Gerald Denman, Executive Director of the Office of Diversity Affairs in a school district located in Washington State, incorporates the film Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible within a multi-year, district-wide program that is creating a culturally responsive learning community. “This film is the right tool for us. Watching this documentary and discussing it has helped a district of about 1300 teachers move forward in their journey to cultural competency,” said Mr. Denman, a former principal and classroom teacher.
Denman featured the film in a workshop for all principals in the district. All principals in turn received a copy of the film and the guidance to then offer the workshop to their entire staff. Ongoing exercises with clips from the film are also planned. In that way, the entire district is on the same page. “It is no small task to get an entire educational community engaged – to ask deeper questions about our perceptions, about the equity of our system and what barriers we present to kids. We realized we needed to reach both the head and the heart, and this film helps us to do that.
“I believe you have to tell your own story in order to take the journey to cultural competence,” says Denman. “Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible is designed to support dialogue. The workshop around this film gets the staff engaged in conversation. They share stories of things they saw, or how they grew up.
“The majority of our faculty and staff are white. It is HUGE that the film features white people exclusively. To have whites hearing other whites telling their stories about how they were raised, how they felt about people of color – it gives them ownership of the issue. Every experience shared in this film resonates as true, but you’ve never heard it spoken aloud. There is validity, credibility — precisely because it is not coming from me, Gerald, a person of color.
“In using Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible we can see and hear stories of others in their own struggle. They are on the same journey we are on, and it makes it okay that we are ‘not there yet.’ It helps people move past guilt or blame and get on with the journey. Becoming culturally competent is really a continual journey we are all on.”
Five years into the district’s multi-faceted program, Mr. Denman can point to successes like lower rates of disciplinary action against students of color and a significantly higher percentage of students of color in college-track AP classes. With these wins the district is beginning to close the opportunity gap – and the whole district is involved in making it happen.
In 2000 a group of families sued the school district for discrimination and racial harassment of their children. An out-of-court settlement mandated that the district establish a Diversity Affairs Office and funded efforts to provide an equitable, culturally responsive education for all students. Key elements of the plan include:
- The Office of Diversity Affairs. Denman reports directly to the superintendent and has access to all principals and staff. “This access and flexibility to do what is needed in the district is key,” he says.
- Faculty and Staff Development. Denman has tapped numerous resources for training including the film Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible. Ongoing training and support of ALL staff from principals to janitors is integral to the plan.
- Clear goals and expectations defining a culturally responsive classroom. Administrators and teachers are held accountable for progress.
- Effective Data Reporting System. The District spent considerable funds to establish a system that reports data by building, by ethnicity, by gender to see trends and eliminate them if they are negative. For example, who gets sent to the principal’s office? “If kids are not in class, they are not learning. If there is a building where a disproportionate percentage of kids of color are going to the office, then we can ask ourselves deeper questions about why that is happening and what do about it,” says Denman. “Until teachers see the data that reveal bias, they just can’t believe it exists. Now we can measure our progress and see the road ahead.” Reporting also includes tardiness, unexcused absences, tracking into special education, GPAs, and graduation rates, among other factors.
- The Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program prepares more students of color for college eligibility.
- Other important components include curriculum development, recruitment of faculty of color and community outreach.
In addition to a quantifiable reduction in discipline rates and an increase in the number of students of color who are college bound, there is more district-wide ownership of the goals of the program and more trust.
“There has been a big shift. There is no more eye rolling. It is not about the lawsuit anymore; it is about doing the right thing for all kids. There is ownership,” says Denman. “All of these kids are our kids. All means all. I see it in the principals’ eyes.”
“There is an analogy I give everyone about ‘home game versus away game.’ You remember home games, right? There was a pep assembly, the band played, parents turned out to watch. But the away games – parents couldn’t come because the game was too far, you were booed on the field. For some of our students, every school day feels like an away game to them. If we are putting up barriers, we are making it an away game. The challenge our administrators are taking on is to make sure that when those kids get off the bus, it is a home game for them everyday.
“With demographics changing across the nation, districts must embrace culturally responsive education. I don’t see enough focus on this. When we talk about improving our educational system, this should be the tip of the spear.”
See a trailer for Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible here.
Contact Gerald Denman via email: cougars2 “at” comcast.net