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Courageous Conversations Part IV: Examining an Urgent Need for Change

By Dr. Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director, Kaela Farrise, CEI Program Assistant, Innovation & Research Support, and Kelsey Remeis, CEI Intern

Educators, administrators, staff, parents, students, and community members bring their full selves into schools through their varying roles. These selves are shaped by the attitudes of those we grew up with and are in community with, and the experiences we have had up until the current moment. Even if we feel that we are not prejudiced, it is likely that we carry messages of superiority, blame, guilt, or ignorance into our everyday interactions. These messages have been passed down and enforced across generations and will take intentional efforts to undo. As a larger community, educators can do more to face these biases head on and bring about change.

A Need for Change

Even with the conviction, change can be difficult. At its core, transformation is often uncomfortable to undergo, but we are in a time where there is an opportunity to do education differently. Though it may be difficult work, the past must be reckoned with as intergenerational issues impact all of us, though the causes are diverse. Some of us carry the trauma with us through ancestral experiences that included slavery, forced land removal and stolen children, and/or fleeing violence and persecution. Others carry the knowledge that our ancestors were the perpetrators who mandated and enforced injustice. Some of us reckon with multiple histories simultaneously. Despite the uniqueness of our individual ancestral trauma, events from decades or centuries ago continue to impact our attitudes, feelings, and beliefs; however, we can become more aware of our current bias. There are resources and programs such as “Transforming White Privilege” to help us examine our hidden biases and educators can use tools developed by leaders in the education field such as Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations.

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In recent years, educators have struggled to support families facing ICE raids and deportation, children anxious over the safety and security of their families due to racial violence, and families who feel the impact of unkind and inhumane treatment due to immigration status. In recent months, we have seen  increased attention to the fear and anger Black and African American families experience in response to how they and their ancestors have been treated by their fellow Americans, especially law enforcement. Courageous Conversations is a framework we can use to  learn more of the lives of those who have faced injustice, their needs, and how we can be  supportive and offer ourselves as resources to these families. When we are in the midst of Courageous Conversations, we may feel unsettled. We may struggle to find the right words to express what we need to say, and we may be concerned about how others will react. We may see anger and tears, and yet at times an amazing kindness as we learn to communicate and share with each other. It is important to have these conversations, even when they feel uncomfortable. 

Facilitating Courageous Conversations with Cultural Humility

Maria E. Restrepo-Toro, BNS, MS, Project Manager for Training and Education at Yale University’s Program for Recovery and Community Health and Co-Director of the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, led a webinar for the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative in May outlining the importance of having Courageous Conversations in the effort to bring equity into schools. She highlights the need to refrain from silence as it is “time to step up to the plate” and promote equity in schools. She further suggests approaching this work with cultural humility as opposed to cultural competency. She cites Tervalon and Murray-Garcia’s (1998) definition of cultural humility: “the ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the person.” The point of having these conversations is to learn from others and understand that who we are is unique and important in what we bring to the conversation. By using Courageous Conversations, we begin to facilitate the process and promote diversity. 

When planning for a dialogue in your school community, remember that…

  1. Courageous conversations take time. It may mean a series of meetings, perhaps with different stakeholders (students, educators, families) over a period of months or across multiple years. For group meetings, it may help to engage a skilled facilitator to help guide your meetings. Sometimes important conversations occur in private meetings, one-to-one, or in small group dyads and triads.

  2. Courageous conversations may need to be revisited. Staff change, families move and as the “school community” shifts, or as events happen within a community, more conversations may be needed.

  3. Courageous Conversations require a focus on care and genuine concern. When at a loss for words, returning to this foundation can lead the dialogue forward.

Moving Forward

The issues facing our schools will not be resolved quickly or easily. However, when educators fully commit to using the tenets of Courageous Conversations and continually learning about how to create more equitable school environments, we discover a way forward. Lasting change takes everyone committing to lead, be ready, and stay in tune with their truth in whatever ways possible.

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Restrepo-Toro, M.E. (2020). Courageous Conversations: A partnering tool to achieve equity in schools. . New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center.


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