Sheldon Eakins:

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 schools. Today, I have a very special guest, a member of The Divine Nine. I just found out earlier as well, so I'm really excited to present to you today, Ms. Darlene Reyes is here. Without further ado, Darlene, thank you so much for joining us.

Darlene Reyes:

Thank you for having me.

Sheldon Eakins:

Real quick, share a little bit about your sorority. Shout them out real quick. I want to show you some love.

Darlene Reyes:

Sure. I am part of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated. I crossed in new Sigma chapter at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Your girl's going to turn nine at the end of this year. We're almost, almost to the 10-year mark.

Sheldon Eakins:

That's what's up. Shout out. Shout out. Okay. All right. Thank you so much. I had to throw that in there. Yes. I was excited when I heard that. I know who you are. You and I work together. We've been working together for a while. We'll talk about some of the work that we've been doing, but for those who are not familiar with Darlene, feel free, please, to just introduce yourself and tell folks what you currently do and maybe what you're most passionate about when it comes to equity work.

Darlene Reyes:

Sure. My name is Darlene Reyes. I'm a first-generation college grad, student, I guess just in general. I'm a Latina. I'm Salvadorian, and I'm just really passionate about educational equity and what that looks like for all students of all backgrounds. I guess a quick little rundown of that and what I mean by that is because I'm a first-generation student, I understand what it means to go to an academic space or academic settings and be like, "What am I even doing here? How is this space even for me?"

               As a woman, I also understand that in a different way, but in the same places. Then I was also an English language learner, which is different from an English as a second language. You know how department of education changed that. Yeah. I was enrolled in ESL classes since kindergarten and I tested out in middle school. That's my little fun fact, is that even though I was in that program, I was able to excel out of that program, but it wasn't just because I was a good student.

               It was because I had people who believed in me and my potential along the way to get me to where I wanted to be. That led me to go into Northwestern. From there, I was like, "Hey, I kind of like to do all these education things after school during undergrad." I think I'm actually more invested than I thought I was before. I did AmeriCorps and I did a year of service with city of Washington, DC. I just fell in love with my students.

               I had fourth graders and so they're like little adults. They would tell me what they wanted to do all the time, right? I started to realize that some of the things that they were having issues with at school just of like, "I don't get this." Or, "This doesn't make sense to me." Were the things that I was having issues with when I was younger. Just I'm like, "This breakdown doesn't make sense to me." Or like, "The teacher is saying this thing, but then she said something else and now I'm confused."

               I just wanted to better understand students and so that led me to work within high school students and college access and retention. Before 2020, before COVID hit, I was a Fulbright research fellow, an open study research fellow. I was in Brazil doing research on the imposter syndrome and how that affects Brazilian students. The imposter syndrome is essentially this innate belief that you are not good enough or unworthy of the spaces that you are in.

               It just comes from yourself and some societal pressures, because there are things out there that tell people of color, black people, Indigenous people, all of these things that we're not good enough to be in spaces that we deserve to be in. I was just interested in how that affects Brazilian students, given that their education system is very different than ours and given that Brazil is a country with rich demographics on race.

               I just wanted to see if they experienced the imposter syndrome in education in the same way that American students do. Due to COVID, I wasn't able to finish my Fulbright, but having experiences in education in different realms is what led me to my Fulbright. I guess this is where I should also mention that I used to be a trainer for the Posse Foundation. I used to work with high school and college students on not just getting them to college, but ensuring that they graduate from college.

               That's where my love for, "Hey, there are students who, like me, have layered identities." I saw it as an opportunity to educate students on like, "You have a lot more power than you think you do. How do we, one, equip you with the tools that you need? Two, teach you to self-advocate for yourself in the places that you're in." That's what leads me to working with you, Sheldon.

Sheldon Eakins:

Oh, thank you. Thank you. You're doing some awesome work. I love that you ended your response about the importance of empowerment. That leads me to my next question as far as, when it comes to students in a classroom, maybe in the hallway in school settings, and I know a lot of our schools are hybrid or we're trying to figure out, "Are we going back to school? Are we doing online?" All those kinds of things. Why do you think that helping our students is ... Why is student empowerment so important?

Darlene Reyes:

I think to me, it's because students have agency and they may not think that they do, but they definitely do. You have a say in the policies and the systems that are put in place that directly affect you. It may not be the same power as superintendent in the space, but you do have power. I believe that when you have power for something, you use it to uplift everyone who is also around you. It goes back to equity in different spaces.

               Sometimes certain students' voices are held up a little bit louder for everybody to hear, but I think that's especially important for us to teach all of our students how to do that so they can also uplift somebody who hasn't been in the forefront or hasn't been heard. I think, to me, it's just like, if I give you all the tools that you can to lift yourself up, then why can't I also give the same tool to somebody else to lift somebody else up? If that makes sense.

Sheldon Eakins:

Yeah. That makes total sense. It makes a lot of sense. Again, the work that you've been doing with the Leading Equity Center, as one of our trainers working with high school kids, I think is very important. I think, and I've mentioned this before, we do a lot of PD for our teachers and we teach them things such as implicit bias. We teach them what microaggressions are. We teach them about being culture responsive and all these things to support our students.

               I think sometimes our actual students don't get the same development that they could utilize, right? We got a lot of kids that are navigating predominantly white spaces and they're dealing with a lot of issues, they're dealing with a lot of challenges and feelings of oppression, feeling marginalized, feeling out of place, feeling not included within the overall school culture, or they're feeling like they are forced to have to assimilate to the dominant cultures' perspectives, ideologies, traditions, what is 'mainstream' or acceptable when it comes to the school.

               What you've been doing is a lot of student work to support kids who are not a part of the dominant group, but in a way that ... I don't like to utilize the word safe, but more of a brave area for our students to thrive. What are some of the things that you have been learning as you've been working with student groups?

Darlene Reyes:

Yeah. Well, I think you saying that also reminds me that one of my goals in the sessions is to make students become comfortable in the uncomfortable. A lot of the work that I do is asking students to reflect on themselves like, "Okay. How do you identify? What does this mean to you?" It's also about, "How did you get there? How did you understand that to be the way that you see it as? Was it your family? Was it your friends? Was it institutions? What kind of things shape your perspective or your mindset on things?"

               I've also wanted them to question things because of how they've learned them. Not just like, "Hey, how do I tackle this?" But, "Wait, I heard that before and so where did it come from?" Let's try to unpack where that comes from and we learn how to challenge those things and question them. I guess what I've learned from the students is that simple words go a long way. What I mean by that is I can't just straight up ask a student, "Okay. Tell me the problems at your school."

               We have to be able to build relationships. To have them become more comfortable and just being like, "This is how I see it. This is my perspective." Back to simple words go a long way, I start every session by like, "Hi, beautiful people. What is going on? How is your day?" I think that warms them up to the idea of just little things from, "Oh, I was called beautiful today." To like, "Oh, that was very endearing." Or like, "That was very inclusive."

               That's something that I try to do right from the get-go. Then some other things is I've talked about things around social justice and how to show up for other communities and how to ask those questions to students. I've also mentioned that I'm going to make mistakes. There are things that sometimes I miss, and there are things that you will miss as well, because this work is human work. We will all make mistakes.

               I think that the beauty of mistakes is how you learn from them. How do you continue to show up for people even when they do make mistakes? Or if you don't know how to address them, how do you move forward with that? That's something that I've learned to be more self-aware of and then if there is something that happens in the session, where I do mess up, like for example, I think one time I may have suggested, I guess, pronouns on a student unintentionally, just because I called her name and I was like, "Oh, so-and-so go ahead."

               The student was like, "Oh, I purposely did not give my pronouns for a reason." It was my turn to model like, "Hey, I made a mistake." I was like, "Oh." Moving forward, I was like, "Okay." I was like, "I apologize for that. Let me start again. Let's restart that together." I just modeled to them like, "This is just a small step of me making a mistake, but learning to fix it as we go."

               Now being more intentional about the things that we do and how we address people or how we ask them what their preferred gender pronouns are. Or, literally sometimes people have nicknames, how do I better address you through a name that you want to be called instead of what your government name is? Sometimes our students just need a little bit more empathy and need to feel included in spaces for them to really open up and start talking about their perspective.

               Just also I've encouraged them to be experts of their own experiences. That means talking about I statements, your experiences not representative of the communities that you are a part of, but you're a part of that community so it gets a little slicey and dicey there. But being able to encourage them to speak about their truth and their lived experiences, to be able to have more productive conversations.

               Instead of just, "Oh, I saw this in the news, this is what happens all the time." No, we're talking about ourselves and taking a step back and being reflective of how things affect us.

Sheldon Eakins:

One of the things that I like about how we have everything set up and we have it set up so that I'm not a ... I am a stickler for the one and dones. Sometimes, well, folks will say, "Well, can you just do one hour? Can you do a half day?" I would prefer multiple touches because I think there's a better chance that stuff will stick when you are interacting with people over and over. Again, that rapport building is very important as well.

               When you're working with high schoolers, middle schoolers, they don't know you, you don't know them. We can't expect them to just ... Like you said, I can't just walk in or virtually walk into the very first session, "Tell me all about your problems at your school. What do you want to fix?" All that, blah, blah, blah. That's a tough pill for kids as well. They're like, "Who are you again? What's your name again?" Walk us through that process.

               There's multiple sessions. What does the beginning look like? Then what does the end look like when it comes to the work that we're doing with the students?

Darlene Reyes:

Sure. A lot of the sessions that we have, they build off of each other. We're not just going to talk about microaggressions and then not talk about privilege. Let's unpack how we understand the bigger themes and work our way into smaller ones and how they affect us, because our students, they may not have the language or the jargon to talk about race relations and social justice, et cetera, et cetera. But they understand what it feels like to be in those situations.

               For me, it's about, "Hey, have you ever heard somebody say a comment and you were like, 'Did you really just say that?'" You play it back to yourself like, "Wait, they did that. She didn't. No, that's not ..." I work on that with students like, "Hey, we've felt these feelings before. Let's unpack where they come from, why they happen and how to better address them when they happen again, because unfortunately it's not the first time and the last time it's going to happen."

               It's more so of like, how do we learn about them? How are they 'foundational' to how society operates? Then how do we disrupt those things to unlearn things that we've seen in the news as truth, but they're actually not true? How do we expand our knowledge on different perspectives? I think with that too, is also about inclusivity. I can't talk about being someone who is inclusive, but then always use language of like, "Hey guys, let's have a conversation today."

               I think being intentional about inclusivity is also very important when building rapport, because it's a small way to show that I see you, even if you don't want to show yourself to me. I'm still creating spaces for you to feel comfortable. I think that's actually one of the things that students have mentioned, correct me if I'm wrong, Sheldon, in our feedback surveys.

               I think we've been really intentional about how receptive have you been to these sessions or to these workshops? Have they helped you at all? Have they not? What are you going to do with this information? Do you think it's necessary or not? Because a lot of our sessions have been about centering the students first. What do we think they need? Especially talking with administrators about like, "Oh, let's try to see or gauge where your student body is. What do you think they need?"

               I think the other part about our work that is my favorite is about listening to students and asking them those questions too. Being able to meet them halfway, or at least meet them in the middle if we can. I'm talking about the things that they've already experienced but may not know how to talk about or address.

Sheldon Eakins:

You give them real-life scenarios is what I'm hearing, and you unpack that. How do you unpack that? Is that in a breakout room session? I mean, break that down for us as far as, how do you help them articulate or give them that verbiage or help them feel empowered? You know what, I'm not going to ... Like you said, this is going to happen again. How are they armed, if you will, to respond? How do you work through those scenarios with them?

Darlene Reyes:

Got you. Yeah. Before we even delve into scenarios, we'll delve into the 'vocabulary' of like, "Remember when I was talking about that. Oh, that comment that rubbed you the wrong way, but you weren't sure." That's the introduction to, "Well, that can be seen as a microaggression." What is a microaggression? We'll talk about that and unpack that definition. Then I'll throw them into scenarios. I'll present them like, "Hey, this happened in X place or whatever, how would you address it?"

               I don't even let them talk to me directly about it. I'm just like, "Okay. Hold on to that. I'm going to put you in breakout rooms and you can talk to your peers about it. Then we're going to come back together and we can share out the different tactics or different steps that you all took." Because there are some people just like students that are like, "Oh, I would've done this." Straight from the get-go.

               Or this person who was like, "Oh, well I would've weighted out the options and talked to so-and-so, and maybe based on that reaction, gotten administrators involved." Et cetera. The breakout rooms are more to just get them more comfortable talking to each other about what their solutions would be. Then in our group share out, we also acknowledge how they've been intentional about thinking of them.

               Because one thing that I have constantly seen through the different workshop is school administrators who are a part of the workshop are at awe at how intentional and why their students are. They maybe have just not been able to see it in action quite yet. This has been an opportunity for them to see that. Then after the group share out, we also talk about, "Well, here are the next steps that I would suggest for you to do."

               Which can include from calling people into the conversation versus calling them out for what they said, to also, how do you start building community? In what ways can you do that? A very small way to start building community is to ask somebody what their preferred gender pronouns are. Then we give them a couple of steps that they can have food for thought, because my way is not the only way.

               You may discover better ways the more that you get in these situations and whatnot, but at least it gives you a basis or a foundation of, "I should at least be checking in with myself to see if I'm okay." If I'm not the person who received the comment or was in a scenario, then maybe I should check in with that person afterwards and be like, "Hey, are you okay?" That's the first basic baseline step.

               The second one is like, "Okay. How does this person feel about it? How do I feel about it? Do I want to bring this up to somebody else in the space for it to be better addressed?" It's like giving them the simple steps, but also just equipping them with the questions necessary to be more proactive and not just reactionary, because I think sometimes when we are in scenarios about race or ethnicity and gender and all these things, there are ways to be preventative about them.

               Unfortunately there's always like, "Oh, well, this never happened before." Or someone has never seen this before then it happens and there can be policies and things put into place that make it easier for students to show up.

Sheldon Eakins:

Love it. Love it. Who's in his group? What kind of students are in there? Because sometimes when we think about affinity spaces and we think about social justice groups, we tend to default to race. I mean, we've worked with multiple organizations. Break down, what is the typical demographics of the student groups that you're working with?

Darlene Reyes:

Yeah. I think what comes to my mind is we had one particular group who were students that were just really into social justice. That was the name of the group, the Social Justice Club. They were a makeup of different races and ethnicities, also different gender breakouts or breakdowns. It was a very diverse group and they all were into learning about how to advocate for themselves, but also advocate for things that they wanted to be done within the school. That was a very mixed group.

               We've also had a district group, which I believe is predominantly people of color just because of where the school was located. The district has been intentional with, "We're going to have X amount of students who are going to represent our group and ... or our school within the bigger group. Those people are going to be chosen because of X, Y, and Z criteria." I think for them, it was like, "Who are leaders in the school or who are students that would benefit from this?" Et cetera.

               I'm not quite sure what their other breakdown is for their criteria but I do know that I see students from all different backgrounds. That also includes students who are more well-versed in different things as well. I've had students who identify within the LGBTQA community and so they were very well-versed when it came to gender and being able to be like, "Oh, this is problematic because X, Y, and Z."

               I've actually used that as a learning experience for other folks to be like, "Okay. Well, don't hear it from me, hear it from a peer. What does this mean?" Then they'll use that space to talk about it. Of course, I'll correct them if something is a little off or if they miss something to add to the conversation. I think for the most part, they're very diverse.

               The district also, I believe, has middle school students as well as high school students. That's been interesting to navigate as well because my middle school students are a little bit more shy. Don't really speak too much, but they will volunteer to read some of the slides and things. They still show up in different ways, but I've also noticed that older students will talk a little bit more. We have group norms or group expectations, and one of them is to be inclusive of other folks, but also recognize how much space you're taking up.

               If you realize that you're the person who's always answering my questions or raising your hand, take a step back to be like, "Hey, I haven't heard from so-and-so. I saw your hands up. Did you want to talk?" Because I've also told students that I'm either going to call on you or you're going to volunteer because this conversation needs to keep going. That's well, also one of the ways that I've built community within their group, especially if they're not all from the same high school.

               It to just be like, "Okay. We all want to get delved into the work, but we can't do the work if no one's participating. Call on each other so that we can get to where we need to be."

Sheldon Eakins:

See, this is great because again, I've had folks that are interested in getting some work done with their students. Again, they're recognizing, yeah, it's great to support our staff and our teachers, but it's also important that we put emphasis on our students. Because our staff and teachers are the ones who directly impact our work with our students and it's also a further reinforcement when we support our kids and teach them again, the strategies that you're teaching them as they learn to navigate life in education.

               Sometimes folks will think, "Oh, this is only for our students of color." I'm glad that you emphasize, no, it's not just for our students of color.

Darlene Reyes:

It's not. I can't show up for other people if I don't try to understand what their experiences are. I think that takes me to also, you have to be able to be uncomfortable and educating yourself because it's not going to be easy to just be like, "Oh, let me pick up a book about race and really get into it." That's not how that works. I think it's about having the willingness to put yourself out there in a way to be like, "Okay. This is not my experience and obviously I'm missing something. Let me try to read something or let me try to educate myself in other ways."

               Because it's not marginalized communities' responsibility to educate you and it's also not your friends', if they are a part of those communities to do that for you. It has to come from you. Even another layer to that is, if you want to learn about the black experience, then you need to read black authors and watch movies by black producers. If you want to learn about Latina, Latino, Latinx, then you need to read books and things by them.

               You can't learn about somebody else's experience if that person has never been in that experience before. I'm also intentional about that in our setting. Kind of just like, "Hey, this scenario does not affect me in the ways that it may affect other people." Or, "You are, so tell me what ways that impacted you. Why did you think it was important to address it this way versus the other?" Then just also asking a student like, "People will not respond to you perfectly, so you have to be prepared for that."

               It's also your decision to respond in the way that you want to." If you're on the other side, if someone says something to you and you don't have the energy to respond, that is an acceptable answer. It is not your responsibility to, or if you're like, "Hey, I have some time today so I'm going to let you know what's on my mind." By all means, go ahead. It is not your responsibility to do that for other people. It is their responsibility to educate themselves on the things that they are missing.

Sheldon Eakins:

I said Darlene dropping some bombs today. Okay. All right. Listen, Darlene, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. Again, you are doing some amazing work with the Leading Equity Center. Folks that are out there listening, if you're a school leader, if you're a district leader, if you are a club advisor or something like that, where you have an affinity space or you're looking to create an affinity space for your students, you recognize that there is some additional support that is needed.

               Again, we're equity-minded folks and you would love for Darlene or myself to work with you and your organization, feel free to shoot me an email [email protected]. You can also find a link in the show notes with our web page on how to get set up. It gives you more information on the student work that we're doing. You can find a link in the show notes for The Advocacy Room: An affinity space for student voices.

               Darlene is an awesome trainer, and I'm so thankful to have her on as a trainer. If you want to work with her, work with the Leading Equity Center, feel free to reach out. You can also shoot me a DM on my Instagram @sheldoneakins. Darlene, if we got folks that want to reach out and connect with you online, what's the best way to reach you?

Darlene Reyes:

You can shoot me an email at [email protected]. I hope to work with you all soon.

Sheldon Eakins:

We'll link everything up. Our student work support that we are doing is The Advocacy Room: An affinity space for student voices. Darlene, it has truly been a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.

Darlene Reyes:

Thank you for having me, Sheldon. Anytime.


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