We hear you.
We acknowledge you.
We stand with you.

For the past two weeks, we at CMI have been working through the anger, horror and sadness brought across this country by George Floyd’s death. We have come face to face with our own privilege and have struggled with how we, personally, will work to end the racism around us. We are heartened by the demonstrations taking place across the globe in the hopes that this can be the beginning of real and lasting change.

The opportunity is at hand.

What we do about this right now matters! No longer can we let ourselves believe that oppression for one group doesn’t have an impact on all of us. No longer can we delude ourselves into thinking that someone else will take care of it. It is up to each and every one of us to step up to the plate and become part of the solution. 

As awful as these events always are, and as many protests as we’ve watched over the decades, maybe this time… maybe this time we’ve reached critical mass in our resolve. Maybe this time enough of us are changing our language and our action. Maybe this time we can set a new course for dealing with racism. 

We in America are not skilled at having conversations about race. I know as I attempt to address this situation with you all that my own ignorance and unintentional bias will be evident. But we must start somewhere, so I’m starting with the best of intentions and hoping for the response to be one with understanding and good will.

Start where you are! Help students wrestle with these difficult issues.

Our job in education is to create an environment in which everyone feels respected such that all can voice their beliefs and opinions. Here are some starting thoughts:

  • Talking about racism can feel daunting, but it is so important for us to do so!  We can minimize or manage the tension if we set clear expectations and create a safe environment….
  • The generational institutionalization of racism makes it very difficult for us to recognize our own bias. A willingness to listen is our starting place. Creating an environment where students can talk openly and honestly about their thoughts, their experiences, their beliefs and their fears is essential. Setting expectations and creating an environment that feels safe for students can allow acknowledging what is true and present in our world. 
  • Teachers can help students discover the insight that, if we don’t listen respectfully to others whose experiences and beliefs are different from ours, we are the exact microcosm of what has brought about the protests. Ask questions that allow students to discover this rather than simply stating it.  Help them see the parallels in their lives to this national issue.
  • Be informed but realize that you can’t know everything. Sometimes we’ll say something that lacks awareness.  Students will still appreciate your efforts. We’re all still learning, and most of us are neophytes. You don’t need to be an expert.  Sometimes just allowing students to share their perspectives and experiences will be enough. If a student takes issue with how you’ve presented something, you don’t have to defend what you did. You can ask, “What might I do differently next time?”  “Help me understand more about that”. “ Let me listen to you illustrate that point for me another way so I can grasp this.” This is validating for the student who sees the world differently. 
  • If you’re still stuck, use literature to start the conversation.

6 Points to Remember During Your Conversation

We’ll provide some possible language just for openers. Remember, this needs to be an intentional, ongoing process, so you don’t need a specific goal or end point. We need to find courage and engage in honest, open conversation and find acceptance and respect from others.

1. Acknowledge the truth about what is happening.

“There has been much in the news about the protests happening all across the country. I think it is really important when things like this happen that we stop and pay attention; that we learn what we can from one another.  I want us to take some time with this.”

2. Set the ground rules.

“One of the greatest lessons for us in the protests and in acknowledging racism in America is to recognize the critical importance of respect and of open listening. That doesn’t mean accepting someone else’s point of view as true for you, but that it is true for them at this point. As we learn to have these difficult conversations, if we are open to learning, most of us will come to some new conclusions and understandings along the way.” 

The basic expectations are that people are respectful of one another, that people listen to one another, that there is a difference in blaming others vs. telling the stories of what we experienced. You might consider any of these:

  • We may feel discomfort at what others say. That’s OK. Make room for it.
  • Make “I” statements. Tell your story from your experience.  Not blaming others, but expressing your own experience.
  • Give everyone the chance to speak, so those who have already shared, wait for those who might be more reserved to join the conversation. 
  • Be respectful, no matter what you think. 
  • Step back and reflect rather than react.
  • Don’t feel you must counter everything that is said that you don’t agree with. Just let everyone have their voice.
  • Accept someone else’s reality as being true for them.
  • Be compassionate with your questions and ask for more insight, instead of challenging or arguing.
  • You may repeat the stories or examples, but not with the names or identities of speakers.
  • Be willing for this to be challenging.
  • Take care of yourself and be kind to others.

3. Allow youth to talk about the protests.

“Let’s listen to what we have heard and your thoughts about these demonstrations. What are you thinking about this?”

Youth may want to talk about the event, as well as other similar or difficult events in their lives, such as personal illustrations of racism or bigotry or personal struggles. Listening to one another helps youth feel less alone as they hear others voice similar experiences or reactions/emotions. Too, talking eases the pressure we feel inside.

4. Understand that these events may be a “trigger.”

“For some of you, seeing the news coverage may be very difficult because of particular experiences you’ve had.”

Sometimes if we’ve experienced something similar, watching the coverage almost makes us feel like it is happening again.  This event may cause them to re-experience feelings they had in the past at times of danger, threat or fear. It helps for them to know that this reaction is not unusual for people with something frightening in their histories.

5. Talk about the ways racism shows itself.

  • How does a person of color define racism? There may be several examples.
  • How does a white person define racism? There may be different viewpoints.
  • Is being “colorblind” possible?
    • Is it desirable?
    • Does it ignore the impact of race on person of color?
    • Does it really say, “I don’t see my own color because I am privileged and the world revolves around my whiteness”?
    • How does it eliminate our recognition and appreciation of the gifts different cultures bring? 
    • How would music in America be different if we had always been a white-only culture? 
    • What are the gifts you can identify from various cultures? 
    • How many cultures are represented in your school? 
    • How does that help or hinder your awareness of different cultures?

6. Show compassion as individuals are each in a different phase of growth and understanding.
Teachers and school staff, relatives, and friends need to understand that youth coming from chaotic or dysfunctional homes likely have diminished abilities to cope.

Consider setting up a virtual Safe Room or an open drop-in conversation.

In some areas, protests may be directly affecting school or the community as a whole. Consider setting up a (virtual) Safe Room or inviting students to a shared conversation using your district’s distance learning platform.

All youth need to be able to access the Safe Room or discussion. Many need our support, but for all of us, this is an unparalleled opportunity to create a forum for student learning on this and a time for us to encourage students to increase awareness and connect racism to their moral compass, hopefully finding increased understanding for those who are different from themselves.

CMI’s founder Cheri Lovre recently released a new resource that discusses Virtual Safe Rooms.

Encourage students towards positive action.

  • Support each other!
  • Take time to listen to one another’s deeper thoughts about what’s happening.
  • Look into the many organizations who are helping with this cause (See below.).
  • Put extra energy into friendships. Do lots of caring check-ins with one another.
  • Take good care of themselves by eating well and getting lots of rest.
  • Silence is tacit acceptance! Instead, what could some next steps be?

Suggestions for all of us – youth and adults:

  • Acknowledge racism when you see it.
  • Be an up stander not a bystander.
  • Identify places in your own life where you can grow.
  • Educate yourself through books, podcasts, etc.
  • Listen to people of color — invite them to tell you of a personal experience they’d like for you to hear and understand.  Don’t question it, don’t give advice; just stay with listening and then then let them know you’ll reflect on what they’ve said.  Thank them.  You might ask if there is more they’d like you to know, but absolutely resist the desire to have them understand anything from your side at this point.  This is the time to learn.
  • Be an emergency contact for someone who is protesting.
    • Check in frequently to know where they are and the climate they’re in.
    • Know the location of the local precinct is in case they are arrested.
    • Know any medication they may need.
  • Be okay with being uncomfortable.  Acknowledge the fear and do it anyway!  Have the conversations.  Confront your own lack of understanding.  Get humble about this!
  • Realize that your good intent might have a negative impact. Be willing to adjust / change if this is true.
  • Support the work of people of color.
  • Write letters to politicians. Call out institutional racism when you see it.
  • Commit to making this a life change, not a just-for-now change.
  • Be patient with yourself and others, but lean with urgency on policy-makers and politicians.

Additional Resources

Above all, stay safe and stay kind. Our students need to see good behavior modeled in the real world. These challenges provide that opportunity.