Conversations with Colleagues: Calling Out Inequities
In a previous blog post, Marceline DuBose and I wrote about the resistance educational equity facilitators can expect. And it is unsurprising that someone standing in front of a room full of people arguing that perspectives should shift and resources should be reallocated would receive that kind of push-back. But when one educator makes an individual appeal to another regarding anti-racist practices, curriculum, or policies, they won’t encounter the same resistance, right? …I wish there was a punchline here.
The unfortunate truth is it can be just as challenging—if not even more difficult—to have a one-on-one conversation about an equity issue with a peer than it is to facilitate a large group discussing the same issues. Whether it is calling out an inequitable practice in their classroom or voicing your opinion that the system as a whole should change to be more inclusive and—dare I say it—not racist, the immediate reaction from the recipient is likely to be defensive or dismissive.
I would like to offer some tools, thought processes, and strategies that I have found helpful in making these conversations with peers more effective. Please note: these ideas are intended for conversations between colleagues who do not have different positional power (this also comes from the lens of a white woman whose colleagues are mostly white). I imagine these conversations taking place in the lunch room or near the copier, not in an administrator’s office during an evaluation. Which leads me to the first strategy:
Equity-minded educators often tout the merit of relationships before rigor in the classroom, but can sometimes forget that it applies to leadership among peers as well. If you intend to have conversations about equity and anti-racism with your peers, it is important to be in relationship with them. Adults also need to feel cared about, valued for their strengths, and part of a community. Be sure to build relational capacity before attempting to “call someone out” on equity issues; this will help it be received as “calling them in” instead. This is not to insinuate that having a relationship means avoiding difficult conversations in order to coddle someone’s feelings. But rather, authentic relationship means having made enough deposits in the metaphorical relational “bank” to make a withdrawal.
As with relationship-building, it is important to walk the walk of equitable practice before engaging a peer in productive dialogue about equity and anti-racism. If your peer becomes defensive and looks to poke holes in your argument, an easy place to start is hypocrisy—don’t give them that opportunity. Modeling the process of equity and anti-racist work is powerful among peers; it is not necessary to be perfect (there’s no such thing), but it is necessary to be visibly on the journey. Show vulnerability, offer ideas that have worked for you, and be empathetic. Offer to engage in the struggle together (but don’t concede to inequitable practices for the sake of “going along to get along”); really show what it looks like to put something on the line for anti-racism. A phrase that often guides me in this process is: “I used to think ___ but now I know ___.”
It is easy for me to get all up in my feelings and expect my colleagues to feel equally emotional about inequities in the school system. But it’s just not realistic to expect that my peers will all have the same reactions, connections, and points of entry as me. I have found the Pacific Educational Group’s Courageous Conversations Compass to be a very useful tool for understanding reactions during equity conversations. Thinking about where my peer’s reactions and responses fall on this compass slows me down and helps me respond in a thoughtful—and hopefully more effective—way. I have also used it as a way to plan for one-on-one conversations about equity and anti-racism. I try to prepare at least one statement and one follow-up question that would meet a person in each of the categories; then when I am in conversation I see which one seems to meet the other person’s needs (based on what I know about them, their statements, questions, and responses) and follow that train of thought.
Never once have I enjoyed being lectured by another adult. So I am especially mindful that peer-to-peer equity conversations must be two-way streets. They have to actually be dialogues with a back-and-forth exchange of ideas; I have to be open to learning something new even if I think the other person really needs what I have to offer. In light of that, I do my best to ask questions throughout the discussion. I use Heron’s Six Categories of Intervention to try to ask thoughtful questions that guide the conversation away from defensiveness and lecture and towards dialogue and open-mindedness. Again, slowing down to honestly listen to the answer and taking the time to think about what type of question will be most productive in the moment makes space for reflection and learning.
Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. I have had many moments in peer-to-peer equity conversations where I do not know what to say… and while I take the time I need to craft a (non-snarky) response the other person fills the air time with metacognition. Or sometimes backpedaling. Or sometimes excuses. But no matter what, waiting a few extra beats before speaking has proven useful in furthering this type of conversation with my peers. It can be incredibly uncomfortable to wait (especially if it’s at a point of conflict in the discussion), but it is also really helpful to provide people the space to hear their own thoughts and to connect them with yours.
Knowing that conversations about educational equity are often tinged with defense and denial, I usually try to plan what I am going to say. While these discussions are meant to be authentic and should take the most effective tack, it can be useful to have a few sentence starters prepared in case I feel stuck. Here are some that have been helpful for me:
- I know your intentions for doing ___ are good. Have you considered the impact?
- May I give you some feedback about ___?
- There is a deficit mindset in your thinking about ___. Can we work together to reframe that?
- I used to think ____, but now I know _____. So I have changed my practice by ____.
- I can see that you really [think/feel/believe/want to] _____. What is standing in your way?
- I wonder what other strategies/techniques might also accomplish ___? What might be a more equitable approach?
- I’ve tried ____ and it worked really well for me. Would you be willing to give it a try and let me know how it goes for you?
While none of this is earth-shattering or incredibly novel, it helps to be intentional about how we enter equity conversations with our peers. Not only is it critical to the work as a whole that we are able to provide accountability to our peers, but it is also important to be able to model these conversations for our students. And ultimately, to create a more just society for all of us.
- When has a peer/colleague “called you in” on an equity issue? How did it feel? How did you react? How did it build your understanding or shift your practice?
- What prevents you from having conversations about equity and anti-racism with your peers/colleagues? How can you remove that barrier?
- What mindsets, tips, or tools are most useful to you when entering peer-to-peer conversations about racist practices, policies, and curriculum?
- What has been the most positive outcome of a peer-to-peer equity dialogue in which you have engaged? What did you learn from that conversation (that you can replicate moving forward)?