This past month, UConn alumni, staff, and students gathered virtually for the #ThisIsAmerica: Critical Race Theory in Schools panel. #ThisIsAmerica, organized by the UConn Foundation with co-sponsors from across the University, is a series that brings together the UConn community to discuss and unpack systematic racism, social justice, and human rights issues. In addition, it spotlights the individuals, organizations, and movements fighting for justice and equity, and against oppression and white supremacy.
The panel featured four education professionals, including faculty and alumni from the Neag School of Education:
- Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership Alexandra Freidus;
- Superintendent of Guilford (Conn.) Public Schools and Neag School adjunct professor Paul Freeman ’07 ELP, ’09 Ed.D.; and
- Associate Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs Saran Stewart, who also serves as director of Global Education at the Neag School.
UConn alumna Leslie Torres-Rodriguez ’97 (CLAS), ’00 MSW, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, moderated the event, and Nadiyah Humber, associate professor of law, also took part.
The discussion was based upon the controversy surrounding whether the topic of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is being taught in K-12 schools, or whether it remains a subject taught primarily if not exclusively in higher education.
Stewart, whose areas of expertise include access, equity, diversity, and inclusive pedagogy, described CRT as a “body of legal scholarship and a movement of critical civil rights activists and researchers.”
“There are two overarching ideas,” she said. “The first is to understand how the regime of white supremacy and its systems use policies and regulations to support the racial subordination of people of color. The second aim is to learn how to change and dismantle oppression all together.”
While it is generally recognized that CRT will be taught in higher education, all of the panelists spoke to the importance of addressing the topics of race and historic and systemic racism openly, factually and honestly in K-12 schools.
“There is no way to understand the United States, our policies, our contemporary society, the pandemic we’re in right now, anything about our country, without understanding some aspects of how race has shaped it,” said Freidus. “If we say that people cannot teach these things, or if we say that people can only learn these things in the most comfortable ways, which means they will not learn them, then we are saying that we do not want people to understand the society that they live in.”
While Superintendent Freeman made clear that CRT is not taught in Guilford schools, he said it was important to talk about race. Through educating about race and racism, Freeman said he expected the school district would become a more supportive and inclusive environment for all students and would better prepare all students to be a part of a national community that is more diverse than Guilford.
“We want to teach about race and racism. We want all kids to belong. And we want classrooms to be culturally responsive and sustaining, but we do not feel that we need to teach CRT to do those things,” said Freeman.
“We want to teach about race and racism. We want all kids to belong. And we want classrooms to be culturally responsive and sustaining, but we do not feel that we need to teach CRT to do those things.”
Paul Freeman ’07 ELP, ’09 Ed.D.
“CRT is appropriate at the graduate and law school levels, but I do not know any K-12 educators who are lobbying to begin including it in our schools,” said Freeman.
“It’s the acknowledgment that there is more than one story,” he said. “Our students come to our classrooms with different backgrounds, with diverse experiences from diverse families.”
He said he one example of how they work to achieve this in his community is through a student project called Witness Stones, where students examine the lives and contributions of individuals once enslaved in Guilford. Instead of merely studying slavery in the South, students are learning about it at a hyper-local level. At the end of the experience, the students install a Witness Stone to commemorate the individual’s life.
When Stewart moved to the United States, she wanted to ensure her two young daughters received the best possible education. She relayed that she quickly discovered that most “A-rated” schools lacked diversity.
She described the ideal situation for education as the point at which “we can move to a highly diverse town with a highly diverse teaching population that is proportionally representative of the students that they are teaching.”
Stewart added that she is continuously examining what her children bring home from school to ensure they receive the most well-rounded education.
“I am militant with my children’s teachers,” she said. “When you are a parent in a predominantly white institution, you are militant, and you are vigilant about their education and their upward social mobility in this space, for them to come in whole, and leave fully whole as well.”
Beyond the Individual
One common argument for excluding teaching about race and racism during primary school is the notion that white students will feel a sense of guilt and shame. Stewart asserted that CRT is not necessarily about the individual.
“It is at the systemic level,” she said. “If we do not try to dismantle the systems that enforce racism, we are running a rat race constantly and getting nowhere.”
On the higher education front, Humber, the UConn Law professor, said she uses CRT when teaching her students about law practices in the United States, to help them critically examine how race has impacted both the past and present and to take their analysis far beyond the surface level.
“It is at the systemic level. If we do not try to dismantle the systems that enforce racism, we are running a rat race constantly and getting nowhere.”
Saran Stewart, Professor
“In law school, one of the most foundational skills a law student should develop is critical analysis, meaning students should often know how not to take things at face value, learn how to read between the lines of judicial decision making, and identify and spot the real issues,” she said. “Using a critical race lens helps law students answer the question ‘What does this case tell us about society and the law?’ and ‘What does it tell us about society and law at the time the case was decided?’”
Meanwhile, some suggest that including CRT in curricula may be intimidating for K-12 teachers, who may feel they are not knowledgeable or equipped to teach the subject.
Humber pointed out that educators can seek support on a national level.
“Our educators are supported,” she said, “and the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have beneficial resources that they put together that provide examples of how to have an anti-racist curriculum.”
Freidus of the Neag School also stressed that the teaching of CRT does not need to stem solely from schools.
“People can educate themselves; that’s the first thing,” said Freidus. “If the teacher is not sure that they are confident doing this type of teaching, then the first thing to do is get support,” she said.