Teaching and Learning About Race: Fantastic Practice in Early Childhood
Our goal of raising children to thrive in a healthy and just multiracial democracy necessitates an education system that supports honest and open teaching and learning about race and racism, past and present. It may be easier for some to envision these conversations about complex social issues among teenagers and their high school teachers. But we must also fight to protect the ability of early childhood educators to guide young children toward foundational understandings of human diversity and social justice.
What does healthy and developmentally appropriate teaching and learning about race look like in early childhood classrooms? Watch the conversation in which we try to envision the education we must ensure for our children.
EmbraceRace: Tonight, you're here for this webinar called Teaching and Learning About Race: Fantastic Practice in Early Childhood. It's part of a series that we're doing. There was a previous one and there'll be more. The whole series about is about organizing in defense of racial learning. And the last webinar that we had was about racial learning in schools, past, present, future. The curricular and the non-curricular ways that kids are learning about race. And today, we're delving into great practice in early childhood because we embrace race and assume that if you want to raise kids who are healthy and thrive in a multiracial democracy, that you need to talk about race because they're noticing it anyway. And in order to not promote the status quo, to change, to make things more just, we need to be able to talk about what they're seeing, what we're seeing, and what we can do.
Both guests are people we've rubbed elbows with before and we're really glad to spend more time with them this evening. Victor Bradley, Jr. is an anti-bias and anti-racist educator who believes you're never too young to change the world. Victor, we agree. He has over 30 years of experience teaching in elementary and early childhood settings and over 20 years training and consulting to serve young children, families in school communities. Victor, thank you for doing that work. In his spare time, because I know you have so much of it, he enjoys music, experiences in nature, cooking, practicing Reiki. He also loves spending time with his 11-year-old daughter, Hazel, and his partner, Sabina. Victor, welcome.
Victor Bradley, Jr.: It's great to be here. Thank you.
EmbraceRace: Verónica Reynoso is a Mentor Teacher at Hilltop Children's Center in Seattle, Washington. She is a first generation Mexican-American, born and raised in Chicago. She's also taught preschool in Chicago and in Seattle. Her life experience and her experience at an Epiphany Early Learning helped shape her strong commitment to anti-bias and anti-racist education with young children. She has published in Learning Together with Young Children: A Curriculum Framework for Reflective Teachers and in Exchange Magazine. Verónica was also featured in the film Reflecting on Anti-bias Education in Action: The Early Years, which we filmed here as part of a special webinar series and met Verónica and think she's awesome.
Let's start with where we like to begin. Victor, what is your personal connection to this work? What would you like to share about why you do what you do?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: Yeah. I grew up in a really White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant town as an African inheritance child. And so, I wasn't surrounded by this work. And then I came to Boston, came to school, went to Wheelock to do race work, particularly for young children. And I was like, "Wow!" I just tuned into it right away. And it got me really excited. But then I had to figure out how to do it. And that was challenging. It was not easy at first. I made lots of mistakes. I tried things out. I called on my mentors. And then finally and slowly started to get the hang of it and really got a rhythm and felt very comfortable doing this work.
EmbraceRace: You were saying that you went to Wheelock in Boston and that's when you encountered the work. Was it through a course?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: It was actually an anti-biased course that was taken and that just turned me on right away.
EmbraceRace: Okay. Well, we're glad you took that course.
Verónica, what is your connection to this work?
Verónica Reynoso: As you mentioned when you were introducing me, like I grew up in Chicago. And I'm first generation. And I grew up in the neighborhood of Pilsen, which most of the folks in that neighborhood shared my lived experience, were either immigrants from Mexico or other Latin American countries or first generation. And even when I began teaching, I was teaching in a Head Start program close to Pilsen, so a lot of my students also had the same lived experience. I was teaching in Spanish. And then I moved to Seattle because I fell in love with my first spring break out here. And then I started teaching at Epiphany. And while my lived experience was homogenous in one way in Chicago, it was homogenous in a very different way in Seattle, where I did not see my culture as present, not in my everyday life or in teaching children.
I was working in Madrona, which was a very high socioeconomic status school, mostly White children. And so it was a whole new world to me. And I started professional development and going to our monthly staff meetings, where we were having really intentional conversations about race and anti-bias education and anti-racist education, which was so new to me. And I was confused. I had a lot of questions, but it was also really great to reflect internally and with my peers to start diving into that work. And ever since, I just realized how it's just rooted in me and it's a part of who I am and want to continue that work.
EmbraceRace: Right now, there's a lot of talk about learning about race and difference in school. And there are a lot of folks who are particularly unsure about it with really young kids, even though kids notice things very early. I mean, we teach them to categorize, and they do it themselves.
Can you tell me more about your approach to your teaching? What does healthy and developmentally appropriate teaching about race look like at this age?
Verónica Reynoso: At this age, I think the most important thing that we can do is to listen and to observe. Kids are highly capable of having conversations, and they're having them with each other. And when they're playing and when they're speaking to one another, they're taking all these snippets that they're hearing, even things that they're not hearing, things that they may be observing. From body language to we're listening to NPR in the car while they're in the back seat. They're interpreting everything and interpreting theories and it comes out in their play. I've had kids outside in a courtyard, completely unprovoked or anything, just sit in a circle or they're reading their newspapers. And this was around the time that Trump was elected and they were talking about some of the ideas that he was bringing up.
And so, a lot of what they're taking in, they're acting it out in some kind of way. They are playing it out, they're testing their theories. It's really important for us to observe and listen so that we can respond. And even if we don't have a response right away or might feel uncomfortable with it, for us to really think about it so that we can be intentional in our response to them. I think that's step number one.
EmbraceRace: Victor, you're nodding.
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I completely agree. I want to echo many things that you said. And I also want to add that one of the things that I really got excited about when I started doing this work was doing activism with young children. And how developmentally appropriate that was. And when I first started, I never thought that would be a possibility. But when President Trump went in the White House, they were going to a lot of marches. Kids were going to women's marches. Kids were going to all different kinds of things and standing up with their families. And so, it made sense to bring that in the classroom and follow up and do things with them.
And we ended up just talking about Cesar Chavez and then connecting that to today. And talking Wendy's didn't have produce that was with union organized people that were farmers at the time. We ended up writing to Wendy's. We ended up talking to the school about it. We ended up walking up and down the hallways or university at the time, and talking to professors, students, and really influencing, feeling really powerful about that. And kids brought that home with them and talked to their grandparents about it, talked to their relatives, talked to their friends that, "We shouldn't eat at Wendy's that this is why."
They made these connections that, even though they were young, they could make these big changes and also feel powerful. And feel like they could actually do something to make something happen. And be like Cesar Chavez, who they had learned about.
EmbraceRace: Children are learning very, very early, almost out of the womb, they're engaging with race and ethnicity and so on, identity generally. And we know, and I'm sure you appreciate too, that there are lots of parents in particular and some educators who will also say, "No, no, no. I mean maybe young children, some young children, but certainly not my young child." And there's this idea that children are racially innocent, that we need to protect that innocence as long as we can so don't talk about race. This is especially true of White parents, but not only White parents of White children.
In your role as teachers, have you had those conversations where people are resistant to this work? What do you say to open a parent to the possibility that no, actually, even their child is engaging race and therefore, we need to engage them as well? What do you say to them?
Verónica Reynoso: Yeah, I point even to the research of children are starting to develop biases even as early as six months old. And by the time they're reaching about seven years of age, they're really solidifying their ideologies, about race and class and all that isms. And so, I think it's important for us to talk about it in this early age.
I also point out how a lot of us have this framework around the word "curriculum." A lot of people think that it's this prepackaged thing. Like, "Today, we're going to talk about this topic." But the way that anti-bias and anti-racism in this age is developed is again, we're listening. It's in response to what children are already saying. It's not like we're bringing up these topics. There are times where we intentionally bring up topics. But it's typically because it's in response to something that children are already talking about before we even bring it up.
It is our way of creating a safe environment for children to talk about things because when we are hushing things for the sake of their innocence, we're creating taboos. We're creating a place where they're not going to want to talk about it, because they're feeling hushed or like there's something wrong with what they're saying. It's really up to us to create that safe environment for open dialogue.
And even if we have differing perspectives, that's an important piece of it, too. How do we engage in conversations with people who have differing perspectives from us in a way that we can have empathy towards one another, share perspectives, and have respect for one another? It's a huge part of the human experience. It's never neat and perfect, but we're all learning in this together.
How do we engage in conversations with people who have differing perspectives from us in a way that we can have empathy towards one another, share perspectives, and have respect for one another? It's a huge part of the human experience. It's never neat and perfect, but we're all learning in this together.
EmbraceRace: Two of the things I heard you say, Verónica, were, one, no, really, it's not just you saying so or any of us individuals saying so. We actually have a mountain of evidence that kids are engaging with race very early. And, second, that, yeah, even if they're not bringing it up proactively, that you want to make a space for them to know that it's safe to do so, certainly with you.
Victor, what are your thoughts? I wonder if you've had the experience of having an educator push back against anti-racist education for young children?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: Being a teacher for a long time, I ran into a lot of roadblocks at times. And sometimes it was parents, sometimes it was administrators, and sometimes it was people I worked with, or even people that I was supposed to be mentoring. And they had a really difficult time thinking about, "Why are we reading this book? Why are we talking about this subject? Why did you answer them in that way?" And so I always would say just, at the time, "Just sit and listen to the child and listen to how I'm talking to them. And then we can talk about it after."
And a lot of times, if I do a lot of listening, particularly to a parent who might be upset, who might be confused, if I keep listening and I keep hearing what they're saying, sometimes I find one little thing that they've been hurt in a certain way or confused in a certain way, and I can talk about that with them and get them more on board. And the same with that teacher. That just sort of happens. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes the person is not ready. But I keep talking about those teachable moments with children, and sometimes there isn't a curriculum. You just are able to just talk about it over lunch, when something comes up or somebody says something, and then you get to talk to the parent after school or write an email and talk to them about it in that way, so they are informed about the conversation you had.
I feel like keeping parents in the loop all the time is probably the most important thing. And I always offer that to my parents. If a child comes home and says something that they're confused about, "Let's talk about it the next day." That way we develop safety between the parent and the adult, so they feel comfortable with this work as well. It really is important to get parents on board first. The children are ready and thirsty for this work. It's really the parents that you really need to get on board first, so they feel comfortable that you're doing this work with their child.
Keeping parents in the loop all the time is probably the most important thing... That way we develop safety between the parent and the adult, so they feel comfortable with this work as well... The children are ready and thirsty for this work. It's really the parents that you really need to get on board first, so they feel comfortable that you're doing this work with their child.
Victor Bradley, Jr.
EmbraceRace: You don't have to say, "I'm teaching X, Y, Z." You can be like, "The kids are asking about this, and we're going to talk about this..." Isn't that one of the ways to show parents?
Is part of the work, in terms of communicating with the parents, just making it clear, taking good notes on what's happening in the classroom and making it clear this is coming up?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: Yes.
EmbraceRace: Yeah. It's a good strategy, right?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: Absolutely.
EmbraceRace: We heard you guys talk about being receptive, meeting children and parents where they are, and being willing to take the conversation forward. You both talked about not having a formal curriculum necessarily, but being available.
What are the dispositions that teachers should have going in to do this work? And I think that's not always obvious to people. So I wonder if you guys can talk about that, those ways of being or the self-work?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: Yeah, I think the first thing I always think about is, is the school on board that I'm working at? Is the administration thinking about it? Is there a board involved? Are they on board? You need that kind of backing as an educator before you even start doing this work. And then really, I always go to books. That's my go-to all the time, and, fortunately, we're at a great time where there are a lot of great books coming out on all these topics. There needs to be more, obviously. We're still lacking, but it's a good time for that. So, that's another place that I always go. And then, again, listening to kids, listening to conversations, and really looking at what's happening in the room. What are kids playing? What are they attracted to? And going with their lens and then expanding that.
Let's say I was doing something with construction. I would think about, okay, construction workers, what are the stereotypes? And what do we want to teach kids about? We want to teach kids about maybe green building and how to do that. Are there women in construction? What's the gender like? Go into parks, and how do we do green parks? So just looking at just the stereotype of a construction "man," so to speak, and a construction "vehicle," taking them to another level and expanding that. So, really just taking where they are and pointing out different things to them so they can see different parts of the world.
EmbraceRace: So you're asking what's not being discussed here, who's not being represented? What's been made invisible, and how can I, yeah, elevate it?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: Yes. Absolutely.
EmbraceRace: Verónica, what do you think? What's the approach before you even enter the classroom?
Verónica Reynoso: I completely agree with everything that Victor was saying. I think it is really important to be in a school where you feel supported and where you feel safe to do this work. So, having your administrator's support and family's support is really important. I think another piece of it, too, is we're doing this work in tandem with children, but it's a cycle of reflecting with your peers, with children, and doing a lot of internal reflection. Thinking about things like, "Hmm, that moment made me feel a little uncomfortable. Why is that?" Or, "Something's stumped me. Why is that?" And remembering that sometimes you don't have to have an immediate response. So, sometimes there are moments where you can have a short-term response or moment, whether it's "I have an answer," or "I'll get back to you on that." And then you can elaborate with a more long-term response to dive a little bit deeper. So, I think that's really important.
There's a lot of things just happening simultaneous. I do agree that books are a wonderful tool, and it brings up so many conversations that you wouldn't realize would come out of even simple children's books that aren't necessarily tied to race. I remember a child, we had a really great conversation about why do the male presenting characters in this book have lines for mouths instead of lips, where the female presenting characters had the full lips and they have colored cheeks, like blush.
And I would also say that we ourselves as educators and as people in the classroom are a huge provocation of conversation in and of itself. I find that when I'm freely myself and talking about just who I am with children and with families, it brings up conversations. For example, I've done boxing for five or more years, and that's brought up conversations about gender roles, and it brought up conversations about consent, because a kid told me, "My parents told me that fighting is wrong." So, we talked about how you can do that in places where you have everyone's permission to do it. So, I think we, in and of ourselves, if we are comfortable with being vulnerable with who we are, we're also inviting children and families to be vulnerable with us.
EmbraceRace: I'm thinking of little Victor and little Verónica as young children probably not getting the kind of support that you're offering your students, because almost none of us did and relatively few kids do now. Verónica, you also mentioned the community of educators supporting each other and bouncing things past each other.
What's at stake? What if you had had one or more teachers who are trying to do what you are trying to do with your students and other educators?
Verónica Reynoso: There is a lot at stake in terms of our identity and who we are. And a part of why I do this work is because I'm trying to turn all the no's that I got into yes's for the children that I work with. Up to last year I have let my peers and my students call me Veronica, where I was raised by two Spanish-speaking parents who didn't speak any English. My name is Verónica. It isn't until last year where I'm just like, "Why am I still allowing people to call me by my name in English?" There are little things like that that you don't realize really impact your identity and how you bring yourself forward out into the world.
So I think that children having the support in being comfortable with who they are helps them be comfortable with the world around them and just creates such a much more empathetic and genuine human experience where we're all able to care for one another in a much more authentic way, and celebrate one another and be there for each other in a way I can't even imagine.
Children having the support in being comfortable with who they are helps them be comfortable with the world around them and just creates such a much more empathetic and genuine human experience where we're all able to care for one another in a much more authentic way, and celebrate one another and be there for each other in a way I can't even imagine.
EmbraceRace: Victor, what do you think is at stake?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I think that's why I became an early childhood educator, to set a different tone and set up an environment where all children feel included. That was the most important thing. I always felt like I was "other" or left out or wasn't in the right place all the time trying to fit into a place that I could never fit into. So, I really don't want children to feel that way. And if they do feel that way, I want them to be able to tell me they feel that way, too. To have that space so they can be like, "This isn't right. I don't feel comfortable here," and I can change it. So that's, I think, a big reason why, to make people feel more comfortable.
EmbraceRace: We're getting a lot of questions from people asking for specific things to do in relation to parents. Is there something you do, when you start off the year, in order to bring kids' cultures into the classroom? What are your favorite ways for winning the parents over or getting them involved in this curriculum early?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I usually start my year with a curriculum night, and really just go through explicitly what we're going to talk about, we're going to do. You walk into my room and you know something big is going to happen with the posters on the wall. So, when parents come in, they may never come until the curriculum night, they've never been in the room. So, that's a big deal. The next thing I do is I invite parents to come in and talk about their family traditions. And that was a game changer, when I use that term. When I was inviting parents to come and talk about their holidays or whatever it was, and come in and do something, it always was the families of color. A lot of Jewish families would come, some Muslim families would come, but the White families and European families would be left behind. They wouldn't feel like they had a culture or there's something missing. They didn't feel included. They felt like they didn't have anything to offer.
But once I turned it to "family traditions," everyone felt like they could come and talk and read a story or, "We bake bread every week," or, "We go on a fall crunchy walk in September as a family every year," and photographs and books about that. So then we got to see each family's platform and who they were, and each child got to feel proud of that. I think those kind of setups set up this environment where everyone feels heard, everyone feels thought about. So, when you're doing some of the harder work or some of the controversial things come up that some people get scared about, you can go back to, "We all know each other. We're all in this together."
Verónica Reynoso: I do a lot of what Victor has done. Even from enrollment, we're asking parents about what is important to them as a family, what are traditions that are important to them, what makes their child special to them, and who they are outside of school, who are they as a family? We're really trying to show that we're trying to not only get to know your child, but who you are as a family. It's not just about the child. It's about the whole family. And building those relationships is critical.
As Victor had mentioned before, you're partnering with families. You're letting them be a part of this and continually having conversations with them, because when you get to those harder pieces, the strength of the relationship becomes so important, because I believe that the stronger your relationship is, the more you're able to hold tension together and actually grow together afterwards. I see my strong relationships as the ones where I can have hard conversations. I think it shows the depth of our relationships. So, we really want to invite them at the start of the year, have gatherings, invite them out with us, share stories around birthdays. Sometimes we'll ask, "Share a little bit more about your family and how you celebrate this." We don't want things to be at a surface level. We want to dive deeper into these traditions and what they mean for them.
EmbraceRace: Now I love the picture you're both painting. It's really actually so subversive in an incredibly healthy way. If you think about education or the standard model of education in this country where the students are sitting down, they're all in chairs, they're facing forward, the teacher is clearly the authority in the room. The teacher typically doesn't share of themselves. Right? It's always a very professional face, but we talk about bringing yourself into the classroom and your experiences, and then inviting them to do the same. Right? And again, not just who they are in a limited sense sitting in the classroom, but yes, family traditions. It's democratizing that classroom space in a way that is inherently empowering, compared to what we, again, traditionally have done with students, especially little kids. So that's really wonderful.
Verónica, I told you I would ask you this. You were featured in Reflecting on Anti-bias Education in Action: The Early Years, Wonderful film. I know it's gotten a lot, a lot, a lot of views. What has this film meant for you and your trajectory as an educator to get that attention be featured in that way?
Verónica Reynoso: Yeah. It's been an incredible opportunity to be a part of that film. When I was going to college for my undergrad in early childhood education, that was a part of my course. I watched the movie, the original one, and I remember watching and just being like, "There's a lot that has happened since then." And this work, it's ongoing, it's always growing, it's always changing. We're always learning more. So to be a part of this new adaptation of it over 10 years later, and to really show the work that is being done now has been amazing.
As much as I don't like being the front facing person, it's really motivating to inspire other educators to do this work. To have people asking, "How do we get support from our admin? How do we get support from our families to do this work?" Because just that first step is so crucial and important to get the ball rolling on doing this work together and to be able to provide this for children and our families and to help everyone feel supported. So it truly has been a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk with more educators from all over the world and have these critical conversation.
EmbraceRace: Congratulations on that.
Verónica Reynoso: Thank you.
Victor Bradley, Jr.: If you haven't seen the film, you should see it. It's incredible. It's an incredible film.
EmbraceRace: We did an interview with a couple of the teachers and with Debbie LeeKeenan and John Nimmo who produced the film.
Victor, you talked about talking about your kids' activism and your family's activism. Lillian wants to know, "What specific community activism can a preschool or kindergarten school do for both the children and the parents so everyone's involved?"
Victor Bradley, Jr.: Yeah. I think looking at your community, looking at what children's interests are, looking at what your interests are. I always tell teachers and parents, "What are your passions? Because if you bring your passions to them, they'll be excited about it. They want to learn from you. They want to be around your excitement." So if it's like rebuilding a park, like a park that's not doing well, let's say. And so going there and cleaning it up, putting gloves on, getting things so kids are safe and having adults there too, and then writing a letter to the mayor of that city and saying, "We cleaned up the park!" Take pictures. And then all of a sudden, now we're thinking about, "Oh, the playground's a little broken, let's see what we can do for a fundraiser. Let's see what we can do to help out with that park." And that's community action right there. And families get involved, schools can get involved, but really it's wherever your passion lies. Where do you see that needs help in your community?
EmbraceRace: And so many kids love being treated like people who can make change happen.
Victor Bradley, Jr.: They do.
EmbraceRace: It doesn't have to be huge change, but it's like, "Okay, you want to know my ideas? You're encouraging me to do something? Amazing."
Sometimes we have this debate sometimes when we talk about starting with where the kids are, because some teachers can use that as an excuse not to talk about things. Victor, you gave that example of the construction worker. Well, you saw all these things that were invisible to the kids and sort of brought them forward. We're not talking about where is race implicated? Where is gender? Where is that? Solving all of these things? So it can be used in a way to sort of not give kids the information. People can limit themselves by saying, "We're only going to do what the kids actually say and what, in parentheses, and what I'm comfortable with."
Donna asks, "I totally agree and understand the primacy of listening and responding with curriculum. But given that our kids are swimming in the water of our culture all the time, don't we also need to proactively introduce concepts around race and racism, including structural racism? If you agree, I'd love to hear more about how you do that."
Verónica Reynoso: I think there is listening to what they are saying, but I think there's the other side of it and listening to what they're not talking about. I think that when you're seeing these gaps of their lived experience and knowledge, then you're able to use things like books or using your own lived experience. Because I know that one of my experiences in working with a large high socioeconomic status group of children was that they kind of had this extreme version of, "You either have a house and you have everything that you need or you're homeless." Like that was brought up a lot in my classroom, it was that two extremes. And there is so much in between. And we wound up talking a lot about what it means to need and want.
Like I shared that when I was a kid, I would go with my mom and go get our stuff from WIC, get our welfare food. And I was well, I had everything I needed, but it didn't mean that I had a house, I lived in an apartment. They think everyone had a car. I'm like, "I walk to work." They're like, "Why don't you have a car?" And I'm like, "I don't need one right now. And honestly, I can't afford one." It's bringing up those honest conversations and being able to share what they're not talking about and what they might not be seeing, and thinking critically with your co-teachers and other teachers and other thinking partners that you might have that might be able to share new perspectives with you, that you can also share with the children and with families. And it'll really inform conversations that you also want to have with parents. So it's all done in conversation to make sure that we're addressing those things that they might not be talking about and not seeing that eventually they are going to learn about as they move on through the world.
EmbraceRace: The one general theme, I think through the conversation through what you've both said is this idea of essentially denormalizing what we see. Right? So Verónica, you talked about the books, and who's in the book, who's not in the book? Whose story is it or is told from whose perspective? Who wrote the book? Not just this book, but let's look across the pattern of books. Are there patterns? Yes. What's the gender and racial demographics of construction workers, broadly speaking, of the presidency, of Senate, of teachers in schools? And then they will notice that. If they haven't already, they certainly will, explicitly if only implicitly now, and that's such a wonderful starting point. "Well, why is that? Why is that? Let's do a little bit of research or let's talk about why that might be. Is it only about people's individual preferences?" It's not only about people's preferences. I think Victor, you said, it's following then kids curiosity. And as you said, if you are interested. If the adult is interested and also a learner, then this is something we can do together.
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I totally agree with everything. I also think that we could also influence them by not just by modeling who we are, but also inviting people that you know, people that other teachers know, to come in the room that they know to talk about their life and their challenges and their struggles. I think part of the reasons why I started teaching about people of inspiration, like Cesar Chavez, is because I wanted people to know that there can be challenges and life can be really hard, but there can be a good outcome too sometimes. And their early childhood brains are very black and white, just like Verónica said. And so we're trying to develop gray as parents and as educators. So they sort of see that, "Oh, it's not just that, and that it's actually this too." So I feel like telling these stories and having different diverse people talk to them and sharing your own life and your own experiences really helps develop more of that gray.
And their early childhood brains are very black and white... We're trying to develop gray as parents and as educators... Telling these stories and having different diverse people talk to them and sharing your own life and your own experiences really helps develop more of that gray."
Victor Bradley, Jr
EmbraceRace: I don't know how far your conversation went about living in houses or apartments. A conversation might not start with them talking about race, but race is there. Race is always there. And so it's true that the adult has to be willing to go there.
Can one of you give an example of how race came up in a conversation with students, and what you did to follow through? How did you support this conversation about race?
Verónica Reynoso: Kind of going off of what Victor was saying earlier in how we're filling in the gray, I've had multiple moments during circle times and individual conversations with kids where they look at me and they're like, "Well, you're Black, right, Verónica?" And I'm just like, "No." So there's that conversation where we're diving deeper into what race means and the spectrum and the intersectionality of it all. And even there are children who are multicultural or biracial or multiracial who did not know that they were children of color.
So it was really diving deeper into what that means and how it's a part of our identity and partnering with families again, in having those conversations. And that in and of itself, the fact that we had children who were just like, "I'm not a child of color. I'm White" was another way to really bring families in. Because most of these families that I knew were really proud of their culture and their race and were then spurred by these conversations of where they were surprised to hear their children say this. So it really engaged for conversation what it all meant for what meant for identities and our culture.
EmbraceRace: We have someone asking you Verónica, "I'm curious about your thoughts on young students who embrace the English-ified pronunciations of their names? Last year I used the family's pronunciation of a student's name, but all their friends didn't and they seemed to prefer that at school."
So the teacher tried to use the original pronunciation of the name, but the student and their friends used the English. This teacher is wondering, should I just go with what they in fact seem to prefer at school, or should I respect the original pronunciation? It felt awkward.
Verónica Reynoso: That's an excellent question. And I think that is one where you truly do have to partner with the family, because I think you want to honor the child and the child's choice, but you also want to check in with the family, because I sometimes think about, I grew up in a mostly Spanish speaking population and I went to school with children who all spoke Spanish and looked like me, but all my teachers were White. So I was hearing my name in English and all my friends' names in English.
And when I think about the impact of that, not just on me, but also on my parents, I think of how that must have impacted their experience coming from Mexico to the US to hear their names and their child's names in English and what that impact was for them. And so I think that's a conversation to have with the child, with the family, because I think you can all come to something together because I want to honor the child, and at the same time, I wonder what impacts that can have if we just default to the English pronunciation. So I don't have a solid answer, and that is sometimes the case because it is so imperfect, but I think that is a piece where it is going to really call for partnering with families to come together with an answer.
EmbraceRace: Victor, we've gotten some questions about what you do if you aren't in a supportive environment for doing this work, if you're in fact in an environment where it's challenged? Have you worked with educators in that position?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I have. And I keep bringing it back to have everybody feeling safe and back to kindness. That's really what it's about. And people so often think, "Oh, you're putting things in kids' heads or this is too radical or they don't understand," but it's really just about kindness. I'm treating everyone well and learning about other people and learning about people in their classroom who they're with every day, and families. There's such a diverse amount of families. Even if your school looks predominantly White, let's say, there's a huge diversity in that even. So, I think it's such a missed opportunity not to be doing the work. And I do a lot. When people are really upset and really confrontational, I just listen, just listen and listen and listen, and really hear what they're saying and try to sort of figure out where that hurt, where that pain is or where that confusion is. I think that's probably the most important thing.
But what I've done is I've read books, I've had those conversations when they've come up and I've explained why I've had those conversations. I remember I was at a school that actually had a gay pride assembly every year and the parents love the school and they enrolled their child in the school and they were all fine with all the other social justice work we were doing, but when it came to the gay pride assembly, they were like, "We're going to keep our family home." And I said, "Oh, why?" And so we talked about it and I said, "How about if you don't feel comfortable having your child, how about you just come? You come to the gay pride assembly, you and your partner." And they agreed. And so they came and then they were crying at the end. And said, "Why did we think that something was going to be wrong with this? Why did we not trust that you were going to be developmentally appropriate here for the whole school and for all the kids?" So, that was a win in that situation. I respected them. Their child stayed home with their grandparent and not come because they were so uncomfortable. I wanted to meet them sort of halfway. And I'm so glad they were able to come and see the assembly. Sometimes that's not always the case, but I got lucky that time.
EmbraceRace: They met you halfway too. Victor, this touches on a conversation we had before and sort of preparing for this session where I think it was you in particular who said, really a lot of parents and others obviously a part of the contact of this conversation is this anti-CRT struggle, and this attempt to squash discussion about race in history and in the present. And in that context, you were saying part of the problem is a lot of people have this really fear based idea about what we're talking about. What is happening. And I think you said, "Come on in. Let's talk about what's happening. Because if you see what we're talking about, it's very likely that few of you would think this is some horrible theory." It's like, oh, just like, yes, they showed up to the pride assembly. It's like, "Oh, this is lovely. There's no issue here." So I think that's a huge piece. Of course, some parents would be upset presumably to know what you might be saying.
Listening to both of you, you're both really experienced, you're really good about what you do, you're very thoughtfully put in the work. You are not now presumably who you were when you started this journey. And I think a real challenge for a lot of teachers is making that transition. Not that we ever arrive. We continue to do the work of course, but there is this area, perhaps earlier in your careers, earlier in your work where yes, you're making more, let's call them mistakes or having more conversations you wish you had framed differently. And there are a lot of educators and we certainly meet some who say, well, two things. One, parents who say, "Gosh, I don't know if I want a teacher sort of practicing on my child." And educators who fear putting their foot in it because they're not what they will become if they know with greater experience.
Any words of wisdom for those educators in transition?
Verónica Reynoso: Sometimes it's not what you want to hear, but the fact is, you're going to mess up. And that's a part of this work. It is messy. It is imperfect. And it's all about learning side by side, together with the children and with families. I think that we really have to shift our minds from thinking of mistakes as a deficit. Mistakes are how we grow. We can be comfortable and that's fine, but we're not going to grow in a place of comfort. We need to be uncomfortable and we need to embrace discomfort because it's that discomfort that leads to this fear. It's the unknown that creates fear. So dive deep into it, get messy and just really get into this work. Even if it's just dipping a toe, eventually you'll be submerged.
Mistakes are how we grow. We can be comfortable and that's fine, but we're not going to grow in a place of comfort. We need to be uncomfortable and we need to embrace discomfort because it's that discomfort that leads to this fear. It's the unknown that creates fear. So dive deep into it, get messy and just really get into this work. Even if it's just dipping a toe, eventually you'll be submerged.
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I totally agree with that. And like you said, that discomfort is when you know sort of things are happening. I think if it everyone's comfortable and feel safe, then you're really not moving things. And I think that's why it's so important to develop relationships with families and with their teaching team, really having an open dialogue with them. And I always sit down with my team at the beginning of the year and say, "So I'm probably going to say sexist things and I want you to call me out on it. And you might say racist things to me. So I hope I have permission to call you out on it." So you have to start from the base of your team and then with the parents and then with the children and sort of have this place where people can be messy, and clean up.
EmbraceRace: Caitlin's asking, "Our nursery school is interested in having a community read for the parents and educators around anti-racism. Is there a book you find particularly useful for parents of this age group?" Or maybe just resources?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I have my mentors, and they have books, and they're great. And I think for people though, they have to sort of find that book where it resonates with them and what book they're drawn to. I know for myself, it was The Anti-Biased Curriculum book when I was at Wheelock. That was the book that really caught me. And I keep that always and still refer to it and recommend it to people, educators, and parents. It's really great. The other book that I always keep near me and close is Beyond Heroes and Holidays, which is another great book by Enid Lee and others. So those are my books from the old school and they've been around for a long time and they're still great books. And I feel like parents and educators can use those books.
Verónica Reynoso: That was the one, The Anti-Biased Curriculum one is the one that I refer to. But I definitely agree with Victor because there are books written from different perspectives. So I think you really have to find the one that does resonate with you to help guide your practice and also in working with children. And even the ones that you don't resonate with, like even with children and with adults, there are times where I think it can be important to look at things that you might not resonate with to kind of understand why not also, and to gain new perspective. So I think it is important to really look for multiple resources written through different lenses.
EmbraceRace: Obviously we have some retrenchment in this work. We have a real pushback against the kind of work that we do. It's polarizing here. In so many other ways, we have a lot of people who are actually picking up this mantle and newly appreciating, in many cases, we need to do this work. We've seen our membership grow significantly over the last two years because more parents and educators are saying, "I know this is important. I just don't know how to do it. So can you help?" So both things are happening at once.
What are you seeing in the country today Where are we going?? How are you thinking about it? What's leaving you hopeful?
Victor Bradley, Jr.: I think for me that the word "anti-racist" is on the news every night excites me. Before, people were like, "Oh, Victor, don't write that in the newsletter. Say something different." Now that's a word in our society. People are starting to look at, whether they like it or not, it's here. And that gets me really excited. It gets me excited that people, friends of mine, who I've known for years are now asking me if I'm okay when things go wrong. And they never even did that before. And they're becoming more aware of just things in the world, which their world was very closed before.
They were just going to work and coming home. And they didn't really see any of the work that I did important, even. So now they're like, "Wow, this is really important that you're doing this work" and they're commenting on Facebook. You know what I mean? It's just, I feel like that's exciting that people, their eyes are open, their lenses have changed. Instead of using the word bulk, I use lens change and that their lenses have gotten sharper. And they're seeing things differently now. That excites me.
Verónica Reynoso: Ditto on all of that. We're seeing people polarizing from one another, and that is the importance of this work, is that we're trying to build empathy in these children so that they can talk about anti-racism and be supportive of one another so that we are filling the gray and also just creating a much more empathetic and caring human experience. So I think that with children learning this way, we're going to move away from that polarizing perspective that's currently happening. So I really want to set children up for success that way. And in the same way that it's exciting to hear anti-racism in the news every day, it's also exciting to hear my friends who are now starting to have kids ask me questions and ask me for tips about how to talk to other children about it. Because I always have heard about it obviously as this is what we're doing in school, but now it's really going into everyday life, everyday conversation. And the fact that we're talking about this every day with friends, with family, with educators from all over the world... We're talking about it and that's the most important part.
EmbraceRace: You guys give us hope. It's so true. Just doing the work we do, we see hard things, but we see all the people doing the work. It's really impressive and we learn a lot. I would be remiss if I didn't mention our Color-Brave Community, which is an early childhood community for parents, educators, others who care, especially for BIPOC, Black, Indigenous children, and children of color who are young, zero to eight. I mention it now because in the fall, we're going to have a summit on exactly this sort of celebrating the work and the people doing the kind of work that you do. So please for Victor, Verónica, and for those watching, those interested, stay tuned, we'll let you know more about that, but there's a lot of great and inspiring work and wonderful people doing it. So please don't lose heart.
I want to shout out to Louise Derman-Sparks who's in the chat there, anything by Louise Derman-Sparks, you should read. That would be a great place to start. Thank you so much, Victor and Verónica. You were lovely. Huge appreciation for your coming and especially for the work that you do every day. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming folks. Bye-bye.
Books for Adults
- Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Second Edition by Louise Derman-Sparks, Julie Olsen Edwards, Catherine Goins (2020)
- Beyond Heroes and Holidays, edited by Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart, Margo Okazawa-Rey (2011)
Film and Resources
- Reflecting on Anti-bias Education in Action: The Early Years, produced by Debbie LeeKeenan and John Nimmo, free to stream and to access the guidebook, in English and Spanish (2021)
- Anti-bias Education in the Early Years - the film producers & educators in conversation with EmbraceRace (2021)