Sage Thrive Today Blog Student Mental Health Episode 12: Starting the Conversation about Race, Equality, and Bias in Schools

Episode 12: Starting the Conversation about Race, Equality, and Bias in Schools

CHRIS LEONARD:

Welcome to our podcast: Conversations About Student Mental Health. I’m Chris Leonard, clinical social worker working with adolescents for over 25 years. In this podcast, I talk with school administrators, educators, clinicians and parents to open a dialogue that will help the growing number of students struggling with mental illness.

During the past year, three issues have dominated the news cycle: COVID-19, the 2020 election and the Black Lives Matter movement. As we record today’s episode, two weeks prior to Inauguration Day, both COVID and our political divide remain problematic, as evidenced by the continued spread of the virus, and the recent assault on our nation’s Capitol building.

However, we have made real progress with the COVID vaccine, and Congress has now certified the results of the 2020 election. In contrast, when it comes to issues around race, equality, and bias, it is much harder to see progress. Dealing with race, equality and bias continue to confound Americans, in large part, because we are not even comfortable talking about these issues.

Most of us readily agree that racism is a problem. But we are much less ready to look at how we ourselves participate in perpetuating the problem. Jeff James, author of Giving Up Whiteness has pointed out that most of us think that we are anti-racist, but we are really assimilationist at best. We point to segregationists, people who overtly claim that whites are superior, as the problem.

This, unfortunately, is just one more form of “othering” people. We point and say, “Look over there, the Neo-Nazis or the skinheads or the Proud Boys are the problem.” We reassure ourselves, “I’m not racist.” Unfortunately, this pattern of othering and self-soothing does nothing to address the real problems of racism and bias.

This issue is even more deeply compounded for us in our roles as educators and therapists. Our children and teens are watching events unfold in the world. And they bear witness to such dramatic differences. As how heavily guarded the Capitol Building was during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests versus how sparsely and casually it was guarded during this week’s congressional counting of electoral votes. And this despite broadly communicated threats of violence by white protesters.

Our students have questions, real questions, and we need to support thoughtful dialogue. So how do we talk to our students and to each other in ways that are more constructive and productive? Here to help me begin this conversation today is LaCoyya Weathington, who serves as Assistant Superintendent for Compliance, Equity and Student Services at the Cherry Hill New Jersey Public School District. Her prior role was Director of Pupil Services, a position she held since 2012.

LaCoyya’s background in education spans 27 years with a focus on improving educational opportunities for students in New Jersey. Prior to joining the Cherry Hill Public School District, Miss Weathington was employed by the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission, where she served as the Director of Education.

In this role, she led the education program for students in the juvenile justice system. Miss Weathington spent 10 years working for the New Jersey Department of Education, where she served as a specialist and then a coordinator responsible for the development and administration of programs including social services in schools, school health services, innovative programs, dropout prevention, and alternative education.

Prior to joining state government, she served as a school social worker for the Perth Amboy Board of Education. Miss Weathington is a graduate of Rutgers University, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work with a concentration in administration, policy and planning.

LaCoyya, that is quite a resume. I am so happy that you are here with us today. Thank you.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Thank you for having me, Chris. I appreciate it.

CHRIS LEONARD:

It’s great to have you. So let’s jump in. The first question some listeners might be asking themselves is why are we talking about this subject on a podcast about student mental health? What does race, equality and bias have to do with mental health?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

So Chris, I would start with the word trauma. 2020 was a tough year for all of us. I think for children and students, we talk a lot in social work and psychology about ACEs, adverse childhood experiences, I think everyone would have a higher ACEs score after 2020. Students and staff are entering our schools, whether they’re coming in person, or they’re coming through remote learning, with the remnants of trauma, it was a traumatic year for all of us.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Oh, boy. Yes.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

And I would say for people of color, the trauma is even more heightened. So we started the year with COVID. And none of us knew how to handle that, right? A pandemic with nothing like we’ve seen for 100 years. And people of color were disproportionately impacted by that, which just adds on to the trauma.

So you have students managing the death of loved ones, some have turned into caretakers, because their parents may be ill. We’ve lost in person connections, and then we add the isolation that all of us have been feeling. So, that would have been enough. And then we add on George Floyd. And I will tell you that it’s taken me seven months to be able to say his name out loud without crying.

So I’m an adult woman, I have a career, I have a family, I have fully developed coping skills, I have not been able to say “George Floyd” without crying for months, because it was then, and is still now a very painful experience. And I think all the time, if I’m feeling this way, and my coping skills are developed, how are students feeling?

Because as we know, working with students every day, some of the issues that we see is because they don’t have great coping skills. So where do you put that, the trauma, when you don’t have good coping skills? Where does that go?

And I would argue that we’re not just talking about students of color. Of course, for students of color, it’s a different experience, like I am black, my husband’s black, my children are black, my father was black. When I see George Floyd, I see someone that could be related to me.

It doesn’t mean that if you’re not a person of color, if you’re not black, that there’s no impact. And I wonder, how do we measure the impact of that trauma on students’ psyche? How do we measure what happens when we don’t see humanity in another human being?

CHRIS LEONARD:

That comes at a great price? And it’s a great question, how do we measure it? Because I don’t know how we measure it. But I know that it’s something that’s there. When you carry hate, or even disregard in your heart for people, it impacts you.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Absolutely.

CHRIS LEONARD:

There’s an old saying in Buddhism, hating somebody is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die, right?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

So it does impact us. And people get so used to living with something sometimes with a particular mindset or particular feeling that they don’t even realize the impact that it has on them after a while.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I absolutely agree. For sure.

CHRIS LEONARD:

So, this brings me to my next question. We all walk around… I shouldn’t say we all walk around. A lot of white people. We walk around and we think, “Well, I’m doing okay, I’m a good person.” But clearly, there is not enough that we are doing. So what are we doing wrong, that we think we’re doing right?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Well, I think you said it: I think I’m a good person. People make assumptions: I go to work, I pay my taxes. I pay my rent or my mortgage. If you practice religion, I practice my religion, I volunteer, I donate. Every box is checked, right? I’m a good person. I’m good. But assuming that you’re good is a privilege. And the assumption that goodness or niceness disproves racism so nice people can’t be racist is very dangerous. You never end up taking responsibility for any of your actions, whether they are deliberate or not. So if you’re nice then you can’t be bad. You can’t make bad choices. Nice people do things that are difficult all the time.

What happens is the person of color ends up being nice, rather than truthful. Because when you’re nice, I have to respond with niceness. If I don’t respond with niceness, then I’m the bad guy. And I can’t be honest. Because we’re stuck in niceness. If we can get out of niceness and get to truth, then we can make progress.

CHRIS LEONARD:

That makes sense. That makes sense. I think one of the nice lies that people tell themselves is they say, “I’m colorblind.”

“I don’t see color.” And I’ve heard that my entire life.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes. So have I. I was reading a book by Emmanuel Acho. And it’s called Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. And in that book, he talks about denial. And he defines it as “I don’t even know I am lying.” I don’t even know I’m lying. Because it’s so ingrained in what I believe.

Colorblindness is not accurate. Unless you are truly blind, and you can’t see, if you see me, my skin is brown. If you see my face, you see my brown skin. There’s no way that you don’t see that when you see me. So it’s not even factual.

And I think when people say it, they believe it’s a good thing and it’s not. Because if you don’t see me, then I’m invisible. And if I’m invisible, then I’m not human. And we can speak articulately to the examples of what happens when people are dehumanized. So the colorblindness is a fallacy. It’s just not accurate.

And I’m going to give you a concrete example. In 2008, Sarah Palin ran for vice president. Do you remember what people said about her when she ran? She was the first what?

CHRIS LEONARD:

First woman.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

First woman. Did people say she was the first white woman?

CHRIS LEONARD:

Exactly. No.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Kamala Harris ran for vice president and what was the soundbite? She was the first black woman of color-

CHRIS LEONARD:

Woman of color.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Right? Because she’s Asian, Indian and black. So white is always understood. There’s no colorblindness. It just doesn’t exist.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Yeah. That’s such a great point. I saw somewhere somebody said, maybe it was Jeff James. I don’t remember who it was. Somebody said it’s like oxygen for white people.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes. That was Jeff James.

CHRIS LEONARD:

And it’s just part of the air you breathe. You don’t even think about it. You don’t even have to think about it. Whereas, when you’re black, you have to think about it every time you walk out the door.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Right. Like Jeff James said, whiteness is like oxygen. When you have a baby, and the baby’s born, they start to breathe. Oxygen is just understood. You don’t explain it to them, no one talks about it. It’s just there. It’s understood, you’re breathing it all the time. So he compared that to whiteness, like it’s just there, you don’t see it, you don’t talk about it, you’re breathing it. I would add privilege and the feeling of comfort, of being comfortable.

I would also say to you that, that whiteness, that feeling of privilege and comfort creates a disconnection to the experience of people that don’t look like you. I’m black. My life is not always privileged or comfortable. I cannot afford to assume that I’m welcome in any space that I go into. Let me give you an example. If you have children, you’ve coordinated a sleepover for your children, right?

When your children are younger, you and the parents are coordinating. As your children get older, the kids are coordinating. You’re just a driver. So one of my children wanted to have a sleepover with a friend that I was not familiar with. So my first question is, do they know you’re black? Because I can’t assume that my child will be welcome in their home. And that’s something you don’t have to think about if you’re living in privilege and comfort.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Oh my gosh, so far from it. You’re thinking about what snacks you should bring. Do you need your sleeping bag? Should you bring your stuffed animal or not?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

It’s just a different experience. And there’s no way for you to connect that when you are breathing privilege and comfort.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Excellent point. So let’s turn to school. How did these kinds of assumptions become manifest in school, this comfort that we’re talking about, this assumption?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I think it’s manifested everywhere. Look at texts that students are reading. I’ll give you another example from my personal life, one of my children in middle school was reading Tom Sawyer. And the way that the teacher decided to roll out the lesson was for the students to read the book aloud and skip over the N word.

So to say I was a little concerned is putting it mildly when my child comes home to say we’re reading this at school, and we’re skipping over the N word. And I’m going to say to you that I am not a spring chicken anymore. But in the days when I was in elementary and middle school, I remember a similar exercise.

And the feeling is like a light bulb coming down on your head, you feel like everyone’s looking at you, your skin’s tingling, your heart’s racing, there’s a visceral reaction. So I knew immediately what my child was talking about. So I contacted the school district. Now I work in a school district, so I know who to call, I have a little bit more advantage, right? This is my life every day.

I call the curriculum office, I ask about the book and the use of the book and the appropriateness. I ask about the lesson. And the response was, thank you for sharing. We hadn’t thought about that. So how comfortable is it not to have to think about your child sitting in a classroom, where the N word is used liberally in a book, and you’re skipping over it? As if skipping over it magically makes it disappear?

CHRIS LEONARD:

Right.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

And so the decision makers, who are breathing in comfort and privilege, are not thinking about the way it impacts any children who don’t look like them. So, that’s how it’s showing up in schools all the time. It’s showing up in the labels that we use, their curriculum materials, what kind of authors are we including? Looking at what kind of works, what kind of texts? Do we have representation of different types of people?

CHRIS LEONARD:

There’s so much that goes on in school, that is done just because it’s the way we’ve always done it.

We’ve always read Tom Sawyer, we’ve always read it.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

We’ve always used it. Which doesn’t mean that we should continue to use it. Like we need to be comfortable being thoughtful, and pushing back and questioning and asking ourselves, why are we doing this? What is the goal? What do we want children to learn and understand? How does that connect with this? Does it respect and make it safe for all students to learn? Because I’m going to tell you, that was not a safe place for my child.

And I’m not sure anyone realized it wasn’t safe until I said something.

CHRIS LEONARD:

And that’s just in the day-to-day. So that just goes to show how deeply woven racist thinking is in our day-to-day life. Then when you get to things like discipline, there it becomes really problematic.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

One of the most vivid things, as I mentioned it in my intro… I came across a picture on Twitter the other day, of how heavily guarded the Capitol steps were for the BLM protests. I couldn’t even tell what they were because they were all masked and these black uniforms, riot gear. This was all for the BLM protests that weren’t even happening right there. They were blocks away.

And nobody was down there saying, “Let’s go to the Capitol Building,”

Whereas this event had been broadcast for months. And people have been down the street being whipped up, and they were told, “Go there now and go to war, bring the battle to them.” And nobody was prepared at the Capitol. Security was sparse.

So let’s talk about discipline in school. Maybe my metaphor is overstated, but it seems to me that it’s not too overstated, because of the kind of forces that come down upon black children as opposed to white children. And because of where children get placed in school, versus where children get placed in a special education school or in the juvenile justice system. All of these things play out on a day-to-day basis.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes. Listen, I agree with you. The visual of the police presence, and Black Lives Matter. A peaceful protest versus the insurrection at the Capitol was the first thing I noticed. It was the first thing my husband noticed. It was the first thing my daughter noticed. That was very apparent, like wow, there’s a lot of people out there, they look pretty angry, they have items in their hand that could be used as weapons, and, wow, it’s a very different presence.

I agree, you look at discipline and student management, and how we deal with students of color when it comes to discipline. Our teachers, our administrators, or other students, over-identifying students of color for perceived transgressions, or for actual transgressions that really would have been minimal had it been someone else. I spent many years working in the juvenile justice system, I saw every day when I went to visit facilities, who represented the student body, and primarily students of color. That was a big push for us.

That is an accurate statement, for sure, and a hallmark of the work that we need to do. Unpacking the data, looking at why students are identified and what could be done differently. Is there a pattern? Is there a specific person? Is there a specific location? What can we do to get into the data, unpack it and figure out how to really address the issue?

CHRIS LEONARD:

Similar to the curriculum, why are we teaching this? What’s the purpose? What do we want students to know and understand? What do we want them to be able to do with what they know and understand? Similarly, why are we employing this strategy? Why are we using this placement criteria? Why are we choosing this consequence?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Why did this student get suspended for four days for this infraction?

CHRIS LEONARD:

And what do students learn from that in general is a good question.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

What do we want students to learn? We want to change behavior; is this the best way to change behavior? Now listen, there are sometimes when you don’t have a choice, right? With specific infractions, understood. But there are lots of places where we can use our own professional judgment to make decisions about how we implement discipline.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Absolutely. So we could spend the whole afternoon talking about what we’re doing wrong, let’s talk a little bit about what we should be doing instead.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I think what we have to do is be honest, and be truth tellers, and educate ourselves. We’re not going to make progress if we’re all shrinking violets and not addressing the issues. So we’re going to have to be honest, and we’re going to have to get uncomfortable, because it’s not going to be fun or comfortable. It’s going to be difficult and challenging and challenging conversations. And there’s going to be an element of shame in there. And we’re just going to have to sit in it and push through.

I think the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that race is a social construct. And I don’t know that people really understand that there is no race. And I actually pulled out the definition of construct just so that anyone listening would know, a construct is an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective, and not based on empirical evidence.

So that’s a construct, not based on any evidence, right? And then social, of or relating to human society. So it’s something that we made up, perpetuated by society, because at the time it was economically appealing. And talk about slavery, that there was a lot of economy related to the enslavement of African American people, of black people.

There are political reasons, and there were real economic reasons. And that’s why we made up, not we, 300 years ago, a construct was made up to separate people so that one group had perceived power over another group. It’s not real. There is a race. It’s called the human race. That’s the race. But we perpetuated this for how many years? I don’t know that people even really understand that, that is not accurate. Let’s start telling the truth.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Yeah. What I’m thinking about is how sustained the effort has been to hold on to that idea that it’s a biological construct in some way.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Correct. Yes, there’s no biology. So listen, there’s a lot that we can do. We can read, we can educate ourselves. There are great books out there. I mentioned a manual, I chose a book, Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man. It’s an easy read. He’s got YouTube videos to go with it. Look at Kendi’s work, Stamped from the Beginning, How To Be an Anti Racist. Robin DiAngelo has books on white privilege.

I just finished I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a White World by Austin Channing Brown, which was great. There’s tons of podcasts out there with great information.

“What matters” is a good podcast. But you know what? People can do their own research, take a class, visit the National Museum of African American History. It’s not just for black people. There’s a lot to learn about our history, and contributions made by people of color.

We have to be willing to do the work, to look at our own bias, we all have bias. There’s no way you can grow up in this country without bias. And then take some action, like what are you going to do? What will you do differently? Ask yourself that question, make a commitment to do it. Tell yourself that doing nothing is not an option. Because standing on the sidelines watching, you are complicit in what’s happening.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Yeah, if you’re doing nothing… and that was really kind of what I was thinking about as I was preparing for today… I was thinking about all the assumptions that people make, and this assumption that I’m good. And this assumption that, I don’t think this way, but oh, my gosh, those people over there, they’re terrible. We got to do something about those people over there.

And as long as those people stay over there, how are we going to do anything about them? And it’s not that we don’t need to do something about people who are white supremacists, and people who have these outrageous positions. Absolutely, we do. But if we’re not doing our own work, we’re just part of the problem.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

And I’m going to take you back to one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King: “In the end will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It’s the good people who we think are nice, who are saying and doing nothing.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Too true, too true. Another way in which people put the responsibility on somebody else is they have a conversation with one person, and they’re trying to use this person to represent the whole demographic. So maybe somebody has one black person on their staff. So that’s the person. That’s the go-to person. So what’s your view on this? What should we do about this?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes, I’ve been that girl many times.

CHRIS LEONARD:

I bet you have. So what can we do instead of doing that? I mean, obviously people are coming from a place of good intentions when they ask that question. But instead of doing that, which is not really going to get us where we need to go, what do we need to do?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I’m going to offer to you that I think sometimes people offer up those questions with an agenda.

CHRIS LEONARD:

So it’s not always from a place of good intentions.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I don’t think it is. And I think most times people are just not aware, because I think they’re asking the question to then debate it. They want to know what my feelings are on, let’s just say, Black Lives Matter. It’s not a debate. I’m entitled to feel how I feel. If I tell you that I am concerned when I take my child to a house that I’m not familiar with and I’m not sure she’s going to be welcome. I don’t need you to tell me that I’m crazy and I’m overreacting. That’s not helpful. I need you to acknowledge what I’m saying. And that it’s my experience and I’m entitled to my own experience.

You don’t get to judge it. You don’t get to talk about it. You don’t get to disprove it. It’s my experience, not yours. And I think sometimes it’s not coming from a good place. And I would argue that people are not always aware of the space that they’re coming from.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Yeah. Well, again, when you’re breathing that oxygen, you can’t really-

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Correct.

CHRIS LEONARD:

So in talking with you a little bit earlier, you mentioned the difference between being an ally and a savior. Could you talk a little bit about that?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

So an ally is a person who recognizes that they have privilege. You have comfort, you have privilege, and you’re going to work as a partner with people that don’t have the same comfort and privilege towards obtaining justice. A savior is coming in with the belief that these people can’t help themselves. Like I have to help them. They need me. What would they do without me coming here? What would they do if I didn’t save them?

CHRIS LEONARD:

It implies superiority doesn’t it?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Absolutely. So I think people can be allies, for sure. There’s multiple options to be an ally. There’s multiple resources on the web, if you want to research that. You have to be intentional. You have to make a decision, I think, like we talked about earlier, “I’m going to do something differently,” and then do it. And then be prepared to be uncomfortable.

CHRIS LEONARD:

That’s got to be at the core of it. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Comfortable with uncertainty.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Comfortable with oh, my gosh, not knowing.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Which you have to be to learn anything anyway.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

You do.

CHRIS LEONARD:

In order to be willing to learn, you have to be willing to admit that you don’t know.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes. And the discomfort is where the learning is, like in that space where you’re just acquiring a skill, and you haven’t quite gotten to attain it. So you’re still struggling to get there. That’s what you’re learning? It’s not a fun place to be. It doesn’t feel good, but that’s what you’re learning.

CHRIS LEONARD:

It’s so at the core of what schools are really supposed to be about. We’re all supposed to have this. I don’t know this. So let me go find out. We want to foster curiosity about things. That’s where people are most motivated to learn.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Curiosity, yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

And so, rather than asking you to represent everybody, I’m going to ask you about your story. And that’s not going to be everybody’s story, you got to get to know everybody’s story, you can’t assume.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Correct, because my story is not my colleague’s story, who also happens to be a black female. All that we have in common is that we’re black, and we’re female. We’re not the same person, we didn’t have the same life experiences. So my story doesn’t represent her story. Why would it?

CHRIS LEONARD:

So let’s shift a little bit from students to teachers. Because we need to take care of students. But in order to take care of students, you need to take care of teachers. One of my favorite quotes from a colleague is “you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first”, like when you’re on the airplane. So if you’re going to take care of the kids, you have to be taking care of yourself.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

So teachers and minority constituencies, how do we need to care for them differently from the way that we care for the majority of our staff?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I think the number one thing that we need to do is listen. Because staff are going to come to you with stories that don’t seem possible, because of your experience, because of the oxygen that you’re breathing. You may not believe that they are possible. But if they’re coming to you, then they’re possible.

And the worst thing you can do is to put them off and say, “He’s so nice. He didn’t mean it.” Or, “You must have misunderstood. He couldn’t have said that. He couldn’t have meant that.” That’s off putting. No one’s coming back to you to have another conversation because you’ve demonstrated it’s not safe for me to bring my concerns to you.

So listen, reflect, acknowledge that there’s pain. That’s why they’re coming to you. Don’t make excuses, don’t minimize. Check in with them, and not like randomly when I’m walking past your classroom: “how are things doing?” Make an appointment, so they know that you’re engaged, and you’re interested. “Just checking in to see how things are going. What do you need? What can I help you with? How are you managing with colleagues? Are you able to build relationships? Are you having any stumbling blocks to get there?”

CHRIS LEONARD:

You really have to reach beyond the surface. You have to reach beyond the niceness, you have to be willing to go under the hood.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes, yes. You have to get past nice. Absolutely. You have to dig in. And I’m going to give you an example. I was participating in a diversity workshop on Zoom, and I was the only person of color on this particular day. And we were talking about some things that were pretty intense. And one of the facilitators sent me a message via Zoom, “just checking to see how you’re doing.” Now I was really fine. But I could not tell you how much it meant to me that she even checked in to ask the question. Because that meant she saw me. You see me. You know this is not the same journey sitting in my chair. And that acknowledgement means a lot.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Yeah, that’s so fundamental. That seems like job number one is to see the person.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

You see me. I’m not invisible. I have more than one time been at a store, in a line, and someone has called someone behind me. And I have stopped the person. So whether it’s a cashier, or whomever and I’ve said to them explicitly, “Am I invisible?” Because I was before this person, and then they don’t know what to say, that stops it. And I’m going to say to you, I’m not sure they’re even aware that they’re doing it. But they’re doing it. So I don’t need to make you feel better about it, I need to let you know that I’m here and you don’t see me. And that’s not okay.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Raising awareness is not always comfortable.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

It’s not comfortable. No.

CHRIS LEONARD:

So I have to ask you, as an administrator, you’ve been an administrator for a long time, how can administrators be partners in creating community where people do feel like they can come forward and talk about their frustration, microaggressions they’ve experienced, biased materials that are being used in the classroom, any kind of systemic bias that’s going on. How can administrators be allies and creators of community in this way?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

So administrators absolutely set the tone, I believe. I don’t have staff in the building with me, so I can’t pull them, but I believe that people that work with me know what my standards are, and what I believe. So the administrator has to set the tone. You have to be an ally, you can’t be a savior, you have to be actively willing to say to people, “Hey, that’s not okay. Hey, come to my office, I want to talk about this.”

You can’t be the person that’s watching it on the sidelines and not doing anything. Because that’s not your role. Our role is to set the example for the district. For every person that interacts with us, we’re setting an example. So we have to look at our own biases. And we have to be very courageous.

Because just because you’re an administrator doesn’t mean that you have it all together, and that you have this comfort, with equity and with anti-racism. We struggle, we all struggle, but you have to push through that because we don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. We have to be, as Brene Brown would say, in the arena, getting beat up, getting bloodied and still moving forward.

So an administrator has got to set the tone, they have to create an environment where staff, staff of color in particular, have a comfort level to come to them, and to be honest and transparent. And it’s got to be purposeful and planned. It’s not happenstance.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Yeah, it’s really like anything else, if you don’t plan it, if you don’t put it in your schedule, it won’t happen. If you and I had said, “Hey, we’re going to do this podcast,” and we hadn’t scheduled it for a particular day and time where we’re going to record, we never would have gotten around to it. There’s too many things to do in a day. And so it’s so easy. It’s so easy as an administrator, I’ve been an administrator, too. It’s so easy as an administrator to have that to do list.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yeah.

CHRIS LEONARD:

And to have this thing somehow just continue to fall to the bottom of the list. And if you don’t put it at the top of the list and make it part and parcel of every day, it’s just not going to happen.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

It’s going to be on the bottom of the list, there’s no way around it. We have to build environments where staff feel safe to explore and to be curious and ask questions. And we’ve got to be able to manage that. And direct them to resources if they’re struggling. So if you’re struggling, I need to be able to direct you to a resource that can assist you outside of what I can do.

CHRIS LEONARD:

I think I know the answer to this question. I think I know what you’re going to say. But I want to hear you say it anyway. Who starts the process? Who really needs to go first? I mean, we’ve talked about teachers, and we’ve talked about administrators, and we’re talking about individuals, and who ultimately needs to start?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

So I would say, whoever’s listening, you are the change, right? If not you who? If not me, who? We are all the answer, start today, decide today what you want to do, you’re going to go out and you’re going to buy uncomfortable conversations with the black man, you’re going to go out and buy how to be an antiracist, you’re going to get it from the library. Start today, deciding what you’re going to do and make a decision, like doing nothing is not an option.

It starts with all of us. Now, I’m not going to argue that having leadership from the superintendent and the board are always exceptional ways to move forward. But everyone can be the change. It doesn’t take a special person, we can all do it.

The decisions start today.

CHRIS LEONARD:

It needs to happen at all levels. I mean, I’ve worked with school districts where there’s been some initiative started at the top, and there hasn’t been any buy-in throughout the organization. And it’s dead on arrival. At the same time, I’ve been in districts where there’s been some sort of grassroots movement among teachers, or among parents or among students. And they say, “Yeah, we got to make this happen.” And there’s no buy-in at the higher levels, and therefore, that falls apart as well.

So I think the leadership is imperative. But I think it is a matter where at some point, we all have to take up this mantle and say, “Okay, now where am I going to go?”

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Yes.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Where am I on my journey?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

It’s going to take every one of us working together to create the change that we want. None of us can sit on the sidelines watching, eating popcorn saying, “Yeah, keep going.”

CHRIS LEONARD:

So what are some concrete things that we can offer to people today? You’ve alluded to a few: do some reading, and you’ve listed some great authors. But where would you advise people to start?

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I think there are a lot of different avenues, depending on where you are in the structure. You can talk to students. You can have an authentic conversation. “How is this experience of school for you? What is your journey like on a daily basis? What are the things that are working really well? What’s not working?” You can have the same conversations with staff.

I would say if you’re going to talk to students or staff of color, I would create a safe space where they feel like they can be honest. And separately, talk to your community. What does your community think about your school system? Are they like me asking, “Why are we using this text and your response is we hadn’t thought about it? Is that a good answer?” I would say it’s not.

I would say you want to be able to give your community and your parents substantive responses about the work that you’re doing. Their children are part of your school community, they matter. Look at your curriculum, look at the text that you’re using. Look at hiring practices.

As I mentioned earlier, we’re working with Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. And she gave us a challenge: “Are you asking staff if they’re racist?” That kind of stopped me. It had honestly never occurred to me, I’m embarrassed to say. So we embedded a question in our interview protocols, like really the next interview that we started, asking about anti-racism, social justice, equity.

And what we learned was people don’t have a language for that. They’re not used to talking about it. They’re not comfortable talking about it, and they don’t have a language for it. Most people will say, I treat everyone the same. And they believe that’s a good answer. But that’s the wrong answer.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Colorblind.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Exactly. So look at your hiring practice. Who are you hiring? What questions are you asking them? Are you actively recruiting minority candidates? It’s challenging. I don’t disagree, especially in special ed, especially a learning disabilities teacher consultant. However, it can be done. Are you having difficult conversations in your school, in your building, in your district? Who are you having them with? How are they structured? Are they meaningful? What happens to that information after you have the conversation, does someone type up notes and save it and that’s the end of it? Or did something happen to it?

Our district has been in this work for a long time, we have a cultural proficiency equity and character education committee. And they have been working for many, many, many years at the district level, at the building level, we have community partners, because it’s an important issue. That took years of building and development.

CHRIS LEONARD:

You really have to start with the small conversations first. And it seems to me… The first thing that came to your mind was the students. And that seems to me like a great place to start.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

It’s a great place to start.

CHRIS LEONARD:

But over time, yes, getting to a place where you have an organization within your organization that is really devoted to looking at these questions all the time. That’s where you’ve really made a commitment.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

And it’s a work in progress. It’s ever evolving.

CHRIS LEONARD:

I have this conversation with people every day, people are like, “Well, how do I get to this point? And how do I get to this point?” We have this fantasy as human beings that we’re like a train pulling into the station, that one day we’re going to arrive, and it’s all going to be good. And that’s just not the way it works.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Not the way it works. No. No.

CHRIS LEONARD:

I can see our time is short. And I want to thank you so much for spending time with me today, I feel as if we could do 10 of these episodes.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

We absolutely could.

CHRIS LEONARD:

And just scratch the surface. Your breadth of knowledge on this is just so amazing, and so many good insights for us to all think about as we move forward into this new year. So thank you again for being with us.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. It was a fun conversation.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Good. And I would like to have you back sometime. So let’s talk about that.

LACOYYA WEATHINGTON:

I’d be happy to come back. Yeah, just let me know when.

CHRIS LEONARD:

Great. So everyone, Conversations about Student Mental Health is brought to you by Thrive Alliance Group, partners in school-based mental wellness.

Before we wrap up, I want to let you know about an upcoming event that can help schools facing rising rates of absenteeism and school refusal.

Please join us for our upcoming webinar, Virtual Learning Dropouts, How To Get Students Back To Class. You’ll learn how to uncover why students are disengaging. How to assemble a task force and proven tactics to effectively address problems and get students back on track. To register visit our website at learn.sagethrivetoday.com/dropouts.

Thanks for listening, everyone. Have a great rest of the day. And please do join us for more conversations about student mental health. Bye for now.

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