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Episode 19

How to Start the Conversation on Race

Dr. Charlene Williams, Assistant Superintendent to the Camas Washington School District

[MS] You’re listening to Together by AGCI. I’m Madi Salvati.

There’s no sugarcoating it, having conversations about race can be challenging and uncomfortable, especially when talking to young kiddos, family members, and even colleagues. But as a white person has been very privileged in her life, having those conversations really feels like the least I can start doing, and continue to do as we march forward into hopefully a more inclusive and brave dialogue together about race and it’s history in our country. Here today to help me find more solid ground in those conversations it’s Dr. Charlene Williams. She is an award-winning educator, leader, and the assistant superintendent to the Camas, Washington school district. In June of 2019 she presented a TED called, What to Stop and Start Doing in America‘s Race Conversation. We have been honored at AGCI to have her help in these last few months in leading these discussions about race with our staff. We are eternally grateful for her. So without further ado, here is Charlene.

I had the pleasure of meeting, with Angela Hood and Hollen Frazier about a TED Talk I’d, done for our school district, and they were interested in some of the things that I had to say. And we had a conversation about a, potential training for the organization. Since my talk was really around, how do you have conversations about race, and what are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to that. And, it was just beautiful to meet them and to hear more about this organization, in that they clearly are already of the mind of social justice and equity and diversity, and yet wanting to commit to do deeper work and to ensure that as a staff, that your, your staff community was continuing to be ever mindful, in having these conversations, especially as you support, multiple interracial, adopted families. And, um, so that kind of launched the discussion. And so now we’ve been in an introductory four week, uh, four part series, just kind of high level overview of, you know, the roots of institutional racism, some tools around how to have that conversation. And our last session is going to be around, you know, how do you then embed this conversation in your organization so that it’s ongoing and becomes a part of how you change the fabric of what you do. And so, it’s been, honestly a privilege to work with such committed individuals who are leaning into this conversation.

[MS] Well, we so appreciate having you and maybe for even a little more context for our audience too. Um, your, what is your day to day look like and how are you integrating the things that you’re teaching us? How are you integrating that into your daily life as well? I mean, coming from your background and . . .

[CW] Yes, I’m sorry. I’m from, the Camas school district, I’m an assistant superintendent. I started off as a math educator back in, Greensboro, North Carolina. And, my career has led me to, my current role as assistant superintendent, where know, from my junior teachers in high school, telling me about inequities in education and challenging me as a young black woman, um, to, to rail against those inequities, uh, to being one who, well, how do I empower many others like those teachers empowered me to, um, create a more equitable and just society. And so math was one of the vehicles, uh, I use right teaching math, um, was just a gateway to dismantle some of those practices. So I have the privilege of working in the Camas school district, where, uh, I work with our secondary schools and I work with pretty much all staff around issues related to equity and diversity, uh, we’re, are one of our mantras is we see in serve each and every student. Um, and really, I think about the African proverb that says, you know, until I see you, I don’t exist, you know, until you see me, I don’t exist. And so the power of letting each and every student feel seen and valued as we deliver our curriculum, as they walk in our schools, as they interact with our staff, as they open textbooks, um, just being seen and, and valued and appreciated for who they are. Having to change nothing, you know? Um, but, but us being adaptive as a system to appreciate all the beautiful ________ our children bring, I think is, is important. And part of the work that we’re trying to do. 

[MS] Yeah. I love that. I love what you said about being seen and just how important that is. Not only for, I think for young kids and just to remind them of their value and how you were saying, I love that. Um, and then going forward too, with us as an organization at AGCI, how that can just translate over so much into the work that we do, whether… That doesn’t matter what department we’re in, what kind of, what we bring to the table,  like being seen by each other and for, I guess the efforts that we’re trying to input when it comes to making a change, I think is really important as well. 

And one question I did have for you, um, and maybe we can let the audience know, our listeners know what we’ve really been up to, um, with these sessions we talked about earlier, that you’ve been teaching with AGCI, um… Mainly how to have hard and healing conversations around race and how having those conversations now, allows us to dive deeper into bigger issues down the road. We’re not afraid to approach them anymore. Um, there’s I guess, first term that comes to mind that fragility around having those conversations. So can you tell us more about that and what that’s been like?

[CW] Um, well, you know, the intent and the hope is to, um, first just have the conversation about how to have the conversation, you know, and so our, our first session is, is about some norms that we put in place. And sometimes though the norms in the conversations about race are not, uh, don’t necessarily mirror, typical norms that we’re used to. And what stands out to me, you know, um… We, we talk about experiencing discomfort. We live in a, in a society and a country where we want people to like us, and we want to very quickly move from that place of discomfort. Um, and what that does, what we find in our conversations about race, if we don’t wrestle with that discomfort and, and unpack why, you know, what’s making me uncomfortable in this situation, why don’t I want to linger and understand, um, someone’s, someone’s experience who’s different than, than I am… That how, you know, how can I listen in a way that doesn’t subtract from who I am, it doesn’t subtract from my experience, right? And so we ask people to pause long enough and feel, and experience that discomfort before you try to leave it and begin to question it so that it can inform you and help you hear and experience, um, what other people are bringing to the conversation. So, you know, experiencing the discomfort.

Another norm is speaking your truth. Uh, we still struggle sometimes to be very transparent about what we’re thinking and what we’re feeling, um, especially in conversations around race. In part, because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Um, and we also don’t want to be perceived as racist or sexist or homophobic or misogynistic. I mean, you named the term, we don’t want to be labeled a thing. And so, um, we may, we may filter, right, our curiosity and our, or, um, our, our true, hidden needs and values so that we maintain this, um, this impression that we like to have amongst our colleagues or friends or peers. Um, you know, no one would ever want to say deep, deep down that, you know, I don’t really think Black people are as intelligent as white people. And that’s influenced the decisions that I’ve made in where my children go to school or what, you know, whatever that, that may be. And so we talked about the importance of speaking your truth.

And another one that might be, um, uh, disruptive to people’s experience in conversation is, um, understanding that, you know, although you may not have intended to offend someone, we lean more into the impact of that offense, more so than the intent. Cause it’s, it’s almost dismissive to say, well, I didn’t intend to offend you. I’m sorry. It puts the work back on you to get over it as opposed for me to reflect on, well, how might my words have been received that way and why, and how, how can I, um, how can I value Madi’s sensitivity and experience as opposed to, um, centering myself and my needs?

So, um, those are, those are three of the things that we talk about. And even in talking about how to have the conversation, we begin to dismantle some of our racist, um, norms and ideas, because how… Limiting how people speak is a mechanism for oppression. Right, right. So, so, so if we begin to break that up and allow people the freedom to speak and, and to center marginalized voices and say that their experiences are real and to pause and validate those experiences, we have started the very work of dismantling some of our systems and one being, one of our most sacred is our voice. A And, and, and allowing people to have voice in conversation. So that’s a little bit of, at least as part of the first session. 

[MS] I just love the concepts that you talked so much about it, about using your voice. Like just start there. And I think having the courage to do that is step one. And when I think about like the demographic that we help, and that’s often families with young kids, um, how could they, like you were saying, empower each other, empower young kiddos, especially to not be afraid to have those conversations. How do you empower parents to have those conversations too? Especially, we are an adoption agency. That’s part of, it’s only, it’s one small part of what we do. Um, but along the lines of transracial adoption or, um, backgrounds like that, that are complicated and often hard to start conversations about with your child. Um, and I guess in terms around race, how do parents start, I guess, is the best way to ask that question?

[CW]  I would say early and often.Children, as young as six months old can, uh, discern differences, right? In people’s, um, racial makeup. And then as they get older, they begin to perceive how, um, those around him interact with those differences, so that, um, we, uh, shared, I think in our first session,
the doll video. So those, those, they were very, very young. So we’re talking about by five, six and seven, these children have pretty deep rooted ideas of what’s good with respect to, uh, whether black is good or white is good or what’s preferred, and what’s not, because it starts so early through messages that are literally in the air and in the water from the time students, uh, our children are born. And so, um, uh, and being, being clear and direct with students is, and with our… And I use the term students cause I default to my education-speak, but, but, um, but you know, being, um, clear and, and direct with students about race, um, I think is, is important. I want to share a little bit of a resource because my background is secondary education and, um, when it comes to working with younger children, and especially when we’re talking about, um, you know, how to have dialogue with youth, um, one of our, um, one of our, uh, social workers shared an resource with me from, let’s see, it’s from the Child Mind Institute. And it talks about how to talk to kids, basically, about race. And the first thing to do is to not avoid talking about it, you know? Because this isn’t something new. And, and like I said before, um, it’s something that the earlier you start with children, the better. And, you know, the earlier you have images of, uh, multi-racial, um, children in your books and people at your dinner table and, you know, play dates at the park and being able to articulate the differences between and, and the beauty in those differences. Not to say, shh, don’t talk about that. Hey, there’s a black, that child’s skin is black. Wow. Isn’t it pretty? You know? Well, let’s go find out their name and… And help them have those conversations. And so, um… They say, uh, be clear, direct and factual, because again, um… It’s, it’s being very specific and not, um, Well, some people do bad things. No, there are some people in this instance, some white people have treated some black people very poorly and that is wrong. And that is not who we are as a family. And being very, very clear when we’re talking to those students to be calm, but we don’t have to hide our emotions. They need to know that, you know, this is often, um, an emotional topic and that as a adults, we learn how to manage our emotions as well. And to use a support system. You know, as a parent, you won’t know everything. And so how do you build support with, with other parents and families that are, um, that are having these conversations as well? And then keep the conversation open, because again, it’s going to take many, many conversations, many exposures, many experiences to, um, to help students navigate, uh, the world we live in. 

[MS] I just think about parents, like forget that their kids are capable of understanding these really specific examples and they want to, and they need to, I think, especially in this day and age, and I think preparing the next generation for that is so important as well. And I’m sure you get to see and do that every day with your job. And I just, I love that. That’s so cool.

[CW] I, I think it’s too that, you know, it, when it comes to these conversations to also just say I don’t know, maybe that’s something we can explore. Maybe, you know, we can ask the question and come back to this. I mean, I think that’s some, a gift many of those needs sometimes when we run out of information and knowledge and we don’t have the answer. Hey, let’s pause. Let’s find out. 

[MS] Yeah, definitely. And I’d love to know too, maybe a little bit more about your personal journey, just with healing and with race. I’m sure that’s a, a bigger question, but I think giving, um, we always love providing that story, especially for our listeners and just, I know that’s so valuable, um, and understanding to just the work that needs to be done as well. Um, so would you mind sharing a little bit of your story with us? 

[CW] Oh, sure. Um, I, you know, if we’re starting with, um, growing up and my relationship to race and that kind of thing, um… And as we know that it’s… Our stories around race are, um, intersectional and multilayered, right? So I’m growing up, um, with a single father at this point because my mother had, you know, some challenges and, um, he ended up raising me with, um, my grandparents and the, the three of them did the best they absolutely could, I’m sure, in so many ways to, to help me, um, you know… To raise me to, and, uh, in a house of love. And yet, for whatever reason, I know that like the children in that video, um, having darker skin and the darkest skin in my family, I knew that that wasn’t, you know, that wasn’t seen as beautiful by most, at that time. Again, my parents love me and, and did all those things, but from, you know, um, relatives outside our, our, you know, unit circle to, um, uh, friends  I played with, you know, black, white and different, uh, just… And things that I saw in my environment, definitely valuing, um, whiteness as the norm and as beautiful. And wanting, like I said, as early as five years old to be lighter, and to have longer straighter hair and all of those things. And, and it just really took, thank God, uh, educators who had come into my life and… You know, again, my family continuing to, to do what they could to reinforce those things. But, um, it, it, it was quite a journey to get to a point like, um… And I’m saying high school, college right? Coming into black is beautiful, you know, uh, after a series of, um, you know, experiences, because again, there’s so much in our society that says, you know, um, again, white is beautiful and, and black is not in so many ways, that if you’re not very intentional about the exposure, you can have people who are focused more on this assimilation and, um, moving away from their racial identity instead of embracing it. And, um, and so through a series of, of key experiences, I could kind of point out along the way from, uh, a woman in church who had that me, The Negro Mother from Langston Hughes, and I memorized that poem and it lit something in me like, Whoa, wait a minute. Black is powerful. And look at this rich experience  we had, and, and, you know, these black, um, and mentors and poets, et cetera, you know, all, all these powerful people, um, to black teachers I started to have from, uh, middle and high school. And then getting to college and nearly coming out with an African American studies minor and wanting to raise my own daughters. Now you’re gonna make me weep a little bit, but to raise my own daughters to love themselves and to, and to see themselves beautiful as early as I could, you know. So to, to make sure that they played, um, with black dolls and they saw black books and black pictures, and, and that every time I touched their hair, it was, it was beautiful. And, and all of those things. And now I might think they, they think too highly of themselves, but I don’t think that’s possible. I just, you know, and, and they, they, they could see, um, the, the dilemma and challenge of still, of course, being black in a predominantly white Northwest and, and that kind of thing. But, uh, but the level of intention it takes, and it it’s… It’s exhausting, especially if you are doing it alone and not necessarily in a network. Which is why the work we’re doing is so important. It’s, it’s so important to have a whole system, right, the whole system moving towards more inclusivity and valuing, um, each person’s depth and beauty. 

[MS] Especially thinking about your daughters and, um, younger kids, and I guess like teenagers, even too, who are going forward into the world, what are your hopes for them and what are your hopes for the future right now? 

[CW] Huh? Wow. Um… Wooh.
My, my oldest daughter came home one day and she said something like, Mom will black boys, ever think I’m beautiful? And I go, yes. And she, she knew, she said, I know, I know I’m cute, but like, man. And I just look forward to, to the day where, you know, that that will just no longer be a question for any child. Um, especially beautiful, um, dark, lovely, uh, uh, young ladies and, and, um… I just look forward to that time where we don’t have to, um… Where, where there isn’t so much labor on justifying the value that different people add to any community or curriculum or culture or company, or fill in the blank, right? Like we’re that we are actually just, um, in, in labor and community together, loving  each other, supporting one another, um, and, and doing the work of, uh, just, of being, right? Being in community. Um, but that, that will definitely, I know that’ll take, that’ll take a while and some time, um, but yeah, I look forward to those days. 

[MS] Well, thank you so much. And I think that’s a beautiful vision and I do think it’s possible, as well. Um, and with that too, is there, are there any other last minute thoughts here that you’d want to leave with our listeners? 

[CW] I do, I do want to… I do hope that this, this work, you know, having these conversations and this dialogue does create a sense of hope and a sense of momentum that, you know, if we, if have these tools use these tools or some, what, you know, whether it’s these or some others, if we, if we do the work of, of changing, um, our organizations and, um, changing who’s around our dining table, if we do that work, that it will produce the fruit. Um, and, and we need to begin to look for that, cultivate that, celebrate that and elevate it so that, um, it offers hope to the rest of the community because there’s just so many things happening right now that are just heart wrenching and heartbreaking, and people are losing that sense of hope. And I’m just… I look forward to this work, cultivating that hope and not giving into despair. 

[MS] That’s awesome. Um, I’m so excited. I love what you just said about cultivating hope. That’s so, it’s more important than ever right now, I think.

[MS] Thank you again for being here today, Charlene, it was wonderful to get to talk to you. And I just so look to the other session we have with AGCI and getting to participate in that, that should be wonderful as well. Um, but thank you for being here today. It was so great to have you. 

[CW] Awesome. Well, thank you. And let me know if there’s something, um, that I can do to support you. 

[MS] Of course. Thank you so much, Charlene. We’ll talk again soon. 

Dr. Williams’ vision for the future brings me a lot of hope too. And since we’ve recorded this episode, we’ve met with Dr. Williams to keep the conversation moving and productive, especially between us as a staff. My biggest takeaways from all of these discussions with her has been to not get discouraged, and to not take my foot off the gas. This movement, these conversations, can only happen when we stick together and bring all of ourselves around prejudices, experiences, assumptions, ideas, hopes, and challenges to the table. I would highly recom
mend the TED talk Dr. Williams gave in 2019. The resources she mentioned from The Child Mind Institute, the doll video, as she called it, along with her TED talk are all linked in the shownotes.

Thank you for showing up today, everyone. As always, we’re in this together. We’ll talk again soon.