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Professional Development Day Focuses on Racial Equity

In an ongoing effort to affect both individual and institutional awareness and growth regarding racial and equity literacy, all Sanford faculty and staff spent their February 14th professional development day with Dr. Sandra “Chap” Chapman, a noted consultant in the field of racial-ethnic identity.
Upper School Science and Mathematics Instructor Jamy Haughey, a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee, joined with division heads Libbie Zimmer, Emily Amendum, and Abbi Smith in arranging for Dr. Chapman’s visit and facilitating the flow of the day.

Dr. Chap used a combination of small and large group activities to engage the participants to think about their own life stories and put it into context regarding their work with others. Dr. Chap shared personal stories to illustrate racial anxiety. Activities were used to assist with the identification of racial anxiety, as well as strategies for intervening and dealing with it at the individual and institutional levels. By doing so, the hope is that behaviors can better align with the core value of equity.

Lower School Instructor Sue Bachtle remarked: “Our time with Dr. Chap was incredibly valuable for a number of reasons. She not only gave us tools to use in our classrooms, but language to use to foster equity. In thinking about what we gained as a group, we may have entered the room at different stages of racial-ethnic identity development, but we left all speaking the same vernacular. We were given the safe space to ask important questions about verbiage that may have been new for some, as well as a place to consider our own racial identity development. Dr. Chap also explained the value of using affinity groups, a gathering of students who have common identities, to discuss issues and to support one another.” Less than two weeks after working with Dr. Chap, the Lower School actually used an affinity group, led by Head of Lower School Libbie Zimmer with author Bettinita Harris. Thirteen students were given the opportunity to participate in a small gathering to explore the topics of majority and minority and to share their feelings and experiences related to their personal identities.
“Today was a very important day for us,” observed Upper School Instructor Suzanne Meyer, “because as a member of society and, especially as an educator, it is important for me to understand the perspectives of others. As a white person, I can go about my life without giving too much thought to my racial identity, but if I fail to acknowledge what it means to me to be white, I will fail to acknowledge the experiences of people of color. We were given the time and a safe place to do some reflective work on the topic today, and it was very beneficial. Our school theme this year is IDENTITY, and racial identity is a significant piece of our overall identity. Gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of where our students of color and their families may be coming from with their reactions and viewpoints to situations will enhance our ability to work together.”

Many attendees of the professional development workshop mentioned the importance of personal reflection as a way of gaining perspective on their racial identity development. Sarah Cushing, middle school instructor, elaborated: “I felt the format of the day helped to open up tough questions about racial identity. We were able to sit and reflect about questions regarding race and our reaction, or lack of reaction, to them. We were given time to think about who we can go to when we are confused about how to handle a situation.”

The workshops were designed to allow for small group sharing and discussion. Cushing noted: “Because I had the time ahead of the workshop to think about some of my own personal stories, I was much more comfortable sharing them in a vulnerable situation.” Her lower school colleague Heather Carlisle, administrative assistant to the head of lower school, added: “Discussing our personal reflections in small groups set the stage for continued engagement with dialogue around racial identity. In the week following our professional development, I have already encountered more conversations at work about the topic. Continuing to have discussions and taking time to reflect on the topic will help me to progress on my own racial identity journey. It is important for us to continue to talk about race so that individual biases can shift, and we can work towards institutional and systemic change.”

Middle School Teacher Beth Whipple shared: “I truly appreciated the opportunity to meet in small groups with colleagues in other divisions and areas of Sanford to explore challenging topics, including how our views on race were molded and changed through our varied life experiences. Our discussions were both difficult and meaningful. Because our different backgrounds and biases influence how we see and treat others, even unconsciously, a workshop such as this can help us to begin—or continue—our own journey towards equity and justice. Our students, as a result of this process, will benefit as we work to help them on that same journey. Through hard work, anti-bias curricula, and honesty, we can help our students develop positive social identities, pride, and confidence in themselves. We are all working hard to create a culture where each individual is valued and recognizes the sincerity in that goal.”

Some of the common language that Dr. Chapman helped the faculty and staff explore included:
IMPLICIT BIAS—the brain’s automatic, instant association of stereotypes or attitudes towards particular groups, without conscious awareness
RACIAL ANXIETY—the brain’s stress response before or during inter-racial interactions
STEREOTYPE THREAT—the brain’s impaired, cognitive functioning when a negative stereotype our ourselves is activated, leading to underperformance on a task
MICROAGGRESSIONS—brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.

Dr. Chap also spent some time addressing the various levels of engaging and learning about racial equality. As many of the faculty comments suggest, a good portion of the day was spent on personal introspection, which is necessary for engagement and growth. Participants were encouraged to think of ways that they could improve their own lives, practices, and relationships with others in dealing with racial equity. In addition to personal action, she described group action, which involves having critical conversations, volunteering in organizations, and/or forming a new coalition to take collaborative actions. Finally, there is institutional action that can lead to systemic change. This requires a critical examination of the power imbalances, inequitable organization and workplace structures and policies and critical dialogue about how to make positive changes.

All participants also received material from Dr. Chap that provides a brief overview of the development of difference for children. She explained that the development of self begins in infancy and continues into late adolescence. Two factors, family and nonfamilial, affect a child’s sense of self. By providing a basic outline of general benchmarks of racial and cultural identity and attitude, educators as non-familial influencers can better help children achieve those markers.

Physical Education and Health Department Chair Shannon Helmecki commented: “Dr. Chap was a passionate, interesting, and organized presenter who made sure our day had a good flow to it. In the afternoon breakout session, our group discussion went well, and everyone felt safe enough to openly share their experiences. We obviously have more work to do, as thoughtful work such as this leads to more questions and a desire to continue to seek answers. I hope we can continue to build upon this foundation and even expand it to consider how to best assist our large population of international students.”

In her closing remarks, Dr. Chap encouraged everyone to try and make just one change. Cushing immediately took that to heart. She explained: “In eighth-grade English we read The Silence of our Friends and Dear Martin, which are focused on race, identity, and power. I have had some difficult conversations with my students, and I am proud of how they handled them this year. When I teach these novels again, however, I plan to give my students some quiet time to personally reflect on social injustice. I am hoping that this personal time for reflection will make the conversations easier and lessen their anxiety. Dr. Chap urged us to remember that it is our job to do better for our students. We must educate ourselves and find appropriate groups for us to discuss how we are handling racial anxiety while providing our students with the space to embrace their racial identity.”

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