Conversation #1

Title:              Summer Jackson: Grown Up

Author:          Teresa E Harris

Illustrator:    AG Ford

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I asked the girls to rate our conversation out of 5 Purple Hearts. Despite what I saw as “hiccups” in getting started, the kids were impressed. They explained that it was a 5 Purple Heart conversation because it let them tell me about things that they experienced at school that they hadn’t spoken about with me before. And it also gave them an opportunity to work with me to develop a Racial Justice strategy to bring with them into school for the school year. 

Part 1: Summary of Our Reading Session

Today was Day 1 of my reading club with the girls and both Sofia (age 11) and Danica (age 8) were excited to get started. I cleared some time for us to be able to explore and made sure that we would be uninterrupted and I told the girls all about you – parents like me who wanted to help their children navigate a racist world. They were all for it, and sat patiently watching as I embarked on a little recognizance mission, scanning their bookcases for any books that we could use to prompt our discussion.

Step 1: Building the Collection on Race and Racism

I saw an illustrated book about Martin Luther King Jr. and pulled it out of the bookcase, placing it on the floor in front of us.

I found a children’s introductory book about Kwanza and put it down in front of us too.

I found a book about Rosa Parks and placed it on our growing pile.

The kids immediately wondered what I was doing. Normally when it’s time to read at bedtime, I would have the book selected for them. It would be something I thought they might like and they found it fun to be surprised.

But this time, something was different. I didn’t have all the answers – I was searching for books to start a conversation. So I turned to the girls and decided to tell them like it is. “Girls, I want us to talk about race and I’m not sure what book will help us do that. So I’m putting a pile together of all of the books we have that can help us talk about this together. Want to help me make the pile?”

 They were hooked!

I stepped aside and let the girls take over. The girls, loving the idea of getting a pile of books together to choose from asked if they could help. I let them lead me to books that stood out to them. They choose books about race and systemic racism (e.g., a book about Martin Luther King Jr.) and books that just had Black characters in it (e.g., a series about a little boy named Christopher and his experiences in school). They asked me questions about whether the books they chose belonged or didn’t belong in our pile, and insisted on deferring to them. “Put in whatever you think will work. We’ll figure it out together.” Letting them know that we were doing this as a team helped to build the trust in the room.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure as parents we all hope that our children trust us, but I’ve come to learn that, to some extent, the trust between a parent and child has to be earned. Sure, your kids trust you with making breakfast, or putting together lunches, but talking about something that is hard to manage? That will depend completely on how you have reacted to something your children have told you that you were not wanting to hear in the past. If, like me, you’ve been short-tempered and felt your “Parent of the Year” badge disappear, then you may have ruptured that trust. But don’t worry – you can build it back. If I have, you can too!

Step 2: Selecting the Book to get us talking about race and racism

With a number of books to choose from, we got to work.

“So where do you want to start?”

Silence.

“Well, what do you want to read?”

The girls looked at me, their eyes blank, waiting for direction. So I re-grouped and changed tactics.

I reminded myself that all I had to do was make the connection between what we were reading and experiences of racism (or how race impacts on our experiences in the world), I didn’t have to pick a book that did all that, I just had to step aside and let them choose from the pile we had made.

“You pick,” I told them. “Anything you tell me to read, I’ll read.”

And they did.

They selected Summer Jackson: Grown Up, a book about a 7-year-old girl who wanted to be a grown up. Summer Jackson was Black, but the entire story was about her pretending to be an adult. She talked on a cell phone, pretending to take calls when she needed to get out of something she didn’t want to do. She wore business clothes to look more grown up, but she didn’t talk about racism, and she didn’t complain about a rise in racism in the world around her.

I started to panic as the book came to a close.

But then I remembered that ultimately I could use any book to talk about race and racism – I just had to help build the connection.

Step 3: Learning to Approach a Conversation about Race with Curiosity

So how did I get the conversation started?

I drew on one important lesson I learned about children from my training as a Parent Coach:

Approach children from a place of curiosity.

To do this I took 5 important techniques for dialogue:

  1. Ask them if they liked the book
  2. Ask them to explain what they mean when they answer your questions
  3. Follow their lead
  4. Ask them how they feel
  5. Work together to come up with a “Racial Justice Action Plan”.

1. Ask them if they liked the book 

As soon as the book was finished I asked the girls a simple question:

“So, did you like the book?”

Both responded with an emphatic YES! (And trust me, I’ve read books that they have not liked, but they have stuck it out and responded with an emphatic “NO!!” when they’ve felt the need).

They thought it was funny and they loved that the protagonist was Black.

2. Ask them to explain what they mean when they answer your questions

Now it was my change to turn up the curiosity.

“Why did you like that the main character was Black?”

The children explained that it was rare for them to see books with Black protagonists and that this was especially true when they were at school. In fact, they complained that they didn’t have a lot of books in their school library or in their classroom bookcases that included any Black people at all.

I listened intently and actively. That means that I didn’t spend the time that they were talking to try and plan my next question. Instead, I was present and listening, mirroring for them the ideas and issues raised. This meant repeating back what they said to me and checking in to make sure that I understood what they meant. For example, when they said:

“I never see books in the library that look like me.”

I replied:

“Oh, I see. So you never see books that look like you? Do you mean that you don’t see a lot of books in the library that have Black characters?”

“Not really… there are a couple books with Black characters hidden in the back of the shelves, but I don’t see many at all with Black people as the main characters!”

With mirroring and questions and a little more mirroring for clarification, the the flood gates opened. The children went on to explain that when they did find a book with Black characters in the library they were usually hidden way at the back of the shelves (so they had to do some digging to find them). The only exception to the rule, they went on, was when it was Black History Month at which time the books featuring Black characters were put high up on the shelves and marked as display items only. I asked what it meant for them to be “display items” and they explained that it meant that they could not sign them out to read or touch them while in the library.

3. Follow their lead

It was important to let the children guide the conversation. And so, because they wanted to speak about their experiences at school, I did not detract them from this line of thought even though I started this conversation with other ideas of what we would be talking about.

So they wanted to talk about school. And now, so did I!

The girls explained that at their school there was a display in the main hallway of famous Canadians. The display was called “Canadian Game Changers.” From what my daughters could gather, students from grades 5 and 6 would sign up to part of a committee in charge of the Game Changer display board, and anyone in the school in school can put names into a ballot box. The committee would select the winning Canadians and their picture along with a short blurb about why they were game changers would be displayed in the main hallway. Admittedly, the details about how people get selected to be up on the board were kind of murky because the girls had never tried to be part of the committee. However, given that this was a primary display area for the school and everyone could select famous Canadians, the girls were noticeably bothered about the activity for one big reason: not one Canadian Game Changer in the two years that they had attended the school was Black.

I approached their concerns from a place of curiosity:

“If you could add a Canadian Game Changer to the Board who was Black, who would you choose?”

They both agreed that they would want to see Justice George Carter, the first Black Canadian-Born Judge in Canada on the board. And when I probed for more Canadians, there was silence.

They suggested expanding the board to include Americans so they could include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Barack Obama. And my eldest daughter insisted on the benefits of expanding it even more to include the Dalai Lama.

Two issues stood out for me in this discussion:

First, the children didn’t know enough about Black Canadians to pro-actively address the lack of diversity on the Canadian Game Changers display.

Second, the children did not see themselves reflected in an important display in their school. This could lead to a number of difficult challenges for them as they grow up self-identifying as Black children in the public school system.

4. Ask them how they feel

Now that I had identified a problem, I had to spend some time unpacking the impact.

I kept the question simple:

“So, how does it make you feel to not see Black Canadians on the Canadian Change Makers display?”

I was overwhelmed by the depth of understanding they each had about how the lack of Black Canadians made them feel.

Sofia, age 11, said she was offended by the lack of Black Canadians on the display. She explained that she kept her emotions hidden inside because she was scared that the teachers would say that they had a fine curriculum and that because she was a kid should would get in trouble for thinking otherwise. She also explained that she felt disrespected, worrying that by never including Black people that meant that they did not consider Black people human. She went on to explain that even though she had watched movies about Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., she did not have the courage to suggest that what they had done as change makers for Black people be included in a public display.

Danica, age 8, said she felt upset and angry because there were plenty of people that the school could be learning about. She explained that her teachers never taught about Black history and that she felt that learning about Black history was very important. She also explained that she felt that this was not brought into the classroom because people thought that kids her age were too young to learn about Black history, race, or racism.

After each had their turn to share with me some of their more visceral feelings, they both went on to explain to me that from what they had been taught “White people are normal” and everyone else is not worth talking about. It seemed that they learned this through both active teaching in the classroom and through more passive methods like the display board of Canadian Game Changers.  

Finally, they suggested that if there were more Black teachers in the school things might be different. And they raised another concern: if their teachers had gone through the same education system, it only made sense that they would become teachers who didn’t talk about race or care to ensure that display boards were racially diverse.

5. Work together to come up with a “Racial Justice Action Plan”

As we began to wrap up our conversation I asked the children to tell me what they would need to gain the courage to speak up.

“What could I do to help you? What do you need to feel more confident so you can let people know what the impact is of not having important displays include Black Canadians?”

Both of the girls looked at me, unsure of what they needed to address such a complex problem. So I backtracked to and dug a little deeper into their feelings.

“Think of a time when the teacher or your friends or a staff member were saying something about race or racism that left you feeling offended, disappointed, upset or angry. Make sure it’s something where you wish you spoke up, and then tell me what stopped you.”

(Notice that I referred back to the emotions they said they felt in #4, and demonstrated that I really was listening actively to what they were saying and feeling).

Their list came swiftly:

  • “I wish I could have walked out of the classroom, but I know that if I did that they would say that I wasn’t being polite.”
  • “I was scared to ask questions because I’m spending the entire year with these teachers… I was scared they would hold a grudge.”
  • “I felt embarrassed that I didn’t have details to back me up.”
  • “I would feel better if you or Daddy were with me – then I would find the courage to speak up.”

Their list led Danica to make an important realization:

“I don’t have anyone to add to the Canadian Game Changer display because I’ve never been taught about them!”

Sofia readily agreed.

And then, my realization came:

I needed to empower my children so that they could gain the confidence to challenge racial inequities they encountered in the education system. But that meant that I had to become even more intentional in providing them with the information they need to be able to answer questions like “What Black Canadians would you add to the Canadian Game Changer display” on the spot.

The impact of my intentional teaching is HUGE!

As Danica explained to me, “A Game Changer is someone who has done good things for good reasons. If Black people are on the display, then that would mean that if they could be recognized for all of these great things, than I can too!”

And with that, we made a plan:

We would use our reading to learn more about Black people’s contributions to the world. They would also look specifically for contributions that Black Canadians have made so that next year they can put names forward of non-White Canadian Game Changers.

The kids were excited, and so was I!

Part 2: The 3 Things I learned 

(a.k.a. Developing our Toolkit)

So here is what I learned:

  1. Be transparent: For a conversation like this – one that has no proven “answers” to the problem of systemic racism, setting yourself up as an expert is bound to fail. So choose vulnerability – be open and honest with your children. Tell them you’re trying to talk about something that isn’t easy to talk about but that you will do your best.
  2. Let the children choose the book(s) to read: Let the children lead the choices in book selection. Create your pile of books using selections that you feel could work to jump-start the conversation, and then let them help out. That way they will take you where they need to talk with you.
  3. Listen, listen, listen: The most important thing is that they feel like you are there to listen and they are there to speak.

Part 3: Questions for our Discussion Group

  1. Approaching from a Place of Curiosity: What worries you about this approach? What are you afraid your kids will say that you’re not ready to hear? What aspects of the discussion do you think will be hardest to address?
  1. Book Selection: What books do you have at home to work with? What can you do to help make the connection between the book(s) you’re reading and the conversations you hope to have?
  1. Managing Your Fears: What aspects of the discussion do you think you need to unpack before you work with your children? What questions or concerns do you have about the rise of racism today?

Let’s keep the conversation going: 

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Thank you in for joining Parents for Racial Justice!

With love, light and healing,

Laura Mae.

Other sites of interest:

Raising Race Conscious Children: http://www.raceconscious.org

Racial Justice Now: http://racialjusticenow.org

 Racism: Families Push for Racial Justice: https://www.parentmap.com/article/racism-families-push-for-racial-justice

Showing Up for Racial Justice: http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/surj_mother_s_day_action_toolkit