Volunteering with children of color in schools? Don’t ever, ever, EVER do or say this.

In Portland, we are wrapping up an interesting year. Schools in the historically underserved Jefferson, Madison, and Roosevelt clusters here in Portland, Oregon are seeking new senses of normal while the city that holds back on supporting them also watches from afar with binoculars, waiting for the next headline. At the same time, schools in the increasingly wealthy and white Cleveland and Wilson clusters are in damage control, regrouping from racist and homophobic acts at the hands of both teachers and students. Portland Public Schools is in its second year without an equity program to which school leadership can execute with fidelity in their buildings and in their hearts. Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero touted the incoming of our equity work replacement, swapping out the work of the renowned Pacific Educational Group, for what he called “Equity 2.0.” Whereas, 4 years ago, you could ask PTAs, kids, and teachers alike to recite the Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations About Race, now you would be lucky as the lottery if you were to ask ANY Portland Public Schools stakeholder what Equity 2.0 is. No one can tell you. Because no one knows.

Even in volunteerism, one could expect PPS’ Racial Equity Policy to be within trainings and discussions, and one could expect to hear white teachers discussing race’s impact on their own teaching decisions, without fear of major judgment. White volunteers either came or left with an equity lens that sparked some learning - good, bad, or indifferent. Nowadays, white volunteers would be lucky to find a school where it is even okay for a white adult to say the word “black” without some negative connotation. Gone are the days where conversation was exploratory and meant for an understanding, and some would even say that we have regressed as a district. And, as we know that schooling is one of the biggest facets of national politics - this trend falls directly in line with our national leadership and political climate of control of the poor, the women, the black.

There are still many white folks that are awakening to consciousness of this fact, and who are willing to affect change by going where it starts - in schools with high populations of children of color. Colleges and universities have sociology students, psych students, and education students who set up class time to volunteer in schools. While dutiful, there are some things white volunteers must know and remember in order to not step in a pile they can’t clean off. Take heed - because you sure won’t get much advice from a district who dismantled its entire equity team.

1) Nobody asked you. See something or hear something that teachers or students of color are saying or doing, for which you can add a story? Don’t. Think you can solve or fix something you weren’t asked your opinion on? Keep it all thee way to yourself. This is less about students/teachers of color’s need to connect with you, and more about your white guilt driving you to force-connect with them. This is also about your need to belong, in a place where you don’t. Don’t try to insert yourself when children or adults of color are talking in a group without you. You belong everywhere else - in grocery stores, driving, on mainstream television, in books, magazines, ads… no butting in, okay?

2) Lose the Lingo. Please, for the love of God and all that is good and well, don’t. That means no fist bumping, no “my maaann, “hey girl,” “yaaaaasss,” or any other thing you know you would not say to your immediate vanilla circle or on a visit to Grandma. Kids will spot a phony fast - kids of color will spot a phony faster. The best white educators I know, show up as their authentic selves. One acts like shaggy from Scooby Doo, and one like Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family. One is real Tom Hanks’ish and one is Pennywise sans creepiness. And every. Last. One. Of. Them. Have the respect of their students and parents of color. What makes YOU think you gotta walk up in the classroom like The Fresh Prince if they aren’t?

3) You are not cooking. You are serving. This is less of a message to stay-in-ya-damn-lane, and more of an opportunity to give a shoutout to those in the service industry. While in Lincoln City last weekend on an eat-sleep-repeat cycle, I watched those who managed - cashiers, owners, and auditors; and those who executed - housekeepers, servers, custodians. Everyone doing their own job allowed for everyone else to do THEIR own job. The difference was that the servers and housekeepers were the ones who dealt the most intimately with the customers - from listening to their gripes about bad coffee that they themselves didn’t brew, to cleaning their body-fluid-soaked towels and sheets. Service workers play an underappreciated and highly important role in making people feel good and helping folks recharge by catering to their most basic needs - which is why I probably spent $200 in tips alone this weekend. In the classroom, you are not doing a single report card or assessment, or anything else managerial. You are doing whatever that teacher needs of you. There are as many ways of teaching, as there are teachers, and no, you’re not going to identify with or understand all of them. Unless you see a potential physical or emotional hazard, zip it and serve. If you think you can do it better, go back to school and become a certified teacher. We need you, hell.

4) If you don’t get your feet off my couch… If you do have something to say, add, or ask, ask permission first. A common home custom for most nonwhite groups is to not walk up in the house, have your feet all up on the couch, go in the fridge, etc. without asking every step of the way. That is not your house, and your mama raised you better than that. Nor do you two-step your way into a classroom, colonizing opinion space, without asking permission first. You are not a Superhero rushing in to a burning house to save a people. We are fine. We don’t need saving. “Is this a good time to ask a question about…” or “I’m curious about…” are two simple sentence stems that will save you. And, if on the other end of that sentence stem pertains to hair, behavior, culture, or features of a nonwhite child, please… I beg you…

5) Don’t. Under any circumstances. Teachers, parents, and children of color do not exist to appease your curiosity or console your misunderstanding. You DO know that it’s 99% likely that your curiosity or misunderstanding is founded upon the tenets of white-saw-premise-see that every one of us Americans were raised beneath, right? You will not say a word. Instead, you will G2G. Some say that means “Go to God.” And, I mean, I’m not stopping you if you need to. But here, it means “Go to Google.” Life experiences, scholarly articles, rebuttals, and refutations to those rebuttals all exist for whatever you ask of Google. People of color have been under white gaze forever, and lived to tell about it. You need your nosy itch scratched? Don’t subject another person of color to reliving painful experiences for your learning benefit. Take thine own self to Google - it has no feelings and is open for you 24 hours a day. Do the work.

6) Fog-Breath your glasses and clean them on your shirt. There is verified, documented, and proven evidence that developmentally appropriate behaviors in black children and white children are viewed differently, even if the behaviors are the exact same. Black boys and girls are seen by white adults as less innocent than white girls and boys by the age of 5. (Fact checking this is highly encouraged, and is also a high indicator of white ascription of my black intelligence and believability. So go ahead if you must.) You need to constantly clean those glasses off. Ask yourself: “Am I seeing this behavior differently than I would judge if it were my own child? Did I get away with things because I was a perceived boy or girl, that someone opposite my perceived gender could not get away with?” If both are yes, then you fully understand that your thinking about child behavior is influenced by what our institutions say and show about black people as young as Kindergarten babies. Though gender oppression is vastly different than racial oppression, the point is that you understand being a participant or beneficiary. Clean those glasses and look again.

7) Idle? Blackout Bookout in the library. Nothing left to do? No, this is not the time to commiserate with your other classmates, colleagues, or parents about “this school” or “these kids.” One thing teachers can always use are books from either the school or county library. Go there, and ask for a book bag or bucket with that class’ grade level or content area, featuring black and brown heroines, protagonists, authors, illustrators, subjects, inventors, and so on. Ask the librarian. They will tell you exactly what to get, and many will get them together for you. Still idle? Grab a book out of the bucket and crack it open. I’m willing to bet that half of them will be new knowledge to you.

Whatever you do - keep out of circles, keep your fake lingo, keep unsolicited stories and advice to yourself, keep the heart of a servant, keep your feet in the house, keep your lenses clean, keep reading, and keep busy. When you’re not serving, you’re talking, perpetuating, and manifesting an attitude of supremacy and saviorism.

Black Self Care in Racial Equity Work

My phone buzzed.  It was Jess.  I took a long stretch, yawned, and read the text.

"I am still in the bed at 2:30 PM on a Saturday."

"Well," I typed back, "at least I don't have to feel bad about doing absolutely nothing."

"I crashed as soon as I got home," she replied.

Bzzzz. "This email can forget it.  I am not opening a laptop till Monday."

No, we had not been out partying.  

We had just finished an intensive workshop called Exploring Racial Equity.  The goal was to practice common terminology, connect the systems of racism, and link systemic to interpersonal racism that happens daily.  It was good.  It was great. It was amazing.  So amazing that, a participant snuck $100 into my hand post-workshop and told me that I should definitely charge more.

So why were we talking to each other like one had just had a root canal and the other was Rip Van Winkle's twin?  Because this work is exhausting.  Let me tell you how exhausting this is. Any of you ever rake a pile of leaves in the wind, stare at the beautiful, clean result, go into the house, sit down, and then try to get back up?  Moving from one home to the next - what about that?  Have you done that?  Have any of you been to CrossFit and have a trainer basically kill you dead, then pump you full of electrolyte water and tell you to be back at it at 5:30 AM?  Yes, this work is that exhausting.  The emotional labor actually takes a physical toll!

I went into consulting being a bit cocky.  Somebody somewhere told me that I was a good teacher.  Then someone else told me I was a good facilitator.  A couple more somebodies in a couple more somewheres told me that I was funny, compassionate, insightful, thought provoking, even life changing.  It seems like everyone forgot to inform me of how draining this work is.  Nobody told me that, even after workshops and consults where no one gets upset, that I need at least 24 hours to recover.  Yes. 24 hours. No one told me about the shoulder and neck stiffness, the legs that feel like stones, or the letdown that induces urges to binge watch Netflix, like I am about to do after I finish this post.

Racial equity work is tense for most people.  But for Black women in particular, even the work that feels good will drain you dry and cold.  Every human body carries an "allostatic load" at some point - the type of stress that occurs in fight-or-flight.  After the threat is over, that load dissipates, and our bodies return to normal.  However, for black women who have experienced interpersonal and systemic racism in nearly every facet of their lives, that load never fully dissipates.  We are waiting for the next offense to fight off - not because we want to, but because it is a means of survival that has been imprinted into our DNA due to historical trauma of slavery, and beyond.

 Where white folks can let go, get rest, seek refuge, we cannot.  Even in our own homes.  Even though I'm about to watch Netflix to let off steam, I'm not going to see bodies, skins, voices, hair, cultures like mine.  Even in my rest and leisure, I'm reminded that I'm inferior.  That, and other racist subtleties, carry a load that black women bear daily.  And that emotional and intellectual load manifests physically.  

And being in front of a crowd, balancing THEIR emotions AND mine, THEIR needs AND mine - is like adding stone blocks to a plow that's already not moving.  But I move it anyway.  And Jess, as a white woman doing the work alongside me, moves it.  And then we rest.  Intentionally.

In whatever capacity that you stand for antiracist systems and people, I am going to give you this bit of wisdom that my pushers-forward did not.  Rest.  And I mean, REST.  Like, don't cook.  Don't go out and have drinks with pals.  Don't clean your home from top to bottom.  Take a blazing hot shower, put on sweats and a tee, and do nothing.  Let the load dissipate, and feel no guilt about it.  You can't keep going if you don't recover.


How did I come up with this name?

Well, I wanted it to have something to do with teachers.  I do not - repeat, DO NOT - plan on being principal consultant for long.  I'm too much of a homebody/TV/Facebook body for all that.  Racial equity had to be at the forefront.  Be real, folks - you can't tell who somebody decides to sleep with just by looking at them, but you sure can decide what race they are, therefore the treatment you think they deserve!  Since we know race is seen first, then I gotta keep race as THE work, not a piece of it.

Do we have an acronym yet? T.R.E.? um, no, I know too many dudes named Tre.  Tre, my former student, Tre from Boyz N Tha Hood, Tre that used to go to my church, Toothless Tre... Clearly we can't call the bidness TRE.  Back to the notepad. Hmm.  I needed another letter.  I started thinking like the cheat trick for playing Scrabble - look at each group of letters and just start going down the alphabet to see if you can squeeze a word out somehow.  TREA? TREB? Ugh.  TREC? Nah, I don't need trekkies visiting my page and wasting my stats. TRED?  Now that just sounds like I'm just barely hanging on by a string, trying to stay afloat.  Or replacing tires.  

What about TREE?

Images flooded my heart like the butterflies I had when I first kissed this fine husband of mine. Images of the mossy trees in southern swamps, who whispered soft, furry clues to enslaved black people escaping to their freedom up north of the Mason Dixon line. "Feel the trees at night.  Moss grows north."  Images of a gnarly, old, grand weeping willow tree, full of stories, storm scars, and twists and turns that added to its beauty and strength.  Images of my backyard twin maples, who provide shade in the summer, colors in the fall, and a mess to clean up in the winter.  Images of the proverbial tree in the book of Psalms Chapter 1 that is planted by the rivers of water, bringing forth fruit, leaves not withering, and prospering in whatever it does. 

But the most vivid image was that of a Baobab tree.  This tree grows in the savannas of middle Africa - where the terrain is arid and dry. In fact, the poorer the growing conditions, the stronger the tree.  It simply digs its roots deeper. It provides nutrient-dense, fatty fruits for the savanna's inhabitants, homes for birds who burrow, and an oasis of shade.  And, it's beautiful.  It has everything that a superficial, shallow man would look for - thick trunk... And I will stop there.

I thought of the Baobab as the various children of color that I have had the joy of teaching.  Even in some of the poorest conditions created for them, they shine.  They thrive.  They command rooms. They charm. They laugh. They work. They succeed.  I supposed I could match that effort they must expend deepening their roots to circumvent a systemically racist school system, by disrupting the system itself. Jesse Williams said, "Just because we are magic, doesn't mean that we aren't real."  Just because our babies CAN thrive in poor conditions made for them, does not mean that they have to, or should.  I thought of colleagues of color as my twin maples - how they enter teaching, fired up and ready to make a change, and, as the climate changes, they are quickly jaded by the racial microaggressions imposed on them - and they quit, burn out, or dissolve into a messy pile that sometimes makes it into the media's clutches. I thought of pioneers and role models of color that I've had, and likened them to the majestic weeping willow - standing tall, but with plenty battle scars to tell stories about.  TREE stands for Teachers for Racial Equity in Education, but it means something more.  It symbolizes my duty to my folks - and other folks who are affected by the racist ills of education - public, private, and otherwise. 

"I think I found a name," I told my colleagues...

Welcome to TREE Ed Consulting!

Content warning:  If you are here to disagree that racism exists in schools in institutions, please observe the small "x" on the side of the page tab, and click one time.  Ctrl-alt-del at the same time will also do the same job.  Good day.

I did it.

I finally took a leap into the troubled waters.  Only with one foot, tho. See, I still have a mortgage and a car payment and whatnot, and unless I strike it big, I need a jay-oh-bee.  I have stepped into the destiny that has been set before me, as was evident by ALL YALL blowing up my FB inbox, text messages, and email inbox, asking for advice.  But it wasn't that your requests were bothersome because you were asking for free expertise (which, I mean, let's just call it like it is, moochers. But I love you!)

The bothersome part was that ALL of your requests were the same.  "My child's teacher/principal/school is racist, what do I do" and "What school do you recommend for children of color" was like a scratched record.  And that is sad.  It is sad that your tax dollars go to institutions where you are supposed to trust that they have your child's best interest at heart, only for them to come home with a behavior referral or suspension, with them swearing that "I didn't do anything!"  It is sad that you - parents and taxpayers - cannot trust that your children will be safe in ANY school they set foot into.  

Sad.  Unacceptable.  And a call for action.

TREE, which stands for Teachers for Racial Equity in Education, is here for every stakeholder - parent, student, teacher, principal, district.  I seek to provide advocacy, training, and planning for ANY and ALL stakeholders, of ANY race, who, like me, seek to close the opportunity gap between white and nonwhite children and staff members. "Teachers" is plural, because although I am sole proprietor and principal consultant for now, there are shoulders upon which I stand, and it's my dream that, at some point, the sage wisdom of my Black, Brown, API, African, Latino/a, and Hispanic metaphoric teacher aunties and uncles, as well as my teacher sisters and brothers, will become faces of TREE Consulting.  I hope to refer specific educators for specific purposes, because I am not Jesus The Christ.  

This blog will be full of ups and downs, ins and outs, a little advice scattered here and there, and, if you know me, you know that not a post will go by without me saying something bold, switching flawlessly back-and-forth between academic language and my spoken vernacular - which I like better anyway!  At any rate, I hope that you follow, and join me in the fight for our kids and educators of color.

Y'all following me or nah?