Building a Culture of Equity & Anti-Racist Practice in Our Schools
Written by: Terrence Pruitt & Steven Rosado
Editor: Joshua Prudowsky
Part I: What We Believe
“The work of healing is to do the work of healing yourself and supporting others in their healing process. Healers heal and help heal. The work of anti-racism and racial equity work is something you do daily, in your personal life and in your professional work. It is a lifelong commitment that requires introspection, reflection, willingness to learn and adapt, and a willingness to sit with hard truths and be uncomfortable with those truths at times. We cannot do this work without naming the sickness of white supremacy as an ideology and as a practice that has shaped the world around us.”
A few years ago, as the bell rang to signal a move to the next classroom, I was walking the hallway, when I heard a sophomore yell out “Good morning good people we got work to do, we got dreams and communities to build, let’s get it, let’s get to it. Come on good people, let’s move!” That had been one of my signature mantras as the Dean of Discipline at a high school in the North Lawndale community on Chicago’s west side. While many students would have chalked this episode up to them playing around, trying to do their best impression of me, I knew something different. Students had begun to internalize some of my daily affirmations. For the past year we had been trying to undo and unlearn some of the harmful disciplinary practices at the same school where previously each student’s worth was defined by demerits and grades. Every month, 10 times throughout the year, external people from the network would do a “school culture” audit. Measuring things like noise and cleanliness in the hallways, student behavior in the classroom, and adult follow-through as it related to issuing demerits for behaviors deemed inappropriate. The auditors would provide the school a score that served as an assessment of the quality of the school culture. Historically my school would fail the audit. Throughout the network there were tons of narratives floating around as to why this was the case — many of which wreaked of low expectations and anti-blackness. The truth was that the youth were not affirmed, their voices and lived experiences were often ignored, and they did not feel like they were a valued part of a school-based community that honored its position as an extension of their own communities.
Thankfully a shift in leadership, and the leadership team’s collective approach to engagement, created the conditions for a change. I can recall our new principal saying to us, “What could happen if we created a culture that was unapologetically black, unapologetically centered in love, and unapologetically excellent!” As a team, we believed that if we affirmed the full humanity and identity of students and engaged through love and celebration they would reciprocate. And…they did! Our hallways began to look and sound different, students expressed love and affirmation for one another openly, suspensions dropped, detentions and demerits dropped. The community became a frequent part of our student and cultural celebrations, and those audit scores that had haunted us in the past started to look a lot different. The auditors and former students would come to the school and ask, “what did you all do, because things are different?” Ultimately, it all came back to our new collective approach. We began to recognize that threats like “get out of the hallway or you will get a demerit if you don’t move!”, weren’t nearly as powerful as developing strong relationships and exchanging those threats for affirmation, reflection and celebration. Instead of relying on the crutch of suspension and other exclusionary practices, we began to develop supports and explore other healing centered approaches. Hallways became one of the many spaces for affirmation and behaviors shifted.
Fast forward to 2021. Across the country, young people have been adjusting to a new reality with a large number of students feeling isolated from caring adults and from their peers — many of which have seen unprecedented and unparalleled loss, as COVID-19, resource insecurity, and structural harm have torn through their communities. Youth need love, affirmation, and celebration now more than ever. My partner and I have been fortunate to work across Chicago, coaching & training community advocates, school leaders and teachers. Through a framework of anti-racist restorative practice we support school based communities in their efforts to stand in solidarity with, and to become more culturally responsive and affirming of, the students and families they serve.
We believe that every human being was born with 3 Undisputed Rights of Dignity — their value, their purpose, and their light. Our work is to create the conditions that support each human to become aware of and affirmed in these rights. At the same time , we must confront any forces that work to impede these rights by attempting to dehumanize or tear away at their value, exploit or dictate their purpose, or dim the brilliance of their light.
We believe in the power of self-determination. Communities have the inherent knowledge and ability to identify and solve the challenges they may be experiencing, and their expertise should be treated as such. We believe in the creative potential and transformative power of the collective — especially when that collective is focusing their effort through the lens of love. We are better together — particularly when we are each given the space to bring our full authentic selves in fellowship with the collective.
We believe we should be getting out of the way of youth and trusting their vision and leadership. Youth are powerful and throughout history they have been at the forefront of progress and change. Adults have fucked things up enough, we need to pass the rock to them and let them run the offense (or as we often say “let them cook).
We believe healing is a concept rooted in restoration. We work with schools to identify what has been harmed or made unwell and determine what must be done in order to walk the path toward restoration and well-being. The same is true for the intergenerational harm and collective trauma of racism. Racism, and other racialized oppression, seek to strip away the dignity of our humanity — ultimately for both the target of the racism and the agent alike. Our approach to well-being is centered in supporting folks in the reclamation of the full dignity of their humanity. We stand in solidarity with them in a collective effort to destroy any system, practice, policy, or institution that stands in opposition of their dignity.
Love & Affirmation
We truly believe healing is possible. Our work is centered in love & liberation. Doing our job well means curating the right conditions, supporting the best paths to wellness, and digging deep enough to understand the root of what is causing the harm.
We must always remember that our work is transgenerational and intergenerational. The impact that we make today can have continued impact across generations. This makes it even more important that we walk in love and affirmation. When I worked full time in the schoolhouse I remember supporting parents that walked into our meetings defensively and on guard. I would frequently find that they had been harmed or offended by administrators who served them or their children in the past. They were simply protecting themselves and bracing themselves for that same level of harm when they engaged with me.
In our work there are different common threads that bring it all together. It all comes back to the reclamation of the full dignity of our humanity. All the elements of our healing justice work, from centering the voice and lived experiences of the folks that are experiencing structural harm and violence to standing in solidarity against that harm comes back to that focus of restoring us — that powerful, collective us, to our dignified selves.