Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke of a beloved community that worked to dismantle barriers to equity (The King Center, n.d.). The beloved community vision centered social justice and inclusion as a cornerstone for the collective well-being. Consider our schools…are we creating a beloved community for our Black students? Do they feel supported and included? Research indicates that connectedness is essential in improving academic self-concept and promoting social/emotional development (Gibson et al., 2019; Hargrave, et al., 2016; Moore McBride et al., 2016). Additionally, Relational Pedagogy purports that relationships are at the core of learning, therefore, interpersonal connection and environmental settings can positively or negatively impact student engagement (Boyd et al., 2006). Although students need to feel like they matter, this is often not the case for Black students. In fact, research demonstrates Black students experience multiple negative interactions within the school and these experiences weaken their school attachments as well as their likelihood to matriculate (Maddox & Prinz, 2003; Unnever et al., 2016).
In the very first school I worked in, there was a focused emphasis on “rigor” and “relevance”. It wasn’t until later that I realized that there is a third “r”…RELATIONSHIP! School faculty must actively work to build relationships with students, families, and communities. This is especially important for marginalized groups. When some educators claim to be “color-blind” and treat everyone the same, research indicates that there are significant outcome gaps for Black students compared to their White peers. I contend that, rather than ignore differences, we should celebrate and embrace differences while recognizing unique experiences and strengths. In fact, there is much research that supports this culturally sustaining approach (Dee & Penner, 2017; Larson, et. al., 2018; Schellenberg & Grothaus, 2011).
Culturally sustaining practices can be implemented in individual classrooms as well as school-wide. This approach emphasizes the need for educators to understand and incorporate student culture. This requires a deep reflection of one’s own culture, an appreciation of the culture of the students, and the skills to create connections through this understanding. A first step may be to evaluate the materials used within the classroom…do they reflect diverse cultures appropriately? ALL students benefit from exposure to diversity. At times this means that we have to reconsider materials that we have always used or practices that we have always implemented. Furthermore, we may need to advocate for changes within our system, as well as other systems. For example, reflect on the long-standing tradition of many schools that celebrate Read Across America Week by promoting books by Dr. Seuss. While we often have fond memories of dressing up as fun characters and making green eggs, some of the works by Dr. Seuss demonstrates stereotypical and inappropriate characterizations of people of color. Notably, the National Education Association (NEA) now promotes books that celebrate a nation of diverse readers; however, some schools ignore these recommendations and only promote Dr. Seuss books.
In fact, my daughter’s elementary school did just that. As a concerned parent, I promptly emailed the principal, applauded her efforts to support reading, outlined my concerns regarding NEA’s recommended list versus the school’s, stated our preference as a family of color, and asked if more consideration will be focused on diversity the following year. While she responded in a positive manner– and I appreciate that, I am disappointed that I have to do this. Why is this not already a consideration?
Earlier, I included the word “appropriately” when I posed the question “Do they reflect diverse cultures appropriately?” This was intentional. On another occasion, I had to reach out to my daughter’s elementary school with concerns about material after she was given a reading passage on Kwanzaa. I was actually very excited when I saw this because it appeared that the school was in fact celebrating culture and diverse traditions. Unfortunately, my hopes were quickly diminished. As I read the one-page passage, I noticed that it was filled with inaccurate information about the holiday. Since I worked in the school system for 11 years, I was also aware that this inaccurate information not only went out to my daughter’s class, but to the entire grade level as the teachers planned together and shared materials. I emailed the teacher, thanked her for her efforts to celebrate diversity, pointed out the inaccurate information, and provided resources that she could review. She positively responded, and I am appreciative of her openness, but, again…why do I have to do this? What systems do we have in place to ensure that schools are adequately elevating and celebrating acceptance and diversity? There have been countless other times that I have been bothered by the lack of representation, but I did not have the energy to reach out.
For example, in school, my daughter has only been introduced to Black contributions in regards to slavery (e.g. Harriet Tubman) or civil rights (e.g. Dr. King) and only during Black History Month. Is that it? Is that all we know about Black people? Is that the only time we can talk about Black people? Equitable systems elevate the voices and experiences of diverse groups throughout the year, rather than occasionally highlighting their pain, showcasing their struggles, and presenting a deficit-based perspective.
Our school systems are still struggling with race-related equity issues and opportunity gaps that need to be addressed. While I provided some very specific examples, please also consider the pictures displayed throughout the building, images on the websites, and what we celebrate in our buildings. What are we missing? Where are the gaps? Consider our policies that, on the surface, appear to be appropriate, but in fact negatively impact more families of color. It is important that we disaggregate our data on discipline, academic, and attendance in an effort to comprehensively review the impact of our practices and policies. Creating needs assessments may also serve as a beneficial practice that allows for external perspectives. This is just a starting point to make Black students and families feel welcomed and included.
Relationships are built (or broken) on personal interactions. How are we interacting with these students and families? Research indicates that student learning and behavior improve when students believe that they matter to the educators in the building (Gibson et al., 2019; Tucker et al. 2010).
I will share another example, this time from a higher education perspective. My oldest daughter is in college and attends a Historically Black College/University (HBCU). Although most of the students are Black, for her major, the majority of her professors are White. A few weeks ago she was exposed to an individual with COVID and made arrangements to get tested herself. She emailed all her professors just to make them aware and also let them know that she would keep them informed. The majority of her professors wrote back very supportive emails and she felt like they cared about her as a person. One professor replied and stated that the university must treat COVID as an illness and as such she must have medical documentation. While my daughter felt very supported by her other professors, she felt quite the opposite with this professor. The experience with this professor made my daughter (and me) feel as if the professor was more concerned about processes and procedures than about her well-being. Additionally, my daughter also felt as if this professor thought she was trying to “get over” rather than just trying to be responsible and keep her informed. Now, consider how this might impact her engagement in this class. She may be less likely to ask for help if needed because she already feels as if this professor does not truly care about her. While this example was at the college setting, this can easily be applied to the K-12 setting. How are we interacting with our students and families of color? Are we supportive? Or are we dismissive or untrusting? Taking time to establish positive relationships is paramount to ensuring that all students and their families feel a strong sense of belonging.
Research indicates that Black students often experience “adultification” and are perceived to be older and need less nurturing and protection (Finley, 2017). As a result, they are disciplined at a higher rate and supported less (Sandifer et al., 2021). We must also consider our messaging and tone when we reach out to families. Do we reach out only when there is a problem or are we reaching out to share information and positive news? Why is this important? Because it takes a village to raise a child.
Additionally, scholarly literature indicates that guardians reinforce school expectations when communication is robust and they perceive that educators care about their child (Gibson, 2020). The creation of a beloved community is an attainable goal if educators are reflective and intentional in ways that support Black students. This is more than “being kind”. This entails advocacy and the disruption of systems, policies, and practices that negatively impact Black students. Educators are uniquely positioned to significantly impact the lives of our students. It is my hope that you are able to reflect on the questions posed in this article and feel empowered to think critically about our systems and how we can transform them into beloved communities.
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Dee, T., & Penner K. (2017). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 127-166.
Finley, T. (2017, June 27). Black girls are viewed as less innocent than White girls starting at age 5: Study. Huffpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/young-black-girls-less-innocent-study_n_59526e51e4b05c37bb7982d2
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Moore McBride, A., Chung, S., & Robertson, A. (2016). Preventing academic Disengagement through a middle school–based social and emotional learning program. Journal of Experiential Education, 39(4), 370-385.
Sandifer, M. C., Gibson, E. M., & Brant-Rajahn, S. N. (2021). WOKE: Advocacy for African American Students. In Rausch, M. A., & Gallo, L. L. (Eds.), Strengthening School Counselor Advocacy and Practice for Important Populations and Difficult Topics (pp. 19-40). IGI Global. http://doi:10.4018/978-1-7998-7319-8.ch002
Schellenberg, R., & Grothaus, T. (2011). Using culturally competent responsive services To improve student achievement and behavior. Professional School Counseling, 14(3), 222-230. https://doi.org/10.1177/2156759X1101400306
The King Center. (n.d.). The King Philosophy. https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/the-king-philosophy/
Tucker, C., Dixon, A., & Griddine, K. (2010). Academically successful African American Male urban high school students’ experiences of mattering to others at school. Professional School Counseling, 14(2), 135-145. https://doi.org/10.1177/2156759X1001400202
Unnever, J. D., Cullen, F. T., & Barnes, J. C. (2016). Racial discrimination, weakened school bonds, and problematic behaviors: Testing a theory of African American offending. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53(2), 139–164. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427815610794