People in dialogue
People in dialogue (Illustration by Geralt)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I do not employ shame, blame, or guilt as tech­niques. They are not use­ful tools to lead us to changed thinking.
  4. I invite peo­ple to apol­o­gize when they cause harm. Authen­tic apol­o­gy can pro­vide incred­i­ble heal­ing, both for the per­pe­tra­tor and the one targeted.
  5. 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.

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