MEA’s leadership is committed to exploring and addressing systemic racism, including how it has existed in unionism and public schools, said MEA President Paula Herbart, who participated in a recent MEA webinar on the subject organized by Aspiring Educators of Michigan (AEM).
“We are committed to working hard and to asking people of color what they need from us and how they can best lead our organization in this work,” Herbart told attendees at the virtual “Educators for Racial Justice” gathering, held via Zoom and livestreamed on YouTube.
AEM member questions guided the discussion, which was led by two MEA member teachers – Anthony Barnes from Kalamazoo and Dr. Kecia Waddell from Utica.
The one-hour session covered a broad array of topics related to racial justice, such as white privilege and how to use it to benefit others, the differences between systemic and personal racism, and the difference between being a non-racist and an anti-racist.
“The difference between not racist and anti-racist is action,” said Barnes, a Kalamazoo special education teacher and early career educator. “It’s about using your privilege to make a difference for someone else.”
Barnes said he believes it’s important to live his ideals at all times – not just when he’s within the walls of his school. And he incorporates lessons about diversity, inclusion, and social justice for all in the curriculum but also as it arises in current events and in the community.
“Use teachable moments, but first you have to check your own bias,” Barnes said. “And if you think you don’t have any bias, you’re lying to yourself. Let’s be honest—everyone has their own biases.”
Classroom conversations about race can be difficult, but they are essential in building respect and understanding once students feel comfortable sharing their views, said Waddell, a longtime high school English teacher and the only black teacher in her building.
People are going to be uncomfortable talking about race, because the issue is so big and goes beyond the individuals having the conversation. People have to understand – it’s not personal; it’s systemic, Waddell said.
“I don’t know where we imagine there is this comfortable space in life,” Waddell said. “Where there is struggle, on the other side of that there is triumph. There’s no testimony without the test.”
The conversation also included classroom tips on how to diversify curriculum, how to be more inclusive, how to lead classroom discussions, and more. Watch the webinar.