PYM’s Work on Racism Reflected in Friends Education

Friends and Education

Race and privilege – The very words can close a door, open a wound, or set the stage for split second judgments that have nothing to do with who a person really is.

How then, Friends wonder, can we talk about and act upon racism? How can we achieve the opposite—opening doors, rebalancing cultural or historical narratives, and disseminating knowledge that supports a better future and makes for more diverse Meetings?

With this goal in mind, a group of Friends raised their concerns about racism and other “isms” at PYM’s annual sessions this past summer. PYM clerks and elders responded by organizing a special called meeting on January 10th to focus attention on race and privilege. The primary message was that each of us in PYM could address this issue and that, by working at all levels (personally and at our monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings) we will. The work was exhilarating, positive, and helpful for the 79 Meetings who sent some 400 Friends to participate. A group of over 30 Friends from various meetings has already created an “Undoing Racism” Working Group as part of this work.

Like PYM, Friends Schools face racial justice issues on campus, through service learning projects, and within curriculum. Conflict, inequity, power dynamics, and cultural clashes are tucked deep inside the literature, history, or cultural studies students encounter on the road to graduation.

Over the past decade, diversity coordinators, faculty members, and students at Friends schools have worked to hone their thinking on privilege and race. As a result, the texture and tone of what is taught is changing.

Peggy McIntosh discusses diversity work with students.

Peggy McIntosh discusses diversity work with students.

Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, kick started the discussion on privilege with a now famous 1988 article titled “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence Through Work in Women’s Studies”. At first, Dr. McIntosh focused her research on male privilege, but her sense of fairness prompted her to study whether she, too, had unexamined privileges softening her path in life. She turned the mirror on herself—a well-educated, white, middle-class woman—and detailed how the color of her skin reduced adversity, and beneficially altered her experiences. In doing so, Dr. McIntosh opened up a compelling field of study with important implications for the field of education.

Starting with a list of 26 self-identified “privileges,” McIntosh detailed the ways invisible systems conferred racial dominance by her own group.  She then used insights gained from research on white privilege to rebalance curriculum content in schools and universities, lessening the power of “invisible” race or class-biased systems on future scholars and students of all ages.

Readily available material tends to influence scholarship. For example, Wikipedia—called “a vast ocean of erudition” by Jada F. Smith in her recent New York Times article on the subject—is also largely filled with material of interest to its stereotypical editors. James Hare, president of Wikimedia D.C., describes Wikipedia’s editors as mostly “30-year old white men”. Which is why, Ms. Smith writes, a team of volunteers from Howard University is using Black History Month to launch a project that will edit diversity into Wikipedia’s virtual pages, expanding entries on under-represented people and topics. They also plan to add entirely new articles on topics like NASA astrophysicist Beth Brown, and Farish Street, in Jackson Mississippi, a center for African American businesses in the 1970s. (For more information about the Howard University project see the full February 20th New York Times Article: “At a Historically Black University, Filling in Wikipedia’s Gaps in Color”.)

The germ of Howard University’s February 2015 project could be said to lie in a program that was a natural outgrowth of McIntosh’s original research. Called the ‘SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project on Inclusive Curriculum,’ it has become a touchstone program for Friends Schools of all sizes. SEED focuses attention on social, emotional and political education through exercises that surface “inadvertent instruction” on race, gender, culture, etc. The exercises help people shed biases they may not be aware of, as well as acknowledge and list inherited privileges. This highly personalized work is paired with the use of new, and always improving, curriculum resource material for both K-12 and University classrooms.

At Wilmington Friends School, all teachers in their second year are expected to participate in SEED groups held at the school, and some make the workshops an annual professional development priority. Seven-day SEED leadership training is expensive, especially for small schools, so Friends educators have also set up peer mentoring relationships that stretch curriculum innovations from school to school, and classroom to classroom, throughout the PYM region. For example, Abington Friends School’s SEED group welcomed educators from Friends Select and Frankford Friends School, and United Friends School’s SEED group (now in its second year) has invited peer educators from PYM Friends schools to join them.

When Peggy McIntosh recently visited the Philadelphia region—speaking to faculty at The William Penn Charter School’s Hubben Lecture and spending important time with Upper School students and eighth graders—an additional evening lecture was scheduled so that the public, as well as faculty from local Friends and public schools could attend.

There are opportunities for equally powerful collaborations between Meetings and schools. Most Friends Schools seek opportunities to connect with Meetings; sharing SEED methodologies with First Day schools or Adult Religious Life classes is a project some communities might enjoy and benefit from.

How does the age of the child impact schools’ diversity work? Depending on the student’s grade, schools handle material differently. Younger students relate most to what is happening immediately around them – therefore educators plan numerous opportunities to build conflict resolution skills, empathy, compassion, and respect for different perspectives in Lower School classrooms and on the playground.

Imana Legette, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the William Penn Charter School, feels that every grade is capable of discussing race, but “the age and the development of the child are extremely important when teaching racial equality… (and therefore Penn Charter is) deliberate about the way we expose students to history and literature.”

At all grade levels, Imana works with faculty to review the ‘hidden curriculum’ that Penn Charter teaches. She says “it is important to present a balanced curriculum that not only includes racially balanced information, but also other areas of diversity such as gender, religion and sexual orientation.” This may mean very different things for fourth and ninth grade students, but the process is the same. Teachers examine the yearlong course of study, and test it for a wide range of role models, a diversity of cultural and environmental topics, and a healthy breadth of perspective.

Some schools develop their own curricula. For example Friends School of Minnesota created an “I-to-I” conflict resolution program that Wilmington Friends School (WFS) deploys in their Lower School. The program helps students gain opportunities to develop their own voices at the same time they come to understand the perspectives of others with whom they’ve come into conflict.  In talking through such conflicts, students are expected to agree upon a resolution with which both can be comfortable.

Fifth graders at Wilmington Friends School take this further, looking at:

  • Research that shows how different people in different countries live;
  • Comparisons with respect to other people’s access to basics like food, education, and water;
  • Film or videos that explore diverse perspectives, followed by class discussion;
  • The need to be open to differences within the school and larger communities.

An administrator at WFS points out that “younger students address these differences most directly in their everyday relationships with others at school while older students explore their own relationships with others, and (consider the) historical and cultural factors behind human differences.”

Literature in the curriculum, the classroom, and in school libraries plays a large role in diversity studies at all grade levels, but history and social science are particularly critical sources of material as students broaden their knowledge with age.

TED talks, service learning projects, and films also bring powerful examples of racial inequality forward in ways that make it easier for students to witness and discuss their own feelings and experiences.

Scott Rhodewalt teaches 9th grade “Global Peace & Justice” classes at Wilmington Friends School. As part of the course some students attended an evening event where they watched and wrote reflections on “Cracking the Codes,” a film by Shakti Butler.

The filmmaker is a strong believer in the value of silent reflection, and periodic meditation prompts Ms. Butler placed within “Cracking the Codes” are well understood by Friends School students. Scott Rhodewalt says the silent “reflection” times are marked by chimes in the film. At each chime, Scott said, “we stopped the film, and I had everyone breathe very intentionally and reflect on what they’ve just experienced …” Butler also earmarks the film’s discussion points with periodic visual flags. Appearing three times within the film, these were useful discussion opportunities for students and parents attending the evening film.

There is a downloadable conversation guide that accompanies the film, which Scott indicated he found very helpful. The patience, the push towards open-ended independent thinking, and multiple perspectives the film encouraged were frequently mentioned in students’ reflections:

  • I found the movie very helpful. It showed me different perspectives of people from all different ethnicities and what they think about the racial barrier that is still here today.”
  •  “It is helpful to be patient and understanding with people who may not grasp some concepts of racism and privilege as others, and to hear from individuals who have faced these issues and have them share their personal experiences and views on the topics.”
  • … Pointing out to people everyday things that they may not notice would be helpful, because most people are no longer racist, but are still not aware of it.”

It is interesting to observe that Butler’s film fosters a sense of compassion among students; a perception that judgments are harmful and successful discussions about racism are internally driven:

  • Plainly stating that people are racist because they abuse their privilege is not helpful, because all that does is create more hate, which is what people like Dr. King and Gandhi worked so hard to get rid of.
  • Being lectured to, and solely spoken to is not a helpful way to learn and discuss the issues (surrounding racism). It is important to get the students involved in playing games like Jeopardy – where you can learn new facts … (or) have sessions where you go around to everyone and give a phrase or sentence about your thoughts, like we do in Peace class, … to see other peoples’ point of view.
  • I think it is most effective when teachers let students form their own opinions about what they think is racism and what is not. When the teachers have a ‘one-side’ … stance on racism, it is hard to figure out how you really feel about it.”

Imana Legette, of Penn Charter, agrees with the Wilmington Friends students. She concludes: “When students are given the opportunity to lead and create programs for their peers, they feel it has a stronger impact. Students know how to engage and reach out to (each) other… Adults are important—to supervise and guide students—

but should give students some freedom to lead difficult discussions. What they find least helpful is when the conversations or activities are too “prescribed” and guided.”

In the end, Imana says: “Authentic conversations happen when students are in a comfortable space and able to speak openly and honestly without fear of judgment or repercussions.”

Whether those conversations are about race, social justice, religion, mass incarceration, Internet shaming, or ethnic and cultural norms/differences, the best discussions happen when people park their judgments and share their full range of perspectives.

Quakerism is an aspirational faith. The PYM community’s good work on tough issues—like racism—should inspire schools, but such exchanges can go both ways. Meeting communities can increase their collaboration with Friends Schools and Quaker educators—for example just imagine the impact the community could have if PYM meetings and schools decided to pitch in with James Hare, of Wikimedia DC, and Howard University as they embark upon diversifying Wikipedia’s content?

In the end, student hearts are tender, their perspectives on truth are complex, and the progress they make through empathy and persuasion—basically shedding light on hidden truths—is as enduring as progress through protest.

“Good will and love build the sacred base of real [community],

in which the dignity and equal opportunity of every person is

sacred and guaranteed.” — Bayard Rustin


Article written by Grace Sharples Cooke, who serves on our Committee on Friends Education (CoFE) and the Post Secondary Education Working Group.