Pushing the River Upstream

This is not how I initially intended to begin this reflection. But here’s the thing: this writing is going to be way too long. I recognize this truth. And, I’m going to name something that no writer would ever want to admit to themselves, much less aloud: most of you will not make it to the end of this reflection, unless of course you’re my mama and she’s reading to the bitter end out of loyalty and love for her daughter; she’s that kind of mama. I’m sorry, but I know this truth. There’s no way I want to edit anything out. So, here in lies the tension, right? So, instead of leading how I originally intended to, I’m going to lead with this: I am in my infancy in this work. I acknowledge my perspective is raw, unrefined, and I’ll probably cringe when reading it in a year, six months even. So many incredibly poignant people have been doing this work for many tireless decades, even many more of whom I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even know of yet (and I should). So, I’m going to lead with what I was going to end with: this is about my debt of gratitude to you for shaping my life’s work in powerful ways you’ll probably never know. I am indebted to you for influencing my thinking, inspiring my perspective, for allowing your work to leave a mark on my mind and heart, and allowing me to admire you from afar or closely alongside you. This list includes those I admire and strive to be like one day when I grow up: activist teachers, teacher educators, scholars and researchers, writers, poets, and artists. This post is about what you have inspired me to rethink, revise, and have the courage to act upon. I must name those that have inspired my thoughts for this reflection and those that I look to faithfully to learn and grow from daily. This is for all of you and the children and families you selflessly support by your shear presence in this work (and if you’re on Twitter, follow these people): @GEduJamaica @laurenebrown19 @Jess5th @ShanMcGookin @flydaskys @tianasilvas @MisterMinor @pranikoff @ACasimirSiar @DrStachowiak @DrMaryHoward @suzrolander @jdolci @lxgino @amipolonsky @daywells @YehCathery @i_am_kdp @AmyFabrikant @RusulAlrubail @ShawnaCoppola @GeorgiaHeard1 @pernilleripp @SaraKAhmed @Kishahowell3 @erintheeducator @iChrisLehman @ernestmorrell @TyroneCHoward @drgravityg @RosaIsiah @The JLV @KatherineBomer  @MotivateEducate @bridgelitgap1 @mdawriter @BethGillis @JuliaPledl  @acuteteacher @growingjessica @Reginagrowinged @traviszinnel @hayhurst2 @bennanamy @ClintSmithIII @chrisemdin @HSamyAlim @rachelkwoodward @mel_katzz @MzUrbanEducator @christipedigo & countless other mentors who haven’t discovered the connective web of Twitter, I am indebted to you all, too.

Now, let’s get to it. This reflection is about privilege, power, and oppression.

Not just my privilege and power, nor just yours. But collective privilege and power. And oppression. Systemic oppression. And, pushing back. Pushing back against systemic oppression and pushing back against the notions of privilege and power in tangible actionable ways. At least, that’s my hope in writing this tonight.

If you, as my reader, are willing to continue reading and allowing me the space to expose my shedding of layers over this past year, I appreciate your trust in this process. If this focus on privilege, power, and oppression feels like a conversation you’d rather not have right now, for whatever reason(s) bring you to this space, I respect your choice. I’ll catch up with you on my next reflection. If you’ve come to understand, long ago in your life when you were a child or an adolescent or a younger adult, what I’m going to attempt to sort out and make sense of in my head, and you find yourself thinking, “Now? She’s processing all of this now in her adult life?” and feel frustration or anger at me over this realization, I apologize. Genuinely, I do. If you are coming to realize this all now, too, and willing to journey with me in your own revision of thought, I welcome you as my partner. If you haven’t yet realized what I’m going to attempt to sort out in my mind and think, “Wow, this lady is crazy, that’s not how I see the world at all,” I’ll be here when you figure it out in your own time. I welcome you as my partner then.

I believe in transparency, so I’m going to name a few things up front:

I am an extrovert and like to crack a joke or two, and sometimes folks even laugh.

I am nearly 40 (so youngish I’d assert), with a few gray hairs and steadfastly deepening wrinkles.

I live in a coastal city, in a coastal state.

I speak the dominate language of the country within which I’ve lived my entire life.

I have full ability, both physically and cognitively.

I am college-educated.

Both my parents, still married to one another after nearly 50 years, are both college-educated.

My grandparents were college-educated, too.

I am a biological mother to two healthy children.

I am an educator.

I am middle class.

I am cisgender.

I am heterosexual.

I have blue eyes.

I am white.

I have privilege; therefore, in our society, I have power.

This privilege was given to me by right of birth into a systemically patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic society that privileges anything closest to whiteness. Privilege has been defined, by a group of wise fifth graders and their teacher that I have the pleasure of learning alongside, as the advantages, opportunities, chances, and benefits afforded to people or groups of people. I agree with their definition and is one I’ll use to frame this reflection and my reflection on life.

On May 8, 2002, I wrote this as the opening words of my Master’s thesis: “I am a product of opportunities denied to others. Based on who I was, society gave me a chance to succeed.” Sitting here tonight, processing what my words really mean to me at nearly the age 40, I question whether I’ve even fully ever understood what this statement means, especially when I wrote it at the young age of 24.

On May 8, 2016, my family came out to the world: my elementary-aged child emerged visibly into the world as a transgender boy.

It’s been a year of visibility, in a myriad tangible and metaphorical ways, for him, for me, for us all.

So, with all of this named, and again, my need to preface this writing with this verboseness to build a context for you, it does not nearly encapsulate the feelings I have about the inexcusability of my unknowing over my nearly four-decades-long lifetime. Or, plainly, my lived experience of relative ignorance and the lack of knowledge of how to actively work against an oppressive system for too many years of my life.  The one thing I do have to say, if you’re still reading this alongside me and have a bit of faith that I’ll reach a coherent thought in all of this, is this fact: I have begun to see the world for what it is. Harper Lee described Scout’s evolution of self, in her first novel Go Set a Watchman, as “coming into this world” to know the truth she’s been unable to see her entire life: that of the reality of the way within which the world works. It’s a bit of the way I’ve been feeling this past year. And believe me, I know that’s not enough, not nearly enough to have gotten to this age in my life and to only have arrived here with what little knowledge I have, ever expanding as it is, but it’s my truth. I have decades of work to do to peel away decades worth of unknowing. That’s the process of life, though, right? A wise woman expressed to me recently, “I live my life in revision.” That’s me right now, and truthfully, me over this past year.

I fully expect that this reflection, if that’s even what I should call this stream-of-consciousness writing, is likely to make absolutely no sense to anyone, much less to me yet, I write it anyway because of the power in the idea of yet. Yep, yet. Again, living life in revision, right? I acknowledge this truth and I need to sit with this and be okay with this. And I am, for now. Life is a process of making sense of the world around you, and much of it does not make sense, until it does. So in essence, that’s what this is about tonight, for me: trying to make sense of the specific experiences I’ve had in the last twelve days and bouncing them against the evolving knowledge I’ve gained over the last seventeen years, so my realizations can begin to take shape and become a bit more clarified in my mind. And, so most importantly, action can be taken or continue to take place, by me. So I can catch up to all of you who’ve worked your entire lives towards tangible change.

This is a huge ask of me to you, my reader, but I’ll still ask (and I acknowledge this ask is a reflection of my privilege, as I have the socialized expectation if I walk into most rooms, I’ll be listened to, honored with respectful responses back, and maybe folks might even take my charge and go forth. I come to this realization with conflicted feelings, but as it’s important to my heart that you hear what I have to say, I’ll continue with my ask of you): join this journey of thought with me, then reflect, and then go. And continue to do or make your first steps toward doing in new ways. Make space in your mind and heart to reflect upon what I’ve attempted to say in this reflection and space in your life to continue to take action upon what your heart guides you to do.

A bit of concreteness now: I’ve some research and educator stuff to convey to you, but I promise this: it is part of the foundation for linking back to my discussion on privilege, power, and oppression. Please stick with me.

As an educator by trade and an anthropologist by training, I’ve had the honor of studying with and learning from some of the fiercest teachers practicing their brilliance in the classroom today, some of the most incredible educator leaders studying with educators across the country around school reform, some of the most thoughtful educational researchers working tirelessly to combat inequities in the schooling system, and connect with some of the most magnificent authors of trans-themed texts available to date. I am indebted to each and every one of these dynamic individuals. Tonight, I am also greatly indebted to a dear friend, colleague, and amazing human being, who I’ll call Ms. J in this reflection, for opening her classroom, her mind, and her heart to me and enabling my research to soar to new humbling heights. The next descriptions of ideas are from experiences that happened to me over the span of the last twelve days and are really part of an ongoing research study spanning ten months, two coasts, multiple states, and countless hours of reflective thought and tangible action.

In a recent research trip to New York City, I had the opportunity to meet an incredibly soulful author and advocate, Alex Gino, who wrote the groundbreaking middle grade book George. This book is so much more, but in one sentence, it chronicles the coming out story of a young transgender girl. I will write more about Alex, their book, and my experience in New York in other reflections. So, for now, one fifth grader’s question and one poignant reflection Alex made based on his question, guided what Ms. J and I attempted to try out in her fifth grade classroom these past two days, really, what Ms. J artfully facilitated to my ever-increasing awestruck state. The fifth grader in New York asked Alex this question: “Why did you decide to make Melissa [the main character of their book George] transgender instead of genderqueer?” In Alex’s response, they said something that I sat with for nine days. One of Alex’s responses was, “There is a ladder of privilege. Trans boys go up the ladder of privilege, while trans girls go down the ladder of privilege.”

As a mother of a young visible transgender boy, I was taken back listening to Alex make this statement, my child even heard this, as I took him with me during this research trip to experience the world in a big way. My child, as a transgender boy, by realization of self, has entered into an identity that holds less privilege, and therefore less power, in our societal structure. This I hold as truth. However, when thinking about the trans community as a whole, Alex’s assertion that a male trans identity holds more power and is therefore going up a metaphorical ladder of privilege while the opposite is true for female trans identities, viscerally hit me. It quickly led me to reflect on the notions of systemic patriarchy and sexism pervasive in our society. This consequently led me to a place of deep reflection, processing, and realization. Poignant for me here, too, was the imagery of a ladder of privilege, of unspoken rules of positionality among one another that we are socialized in myriad ways to internalize through our mere participation as a member of our organized society.

Analytically-minded, for better or for worse, I sat with these notions for days, allowing them to roll around in my mind and in my heart.

So now, recently back in my own large, urban town and studying with Ms. J these past few days, she continued her study of tackling notions of identity with her class, comprised entirely of thirty-four ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old children of color. I’m naming this, again, to give context for you. She continued this study by focusing on an interactive read aloud of Alex’s book George. By chapter one’s end, her wise fifth graders, full of empathy in their hearts, were both verbalizing and writing comments, of which I’ll explore in other future reflections in time.

Poignant, though, was one line of thought we heard multiple times that struck us both and we realized needed to be unpacked in a deeper way: “Why doesn’t Melissa just tell people around her that she’s a transgender girl?” Ms. J’s fifth grader’s questions and thoughts to tackle this notion centered around two lines of thought: either Melissa should tell those around her and live her truth or Melissa was scared of others’ potential reactions and possibly would experience negative effects as a result. Here are a few student’s responses to give you context for why we chose to shift in the direction we did next with this study. All student responses appear in original form to honor the agency of these student’s writing and voice:

Live her truth lines of thought:

Student [S]: “I’m trying to figure out that why would she be hidding who she is because every body should understand that who she is and that she is over exazorating.”

S: “What I am trying to figure out is why Malisa is hiding from her parents.”

S: “What i’m trying to figure out is, how come she can’t tell her family that she’s a girl.”

S: “Why is George trying to hide her real self that is inside her? If she tells her family that he [she] is a girl then she could be named as Melissa.”

S: “I agree with you b/c she is a girl inside her but outside she is a boy.”

S: “I agree because if she does tell her family, then she won’t have to suffer hiding her self.”

S: “I agree b/c the same thing. Is she going to come at [out].”

S: “I am wondering the same thing. Is she going to come out and tell her family or stay inside her shell?”

S: “I agree because you should tell your family it is that your family can’t go share with their freinds or you can get embarased.”

S: “I agree with you because instead of telling her parent shes hideing secrets and if she tell them they’ll understand and they’ll practice until the make her comfertable.”

S: “Maybe there going to let her have some time and respect her who she is and not try to make her uncomferble because then her insides are going to make her sad.”

Melissa is scared of others’ reactions lines of thought:

S: “I think she is hiding from her parents because maybe she’s not ready to tell her parents. Probaly she’s scared what there going to know about her. and worried if there going to accept her as a girl or not.”

S: “I think she will tell when she is ready. She’s not ready new [now] because she does not know how others are going to react.”
S: “Because she doesn’t wan’t people to jugde her thats why she’s afraid.”

S: “I aggree because george might get misjudged by the way he [she] looks on the outside but it dosn’t match the inside of george.”

S: “She’s not telling know one because she is not ready to face thing like your wired or other stuff like that.”

S: “Melissa doesn’t tell her family who she is because they might not understand or make fun of her.”

S: “Honestly, if she tells her family, Scott [Melissa’s older brother] will play telephone with the message and chaos will spawn and affect her life and probably commit suicide.”

Ms. J and I reflected, for a long time that afternoon, how to tackle these questions coming up for her students. Two things struck us. First, the beautiful empathy we saw expressed by children: they wanted this character to be able to be visibly who she was with those around her. Second, though, they recognized something about the positionality of the trans identity within a larger societal framework of oppression. Although not exactly articulated in these words, the sentiment was expressed. That’s when the idea of the ladder of privilege Alex Gino had mentioned that I’d been rolling around in my head and heart for the past days surfaced and guided what happened next. And what happened over the next two days is unequivocally the most poignant work I’ve ever witnessed in my days supporting and studying alongside dope educators in schools. You’ll see why as you read further. I hope.

Ms. J decided to tackle the idea of the ladder of privilege with an activity first to demonstrate the idea around privilege. Then, facilitate a conversation around identities we hold in life, how they position themselves against one another at a societal level, how these identities influence our position of privilege and power in society, and finally, the notion that something must be done to disrupt this reality. Phew, just tackle all that, in two days, with fifth graders. Right? Yep, and that’s what happened. That’s what Ms. J did, with a bit of facilitating and bouncing ideas off me, while I tried not to cry tears of profound awe as I experienced what unfolded from the mouths and hearts of children.

What follows is my attempt to capture a description of this three-part lesson study over two days and to process it within the context of my original conversation around privilege, power, and oppression. And then, to urge you to reflect, consider your next moves, and go forth to continue to do your tireless work, or join us in action.

Part 1: Privilege Shared Experience

Ms. J had her students line up in two ways: by gender and height, to their chagrin that they were in a “boys and girls line.” Good push back, kiddos! (Sorry, I had to name that…). Then she chose the three tallest boys to sit in the front row of blue chairs: tallest chairs closest to a trashcan. She gave them a large piece of paper crumbled. The next row back also had large chairs and larger pieces of paper crumbled up, but was comprised of the three tallest girls. The third row was comprised of the shortest boys, with the shortest chairs, who were given the smallest pieces of paper crumbled. Finally, the last row was comprised of the shortest girls, sitting on milk crates closest to the floor and given one small unfolded stickie note each.

The front row, comprised of the tallest boys, was instructed by Ms. J to try to throw their crumbled paper into the trashcan. One made it right away. The other two didn’t. They were told to try again. One made it. The last boy in the front row was given a third chance, told he could even walk up a bit to try to make his paper into the trashcan. All three made it into the trashcan in the end.

The next row, that comprised of the three tallest girls in class, were instructed to try to throw their large crumbled papers into the trashcan. One girl made it in on the first attempt, the other two didn’t. They were told they couldn’t try again.

The third row, comprised of the three shortest boys in the three shortest chairs with the smallest crumbled paper followed suit. None made it into the trashcan. They were told by Ms. J they couldn’t stand up, scoot forward, or have another attempt.

Finally, the three shortest girls, in the last row, with the shortest milk crate seats and the unfolded stickie notes, attempted to throw their papers into the trashcan all the way in the front of the rows. You can guess what happened, right? Nothing. The papers floated to the ground.

The looks of distress and discomfort on the twelve students that actively participated in the activity and the rest of the class who intently observed was palpable.

Part 2: Unpacking Societal Privilege: A Conversation

Ms. J then brought her students to the meeting area to facilitate a conversation around unpacking societal privilege, based on their visceral reactions to the shared experience. She named a few concepts to facilitate the conversation: she named privilege as “an advantage or opportunity given to a person or group of people.” She then asked if one group had privilege over another, what would that be called and how would that make you feel? She urged students to reflect upon the activity with the trashcan as well as push into reflections upon the larger world around them.

The following are student responses, both centering on feelings about the activity on privilege as well as their synthesis of what privilege meant to them.

Student feelings are as follows: privilege is “unfair and not even.” Privilege makes me feel “mad”, “worried”, “enraged”, and “annoyed because I didn’t get another chance.” One young gentleman spoke to the idea of “superior and inferior.” Here is his thinking: “superior is when you get other stuff and more chances. Inferior is when you have less or none/no opportunities.” Ms. J clarified this idea further: “superior means one group of people have more power or are better than others, while inferior is when people don’t have many rights or opportunities to do what they want.” One young lady expressed an example to this concept of inferiority, “Like in the old days, women had to stay home and couldn’t do what they wanted.” [See chart below]

Ms. J then facilitated a conversation to explore the societal groups that we all belong to or we know exist in the world. Students shared ideas of societal groups they belong to or see exist in the world. [See charts below]

Part 3: Ladder of Privilege

This is where the final piece of the lesson study happened around unpacking the idea of societal privilege. Ms. J asked her students if they knew what a society was. Below are a few student responses:

Ms. J then stated this truth in her class: “In this class, we are broadminded. We’re trying to understand as big as we can for our age and as you grow, you’ll understand more. My job is to open your minds to big conversations.” This led into her asking this question to begin the conversation around the concept of the ladder of privilege, “What do you know of a ladder?” Her students had concepts around a ladder and its use, many of which metaphorically were very poignant. [See chart below]:

S: “It leads you up.”

S: “It can take you down.”

S: “A ladder is like life: going up, you’re learning. That’s success. Going down, you’re not reaching success. That’s failure. In the middle, you can get stuck.”

S: “You can go higher than before.”

S: “You can fall from a ladder; it’s a bit dangerous and scary.”

S: “Opportunity or a chance.”

S: “Ladders can help you.”

Once students had a solid understanding of ladders, Ms. J moved into the big work of the ladder of privilege analysis. She named this for her students: “We’re going to step outside of ourselves, we’re going to go broad. How does our society see these groups of people we named on a ladder? What is the message our society says about different groups of people, from ads on T.V., YouTube, social media ads, the news you read or hear a lot? Where would society place a group on this ladder?”

I’ll tell you two truths I observed. First, it was hard for her students to step outside their personal opinions and state what they saw society telling them. They didn’t want to personally place some of these identities in this way, but once they realized it was what society privileged or gave power to, they seemed to have greater ease in naming where they thought these identities should be placed on the ladder of privilege and this frame helped them, too: “In my opinion ____, but what society would say is _____ because _____.” Second, they were very hesitant to place anything on the ‘5’ or the ‘1’ on the ladder and were much more comfortable placing identities at a ‘4’ or the commonly expressed ‘2/3.’ I think this is about her students wanting to show the distinction of difference between pairs of identities (e.g. male-female, rich-poor, dull-funny) but not such a stark difference to suggest majorly large divides between identities (e.g. students had a tougher time placing an identity pair oppositely at a ‘1’ and ‘5’; ‘2/3’ and ‘4’ seemed to be more comfortable for them to place identities upon). I hope this small bit of analysis makes sense.

The chart below is where the class conversation ended up with the ten identities Ms. J asked them to consider (further reflection, we’re going to add the identity of language, the identity around ability, and education status as questions to consider next week). I’m going to urge you to sit with this image for a bit. Please, take a few minutes to study it and then reflect upon it.

Are you ready to continue reading? I hope so. I know you will have your own reflections upon the results of what these thirty-four fifth graders thought about where society would place these identities on a ladder of privilege based on your own concepts of the world around you. For Ms. J and I, we sat with this chart for a long while. For me, I cried. Yep, teared up in the classroom (I tried to compose myself a bit as I was a guest in her class) and then had an ugly cry in the car in the school parking lot after I left. Why? Just look at what children saw upon reflecting on information they’ve implicitly received from the society within which they live. From adults around them, peers around them. From ads, from the news, from the internet, from social media. And I see it, too. But CHILDREN see ALL, too. We know this, right, that kids probably see this, too? But to watch them reason through this as a class, have conversations about these identities, and to see the end results of this conversation imprinted on this chart? Damn. That’s their undeniable truth, staring out at you. How does that make you feel?

Just look at the identities (of which there where ten pairs asked about for them to consider, and again, we’d add language, ability, and educational status, too) they agreed were definitely placed at ‘5’ on the ladder of privilege, or closely followed by a designation of a ‘4.’ Those identities that they see have power and privilege, advantages and lead to success in our society:

  • rich
  • white
  • blue eyes
  • attractive, funny, young, skinny
  • male
  • cisgender
  • heterosexual/straight

And, now look at the identities they thought society privileged the least, afforded the least opportunities to, and in essence, had the least power, that students placed at the bottom of the ladder of privilege:

  • poor
  • unattractive, dull, old, fat
  • female
  • brown eyes
  • people of color
  • homosexual
  • transgender

I feel the need to share with you some of the reasons Ms. J’s students gave, in their whole class conversation, for placing some of these identities where they did on the ladder, because herein lies the essence of privilege, power, and oppression in our societal structure:

Female-Male: “In ads women make less money in pay than men.” This guided students to place the identity of female at ‘2/3’ and male at ‘4.’

People of Color/ People who are white or appear white: “White people have more opportunities” was a common theme among their verbal responses and consciously lead them to place white at ‘5’ and People of Color at ‘2.’

Heterosexual/Homosexual: “Society thinks an identity of homosexuality would be at a ‘2’ because society is not as accepting and they think they have less advantages.” Heterosexuality was placed at a ‘4.’

Cisgender/Transgender: Even though Ms. J’s class had been talking about the idea around the trans identity for a few days, Ms. J needed to redefine the difference between cisgender and transgender for clarity again here, as the concept was newer for many students still. (For your clarity, if needed, too, here is an accepted definition of each. Cisgender: describes someone who feels comfortable with the gender identity and gender expression expectations assigned to them a birth. Transgender: a term for people whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term and “trans” is shorthand for transgender. Transgender should be used as an adjective, not a noun, thus, “transgender people” is appropriate.) Ms. J also make the distinction about visibility here: what would society think about a visible transgender identity (verses a person who is stealth and is not visible to those around them).

Students had the following reasoning: “Cisgender is a 3 or 4 because society thinks they are supposed to be who you are at birth.” “Because cisgender people don’t have to go through trouble to change their name, spend money on that instead of other things, or have concerns.” Students placed the identity of transgender at a ‘1/2’ because “there is the trouble you go through to change your name” and society might “think it’s nasty because they identify themselves as a different gender than they were born” and because “people might tease them.”

After Ms. J and I reflected upon what we had just witnessed, we decided it better to tackle the placement of the identity of transgender boys vs. transgender girls later on, as students had more time with the concept from reading more of the book George. We decided to end the lesson for that moment, reading a few more pages of the chapter in George and then having a wrap up conversation about what students had just worked through in the ladder of privilege analysis. We hoped to leave them with the idea around taking action, as well. Here’s what Ms. J insightfully conveyed to her fifth graders in her wrap up of the lesson: “You are young and wise. It’s hard to step outside of yourselves and your own opinion, which is valued. Now, what are you going to do with this knowledge? It’s not enough to understand this, now you have to do something about it. Ask yourself: now that you know this, what are you going to do to make a difference for your place in this, others’ place, and speak out when things are unfair? We can all do things in our own way, sitting in the knowledge isn’t enough. You are the future and you are powerful. This is life here—you want walk around with the knowledge, you’ve got to use it somehow.”

Wow. I’m taking a breath here. Please pause to do so if you need to as well.

So, let’s link this back to the context of my original thinking around privilege, power, and oppression, my hope that you’ve witnessed through my writing the essence of these moments in my last twelve days, consider your next moves, and go forth to continue to do your tireless work, or join Ms. J and I in action.

I steadfastly believe school is a rehearsal for life. What we value in life, we need to reflect in the classroom. If we value the status quo in life, then we perpetuate this in the classrooms across our country. If, however, we disagree with the status quo that our society seeks to perpetuate through its socialization practices, we must actively disrupt these in our classrooms and re-imagine classrooms to reflect what we value in society. This work starts here for me and for many educators I work alongside. I promised but an attempt to reflection upon on my revised notion of self, my understanding of the world around me, and my painfully raw process of shedding skin, outgrowing what I knew to be true in the world, and pushing forth with vision, hard work, and passion to see things change in big ways for children. For our future. This can happen, is happening in classrooms across our country this very moment and has been happening by incredible educators for decades. This is just a teeny tiny window into some fierce work I’ve had the honor of being a part of lately.

Perhaps my next statements will be a result of my nativity in realizing the ramifications of my privileged perspective and do give me pause in expressing them to you now, but I’m going to name my truth anyway. (I apologize ahead of time, though, I’m trying). This is my revised thinking now: You’re either a part of change, or you aren’t. I wasn’t actively part of real tangible, systemically targeted change, for far too long. Yes, I’ve always been a caring, kind, hardworking, empowering, steadfast educator for children. But, not like I now know I needed to be, could have been, and am working damn hard to become. If you were ahead of me in this work, you humble me. If you’re with me now, let’s move forward together. If you aren’t there yet, when you’re ready, reach out. We’re here to walk alongside you. Please let that be sooner than later, though, because children are counting on you. My child is counting on you, your visions for change, and your actions to make that a reality.

I will take Ms. J’s charge to her student to be our charge for ourselves as adults, as educators, as guardians or parents of children, of community members and allies, as human beings. Now that you have the knowledge, regardless of when you came to those realizations of life, what are you going to do with that knowledge to make a difference for others? What are you already doing that you can share with others and guide them along? What are you willing to try, even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone and experiencing a bit of what a mentor of mine calls ‘aspirational discomfort’? What resources do you need, support do you seek, people do you need to surround yourself with to hold you to your word that you want these systemic oppressions to shift in tangible ways for kids, for us all? I am reminded of this quote by a mentor of mine, “To be neutral in a moving stream means you’re still going with the current. You need to swim against the current. You must be actively working against a thing. Systems change because we disrupt them.” Ask yourself, what are you willing to take an active stance on, to disrupt in ways that make your beliefs actionable, make your classrooms reflect the world you wish we lived in, and your homes and communities reflect the image of society you wish was a reality? If you are already doing this deep work and have been for decades, I am humbled by you. If you are emerging like me, hi friends. If you’re not there yet, join us. Please.

I will end with a circle back to transparency, such as I began. I am in my infancy in this work. There are myriad people who have been immersed tirelessly in this work for decades. I am indebted to them, their pioneering work, and their spirit that pervades the work today. I am a small stone. I drop into the pond. I make ripples that increase in size. I hope my ripples meet others and we create waves together. It may be naïve to think that I’ve any voice in this work, but again, it’s my assertion that we can all find a place in this. It takes us all, so I am humbled to be welcomed into the work by mentors and scholars, activists and artists, leagues ahead of me in every way. One thing I do know, however, is this simple truth: my kid’s life depends on your shifts, in big ways. I invite you along my journey and I’m humbled to join you alongside yours.


Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C