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Crucial, Courageous Conversations: How to Talk to Kids About Racial Violence | Dear Rashida...

Rashida Ladner-Seward

Rashida Ladner-Seward is Director of Program Support at ExpandED Schools. This blog is part of our bi-weekly advice column where we answer burning questions from program directors, educators and administrators on how to develop and run successful expanded learning programs.


Dear Rashida,

Everywhere you look, there's another headline, another video, another hashtag to commemorate a life lost to horrific racial violence. It's hard enough for me, as an adult, to try to wrap my head around these tragedies. I know that I should be trying to help my students (and my own kids) deal with these events, but I don't even know where to start—and I don't want to do more damage than good by saying the wrong thing. Can you help?

At a Loss for Words 


Dear Words,

It is an unfortunate reality that, in 2016, our nation continues to suffer dire consequences that are undeniably rooted in racial disharmony. Though children cannot always understand the complex factors that have driven past and present racial discord, it's important to provide them with the time and space needed to ask difficult questions that can help them process and cope with the trauma induced by persistent bias, angry rhetoric, violence and the host of other injustices they see and, sadly, sometimes experience. Our world is on a 24-hour news cycle, and, in real time, students must be provided with room to engage in authentic discourse about current events. The race and immigration policy debates that have surrounded the 2016 presidential campaign and reports about the surge of violence against immigrants following the U.K.’s Brexit vote remind us that it is a disservice to our young people not to engage them in conversations.    

An article written by child development Professor Brigitte Vittrup underscores the importance of having open conversations with children about race from a very young age, highlighting that silence can breed prejudice. Vittrup provides examples of the everyday questions and comments that children pose with respect to our differences, and urges readers to reject the temptation to ‘shhh’ children even when their inquiries make us uncomfortable. Vittrup offers good suggestions about how to respond to children’s questions, and I find her article particularly useful in providing ideas for opening up conversations about racial, ethnic and cultural differences with younger children.

Educators might also incorporate curricula and discussion about America’s history of inequality within the classroom. The resource Courageous Conversations About Race provides teachers with discussion topics, lessons and prompts to facilitate these tough but critical conversations in the classroom. Unfortunately, many textbooks rely on “abridged” versions of history which don’t fully address these issues. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and the accompanying web-based teaching guide are a good place to start. Several recent books that encourage this important conversation are Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me; Eddie Glaude, Jr.’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; and Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy. I would also encourage re-visiting Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.   

In a moving speech yesterday at the memorial for the five Dallas police officers slain in the line of duty, President Obama said “...If we cannot even talk about these things, if we cannot talk honestly and openly, not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle.” To facilitate these discussions, we’ve listed several resources from our partners below. I recommend that these resources be used with the notion that young people inherently want to do right, and that many young people will find these conversations catalyzing in making a difference in their own communities. As the film Mighty Times: The Children's March emotionally illustrates, it was children that went on the front lines against Jim Crow segregation in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, bringing international focus and scrutiny on America’s racial maladies. It was children who helped bring the immoral era of Jim Crow to an end. They truly are our hope and future. 






♦ Have a question? Send it to info@expandedschools.org with “Dear Rashida” in the subject line. Be sure to check back each week for a nugget of wisdom.



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