In this episode, I got to talk with Afrika Afeni Mills. She is the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with BetterLesson, and an Education Consultant. I have had the pleasure of working with her at BetterLesson as one of their coaches. She is amazing. She works with colleagues, teachers, coaches and administrators to develop and sustain student-centered learning experiences that are diverse, inclusive and equitable. Afrika has been featured on podcasts, blogs, facilitated sessions at conferences across the US. She believes that all educators can be motivated, engaged, dynamic practitioners and leaders when provided with the support needed to create student-centered, anti-bias, anti-racist, culturally responsive learning environments that inspire wonder and creativity and nurture diversity, belonging, equity, and inclusion. I’m so excited for you to hear our conversation today which talks about a variety of things including Rudine Sims Bishop’s Windows & Mirrors strategy as well as what she’s been calling “performative partnership.”
Hi, I'm Lindsay Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive anti-racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher leader, turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a principal, superintendent, instructional coach, or a classroom teacher, excited about school-wide change like I was, you are a leader. And if you enjoy nerding out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth, being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the Time for Teachership podcast. Let's dive in.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): Afrika, welcome to the Time for Teacher ship Podcast. I am so excited to have you on today. And I'd love it if you could just start us off by introducing yourself for our audience in whatever way feels relevant to you.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Awesome. Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm so grateful to be able to share this space with you and I love your question. I've actually been listening to a podcast recently called Reclaiming my Theology. And the way that that host asks the questions when guests come on is: “Tell us what it means to be you.” And I'm like, I like that. Right? I like that. Because so often we really just launched into, like, you know, whatever our professional statistics about ourselves. So how I would introduce myself is that I'm a Christ follower, who was exploring what it means to practice my faith without advantaged or privileged culture characteristics which has been really, really very important for me. Very, very important part of my journey with regards to my faith. I consider myself an equity guardian. I am absolutely an introvert. People do not usually believe that about me because I present differently. But, well, for folks who are into Myers Briggs, I am an ISFJ. Legit like all the ways that that's described is really true of me. I am a writer. I am a wife to my best friend. My husband I've been married to for 23 years and you would think that we just met yesterday. I am the mother of young adults, which, like my son is about to be 18 in like a week and our daughter just turned 19 and so I’m like whoa, this is like, we would be empty nesters kinda but the pandemic. So, like, not quite. But we're getting there. We're getting there, and then also I’m a mom to my first baby rabbit. She is our beautiful—I think she's about eight years old. We rescued her and she is a pitbull boxer, and she's fantastic. So this is my fur baby. And then I'm also someone who loves stories, I love singing and laughing. And professionally, I'm the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for BetterLesson.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): I absolutely love that introduction. And I learned so much about you and you just sharing it in that way. Actually, I have a question. To follow up on one piece when you used the phrase equity guardian. Could you say more about that? I think this is my first time hearing that phrase.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, so I think I got the concept of initially I was thinking about, there's been a lot of talk about being an equity warrior. And so that's how I used to describe myself like yes, I'm going to war against systemic injustice and oppression and like, no, It doesn’t feel like it fits. I read a book a while ago by a man named Jim Wallis, who talks a bit about, like, you know, with regard to, like, race in Christianity. And he talked about the difference between being a warrior and a guardian. In that definition, I feel like there's an important distinction between the two because going to battle against something... I'm not saying that there's not a place for that and that people who described themselves that way. Or that's in any way wrong. Like, I think it's true for whoever it’s true for. But, for me, I'm just like, if I'm saying that I want to, to help to create and sustain equitable learning experiences or environments or any type of community. Then I want to be the one who's helping to guard that thing. There's another—there's a friend that I had a chance to meet a couple of years ago, named James Ford. He's an amazing, amazing educator and he talked about the importance of not focusing so much on what we want to tear down, that we don't spend enough time thinking about what we want to build. And so that's where that shift for me came from, from equity warriors, equity guardians.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): Thank you so much for explaining that.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): No problem.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): And so, the thing I want to start with here in terms of our questions for today, is this idea of thinking big. I think it’s really, really important to me and really important to folks who listened to the podcast. And I love Dr. Bettina Love’s idea of freedom dreaming that she describes as “dreams grounded in the critique of injustice.” So I'm curious to know, what is your big dream that you hold for the field of education?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yes, that's such an important question and I think I'd like I have so much love and respect for Bettina Love and her work. So I'm so glad to be able to—it's a privilege to be able to really like engage with that question. So for me, I feel like one of the things in, like, I'm very big you'll hear more about this a little bit more as we talked with them. I'm very big into Brene Brown. And so I'm like, so not in a way of like shame and guilt because I think in some ways, depending on how, like, people were thinking about that, it can be immobilized and so not in that way. But I feel like, with, it's only within the past couple of years, that I started to really think about what took place after the Brown versus Board of Education decision right so I—As you know, learning about the trauma that existed around that, around integrating black and brown bodies into white spaces and you know, communities that decided that they would rather close schools completely for every child than have any type of integration. Or how violently some, you know, some students were integrated. Or even thinking about Ruby Bridges as a six year old child what she faced going into the classroom and being her teachers only student for so long. Like I spent some time thinking about all of those things. But what I haven't thought about and I think I didn't start thinking about it honestly, until I I listened to a presentation by Chris Emden Who was talking about, like, the power of, like, the black community and black teachers. And he was the first one who, like, I'm not saying he's the first one to introduce the concept, but in this session was when I first started to think about what happened to the black teachers who are teaching black children after integration. And I was like, Oh, I've never thought about that. And I felt, like I said I'm not trying to be filled with shame, but like, I'm like, why didn’t I think about that? Right? But I'm really trying to think about that. I'm like, not only did black kids go through the trauma of being you know forcefully integrated if it even went that way. Right, depending on if they're actually able to go to school, Into white spaces. I think about how that manifested, even in Boston. Right? You know, in the 70s, right, like there's a lot of violence around that. And I'm like, yeah, and then trying to make the connection between, like, so many of us think about, like, We need to increase the pipeline of teachers of color. And how can we have so few black men in the classroom and how can we have some like so few black teachers? And I'm like, yeah, because what we did was, we disconnected that authentic learning that teaching and learning community that existed in the black community pre-Integration like we've never been able to recapture that and I think that we can with intention, because there's a lot that, that was so ingrained into, like, just really investing in kids and community. So for me, when I think about big dreams for me. I'm like, It's really getting to a point where we actually have a partnership between the schools and the students and the families and the communities. It's not about, like, coming into a community and rescuing children or, you know, like, trying to save children from their families and community. It's about, like, going alongside children and their families and communities and being like, we're going to engage curiosity and wonder and thinking and creativity and we're going to do that together. I would love to see learning go into that space. I think for it, like, for example, for me, when my kids were much younger, my husband and I put them in so they, they were enrolled in Montessori school. And I love them. I’m not saying that every school should be Montessori. I'm not saying that. But what I did appreciate about it was, that there was so, there was so much of a concept of, like, following the child. And they just loved school like it was just so you know, fill with exploration and just like what is it that the child is naturally curious about, following that and let them be the, the ones who were leading the learning and unfortunately, we weren't able to keep them in Montessori school because financially we shifted And we didn't have money like that to keep them in without assistance. But yeah, I think that it is possible to stay engaged in learning that actually is filled with wonder and joy. So that's what my hopes are.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): That that's such a powerful hope and dream and what it makes me think about, are all the mindset shifts that are required to get to that place because that is describing a place that doesn't exist for most schools and many communities that are really, traditionally focused on how we've always done education. So I'm curious to know, what do you think are some of those mindset shifts that people have to kind of get through and buy into, and really adopt to fight for that dream?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I think a lot of it has a foundation and some of the things that we talked about just a second ago. Because if we, like so many educators, if we, and I, honestly, I want to say this. I think it's important to say. Because I think there's so much teacher bashing that can happen. So I just want to be clear that I'm not trying to be, like, educators, like, there's just so many floors. I'm not saying that. What I do believe still, feel like in my soul, I feel this Is that, like, in any group, there's going to be like a percentage of folks, who will be like, I'm not sure why you became a teacher. It doesn't seem like you like kids. But I really believe that doesn't show the minority of folks in that group, I believe that most of us enter into the field of education for really, very beautiful reasons. Right, whether it be because we enjoyed school or We love kids or we really believe in the power of education and opportunity like there are so many reasons why so many of us became educators that are so pure and beautiful. Unfortunately though, like when we become teachers, a lot of what's not, what has not happened for us is that we haven't had most of, like, unless we had some type of extraordinary learning experience. Most of us did not have the opportunity to engage like anti bias anti racist culturally responsive and sustaining diverse equitable inclusive types of money experiences. And so, and we also don't get it in our teacher prep programs for the most part. And so then we come in with these really beautiful motivations around why we want to be a teacher but if we don't have the support in place to be able to really create these, you know, these experiences that they teach in the first place, then it's going to be really hard to put those things into practice. And so for me, I'll speak to my own experience like when I became a teacher, I'm like, I felt like I originally was in graduate school to become like a creative writer. I was working on a novel. And then I realized that I really wanted to teach. And I'm like, I went to graduate school to become a teacher. I did really well in my head PREP program, but when it came time for me to have my own class I was like, oh, there's a lot of stuff that I don't know. Like, it's not just this like knowledge transfer like you have to be able to build and sustain a community and all of these things. I think that the biggest mindset shift is really for us to be able to recognize that we're not becoming teachers to, like, save children from their families and communities. We're really trying to join alongside them as partners in a learning experience and building a learning community. And we also have to hold the fact that we didn't receive what we needed. And so, we have to do some co-learning with students. We have to learn the things we didn't learn. And then we have to be able to provide those things for our students as well.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): I love that you called that co-learning because I'm also, I'm usually thinking, we have to unlearn, we have to undo all the things. But it's really a co-learning because a lot of times, I mean one, we're learning from our students in the same ways that they're learning from us, and that's important to name. But also this idea of, you know, students, depending on how old they are, I know I taught high school, they have been told this is what education is for so long. This is how teachers respond to me like we're learning or co-learning that together and we have to create that new reality that is really different from what we may be thought or saw on TV, for example of what education looks like.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Right so true.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): And so I'm curious about how we get there. So what are, kind of, the steps that we can take to make that dream happen to get teachers, I'm thinking about how we do all of that work that we've been talking about so far, what would you say is kind of the, the thing that you talk to teachers most about in this regard?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I think, aside from like just really exploring that love, like, adopting that level of awareness about what it is that we did not receive. I think that's a really big shift that we have to initially, we have to take those steps to realize that that's what happened to us. And then also giving grace to the people who told us as well because it happened to them too, right, it's just been generationally. We have not been leaning into this type of work, but I think once we get to the level of awareness and in can do that in a healthy way without you know, like, I was talking about before, like not feeling shame because I honestly I think back to some of the things I did with the students that I taught, and I'm like, Oh my gosh, like I really wish I could go back and undo, undo like some of the things that I did. I had good intentions, but the intention doesn't always lead to great outcomes. Right? So just really being able to recognize going beyond that awareness. So really saying like, Okay, well, what does it take, not only do I have to go through my own learning, but if I am honest about the fact that I really have not, you know, aside, like some sometimes, I will talk about, like, family, community partnership, but a lot of times it looks more like okay, like before pre-COVID was more like, oh, make sure that parents come business chaperoning class trip so that they're contributing to the bake sale or selling gift wrapping paper. No. Cookie dough or whatever it is we're using to like raise funds, while we want them to come to conference night and literacy night and math night and to pick up the report cards and hear about all the things their students are not really doing so well necessarily. Like, that's not partnership. And so I think those steps are like really trying to operationalize our learning. So it's like okay well if learning, if what we've been trying to do all along has not been effective. And it hasn't been largely, right, when we talk about the goals that we have and how we try to get there. There's been a lot of misalignment. So if we realize that it's like, well, what do we need to do? What structures do we need to put into place to make sure we have the opportunity to continue that learning and to change our practices? Right? So if that looks like it could look like something so basic and I know some people might feel like this is not enough. Honestly, I feel like this is a massive first step. I think back to when I was a new teacher. And as a new teacher. I don't even mean just my first year. I mean, like, the first several years, because whenever you come into a space, you always like we're human beings, we want to belong. We don't want to be the one who's like, the wrong person doing something different, like, we want to be part of the community. And so I'd be in the teachers room or making copies and I would hear veteran teachers saying something—and not everybody, so I just definitely want, like, I totally am genuinely not trying to teacher bash. But there are some folks who are, who have gotten kind of jaded around the way they think about teaching and learning and kids and their families. And so, there'll be a lot of times where people will say things to me about kids in their families. And in my heart I'd be like, that's not right. That's like mean, or like if that, if there was something about me or my family. I would feel a certain type of way or even feel genuinely like if they knew me well enough, they would know that they actually were talking about me and my family. Because my thing, like, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, my family was beautiful. I just, you know, and they still are. And I think that, but that's not something that was always celebrated In my school community. Like there was a lot more focus on like the deficit and the challenges. And something like, a lot of times people will say things and I'm like, you don't even really know that you're talking about, like, my cousin or my uncle. Right, like or like a sibling or something like that. So I think just even having the courage to speak up in the face of people saying things that are not necessary, like, that like deficit based just really having the courage to try to shift the narrative. I think even something, like, that can be really powerful because it lets people know who you are, what you stand for. And then you will also find your allies right or your co conspirators or your, you know, your comrades. Your accomplices and you'll start to really be able to work together to really get that work done. But I think we have to have courage to speak up against messed up things.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): I can relate to so much of that just hearing it. And then for me, remaining silent and then feeling like, why was, why didn't I say something where, where was that? And I think it's so powerful what you're speaking to, that idea of belonging, like, wanting to fit in, especially as a new teacher and you know, being taught the rope, so to speak, right. And just having to follow that versus this is what I truly believe in, this is what I need to say, this is what I want the school to become and I believe it can become that. And trying to find that community of people who will kind of be with you and that is, is critical and also difficult, especially as a new teacher.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Really, so I think about that too, like this, like I talked about hearing from Chris Emden before he tells a story like that. So, and when he became a teacher that people would come to him and tell him like don't smile at your students until December. And he'd be like, that seems messed up. Right? But you're a veteran teacher. Oh, like, well, you know, I'm new. Maybe there's something you know that I don't know. But then, as he goes he’s like no, that is messed up! That’s just unkind. Like, how are you going to connect with somebody if you just wouldn't even show them something as basically decent as a smile. So you're so right, so right.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): That's such a great example of another one that we've all heard, I think. So I know that you talk a lot about the importance of students having both windows and mirrors and the curriculum so referencing routine Sims bishops windows mirrors inside and sliding glass doors. So I'd love if you could just share a little bit more about this framework, you know, what, what you think the value is that it brings to the table and how educators specifically can, can use it in their lens of designing curriculum and teaching classrooms.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I think probably, like, we were talking about a little bit earlier was, I think we need to first recognize what are our own windows in here. So just, like, going into the concept a bit more, the windows are what we gaze through to discover other perspectives and other experiences and other, you know, other ways of being and other histories, right. So that's why we’re looking through the window. To see something other than ourselves or what, you know, other than what we've experienced. And then the mirror being what reflects who we are not different parts of identities back to ourselves, right. So we need to make sure that students have the opportunities to experience both in our, in our, in our learning communities. But before we can do that. It's just like, well, no one really ever asked me what my windows and mirrors were, like, I need to really spend some time thinking about that. Like what are things that I feel like represent me and all the different things that make me Afrika. Right? And what are some things that I really would like to have learned that I never had a chance. Tomorrow I should just really like thinking about that. And then thinking about what that night. I'm not only thinking about what that means for our students, but also, asking them, because I think that's a big part of what we're missing in education. We don't ask kids anywhere near enough questions and I don't mean assessments, like, I'm totally not talking about like state assessments or even like, the one I feel like all the more helpful and informative like formative assessments. Those are really important. But I don't even mean that I mean like, how are you experiencing this learning community and what do you think about what we have one deck to learn this year? And is what do you think might be missing or how would you want to learn this? Right, if this is something that you feel like you would want to learn. So I think we'll be hearing from students because of some of the mistakes we can make. I know I've made it where I get a new concept or framework. I'm just like, yes, students, the windows and mirrors. Let me determine them for the students. I'm like, No, that's not the right way to go. We need to hear from them, right, because otherwise we're imposing our own view of who the students are on them and it's still not authentic. So I think that's the piece, too. But I think one of, it’s not enough to just be like, yeah, because, because we can think about it, when it comes to black and brown kids with students who are from marginalized backgrounds. Marginalized backgrounds, where we can say, okay, yeah. Like, we want to make sure that we provide those opportunities for them. But it's like, yeah, we need to think about it a bit more deeply that Black and Brown kids and kids from marginalized groups are oftentimes looking through way too many windows. Right. It's like you're learning about all types of people I think about this to like even because I grew up in a family that was like, working class and my family. Now, I don't even know we are because of student loan debt. Like we still have a we have a house. But we got to doing the subprime mortgage crisis. So I don't even know what I am economically, but when I think about it, even with, like, I binge watch shows and I watch like you know people in different houses and sometimes it's like I want to live in a house that big! Like, I want to go on vacation, like when we have the opportunity to go on vacation again. And so that kind of stuff to like just really being mindful of like how those things show up for me. But so just, just knowing too, like, just hearing from students like what are some of the things that you would like to learn more about. And then I think when it comes to making sure Black and Brown kids get to see way more representation of themselves and not just from the perspective of like oh yes, like your people went through such hardship and enslavement and civil rights and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman it's just like, true, those are parts of the story and very important parts of the story, but those are not the only parts of the story. So, right. So if we're talking about black and brown cases it can only be about oppressive things and suffering and needs to be about like, what does it fully mean to be you. Which is why you're opening the question. It resonates still with me. Like, what does it mean to be you? But then also thinking about like our white students too it's just like, yes, you know, I don't know. You probably have seen that graphic that talks about the lack of diversity in children's books like between 2012 right? In 2015 and 2018 how it went from like, like, white kids in like 93% of children's books in 2012 about, like, featuring white kids. And then even when we got like, the data shifted it more. So it didn't go to black and brown kids it went more like animals and trucks right like less about white kids, but not quite about other kids too. But just really giving white students an opportunity to like, to really see, like, they need more opportunities to look through windows and hear more and learn more about other perspectives and histories and you know, and interest and all those things. But not only that, it's also to hear like, to learn more about themselves. Like, what does it mean to be white? And I think about that too because we talked a lot about being culturally responsive there. You know, the black and brown kids like, they really need to be able to enjoy being proud of themselves and where they come from. I was like yeah but then when we need to explore more. What does it mean for white kids because they're like, can I say that I love being white? No, that would not go well. I said I like being white, but then what does that mean with something like diversity, am I not part of that? Right? And so it's just like really being able to show why students, like, yes, not trying to, like, you know, so water it down. Like when we look at colonization, when we look at some of the things that have happened It's not good, right, some of those things are really, we still are seeing the effects of systemic oppression. And at the same time, there are white people historically who have fought against white who have worked alongside folks and who have been abolitionists, and who have been really fighting for, you know, really, the humanization of all of us, right? Because we think about how racialization has harmed us all. I think, like the concept of windows and mirrors provides us with such a powerful frame.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): I love so much of that because it goes deeper than what is typically shared when we talk about windows and mirrors. So that self awareness piece right off the bat, I'm just thinking and conversations I facilitated with educators, we don't usually start there. We don't usually start with this introspective, you know, series of questions. And it's interesting because I know in some of the work you're doing, you're asking, you know, white educators who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods like, what was that experience like? And when you asked me, it took a while I remember. I remember, I think you had said maybe 30 minutes to answer these questions. And it took me a few hours because I was, like, the mental energy to go back and actually think about it, when it wasn't being, these questions weren't surfaced in the moment like when I was in school. And to be able to retrospectively with what I know now, go back and say, huh, what was that experience actually like? What were we talking about? What weren't we talking about? What media was I consuming? It was really difficult. And I think that just speaks to the need for what you're saying. You know we need that self reflection first before we dive in and say, again with that teacher lens, here's exactly what the windows and mirrors will be, I will tell you. So that voice of students also being critically important. And I also think about that to some of the things that you were talking about like, the broadening of the experience, also just Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality too. So, that idea that rate, like all people of a particular race are not monolithic, like, there are these varied experiences and so sometimes I hear teachers say, oh, well, there was this really great book. You know that, that centers, whatever race they're trying to center, but it's still heteronormative. It still says gender. It's still all the things that now we have a slice of, like, this, this other window. But there are so many more still reflecting probably mirrors for different folks that have always had mirrors, you know, and I think that's an interesting component to that. Like, how do we dive deeper into what windows and mirrors actually mean? And how do we encourage educators to think about it even deeper than just that surface level that I think has been popularized a bit more lately.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I think that's when I think of the other piece. This is something I've really been thinking quite a bit about, and I don't understand why this is a push, but I think we need to really explore the way that this can manifest, is that there's been a lot of conversation about like diversifying the teaching staff diversifying like students need to see people who look like them. Like, I totally agree. And, right, so we need to be able to hold them to it on both ends. We also need to be mindful of how rationalization and internalized oppression shows up in people from marginalized groups. And I'll just keep the focus on myself and everybody has to tell their own story. But for me, I grew up in, like, you know, like where school was like a space for me like I love school I did so well in school. And I just grew up with that perception of myself. Like I had, you know, gone into first grade early, so I was like a five year old first grader and then I skipped the eighth grade. So I was really young graduating from high school. So, of course, it was like Afrika you’ve done this before, I started, like, challenging the concept of smart, but it was like, oh, I forgot. You're so smart, you're so smart. So in my head, I'm like, oh, that's it. What you have to do is focus on school then everything will be fine. And then, so when I went into being a classroom teacher, that's the perspective that I brought in with me, and so I'm just like, yeah. So now, what does that mean? That means classroom management. That means you are controlled in my room in my space right it's happened to me pretty quickly. And it was like when I look back, I'm like, I hate that that's how I approach creating like, well, I don't even know what to call it like an effective learning space. Thankfully, I was able to really still have really strong relationships with my students with them so they are so gracious, so gracious to me and I really like I still maintain relationship with a lot of my former students, but I think it's really important for us to think about like as Black and Brown people if you're in that if since we are in school systems that are largely based on like an advantaged or privilege, you know, culture characteristics and if those of us who are people of color who are marginalized folks have bought into that we bought into the system and how to play the game. Then that means that we're not quite equitable either right or we're not necessarily seeing things the way we need to either. So I think it's about all of us really being able to make sure we have the right mindset when it comes to how we think about teaching and learning.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): I love that. And I, I want to go back to, to a point you made about the importance of asking the students about the windows and mirrors. How do you strike that balance between asking students for, you know, what are your book recommendations? What are the stories that you want to hear? And also, like, not putting so much of the work on the students to come up with that because Hassan Kwame Jeffries, does the teaching hard history podcast. And there was that one episode where he was talking about his child being asked to like, the teacher taught something about a historical figure that was inaccurate. I think it was Rosa Parks and he that he had his child actually spoke up and said, after a conversation with dad, and was like, hey, this isn't quite right. And the teacher offered the opportunity to teach the class. Which to him at first was like, okay, great, but then later, he was like, I actually realized that that's the teacher’s work that she needs to do. And then bring, like, the student was able to shout it out. Now, the teacher needs to go do the work. Bring it back presented and invite conversation. But I guess my question is, how do we achieve that balance of inviting student voices? And then also not putting everything on students?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I think that's an important consideration because so much of what I'm mindful of about this work is that once you know once you awareness is right, it's kind of like, I don't know if you watch the movie “The Matrix”, like, once you're aware of what's happening like, wait, this is terrible. And we got to fight this. Right? And you just, you want to end it immediately. It's like, y eah, but you can't go. You're not going to be able to because something that has taken centuries to set up is when it takes some time to reimagine, right. And to dismantle and reshape right. So I think part of it is that students and their families and community, I think that's why we also have to make sure we're balancing is not on the students what we want to hear from their families to and from the communities too is being aware of, like, what the topics are right. And even, like, you know, I think it's great that the student was able to help the teachers to raise their awareness and be like, actually, this is not accurate with that because it takes a lot of, you know, humility and vulnerability to be able to get that feedback from students. But I think a lot of it is that like not trying to, I think, sometimes it comes up where it's like, oh, well, this is the mistake I made, and we're really trying to make sure things are relevant. Let's go ahead and give the opportunity for students to engage. It's like, yeah, but like their parents said, my child is not being paid to teach this class, that's your job. So I think there's part of it where it's like we're going to need to be able to accept that we’re not be able to change the whole curriculum all at one time. That's why I think it's so important when we think about doing this work that we're not thinking about doing it alone. I really believe that it has to be the work of like grade level teams and content teams and instructional coach teams and administrative teams and the school site council, which hopefully in the most, like, in the best circumstances, involves family and community members, where we can set up a plan to say alright, so here's how we would like to shift things over the next three to five years. It is hard because we're not trying to say we want to do messed up things to kids in part and then do, like, better things. Like we're not trying to say that, but I think also just really holding ourselves to the fact that it's going to take some time to really, to address a lot of the things that have happened that are unjust and that are, that are oppressive. And so I think holding that and just being able to determine like here's how we're going to roll this out over time. Because I think when we start, you know, trying to, like, change things immediately. That's what we started doing making some of those moves and it's not really the best people. It reminds me, so I'm like, I don't know if you've ever seen that it was on the Internet by, I think the boy's name is King and he's a fourth grader and he wrote this paper about Columbus and he was just like, I'm not, you know, like, you’re teaching me the wrong thing about Columbus and I'm not, this is wrong, my parents told me that Christopher Columbus did all these things wrong and he was in fourth grade. I was like alright little man, I appreciate that. But the teacher's response was the way she actually, like, her response was not supportive. Let's say she had had the right, let's say she had had a response, which was like, all right, King tell us what you know about Christopher Columbus. King could have been, like, not my job, right. So I think it's about, like, raising awareness and then it might be when can we start to, when can I, as an instructor, when can I work with my team to restructure what we're going to read or how we're going to approach this content. And trying to look at, look at doing it together and not just putting it on the students and their family to do the teaching because that's not a partnership, passing it off to someone else to do, is not a partnership. So I think really thinking about what does partnership look like?
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): There's so much there too, in terms of what you said with, like, the vulnerability of the teacher to be able to say, yep, I was wrong. You're right. Thank you. And creating the space to be able to have that student say that without fear of reprisal from the teacher, you know, teacher, you are wrong. So there's that dynamic there. And then I love that, that returning to partnership, what is truly a partnership is not, “This is on you”. It is collaborative, it is sustainable over time. It is that work in teams. It is the commitment to do better. Like, absolutely. I love that. I feel like that's the theme of the episode is this partnership.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): I'm curious to know about just, you know, the, the overwhelm that, that something like that could and has I think a lot of teachers have said this has felt for them. This is an overwhelming shift because our, our entire education system is steeped in white supremacy and just having to unpack that, dismantle that, recreate and build, and all of that stuff is, is a lot. And so, in terms of a starting point of feeling, like, momentum building, where do you recommend that teachers who are interested in doing this work actually start? What resources would you suggest they check out to kind of get the ball rolling?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I think, I mean an ideal world, and I know we're not in an ideal world, especially right now because I definitely want to name that in the midst of a pandemic, like, that it's completely overwhelming to think about, like, just in general what teaching and learning. Like what it means to create an effective mind community without there being a worldwide pandemic and then we add the pandemic. On top of that, like, my god. Wow, like where to even begin. You know, my, I'm just trying to make sure that my students are actually being able to—whether in a hybrid way or what way—like trying to make sure that I'm able to connect with my students let alone, trying to shift the fundamental way that I'm teaching. I think the main lesson, so ideally what would be great is if teachers had the support of administrators. So I do want to just definitely make a plug for administrators, being able to create those spaces for teachers to be like, yep, I know that things are challenging. I know that things are hard. But what we are going to do is we're going to dedicate a staff meeting per month, or we, I would like for the focus of a content, you know, team meeting or grade level needs to be about like taking a look at a specific unit or specific lesson is coming up in like how what is a shift that you can make to make sure that this content is, you know, is considerate and inclusive. And just really being able to have a dedicated time and space to do that because I think a lot of times, educators whether it be like adopting a new set of standards or new writing curriculum or math curriculum or social stuff like all the different shifts that we make, or you know what new way of assessing students or, there's so many shifts that we make. So we know what that feels like to have something that we need to become you know acclimated to that it is hard. And at the same time, we are so like, we are, we have done these hard things for a long time. And so we are, I think, my thing is that I would really encourage folks to not think of anti racist education as something that is actually the hardest thing among other hard things we've done. I think it is hard in the sense that we have not been practiced in it. So there is some nature of it that is more difficult, especially emotionally because we have to navigate with us. I'm not saying that that part isn't hard, but I think that once we get to that final, that, that foundational awareness and we can do it just like we've done other hard things. So, like, okay, not ideal to have to just hold out a whole new set of standards, but, good. So, but we can do it right. So what does it look like to create structures. And then when I think about resources, one of the resources I love so much is teaching tolerance. And I want to just name this too, because I'm, I know this came up before in a way that surprised me. And I'm like, oh, I probably should have seen this coming but there was actually a time that I was in a conversation with a potential partner and she was like, yeah, I don't really want to do this work with you because you use teaching tolerance resources and I don't want to just be tolerated. I don't think that that's enough. And I was like, oh, unfortunately, that message came to me through someone else. I didn't have a chance to really talk about it with her. And I'm like, actually, teaching tolerance is grappling with their name right, like, when, when they were created when they're the first, the organization first started tolerance was progressive right but now that we're in this time when we like, I think about the two. I don't want to be tolerated. But what they're facing as an organization is like if we change our name, do we lose connection with the people who have come to rely on these resources if we call ourselves something different. So I do want to name that the word tolerance can be off putting. But know that the organization itself is grappling with what does that look like for them for the future? But just having said that, like the fact that they create so many supportive resources, whether it be the social justice standards that you know K through 12 was, really spells out what does it mean to support students around identity diversity, justice and action? And it’s modules like, everything's free right? Like, you can just, like, download all these resources and really take a deep dive into it. So I think even something like that. It's like saying, okay, this grade level team is going to take a dive into identity. This grade level team might take a dive into diversity, like we're all going to like, jump the jigsaw. This and then we're going to find some ways to like, share with us that we're learning so that we can move this forward and I really do appreciate when they are like free high quality resources. I know some things are free and not great but, these are resources that are like, it's like the articles that come out. All the different like all the different curricular pieces that, are they, I think, trying to, like, look into those resources and see, like, what, what can we choose that we're going to use to try to make a shift. And then we work on those things together, we keep doing that. Yeah, we keep doing that work.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): That is so interesting. I did not know that teaching tolerance was grappling with their name because I've had that same thought of, interesting choice of name for such a progressive organization that does grapple with these things in the content they put out. Yes, super interesting to know.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I just sent you the link. They actually have a link to a letter that was written by one of the directors. Where there's a Google form like a Google form you can fill out. So give your thoughts about the name and anything that you think that you might recommend. So yeah, I can send you, I can send you that link. I think that's really helpful. Yeah.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): Oh, that's awesome. And then I can include it in the post too. I can get in here.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, that'd be awesome.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): So in terms of this idea of living out our values of justice and equity as as educators, I think so much of so much of this work is, kind of, that balance of introspection, which you've been talking a lot about like looking inside deepening that awareness, I think, is the language you use is awareness and also taking action. I think sometimes there's a rush to action without the awareness that is not helpful, but you know, that idea of awareness plus action or awareness, then action right is really important. Once people end this episode, and they go into their educator lives, what is something that you would recommend that they do, or can do right away in terms of moving from awareness to action?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): I think one of the main things is it could be something formal. Like, I know the panorama has these resources around like you know, surveying students and finding out like, how they're feeling about, like, equity in the school and how families are feeling about, you know, so there's, there's those free resources as well. But it doesn't even have to be like that formal i don't think. I think they really, just reaching out if educators are not already doing this because I definitely want to like, definitely want to just say that I know that there are educators who are already doing this. Sometimes, though, when folks are newer on their journey about this topic in particular. One of the really important steps that can be taken is to find out like okay well what is it the students, like, how are you experiencing this one and community. It's going to be interesting responses, I think, in the midst, obviously, in the midst of a pandemic. But I think even outside of that, like, not just about the pandemic, but just thinking about, like, what it is that we're learning? What excites you about this? Well, there's some things that you're learning about outside of the classroom that you wish were parts of what we learned about here. Like I know like, you know, I talked about my own children. But they would always come home and tell me all kinds of stuff. And of course, they were like, we don't want you to email the teachers, Mom. It’s like look, I'll do it sometimes and sometimes I won't. Right, sometimes I can't help myself. But I think they will come home and they have so many opinions about how the learning community could be better or who could be different or things can be emphasized or deemphasized, right? So I think that really, a really good first step is just asking the question because I feel like there's a couple of things that are accomplished there. Not only do you get the information that you might not have had otherwise, or sometimes we get, I don't know if you went through it too back when I first became a teacher. I'm just like, yeah, you give the students a getting to know you survey at the beginning of the school year. But then I never did anything with it. I just, like, collected them, put them in a drum, like what, why did I even, right, if I'm not going to use it. But I think, so there's the benefit of actually learning authentic things from students and potentially their families. If you go into the teachers lower educators, going to the families as well, not only do we get the information, but we also send the message that I care what you think. And I care how you’re feeling, and I care how you feel in this space. And do you feel like this is, like, you're part of what we're doing? Or do you feel like you're just the recipients? Right. It's like you just want to, you want me to come and sit in the zoom room or in the classroom, like all those different other things. Do you just want me to sit and quietly listen to you or you want me to collaborate with my classmates when you tell me to collaborate? Or even like, some of the things that I saw was, like, heartbreaking. You may have seen some of these things to when we started going into a remote approach to teaching and learning where there were like these big lists of, like, you may not wear pajamas, you may not eat food, you must have your camera on, you must have a blank wall and back. And you're like, how, how, like is a child supposed to feel. So just like just really taking the steps to ask you this, how they're feeling and what, not only how they're feeling, but what is it that you want to learn that’s missing? And just actually like listening to them and trying to see where like, you're not going to be able to incorporate everything but you can incorporate some right? So I think that's a really great, like, easy next step right. It's not going to take too much, it just takes will. It takes will and time to ask those questions.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): One of the things that sticks out to me is, I was just reading about adaptive leadership and turbulence theory. Which I am from the student voice field of scholarship and so Dana Meter has this pyramid of student voice. And she's like, at the bottom, we have this most frequent thing which is serving with students at the in between. We have this idea of, like, partnership between youth and adults and at the top we have building capacity for student leadership and I always loved that pyramid. But then, after years later, I think she partnered with another scholar to map onto this idea of turbulence theory which I was not familiar with. And basically what they came up with is when you just survey your students, when you leave it, like, as the first, you know, beginning day, here's the survey to get to know my students, and then I don't do anything with it and I don't build capacity and I don't partner with students, it actually increases the turbulence or discomfort, because you're enabling students that have this place where they think they have voice and then they share their ideas and it goes nowhere and then you just have kind of chaos ensue, because you've given them the platform and then not built any capacity for yourself or them to do anything with it versus when you partner or you build capacity for students to take on a regular leadership role like on an ongoing basis. Here's what I want to learn. This is how I want to choose to learn today. You actually decrease the turbulence, because there's this idea of you know I'm constantly knowing ways that I can lead in the class and I know that there's action taken as a result of what I'm saying. So I just connected with what you were saying so much because that's, I think that's exactly what's been happening in classes when it's like, oh, we give them voice, but it's like what type of voice, and in what way?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): It was like you didn't really mean it, like you just said. You know what it reminds me of? Like, I know we've heard this term quite a bit, especially since you know the murders of like Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd is, you know, people just like, yeah, I'll put up a black square on Instagram or on my social media. Or I will, I will, you know, put out a Black Lives Matter statement. And we started hearing a lot more about, like, performative ally ship. Right? It's almost like that's, like, performative partnership was just like, I gave you a survey. It's like, yeah, but you didn't really, like, I told you I poured my heart out about how much I love learning about dinosaurs and you never mentioned it to me again, we never learned, like, what was the point of asking right? Yeah.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): Oh my gosh, I'm so sad for that hypothetical child, he loves dinosaurs now. So I know that you have been working. You're always working on things you've been working on so many things and one of the things I know you've been talking about a bit more is about, and you mentioned that in, in the podcast today, but this idea of teaching white students and I just wanted to pause and give you a moment to say anything else that we didn't get to talk about today in this work. And this stuff you've been thinking about in regard to that specific domain of teaching.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah, I think, I mean, for me, I feel like there's so much like possibility and promise there because like I was talking about before, it’s really important for teachers to go through this foundational learning as well. And it's just like yeah, like, when we talk about racialization, or we think about systemic oppression or how that shows up in learning spaces, it's just like yeah you, and I'm not saying, William Ward Garrison didn't have his challenges because there was a lot of paternalism going on with him. I get that. But I'm just like, when we think about, like, the abolitionist movement or we think about like you know, like Sarah and Angelina Grimke or we think about, like, all the different folks like Jane Elliott. There are so many white folks who were just like, yeah, no, this is not okay. Right? And at great risk to themselves as far as like their societal standing or their connection to their families or any of those things. Like in the face, like we're willing to sacrifice that because they believed in something more important, right, that it was more important that they, they really fight to make sure that we are not supporting oppression right? And the different ways that that manifested by the different people who were able to do it to different levels, depending on the times we were in, are going to do a bit differently now than it would have done it in the 1850s. Right? And so, thank God, right? Like we progressed and things like that. But I think that's the piece, too, is like showing white students that it's possible. So really challenge this narrative that they're often given right that, you know, basically, it's not even necessarily. It's not like in some places intentional, but I think a lot of time. So, like, if you're a teacher, and you're just picking a whole bunch of children's books and the children's books happen to have all white kids in it, I don't think a lot of teachers are sitting down and being like, I only want children's books with white kids in it, but the impact is that it shows white kids like okay like basically I'm the one that is to be centered and everyone else is not quite normal. Right? And then we can try to do things to kind of you know, like, try to make folks feel included somewhere. But that's the thing that we do in February, right, like during Black History Month. Oh, we talked about that on, you know, in January on Martin Luther King's birthday or maybe you know, around, now, when we're thinking about, like, oh yeah its indigenous peoples day instead of Columbus Day, like we are right now it's like, okay, what do we really think about Thanksgiving is, you know, like, all that type of stuff. Like, we don't want it to be incidental with white students being able to have a different understanding or an accurate understanding of their place in the world right and so it's not. And I think that's the piece, too. I think some people get afraid when we think about, like, antiracist education. Even just, like, seeing like, the executive order that came out around, like, that it's not okay. Like, it's not even permissible for federal, you know, organizations to even have this PD. And this is like, no, we're not trying to tell white kids like you're horrible or like you’re bad, like, we just want you to be able to see the world as it truly is and should be. And so I think that's the thing that I would say that is so much promise and being able to, you know, to have kids have the opportunity to really see themselves in others in the most beautiful way that they should. That's what I really feel like, that's why I feel excited about that work.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): James Tyson and Bree Newsome is like a great example of modern day, like, what does that look like to decenter yourself and still work for racial justice? And I think, you know, the teachers, especially white teachers, teaching white students, like, that's that's you. Right? You are the person who can be and, like, a person that they know who lives into this idea of whiteness, not as an oppressor but as a co-conspirator.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yes, I’m excited about, like you mentioned, James Tyson and Bree Newsome like those are my people, just like even because I didn't realize the extent of the story until I read between the loves book. And once I read the account, I was like, what, oh, yes, yes, this is it. Like these are the stories that we need to be selling. Right?
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): Yeah, absolutely. And I know there are so many different things that you have mentioned today in terms of resources, what other resources or podcasts or things that you've been listening to or learning through would you recommend for listeners?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Yeah. So for me, what I've been thinking a lot about, I mean, there's a couple of things with regards, like I mentioned in the beginning about me explain, like, what is Christianity absent white supremacy culture characteristics, that's a big part of what I'm doing and what I'm listening to and reading. So there's a podcast called Reclaiming my Theology for other folks who might be curious about what that looks like as well. But when it comes to, like, thinking about myself as, like, an education leader, I've been really enjoying, like, I enjoyed reading Brene Brown Dare to Lead when it first came out, but then also listening to the podcast, because I feel like being able to you know, like, you read something like, yeah, that was great. But then you could forget a lot, right, if you're not applying it actively. So really I’ve been, like, listening to that podcast but then her Unlocking Us podcast as well. And it's just been really so phenomenal. Even the one that I listened to most recently was when she interviewed Priya Parker, who wrote The Art of Gathering and was talking about, like, what does it mean to gather. What does it mean to engender belonging. And so those are a couple of things that I've been like reading and listening to lately. And one of the things that I downloaded that I haven't read yet but then I'm excited about is Priya Parker like thinking about what it means to gather, particularly during a pandemic, where a lot of our gathering is taking place remotely. Like what is, how is remote gathering different than in, different and the same in a lot of ways, than in person gathering or as in person gathering? So those are some of the things I've been thinking about most recently, and so, like, some of it goes beyond, you know, the education in particular, but as for me, it's like I said, it’s the foundation of who I am as a person and then I bring that into the work that I do with educators. So I think all of that connects for me.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): Awesome, so there's, there's so much that we've talked about and I imagine that listeners are going to want to continue to touch base with you. So just to kind of quickly recap, we've talked about the ideas of partnership, we've talked about that self awareness as being really critical before we take that action, right, awareness, then action. We've talked about the importance of teamwork and administrators, creating the space for the work. We've talked about, kind of that depth of windows and mirrors. We've talked about the importance of white students and redefining whiteness in a way that is anti oppressive and I love that you reference, like, I think I wrote down we can do hard things. Right? Like this is hard work, but we can do hard things. So I think so many listeners are gonna want to continue these amazing conversations with you and continue to follow your work, which I know you're always sharing on social media. So I'm curious where can listeners learn more about you or connect with you online?
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Oh, absolutely. So for folks who are on Twitter, my Twitter handle is AfeniMills so A, F as in Frank, E, N as a Norman, I, and my last name Mills, all one word. You can definitely reach out and connect with me on LinkedIn. You can just look up. If you look at my name, you'll be able to find me there. I've also created for folks who are on Facebook. I have the Afrika Afeni Mills Equity Guardian Facebook page that if you're on and look that up, you should be able to find me. And I do try to keep, like, I'm like, I don't have my own website yet, but that's where I do like, put a lot of my work so that people can find it. Those are the main places I will say that people can connect with me.
Lindsay Lyons (she/her): Thank you so much. I know we're probably over the time that we planned to talk, I just appreciate all that you have shared today, Afrika. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Afrika Afeni Mills (she/her): Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Thanks for listening, amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me at Lindsay Beth Lyons, or leave a review of the show so leaders like you will be more likely to find it. To continue the conversation, you can head over to our Time for Teachership Facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries. Until next time leaders, continue to think big, act brave, and be your best self.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.