"When You Know Better, You Do Better"
Posted by Julia Blount:Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) and Upper Elementary on 10/25/2022
According to Oprah, Maya Angelou once told her, “You did [then] what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better." This is one of the phrases that most anchors my work as a JEDI practitioner and a recovering perfectionist. As adults, engaging with others on some of the most difficult and personal topics–race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, among others–is to make mistakes and missteps, to unintentionally fall into the ways we have been socialized, and also, to reflect, to grow, to change, and to do better.
Throughout my career, meaningful–and at times difficult–conversations with students, colleagues, friends, and family have helped me know better. One set of conversations led me to jettison phrases like “boys and girls,” “ladies and gentlemen,” and even “guys,” for “ya’ll” and “folks,” to ensure my language is as gender inclusive as possible. I still call myself out if I slip, although I find I have to do so less and less frequently the more I practice and hold myself accountable. I know this is part of my own journey to grapple with the way I was socialized around gender.
A couple weeks ago, adults in our community were able to discuss the impact of gender stereotypes on all children as part of our adult education event on our first JEDI day. We were thrilled to partner with local non-profit More Than Sex Ed for an adult education event, with over thirty parents, caregivers, and staff in attendance. The MTSE facilitators helped us reflect on how we learned about gender and gender roles growing up, and how we can support our students and children in developing healthier and more expansive understandings of gender.
Working with adults is an important part of our work with students. Many adults have not had the opportunity to engage in these conversations themselves, so it can be particularly difficult to begin them with children. Yet, studies show that children begin to understand racial differences from infancy. If educators and caregivers do not discuss areas of difference, children will make their own assumptions about the weight those differences hold. While the way we discuss topics should and does vary by age, we believe even our youngest students deserve the opportunity to discuss the differences they see around them.
When I was growing up and learning in an independent school in the 1990s and early 2000s, we spoke frequently about race and racism from a historical perspective. However, because racism was always portrayed as “over” it took years for me to recognize when racism was operating around me and to figure out where I fit in as a light skinned biracial Black girl. It was a rude awakening when I realized I was treated differently than peers of different races and genders. Experiencing others experiencing me as I walked through the world was often confusing and I was often unsure of where I belonged. Now, I wonder how the adults around me could have prepared me better for challenges I would experience. I wonder what things might have been different if I understood ways I could be an ally or co-conspirator at a younger age. I wonder what it would have felt like to find a stronger sense of belonging earlier in my life. These experiences, along with research about child development and identity work, inform my approach to JEDI work at Echo Horizon.
There are many beautiful things about starting JEDI conversations in elementary school. First, students are less attached to the dominant narratives around them–about ‘boy colors’ and ‘girl colors,’ or what a family ‘should’ look like–so they entertain different perspectives more willingly than many of us can do as adults. Second, kids love to share what they observe, to ask questions, and to look for the “why” – they are ready to engage at their own level in these conversations. My interracial parents often recall a first grade classmate of mine who innocently exclaimed, “Oh! So that’s why Julia’s that color!” when she first saw my parents together. Third, students with historically marginalized identities are better supported by their teachers and peers, learn self-advocacy, and feel a deeper sense of belonging with their institutions when their identities are recognized and celebrated. Finally, when we begin these conversations in elementary school, there is so much time for us to support students in these conversations and to help ensure that they “know better” from a younger age. I cannot wait to see what the world looks like when more folks enter our governments, companies, and classrooms having developed comfort with discussing differences, making mistakes, and learning from each other’s unique ways of being the world.
Inside and outside of the classroom, EHS teachers take advantage of students’ natural curiosity about others. When questions come up around difference on the yard, at lunch, or in class, teachers engage students appropriately rather than shutting down conversation. Our Echo Center and hearing technology invite many conversations about equity and fairness at every grade level. JEDI is woven throughout our curriculum, from Pre-K’s Colors of Me project, through 6th Grade, where students take informed action as part of their Purpose Learning work. Last year, one Purpose Learning group got the whole school wondering why so many of us assumed that our mascot, Happy the Hawk, was a boy, even though no one had ever said that! In addition to what we teach, JEDI informs how we evaluate our practices and track student success. We use standards based grading to measure student progress towards grade-level learning goals in a way that is more meaningful, accurate, and equitable.
We know that our approach is working because students are telling us with their actions. In the past two years, students have successfully advocated for more cultures and countries to be represented in our curricula, organized weeks of events for AAPI Heritage Month, put together morning meeting slides for Pride month, brought a multi-grade Holi celebration to campus, and more. Echo Horizon is a place where students feel comfortable celebrating who they are, and pushing adults to know more and do better. How very lucky we are.
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