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Bringing Ferguson Home: How to Begin Addressing Structural Racism

Ferguson continues to be a national conversation, bringing with it a spotlight on race in the classroom and in afterschool programs. Emily Emerson and Katrina Go share why Schools Out Washington makes racial equity a core part of their work and share some tips for educators to begin addressing these issues. 

By Emily Emerson and Katrina Go

Many have been engaging in the national conversation regarding why a white police officer would kill an unarmed young black man.  Media and social commentary demonstrate prevalent views that race does not and should not matter in the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.  Before this event, young people told us that adults should be learning about race and racism and reflecting on their own prejudices. With this national conversation, we have a great opportunity to answer this call to action.  

As an organization that serves the afterschool and youth development field (AYD), School's Out Washington (SOWA), works to ensure that all young people have access to high-quality programs.  We cannot do this work without understanding how race matters and how racism impacts young people.  Valuable time must be spent examining who we are as racialized beings in order to understand our role in perpetuating racism and how it plays out in our work with young people.

The Aspen Institute defines structural racism as "the complex ways in which the legacy of our racial history, public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and belief systems interact to maintain inequitable racial group outcomes, which privileges associated with whiteness and disadvantages associated with color endure and adapt."

Inequitable outcomes produced and perpetuated by structural racism in our society continue to cloud the effectiveness of the AYD field. Across all indicators including educational attainment, income, wealth, school discipline, the juvenile justice system, and mental and physical health, we see that young people of color are paying the price for historically racist policies, practices, attitudes, and beliefs ingrained in our society.  In structures of authority such as law enforcement and school discipline, there are inherent biases against young black men, which reinforce negative stereotypes of them and feed into a racist system that seeks to endure.  

In Washington state, 55% of youth attending afterschool programs are youth of color. As employees of institutions that young people interact with every single day, we must hold ourselves accountable to challenging structural violence and our visible and invisible complicity within these social structures.  Rather than regarding structural racism as an abstraction, we must hold these statistics in our minds to question the way we perceive young people and challenge who we see occupying positions of power.

As people of color and as white people of privilege, we must work separately and together to adequately understand the inequities for young people of color and to effectively work with and for all young people.  The field of afterschool and youth development is comprised of workers with a multiplicity of identities which inform who we are and how we work.  Our experiences and knowledge can both distract from and enhance our effectiveness.  We recognize that these experiences and the related emotions are legitimate.  However, often unknowingly we have implicit bias and engage in harmful actions.  When staff dismiss or do not intervene during racist incidents, when staff expectations differ depending on the race of the young person, when families are stereotyped or tokenized, when white staff practice from a "savior" perspective, when organizational leadership does not reflect the communities they serve, when zero tolerance policies are enacted, and when public schools are inadequately funded, we realize the immediate need for racial equity work in the AYD field.

Acknowledging our organizational role as a leader in the AYD field, SOWA has made a public commitment to work toward racial equity, which is reflected through internal assessment of protocols and policies, staff education and caucusing, as well as external efforts to narrow the Opportunity Gap through legislative advocacy, creating Quality Standards and Core Competencies that specifically address race and cultural competency, and providing professional development workshops on Structural Racism and Youth Engagement.

Where to start:

  • First, do your own work.  We all have work to do to understand our experiences of oppression, privilege and power and how they impact our assumptions and actions.
  • Get help. Find local experts on racial equity and cultural competency.  You cannot do this work alone or in isolation. Go to the experts, they can help guide a path for your work.
  • Be accountable. Understand why you want to address racial equity, how you will do it, who you are accountable to in the work, and how you will evaluate your work.
  • Consider caucusing. Engaging in people of color, mixed race, and white caucuses can help organizational staff and CYD professionals learn, grow, and heal. Choose experienced facilitators to support the group process.
  • Address racial equity at all levels. A holistic approach is the most effective from personal and individual professional work, to internal organizational policies and procedures, to external collaborations, relationships, professional development opportunities, legislative advocacy, the creation of leadership opportunities for people of color, and authentic communication with youth.

Though as child and youth development professionals we may feel that our connection to the Ferguson case may fall on a continuum of distant sympathy to rage, with intentionality and cultural humility, we can use our position in the AYD and education fields to prioritize racially equitable programs for young people. If we know that implicit bias and race played a role in the killing of Michael Brown, a young man of color, what power do we have to serve justice? From direct service workers to legislative advocates, we choose to sit at the table, we choose to talk about race, and we choose to challenge ourselves and others so we have both an individual impact and a structural impact, a united voice against racism.

Emily is the statewide training manager and Katrina is the AmeriCorps VISTA intern for School's Out Washington.  Follow SOWA and Asia Society on Twitter.

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