skirted. But, as we always do at Nueva, we will be supportive of each person’s journey. This will not be easy. This will not be without tears and gut checks. But it must be done before we can all reach the finish line together, as a unit, as equals. It’s been much too long.
Here are some ideas we could implement immediately, in addition to what we are currently doing:
- We need to finally change the student handbook to explicitly state the school’s position on the use/misuse of the n-word and other racist slurs and actions. In the last 4 years, we have had annual incidences of overt racism and the handbook has yet to be updated to reflect the school’s position and consequences. (There is a draft ready to be adopted.)
- As with the stated laws against child abuse, the Nueva Employee Handbook should explicitly state that employees must directly identify known and perceived injustices.
- As an element of the Nueva education, we should have a required anti-racist course in the Pre-k, 5th, and 9th grade curriculums. This course should be equally as important as Design Thinking, Computer Science, and Science of Mind.
- African American literature and factual African American history should be given equivalent time to that given to Euro-centric literature and history. This education should include the history of policing in the United States.
- There should be stated institutional goals for hiring African American faculty and administrators, explicitly visible on our internal and external websites. Nueva should also make concerted, documented efforts to hire vendors, consultants, and partners of color.
- Significant efforts, and thus dollars, should be used to recruit and enroll gifted African American students. Explicit enrollment goals for African Americans should be visible on Nueva’s internal and external websites. For too long, brilliant, gifted African American students have been denied entrance by systemic processes outside of Nueva’s control and when accepted, have been leery of the overt privilege, sometimes equating to lack of safety.
- The Thrive program must be robust. There must be an administrator advisor who directly supports and works closely with the Thrive coordinator to ensure the safety and care of students and families in the program.
- All Nueva employees should be required to take the week long social justice summer institute upon accepting a job. Some of the goals of the learning should be a deep self-examination and reflection to unearth individual sources of racism, learning to identify racist acts in oneself and others, learning to eliminate the soft bigotry of low expectations of African Americans and to leave with a plan to actively live and educate as an anti-racist. The course should also be open to parents.
- Recruit and add more African American members to the Nueva Board of Trustees.
For the longer term, appoint a Board directed, anti-racist standing committee, of forward-thinking community members to evaluate, redress, and disrupt/change where necessary, every single system at Nueva to eradicate explicit or implicit racial bias. The team should specifically include a significant number of Black community members, the Head of School, some Board members, faculty, and invested parents. The team should have strongly adhered to and published timelines for action.
There is hope. The Nueva community can become anti-racist. We have examples. At one of our Black history month celebrations, a Nueva student told the entire school that she discovered that her great-great-grandparents were slave owners. She came out. She came clean. She apologized for a fault that wasn’t hers. She transformed her guilt by explaining what she knew to her beloved, supportive community. It was a vital step in her own personal healing.
There are three pandemics we are fighting. Coronavirus, racism, and climate change. All three are life threatening to everyone. One we don’t know how to fix yet but are searching for a viable response at breakneck speed. The other two we know how to fix but need the will to do so.