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My Child’s March to End Discrimination


Police Dogs Attack Demonstrators, Birmingham Protests, © Charles Moore


On May 2, 1963, more than one thousand students skipped classes and gathered at Sixth Street Baptist Church to march to downtown Birmingham, Alabama. As they approached police lines, hundreds were arrested and carried off to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. When hundreds more young people gathered the following day for another march, white commissioner, Bull Connor, directed the local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstration. Images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, being clubbed by police officers, and being attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers, and triggered outrage throughout the world. [1]

_____________________________________________________________________________


Introduction


My daughter has been contending with an incident at the school where she teaches. The incident involved some students refering to a black-female-identified peer as a jungle creature. Bearing witness to my daughter's effort to facilitate a proper response to the situation has been hard and has led to this meditation on DEI work.


Teach your children well [2]


When folks compliment my wife, Leslie, and me on how our two kids turned out (Lauren and Evan, 32 and 29 years old respectively), I often demur, saying they somehow survived their parents’ far-from-perfect parenting. I think Leslie endorses that statement but I’m happy to speak for myself.


Our kids were raised by two social workers. Leslie and I don’t represent the most stereotypical characteristics of social workers. We’re not hippies or bleeding-heart liberals, and we’re not what anyone could reasonably call paragons of a spartan, non-materialistic lifestyle. Just ask our son, Evan, who walked away from a lucrative software designer life in San Francisco to grow food in Vermont, study Transdisciplinary Leadership & Creativity for Sustainability at UVM, and goes to great lengths to avoid collusion with capitalist, extrationist, western imperialist, world-destroying, and soul-crushing hegemonies. He’d put it better than I just did - and he does on a pretty regular basis when talking about how Leslie and I live in a not not affluent Massachusetts suburb with our two cars (one IS electric), a pretty nice house, a guilt-worthy lawn-to-food garden ratio, and way too much stuff.


Despite our imperfections as parents and role-models, Leslie and I tried to instill in our kids an understanding that while some people are lucky to live lives of privilege (most members of our family included), some are not. Whatever choices we make about how to live, we should resist the temptation to ignore the impacts of our choices on everyone and everything and never confuse what we get with what we deserve. Be respectful and demand respect. Resist injustice.

Our eldest, Lauren, is an award-winning teacher, revered and beloved by children, parents, and colleagues. So smart, so funny, so brave, so generous, so unwilling to brook disrespect or injustice.


I’m an educator. I believe education in one form or another is what makes the human world what it is - for better or worse. So naturally, I was thrilled to see my baby choose teaching as her profession, and I am humbled and amazed by how good she is at it. And when I note Lauren’s unwillingness to brook disrespect or injustice, it is, I confess, hard to resist adding with pride, “just like her dad.”


You see, while I’ve been fortunate to function in many educational roles, I am primarily what is these days called a DEI practitioner. I consult, teach, train, write, and speak on matters related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or, as I often put it interchangeably, social identity, social bias, and social justice.


I emphasize diversity without divisiveness in my approach to DEI work. I’m not about shaming, blaming, or the use of reductive, essentialist, and incendiary consignments. I speak softly. I think social identity affinity groups are problematic. I think the only way to end racism is to end racialization. I appreciate the current prioritization of “anti-racism,” in social justice work, especially since the social upheavals associated with the murder of George Floyd and the upsurge of anti-democracy forces, but I advocate that “anti-bias” is the better way to frame what we should be after. While I appreciate the good intentions and better-than-nothing value of race-based affirmative action policies, I’m hopeful that if/when they are nullified by the Supreme Court, we will quickly come up with better ways to achieve inclusivity - ones that don’t rely on and perpetuate the false and divisive construct of race. [3-7]


If DEI is thought to be a partisan political enterprise characterized by us-them enmity and extremism, then I’m a DEI practitioner of a different color (so to speak). Rather than villainize or shun those who have DEI doubts, I make pretty strenuous efforts to create space in which they and I and anyone else interested can safely and bravely share perspectives and seek common ground and common purpose. I do everything I can to help people get along, especially in diverse communities - because, put simply, that's all DEI work is about. And I am unwilling to brook disrespect or injustice - becuase disrespect and injustice are anathema to inclusivity and equity.


Their father’s hell


I can never think about the 1963 Children’s March without wondering how torturously hard it must have been for the organizing adults and parents to induct children into such a dangerous crusade.


As I witness my daughter contending with a discrimination incident at a school that projects itself as welcoming of diversity and committed to inclusivity and equity - and happens to be where she went to school - I am experiencing a turbulent mix of pride, worry, and fury. Pride in her courage, resoluteness, poise, tact, and unwillingness to brook disrespect and injustice on behalf of an adversely racialized kid. Worry over the toll it takes to be the only one unwilling to brook disrespect and injustice in one’s community. Furious that it’s not all that surprising that she should find herself in this position - marching against race-based injustice in the United States, in the year 2022, at a liberal prep school.


Having found myself in a too similar position just about a year ago at another independent school, and leaving that school when it became clear to me that staying would have represented complicity with actions and inaction that contradicted my role and my integrity, I’d gladly trade places with my child and go through it all again so that she wouldn’t have to go through it. Of course, what I endured and what Lauren is enduring is certainly not the same thing as encountering vicious dogs, violent racists, fire hoses, or death - but it’s not a walk in the park either (which, come to think of it, isn’t always safe, depending on the skin you’re walking in). Whether at the macro, mezzo, or micro level, any action taken to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion can carry risks - especially in the current climate of hyper-adversarial reactions to inclusivity. [8]


To be clear, Lauren is not a child marching this march. She is a super capable and - in the best ways - formidable adult professional. But she is my child. And the truth is we never stop being children, we just become adults as well. When confronted with disorienting hypocrisy, inconsistency of care that tracks with social privilege, and the brutal silence of those who claim to be friends and allies, even the most adult adult is bound to feel perplexed, frightened, and abandoned.


The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by


Do parents maybe actually have some influence on what their kids end up being? If we do and our progeny end up being people who do things that put them in harm’s way, do we deserve as much blame as any credit we might feel for their virtuous acts of self-preservation? If virtue and risk commingle in the choices they make and the actions they take, what then?


Lauren, who is the only black-identified teacher in her school, is not the DEI person there. She's not an administrator. Lauren is not even the teacher or advisor of the student facing racial mistreatment. She’s no more or less responsible for addressing mistreatment of children at her school than any other teacher. Lauren teaches history, coaches basketball, runs Model UN, and generally enlivens her community as a model of excellence, dedication, generosity, and an unabashed superfan of Taylor Swift. Like all of us in education, she made it through the worst of the effects of covid on school life, and was thrilled and relieved to be back at her school, back in the classroom, and fully re-engaged in shepherding kids through one of the most complicated and challenging developmental periods for human mammals: middle school.


Then suddenly the public health crisis of racism erupted on Lauren’s campus. Since then, showing up for work each day has meant marching through the hellish inertia of social identity privilege, broken promises, and the cavernous loneliness and isolation of being the only one who does what her parents (and teachers at that very school) taught her to do. Stand up, don’t stand by. Even if you have to stand alone.


I understand why parents who have the luxury of being able to “protect” their kids from the ugly parts of life allow them to and maybe even instruct them to keep their heads down, don’t stir things up. It’s not for you, my precious beloved, to fix the world. Look out for yourself. Keep yourself safe. Don’t rock the boat. Live a good and prosperous life. I get it.


But instead I told my kids to “die first” before succumbing to or indulging temptation or pressure to contradict their core principles. And I encouraged them to root their core principles in love, logic, humility, caring, and justice.


I’ve fed them on my dreams [9] and not shielded them from society's nightmare dimensions. The ones they’ve picked have let me know who they are.

______________________


Dear Lauren,


I’m so sorry that this world we brought you into is still so messed up. I’m so sorry you’ve been bearing the burden of being a one-person cleaning crew at your school. I’m guardedly glad to hear that some of your colleagues are starting to find and use their voices. I hope they will soon be standing not just behind, not only beside, but in front of you in word and deed. I hope your leaders will stop seeking a path of least resistance and instead do what their mission and policies (internal and external) require them to do - protect little kids and teach them how to get along and be responsible.


Most of all, I’m so proud of you.


March on, Sweetie. Show them who you are.

I love you

I got you

Dad


Notes

  1. Photo and quote from Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

  2. This and the other subheadings are taken from the lyrics to Teach Your Children Well, written by Graham Nash and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

  3. Empathy in the Service of Intra- and Interpersonal Peace

  4. Charting a Course Beyond Racism

  5. Fair Perspectives - How to End Racialization with Dr. Carlos Hoyt - Ep. 31

  6. Hold My Drink - 69: Teaching DEI Part 1 | Carlos Hoyt - Ep. 69

  7. Hold My Drink - United Notions? | Carlos Hoyt - Ep. 75

  8. Making the Hidden Visible: The Lived Experience of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) Practitioner at Independent Schools

  9. Also a grateful use of a lyric from Teach Your Children Well













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