Creating the Space to Talk About Race

Racial Justice is Education Justice

Our education system is intended to uphold equal opportunity, but too often it also entrenches racial disparities by its design. We are engaging educators, students and allies to foster real dialogue around issues of racial justice in education, to examine policies and practices in our school systems and our communities, and to mobilize and take action for education justice.


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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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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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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Housing and Schools: How Educators Can Help Students

Quick! Do housing and land use policies come to mind when you think about what’s necessary for all students to learn to their fullest potential? If you’re like most people, probably not.

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Whether it’s providing stable housing, creating safe and affirming schools, breaking the school-to-prison pipeline or protecting students’ civil rights, educators are advocating for the schools students deserve.

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But housing and land use policies, concludes a new report, have a “significant effect on schools” and can “affect enrollment trends, concentrations of poverty and school diversity, school funding, stability of enrollment vs. ‘churning’ of students, and [the] ability of students to complete their homework and focus during the school day.”

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Segregated neighborhoods with large concentrations of poor children generally lead to segregated schools, state the report’s authors, placing greater demands on teachers and schools and diminished local property taxes to pay for these additional needs. Insecure housing and evictions increase children’s stress, affecting their ability to do homework and concentrate in school. Housing instability results in frequent family moves, which in turn lead to harmful churning in elementary school classrooms.

The report, “Housing and Schools: The Importance of Engagement for Educators and Education Advocates,” maintains that housing and community development are often ignored as a strategy to improve schools and neighborhoods.

Jointly produced by the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and the National Education Association, the report points to potential benefits for students when educators and education advocates work together with housing agencies and housing coalitions. Among them:

  • Reducing student turnover by keeping students in the same school attendance zone
  • Providing students with high housing insecurity and at risk of homelessness more stable housing
  • Addressing declining enrollment by bringing more housing for young children into the local school district, and
  • Increasing student diversity in high-income school districts while reducing segregation and poverty concentration in lower-income districts.

Referring to research on the positive academic, social and long-term effects of racially and economically diverse schools, the report cites an example from Richmond, VA, in which local school leaders partnered with local superintendents, school board members, and staff of the local housing authority, city housing department, and the state education department. The collaboration led to a series of recommendations, including the creation of a new governing agency responsible for bridging the school-housing worlds; targeted development resources to revitalize communities surrounding low-performing schools to attract middle-income families to the area; and development of a joint planning process between housing authorities and schools in redevelopment of older public housing communities.

The report concludes by focusing on specific points in state and local housing policy that educators and activists can use to improve outcomes and access for students.

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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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Take Action

Building Power in Our Communities

Ready to get active and be the superhero our students deserve in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education? Then join the NEA EdJustice League!

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Resource Guide

Download the NEA resource guide: "Racial Justice in Education." Includes tools & resources for talking about race, racial equity assessments, strategic planning, taking action and more.

Download PDF

Restorative Justice

Download the NEA guide for educators: "Restorative Practices -- Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools."

Download PDF

Student Poets Playlist

Now is a good time to listen to young people as they speak out on what they want the future to hold.

Listen to the Poets