Taking the First Step

May 17, 2017 in Inside SWS

I grew up in a small town in rural Wisconsin. People worked hard, went to church on Sundays, voted in elections, and left their doors unlocked. No one particularly stood out — we were all middle class and white. I remember traveling to the “big city” of Milwaukee when I was six or seven with my parents and younger brother. We had dinner at a restaurant there, and when our waitperson brought us water, my four-year-old brother and I saw someone with a different skin color for the first time. After the waitperson left our table, my brother said, “His hands are really clean,” noting the contrast between the palms of the man’s hands and the very dark skin on top. That was all that was said, and an opportunity for open and healthy conversation was lost.

I don’t fault my parents, or any of us, for passing by or avoiding those moments when we simply don’t know what to say. Conversations about issues of diversity (we are all diverse!), equity, and inclusion can be difficult and awkward. As a white person of privilege, I often feel so inadequate and ill equipped to venture into what feels like unknown territory. I worry about offending people, saying the wrong thing, or using the wrong words. However, I am learning that to say and do nothing is far worse.

Last week our relatively new Equity Committee held its final meeting of the year, in advance of our evening with diversity educator Rosetta Lee. We began by sharing why we came to the meeting and what our hopes are for this group and our school. What I heard was simultaneously disheartening and uplifting, including:

  • “It’s a privilege not to think or talk about these things. As a person of color, I didn’t have that privilege growing up and don’t now. I want my child to walk into school and not leave pieces of herself behind.”
  • “Equity touches everything and everyone in the school. We don’t talk about these things because we do not have a common language or shared understanding.”
  • “It’s all about transformation. How do we integrate a pedagogy rich with Germanic romanticism and current issues of social justice?”
  • “We need to provide a learning environment and community that is culturally vibrant, where we can celebrate each other while being true to our roots and identities.”

What I learned in that room was that some of us are ready and anxious to have hard, awkward conversations. We want to talk about issues of race, gender, sexual identity, socio-economics, and more. I also heard that, like me, some of us don’t know how and where to begin.

Building a common language and shared values takes time and intentionality. Creating a culture of kindness and respect, which supports open and honest dialogue, will happen over the course of years, not days. But as poet David Whyte writes, we can each take the first step.

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

I encourage each of us to take that first step — perhaps the one my parents missed that evening at dinner — and have an honest conversation or ask a tough question. This is how we will start.


Published in the Chalkboard newsletter on 5.17.17.