Embracing The Elephant (Race and Education Reform)

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

A Man and His Elephant, by Paula Bronstein

A Man and His Elephant, by Paula Bronstein

When I first saw Michael Petrilli’s list of influential education policy tweeters, I laughed. As usual, it’s as important to see who’s left off the list as to see where they rank. We see through whichever lens is given to us at whatever time we read any piece, as well as create it, so this isn’t a personal attack on Michael or EducationNext (or anyone else mentioned on the list or previous lists or whatever-have-you).

This is, however, a critique on the education zeitgeist as a whole, and if the shoe fits, so be it. That’s how race and education reform work right now.

At first glance, there seemed to be a fair representation of different viewpoints. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, education paper of record Education Week, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee were the first five. I saw a mix of organizations, journalists, education professors, and former teachers / current education savants.

Yet, I couldn’t help but notice two themes: there was a lack of actual teachers on the list, because there’s still a presumption that teachers generally engage in instruction more than policy in virtual spaces. Perhaps more stark was the lack of representation of people of color. Of course, as is my challenge these days, I posted up my Twitter and Klout score, along with Sabrina Stevens. Our scores put us at #15 and #8 respectively after a few revisions to the list. I applaud Mike for re-doing the list at a few people’s behest.

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you know how I feel about the exclusion of people of color in education anything, from Edublog Awards and the Math Twitter Blogosphere to the Bammys and every ed-tech conference I’ve been, I’ve been invited to, and / or never found out about until it was too late. I spare no one, not even my good friends.

So why try to get on a list as seemingly absurd as one inelegantly measured on Klout scores and numbers of followers? My answer is the same one I might give if asked about affirmative action policies: if you set a certain criteria, and the same types of people keep coming up in the criteria, then perhaps the result is as prejudiced as the process.

If we believe in two sides of education reform (I don’t), then one side seems to do a better job of proffering their people of color more so than the other, at least from the outside. Even if we believe Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry (the principal), and the rest merely serve as puppets to a corporate agenda, to the casual observer, that side espouses diversity much more than “this” one. While Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, education professor Lisa Delpit, and education professor Linda Darling-Hammond may give “our” side more legitimacy, people within both camps have to acknowledge the ways in which they enact their racial views (and collective privilege) before engaging in defensive posturing over who treats people of color better.

Even in more neutral educational topics like “math,” “literacy,” or “administration,” it’s interesting that the same names mentioned tend to be white males. Again, some of them are my friends, but, in my position, I have to speak my peace.

At some point this year, I promised myself that I would no longer tolerate invisibility. People of color in education reform can’t wait for validation, or a savior to highlight our work. Certainly, I’ve had plenty of people along the way of all colors share my work and refer me to others, but, above all else, I needed to have that sense of self and the work I do. That keeps my work integral and in forward motion.

In order for us to have true reform, we must see all stakeholders as equal, as worthy, as human as the next. Equity is an understanding that we don’t all start at the same place, but that we should all have the chance to run the same race, and, given the conditions, able to do as well as the next. When a guy like Ray Salazar tells you to address that multi-colored pachyderm in the room, you ought to say, “Well, sorry I didn’t notice it was stepping on your wingtip shoes.”

Until more people of color are willing to engage with others, put themselves out there in a profound way, and see themselves as equally intelligent and worthy of being in these education spaces, then people like me will keep mentioning ourselves. I’m willing to serve as a wedge if it means the door stays open just a little longer.

And if you don’t know, now you know.

Jose