#BeLove: Moving from Intention to Equity

When a substitute teacher worked with City Garden Montessori’s upper elementary classrooms, the students taught her what love looked like in their school. The substitute teacher was taking attendance and noticed a student of Asian descent standing near her. She looked at her list and said “Stephanie Hshieh, that must be you because you’re Asian.”

The student, with an air of disbelief, responded “That is my name, but I don’t like how you said that to me.” When the student talked to her friends about the exchange, they organized, went back to the sub, and respectfully, assertively, told her “We don’t actually talk like that in our school and classroom. What you said [making assumptions about the student’s name] was really disrespectful. We need you to apologize to our friend.”

Students at City Garden Montessori

City Garden Executive Director, Christie Huck, says it wasn’t always like that. When the school opened in 2008, she recalls that they were a mostly White, liberal do-gooder organization, with idealistic, naïve hopes for changing the world. None of that was bad, but they had no idea what they were embarking upon with their intentionally diverse community expectations. She now sees that some of their early approaches were probably more detrimental than productive. For example, they originally structured the school to have a flat non-hierarchical organization, where “everyone has a voice.” What really happened? In the absence of structure, privilege reigned. White parents felt empowered to leverage their voices and state what they thought the school should do. The school leadership team started to recognize that White privilege was defining their systems and culture. In order to do deep anti-racism and anti-bias work, they would have to dismantle that.

In those early years, they focused on numeric diversity, which was challenging to achieve. Two years after opening, Huck became Executive Director and stepped back to take the pulse of the community. She asked families whether the school was living out the social justice vision that they had created. When she asked for direct feedback from parents of color, they told her the truth. They said things like “The mission is great, but I still feel invisible. My kids still experience things that they shouldn’t. In our parent meetings, I’m shut down and my ideas aren’t valued.”

At that point, she realized that the school needed to go deeper than setting intentions. When Huck published that the school was going to start dismantling racism work, one of their new parents, Kira Hudson Banks, offered her expertise and support. Hudson Banks, a psychology professor who had studied with Beverly Daniel Tatum, helped organize their administrative team to conduct book studies, unpack their individual baggage, and just observe what was happening in the school community. That set City Garden on the path to deep transformational work. By the end of that year, they had written a statement of commitment around being an anti-bias, anti-racist school and developed a strategic plan towards that end. They also made an intentional decision not to incorporate curriculum and programming for students until they got their adult selves in order.

Six years later, the City Garden community is able to “hold the container.” As they developed their strategic plan, they quickly realized how important it was to get all of the adults with influence (staff, board, committees) on the same page. They worked to create an airtight container so that, when someone came and pushed against their anti-racist, anti-bias values, they were all in alignment. Now, they are at a place where there’s no longer a debate among Board members about budget allocations and whether they should lead with equity. The conversation now is about HOW they lead and what that looks like. They’ve created the space to do more direct work with students and for parents to engage in dialogue. Parents of color no longer have to wonder whether they’ll have the voice and support at the school when they have issues to raise.

When we asked Christie Huck what the work looks like today, she quickly noted that they’ve just begun to scratch the surface. “We’ve got to institutionalize this commitment because it can’t rely on any one individual, program, or teacher. This has to be embedded into our culture and systems as much as, or more than, white supremacy is embedded into our broader society.” She notes that aligning budget allocations and staffing commitments is one of the first institutional actions to take. In the early years, even when they attracted diverse candidates, people came in with romantic notions of what it meant to work for justice and equity. Teachers were shocked that the school would challenge their language use and lesson design. The leadership team got clearer in recruitment efforts about their school’s commitment to being an anti-racist, anti-bias institution. Today, City Garden Montessori has 30% people of color on staff, including 45% of their lead teachers. Last year they also created a new position: Director of Community Engagement and Racial Equity. In this role, Faybra Hemphill makes sure that the school systematically integrates their anti-bias, anti-racist commitment across the organization, helps to develop systems for accountability, and engages the entire community in that work. That’s where the rubber meets the road: allocating resources to ensure that the work continues.

With the stage set, the students encounter a community in which teachers, staff, and parents are aligned with the needs of students: an equitable environment in which all can learn.

Recommended resources:

Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Privilege, Power and Difference by Allen Johnson
The Mouse and the Elephant
Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training

#BeLove profiles organizations committed to ending structural racism and bias. Our goal is to tell the stories of change in our communities that result from the capacity-building work at individual and institutional levels. In the words of Assata Shakur, “ We need to be weapons of mass construction, weapons of mass love. It’s not enough to change the system, we need to change ourselves.”