School leaders learning how to have ‘Courageous Conversations’ about race

For two days last week, the basement conference room at Theatre Lawrence was nearly packed with dozens of teachers, administrators and other people connected to the Lawrence school district.

Leidene King, a slight, middle-aged African-American woman stood to one side of the crowded room so people could see her PowerPoint slides projected onto a screen at the front.

To get the conversation going, she asked the audience to look at the first slide, the title slide, and discuss among themselves what they thought it meant:

“Beyond Diversity: An Introduction to Courageous Conversations and a Foundation for Deinstitutionalizing Racism and Eliminating Racial Achievement Disparities.”

Greg, a white man, said he was still relatively new to Lawrence and wasn’t sure what institutionalized racism looks like here. “I can see it in other districts,” he said. “I’ve seen it before.”

Heather, a white woman, said she had the same response. Having moved here from a large, urban environment, she had seen blatant forms of racial discrimination in neighborhoods and workplaces that didn’t seem to exist here.

Yet another woman said she found the words themselves to be “clinical and sterile.”

Each time someone shared their observation, King would respond in a caring and understanding tone with the same phrase: “Thank you for your truth.”

Courageous Conversations

King, a consultant with the San Francisco firm Pacific Education Group, was there to lead the group of educators, pastors and others through the difficult process of learning how to talk about race directly and honestly, and in particular with people from a different race.

The method is called Courageous Conversations, a structured way of discussing race, based on a book by Glenn E. Singleton and Curtis Linton. Singleton is president and CEO of Pacific Education Group.

Superintendent Rick Doll said it’s the cornerstone behind the Lawrence district’s equity program to address and eliminate racial disparities in the district.

“Beyond Diversity is kind of our baseline professional development,” he said. “It just gives the basis of the protocol that we use when we talk about equity and race issues. So it gives us that protocol about how to talk about it, and then it gives some basic data about achievement gap issues.”

The program is rooted in a discipline known as Critical Race Theory — the idea that racial divisions are embedded into every fiber of American social fabric, often in ways that most white people seldom recognize, but which most people of color experience in every facet of their lives.

To bring that out and enable people to talk about it, the program steers participants through a highly structured regimen, starting with each person identifying themselves on a four-point compass – thinking; feeling; believing; and acting – then guiding conversations around four “agreements” and six “conditions” that form the ground rules for how participants should talk to one another about race.

Emotional experience

By the second day of the workshop, it was clear the exercise had been an emotional experience for many participants.

“My eyes have been closed my whole life,” one white participant said after listening to black colleagues describe everyday experiences, like being followed and watched in department stores, or pulled over by police for no apparent reason. “I would be very angry if it was me.”

For one black woman, however, the emotions left her sobbing. “I felt a lot of different things – frustrated, jealous, uneasy,” one black woman said. She said she wonders “what it’s like not to have that on your mind every day, to have that burden off.”

School board member Shannon Kimball said she too was affected by the experience.

“I think so many times, I and probably other people have felt satisfied that I’m color blind – I don’t take race into account,” she said. “But what this has demonstrated very vividly is that it impacts your interactions, whether you’re conscious of it or not. So being aware of that fact is so much more powerful because once you have that awareness, you have to notice things that otherwise you might not.”

Next steps

District officials said the two-day workshops are only one part of the district’s strategy to address equity issues and racial disparities.

“We’re making sure that we get as many people as we can through the Beyond Diversity training so that everybody can have these conversations,” said school board member Kristie Adair, who took part in the seminar. “And then we move it down to the site level.”

Doll said each of the schools in the district has formed “equity teams” to engage in conversations and identify racial issues in their buildings. And most of them are developing “CARE teams” – Collaborative Action Research for Equity – to train teachers in specific strategies to address racial disparities.

“It’s one thing for us as leaders to say we’ve got this achievement gap, and we’ve got this protocol, but how is that going to impact kids,” Doll said. “We train teachers, then, to interact with kids in the classroom. I think it’s really the meat of the whole thing, to be honest. Those are being implemented in most, if not all of our schools this year.”