Getting Comfortable Having Uncomfortable Conversations
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
As the United States continues to confront and grapple with our complex legacies of systemic racism and widespread inequity, engaging in perhaps uncomfortable civil discussions with one another on truly tough questions is essential. To live up to the promises of our founding principles and to honor the sacrifices of prior generations, to survive and thrive on this planet, we all must learn and work together much more effectively. Who better to model, teach, and practice this crucial work than the educators who are guiding our students and shaping the future?
For nearly a year now, educators at every level have been valiantly responding to the disruptions of the pandemic to their daily work, supporting one another, their students, and families by using those vital skills we all need: listening, asking good questions, making decisions based on the available evidence, planning, trying, making mistakes, and always learning from experience and one another. These skills and habits are flourishing despite the most challenging of circumstances, so, as education envisions a world where everyone has such abilities, perhaps we can choose to be cautiously optimistic based on the talents shown by our educators.
Still, despite their best intentions, reflective educators know that the ecosystems of schooling continue mainly to reinforce rather than disrupt the discriminatory patterns of the larger society. Resources are allocated inequitably, while generational poverty and other systemic social forces limit the potential impact of education. Individuals, of course, can have only so much impact on their own, and established cultures are more likely to reinforce the past.
Teachers realize that all learners aren’t offered the same opportunities and support; the pandemic only makes clearer both the necessity and the inadequacy of our current efforts as a country to live up to our aspirations of equal education for all. Employing those same skills of lifelong learning and collaboration, educators are continuing to raise tough questions of dismantling racism in their own work, as well as in our larger society, on top of other pressing work.
For example, last month, over fifty attendees at the Texas Association for the Gifted & Talented annual conference logged in to Zoom during the conference’s “social time” to participate in a Shared Inquiry discussion on the subject of addressing injustice. The sessions were led by two of the Foundation’s team, and the text for the discussion was the TED Talk by Ariel Investments Co-CEO and President Mellody Hobson titled “Color Blind or Color Brave?” This talk appeared as a text suitable for group Shared Inquiry discussion in the Great Books Foundation’s anthology Her Own Accord: American Women on Identity, Culture, and Community, and many participants commented that it provided an accessible entry point into a potentially volatile topic.
Teachers from large systems and small schools, public and private, from across Texas and from other states, with all types of students of varying ages and backgrounds brought their diverse perspectives to the discussion. They responded variously to the call of Hobson’s talk—that we look critically at where the concept of “color blindness” falls short, and that we consider what it means to be “color brave” instead.
Throughout the conversation, the sincerity and commitment of these teachers to justice and education were evident, as were the skills and habits of mind that are so vital to the vision of American democracy. Given the recent frightening reminders of how deeply rooted and complex are the challenges we’re facing as a nation, it was another reminder that we must continue to nurture and support educators as true frontline workers in the multipronged quest to address racial and social injustice.
Senior Academic Consultant
Denise Ahlquist has enjoyed leading thousands of Shared Inquiry discussions with participants ranging from ages 4 to 99, across the United States and abroad. A veteran educator and “road warrior,” she has introduced thousands of other teachers and learners to the Shared Inquiry method and supported them in a wide variety of K–12 environments.