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More than a statement: How institutions can commit to racial justice

By Guest Columnist JASON MARSHALL, executive director at Wesley International Academy

When George Floyd was killed, it became the norm for brands and organizations alike to issue statements of solidarity. Well-intentioned and important, these statements have become part of our collective practice as headlines impact society.

Jason Marshall

Just this year, we’ve witnessed the nation hold its breath as the jury delivered three guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd. Atlanta experienced a mass shooting that took the lives of six members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. This hometown tragedy was indicative of a national trend of growing anti-Asian violence. Soon after, the country collectively mourned Adam Toledo, a Latino 7th grader, shot and killed by police.

These incidents are personal in a school community like Wesley International Academy, where I lead as executive director. Black and brown 13-year-olds like Adam walk our halls every day alongside our predominantly Black staff. Our teaching team also includes a robust Chinese department with seven teachers who offer Mandarin language instruction and cultural lessons to our students every day.

Elementary school students pause for a photo in Wesley International Academy. Credit: Rebecca Stanley

While I understand the need for organizational statements, a similar public stance has felt more difficult in my role, where a commitment to racial equity and justice is the foundation of what we do every single day. How do you make a statement saying we will continue doing what we do each day? As school begins again next week, we are looking ahead at ways we will continue to be an organization that promotes justice and equity everyday to our students, staff, and families. Recognizing many organizations are new to this conversation and looking for tangible ways to go beyond public statements and truly commit to racial justice, I offer three next steps based on our experiences at Wesley.

No. 1: Establish a consistent environment for growth

As a K-8 school, we are of course going to start with education, but this is less about resources and more about the culture of your organization. Wesley is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, which means we are consistently challenging our students to develop their IB attributes to become inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, open-minded, communicators, caring, and reflective, to name a few. Creating an organizational environment that encourages curiosity makes it easier to ask hard and thoughtful questions about race and justice. Supporting exploration and research into ideas provides avenues not only for innovation and problem-solving in one’s industry, but for broader global issues as well. Any organization that can foster conversations where people listen with open minds, communicate with care, and reflect on their own learning and experiences will be primed for taking real steps towards equity and justice.

No. 2: Build diverse spaces

Students perform traditional Chinese drumming during the school’s annual China Night. Credit: Carlos Ostrej

I have traveled to China twice with our Wesley middle schoolers. Long before the U.S. was discussing mask-wearing, our students had witnessed everyday citizens in China masked for their own protection and the safety of others. In fact, nearly a month before Atlanta shut down in 2020, two of our Wesley Chinese teachers arrived at work to teach while wearing masks. This decision started an in-house conversation about cultural norms and practices, as well as mask-wearing more broadly. By the time discussions about masks reached the general population, we were ahead of the curve because our students had exposure and relationships in a safe, familiar environment. Fear is often stoked by the unknown. Relationships that increase exposure and connection have the power to reduce fear of the “other” and move the work of justice forward.

No. 3: Address topics head-on

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Middle school students at Wesley International Academy read the book ‘Stamped’ to facilitate conversation. Credit: Wesley International Academy

Our staff and students are always exploring age-appropriate ways to address current topics. To be truly committed to racial equity and justice, we cannot rest in generalities or pithy quotes. After George Floyd, our gifted coordinator, Melanie Dukes, organized readings of the book “Stamped,” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, with both our staff and our middle school students. Throughout the entire school year last year, we were reading and discussing racism, anti-racism, and how we can engage.

Our commitment to racial justice cannot fluctuate with the headlines. It is ongoing, consistent work that requires intentional decisions to prioritize the environment of our institutions, the teams we build, and the conversations and actions we facilitate. We celebrate the moments of justice and community, but we also know there is more to do. Statements are not enough in the face of injustice. Institutions and organizations need commitment and grit to address the crucial issues of our time. I believe we can do it.

Note to readers: Jason Marshall is the executive director at Wesley International Academy, an Atlanta public charter school for grades K-8 developing global citizens through a world-class IB education.

 

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