I began my career as a ninth grade English teacher on the south side of St. Louis. I was a young white teacher right out of college, and over 90% of my students were Black. One thing became clear to me very quickly: My students were brilliant and had endless potential, but our education system and society at large were not designed to provide them with the opportunities they deserved.
My time in the classroom taught me that potential is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. Here in Indiana, white students are over four times more likely to pass state math and English assessments than their Black peers. This is just one example of countless measures that show persistent — and sometimes growing — racial disparities within our education system. There must be something systematically wrong with a system that produces such divergent outcomes.
In recent months, efforts to ban “divisive concepts” in K-12 schools have swept across a growing number of states. Many of these efforts seek to outlaw teachers discussing topics in the classroom that might make students uncomfortable. They would also allow parents to opt their children out of certain courses or lessons.
This has created a climate where educators are fearful that discussing racism in the classroom or teaching about painful episodes in American history will get them fired. Some teachers have already reported shying away from teaching anything that could be deemed controversial. This chilling effect comes at a time when teachers and school leaders are already exhausted after persevering through a global pandemic for the past two years. They need our collective support, not vilification.
At The Mind Trust, our mission is to ensure all Indianapolis students have access to a great school in pursuit of a day when a student’s race and income are no longer predictors of life outcomes. We know that accomplishing this mission will only be possible if we recognize the past and continued existence of systemic racism within the education system and its particularly negative impact on Black and Latino students in Indianapolis.
We seek to create opportunities that ensure historically marginalized families have the power to drive systemic change within their communities. We invest in leaders of color to launch new schools and organizations that are created explicitly for students who have previously not been served well by our education system. We also work to ensure that our financial resources are invested in service to our racial equity commitments.
However, we know it is necessary to not only commit to pursuing racial equity with our words but to demonstrate that commitment with our actions.
If we believe that educational change should be driven by those most impacted by educational inequity, then our team needs to reflect the community we serve. We have examined our own internal practices to reduce bias in our recruitment, hiring and onboarding processes. As a result, people of color now make up 59% of our staff, 50% of our board of directors and 100% of our fellows.
One of the main ways we have driven progress on our racial equity goals is by putting financial and staff resources behind them. In 2020, we created a leadership and racial equity team and equipped it with a meaningful budget. Our racial equity team ensures that every part of our organization thinks critically about how they can pursue our commitments and that our resources are spent in ways that are aligned with what we say we believe.
This work has resulted in initiatives like Equity Cohorts for schools and nonprofits that want to join together to ensure their organizations are operating more equitably, as well as the Go Farther Literacy Fund that supports literacy projects led by families and community members. We have also invested in programs like Surge Academy to ensure that promising leaders of color have the support they need to achieve transformational change in partnership with our community. In addition, our racial equity mindset helped spark initiatives like Community Learning Sites and Indy Summer Learning Labs when it became clear that Black and Latino families were disproportionately impacted from the pandemic.
It is the expectation that every team member at The Mind Trust participates in discussions on racial disparities and their impact on our work. Topics and discussions around race and inequality may sometimes make white folks like me uncomfortable, but that discomfort is necessary if we are serious about our own personal growth in pursuit of a more just and prosperous city.
Every time I hear someone say that white children should not experience discomfort when learning about historical injustices, I think about Ruby Bridges walking to school surrounded by angry white protestors fighting to keep her out of the schoolhouse. I want my two white sons to learn the good, bad and ugly of our country’s history. I want them to learn how slavery, Jim Crow and redlining continue to influence racial disparities today. I want them to grow into empathetic adults who are able to work across lines of difference.
The truth is that Black children don’t have the luxury of opting out of uncomfortable conversations about race. Neither should white children.
Brandon Brown is CEO of The Mind Trust, an education nonprofit.