Creating the Space to Talk About Race

Racial Justice is Education Justice

Most of us believe that every child, no matter what they look like or where they come from, deserves a safe and welcoming school where they can thrive. But certain politicians try to divide us by sending police to monitor and punish Black and brown students in schools that have been denied funding to even cover the basics, while ensuring well-resourced schools with mostly white students have enrichment activities, teacher training, and parent engagement. By joining together across race and place, we can rewrite the rules to ensure every student -whether Black, Brown or white- has up-to-date learning materials that give a full picture of our nation’s history, the support of educators who are prepared to foster dialogue on racial justice and its impact on students and communities, and a well-resourced school environment.


As an organization representing public school educators across the country, the National Education Association recognizes the need to end institutionally racist systems and policies that have governed our society for too long and kept Black people from full participation in American life. 

For many Black students and families, our public schools are the heart of our communities. But far too many have been overlooked, neglected and forgotten by those in power who choose to bail out greedy corporations and line the pockets of privatizers. We must hold decision makers accountable to the people by reinvesting in policies and systems to achieve healthy and strong schools and communities.

To our Black students, colleagues, parents and families: You matter, your trauma matters, your voice matters, your protest matters, your dreams matter. We mourn with you, we stand with you and we organize with you to dismantle all acts of discrimination and racism. 

Therefore, we demand justice and equity for Black lives in all places and in all forms — in our judicial, education, housing, health and economic systems.



Racism is complex and contentious. Many of us are afraid to even broach the subject. It often feels easier and safer to avoid the topic altogether.

But silence and inaction reinforce the status quo. And avoidance speaks volumes — it communicates to students of color that racism doesn’t matter enough to warrant attention and, by omission, invalidates their experiences, perspectives, identities and lives. White students, on the other hand, often see racism being accepted and normalized, without acknowledgement or accountability.

To advance real solutions, we need to address real problems. As teachers, we have “teachable moments,” or opportunities to constructively and productively address race. But these opportunities need to be thoughtfully created, seized, planned and managed.

The following tips can help you make race conversations normal, constructive and successful.

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  1. Create a Welcoming Classroom and School
  2. Root Out Biases and Barriers
  3. Encourage Self-Expression
  4. Be Open Yourself
  5. Engage, Don’t Avoid
  6. Create Opportunities for Discussion
  7. Talk About Racism and Racial Equity
  8. Establish and Enforce Group Norms
  9. Process is as Important as Content
  10. Model Your Values and Vision

Download the Full Resource Guide:

This comprehensive NEA resource guide includes tools & resources for talking about race, conducting racial equity assessments, strategic planning, ideas for capacity building and action, FAQs, and a directory of web pages, documents and allied organizations focused on racial justice in education.
Download the PDF >  

“Creating the Space to Talk About Race in Your School” content on this web site and in our "Racial Justice in Education" resource guide © 2017 National Education Association, in collaboration with Race Forward.

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NEA activists launch series of video “primers” for anti-racist white educators

Luke Michener and Terry Jess are both white, male educators who teach at Bellevue High School in Washington state. They feel they have little to add to conversations about race with students and colleagues of color that those students and colleagues don’t already know themselves, based upon their own experiences in the classroom, and, more broadly, living in the United States.

On the other hand, Terry and Luke feel they do have a lot to offer other white educators who are committed to racial equity in education, but may not know where to begin.

Inspired by their own experiences working with students trying to reconcile their own identities with the realities of the world around them, as well as conversations they had at the 2017 NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice, Terry and Luke created a series of YouTube videos they hoped could provide other white educators with ideas, insights and tools to better engage in racial equity work in their own schools and communities.

Terry now has more than 80 short videos on his YouTube channel, anchored around a 10-part series co-hosted by the pair titled “Primer for anti-racist white educators.” Read the full blog post about their video project.

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Terry & Luke’s Video Primers for Anti-Racist, White Educators:


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Educators, Parents, Students Mobilize in Support of District Equity Policy in WA State

Gjanje Smith says the first time her son was called the N-word was when he was a middle school student in the Bellevue School District, just east of Seattle.

After moving to Bellevue in 2010 from just outside Boston — with its long history of racial conflict in schools, including protests and riots following court-ordered desegregation and busing in the mid-1970s – Smith says she was shocked.

“I think people have this false sense of security in the Pacific Northwest because it’s supposed to be this more progressive area,” says Smith. “But there are still a lot of ongoing racial issues and micro-aggression.”

Smith’s son is now 20. By the time he graduated from high school, he had never had an African American teacher in any of his classes. She also has two daughters, ages 8 and 4. “My hope for my daughters,” she says, “is that at some point they see themselves represented in the teaching staff, in the curriculum, and in the reading assignments.”

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That vision has motivated Smith to become active in a community-wide effort to pass an equity policy in the Bellevue School District. She notes that racial equity is one of the top three priorities highlighted by district leadership, but the district currently has no equity policy.

“The district talks a great game about equity and serving all students,” says Terry Jess, who teaches social studies at Bellevue High School and is the parent of an eighth grader and a high school junior in Bellevue schools. “But the district is not accountable for addressing the gaps that exist.”

While Bellevue is less than 3 percent African American, it is one of the most diverse school districts in Washington: 42 percent of students are Asian American, 37 percent are white, and 12 percent are Latino.

Shomari Jones, director of equity and strategic engagement for the Bellevue School District, believes the district is heading in the right direction.  Jones was recognized by “Education Week” earlier this year as one of nine exceptional K-12 leaders in the country for his leadership on closing opportunity gaps in the district. Last year, Jones organized a series of “community cafes” to solicit feedback from the community about equity issues. The district engaged with more than 2,500 people.

“Early on, there emerged a small but strong voice against the passing of an equity policy,” said Jess. He characterized the opposition as coming primarily from affluent white parents and from Asian American parents who were concerned an equity policy would be tied to demographic quotas or limits on gifted student programs.  (The Asian American & Pacific Islander Alliances has publicly supported an equity policy in the district).

During the forums, Smith says, some opponents directed comments at her and other African American parents. “There were comments like: ‘Those people don’t value education,’ and ‘We are asking the district to let people into the gifted program who won’t be required to score as high on the testing as our kids have to…’ ”

Smith explains that nothing in the proposed equity policy would put quotas on gifted programs. Rather, she says, an equity policy would help ensure access to programs is equitable throughout the district. Smith believes that when student access to a gifted student program hinges solely on teacher recommendations, students of color too often get overlooked. “Even when SATs and GPAs of black and brown students match that of their Caucasian counterparts, their abilities are often underestimated.”

Jones says some opposition to the proposed district-wide equity policy stemmed from a perceived sense of loss. “Some folks rationally believe that if we are providing greater support to a group of individuals who we have not put emphasis on before, there’s a chance we may take way from other programs. That is not the case.”

Following the forums, the district organized an Equity Advisory Group, which held a series of meetings to do what Jones called a “much deeper dive.” This included reviewing current policies, researching equity practices in other districts and organizations, and recommending new policies and/or revisions to existing policies.

“We absolutely need an equity policy in the Bellevue school District,” says educator Maria Ocampo, who was one of the participants in the advisory group. “Whether it’s due to income, education, languages or other issues,” she adds, “not every student’s family gets information on and about all of the benefits and resources that are available to our student population. Only a percentage of our district population is well-informed, knows their rights, and speaks out — leaving other families without a voice.”

The advisory group presented its report and recommendations at the March 5, 2019, school board meeting. The group found more than 50 policies that contributed to a lack of equity in the district and identified nine that need priority attention, including curriculum development, bilingual instruction and “classroom management, corrective actions or interventions.”

Most who spoke during the public comment period or submitted written testimony to the board – including Jess, Smith, and students and parents from the district – testified in favor of an equity policy. Members of Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) provided public comment at numerous board meetings and submitted written testimony in support of a policy. Jess says a catalyst for the student mobilization was the racial equity teams being created at various schools in the district.

Jess acknowledges some great equity work is being done in the district, but only in pockets. “One school might be doing good work around social/emotional learning. One principal may be doing great restorative justice work. But if it’s not put in place in all schools, we are still going to see systemic gaps but be able to pat ourselves on the back and highlight the work being done in one place.”

Jones says the district will often pilot something at one or two schools, before it gets rolled out to other schools. He cited “graduation success coaches” as one example. They support students who are credit deficient but still willing to work hard to graduate on time. The district started with only two, and then bumped that up to more schools.

The week after the March 5 board meeting, Jess posted an open letter to school board members, calling on them to move to pass a “complete and courageous” racial equity policy by the end of the year. “There is far too much inconsistency from building to building and ALL our students deserve to see active racial equity work in their school,” he wrote.

Ocampo agrees. “The district needs to make sure we reach every student, and we need to make sure that each and every student has equitable opportunities and is treated equitably.”

Three school board members replied directly to Jess in response to his open letter, indicating they support passing an equity policy by the end of the school year. The board did a first reading of a draft policy at its meeting May 7, with an eye to possibly voting on the policy before school is out for the summer.

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Young Activist Explains Institutional Racism in Under 2 Minutes

Marley Dias already knew that racism and other built-in barriers were “keeping kids like me from reaching our full potential.” Tackling racism, she says, begins with a conversation. In a national video on institutional racism, Dias looks to educators across the country and asks:

“Do you care enough to look closer, to talk to each other. To your students, to your communities?… To change the dialogue?”



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Two Children, Two Zip codes, Two Outcomes. Time for Change.

A student’s chances for success should not depend on living in the right zip code, winning a charter lottery, or affording private school. Every child deserves access to a system of publicly funded, equitable and democratically controlled public schools. When we short-change some students, we short-change our nation as a whole.



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Harmful racial discourse practices are found throughout our society. They are used by the media, by public officials and their staffs, by lawyers and judges, by advocates of various political backgrounds, by cultural and entertainment figures, and by others with power and influence over public perception and behavior.

When these harmful racial discourse practices prevail, either individually or acting collectively within a single narrative, they stifle the general public’s understanding of systemic racism. They also reinforce the common misconception that racism is simply a problem of rare, isolated, individual attitudes and actions, and most damagingly, that as a significant barrier to the success of people of color, racism is a thing of the past.

In the “Seven Harmful Racial Discource Practices to Avoid” section of our “Racial Justice is Education Justice” report, we provide definitions for seven harmful practices and describe the specific negative effects they have on racial discourse and dialogue. In addition, we provide everyday recommendations that offer insight and tools to help overcome these harmful racial discourse practices.

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In This Section:

  1. Individualizing Racism
  2. Falsely Equating Incomparable Acts
  3. Diverting From Race
  4. Portraying Government as Overreaching
  5. Prioritizing Intent Over Impact
  6. Coded Language
  7. Silencing History

Download the Full Resource Guide:

This comprehensive NEA resource guide includes tools & resources for talking about race, conducting racial equity assessments, strategic planning, ideas for capacity building and action, FAQs, and a directory of web pages, documents and allied organizations focused on racial justice in education.
Download the PDF >  

“Creating the Space to Talk About Race in Your School” content on this web site and in our "Racial Justice in Education" resource guide © 2017 National Education Association, in collaboration with Race Forward.

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Resource Guide

NEA's "Racial Justice in Education" resource guide includes tools & resources for creating the space in your classroom to talk about race, racial equity assessments, strategic planning and more.

Download PDF

The 1619 Project

Links and resources about the comprehensive 1619 Project, which informs and challenges us to reframe U.S. history and better understand the hold of institutional racism on our communities.

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Anti-Racist Vid Primer

A 10-part YouTube series of video “primers” for anti-racist white educators, created by two NEA activists.

See the Videos