The last year has been filled with travel across Washington and the nation. As a thirty-year veteran educator, I provide training to teachers, nonprofit boards, government agencies, and businesses on issues related to racial equity and belonging. During the past twelve months, I have been called into more schools than ever before to help communities find healing after a very public conflict or series of conflicts related to race, gender identity, or sexuality.
These events have not been confined to one particular region — I have been called to support communities across the state.
The common element: the community demographics are predominantly white, rural or rural-adjacent, and politically conservative. Many of the communities are seeing an increase in families of color moving from urban centers. They are also responding to messages they have heard on social platforms and, at times, in church spaces, that tell them to be afraid of members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Unprecedented numbers of white, cisgender, heterosexual students (some as young as eight and nine years of age) are verbally or physically targeting Black, queer, and transgender students in ways I have not experienced in all my years of work in K‑12 education.
Everywhere I go, people ask why we are seeing such an increase in open attacks on particular identities in our schools. I am not a researcher and I have not completed a conclusive study about the reasons for these behaviors in students, but I have thoughts I want to share, as well as strategies for how I believe we as a community can work together to change the environment that has allowed and even encouraged these types of behaviors in school spaces and beyond.
The school closures prompted by the emergence and spread of COVID-19 had a range of implications for students — some academic and others social.
Most students were at home, occasionally connected to their teachers and classmates via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but they also had more time to spend on social platforms without any supervision or critique. In addition, students were at home with families as we walked through one of the most contentious presidential campaigns and elections our nation has seen in recent history.
Students witnessed parents watching news and engaging on their own social platforms. Students witnessed adults (even revered business and political leaders) attacking different identity groups online or speak ill of them.
Prior to the pandemic, many students would have been challenged by educators to reconsider their words about other groups and would have been disciplined for using violent or inappropriate language about their peers.
At home, in the privacy of bedrooms, behind the wall of avatars and nicknames on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and others, students were able to listen to and then practice harassing those they did not perceive as being like them.
Now let’s add the economic and health consequences of COVID-19, which created incredible anxiety for families. Students lost families to illness (COVID-19 and otherwise). Students watched family members lose jobs and, therefore, access to resources. The political climate created greater anxiety and, even, anger, from those who believed Donald Trump had his second term stolen.
Imagine being a ten or twelve year-old witnessing this while also being physically isolated and walking through the craziness of puberty.
When I am called into a school community to help find solutions and support students and staff through a process of healing, I first do a lot of listening.
I listen to administrators and staff and their perceptions of what has happened.
I then take time to listen to the students who have been targeted (there’s never just one). When there are opportunities, I also listen to the parents of students who have been targeted.
I then create opportunities for students to engage across their difference, to learn how to talk about their different identities and how they experience those — sometimes as members of the “dominant group” in the school and sometimes as those targeted. Students learn how to listen to one another.
What I have come to believe, after the intense work of the past year, is that white, cisgender, heterosexual people are not any more racist or homophobic or transphobic than they were three years ago…or even thirty-four years ago, when I returned to the United States after a childhood in Europe.
I was called the n‑word to my face on a monthly basis as a college student in Philadelphia. There was still a sign at the local social club in my college town that read “No coloreds or Jews allowed here”. It remained there for many years beyond my graduation from college.
I believe there are several factors at play right now:
- As a nation, we have never properly developed the collective skills necessary to talk with one another, across difference, about race, gender, and sexuality, so we’re really bad at it.
- Social platforms have allowed people unfettered access to conversations that are often hateful and bullying (and, at times, inaccurate) without any guardrails or mentorship about how to respond or when to disengage.
- People who are feeling afraid and unsure about the future are easily convinced to seek out a visible “enemy”. What happens often, particularly in small, rural communities, is that those who are visibly “different” can easily become the scapegoats.
What can you do to be part of the solution?
There are three strategies I use and then teach wherever I go, whether I am working with elementary students or state executives. I call them “The Three Postures”: gratitude, brave spaces, and pause.
First, I begin every conversation encouraging participants to practice gratitude. Gratitude washes our bodies with dopamine, which makes us feel good. More importantly, when we practice being grateful on a daily basis, the practice changes our brain chemistry and creates a positive neural network, which helps us to see hope, instead of catastrophe. The beauty of this practice is that all of these things will take place, whether we have “big” gratitude or “little” gratitude.
In light of what is happening for students on school campuses but (as I know from my friend circle) also for adults in workspaces and religious communities, gratitude is critical, because it helps us experience the uncertain and frustrating through different lenses. It helps to not get caught up in attacking others but in finding positive ways to navigate the difficulties of the moment.
Second, I engage people in conversations about creating “brave spaces”. As a former classroom teacher, I want to help people create spaces that are safe enough for people to be brave. In the context of difficult conversations, I establish some non-negotiable expectations:
- I lead with my own vulnerability. I don’t believe I can ask for people to share hard things, if I’m not willing to lead by example.
- I ask people to embrace discomfort. Hard conversations will be uncomfortable. Our human nature pushes us to run away from hard things, but I encourage people to press in.
- I do not employ shame, blame, or guilt as techniques. They are not useful tools to lead us to changed thinking.
- I invite people to apologize when they cause harm. Authentic apology can provide incredible healing, both for the perpetrator and the one targeted.
- I insist on getting curious and invite people to ask questions of those who are different from them.
There is no expectation that people should agree with one another, but choosing to learn why a person believes what they do can help people from very different backgrounds find opportunities for connection.
Third, I encourage people to pause and take time to breathe or move when they are frustrated or angry or tired. As a culture, too many of us respond in the moment in ways that are not thoughtful or helpful in moving conversations forward. If we could just pause for a few seconds to collect our thoughts and get fully present in the moment, exchanges will be more fruitful. In training, we practice taking twenty seconds to do a deep breathing activity. I also encourage people, in their worst moments, to stop and count backwards from ten in a language other than English. This practice helps your emotional system reset.
At this moment in time, as our nation is physically burning with wildfires, and “burning” sociopolitically with racial and social conflicts that are playing out in school board meetings and in legislatures and on social media, I urge all who come across this post to be mindful and considerate.
Do not allow yourself to become paralyzed. You can take action.
Your words matter.
How you engage those in your community — those “like” you and those who are very different from you — matters. Speak and act with care.
Vote. Vote for school directors. Vote for county commissioners and city council members. Vote for every item on the ticket. Get educated about issues that are affecting the most marginalized in your community.
We all can do and be better.