Welcome advocates to another episode of the Leading Equity podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. I'm so excited. You see me smiling right now because I got my BFF from Our Voice Academy, Miss, Oh, sorry. Excuse me, Doctor [Sawsan 00:00:19] [Jaber 00:00:19] is here with me today and man, it's been great catching up, but we got to talk shop. So without further ado, Sawsan thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me, Sheldon, it's always a pleasure.
So before we get into today's topic, I would love for you to share a little bit about yourself and what you currently do.
So I am currently a high school English teacher in the suburbs of Illinois, and I teach in a primarily Latinx community, which is awesome because it's a new experience for me in the last two years. I've taught in a lot of different places. I've taught overseas and I've kind of done... I've worked in primarily white districts. I've worked in fully Arab districts. I've worked in... And now it's my first time working in a primarily Latinx community. And I feel like I have the privilege of being immersed in these worlds that are so unique and so different, and are so rich in culture.
Yeah. So this is 21 years for me in education. I've kind of served in a bunch of different roles from the classroom to being in charge of training principals for about 250 plus schools and writing standards for an entire country, with a team of 14 people from other different countries. So I feel like I've been privileged to kind of see education through a bunch of different lenses.
My PhD kind of took me on a journey that I wasn't expecting to go on and really opened my eyes to the need for someone who looks like me to do more equity work and to be in those spaces and to speak on behalf of other people who look like me and board students who look like me, and also to just really talk about and build those bridges between people of color, kind of moving out of our silos and working together as a community and as a team.
And let me also, if I didn't say this and I don't think I did, but Dr. Jaber was one of our guests during the Leading Equity Virtual Summit, which took place back in January, 2020. So if you had a chance to view that either part of the all access pass or watching it live, or watching it as it was taking place, you would recognize her voice and recognize her story. And the thing about you and I, and our relationship is we keep in touch. We always check in on each other and that's one of the things I appreciate, and I always appreciate talking to you.
And about a month ago, you and I were talking about doing a panel discussion right around when George Floyd was murdered. And just mentally, I wasn't at a place. I was trying to do it, but I just wasn't ready to speak. Plus there was another conflict with Barack Obama was providing a presentation around the same time. And so I thought, you know what? We can bring up this conversation later.
And what I wanted to talk about with you was, okay, people of color... We deal, especially in the United States, we deal with our issues, if you will, when it comes to racism and oppression. And sometimes it gets a little unclear as cultural outsiders when we want to support each other's efforts, right? So I'm a black person. You're Palestinian. And I, for example, want to be supportive of our indigenous cultures and want to be able to support the Dakota pipeline. And I'm so glad that that progress has happened. DACA and all these different issues that don't personally impact me and my community, I want to be supportive of it. And I wanted to chat with you as far as, what are your thoughts when it comes to people of color supporting each other when it comes to the various initiatives or challenges that we face in America?
So I know this was part of our conversation a few weeks ago, or a few months ago. And I think a big thing, I guess since then, and letting that conversation kind of marinate in my mind, is we don't realize even as people of color, how we're racialized to think that we work in isolation and we are pitted against each other as people of color. And so there's this hesitation or fear, if you will, when we are kind of talking about you want to be an activist and you want to align yourself with other causes because that's the right thing to do and that's what's necessary. And that's what anti-racism is all about. But you fear that you might say the wrong thing and offend instead of saying the right thing and moving the cause forward. And I think that that makes you kind of then take a step back and not say anything at all, which, to me, that quiet is complicitness.
And so you're kind of walking this fine line between, do I say this, or don't I say? Is this the right thing to say? Am I my offending anybody by saying this? But I think that we have to get to a place where, or we are at a place, where information is at our fingertips. And there are so many sources. We have to understand that... I guess Martin Luther King's quote always resonates with me is that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I can't talk about being Palestinian and Palestinian solidarity and talk about Palestinian oppression without talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and black oppression and American oppression here. We can't ever get rid of, or take apart Palestinian oppression if we're not going to start with black oppression here.
And I was listening to Bettina Love speaking this morning. And she was saying, and I thought like, it was such an amazing thing, how if we liberate the largest oppressed group or the oldest oppressed group, then all the other liberation will kind of follow suit. And I think black oppression and marginalization has kind of led to other groups being oppressed and being marginalized just by succession and by us being quiet about these things. And it's allowed the oppression of other people to take place.
And so when you think about all of those things together, then it becomes about like, what's worse? Me being quiet or me making mistakes in my journey to be able to say the right things and be sure that I am standing in solidarity with other groups of color? And so I think that that's part of the work is that you embrace that you will make mistakes and that you will sometimes not be in the right place, but it's a journey. And it's a journey where you're constantly learning and looking at... There's so many resources, so many books, so many webinars, so many podcasts where I don't have to also burden that person of color and ask those questions to those people directly. But I can also look for that information and enlighten myself so that I'm able to do that work effectively and powerfully like I'm supposed to.
One of the things you mentioned early on in your response was the fear of saying the wrong thing. People assume that, "Oh, because we're people of color, we're BIPOC, so we should understand so much." But often we understand our own communities better than anything else, right? Because we often have lived those experiences. We're in those affinity spaces. We're part of those circles. And it's part of how we are raised. Even as parents, how we raise our kids, how to navigate as people that identify with certain communities of color. And so the assumption is often, "Well you should understand. You're a person of color. You've dealt with this and dealt with that." But the thing about it is, my experiences are different than yours, right? So it's like you have lived a certain life and you have experienced certain things that have impacted your community.
And so we cannot assume that just because we have all been an oppressed group at some point, and we're dealing with marginalization, that means that we should confidently know how to address... I mean, sometimes people that I interact with, other black folks sometimes, they don't necessarily know how to articulate. They feel the pain. They feel the emotions, but to articulate that in a way to where they have to explain it to people outside of their own culture, outside of blackness, that can be difficult as well. So I love that you touched on that. So I guess, what are your thoughts or suggestions that you would have? Let's say I'm a cultural outsider, or maybe how about we do this? We've talked and I know that you've worked with a lot of black students throughout your educational career. What are some of the things that you have done to provide social justice education as a cultural outsider for our black students?
I think the biggest thing is to recognize the interconnections and intersections of our kind of marginalization, but also to be able to celebrate and recognize the differences. And that's huge because there are things that tie people of color together. We have had similar experiences. And when you talk about things being so hard to articulate, because they are so painful or so... It's hard to find the words. I've been there. I know what that feels like. And I think the biggest epiphany I had was walking into a room full of adults in Our Voice Academy and being the only Arab, middle Easterner in that space with other teachers of color and other educators of color. And I remember on the first day of that training, I walked in and I felt like, "Oh my God, here I am, again. I'm the only one that looks like me here."
And walking out of there feeling like I had an army and a team and a family behind me. And I think that that journey was something very powerful for everybody that was there because a lot of my [OVA 00:09:39] cohort was, the feedback that I got from them was, we never knew. We never knew that this was the experience Arab kids were having. We never knew that Muslim kids were going through these things in our public schools. And they were really touched by the stories that I was able to share with them. And so I think that it was a learning experience for all of us that were involved, because I didn't realize that other people of color didn't realize or didn't know what my experiences were. And so it was at that moment that I realized, "Wow, we are really so different, but listening to all of their stories, I can relate and I can understand how they felt in these different situations."
And so I think, as an English teacher, giving students the opportunity to have windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, as they say. So being able to see yourself and see yourself beyond the single story that we normally are presented with beyond the stereotypical kind of lens that kids only are given to see themselves. But also building those connections between other groups and ensuring that your kids can see those intersections and those interconnections between other groups, because that's important. If we're talking about anti-racism and co-collaboration and ally-ship, and we're talking about really looking at school from a critical theory lens and thinking about education, not just as, "How can we create these safe spaces for kids?"
I teach at a high school. What happens to these kids after high school, right? I've created this safe space. I've created this kind of microcosm that's not realistic. This bubble... And it's not what these kids are going to face once they get into the college and career worlds. How have I really prepared them for what they're going to face outside? So I believe my role as a teacher in a classroom with any group of students is to make sure that when they walk out of my classroom, they understand what their positionality is, whether they're a student of color or a white person. They understand what the positionality of other groups in communities represented in our demographic and not represented in our demographic because the reality is the demographics of our cities are changing so quickly. And then beyond that, understanding what they need to have, what skills, building those skills so that they can be civically engaged citizens and they can change the status quo, whether they're white, Latinx, middle Eastern, black, whatever.
It really shouldn't matter that they have had those conversations, that they understand how they need to position themselves within... The way the world views them and how to get themselves to change that view actively and not just be the receivers of whatever the world has to give them. I think that's huge.
And so for me, it's really like I've mentioned in the beginning, I've worked with students of all different kinds of demographics and it's every job change has given me a new demographic that I've had to learn and explore. And the first thing that I need to do is immerse myself in those communities to really understand those communities well beyond the stereotypical teaching that I have to unlearn as an educator, whether it was as a student in high school, as a student at the college level, in my teaching programs. I think that there's so much that I have to unlearn in order for me to really be vulnerable and put myself in that space to be able to learn about those communities, to be able to better serve them so that we can give them those skills and those tools to see beyond the stereotypical lenses and be able to collaborate and work to change those things.
And that's all part of social justice education, is it's being able to help your students understand what's happening within their community, what's happening outside of their community on a national and world scale. And I think that's important and I love how you touched on wherever you go, you embrace the community. You embrace the culture. You dig in. You dive in and you learn all that you can to support the students that you are serving.
It just kind of reminds me as a person who has been working on a reservation for several years. And just the importance to me of learning about the culture. That was very important to me was how much can I learn? What type of events or traditions, practices am I experiencing with the community that I'm serving? And not me just sitting there or showing up just to show my face, but more of how can I dig in and how can I learn? I talk to my students all the time. As indigenous students we have conversations about oppression and we can look at things from different perspectives and be able to connect that way because like you said, there's so many intersectional ways that we have all experienced some sort of oppression and throughout our communities. So I love that you're touching on that. What are some maybe challenges that you have seen when it comes to advocacy of racial equality?
I think the biggest thing is that oftentimes when we think about equity in traditional school systems, we think about this kind of like... We put a bandaid on it. That's what we do. We're not really addressing the equity from its systemic core. And so what happens is you have this little kind of... I look at it like a big machine and part of it is kind of running in the opposite direction of everything else. So how effective and how impactful is that? And so I think when you're talking about a school system and you're a teacher in your own silo, or there's a few of you that are doing the kind of work that needs to be done to have critical conversations, but your administration's not on board or your leadership is not on board. And you have parents who haven't had those conversations themselves, then it creates kind of this dissonance in the school system, because you're not all on the same page.
Or you're a person of color so you're constantly perceived as pushing a personal agenda. It's really hard for people to see that it's this collective effort that's needed or this humanity that binds us together, or the collective effort to end social justice or work towards social justice is necessary. And so I think when those things aren't kind of foundation to the school systems and the work, then it becomes, "Oh, here she goes again" kind of thing, right? Like where you're the one that's advocating for equity in department meetings or in staff meetings or in district leadership teams or whatever level you're working with in committees. And people are kind of sick of hearing you playing that same track over and over again because they don't get it. And so you're immersed in... And that's how I felt in my last job. I was the only teacher of color in the entire district.
In the entire district?
In the entire district. I'm talking about clerical staff. I'm talking about teachers. I'm talking about support staff. I was the only brown person in the entire district. And so for me, first of all, I stood out like a sore thumb clearly. And I think the first years that I was there, people were really scared to have somebody who looked like me teaching their kids. But I think the bigger piece of that was there was a big, growing, like most of our cities, a growing number of students of color in the district, a 600% growth in a four year period. And very little was being done to really advocate for those kids and be proactive in making sure that they felt that they belonged.
And so if you look at those kids superficially from the outside, like most of us say, "Oh yeah, they fit in. They feel included." They're parts of sports teams. They're getting good grades. They're participating in class. But then digging deeper, which was my PhD, focusing on some of these students of color in predominantly historically white schools, do they really feel included? The trauma that's there from things that these kids are facing every single day beneath that surface is real. And what are we doing to really advocate for that?
So I then felt compelled to be the person to constantly speak up and lobby and bring in these different voices in their curriculum until it came to a point where I was getting pulled into the office every single day. Even though I was working with other teachers in my department who were white, I was the only one getting pulled in every single day. And then it became more about me constantly. I felt like I was walking on eggshells all day long.
And that kind of, "Do I leave the kids and leave the struggle because I feel like I'm abandoning those kids that I'm supposed to be advocating for?" But as a singular, like I'm a team of one here. And I was exhausted from constantly being pulled in and constantly being in this like... It felt like a personal political war every day at work. And it was hard to continue to do that work in those conditions and in the under those circumstances. So in the end I had to leave. My heart hurts because I feel like I left all those kids behind, but there wasn't an infrastructure there that no matter how much I advocated it would have been... I was the bad guy no matter what, and I was pushing an agenda.
I was called racist for bringing in literature from all different backgrounds. I was racist against white people because I wasn't prioritizing and centering the white voice in my classroom. I was racist. And so how do you shift that mindset? A community mindset that's coming into the classroom and your administration shares a lot of that in mind mindset as well. And many of the teachers in the district come from communities like the community that you're teaching in and haven't had any experiences where that mindset and those single story kind of... Their deep understandings and their learning has ever been challenged. And so you're the only person doing this work and, and it's not going anywhere. It's just too big of a job.
So I think the biggest thing in equity work is really looking at the system that you're a part of and understanding the system that you're a part of, but the work having to be all hands on deck. School systems represent communities and they're there to serve communities. I don't think we're just there to serve the students in our community, but we're there to serve the whole community. And so if what we're doing doesn't include and impact the community, both ways like it's a two way street, then we're doing something wrong.
And so that entails our board of education being onboard. It entails our community being a part of conversations and discussions and coming into the building and really having a say in some of the projects that we're working on, some of the things that we're doing. Our students, having decision making power, our teachers all being on the table and buying into the shared goal of ensuring that school is not causing harm to students of color or any other students. That we're working to really serve these kids and not just in this microcosm, but to prepare them for life after a K to 12 education and what that entails. We don't even know what that looks like.
There's so many things I want to unpack in your response. It's unfortunate that we're often seen as the lone wolf or we're feeling as a lone wolf. We're pushing, we're pushing, we're advocating. And sometimes especially if we represent the community that we're advocating for, "Oh, this is a personal thing for them." And it gets brushed aside. And because it doesn't personally impact the individual who makes a lot of those decisions... I've always said your school principal is your chief diversity officer, or your school district superintendent. They're the ones who have a lot of the resources and influence, if you will, when it comes to initiatives. So if you're a teacher or maybe an assistant principal or someone else on the staff and you're speaking up, but you don't have the support from your administration, that just makes you feel like you're just hitting a wall.
And like you said, you start to get tired and you start to wear out. I was speaking to an individual who's a school principal, elementary school principal. And he mentioned the importance of if you're a potential candidate, if you're a teacher and you're looking for a job at a school, part of your process as a candidate is to ask questions as well and find out where that school is, where they place their emphasis on. Those are some questions... You know how they always say do you have any questions for us? Kind of thing. You can ask those questions. What is your stance on anti-racism? What is your stance on social justice or cultural responsive? Listen to the administration and see what they are saying because we don't want to end up in positions where we are going to be the only person.
And we want to be able to advocate for students, but we want to know that we'll have that support and that same conversation can happen when it comes to positions in leadership, like, "Okay, I'm going to be a school principal. And I'm talking to superintendent. I want to know what type of support will I get when I want to push and support equity work." Because often we see the stuff on the signs, on the wall, we'll see slogans, "Oh, we love all kids and we want all students to succeed." But, is the action there?
And the problem is that we've been so racialized in our own education that even if we think we're intentionally being equitable, we can't even see the injustices unless we're really looking for them. And I'm going to advocate and say, and this is might make some people upset, but I think that if you haven't been sat on the other side of oppression, it's almost... Unless you immerse yourself in those stories and in that world, I would say it's almost impossible for you to really empathize and understand what that feels like.
I have friends who I know want to do this work, and I know are willing to do the work to be able to do this work, who are white. But I think that always the thing that distinguishes me from some of them is that I can easily kind of jump in and I'm comfortable having those conversations with my students and with other teachers. Whereas they're still a little bit hesitant because it's not their experience and they haven't been there and they can't speak from that personal kind of background.
And so I think that that immersion that we talked about earlier is such a big part of it. And that kind of like embracing the fact that it is uncomfortable and you're going to be uncomfortable. You have to be uncomfortable if you are going to get there. And if you really want to be an advocate and an anti-racist and an activist, scholar, whatever role you want to play, a co-collaborator on the front lines with your kids, you have to be walking side by side with them. You not working for them. You are working with them. And it's again, that collective thought and that collective that we need to keep in mind when we're doing this work.
And if we look at history and we look at the biggest figures who were successful in making these movements for change, for big change, it was that collectivist theory and that thought that moved them forward. Whether we look at religious activists or we look at political activists, or we look at like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Prophet Mohammad, from a religious perspective, they all looked at the team and that's what made them successful. They mobilized and empowered others to take their hand and move forward together. And I think that's where we have to shift that change.
I just felt like alone. I really wasn't making as much of a difference. Maybe I was there as a representative for some of the kids that look like me in the classroom. Maybe I planted seeds for some of my own students to be able to think differently about certain types of things. But now I'm in a system that wanted somebody who looked like me and the impacts of my presence in that building is much wider. It's much bigger because I have a team that's willing to hold my hand and embrace and give me the space and the voice and the resources and the time and the team in order for me to do this kind of work.
And so it's the comparison's huge. I'm the same person. I'm saying the same things, but I'm with an audience who wants to hear it and who wants to do something with what I'm saying and who wants to really, really do what's best for kids and all of what that term kind of entails. And so the work is there. We've spent the whole summer meeting in an equity and diversity team to make sure that we're not going back to work as normal when we go back under COVID situations. And to make sure that what we're putting into place really is what's best for kids moving forward from an equity standpoint. And so that, by itself, speaks volumes to the commitment that districts can have to making sure that we're doing the right thing collectively as a team.
Sawsan, you know I could talk to you all day and I truly consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. Let's wrap things up. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners?
I think, embrace your fear. Embrace that fear and that discomfort. It has to be a part of the work that we're doing here. And then with that, we have to be able to amplify those voices, the new voices, and create and help to shape those new voices in this work. My hope is in this next generation. I feel like they are going to be able to make the changes that we are talking about. They're actually going to be the ones to make those changes. And it's because of their access to certain things that maybe we didn't have access to and their ability to have those conversations on a global scale, because social justice is global, right? It's a domino effect. We can't look at these things in isolation. And so looking at that mind shift, even for people of color, we also have to grow.
And we also have to see beyond the divide and conquer kind of isolationism, that is part of the systemic oppression that we're all victim of. And be able to look past, but not ignore, our differences, but look past and be able to see those differences and see the similarities at the same time. So I think that the core of that is embracing that discomfort, being able to take those risks, really doing the work to get to know other communities and to get to know, and to understand, to look for those similarities and those differences. You have to understand, first. All of those things are a part of that journey into being a social justice activist or a co-collaborator or an anti-racist.
If we've got some folks that want to connect with you online, social, what's the best way to reach you.
Sjeducate. @SJeducate is my Twitter handle. And I think I'm on there more than I am other places because it's a great place for me to connect with my BFF and other people who are doing like work. And then I'm on Instagram, under education unfiltered. And that's my email as well, [email protected]. So any one of those kind of conduits is a way to get to me.
All right. Well, once again, I am talking to my best friend forever. Dr. Sawsan Jaber here. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you so much, Sheldon. Always, always a pleasure.
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