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Social Justice Theory + Action

How to Engage School Staff in Dialogues of Race and Class


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By Ivan Rahman

Having worked in charter schools for three years now, I suspect what seems to be a pattern among schools driven by a sense of urgency for the work at hand.

It seems to me that we habitually let the urgency of our work—of lesson planning, grading, teaching, strategizing, and so on—harbor us from delving into critical big-picture discussions. I’m talking about the kind of discussions that force us to pause and reflect on the systemic variables that shape the lives of the youth we serve.

How can we, as urban school leaders and teachers, move beyond mere acknowledgement of these factors and into a deeper awareness of them? How can we prioritize in-depth analyses of the role we play in perpetuating or dismantling the social conditions and worldviews that contextualize our students’ experiences in the classroom and beyond?

For example, when I was a student in the Bronx, adults in my public school instilled in me a worldview. “Hard work, hard work, hard work”—that was the recipe for success they proclaimed. But I soon realized that the idea of hard work by itself is only half the story. I realized that it’s not only about working hard. It’s also about working smart and knowing the right people.

And then there’s also the elephant in the room—that experiencing success is usually an uphill battle for low-income people and minorities. Had the adults in my school been more attuned to their own biases and privileges, would they still have conveyed messages that misaligned to the reality my friends and I experienced?


That said, I wanted to jump-start conversations about race, class, and privilege where I currently work. But I knew that I would face two obstacles in doing so. The first is that staff at my school—like in most schools—are crushed for time. The second is that there are risks to having these conversations. If not facilitated well, these conversations could cause fissures in a harmonious team culture.

With these hurdles in mind, I was able to convince my manager of the necessity for such dialogues. Afterwards, I forged a diverse team of three, including myself. In hindsight, I realize I was lucky to find two colleagues who were passionate about engaging staff in discourse around these issues. They were also adventurous enough to conduct such an experiment.

In our initial team meeting, we grappled with the question of purpose. We knew that structured and periodic conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion were important. We just struggled to articulate why.

After an hour of staring at a blank Google Doc and laughing at ourselves for struggling to express something that seemed so intuitive, we had our epiphany. The point of these dialogues is to help our staff (including ourselves) come up with new ideas on how to better meet the realities of our students.

Perhaps this might mean rethinking our recruitment practices or how we engage students’ families. Or, it could mean reimagining a more holistic process for deciding who gets into AP courses. It could even mean reassessing the messages we hammer into our students.

I wish I could say that we hit the ground running once we fleshed out our goal. We didn’t. Sure, we found excellent articles to ground our first discussion with the central staff. Sure, we had a great set of questions to guide our session. And, sure, we even involved the staff in setting up the conversation norms. But when it came to discussing the heart of the matter or speaking from a personal perspective, getting anyone to talk felt like pulling teeth. This was surprising to my team and me because, when we proposed the idea for having these sessions, most of the staff seemed excited by it.


After debriefing the session, my team and I realized the mistake we made. We had assumed the staff would readily share their thoughts and stories if we only asked the right questions. Instead, we should have devoted the first few sessions to establishing a certain level of trust among the participants.

After all, the nature of these discussions entails vulnerability from the participants. So, if trust is lacking, then no matter how good our questions are, we are unlikely to engender the type of frank and powerful discourse we value.

So we dedicated the next two sessions to building trust, and we did so by playing CONNECT. When we returned to the heavier topics by our fourth session, what transpired was beautiful. The conversation bubbled with passion and flowed organically. People opened up. And, as testimony to the vigor of the interaction, my team and I were able to get through only one of the five questions we had prepared.

Now, I don’t know if the energy of the last session will persist in the upcoming sessions. I also don’t know what the long-term impact of these dialogues will be. After all, it’s not always easy to measure the outcomes of heightening our consciousness or of identifying and upending our biases.

Yet, I was reassured the other day. A key decision-maker at my school told me that the most recent dialogue helped her unearth a bias of hers. She told me that, as a result, she would approach her role at the school more mindfully. Her admission—which, I imagine, required tremendous courage—made me think that, perhaps, this experiment is worth it.

Ivan Rahman is a 2015-2016 Education Pioneers Fellow and currently serves at the Director of Data for Coney Island Prep in Brooklyn, New York. Born in the Bronx to Bangladeshi immigrants, Ivan witnessed his parents’ struggle to become citizens and make ends meet and, through that, he learned to value resilience and fortitude. Now, he works tirelessly to expand opportunities for working- and middle-class families. He is a lifelong student of what works and what doesn’t in the landscape of social innovation.