Dr. Shayla Reese Griffin is the co-founder of The Justice Leaders Collaborative, an author, educator, and mother.  As the challenges of school for the fall have come into focus, finding solutions based in equity has been a struggle.  Dr. Griffin has written about it, calling for space in buildings to be prioritized to those with the highest needs, for us to consider where our time and energy might best be spent in this moment of crisis, and for parents to be paid to stay home to take care of their kids.   

She joins us for a conversation about the fall, but also about justice and race in schools more broadly.  Her 2015 book, Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School is an inside look at a racially and socioeconomically diverse high school in America.  It explores the way students recreate existing racial hierarchies when not giving the time, space, and instruction for how to have productive conversations about race.  

This work led her to co-author Race Dialogues: A Facilitator’s Guide to Tackling the Elephant in the Classroom which aims to give teachers (and others) the tools to facilitate more helpful and hopeful conversations.  

LINKS:

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The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.

This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits.

Audio editing and mixing by Andrew Lefkowits.

Music by Kevin Casey.

 

Transcript

Andrew: Welcome to the integrated schools podcast - I’m Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is Reopening Schools and Equity.  As we come hurtling into the start of the school year, how and if we reopen school buildings is on everyone’s mind.  This moment of crisis, combined with a lack of leadership and clear guidance has left everyone struggling to figure out what this school year might look like, and, unsurprisingly, equity often gets left behind.  

 

From childcare collectives to private micro-schools, the range of options that parents are considering is vast, but how to approach these issues with an eye toward equity is hard to get a handle on.  There has been a lot of great writing about this topic, and there are links to much of it in the show notes, but I came across a series of posts on Medium that really seemed to get at the equity question in a unique and helpful way.  They were written by Dr. Shayla Reese Griffin - She’s the co-founder of Justice Leaders Collaborative, and author, educator and mother, and to my great joy, agreed to come on the show.  So, let’s hear the conversation.  

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Dr. Shalya Griffin: Hello. I'm Shayla Reese Griffin. I am the co-founder of Justice Leaders Collaborative, which is an organization that provides social justice education, training, consulting and coaching for individuals, organizations and schools, which has been our primary focus.

I've written a couple books. I'm the author of Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School that came out in 2015 and I'm co-author of the book Race Dialogues, A Facilitator's Guide to Tackling the Elephant in the Classroom, which came out in 2019.

I am the mother of three. I currently have a two-year-old, a three-year-old and a five-year-old who is in school.

Andrew: Your five-year-old is finished Kindergarten? Or is going to start kindergarten?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: So my five-year-old should be going into kindergarten this year, but is instead going to learn from the world... [laughter] No, he should be a kindergartener this coming year. He also is deaf. And so, the way special education works here, he's been in the public school system since he was two-and-a-half because there's access to that for kids with disabilities.

And so even though for a lot of parents it would be the first year a kid would be entering school, I've been in the public school system with my child already for, I guess this would be the third year and then my other two would have been starting preschool this year, was what I was hoping and planning for, but that is not happening obviously, so, yeah, this is gonna be a big year for a lot of people.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. So speaking about the fall, schools, I think some districts are starting up. My district is supposed to start in three weeks, but we're on the cusp here. You've written a couple of pieces about the fall. Your most recent one is basically saying we're not going to school. Whether you think you are or not. Even if you're going to school, you're certainly not going all the time, given the public health crisis. And so what is your thinking about what the fall looks like and what should we do about it?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Well, I think it's a disaster of epic proportions, I think I wrote. And I think that it is unfortunate and enraging that this conversation is at the point it is on July 30th. I mean, it was clear to me in March that the fall was probably not going to happen. And so the fact that as a country, we just  didn't have the competence or the capacity to wrap our heads around that months ago and come up with an actual viable plan rooted in the reality of coronavirus.

It baffles me. I cannot wrap my head around why that was, or why that is. And I get at a federal level, there is not, you know, there's no will or interest there, but even at a local level, you know, superintendents and principals in March, April, May, June, early July, were just like, I'm pretty sure it's going to be fine by the time school starts. And I just don't understand what we were looking at that made us think that.

So mostly I feel very sad and upset that we weren't able to wrap our heads around this in a better way.

hold on just a second...

Andrew: No worries.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yes, baby. Can you do it by yourself? Mom's on a call. You can get your own yogurt out of the refrigerator. Do it all by yourself. Go ahead. 

Oh my gosh, of course. He's like, are you doing something? Oh, let me...

Andrew: ...You must be busy. Let me come up and bother you.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: just like every other parent.

And so we're here now. So what do I think? I think that most places are not going to be safe enough to open. Dr. Fauci just spoke to the American Federation of Teachers, their national convention, and the things that he said, I just don’t see any way that the majority of places in our country are safe enough. And one of the things he said that I've been advocating for, but I was very happy to hear him say it, is you have to do regular testing. That the level of asymptomatic infection or pre-symptomatic infection is so high that even if you're doing these things at schools are talking about like taking kids temperatures that only reveals kids who have temperatures, right? 

And so, I think that, you know, in an ideal world rates would be low enough in a community that we could figure out how to safely open some schools for some kids, and my argument is that that should be the most marginalized students, but that that will require regular testing, mandatory mask usage, mandatory social distancing. And from what I see, and just the schools I work at there just doesn't seem to be any capacity to implement those things.

Andrew: Yeah, and regular testing is great, but if it takes three weeks to get the results back, it's meaningless.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Oh, it has to be regular and rapid results. I mean, so the thing that's interesting is we do, we're doing this for the NBA right now. The NBA, they are testing every single player, every coach, every media person, every single day. The president gets tested. My understanding is anyone around him gets tested every single day. 

So, it's not that we don't have the science or technology to do it. We don't have the political will and the monetary investment to do it. And so this is where for me, it does feel like in most places, this is probably just not an option.

 Andrew: Right. We can do it. We can do it for the NFL. We can do it for the NBA. We can do it for baseball, but not for our teachers, or our kids, or our schools.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah. I mean, that's what you're basically saying. Not you. I mean, that's what we're basically saying. And so I guess what I ultimately think should happen is to the extent that we can get testing and all those other safety measures in place to open some places for some kids in places where that makes sense. I would like to see that happen. I think that's not the majority of places.

And so I think realistically parents are going to be home with their children. I don't know where else kids are supposed to go. So to me, the only safe option deals with the fact that most schools are not going to open face to face instruction, and schools that open face to face instruction, I think are going to be very likely to close down before the school year is over, is we have to figure out how the people who already live in a house together, parents, families, grandparents, whoever, you know, young people are with and live with, guardians, are able to stay home with them and you cannot do two jobs at once. You can't raise kids full time and work full time. If that were possible to do we all would have been doing it.If it were possible to do that, I would never take my kid to school because the headache of trying to figure out, like drop off and pick up, and the times that don't align with my work, if he could just stay home and I could equally do my job, I would have been doing that, right? We weren't doing it because it's not possible to do.

And so if we know for a fact, it is not possible to raise children 24 hours a day, seven days a week and work a job, and we know we're going to have no other choice but to do that because there are very few schools that are going to open and stay open. We have to allow the people taking care of children to have something to live on. And so that mandates that we have to figure out how to pay parents to stay home. And they're not just staying home for themselves, I mean, they're staying home for all of us because our goal is to not spread coronavirus.

I don't think there's any other choice. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but I think if it doesn't happen, the kind of crisis we are facing, if people couldn't wrap their heads around the fact of May and June, and that school probably wasn't going to open in the fall in most places, I surely think we're going to struggle to wrap our heads around the level of crisis we are going to face if we don't figure out how to get parents money so they can stay home with their kids.

I just think it's going to be unprecedented. And, you know, specifically relevant to the work that you do and this podcast, it is gonna affect the most marginalized kids the most. And so the mental health crisis, the homelessness crisis, the hunger crisis, the academic crisis. I just, I think it's going to be astronomical if we don't do this.

Andrew:  I feel like one of the challenges of  building the political will to do something about it is that  we can't even imagine what that looks like. Right? Like there's not even a vision of what does it mean to have 60, 70, 80 million newly homeless families who got evicted?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: We will If we don't do something. Yeah.

Andrew: You can't even, look, oh, remember that time? When, you know, a quarter of the population didn't have a place to live? 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: I think what's really clear about this moment to me, and I'm not a psychologist, so I hesitate to go too deeply down this path, but I think that we live in a country where a lot of people, especially middle class and privileged parents cannot conceive of having a government and systems that do not ultimately work to provide for their basic needs. They just can't conceive of it. And so there's this level of denial where we just, we don't believe it could happen.

Andrew: Something’s got to happen, right? Somebody's got to figure something out. Somebody must be coming to save us, right? 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah, somebody's going to fix this. They're not going to let this happen. There's no way in America we would let this happen. Even though it’s happening and it has been happening for tons of families since the founding of the of the nation, right? But for the people for whom homelessness and hunger have not been concerns, I think they cannot wrap their heads around the possibilities.

And that's part of our struggle to really take action, is that, in some ways I think we're not angry enough and motivated enough because we're not determined enough because we don't think we have to be.  We just think something’s gotta give.

Andrew: Yeah.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: And let me just tell you, I mean, one of the most disturbing things about the three essays I've written now about schooling and COVID is that I'm interested that they've kind of blown up the way they have, because to me what I said in those essays, everyone should be saying.

Andrew: Right. You didn’t feel particularly insightful when you said that, you felt it was obvious.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: I'm sure other people thought of the ideas that are there, and I'm not saying I'm the only person that came up with this, but yeah, the fact that there isn't more just in that is available to people to think about action and activism and justice in these ways, like that's scary to me.

There's just a dearth of public, innovative thinking and proposals happening around this. And that's the part that I think is really the scariest, because we should be being inundated with really rich and new, innovative ideas. And then it should just be a matter of like, how do we advocate for them? 

Andrew: Pick the best ones. Try a few of them here and there. Yeah.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: But we're not even at that point.

Andrew: Yeah, I think so many of the things that COVID has laid bare that were there all along, like you said, people living in poverty and homelessness are not surprised at the possibility of poverty or homelessness, view that as a very real thing, and COVID has brought so many of these things to the forefront. One of the things that I've struggled with is just recognizing the lack of levers of power that people feel like they have access to to advocate for change.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: So, yeah, I mean, I think there's just a real crisis in our democracy. And I guess I kind of knew that intellectually, but this has just really, really revealed it because even people who are relatively privileged people, who are relatively thoughtful people, who were engaging with these ideas on Facebook and on Twitter, are just kind of at a loss of what they would do. I mean, they just have no idea. 

And so when I say, Hey, we need to be lobbying and advocating for ABC or D they're just like, what, how do we do that? Who would we talk to? I'm just like, y'all, call your Congresspeople! Talking on Facebook with some person you've never met, who has no power to do anything about this whatsoever, and clearly no interest in actually engaging in good faith dialogue about what we should do, is not action and doesn't matter at all.

Andrew: Gets us no closer to actually solving the crisis that we are in. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: It doesn't do anything, but I think people can figure out how to like get into a social media debate and they just don't have any idea of what it would actually be to try to get their Congress people or their districts or their school boards to think differently in these ways. And I think that's a very scary thing because we have no idea what the sites of change and the levers of power really are as a collective. And I think we maybe fool ourselves into thinking we're doing more than we are, because  I mean, I post on social media. I'm not saying that like, people shouldn't do that. But this idea that arguing with this one person on social media, what do we think that's going to do?

So I think we have these goals about what a just society would look like. And we struggle very much to do the action part. Which is what all of Integrated Schools is about, right? 

Andrew: Yeah. That's the thing.  I think a lot about the kind of middle ground, it's easy to look at the federal government and say, okay, this is hopeless. The odds of something changing in the next two weeks feels really slim. And it's easy to get frustrated with that and throw up your hands. But then, I don't know, I would wish that then the next step would be, screw the feds. Let's talk to the state. Let's talk to the city, let's talk to the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. Let's talk to the people who have some expertise here and elevate that. Instead, what we've done is said, okay, you know what I'm going to do, I'm going to talk to my rich White friends, and we're going to hire a teacher and we're going to...

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Fix this for ourselves.

Andrew: Fix it just for ourselves.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Which I get. I don't even have really criticism of why people are inclined to do that. You got to figure out what to do with your kids. And if there's no other system that's going to do it, parents are going to do it. I mean they're not going to leave their six year old home alone, and it just is such a missed opportunity for larger systems change.

You know, you said the state level and the local level and the YMCA. I mean, what about your school board even? I mean, people aren't even talking to their principal, or their superintendents? 

The levels between  the individual family and the president of the United States are so vast, and I think there is a real struggle around what activism and justice and building power look like at the more local level. So, yeah. 

I'm a pessimist. Have you... I don't know if you know that.

Andrew: It's depressing,

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Okay.

Andrew:  Yeah, it's hard to be optimistic right now. Let's talk a little bit about pods. We've sort of mentioned them. Pods is like all anybody can talk about right now. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: All middle class people can talk about right now. 

Andrew: All middle class, mostly White people, for sure can talk about right now.  And like you said, there's a reasonable impetus to try to solve the problem for yourself if you feel like there's nobody else who's going to solve it for you.

Dr. Shalya Griffin:  I just want to say, it's so funny, this pods conversation, because my child goes to a school district that's majority Black, majority low income. No one is talking about this. Like this is not a conversation. And so I didn't really know this pods thing was happening.

I wrote the first medium article, maybe two weeks ago now, about what I think school should be doing. And then people started reaching out to me and saying, well, what do you think about pods? And I literally had no idea what they were talking about. I had to Google it: “Pods During Coronavirus.”

And so I just want to say my experience or my thoughts about this are really not from a very personal perspective because I am in a community that's talking about this in terms of my class position, but in terms of my child's actual classmates. This is not a conversation that is happening.

Andrew: So a couple of things. I think it's good to  define what a pod is cause it feels like there's a pretty wide range of things when people talk about pods that they're talking about. So you've got the New York Times article today about the $150,000 pods that you can buy from a private school, and go in it on with your friends, withdraw from public schools and have a teacher and meet your basement, whatever.

And then there's the, I think you refer to it as childcare collective, that has been going on in many communities for a long time. Like, how do we share the burden? Somebody needs to be home with the kids. Me being home with my two kids is maybe a little bit of a waste of some capacity that I have. I could have four or five kids here and still do it. Is there a way we can sort of share that? Do those feel different in your mind? The kind of two extremes?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Oh, they're totally different. I mean, you have to take care of your children. So the idea that you're going to figure out childcare, if there is no schooling is something that any person with a child has to do. And so figuring out how to get with some group of people, be it friends or family, or maybe somebody in your neighborhood or whomever to figure out how children are going to be supervised, I think there's no choice, but to do that. Unless my other proposal happens, which is that unless we really can pay most parents to stay home, kids, have to be somewhere. 

But that's a very different thing to me than basically creating mini private schools at your house for you and your closest upper middle class friends, or your new upper middle class friends that you met on the internet. The difference to me is one of justice. And I think that, you know, I am someone, and I think most of the listeners to this podcast are people who believe that one of the biggest ways we create a more just society is through robust public school systems in which we really value teachers and value all students. And there's lots of ways our public school systems are failing. That's the work I do. I know that they are not ideal in lots of ways, especially for kids of color, especially for low income kids. And I would not want to do anything in my own decision making that undermines that as a system.

And so the concern about people buying their own teacher, or grouping with people like them, to kind of do education, is, well, there's a few concerns. One is that it undermines the public education system. I might argue that the people really thinking about doing that, maybe aren't that committed to there being a public education system. I don't know, or haven't thought about it quite in that way. And so that's one big concern. The other thing it does is hoard resources and hoard opportunity for the kids who honestly do not need it.

Andrew: Right.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: And so everything we know about the way academic achievement works is that the kind of class position and education level of your parents matters a lot. My oldest child is supposed to be in kindergarten this coming year. If I don't do anything but let him watch TV from now until the year he's going to start first grade, he will be fine because he wants for nothing. I mean, I'm not saying I'm indulgent, but he's of a class position where he is not worried about his basic needs, and he has two parents who have PhDs.

Andrew: Right.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: And the research just supports that, right? Like, and so when parents who are already in privileged positions who already have kids who are likely to be, let me just specify, I mean, academically fine, by the ways that we measure that, which are already racist and classist and biased.

Andrew: Yeah. And problematic themselves. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Then spend the next year doing private lessons with the teacher they paid $150,000 for, I mean, I might say it's immoral, right? 

And so I do think those are different things. And I think the word pod is being used to kind of talk about both of those and everything in between. And that's probably, not super helpful because there are some distinctions there that I think are important.

Andrew: Yeah. I think about long term impact. We're trying to solve this really immediate crisis. How do we think about solving that in a way that, at least takes into consideration the long term impacts of how we solve that? Because certainly anybody pulling their kids out of public schools, that definitely has a detrimental effect on public schools in general. We are taking away resources. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Oh yeah. I mean, if all the privileged parents just kind of opt their kids out of public school, that's just money down the drain. I mean that public school system is not going to exist on the back end of this, in the ways it could. And so I think worst case scenario, the decimation of public school, which is what Betsy DeVos, et al. want. I mean, very openly want.

And maybe the second possible scenario, if this kind of thing happens at this scale is there are public schools and all of them are for poor, Black and Latinx and Indigenous kids. And I mean, already our schools are so segregated by race and class. We're not far from that. I mean, let's be honest. But that you basically say, there's a Detroit public school, there's an Indianapolis public school, there's a New York public school system. And then any kid who's capable of being anywhere else, meaning private schools, homeschools, other kinds of schools, is. I mean, that's the real risk, right? Because parents decided in 2020, they were opting out.

I just want to say how school funding works, how public school funding works is different by state. And so, this is kind of a global conversation that probably has some variations by state. Where I live, public school funding is on a per pupil basis. So one thing parents might do first is try to figure that out. Like, how does your funding system work in your actual school district and does it matter if your child is or is not enrolled here, and really have a strong sense of that?

So for me that means, even if I don't do anything, even if he's absent most of the year, even if I'm like, my family can not do this, we are not going to have this kid doing this, right?

Andrew: He is going to be enrolled.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: He's going to be enrolled and he's going to be there on count day.

Andrew: Yep.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Even if I don't ever see that teacher again. I'm not advocating that people do that. I'm also not advocating that they don't do that, but just being really clear about that, like what's the system-level response.

And so I have a young child. Online education is really not that good for young children. I, last year said, okay, here's the pieces I'm willing to do of what the school is offering. And it was significantly less than what they were offering, because I just didn't make sense for my life, my family, my child, but he was counted on that roster, so that that district could receive the appropriate funding. And so that when we returned to in person, you know, that's there.

 That's the systems-thinking. It’s not, am I doing this or not doing it? Am I opting out or opting in? But, what are the ways I can utilize my power to ensure that this institution continues to exist?

Andrew: Yeah, how can I minimize the harm that, that at least I am responsible for, to the system?

I think about the return to school.  One, can assume that the majority of people who are likely to pull their kids out of public schools are White and wealthy families. The public schools that all suffered from White flight  in the wake of desegregation orders that there was a big funding gap. Where does that leave us a year from now in terms of trying to regain the enrollment that in so many places means the money to actually run a school?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah, I think that if parents opt out of public schooling this year, I don't think we should assume they're just going to come back in 2021, 2022 or whatever the year. Especially if the year went okay.

Andrew: Right.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Right? Like, oh, I kind of liked that teacher I hired. And actually, once we both get back to work, we could probably afford to keep paying them. So I think that the real risk to public education is huge. And I think that, it puts districts, specifically districts that have lower income populations in a real dilemma, because of the way funding works.

You know, my one hope about this is because at the same time as there's a pandemic, there's also a national racial justice movement happening. Maybe that has a kind of curbing effect on what, White and privileged parents might've more naturally done because they're being forced to think about racial justice in a new way, because you know, people are marching in the streets. So I think there is some hope that these two things are happening simultaneously actually, will limit some of that damage, but I think that is the challenge. 

And I think for some parents, you know, this was one thing why getting really clear about why integration matters? And I know you all do a lot of work on this. It's not that Black kids need to be sitting next to White kids. It is that with White kids and middle class and upper-middle class kids comes a whole host of other resources that students in low-income Black and Brown schools do not have access to if those families aren't there.

And so I think that's the other thing to be really clear about when we talked about those systems level solutions about making sure your kids enrolled, regardless of what you do at your house. I don't need these privileged parents to be enrolled at my kid's school ‘cause my child needs to be exposed to more White people. It's because I need the money and the resources that that group of people brings, right? 

There's this documentary. It was really good. It's called, Race: The Power of an Illusion. And one of the episodes is called The House We Live In, which is about red lining. And one of the speakers on there says the issue with White flight is that when White people leave, they take all the resources with them. They take all the jobs with them. They take all the money with them. And so that's really the dilemma we're talking about, which is, what are the resources being taken from schools if en masse, because of a pandemic, privileged families opt out of the system.

Andrew: And then who's left to advocate for higher funding? I feel like, if all the people who, not because  they have better ideas. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: But whose voices are listened to.

Andrew: Right, but who get listened to, because of the racist structures of our society in the first place. If they can buy their way out of the problem, all the way from the discipline issues within a school, to this kind of pandemic thing, that when those of us who are able to opt out of  the negative effects of systems, then there's nothing to push those systems to change.

Dr. Shalya Griffin:I mean, that's just 100% true. And I say that as you know, my child has not been in school a super long time, and I won't say I've been on the cutting edge of parent organizing, but I will say we are one of, if not the wealthiest, most privileged family in that building. And I know I can say things in a way that is heard differently. And if there were two or three other families in there like us, yes. What would be possible?

Andrew: RIght. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: What might be different? And that's unfortunate. I mean, that's about bias and that's not about us having better things to say, but about how power gets wielded and who gets listened to and why.

And so, for sure. Yeah. I mean the real risk is exactly what you said, which is, who are the voices that are then heard if all of those people are no longer there?

Andrew: Yeah, I loved in your second essay, you talked about where do we look for solutions and looking to people who have been living in poverty, there's expertise there, right? About how do we solve this problem of trying to work and care for kids at the same time is not a unique problem to people who have been living in poverty.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Totally. This is new for  upper-middle class people, but people who are working class, who are lower income, who are living in poverty have always had to figure out how to work their shift  and who's watching their kids. Right? And I think there's lots of variations in the answers to those questions. I don't think everything that is an answer to that question, that those communities have come up with, is something that a middle and upper-middle class families can really do.

Like a lot of it is about social networks. Do you have people in your family and community who can watch your kids? The way globalization works is that a lot of upper middle class folks, like I don't live close to my parents. Right? I can't have them come over and watch my children. I would say, even if I did at this moment, there's a medical risk to them. And so that's not necessarily an option. And so I think there's one thing that, I wonder how much, I don't know, but I wonder how much there's some class divide and just the networks that we can tap into for support.

 I don't know any working class folks who were looking on Facebook for somebody to leave their kids with.

Andrew: Right.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: I mean, I don't think that's happening. I mean, maybe I'm wrong. Y'all can write in and tell me, but that's like a very middle class phenomenon that you're going to meet somebody on the internet and then take your kid to their house and leave them there. What? 

Andrew: Right. When you say it that way, it sounds absolutely insane. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: What are we talking about here? So I'm not seeing that happening and yet kids are somewhere and they're making it to adulthood. So I think the fact that we haven't tried to tap into those communities and say how are y'all doing this? How have you been doing this? What are the options here that we maybe haven't considered? Or the ways that we haven't really conceptualized this? I think it just shows you just the real class divide in our country. We're not asking those questions because we actually don't have relationships with those folks. We don't actually know them to ask them.

Andrew: Right. And we certainly don't know them in a way that would acknowledge their expertise or view them as actually having expertise in something that we do not, which is this problem that we're now all facing.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: And then, now that we see the problem they've been facing, what do we owe them?

Andrew: Right,

Dr. Shalya Griffin: I mean, there's that question of like, I mean, this is where the system stuff becomes the issue and not just like, how do you fix it for your kid? Now that we see what a lot of families are already facing, oh my goodness, what is our responsibility as more privileged people to do what we can to fix the system? Not just for us, but for them. I mean, for all of us. Right? 

And I think that's the part where, for me, it just feels like if my only answer is a pandemic pod where I hire a teacher for my kid, that is not sufficient as an answer for people who have privilege, who have the privilege to do more.

Andrew: Yeah. Let's talk about Those Kids, Our Schools.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Oh… Those kids!

Andrew: So you spent a number of years in an unidentified high school that you called Jefferson in an unidentified city. What were you hoping to learn from spending all that time there?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: You know, I've always been interested in, and done research and work around, race and social justice issues in school and in K-12 education. And that's been inspired a lot by my own K-12 experience. I was a Black kid in suburban majority-White schools. I would say they were not all White. The high school I went to, or the school district I went to was about 25%, Black students or kids of color who were mostly Black and about 75% White, and that wasn't reflected in how tracking worked, right? I was still the only Black kid in almost every class I took, even though there were other Black students at the school. And so, those experiences really shaped who I was and my feelings about school. 

I was pretty angry by the time I left high school, I just felt like the level of injustice that was happening around race in the school I went to among “well-intentioned” White teachers was just unacceptable. And so, in some ways, going into a school was trying to figure out what are the racial dynamics here between students and students, and students and teachers, and teachers and administrators? Is there hope to fix this in ways that are better for the next generation than they were for me.

Andrew: Do you have a sense of what it was, where that anger came from, or what allowed you to sort of see the injustice? Because that injustice has been going on for a long time. A lot of people come through that either internalizing it, or without seeing it, or kind of being willfully blind to it. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah. I think there's probably a number of reasons. I do not think being Black in America necessarily makes you get race, but I think it provides you the opportunity to see it in a way that for White people it's harder because it is shaping your own life in potentially a negative way. So there's that. I mean, I was a Black kid in a White school.

I think my mother and the family I grew up in, my mom is a teacher and was very much about what you are learning in schools is insufficient. And so there was a lot of additional teaching in our home about Black history, about African history, about empowerment and pride, things that I knew I wasn't getting at school, but that I was getting somewhere. And so my definition in my sense of who I was and who people like me were was not limited to the curriculum being given to me in schools.

My mom was also a low key, super activist parent. So she's not protesting in the streets, but she was very good for writing angry letters to teachers and putting them in an envelope, and saying give this to your teacher. And I would be like, Oh, mom they'll make me... You know? And it was like, that assignment you did was racist. [laughter] So I was like, Oh my mom wanted me to give you this and said if you have questions to call her, ok? Bye. So there was that.

The family I was in - I am one of six kids of my parents, but of four kids that grew up in a house together with my mother and father together, and we're all very close in age. They had four kids in three years. So I'm the oldest of that group. My brother is 14 months younger than me, and so we were just one year apart in school. He was a Black boy, I was a Black girl and it was just very clear our experiences were totally different. So I also noticed how gender, at least at the time that I was in school, really also mattered. There were all these negative experiences my brother was having from the perceptions of White adults about who he was that were different than the experiences I was having. And so, that's in your own house. I don't know how you avoid that.

I don't know. I mean, I was also just an observant kid. I remember being in elementary school and just noticing who was allowed to have a crush on whom. And I remember having this crush on this White kid in first or second grade. And it was, no, he's only allowed to have a crush on other White girls. I mean, that's the stuff that I don't even know if teachers necessarily knew that was going on, but that was going on among students. Right?

I remember being in middle school and White girls trying to touch my hair - just all the stuff that happens in a racist system happened in integrated schools and especially happens if no adults are engaging students in dialogue or conversation about antiracism and anti-Black racism and all those things, then students are just recreating in their own environments, the same kinds of interactions and systems that exist in the rest of our society.

Andrew: Right. So Jefferson seems like a pretty good example of that. You found a school that matched a lot of your own personal experiences.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah. You know, what's interesting is that since the book has come out, almost everyone I talked to who's read it unless they've gone to completely 99% Black schools or 99% White schools are like, oh my goodness, this is the exact same thing that's happening in my school. 

Because the dynamics I talk about in that school district that had a significant population of Black students, it was still majority White. There wasn't as much class difference between the Black and White students as you might kind of expect through stereotypes. All the dynamics there are happening everywhere and so it's really interesting how much people who have been from all over the country and totally different states and totally different regions and totally different kinds of communities have picked up that book and said, I feel like you wrote this about my school.

Andrew: Yep. I felt like you wrote it about my high school.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah. Right? In some ways that's an honor as an author, but it's also just revealing about the nature of the struggle we're dealing with which is that it is not unique. It is not new. It is not special. It is everywhere. So it's kind of sad that we're not able to do this a little bit better because it actually doesn't require a lot of specialized- “this particular thing has only happened in this particular place.” There's a lot of universal issues that we've been unable to really address that would help schools and kids and students everywhere. So that's part of it that's the both/and of it being nice that people connect with it and also sad that we're not better at this thing that is so obvious.

You know, sometimes things happen, when I work with teachers this still happens because I work with teachers a lot and they'll say no, but Shayla, you don't understand at our school, these are the things going on. And they say it like they really think their place is unique.

Andrew: The amount of conversations at Integrated Schools that we have with parents who are like, yeah, but in my district you'll never believe what's going on. And I'm like, let me connect you to five other parents from five different cities across the country who have the exact same story.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: It's the same stuff everywhere. It's the exact same thing. I'm on decade two of this exact story, but go ahead Ma'am what are they calling the students, what did they call the Muslim students? Okay. Oh yeah. Interesting. Really?

Andrew: Yeah. Right. The local levers look slightly different but the underlying thing is the same everywhere.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Well, it is our national and maybe global, dare I say, incapacity to contend with in any real way, racial injustice and our actual racial histories and histories of racism. And I would just say any injustice, I mean, also class injustice. We don't have any ability to contend with any levels of oppression and injustice around multiple identities.

And it's just sad. What Those Kids, Our Schools really reveals is that all these dynamics are going on with students, and adults were doing nothing. I mean, adults were either completely oblivious or willfully oblivious or

Andrew: Complicit.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Complicit.

Andrew: Yeah.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Or, like Oh, whatever! That's just general bullying. It's like, well, it's bullying around race. So that's racism. Or it's around class, and that's classism. And it's not just this general thing that we're going to put under bullying. Yeah, exactly. They weren't racist Black jokes...

And so what we're seeing is that, and the book talks about this, that there are all these race jokes happening between students and kind of more overt and covert racism, and no adults were giving them any real guidance about how to navigate those conversations, those experiences, anything.

And so they're kind of left to their own devices, young people, and guess what? Those young people who grow up and become adults just like you and me. And now we're the adults deciding whether or not we're going to make a pandemic pod for our kids, when nothing about our education system prepared us to think critically about social justice and nothing about our lives did either for the most part. Right? Because we live really segregated lives. Our parents weren't prepared. They don't have the skillset to do it in their parenting. So we just have these generations of adults without any kind of critical consciousness or capacity for really engaging with issues of justice in any real way.

And then maybe you have some folks like a lot of the people in your community around trying to do this work. My guess is the overwhelming majority of those people who are mostly White, mostly middle and upper-middle class or even wealthy came to this as adults on their own, trying to figure it out way late in the game. Like, now I'm 30. Maybe I'll read a book about race. So we're playing catch up with content and knowledge and experiences and relationships we should have gotten when we were four.

Andrew: That to me is that is the tragedy of a school like Jefferson. It's one thing to think about the all White, suburban enclave school, where there are no kids of color.  It's going to be very challenging for those kids to get any of this content, maybe you can sort of give it to them in their head, for sure, but they're not going to get into their heart at all. But a school like Jefferson, a school like my high school that I went to, the potential is there because you have kids in the same space, because you have the ability to interrupt these cycles of ignoring race and pretending it doesn't exist while kids go on and actually create their own racial paradigms in their minds, but we're not doing it.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Nope.

Andrew: So one of the things I found fascinating about Jefferson, is that it is about 35% Black students, but in many ways the class differences are not what you would expect.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Class-wise, there were middle class Black kids, middle class White kids, poor Black kids, poor White kids. And so it was this unique situation in that it wasn't a school district where all the Black kids were poor and all the White kids were not, which is sometimes the case in integrated schools.

Andrew: I would guess probably much less often than we think. Right? Like in our mind, all school districts are like that. And in actuality, probably not nearly as many as we think are actually like that.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yep. So, in some ways, I don't think this is totally true, but in some ways this was a place where you could kind of take class off the table. Like, what happens when Black kids and White kids, and also there were some other racial groups of kids too, come together and there isn't this huge money thing that you can blame. You can't say, “well the reason those kids aren't doing as well is because those kids are poor.” Or, the reason these kids are doing better is because these kids have money. That was not really a dynamic there. And so then you are able to look a little bit more closely at just what is the role that race plays in this when class, the American default, our default is like, Oh, I don't think it's race. I think it's class. Right? Right? 

Andrew: I think it's poverty, right? This is just about the trauma of poverty, right? 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Right! First of all, those two things can be disentangled. And the funny thing I say is that as quick as a lot of adults in the book were wanting to talk about class instead of race, even in a school where there weren't really these class divisions, they kind of made up in their own heads. They also weren't really wanting to talk about class and didn't have any capacity to do that either. Like it became this fall, but then when you push them and say, okay, so how do you think class matters? It's like, Oh well I couldn't dare say what class background a kid is from, how would I know that?

I was like, well, you're the one that said it was class? What are you basing that on? And so class becomes this way that we avoid talking about race. And we still avoid talking about class because we're not actually having conversations about class either.

Andrew: Well, because there's a social pressure to not be racist. There's not really the same social  pressure to not be classist. We're uncomfortable admitting the ways we think about race as indicative of something innate in a person, but we are much more comfortable saying that class is about laziness or about, how you have made yourself poor.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: I think that's totally true. And I would say we also, even in that, have no actual class analysis. We actually don't have a class consciousness in this country. So we have these class narratives, I would say, like if you work hard, you can be anything you want to be, you know, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  I deserve these three cars because I'm hardworking. Right? Which is like a lie. The hardest working people I know are the poorest people. The only people working all night and then trying to raise their kids then they go to their second job, are poor people.  Middle-class and wealthy people are not doing that. 

To suggest that, to suggest that I am somehow, more deserving of the economic privilege I have because I work harder when I'm here doing my podcast on my laptop at my home office [laughter] is just ludicrous and it's just a lie. Right? So we have these narratives that are just based in falseness and we have almost nothing beyond those narratives about class, either. 

Like if somebody actually said, okay, great, so we do have these students in our school who are impacted by class in this way, what do you think we should do about that as a society? We have nothing to say about that.

So it's this weird dynamic where, I think you're right, and I would just add, we do all kinds of super classist things in ways as well, because we actually haven't ever really thought about or been taught about, or engage in any way with class as a reality. It's not polite conversation.

Maybe we don't think about classism, but we definitely think about like, you're not going to dinner parties talking to people... I mean, I don't know if you go to dinner parties…  

Andrew: Nobody goes to dinner parties anymore.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: I don't even call them dinner parties. I don't know where I got that term, but you know, no one is going out with friends, going to gatherings and saying, you know, we're really, upper-middle-class? Can you believe we all have houses with yards and like access to these driveways? I mean, those are not conversations happening, either. 

We really just have a dearth of all the important conversations, I would say. That's one thing that happened at Jefferson, is that class was thrown around a lot, and when you push any teacher at all about it, tell me more about what you think about this class thing, it was like a deer in headlights. Because it's like, oh, you're asking a follow up question? I don't have any follow up answers.

Andrew: That was my escape.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: That was just my escape from having to talk about whether or not I'm racist. Right? 

Andrew: So, maybe some of this experience at Jefferson helped you realize the need for a book like Race Dialogues.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah. So, Race Dialogues is a book that is really specifically targeted toward mostly people who have really thought about this stuff, who have done a lot of their own work, and who want to then help students, middle, high school and college and university students, engage in dialogues around race.

So it really is a facilitator's handbook. It's not really, if you’ve never thought about racial justice, you're not going to read Race Dialogues.

Andrew: This is not the place to start. 

Dr. Shalya Griffin: There's some stuff in it that might be useful, I'm not saying it's not useful, but it really is supposed to be a handbook for people who are trying to facilitate this work, specifically with students.

Andrew: Your editor is not going to be pleased at how you're selling your book here.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Uh oh.[laughter] I should say something different. Well, that's just the truth. 

Andrew: This book is not for you.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: It is for you. And it doesn't mean because you read our book, you can go facilitate a race dialogue. And we say that in there, if you haven't done a lot of your own excavating work about where you stand on race, and what you know about race, then there are some activities in there you can do, but that is different than having the kind of level of competence, knowledge, and skill to really be able to facilitate this.

But we knew we wanted to write it, Donna Kaplowitz, Sheri Seyka and I, because there were all these teachers and educators at the university and K-12 level who were conscious, were thinking and wanted to engage their young people in conversations about race, wanted to do the thing that wasn't happening at Jefferson, which is actually give these young folks some space and some room in the regular school day in their curriculum, in their course selections to talk about and understand race more deeply. And they just didn't know what to do. 

Andrew: And no tools to do it with.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: They were like, well, what do I do? Where is the actual handbook of what a lesson looks like? How do I facilitate it? How does the room get set up? How do I deal with conflict? How do I deal with resistance?

There wasn't a place we could send them. And so we decided to write something specifically to meet that need with a hope that as more teachers get more conscious about racial injustice and the need for activism and change that they then do something with that other than think about it in their own heads, that they actually change their teaching and educating practice and they needed support and being able to do that. And so that is really how the book came about.

We know it has been used in non-school settings as well, that people who just want to engage in these conversations in their businesses and in their communities have really found it valuable. But our impetus was, how do we help people who are passionate facilitate these conversations with other people? So we can kind of grow the pool of folks who care about racial justice.

Andrew: Right. And does it work?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Do race dialogs work?

Andrew: Yeah. Are you seeing the outcome of them?

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Well, you're asking if my whole career has any value.

[Laughter]

Andrew: No, I'm giving you a chance to brag about all of the things that you've accomplished, because I do think there's a difference between reading Kendi and being like, I'm now an antiracist teacher, and I have decolonized my curriculum and my work here has done.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: This actually connects to the other work I do. So, I work with Justice Leaders Collaborative and we do a lot of professional development and training for teachers and other folks. We do what's in Race Dialogues, right? Or versions of it. Justice Leaders Collaborative is not only race specific, it is an intersectional approach so we deal with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, attractionality, ability.

Our goal is to help people come to their own consciousness and then do something about it, transform your practice, transform your classrooms, transform your relationships. So the question is, does that work? And I would say, it depends. I think it works a lot. I think we have seen people we work with, teachers we work with, especially. Just for our purposes, it’s not only teachers, but that's a place where it's very easy to see change. Who have transformed what they do in the classroom, who have taken everything they were doing five years ago, have thrown it out and have redone everything.

We have seen schools we work with rewrite their discipline codes and their code of conduct handbooks. We have seen what's happening now, nationally, people getting rid of their police relationships. We have seen people transform how they do holidays and celebrations.

There's this tool we use called the EJATT, the Education Justice Assessment and Transformation Tool, which I developed, which is really about what schools should look like when they are doing Just Practice. And a lot of teachers have taken that up and are doing things totally differently. And I would say a lot of teachers also in almost all White districts. Where it would be very easy to say this isn't our problem, but where we know it's the number one side of the problem, because those White privileged kids in all White school districts are going to grow up to be the police officers, the lawyers, the teachers, the politicians, and if they are not justice minded when it comes to race, our system doesn't get fixed.

And I would say my experience is you can't mandate that people care about social justice. So I don't think it works to say every single person in this district, read this book, go to this training, and now you're going to transform your practice. You are not, because, and I think you said this earlier, there has to be some will in your heart.  You don't have to know anything, but you have to want to know something. 

We very much try to avoid doing mandatory work. We say we are doing work for passionate people. And that means you can be anywhere on the continuum of knowledge, relationships, skill and expertise. But you have to want to be in the room because if you don't want to be in the room, there's nothing I'm going to say to you to shift you, especially as a Black person, right? If you are not going to value diversity, not value inclusion, not value equity, not value justice, you are not going to a four hour PD with Shayla and suddenly get convinced.

I think the answer to your question is yes, for people for whom there is passion, where there is interest, and a willingness to shake their own world view, there is a lot of power in Race Dialogues and in the Justice Leaders Collaborative work, and for people for whom that is not there, Kendi is not going to get it there either.

Andrew: The other side of that is that if you have passion in your heart there are tools out there that are helpful. Because I feel like the other side of that is people are like, this is 600 years of systemic racism. What can I do to possibly change that? It's baked into the system. Me reading a book is not going to change that. But you're saying if you have a passion in your heart and you do the work, that the work is not impossible. And then you actually can have a really meaningful transformation.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: 100%. And I would just say for me, meaningful personal transformation is just a prerequisite. Like a lot of what we do is just giving people the tools so that when they come to the table, they are able to enact justice. But if you are reading a lot of books and listening to this podcast cast and in your heart doing all of the work, like I really care about this stuff, and nothing about your life, nothing about the way you do your job, nothing about the way you raise your children, where you choose to send them to school. None of those things changes? I honestly don't care what's in your heart. It doesn't help me in any way. And so it has to connect to practice. It has to connect to action. 

So if you are a person who cares about that, figuring out where that is and your own sphere of influence is going to be important and you're not going to fix everything. You know, John Lewis just died and he was fighting for this stuff at 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and died without seeing it coming to fruition. And yet the fight continued. Yet, we continue. And so we're not going to see it in our lifetimes. One of my colleagues, Autumn Campbell, says we're planting seeds for trees whose shade we will never sit in. And that's the reality when you're doing racial justice work and we do it anyway. And so I think part of what we have to do is figure out where in our own sphere of influence do we have the power to take action. For me, I work with a lot of teachers. I have access to do trainings with people. I can write some things. And so that's my sphere of influence. How do I make schools more socially just? How do I write things that inspire people to take action? But for you, it might be something else, right? That might start with your own kids and your own family and how you're raising them and where you're sending them to school. We all have to do the part we can do in the place that we have the power and influence to do it.

Andrew: Yeah. I'm so grateful to you for taking the time.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Thank you for asking me.

Andrew: For your writing, for the work that you're doing and engaging in, and I know you're not an optimist, and I know it's hard to find optimism, but I do draw some hope from your words and from the work you are doing.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: I'm not an optimist, but I am an activist. 

Andrew: Which requires some hope. Without hope, there's no reason to be an activist.

Dr. Shalya Griffin: Yeah. You do it anyway, justice is a religion, right? I mean, it is the idea that, that is what we are here to do. And so I think you have to have that level of conviction to really sustain the work. Otherwise it's just way too easy to go with the status quo.

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Andrew: Huge thanks to Dr. Griffin for making the time to talk.  I love that her kid interrupted, because that is life for all of us these days, right?  Through all of the tragedy of this moment, maybe one upside will be that “professional” will no longer have to mean pretending we don’t have other things in our lives, or that we have everything together all the time.  

I took so much from our conversation, and while I share her pessimism in many ways, I did leave with a bit of hope in the form of a couple of things: 1 - a deeper commitment to our public institutions - in this moment of crisis, how do we - particularly those of us with privilege - make sure that those institutions exists on the other side.  2 - a stronger sense of obligation to those who have been dealing with the struggle of finding work and childcare for so long.  What do we owe them, now that the struggle feels more real, and how can we fight for a more just system for them and us?  3 - an ever more present calling to use my sphere of influence, whatever it may be, to push for justice - to keep planting seeds for trees whose shade our kids or maybe our kids’ kids can one day sit under.  

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