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GSE symposium explores MLK’s vision of just and equitable schools


Images of Christopher Emdin, David Kirkland, Wendy Luttrell, Noliwe Rooks, Shannon Waite and Terri Watson.

About 650 people, including an estimated 200 UB students, listened to five authors, activists and educators share insights about reshaping the education system to be less punitive and more responsive to young people from all backgrounds and transform schools into places where everyone thrives.

“Our job is not to merely teach kindness and test-taking skills. Rather, we must practice love and provide all students with the skills that will enable them to reach their dreams,” said Terri N. Watson, a UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholar and associate professor of educational leadership at the City College of New York, who organized the two-day series of webinars in collaboration with GSE colleagues.

“It was nice to come together to work on the beloved community with the community at UB,” she said. “Putting this event together, that was community. We formed a team.”

The symposium opened with Christopher Emdin, a Columbia University Teachers College associate professor of science education and the award-winning author of the New York Times’ Bestseller, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too.”

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Educators need to take time to understand the subtleties of race in the classroom, he said, explaining how a white teacher may trigger reactions in Black students. Self-reflection is one tool for becoming aware of the dynamic.

“As a white educator from suburban America, not only do I need to … figure out like, ‘Oh man, I may have some biases I need to address,’ I also have to understand there are some preconceptions that those young people have about suburbia, about whiteness, about how I may look like a police officer, or the social worker, or the judge,” Emdin said. “So, the beginning step is for the educator to understand … ‘If I represent all these things that are richly enshrined in a tradition that has done violence to young folks, and I’m an extension of that, what can I do to intentionally depart from that? What do I do to show young folks that I recognize how they see me, and I’m actively working toward being better?’”

After each session, students met in smaller Zoom forums to talk about what they heard. The meetings were a welcome break from the social isolation of the past year’s pandemic. “Students were happy to have a space to just talk,” said Watson.

For GSE Dean Suzanne Rosenblith, the symposium exemplified the importance of community as a tool for change.

“Coming together as an academic community to listen, learn and exchange ideas around equity, diversity, justice and inclusion is critical,” she said, “if we are to realize just and inclusive schools for all children.”

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