I live in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC that is home to about 235,000 people. My sister, who lived in Arlington before my husband and I moved here, used to refer to it as “The People’s Republic of Arlington” because of its solidly left-leaning politics: for example, it was the first community in the country to win the LEED for Communities award from the U.S. Green Building Council; it stands with immigrant families in its refusal to perform federal immigration law enforcement functions; and its school system is now finalizing new policies to safeguard the rights of transgender students.
And Arlington is exactly the kind of community that equity expert and activist Paul Gorski takes issue with.
Paul Gorski's 2017 talk "Equity Pitfalls" on YouTube
At last week’s Progressive Education Network conference at the University of Minnesota, Gorski opened his keynote with the provocation that honest talks about race, justice, and inequity are, in his experience, hardest for groups of liberal white people. Quoting from Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Gorski argued that “lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” “Lukewarm acceptance,” according to MLK, is the response of the individual “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
As I listened to Gorski’s talk, I thought about my own community and the schools my children attend. Have we been “lukewarm” in our approach to equity and justice? By Gorski’s lights, yes—and I’m afraid he’s right.
My daughter’s elementary school serves a student population that is 71% White. 7% are English Language Learners, and about 8% of its students live in families identified as Economically Disadvantaged. This demographic profile mirrors that of nearby elementary schools in the northern half of the county.
South of Route 50, however, school populations look quite different. In many of those elementary schools, white students comprise between 20-40% of enrollments; although individuals identifying as Latinx account for just 15% of the county’s overall population, several schools in south Arlington are one-half to two-thirds Latinx.
Our family moved to Arlington from nearby Alexandria when my son was ready to start elementary school because the school system has a well-deserved reputation for quality. We picked our neighborhood based on its elementary school, which has an arts focus and a partnership with a community theater company. It happens to be north of Route 50, which didn’t seem like a meaningful distinction at the time but which we grew to appreciate as cavernous $1-2 million homes have sprung up like mushrooms replacing the older, smaller homes like ours.
Last year, my son elected to transfer to a middle school south of Route 50 because it was significantly less crowded than the middle school for which we were zoned. His school is 29% White and 52% of its students are English Language Learners. Being a part of this school community has been an education for me.
Paul Gorski argues that the first step towards equity and justice is recognizing inequity—a move that sounds deceptively simple. In truth it’s hard to do, particularly for people in positions of power and privilege who may not routinely find themselves on the receiving end of unjust encounters.
I write with some embarrassment that it wasn’t until my son began middle school that I began to recognize all kinds of inequities in our neighborhood elementary school—small things that Paul Gorski calls “micro-humiliations.” For example, every communication I get from the middle school appears in English and Spanish—there is no need for Spanish-speaking families to raise their hand for translation help. Monthly PTA meetings are bilingual affairs—in English with Spanish translation at the Tuesday evening meeting, and in Spanish with English translation on Saturday mornings. To ensure that all students can participate in school activities regardless of economic status, the school provides things like band uniforms and instrument rentals—there’s no need to ask for scholarships or make special arrangements.
Practices like these are routine in many districts; my point here is not that Arlington is doing something exceptional, but that parents in Arlington schools that are “north of the border” aren’t seeing it—and therefore aren’t thinking about the qualitative differences experienced by the small percentage of families in their own school communities who don’t conform in some way to the White, upper-middle-class norm.
At our neighborhood elementary school, where this year I’m the PTA President, “Include Others” is one of the values promoted to students. When it comes to equity and diversity, “including others” has often meant things like multicultural celebrations, an SEL curriculum that teaches respect for other cultures and identities, service learning projects like canned food drives to benefit local families in need, and financial assistance to the school’s own families in need, discreetly arranged through the school’s counselors and social worker so that all students have the chance to participate in field trips, book fairs, and the dozens of other things that parents write checks for each school year.
In my experience, these are pretty standard moves in fairly affluent suburban schools. Here’s the cold water that Paul Gorski threw on my thinking about these moves last week:
Celebrating diversity without racial justice is taking advantage of people of color for what Gorski calls “the gentle education” of white people. It is an act of privilege.
Prioritizing “culture” and “cultural diversity” over more honest and uncomfortable conversations about power and privilege in a school is an act of privilege. “We don’t get to justice through peace and harmony,” Gorski argues. “We get to peace and harmony through justice. If your school’s focus is on peace and harmony, you’re getting it backwards.” He counsels, “There are going to be white people who feel like they no longer belong at your organization. That is a gift to your organization.”
Initiatives like grit, growth mindset, SEL, cultural competence, and trauma-informed practice can become detours around real justice and equity work if they are enacted upon individuals and groups to moderate their responses to a system of education that is historically unjust—that is, if they become what Gorski calls “strategies to help marginalized people cope with being marginalized in your institution.”
“There is an expiration date on good intentions.” Paul Gorski wasn’t looking directly at me when he said this to a roomful of die-hard liberals—but he could have been. Even a move to generate dialogue around these topics is not enough: “dialogue without action is privilege.”
If not multicultural celebrations and service learning projects, what should be happening in elementary schools like mine? Gorski urges this: Commit to becoming a threat to the existence of injustice in our spheres of influence. Can we recognize those injustices and inequities in our school communities, in things like our curriculum, modes of communication, policies like dress codes, and comments that expose deficit-based attitudes? Do we have the will to be that threat?
Tomorrow morning I’m meeting with the staff member who supports my elementary school’s bilingual Latinx families. I have many questions, including:
How many families with students at the school speak only Spanish at home?
What information are they currently getting, and how are they getting it? What are their communication preferences?
Above and beyond language, what makes it difficult for them to participate in the school community—for their children to engage with other kids and their teachers, and for parents and other adult family members to engage with school staff and other families?
How do they feel about some of the school’s current initiatives like Hispanic Heritage Month Read-Ins and the school’s International Night?
What changes would they make to the school so it feels more equitable and inclusive?
What ideas and talents would they like to contribute, and are they currently able to do so?
I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, and I suspect that many other parents like me with kids at similar schools don’t know, either. If your answer to the questions above is “I don’t know,” I encourage you to find a way to ask—and then act on what you learn.
I am in a position to influence how my school and related organizations like the PTA engage our Spanish-speaking families and what resources we have to put towards that engagement. I have a lot to learn about these students and their families, and as a school we have a long way to go in performing the complex, sometimes uncomfortable, and utterly necessary work of creating a more just and equitable environment.
Have you been on a similar journey? Are you willing to share what you’ve learned with me and a wider audience? I’d love to hear from you.
Paul Gorski, "Avoiding Racial Equity Detours," Educational Leadership, April 2019.
Rick Wormeli, "Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking?" AMLE, November 2018.
Abigail Wacker, "Closing the Engagement Gap: A Social Justice Imperative," Center for Inspired Teaching, April 2019.
Katy Swalwell, "Why Our Students Need Equity Literacy," Teaching Tolerance, December 21, 2011.