by David D'Altorio, 7th grade teacher
On a Wednesday morning in December, I sat with six other TPS teachers and administrators in a cavernous event hall inside of Atlanta’s CNN Center. Around us were some 5,000 fellow educators, administrators, and students, gathered together in a field of folding chairs beneath the blue-gold glare of lights to celebrate the opening ceremonies of the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) 2016 People of Color Conference. It was a powerful and energizing ceremony that featured musical performances by students and one of the most powerful speeches I have ever seen, delivered by renowned civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. If you’ve not seen or heard him speak, I highly recommend spending some time cruising YouTube or picking up his book, Just Mercy.
In the subsequent days, I met, talked, and thought with some of those educators in various workshops where we explored topics from the power and pervasiveness of the white gaze, how to incorporate critical race theory into curriculum design, and alternative approaches to teaching the Civil Rights Era. These workshops were stimulating and challenging as a teacher, and forced me to question some of the ways I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, as well as how the systemic and catastrophic challenges faced by the protagonist of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are connected to our nation’s earliest interactions with and perceptions of Native people.
I also gathered with the many white educators and administrators in attendance during the affinity group sessions, where, in the safety of defined racial groups, we explored challenges and experiences particular to people of our racial identity. The history and politics of white people at the PoCC is fascinating. The conference’s mission states that it is a “safe space for leadership and professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds.” That was certainly reflected in the attendance demographics and the overall spirit of the conference, though throughout and since I have wrestled with the question of whether I, as a white person, should choose to occupy that space. I haven’t come to a resolution on that question, but I think it’s a valuable one for white educators who attend or are thinking of attending to ask themselves. It’s also led me to think more carefully and critically about how our nonwhite students and colleagues navigate our predominantly white school.
This Friday at our Middle School Encuentro, some of us who attended PoCC this year got the chance to share a bit of our experience with the students, and in particular a video of Royce Mann, one of the students who performed at that electrifying opening ceremony. Building upon the content of his performance, we asked the students what it looks, sounds, and feels like to rise up against discrimination, fear, hate, and oppression, both here in our TPS community and in the wider world. TPS has always been a place that strives to cultivate critical, compassionate, and socially engaged citizens, and that mission is more important now than ever. We invite you to discuss the above questions with your children, to share your experiences with them, and to join us in the struggle to protect and advance human and civil rights everywhere we can.