Racial Equity in Early Childhood and Our Statement Opposing Zero-Tolerance

Racial Equity in Early Childhood

By Beth Coleman, Frog teacher (Fall 2017-May 2019), and
Danielle Larkin, Tadpole teacher and SoG Board member

“Children are citizens of their environment and learning stems from all that surrounds them.”

Equality of ChildrenThe quote above comes from our School of Grace website and is an aim of ours as teachers to integrate within our classroom practices with children, families, and the broader community. We also grapple with its meaning: What does it mean to consider children as citizens? What are the environments that surround children? Who and what do they include and who or what is missing from them? What learning, then, should stem from those environments?

Our questions and intentions to ensure best outcomes for all children prompted us to attend a three-day Educator Institute focused on issues of social justice in July of 2018. We are (Working to Extend Anti-Racism Education), the organization that led the institute, states on their website that their purpose is “to equip students, parents, and educators with the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the complexity of racism and to extend anti-racist education with the ultimate goal of dismantling systemic racism.” The institute deepened our understandings of the meaning of race and racism, and strengthened our awareness of how those concepts have changed over time to benefit particular groups of people.

In addition, we developed concrete ideas to implement within our context that center traditionally marginalized children and families. One approach that stood out for us: to pay closer attention to the tangible actions we enact as anti-racist educators rather than focus solely on our bias, prejudice, or racism. In other words, we felt encouraged to ask ourselves: How do we explicitly attend to racial equity within our classroom and school communities? How do we build onto existing efforts and focus on strengthening tangible outcomes? Within our roles, what are the specific ways we support those outcomes that forefront anti-racism and racial equity?

We brought the ideas we learned at the Educator Institute to The School of Grace (SoG) Teacher Workdays in August 2018 and January 2019. We shared food, ideas, laughter, and meaningful conversation throughout the day! Staff collaboratively reflected on our vision for School of Grace, how to communicate with civility and generosity, and becoming more mindful of the ways different levels of racism affect people of color.

It was with the same spirit that we explored specific literacy strategies that foster racial equity. We listened to Chimamanda Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story TED Talk. This helped us consider how people’s lived experiences and stories narrate racial identities. We then used children’s picture books to launch a dialogue about the ways race, racism, and racial identities are shaped within the preschool classroom.

In addition to our collective staff initiative, one product that emerged from our (Danielle and Beth’s) participation at the “we are” Educator Institute was a letter in solidarity alongside families being separated at the United States border. Please see below to read the statement which includes why we felt compelled to demonstrate explicit support of families who are traditionally marginalized within our local and broader communities.

The quote at the beginning of this blog post states that The SOG views all children as citizens. Our personal and collective efforts to focus on anti-racism and racial equity have further provoked us to examine the meaning of, and basis for, citizenship for humans of all ages, races, and ethnicities. We’ve deeply reflected on whether our ways of being as educators promote or inhibit a sense of belonging for children and families whose racial/ethnic identity is less likely to be accepted in society. While our efforts this year have been generative, we recognize the work of anti-racism and racial equity is ongoing. We invite anyone who is interested in committing to this endeavor to join us. We might then broaden our sense of human belonging to create a more inclusive community both within and beyond The School of Grace.

Statement Opposing Zero-Tolerance
Immigration Policy October 16, 2018

Since its opening in 1995, The School of Grace has sought to welcome refugees as part of our school family. In support of this aim, we allocate one fully funded space for a child from a refugee family in each classroom and provide transportation to and from school. We foster safe and nurturing classroom environments where children can learn and play alongside peers from other cultures. Our efforts to include refugee families within the school community have been foundational to our school practices for over two decades. We believe this historical commitment demonstrates our aim toward an inclusive community in which all families are accepted as an equal part of The School of Grace (SoG) family.

In the Spring of 2018, the United States federal government began strictly enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to immigration policy. Subsequently, over two thousand children were separated from their parents and subsequently held in shelters. On July 26th, 2018, media reported that all immigrant families who were separated would be reunited. For the majority of families, that was the case. However, over a year later, some children still have yet to be reunited. They remain well beyond the comfort of their parents’ loving arms.

We believe the practice of separating families is in direct contradiction to The SoG mission “to empower children and their families to reach their greatest potential.” Taken together, our school mission and our vision as educators committed to justice led us to make a written statement in solidarity with refugee and immigrant families. Refugee and immigrant families are often escaping trauma and severe danger. Similar to the desires of families directly impacted, the refugee families in our SoG community also fled their home countries seeking safety and wellbeing. To forcibly separate families experiencing this degree of hardship only worsens their trauma: the damage is already done at the moment of separation. As a result, some children are experiencing toxic stress, which experts agree often leads to long term consequences. Many of those in custody continue to live under conditions deemed inappropriate.

Although reunification has been paramount, it has not alleviated the compounded trauma children and families have endured. Moreover, we recognize that the threat of separation, in and of itself, can affect families. Even the knowledge and potential of such practices can incite fear. We maintain that this humanitarian crisis demands an ongoing and compassionate response. We agree with statements posted by NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, both of which attest to the breadth and gravity of these events.

We believe our role as educators involves advocating for the rights and wellbeing of all children and families. This also requires deep reflection of our power, position, and privilege. Our commitment as educators to foster a welcoming and interdependent school community is only as strong as our commitment to seek justice for those who have been marginalized. Thus, we feel compelled to speak up against these policies and practices that have harmed, or threaten to harm, refugee and immigrant families. As we continue to strive toward listening to and elevating those families’ voices, we hold hope in our collective vision and struggle for justice.