“There isn’t an educator that I know that says the work we do is easy. We deal with the challenges of racial disparities in our schools and, at times, it feels like we endure the testing, the standards, the district initiatives that don’t help us deal with our challenges, they just highlight the problems,” said Shawna Moore, an eighth grade teacher and core team member of the Rainier Educators of Color Network (RECN).
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A group of like-minded educators in Washington’s Rainier School District formed the RECN to create opportunities for educators of color to fellowship with other educators and families, advocate for their needs, and give voice to issues important to their community.
“RECN creates a safe environment where members of color can come together and have difficult conversations about really important issues,” said Shawna. The group hosts listening sessions to help students, educators, and communities open a dialogue on race in their schools. NEA Edjustice recently caught up with Shawna; paraeducator Valisia Simpson; and Talaya Logan, President of the Renton High School student body, to talk about the latest listening session.
NEA: What were the takeaways for you from the listening session?
Shawna: These conversations can be very uncomfortable and that is ok. But the commitment to figuring out how to improve the system for all students – especially our students of color – is real.
Valisia: No matter where we go or what we do, in these sessions, similar themes surface. People are struggling with racism, bullying, disrespect—they feel like no one listens and there are different rules for different students. Just giving students, educators, administrators and community members a safe environment to begin this dialogue is a big step.
Talaya: People were really open, honest and relieved to have the opportunity to have this conversation.
NEA: How do you create the safe space to have this conversation?
Shawna: We’re very clear that students facilitate and attend the student session, educators facilitate and attend the educator session and administrators can attend the community session. All the facilitators go through training and really work to set the tone to allow the conversation to unfold.
NEA: What is next for the participants of this session and for the larger community?
Shawna: There were 500 students and 100 educators and community members who took part in our session at Renton. We take the information back and categorize it and present it to the superintendent’s cabinet in April.
Valisia: Together we define the next steps to address the challenges. These listening sessions aren’t just about hearing problems and collecting data. Once we bring the information back to the students, educators, administrators and community members, we involve them in finding solutions together. Maybe most importantly, we help participants understand how to advocate for their concerns together to make a change.
NEA: How did the listening session impact your thinking on the challenges and opportunities for communities of color at Renton and in the greater community?
Valisia: It does break your heart to hear these stories, but it makes me a better educator. I have had my assumptions challenged and I am more sensitive to the needs of students and fellow educators. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.
Shawna: What we hear is what students, educators and communities are experiencing. Hearing what they say and being able to personally reflect on my own practice has been a gift. I ask myself at the end of the day did I reach out, go the extra mile, do that one more check-in, give that one more high five? Because that could be the difference for the student or educator who needs it any given day.
Talaya: Students are a lot more aware of the issues in the school that I gave them credit for. The gap in understanding between freshmen and seniors is a lot smaller than I realized. Even students who seem quiet or withdrawn, when given the platform, have something to say. I will definitely work to create the environment where everyone can be comfortable and have their voice heard.
NEA: What is your advice to other schools that are thinking about this?
Shawna: Don’t be afraid of it. It can be hard and overwhelming to hear other people’s truth but try and just do it. You are going to make it better for the next generation.
Talaya: Understand the purpose. It’s not to persuade, or plan out the issues, or say look how good or bad we are. It is to have a conversation to get rid of the fear of having this conversation about race. It may cause tension. But go for it.