Contextualizing the Equity Literacy Project

All societies need to continually improve, but reform does not come without considerable investments in learning, evaluation, reflection, and action. Regarding education, Dr. Bettina Love (2019), an associate professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia who specialized in racial issues, explained that the “the achievement gap” between White and non-White students we seek to address as educators is not about any inherent inferiority of historically marginalized students but “a history of injustice and oppression” in which an “‘education debt’ has accumulated over time” and must be addressed as such (p.92). Similar to the ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about the need for much deeper investments in equitable policies, Dr. Love also pointed out that eating together at the lunch counter was a hard-fought victory but didn’t substantially cost a thing for those who already had the privilege of eating at the lunch counter, apart from social discomfort. Sure, we have made progress, but to Dr. Love’s point, we as a nation have mostly supported reform that is equitably frugal, meaning it has not cost much and has not given much, especially in light of the broad range of equity-based challenges we still confront in education and society generally. This same issue is at the heart of the inequities many of the most historically underserved and marginalized groups continue to face across the identities and experiences. In theory, all students now have access to education, but what have we done to substantively give schools, communities, and families equitable access to funding, resources, pedagogies, and practices that truly give students both the access and support they need?

Today’s students are tomorrow’s parents, taxpayers, policymakers, and educators who will be functioning in an ever-increasingly complex and diverse nation. Grasping the full scope of that diversity is crucial, and teachers on the front lines of this challenge often adhere to the deeply ingrained belief in students being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps despite structural inequalities. We must recognize these challenges, see the humanity in all students, and create safe, equitable, and empowering environments for the success of all students. It is essential that educators of today’s children and youth are prepared to consider and engage with that broad spectrum of experiences, challenges, and needs. We, as educators, can be the reform we need, but it will not come without an intention to learn, an investment of time to reflect, and a willingness to take action in our classrooms and communities.

Over decades since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, considerable advances have been made to foster equitable conditions in education and schools, especially in the last twenty years. For example, pedagogical and methodological approaches like Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Critical Pedagogy, and others have become part and parcel to teacher preparation (Gay, 2010; Giroux, 1983; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Shor, 1992; Sleeter, 2013). Schools, school districts, and higher education institutions have created administrative positions like Chief Diversity Officers and Directors of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) (Jaeger, 2021; Parker, 2020; Wilson, 2013) that strategize, guide, and support DEI initiatives. Professional development around DEI issues has become a significant aspect of teachers’ and administrators’ work, and that professional development is crucial considering the varying outcomes of teacher candidates’ readiness for addressing diversity in their classrooms (Adams, Rodriguez, & Zimmerman, 2017; Levine, Howard, & Moss, 2014; Sleeter, Neal, & Kumishiro, 2015), alongside the increased frustration and confusion of the public in light the 2020 antiracism protests sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd at the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin. The trajectory of American education is on an incline. It may be a slow climb, but it is happening. The problem is that as advances are made, that work can be undone.

Progress has been made in our schools and society, but we are at a time where polarizing ideologies threaten to slow, halt, or even reverse progress. With each progressive reform, a backlash that can range from simply dismissive to wholly violent oftentimes comes. For instance, despite the hard-won Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 (Anderson & Byrne, 2004), when the city of Boston, Massachusetts attempted a busing program in 1975 as a strategy for integration, Black children were met with vicious and violent harassment that included throwing bricks and bottles, spitting and lodging racial epithets, angry letters to the editor, and White flight (Eaton, 2001; Lukas, 1986). The backlash efforts against integration ultimately worked, as we see that schools are more segregated now than in 1954 (Frankenberg, Ee, Ayscue, & Orfield, 2019; Lockhart, 2019). Published in 2019, the Frankenberg, et. al. 2019 report, Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years After Brown, states:

Since the peak of desegregation for black students in 1988, the share of intensely segregated minority schools, that is, schools that enroll 90-100% non-white students, has more than tripled from 5.7% in 1988 to 18.2% in 2016 … Because the share of intensely segregated white schools and the share of white students attending such schools have decreased, it is possible that white people could perceive an increase in interracial contact even though students of color are increasingly segregated. (p. 21)

The backlash against inclusive reforms is not limited to race. In fact, currently schools across the country are in the throes of addressing a broad range of needs across identity groups. Students who identify as LGBT+ remain vulnerable to curriculum erasure, rampant bullying, and suicide (Shane, 2020). State and local boards of education are still actively debating bilingual education programs for English language learners (Moore, 2021).  There remains a significant paucity of girls and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs (AAUW, 2020). Disparities and opportunities for economically vulnerable students persist, and this fact was further highlighted during the national move to online instruction during the Covid-19 pandemic (Reza, 2020). Meanwhile, several state legislatures across the country are moving to illegalize instruction around Critical Race Theory (Sawchuk, 2021; Wilson, 2021), a move reminiscent of the attempt to ban ethnic studies programs in Arizona in 2010 that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional (Barr, 2010; Depenbrock, 2017). It is clear that as attempts are made to advance the educational opportunities and conditions for all students an inevitable pushback on progress is soon to follow.

Recognizing and understanding the reality and implications of these trends is crucial for educators of all backgrounds and further offers an imperative to support the development of critical understanding and practices that help bridge misunderstanding, underrepresentation, and marginalization. As long as we — both educators and the nation in general — continue to maintain the status quo, or worse, allow equity gaps to widen, we delay equitable access and full participation for all citizens in our society and institutions. Instead, we largely perpetuate the disenfranchisement of our classmates, colleagues, and communities by clinging to incomplete notions of the country and the social, political, economic, and cultural realities of the nation based on half-truths, myths, and biases (Loewen, 2018; Zinn, 2003).

Addressing the needs of many identity groups in schools has been a challenge and reflects the struggle of all historically marginalized groups. Physically and cognitively challenged students, women and LGBT+ students, immigrant students, English Language Learners, linguistically diverse students, non-White students, religious groups, and socioeconomically vulnerable students have all come into the crossfire of marginalization, controversy, and backlash requiring activism and significant policy change to broaden opportunities for each of those groups. As education began to incorporate the needs, concerns, and demands of historically marginalized groups, the moves necessitated an increased professional development focusing on helping educators understand the real challenges of historically marginalized groups and burgeoning pedagogical and methodological approaches relevant to their needs. However, as James Banks (2010) and Geneva Gay (2010) pointed out, the theory around multicultural education outpaces the actual practice occurring in classrooms and schools. Today, we continue to see challenges for working with historically marginalized groups, including but not limited to: a lack of awareness regarding the collective and unique challenges these groups face; implementation of effective pedagogies and practices for inclusive classrooms; and, a national struggle to embrace critical and equity-based practices. Moreover, as these dialogues bleed into the national conversation, the whims of resistant political and cultural thought can drastically distort and derail efforts that are seen as best practices for all students (Byrd, 2016).

Executive Order 13950, passed in September of 2020, banned discussions and training on discrimination and anti-racism, labeling them as “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” (Exec. Order No. 13950, 2020). This short-lived attempt to limit training about diversity and inclusion and Critical Race Theory by federal contractors and entities receiving federal grants illustrates the misguided approach of ignoring the mistreatment of historically marginalized groups and promoting an “all is well now” mentality, which dismisses decades of social science research and the current social struggles that stem from our nation’s past. The order declared that “racialized views of America…were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War (section 1),” as if to suggest that racist mentalities and structures ended with the outcome of the Civil War. After the end of the Civil War, African Americans and others labeled as racial and ethnic minorities continued to see vicious and virulent forms of racism, often supported by federal, state, and local governments. For example: rescinding General William Sherman’s Field Order 15 (40 acres and a mule); the Plessey v. Ferguson ruling instituting “separate but equal” among other discriminatory rulings; implementing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Immigration Act of 1924; passing the Ozawa v. United States and Thind v. United States decision (which essentially determined that despite any scientific arguments the designation of White was dependent upon the impressions of the “common man,” thus blocking Asian immigrants citizenship among many other restrictions); dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau; refusal to pass a federal anti-lynching law; reneging on treaties with Native Americans and forced enrollment of Indigenous children into anti-Indigenous boarding schools; eugenics and forced sterilization and involuntary medical experimentations on women and people of color; redlining and block busting; voter suppression; rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment; disregard of the needs of citizens with special needs; designation of homosexuality and being transgender as a mental illness; anti-LGBT+ workplace restictions and vulnerabilities; sundown towns; misegenation laws; rampant stereotypes and gross, inhuman caricatures of people not designated White; and, regularly blaming immigrants (particularly Mexican immigrants) for the economic woes of the White working and middle classes, just to name a few examples. Although Executive Order 13985 in January of 2021 revoked Executive Order 13950 — only four months after its issuing — the rhetoric equating teaching more complete and complicated versions of American history to “teaching hate” has been reinforced for those seeking to preserve the extremely narrow and exclusive versions.

Before we can make substantive change in our schools, we educators must increase our own awareness and understanding of inequities that persist so that we can address them. We must do our due diligence to create affirming and engaging educational opportunities for all students that are relevant to their experiences, and we can only do that with an intentional and concerted effort to learn about the histories, perspectives, and needs of all students. Only then can we even adequately create pedagogies, curricula, activities, and interactions that speak to their realities. What most of us were taught in schools is insufficient for dealing with institutional and systemic racism. Much of the traditional, Eurocentric versions of our history present the narrative that America is the land of opportunity where everyone has the chance to succeed. This ideology reinforces the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, focusing on the hard work and resiliency of the individual, but failing to acknowledge group privileges and structures that perpetuate and reinforce those privileges (Schreiner, 2017; Tefera, Hernandez Saca, and Lester, 2019). Individuals are not racist because of identity, but that identity can allow access to group privilege, which can come in the form of having that privileged groups’ history and perspective taught far and wide. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the summer of anti-racist/Black Lives Matter global protests, there seemed to be a groundswell of teachers — across racial groups — who were seeking to learn more, to become allies in the struggle against anti-racism and other forms of oppression. Unfortunately, that flow of action has ebbed, and we are once again seeing a backlash.

Regardless of how and when we realize that there is much more to learn, we must take it upon ourselves to learn more than what was extended to us in order to understand our students….to delve into decades of research and literature to learn the terms that represent phenomena and pedagogies for countering long-standing discrimination and oppression. We must continue to put in the work to keep the wheels of progress in motion, lest we lose ground. The concepts have been identified and well-substantiated, and the research has been done to provide evidence that culturally relevant teaching is, as Gloria Ladson-Billings (1992) says it is “just good teaching.” Theory and rigorous research are the mightiest weapons we have. However, returning to the ideas of Bettina Love, “The struggle for educational freedom does not somehow vanish when you apply theory, but your barriers are no longer hiding in plain sight; now you have the language, understanding, and, hopefully, co-conspirators not only to fight but also to demand what is needed to thrive” (Love, 2019).

Dr. Joseph Flynn, Northern Illinois University
Dr. Stephanie Whalen, William Rainey Harper College



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