‘They created a space for people like me’: How an online community of educators of color from Rhode Island have supported each other during the pandemic

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This story is published in partnership with The Boston Globe.

AWhile navigating school during a global pandemic has presented new challenges for almost all K-12 staff nationwide, some educators, like Jeffrey Wright of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, have been faced with an additional difficulty that many others have not encountered.

As the only black male educator at Blackstone Valley Prep, where two-thirds of the students are Black, Hispanic, or Asian American, students and parents often came to Wright with questions and concerns related to the school – seeing it, perhaps, as an easier access point than other teachers or administration.

Jeffrey Wright (Jeffrey Wright via LinkedIn)

“They look at me and they feel like I’m someone they can relate to,” said Wright, whose work, officially titled “Tutoring Specialist,” is a cross between a dean of students and a dean. of the culture of his charter school, he said.

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Wright relishes his relationships with the students. Helping young people to thrive was the reason he chose to work in education. But being a privileged contact is also an “additional burden,” he said. Wright has often been confronted with impostor syndrome, wondering, “Am I doing this the right way?” “

“It’s a lot for one person to wear,” he told 74.

This is why, throughout the last school year, Wright looked forward to one evening in a month where the experiences he usually lived alone would be shared.

In monthly sessions, known as EduLeaders of Color meetups, Wright would connect to a Zoom call filled with teachers who understand the burden of being one of the few or the only educators of their racial identity in their school. Hosted by a Providence-based nonprofit, the Equity Institute, which receives funding from the Rhode Island Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund, the meetings welcome anyone in the educational space to connect – regardless her race – but are designed specifically to help black people, Hispanic, Native, and Asian American educators connect with each other in a state where 89 percent of teachers are white.

“They created a space for people like me,” Wright said.

A Blackstone Valley Prep Classroom (BVP via Facebook)

The research highlights the academic and social benefits that teachers of color provide to all students, but especially students who share the same racial identity. Many experts point out that teacher diversification is an urgent need in public education, but nationally, 79 percent of educators remain white, compared to just 47 percent of students.

Turnover rates are also higher among teachers of color than among their white colleagues, perhaps in part because many, like Wright, take on additional responsibilities or feel isolated in predominantly white-staffed schools. To help retain Black, Hispanic, Native, and Asian American educators, gatherings like EduLeaders of Color meetings can be a promising strategy.

Travis Bristol (UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education)

“Programs like EduLeaders give teachers tools to navigate some of the difficult experiences they have in their schools with their principals, with their colleagues,” said Travis Bristol, assistant professor at UC’s Graduate School of Education. Berkeley who knew Rhode Island well. sessions. The rallies may not change the systemic conditions that can push teachers of color to leave the profession, he said, but “it gives them tools to cope. It gives them tools to stay day to day.

Similar programs exist elsewhere, the Berkeley professor at 74 said, including in Boston, Tennessee and California. EduLeaders of Color programming differs from many others by focusing on growing participants’ professional networks and nurturing their leadership potential, according to its co-founders Karla Vigil and Carlon Howard.

When COVID-19 hit, that meant the EduLeaders meetings, which began in 2016, had to go virtual, forcing Equity Institute co-founders Karla Vigil and Carlon Howard to rethink the structure. Even online, 60 or more people, working in traditional public schools, charter schools like Blackstone Valley Prep and / or higher education, join calls regularly.

“Online it’s a little different. We had to change the format, ”Vigil told The 74.“ We are very committed to creating an environment that is welcoming, calming, diverse in every way.

Equity Institute co-founders Carlon Howard, far left, and Karla Vigil, far right, at the institute’s headquarters. (Equity Institute via Facebook)

Immediately after clicking on EduLeaders of Color events, it’s clear that meetings are a far cry from the stuffy Zoom calls filled with awkward silences and empty black rectangles that attendees may be familiar with in business environments.

Music plays in the background when people go online – usually hip hop, rhythm and blues, or reggaeton. Attendees each receive $ 20 Grubhub gift cards for their free registration, so they can enjoy take out food from their favorite restaurant while chatting. Most of those who join keep their cameras on, and some even create custom backgrounds for the event. The moderators announce that a prize will be awarded at the end to the participant who has been the most animated in the chat box, and throughout the session the messages continue to scroll regularly.

Vigil and Howard have read extensively about the culture of white supremacy, which permeates many professional circles, its theorists postulate, emphasizing the scarcity of time, the evaluation of the written word versus the spoken word, and other structures – and they intentionally design their gatherings to counter those norms.

“It’s not that stiffness you think of when you [think of school], because you have to dress a certain way, you have to look a certain way, ”Wright said. “In this meeting… it’s party time. We come together. We come here, we can relax, we can laugh. It doesn’t matter if you have a thought – you can let that thought slip away. To me, this is exactly what a learning environment should be.

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The social side of the gathering can also serve as a networking opportunity, Wright said. He himself landed a board position at Community College of Rhode Island, his alma mater, thanks to a connection from the meet’s organizers. The pandemic has made natural interactions more difficult, Vigil said, but after each session she and Howard are still trying to email people they think would benefit from being introduced to each other.

Each monthly session, announced via social media and word of mouth, features a different theme: in February, the importance of teacher diversity, in March, helping to introduce students of color to STEM, and in April, how to climb. professional levels. The organizers carefully select the panelists who will enhance the identity of those who will join the call.

This means “making sure that the people who speak, who occupy the airspace, who are the keynote speakers all come from the origins of many of our young people, and especially our young people of color,” Howard told The 74.

During rallies, as panelists or other attendees talk about their experiences working in schools, Wright often thinks to himself, “Dude, I’ve been this way. I know what it is. Yes. I am not alone, ”he said.

This is precisely the point, Vigil said.

“[Participants] feel like they’ve come to share common ground with someone so they don’t feel like they’re in a silo – because many feel like they’re in a silo in schools.

She understands Wright’s burden as one of the only black teachers in her school. (Another black man is joining the ranks at Blackstone Valley Prep this year, Wright noted.) The isolation of having been one of the only teachers of color in his Providence school, Vigil explained, contributed to his choice. to finally leave the classroom in 2016..

During his teaching days, Howard said he had been called repeatedly by other educators to deal with misbehaving children, many of whom were black. For his white colleagues who have difficulty reaching young people of color, “I was their centerpiece,” he recalls. Not only was the added responsibility tiring, but because he was primarily called upon to discipline students acting in a system he believed to be fundamentally against them, Howard started to feel like Uncle Tom, he said. . “I didn’t want to be in this kind of position.

“The tax we carry is important. It’s heavy. You can feel it, ”added Vigil.

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With widespread access to vaccines, the Equity Institute is now preparing for its first in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic. The September 23 session will be held in Providence with in-person attendance capped at 40 and subject to proof of vaccination, Howard said. It will also have a new name: Converge – a representation of the group’s purpose as a gathering space.

But regardless of the rebranding, whether the dating continues in person or comes back online, as the Delta variant causes an increase in COVID-19 cases, Wright is confident the demand will persist.

“I think there are a lot of educators who can really benefit from it,” he said.

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