Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:
What's up, advocates? Dr. Eakins is here. I want to tell you a story about Harry Washington. Hopefully you've heard of him. If you're a history buff, maybe you've heard of Harry. If not, you're going to learn. Now, in order to start this story about Harry Washington, we have to go all the way back to 1740, West Africa.
Harry was born in The Gambia area and he eventually gets captured and enslaved in his early twenties. So, that means that he's loaded up on a boat and has to endure the Middle Passage. He eventually arrives in Virginia and sold to none other than George Washington himself. Now, Harry's first job was basically draining swamps for George Washington's company. He did that for quite a while, about three years or so. He eventually moved over to Mount Vernon, that is George Washington's estate.
Harry's assignment now is to basically groom and take care of the horses there. Now, what some people don't really know, as we talk about George Washington a lot, but what we don't always discuss is George Washington didn't have the best reputation for treating his enslaved people well. I'm struggling with saying this, as I'm saying this out loud, I'm thinking about, "What am I saying?" But, he wasn't known as a kind slave master? I don't know. Anyway, anyway, that's besides the point. I don't want to get too much off topic. But, Harry eventually ran away from George Washington in 1771.
Welcome to the Leading Equity Podcast. My name is Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins. For over a decade, I've helped educators become better advocates for their students. What is an advocate? An advocate is someone who recognizes that we don't live in a just society. Advocates aren't comfortable with the status quo and are willing to speak up on behalf of others. No matter where you are in your journey towards ensuring all of your students are equipped with the resources they need to thrive, I'm here to help you build your knowledge and confidence to ensure equity at your school.
All right. First of all, man, my bad for last week. If you are a first-time listener to the show, I normally come out every Monday. I'll be honest with you, I was out of town. I was celebrating a milestone in my life and I just didn't get a chance to get an episode out. But, normally we come out every Monday. Also, again, if you're new, if you're looking for keynote presentations, if you are looking for training, professional development in all different types of aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion, please feel free to reach out to the Leading Equity Center. Of course, I got a link in the show notes.
Let's get back to the story, Harry Washington. Harry escapes from Mount Vernon in 1771. You got to keep in mind that slave masters were very prideful of their property. So, any time a enslaved individual escapes, it was a big deal for a slave master. So, George Washington posted in ads, in newspapers, "Reward if you find Harry." Eventually, Harry returns a couple of weeks later.
If you know your history, you know 1776 was the Declaration of Independence. That's what we celebrate on July 4th. Again, it goes back to another conversation, when people ask me, "Sheldon, how come you don't celebrate July 4th?" I say, "Well, my people weren't celebrating July 4th in 1776, they were enslaved." The Revolutionary War is taking place, and so no doubt, enslaved people were like, "Yo, let's join the British. Let's fight for our freedom." Because, out of Virginia, for example, where Harry was, Lord Dunmore, who was the British Virginia governor, he makes an announcement. That all slaves who joined the British cause, the movement, fighting against these patriots, would gain their freedom after the war.
Naturally, you got a couple of things happen, right? One, you got plantation owners are beefing up their security, if you will. To try to keep the enslaved people from escaping to join the British. Which means that there's harsher penalty if you're caught. Which means, again, there is beefed-up security. Then, on the other side, you have our enslaved people. A lot of enslaved people were like, "This is our opportunity to get out of here. Escape this life."
Harry was one of those people that say, "You know what? I'm done." He escapes. Harry escapes for the second time from George Washington and Mount Vernon. Which means Harry had to endure taking a dangerous journey, dodging slave patrol, dogs and having to swim to the boats that the British were set up in. Harry makes it to Lord Dunmore's fleet and eventually gets sent to New York to fight against, guess who? George Washington's forces. But, I want you to imagine for a second, because this is what I want to talk about. You have a former enslaved individual on the other side, fighting against his former and enslaver.
People sometimes ask me questions. I'm doing this work. I'm doing this advocacy work, right? I am an equity advocate. I'm about this life. However, sometimes people will tell me a situation that they were in. Because when we think about what happens to us when we are in our schools, when we're in our hallways, classrooms, wherever it is, right? We overhear somebody say something that is offensive. We see those or overhear those aggressions that take place. From time to time, when I'm talking to people, when I'm doing my trainings, after the keynote is done and I'll have a educator come up to me and they'll say, "Here's my situation. This is what happened. I didn't know what to do, because they catch us off guard."
A lot of times, what will happen is, "Well, I didn't know what to do, because this was my friend. This was an enemy. This was my supervisor. This was a colleague down the hall and because of our relationship, I didn't know what to do." When I was learning about Harry Washington and his story, this dude had no fear. He ran away once, he ended up coming back, but he wanted his freedom. Not only did he want his freedom, but he was willing to die for his freedom. He ended up fighting against the person that was keeping him from having his freedom.
Now, I'm not trying to say that the experiences of an enslaved individual or former enslaved individual is the same as us being in a classroom or in our schools. However, I want you to consider, when you are in a situation where you have to go up against someone, it's not going to always be easy. I can imagine, again, just the idea of having to escape from a plantation with increased security, risking being caught like dogs, having to swim upstream. Those are challenges, right? We face challenges at schools, we definitely do. So, when I listen to someone share a story with me, I normally will respond with, "And what did you do?"
I'm not coming at this from a Dr. Sheldon L.Eakins is perfect himself, as if I have not missed opportunities myself. Because again, they catch us off guard. I ask that question, because I would like that individual to think about that situation. This is not a situation where I'm trying to, this is not a 'gotcha' moment. This is not a moment to make you feel bad. It's more of a moment of reflection. Me, Sheldon Eakins has personally missed opportunities.
I've gone home and I had to think about it. I've had times where I had trouble sleeping, because I said, "Man, I should have told that teacher what she said was wrong." Or, "I should have stopped that student from making that choice." Or, "I just missed an opportunity. I overheard someone say something, I didn't do anything about it." I've missed chances myself, but am I going to beat myself up over that, or am I going to use that as a lesson learned? Say, "You know what? Never again. I'm not going to let that happen again"?
I think that's the piece that we have to keep in mind. Sometimes, I'll say stuff. My friend, Terri Watson, on a previous episode, she said, "Are you willing to put your job on the line in the name of social justice?" So, here's the thing, I don't want to sit here and preach to you and just tell you, "Well, you should go out there and put your job on the line." Or, "You should go out there and do this and do that." Without giving you some tangible tools that you can utilize.
Any time I'm in a conversation or doing a training and we're discussing, "What do I do? How do I approach somebody? How do I call somebody out? How do I disarm an aggression that's taken place? When social justice is an issue, how do I address it on a one-on-one, individual basis? Or how do I call it out in a way that that person may want to listen to me?" Because sometimes, when we quote-unquote, "Call people out." What happens? They get defensive. They go, "Oh, no. I didn't mean anything by it. You need to lighten up. You're too sensitive." They put it on us. One thing that I say that you can do, is you can ask for more clarification.
Say you're in a classroom, you hear a student say something inappropriate. I'm not going to leave it on just race. Let's just say you hear somebody say something that is inappropriate against a gender. Maybe it's against LGBTQ plus, or it is just a highly-insensitive comment. Question that you can ask that student, "What brought you there? What made you say that? You know, we're in the middle of class. We're not even talking about that and somehow, you decided to make that comment. What brought you there? What do you mean by that? Tell me more."
We live in a society where everyone is innocent until proven guilty, right? So, we're going to assume that this individual had the best intentions, right? That's what we're supposed to do. As a result, we ask the question, "Well, what did you mean by that? What made you say that?" Then allow the student, the parent, staff member, whoever it is that you're speaking to, an opportunity to share their thoughts, their take. So you can gain an understanding.
Whenever I do a training, I always start off my trainings with, "This is a brave space." What does a brave space mean? Brave space means that, you know what? We view the world according to how we were raised, according to the people that we interact with and our lived experiences. That's how we view the world. Naturally, there's going to be things where maybe I say something in this training that you may not agree with. You may say some things that I may not agree with, but we're going to listen to each other.
I don't believe that professional development training should be made or designed to change everybody's mind. I think that professional development, good professional development, should be set up in a way that is going to allow individuals taking place in this training to really take some time to think about their current practices. Provide a little bit of self-awareness and allow an opportunity for that individual to do some reflection and decide where they're going to go from there. But, if I come into a training and I'm there to change your life and your mind and your hearts in 60 minutes, half a day, full day.
My job, to me, my personal approach to training, is to make you think. To help you come to those conclusions, to provide you with examples that you may not have thought about or may not have ever known about and some strategies that you can utilize. But, I can't make you do it, but I'll put it out there. What do they say? You can bring a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink? Here's another thing that you can do, if you want to call something out, if you want to bring it to someone's attention, I like this phrase. "I know you didn't mean anything by this when you said, blah, blah, blah. However, it's offensive and here's why."
I was watching YouTube with my daughter the other day. My daughter knows what I do, right? She is definitely a young social justice advocate. Could be because she listens to a lot of my trainings and watches me edit videos and podcasts. So, naturally you pick these things up. So, she goes to school and she does her thing. She and I are watching YouTube one day and there's this woman on this show, it's actually a white woman. She says, "You know, I cannot be racist against the Asian community, because I love rice and I have a samurai sword and I like Hello Kitty. I can't be racist."
Me and my daughter are sitting there cracking up watching this. I think this is a good example, because if we overheard something, let's say we're in the classroom or we're in the hallway. We're at school, we hear something similar. It was like, "Well, I can't be racist because blah, blah, blah. Well, I have a black friend." Or, "Oh, I can't be homophobic, because I had a gay roommate in college." Or, "I've spent time overseas. I know what it's like to be mistreated and being treated as a minority." I gave you another example here, because it just came to my mind.
I remember sharing a story with someone, a group of people. We're sitting there talking and I was explaining to the group. I just came from a training. I actually just came from a training on ACEs. Adverse Childhood Experiences. So, I'd just come from this training and me and my colleague, who's also black, we're sharing with the group. We're like, "You know, one of the challenges that we had with the training was, we asked this question to a police officer who was part of the training exercise. Because this was a public school that was providing this training.
They were talking about school discipline and restorative practices. We said, "What are you doing to ensure or to monitor the data when it comes to discipline of our students of color?" Basically, the response that we got from that trainer was, "Well, you know, we check all students and we check data for all kids." We got one of those, "All students." Instead of an equitable explanation.
So, we're explaining this to our friends and how we were a little disappointed with the response that we received from this question. One of the people that was listening to our conversation, they jumped in and they said, "You know, I got pulled over the other day by a police officer and you know, my husband is a firefighter and there's so much beef between the police officers and the firefighters. I know he mistreated me because my husband was a firefighter and I ended up getting a ticket. I was in a hurry and I was so upset."
That was a moment where I said, "You know what? I know you didn't mean anything by it, when you shared your story about your experience being pulled over by the police officer, but it's offensive and here's why. My colleague and I are talking to you and share an experience where the trainer for the restorative practices school resource officer is giving us an answer basically saying that, 'No, we don't have any issues with disproportionality with discipline in our students of color.' For some reason, you thought well, because we were referring to a police officer and we didn't like the answer that we received, that was a moment for you to give your story regarding the experience of being pulled over. It's not the same thing and it's not your moment. This is not your time to shine right now."
Going back to my first example, regarding the woman that we saw on YouTube and said, "Well, I can't be racist, because I love rice, I have a samurai sword and I love Hello Kitty." "Excuse me, ma'am. I know you didn't mean anything by saying that, but it's offensive and here's why. Those are stereotypes. Not all Asians eat rice and have samurai swords and love Hello Kitty. So, that doesn't justify your actions, because you have some stereotypical mindsets or viewpoints."
Here's the last way that I would say, if you need to address someone. Start with a story, open up with your own vulnerability. Sometimes, when we, again, try to call folks out, it comes across like an accusation. Folks might feel defensive. So, here's another approach that you can take. I used to do recruitment. I used to work at the university and I would go to various high schools. I worked for a program that basically would help high school kids get to college. We would reach out to the high schools and they would set up an assembly for us, or maybe we'd get invited to a classroom.
We'd go in there to talk to the kids about this, "Opportunity to join our program, it's free. We'll take you on college tours. We'll help you fill out college apps, we'll help you choose a career. That's pretty cool." Again, it's a free program. I remember going to a high school and I saw someone raise their hand. I love participation, I'm big on that. So, I said, "Yes, ma'am, what do you think?" That individual identified as a boy. I didn't use their correct pronoun. I looked at this individual. I thought it was a girl, but it was actually a boy.
This student said, "No, I'm actually a boy." I said, "I'm sorry, that's my bad. That's my mistake." "Then, the other day, when I heard you say such-and-such about this person, or I heard you misuse someone's pronoun, I know we've talked about this before, regarding this individual student whose pronouns is she and her, but you still use he and him. But, I've made that mistake myself, right? I've used the wrong pronouns in the past as well." So, you can engage in the conversation that way, by opening up with an individual and saying, "Here's my story. This is what happened to me. This is something that I did. It reminded me of something that I saw you do or something I watched or I witnessed."
So, you can engage in a conversation that way. Those are just three ways, okay? You can ask for clarifying question. "What did you mean by this?" You could tell someone, "You know what? I know you didn't mean anything by this when you said X, but it's offensive and here's why." The third one would be to provide an example of your own that relates to what you would like to address that individual about. It's not going to always be perfect. My goal is to help you build your confidence. Some people say it's all about your comfort level. I say I want you to be confident in your approach. That's part of this, right? That's part of the work that we do, is being confident.
If we go into a meeting, public forum or if we're in a staff meeting or something like that and we want to speak up and we got a shaky voice, versus being confident in our approach. Again, this is not about calling people out and telling someone that they're wrong. This is more on advocacy. Meaning, "You know what? What we probably haven't thought about or what you might not have thought or noticed, is that this decision that we're making, this conversation that we're having. This policy that we're discussing, is going to impact certain groups of people. If we're not careful, we're going to put them in a bad spot and it's not going to uplift them."
Think about that, right? We want all our kids to be successful. That's the goal. But, giving everybody the same thing and not thinking about individual needs, it's not an equitable approach. That's all I got for you today. Again, if you're looking for some training, if you're looking for a keynote presentation, feel free to reach out to Leading Equity Center. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "If you can't fly, then run. If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl, but by all means, keep moving." Let's continue to be a voice in Leading Equity. This episode was brought to you by the Leading Equity Center. For more podcasts, interviews and resources, head on over to leadingequitycenter.com.
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