Take a pause right here. Sit with this for a moment.

Hey Advocates,

Family meeting time. Go ahead and silence your cell phones, grab your favorite beverage and snack, and let’s gather around our virtual dinner table for this week’s topic. As you settle in, I want you to think about a tradition that you have engaged in and that brings you a lot of joy and fond memories. Now, and I sincerely apologize in advance if this brings about some triggers, I want you to think of a tradition that you were forced to participate in and did not make you feel safe or that you belonged in the space. Shake all of that icky off, and let’s regroup. 

A tradition for one person or the heritage for one group of people can easily become or be one person’s or a group of people’s trauma. Take a pause right here. Sit with this for a moment. 

This statement is a key reason why the “We’ve always done it this way” thinking needs further exploration, especially in educational spaces. Imagine if the United States of America, the home of the free and the land of the brave, operated in the mentality of “We’ve always done it this way” (and to an unfortunate and sad extent we absolutely do but that’s another topic for a brand new day), we would never have made as much progress as we have, in the areas of representation, opportunity, access, and equity. 

In the intricate tapestry of schools, school norms and traditions stand as pillars of stability and formidable barriers to progress. These time-honored customs serve as binding agents for generations of students and educators. They provide a sense of identity, belonging, comfort, and nostalgia. They also offer a framework within which students can navigate their academic journey. 

While we often see school norms and school traditions as a way to foster a sense of community, pride, and continuity, these very things can also inadvertently perpetuate outdated practices and exclude populations of students (and staff members). Before we can navigate the educational landscape, it is important that we understand how tradition and innovation have a lot of nuanced interplay between them. 

Dress codes, Friday Night Lights, yearbook superlatives, Student Leadership groups, and award nominations and ceremonies can help instill a sense of pride and highlight students’ accomplishments. However, rigidly adhering to these traditions can potentially exclude groups of students and promote racial stereotypes, prejudices, and biases. Oh my goodness, Sholanda. Ma’am, did you just come for football and are you saying we need to stop publishing yearbooks now? 

No, no, no…listen, first off  “Go Falcons” and don’t come for Atlanta, my good peeps; and secondly, I get “yearbook picture fresh” every year, so I’m not tryna start nothing. But, check it. “Most Likely to Succeed”. “Best Dressed”. Now, be honest with yourself, because there is no need to not be. No one will know. If we are being real, the selection criteria for superlatives, like these, may be strongly influenced by implicit biases and favor students who conform to mainstream standards of success and appearance. 

When you think of student leadership (e.g., Student Council/Government), what type of students are typically chosen for these positions? All I’m saying is students, who may not fit the “look” or the “performance” may not ever be chosen or nominated. 

There is a reason the Crown Act is needed. Policies that ban hairstyles or head coverings, which are culturally significant for many Black and Indigenous communities, can reinforce Eurocentric beauty standards. Furthermore, dress codes can be alienating to students who are from a different cultural background and who may not prioritize Western attire. Dress codes, historically and disproportionately, target students of color, particularly Black and Latinx students, leading to suspensions or expulsions. When we have traditions, rooted in outdated values and practices, progress towards inclusivity and equity, can be hindered.

I’m sure you are wondering how you can achieve the equilibrium between preserving meaningful traditions and embracing much-needed change. I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know that intentionality, reflection, and adaptation can be great starting points. One way to be intentionally reflective, so that you can make changes and allow the process of change to sink in, is to critically examine existing norms and traditions. Why are these norms and traditions relevant? Are they relevant to all students? How do they positively and negatively impact students? Then, try creating committees that incorporate diverse perspectives and voices into decision-making processes. Students should be on these committees. Let me say it again, but in a different way (loving, of course). Stop creating committees and leaving out students’ voices. We know how we feel when District personnel are making decisions for our school site. I don’t know about you, but I give them the toughest side eye, because how dare they? Well, hold up, pot and kettle, because that’s how students feel when we make decisions about and for them. 

Another way to be intentionally reflective is to ensure that cultural diversity is celebrated through culturally responsive teaching, affinity group creation and support, and/or multicultural event promotion. Doing so can ensure that all cultures are valued and celebrated. Let me just add - culturally responsive teaching is not talking about Black and Brown leaders only during their respective Heritage Months. Truth be told, culturally responsive teaching is more about you learning about the students and colleagues, in your learning environment, and who and what is important to them than you trying to tell them about people you may have quickly looked up on TikTok or that you may not be comfortable talking about because you’re not comfortable with your level of knowledge. 

You don’t have to be a cultural expert to be culturally responsive. Lean into your students, your colleagues, and your community. People have pride. They love who they are. They want to be more of who they are in every space. Once they are received into a space, they will gladly invite you in so that you can truly see them. They will gladly provide support with organizing cultural heritage days, invite guest speakers from diverse backgrounds, and teach off the grid, using multicultural literature that broadens students’ perspectives and nurtures a deeper appreciation for cultural diversity. But, they are not responsible for your emotional labor nor providing you with knowledge that you can easily Google. Form an alliance with them but don’t burden them.

Leaders, please keep in mind that making changes to traditions will bring out the venom. People do not like change. They definitely do not like changes that challenge traditions. As an equity-focused leader and advocate, be unapologetic about doing good for and being good to all students in the learning community. When you decided to lead, you agreed to create inclusive and equitable environments for all students. If you keep, in the front of your mind, that every student deserves to feel accepted, supported, and included within their educational environment, you will be the antidote to fear and misunderstanding and miscommunication. It’s not about erasing history or disregarding traditions. It is and it should always be about being a collective that evolves, adapts, and remains resiliently committed to justice, equity, and compassion. 

In the virtual mic, I’m leaving you with, share one norm or tradition that you will consciously and intentionally evaluate, for the upcoming school year.

Written By: Sholanda L. Smith, Content Creator Leading Equity Center


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