“We live in a time of crisis,” warned Dr. Ruha Benjamin in the beginning of her opening keynote at the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. Benjamin, an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier, is the first black woman to keynote this conference.
And the space and timing were ripe for her message: We live in an era when people who are different are treated unfairly, when people of color have to defend their mere existence. Yet, we can all do something about it.
Take the education technology world. One of the major criticisms of ISTE, known as “the premier education technology conference,” is its lack of racial and ethnic diversity among speakers. That’s why Benjamin’s speech was such a groundbreaking and historic moment. Her fearless voice shattered the facade that this event is solely about technology in education. Instead, she shifted the focus to the heart of what makes education so vital: how we can help build a system that supports students and all their identities.
Benjamin called us to fight against oppressive systems in education, which she described as “parallel realities where some are nurtured and others are crushed.” She then reminded us that our inaction can be just as hurtful as outright support of those systems’ inequities and injustices. This point stood out to me, and I kept wondering what we, as educators, can do to change unjust conditions in education for students and teachers of color.
I caught up with her later that evening to chat about empowering voices in the education community and speaking out on such crucial issues as equality and social justice. I took away a few key points on how educators can work to bring about social change and justice in our classrooms and schools.
Focus on Students
We often think about speaking on social justice and equity issues as an act of personal bravery. Benjamin suggests that reducing the focus on ourselves can help alleviate the pressure: “The more I think about myself, the less courageous I feel. The process for me is not to focus on myself. ... I think of myself as a fellow human being in conversation with other human beings.” This suggestion not only takes some of the onus and pressure off of advocates, but it also allows us to decenter ourselves from the bigger picture and focus on the real issues at hand—the well-being of our students.
Taking action can feel like something much larger than any one of us can handle. However, Benjamin advises that we look within our circles of influence, which allows us to start small. Focusing on doing the work and having the conversations within our own communities will not only be the start of an effective movement toward change, but it is also something that most of us can take on. These circles might be your colleagues at school, parents and families, students and administrators. Take charge of planning a PD workshop or a webinar on cultural competency and culturally responsive teaching as a way to start the conversation within your circle.
Be Yourself and Follow Your Passions
Activism usually takes the form of a collective endeavor; one group has one purpose. But maintaining individuality is important, too, so as to not lose our own focus and our own passions. “We don’t want everyone to fit a mold,” Benjamin explains. “We should draw out our own gifts. We act on each other’s individuality.” It’s important that educators not focus on imitating other movements, people and voices. For example, if blogging or tweeting is not the right tool for you, then don’t feel like you have to do it. Doing what feels right for you maintains authenticity, which is critical when doing social justice and equity work. People can be moved by our passions and love for the cause.
“We’re in a crisis mode,” Benjamin stressed, repeating the opening of her keynote. We cannot be neutral or bystanders to issues of inequity and social justice, certainly not when it comes to our young people. Otherwise, we become part of the problem. For example, if you think the suspension and expulsion policies at your school need to be revisited, speak your mind. This may seem hard, but it is and always should be about what’s best for students. That’s why the notion of taking ourselves out of the picture is significant: Doing so gives us the bravery to speak out against injustice and oppression.
Be a Voice of Encouragement
Whether on social media or in real life, we need to amplify, support and cultivate a culture of encouragement. The more we do that, the more we build toward lasting positive change. This would help others to speak out against injustice, do the right thing and feel heard. If a colleague wrote an amazing article, share it with others. If someone said something that was on your mind, tell them how great it was that they mentioned it. If a student raised a hand and expressed their opinion, tell them how you appreciate it. Many people need to hear that their actions and their voice matter, and that acknowledgment can inspire them to continue using their voices and doing the work, Benjamin says.
There is a lot of burden on people of color to carry the weight of this work, but they shouldn’t have to do it alone. White allies need to work within their communities and networks to bring awareness to injustices that directly impact students, educators and families. While these truths are hard for many people to hear and absorb, that shouldn’t discourage us from doing the work. Many people will refuse to listen. Many will try to shut you down. Many will tell you that what you’re saying doesn’t matter, is not right, or worse, doesn’t even exist at all. However, let’s remember that no one made a difference by making everyone happy—or staying silent. I’ll leave you with a final thought from Benjamin here: “If people don’t disagree with you, then maybe you’re not telling the truth.”
Alrubail is an education blogger, community builder and co-founder of The Writing Project. You can reach her on Twitter @RusulAlrubail.