Overcoming Racism Through Education Equity

On November 4, Voices for Racial Justice Senior Organizer Julia Freeman and Research and Policy Director Brett Grant presented a workshop at the Overcoming Racism conference at Metropolitan State University.

Their workshop, entitled The Pathway to Education Equity is Paved with Community at the Center, drew over 30 participants who were hungry to develop solutions to education equities in their communities.

Brett and Julia came to our weekly staff meeting the following Tuesday, energized by the conversations they had and reported on the learning the group did together.

The session was interactive and included small group work to unpack a scenario about participation of parents of color in parent-teacher conferences. At the center of their conversations were the community experiences that were behind low participation in parent-teacher conferences, and the Pathway to Education Equity tool that Voices developed in collaboration with community partners.

The Pathway Tool draws on the experiences of students and families in assessing the barriers to education equity. The development of solutions also centers these experiences, recognizing that building true and sustainable equity in schools must address the structural barriers that prevent indigenous students and students of color from experiencing positive learning environments that support their full growth.

Centering these experiences does not mean that educators, administrators, and other community members are not part of the process. In fact, they are essential to seeing the barriers, developing solutions, and implementing them fully. The Pathway process recognizes the necessity of all these stakeholders coming together in a way that furthers the vision for education equity, allowing everyone to see how we may all be part of supporting inequities – and that we all have a role in dismantling structural barriers.

“Each small group identified the equity goals that emerged from the scenario, and narrowed down to one or two to work on,” said Julia, “and then the participants used the Pathway tool to begin crafting solutions. The groups came up with some great things like holding conferences on weekends and making home visits.”

At the end of the workshop, a participant asked Julia what excited her most about her work. “I told her I love working with parents and youth to develop opportunities for them to co-create the solutions with their school. They start seeing that they are the experts.”

Brett reflected to the group what he loves most about the Pathway tool. “I told them that, for me, what I like most about the tool is that it allows me to dream again. It reminds me of the potential that is education. It reminds me of why I am excited about education. The conversations that took place in that room were so powerful,” said Brett.

One participant shared that “It felt good to be in a room working on education equity that you don’t leave feeling guilty, or not knowing how to take action.”

Another reported plans to “definitely introduce the tool and Voices for Racial Justice to our district.”

The Voices team looks forward to supporting the expertise that already exists in communities by continuing to share this tool with others. Reach out to Julia Freeman to learn more.


With a Focus on Equity, What A Difference A Year Can Make

Julia Freeman

Julia Freeman

A little over a year ago, I met with Principal Halee Vang of Hmong International Academy (HIA) to tell her that her school had been selected by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to partner with Voices for Racial Justice and pilot the Education Equity Project that includes the Pathway to Education Equity Tool. She thought this was just what the school needed.

Hmong International is a K-8 located in North Minneapolis. The school has 588 students the largest demographic is Hmong, and African American students are the second largest demographic. HIA is a community school.

Principal Vang had just transitioned from Assistant Principal to Principal and inherited all the tensions of the school. The Hmong parents and African American parents were at cultural odds with one another. The parents had marched to the District and spoke at many School Board meetings about their problems at HIA. Principal Vang, however, was committed to working for equity.

Key to that process was an intentional outreach to organize parents and youth of color and American Indian parents and youth. The process also included teachers and education specialists. Through surveys, listening sessions and 20 Equity Team meetings we were able to reach nearly 300 people, with 187 were of these 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. The majority of the people were parents or youth of color. The equity team, which included parents, youth, and teachers, sorted through the responses and identified three main priorities for action.

    1. Diversity inside our school (Cultural events and celebrations, physical space represents student population, curriculum, and language)
    2. Communication (clear and increase culturally sensitive communication and frequency, and multiple means)
    3. Teachers reflecting the diversity of the students at HIA

The implementation of most of these priorities starts in the 2016/2017 school year.

So here we are at the end of the first year of our HIA Equity Team journey some may ask what the impact has been. I would like to highlight a few changes — things we can really see. First the school climate has changed. People feel listened to. A racially and culturally inclusive school climate – in which everyone feels included and respected, where cultures are honored, and where people feel the school is fair – is important. There is now more unity at the school between staff, parents, students and the community.

Second, some changes important to parents or students have already been implemented. For example, African Americans and Native Americans in the school had felt their cultures were not included at the school, and even the Hmong families felt that more depth and language teaching was needed. Principal Vang responded by hiring an African American multi-cultural teacher, and building a class focused on the different cultures of the students at HIA into the core required curriculum. This teacher uses leaders from different cultures at the school and community cultural leaders as guest teachers. She realizes no one teacher can authentically hold everyone’s culture.

Third, The HIA youth voice is more amplified in a powerful way. Many youth joined the equity team, and began to take powerful leadership roles. This was evident when they spoke at the Minneapolis School Board meeting and shared the reports. I was very proud of them.

Fourth, paying attention to equity seems to have become a central part of the culture of the school, and may even be affecting test scores. At the last HIA Equity Team meeting Principal Halee Vang shared with us that out of the 8 Priority Schools, HIA was number one in growth for closing the gap for students of color based on MCA scores. When asked at a principals meeting of her peers she was asked how she was able to accomplish this. Principal Vang said it was all the equity work she’s been doing with parents, staff, students and the community.

What a difference a year makes working together for education equity.

Julia Freeman is Senior Organizer for Racial Justice.


We Have the Solutions for Our Communities

Julia Freeman

Julia Freeman

By Julia Freeman, OAP Senior Organizer for Racial Justice

Babette turned intentionally toward me, her face full of wisdom and experience. She began to talk about why she and two other American Indian community members formed the Native Alliance of Duluth.

Over time, she has seen her community suffer from disinvestment that has led to fewer opportunities. Babette saw the lack of affordable housing, good jobs, good education, and the closing of a valued community center as creating more barriers to opportunities for Native people.

Where to start? Her personal investment of cultural gifts, talents, wisdom, and time in her community is a labor of love. All the kids call her grandma and she is seen as a trusted and loving community elder. The Native community is close and everyone knows everyone. They want a place to gather.

She began to talk about a solution: developing a Native Community Center. There is an empty building that would be perfect. In this space they could meet and organize for change. They could provide resources with the community like food, clothing, and connections to housing and job opportunities. The kids could get help with their school work and be mentored by the elders.

Babette and her colleagues Renee and Tony talked for over an hour about solutions to improve the outcomes for their community. Getting organized was at the top of the list. The chance to create an opportunity for Native people to share their narrative around equitable solutions for their community excited them. “We know what works for us. We have the solutions, but no one ever asks.”

This is OAP’s Greater Visions work in a nutshell. We are not trying to empower anyone. That is very arrogant because communities of color and American Indian communities have their own power. We want to work with them to create the many platforms to elevate that power.

In self-identified regions across the state of Minnesota communities of color will create their own equity agendas full of solutions. We will offer the organizing support, tools, training, coaching, and any requested facilitation. But our communities of color and American Indian communities are growing as I type and everyone has an idea to “fix us.” Well, we are the “us” and we have our own tools, community history, and cultural knowledge to build our power.