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Saturday / September 23

“The arc of the moral universe is bent toward justice”: An Interview with Gary Howard

The Corwin Deep Equity Institute will kick off tomorrow, April 28, in Boston, MA, where educators from across the country will gather for two days of intensive professional learning around issues of educational equity, supporting English learners, and social-emotional learning. We spoke with keynote speaker Gary Howard, developer of the Deep Equity model for systemic equity reform and author of We Can’t Lead Where We Won’t Go, about what the current political and educational climate means for progress toward educational equity.

Q: You’ve dedicated over four decades of your professional life to promoting educational equity in school districts across the country. How does the current political and educational climate compare to earlier eras?

Political consciousness dawned for me some 50 years ago during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. That was a time of incredible progress in raising the moral consciousness of the nation related to not only race, but also the Women’s Movement, the Peace Movement, and Indigenous People’s Rights. This was followed by the Nixon era and what many of us at the time, in our youthful naiveté, saw as the end of our progressive world. Much of the period since then can be seen as a great regression – an attempt to undo the amazing steps forward that came out of those movements. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 with the “Southern Strategy,” which played on the White fear and racism that had been unleashed as a reaction to the Great Society, Civil Rights legislation, and women’s liberation. In terms of race, the push back also launched what Michelle Alexander has termed “The New Jim Crow” – the era of mass incarceration of people of color under the guise of “law and order” –another dog whistle aimed at galvanizing the White vote.

Jumping forward a few decades, the election of Barack Obama elicited a resurgence of progressive excitement for the possibility of change – and the shattering (at least symbolically) of a race barrier many of us thought would never happen in our lifetime. Conversely, the result of our most recent presidential election reminds me of the post-Civil Rights regression we experienced in the Nixon era. Once again, we have seen the political manipulation of racism, xenophobia, and White nationalism – along with a toxic mix of misogyny, homophobia, and religious intolerance. It is a sad reality, but somewhat comforting from an analytical point of view, to know that our country has a long history of this kind of progress and regress related to issues of social justice. In many ways, our current crisis is not new. Periods of great advancement are usually followed by retrenchment into the dynamics of dominance. Through the larger lens of our long-term national journey, we can look at the present moment as one more example of the power and resilience of social dominance, which I define as “systems of privilege and preference, reinforced by power, favoring certain groups over others.” Dominance dies a difficult death, as evidenced by its most recent resurrection.

The positive and exciting thing about our current reality is the degree, strength, and broad range of resistance that has surfaced. I find it helpful to remember that times of crisis are also times of opportunity. And while I am sometimes depressed and angered by the fact that we have taken such a big step backward, I do believe in the words spoken by a 19th century abolitionist, words that Martin Luther King, Jr. often paraphrased: “The arc of the moral universe is bent toward justice.” Even though this arc has proven to be a messy zig-zag path, I know that progress is real and possible, and that educators and activists throughout our country and the world are working overtime to keep bending it in the right direction. That is the continuing work we are called to do now.

Q: Your work with the Deep Equity program focuses on five phases of systemic equity transformation, with the first phase focusing on establishing the right tone and trust to hold honest conversations about how our schools are serving all of our students. How might educators use these principles to start open conversations about what’s happening in their school now?

One of the exciting possibilities that comes out of our current political crisis is a renewed focus on diversity and equity. Issues of race, class, gender identity, immigration, citizenship, sexual orientation, religious diversity, healthcare, climate change, and more are very much in the public eye. The ever-present and intense debate on these topics offers us as educators a tremendous opportunity to engage with our colleagues and our students in ongoing and deep conversations about what it means to be an educated person. We have important choices to make. Do we want to educate more people who are fixated on the kind of narrow, single-dimensional thinking that makes them vulnerable to the rhetoric of fear, hatred, and xenophobia? Or do we want to educate a generation of citizens who are excited and prepared to thrive in our richly diverse nation and world? Do we want to invite our students to struggle with the complexities and nuances and internal contradictions of actual history and real science, or do we want to constrict them into silos of choice that offer only pre-determined and narrowly circumscribed alternative truths?

One of the things I am most proud of related to the Deep Equity and Youth Equity Stewardship work we are doing with schools throughout the country, is the fact that our clients repeatedly tell us they are having deeper and more authentic conversations about complex issues related to inclusion, equity, and excellence. These dynamic conversations are happening among adults, among students, and most excitingly, between adults and students. These conversations have proven to be the most powerful catalyst for school change. In doing this work, educators are modeling precisely what needs to happen to heal the divisiveness and mean-spiritedness that currently dominate so much of our national conversation.

Q: Do such questions about educational equity have to do with diversities other than race and immigration?

 The work I am describing here is broadly intersectional, impacting all dimensions of difference, both those groups of people who have been marginalized by the forces of social dominance, as well as those who have been the beneficiaries of that dominance. Because of these complex interrelationships of identity and oppression, we have the potential to form dynamic coalitions of vision and collaborative action. We saw this boldly embodied in the global demonstration of unity after the 2017 Inauguration – some 3 million people from all 50 states and 32 nations marched in over 673 separate events to stand up for women’s rights, gay rights, immigration rights, religious pluralism, anti-racism, and the protection of the environment. This kind of dynamic inclusiveness opens the possibility for teachers at all levels to engage their students in critical exploration and action related to the real issues of our time. This “societal curriculum” offers a rich resource for fostering higher level thinking across all of the disciplines.

Q: What opportunities do teachers have right now to ensure that students feel safe, welcome, and ready to learn in our classrooms?

In the Deep Equity work we talk about 7 Principles for Culturally Responsive Teaching. The first three of these principles have to do with honoring students in their cultural connections, being personally and culturally inviting towards our students, and creating learning environments that are inclusive and welcoming and richly representative of the many diversities our students bring to our schools. We call these three principles the “front porch” of learning. This aspect of our work is not so much about content, curriculum, teaching strategies, or assessment. It is profoundly grounded in relationships. We call it “the art of pre-emptive respect.” This has been the missing piece in much of the top-down, corporate-driven, test-centered school reform that we have witnessed over the past two decades. It is the real work we must do to ensure not only the academic success of our students, but also to nurture their capacity as culturally competent contributors to the future of pluralistic democracy.

Thank you for your time!

Gary R. Howard has more than 40 years of experience working with issues of civil rights, social justice, equity, education, and diversity, including 25 years as the founder of the REACH Center for Multicultural Education. He will  be a keynote speaker at the upcoming International Cultural Proficiency Institute, June 15-16, in Sonoma, CA. Learn more about the Deep Equity model for systemic equity transformation here.

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Charline is the Marketing Manager for Equity and Professional Learning at Corwin.

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