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Building a Coalition for Racial Justice

From 2017-2018, three Wildflower teacher-leaders were given the opportunity to delve further into equity and racial justice work by taking a class taught by our Wildflower partner, Daisy Han, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course, entitled “Leading for Equity,” has been a unique space for me, along with graduate students and other local school leaders, to reflect upon teaching practices, understand dominant white culture, and recognize the implicit biases that we all hold. I’m writing to share some of my reflections from taking this course as well to share two pieces that Daisy recently wrote about her own experiences with racial identity as a child and as a Montessori teacher.

Personally, as a Wildflower teacher-leader, I have come to realize that social justice work isn’t restricted to the walls of my classroom. I know that this might sound obvious, but as a white person, I have the privilege of being able to choose when to think about it and when to shut it off. I feel like this year has been quite the journey, and I now notice injustice everywhere. Sometimes this feels extremely overwhelming; the immensity of how our systems are set up as forms of oppression is incredibly saddening, and now, for me, this work is not a choice it is a must. I recognize that I am joining those who have been working for justice for many years, and that this is an opportunity to listen to others’ experiences.

One of the most important exercises and conversations that we had in the course was delving into research on the characteristics of white supremacy culture. While this is a term that most people still associate with extremist views, in reality, it’s identifying the characteristics of our dominant culture that dictate how we live our lives, both personally and professionally. Like Maria Montessori wrote about in The Absorbent Mind, our culture is something we absorb unconsciously from birth to 6 years of age. Learning and discussing this article was a chance for me to understand that the norms and values that we default to, that we have absorbed, while not inherently bad, can often be damaging to people of color and to white people. This has been an opportunity to reshape my thinking and to create a more inclusive set of norms and values, first for myself and then for my greater community. Now that I have a more critical lens and consciousness, I feel empowered to continue my own learning and development.

The practice of Dr. Montessori’s educational philosophy calls for the preparation and deep examination of self, as well as observation, and purposeful work–characteristics that are true of social justice work as well. This work is extremely introspective, and exploring my own racial identity has allowed me to understand how to better communicate with my colleagues and parent community about race. The course gave me the opportunity to listen to many different people and hear ideas and stories that are different than mine.

Recently, Daisy wrote a beautiful first-person account of the challenges she faced as a young Korean-American student attending school:

“In that kindergarten classroom, I learned that to be a good American student, I needed to eat mac and cheese with ketchup and speak perfect English. I learned that I needed to leave my ethnic identity at the door…It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Montessori education as an adult that I experienced healing from the deep trauma of assimilation and erasure I went through as a child. Through the beautiful Montessori pedagogy, I felt seen, and could see, for the first time, an education that deeply honored the child and was rooted in social justice.”

Her writing and her perspective is one that has called me into this work for racial justice. You can read more of her piece, “Speaking in My Mother Tongue” from Montessori Life, the magazine of The American Montessori Society.

Additionally, Daisy recently co-authored a piece in the AMI/USA Journal with Trisha Moquino, co-founder of the Keres Children’s Learning Center in New Mexico. In that piece, they wrote about the importance of incorporating racial justice into Montessori’s philosophy of peace and interconnectedness. Rather than congratulate ourselves for our inclusive practices, it’s clear that we need to push ourselves further: be honest about historical, systemic oppression and reconcile the present realities of Montessori education.

“Together, as women of color in this field, we have felt the omission of this focus and we feel the impact of the omission of People of Color in the spaces and places where Montessori education is practiced, researched and taught. As Montessorians, we must ask ourselves the ways in which we practice peace education in our classrooms and what stories we share with our children. There is no doubt that Montessori education has the potential to serve as a liberating and decolonizing education; however, for this to be true, Montessorians must reflect on some uncomfortable truths: Who has historically received a Montessori education or Montessori teacher certification in America and why that has been the case? How have Montessorians perpetuated a false narrative of peace? At whose expense and why have only some children been able to receive this idea of peace education?”

You can read more from the piece “Moving Beyond Peace Education to Social Justice Education” from the AMI/USA Journal, the magazine of The Association Montessori International/USA.

Ultimately, what has been clear to me is that this work should not and cannot be done alone; we need a coalition of people to engage in racial justice.

The teacher-leaders from Wildflower who took this course worked with Daisy to coordinate a coalition in Cambridge to systematically address issues of inequity through a collective effort for community-building, empathy-building, and collaboration. We hope that this will be a support system to help us as a network to identify levers to ensure that our schools ensure equity across all schools and programs.

Wildflower’s Equity principle is not restricted to getting people of color in the door; in fact, doing that without a deep examination of our own practice would likely cause more harm than good. As someone who has just begun this preparation of self, I invite you to join this work in the way that feels best for you, whether that means signing up for Embracing Equity, or perhaps reading books on racial justice, or engaging in brave conversations with your coworkers or families. This work is so important — it calls upon the part of us that wants to be whole; the part of us that wants to live in a more peaceful and just world.

Erin McKay is a primary teacher/head-of-school at Wildflower Montessori School in Cambridge, MA.


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