Teaching Change: How Faculty are Working Toward Racial Justice in the Classroom

by Chumani Chamberlain' 21

2020 presented a multitude of obstacles and challenges that have tested our world, nation, and school community. This past summer another unprecedented challenge presented itself when conversations surrounding issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging were at the forefront of our nation’s mind. This summer prompted our school community to analyze its character and the ways in which we can improve to make our school a more inclusive and equitable community. 

For teachers, this moment in history is especially pertinent to them because they see it as an opportunity to change the dynamics of our school’s character in a positive way, which can leave a lasting impact on future generations of St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School students. 

New Math teacher Mr. Irwin spoke about the events of this past summer and the impact it had on him. “I think it just really brought a lot of emotions to the forefront. It was something that I wrestled with. I think that the question for myself is what can I do, being a white male I walk around with a lot of privileges that I don't ask for but they are there. So I ask myself what can I do with it to be involved and to make a difference for the people who don't necessarily have the same privileges I do.”

Rev. Farrington stated how in the midst of darkness she was “really excited about the community conversations.” Further, she described the work she had been doing for various church communities and providing them with resources on how to have conversations surrounding race and to make their church communities more inclusive places for believers. She also stated how her work this past summer has been “a very sobering few months, I have done a lot of self-reflection, too. Even though I have been engaged, I have looked at my life and seen where I should have done more, I should have spoken out louder, I should have challenged the structures where I had the power to do it and I didn’t.” 

English teacher Mr. Yee reflected on a moment this past summer that stuck with him, “I remember looking at the Black at SSSAS Instagram and, pretty categorically, nothing on it truly surprised me. All of it fits in the bounds of what I would expect to happen...when I saw my name come up. It led to a moment of reflection where that post gave me the opportunity, again, to reaffirm for myself it is a journey that is never complete - understanding the best way to sensitively talk about and dismantle instances of systemic racism in our society. And that along the way I need to recognize that I am going to make mistakes. What the events this summer have done, in addition to making these issues a lot more visible, is hopefully add a sense of urgency.” 

History Department Chair Ms. Hardwick elaborated on how the events of this past summer “re-emphasized the need for [calling out racism] in a deliberate way to really call it out when you’re doing it and do not assume that students are going to recognize it or that faculty or parents are going to recognize it.”

New History teacher Mr. Amani is “happy that people are able to demonstrate and raise their voices about the injustices going on and I hope that it continues and I hope that it does not die down.”

New Librarian Mrs. Tomlijanovich stated how she realized how she did not think about issues regarding race in the past and how she “is thankful for this opportunity” because she stated how she “did not hear enough stories of [racism] happening to other people.” She continued by explaining how during the summer faculty were put in families where they have the opportunity to create safe spaces and fellowship amongst each other to talk about issues regarding race and read a book of their choice. 

Ms. Davis, the Diversity and Multicultural Director of Institutional Equity and Diversity stated how in families “all employees read a book from the summer DEIB Professional Development list and were assigned to a Family Group. This will be their cohort throughout the year as we continue to have conversations focused on race, racial justice, and creating and sustaining an anti-racist community. These conversations are not voluntary, and are a necessary pathway to our goal of challenging ourselves and each other to learn and grow both personally and professionally. Each Family Group is led by a facilitator. These Saints will coordinate and guide the conversations and activities throughout the year.”

With an ecstatic facial expression Ms. Hardwick exclaimed “I love my family, they're the best!” Hardwick continued by stating how her family enjoyed reading the book Real American by  Julie Lythcott-Haims and how she “enjoys listening to other people's perspectives.” She stated how her family is meeting once a month, and how she immediately “felt it was a safe space.” 

“It's great!” English teacher Dr. Sidle reflected on his family group: “We're talking about what has happened to us, a lot of it is uncomfortable and it's a safe space and were allowed to discuss our own transgressions in the past...We’re also talking about what we’re encountering on a day-to-day basis now, and our response to what we’ve witnessed, and were learning how to respond. Sometimes we want to let the students work it out and listen and sometimes we have to say something.” 

The conversations this summer also included taking a deeper dive into the curriculum to ensure various voices are heard throughout the classroom. Students and alumni expressed how they felt the curriculum does not reflect the stories and voices of diverse demographics. When asked, Math Department Chair Mr. Weis stated how “Statistics is tailor made for looking at those issues associated with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging...I would say through the stats class we have ample opportunity where we do homework problems and activities that involve parts of DEIB work that lead to conversations...I always try to leave a little bit of time for the social aspects of the class.” 

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is a book multiple English teachers have decided to add to their list of works their classes will read this school year. Dr. Sidle stated how the book “talks about class, and of course you have to talk about economic injustice combined with racial injustice because it is all interwoven.” Dr. Sidle also wants to take the issues discussed within the Environmental Club and begin shifting their thinking towards Environmental Injustice, “which includes a conversation of course about racial injustice...the negative effects of environmental degradation affect communities of color more egregiously.”

Ms. Hardwick stated how a couple of years ago the History Department shifted the 9th and 10th grade World History curriculum “from being Europe centric to global.”

Mr. Yee also added, “I have already made a really concerted effort to try and represent a variety of different perspectives. Where I am at, though, is that I am recognizing that simple representation is not enough; you can represent perspectives all you want but without framing the power dynamic those discussions about the people in power become up for debate in a way they shouldn’t be.”

The Black at SSSAS Instagram accounts over the summer brought to light areas of our school community that were often shoved under the rug. The Instagram account demonstrated how much work our school still needs to do in order to achieve racial justice, and ensure every member of our school community feels they belong. On the anonymous platform, students, alumni, and faculty were able to be vulnerable and share their experiences as a minority member of the community to shed light on the aspects of our school that need improving. 

Ms. Cranford stated how the Instagram account included “some of the most difficult reads I’ve ever done. It hurts a lot to think that students have felt these things and that colleagues have been in these positions where they have felt demeaned and marginalized and at times attacked...that was really sobering and awful. I am glad they exist and I am glad I was able to read those.” She continued by stating how the Black at SSSAS Instagram accounts, “certainly made me reflect on all the ways in which I have failed students and the ways I want to be better and do better, I don’t think anybody reading [the Instagram posts] could not come away with that.”

Rev. Farrington also reflected on the impact of the Instagram accounts stating how, “I am so glad that students and alumni had the courage to share those stories. I think it was a gift to the community because nobody should ever feel forced to share a story or share something that is painful. So I recognize how painful it probably was for each person to have to sit down and relive that and maybe be retraumatized by that experience...I think what it helped really do is show how much work our community really has to do.”

Although the summer of 2020 included pain as a nation we should have hope that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel regarding racial justice and ensuring the SSSAS community is home to so many students where they feel loved and known. Although changes are beginning to happen slowly our teachers have hope for the future of our community and world. They believe the conversations and actions taken place this summer are just a glimpse of the world we can become. A world where everyone is loved, known, valued, and cherished just for being who they are, a human. 

Mr. Yee hopes this summer “precipitated a bit of a change in the way I approach my classes on this topic because I think it’s adding to the level of care and clarification I want to provide throughout. Because I know if something is not understood the way I want it to be, I unwittingly contribute to a system of oppression. I need to realize the impact the little moment and the way we can establish how those events can impact the broader picture.”

Mr. Amani reflected on how his role as an educator can create a foundation for students to go out into the world to be a voice for change. “For me the hope and the goal is that the curriculum will be changed because there are so many voices and so many stories of people that have just not been heard for years. My goal, and I hope that other colleagues would pick up on this, is that we make these kinds of changes in the classroom so our students will learn from it. It will enhance their learning experience through all these stories that may not have been told previously. That is a great way to set them up for life, to learn how they can become more open minded listening to different voices and different stories.”

Ms. Hardwick hopes: “ I think it’s important that people feel empowered that when they see something that is racist, sexist, or homophobic that I really hope that something that comes out of this is that people feel empowered to step up and say something and to take a stand in a way that they probably wouldnt in normal circumstances.”