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Conversation with a Critically Conscious White Educator

RE-Center sat down with long-time educator, Jodi Friedman, to discuss navigating racial justice and equity in education while living in a white body. Jodi is a white, Jewish, cis-gender, hetero, non-disabled, woman with considerable class privilege.   

RE-Center: 
Jodi, will you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work in education?

Jodi Friedman:
I have been in education for 18 years. After college I moved to New York City as a Teach For America core member and was placed in this really beautiful small community called STAR Academy- PS 63 in the East Village. And I've been at that school for 18 years. I was a teacher for eight years. I taught second grade, fourth grade and fifth grade. And then there was a really unique opportunity to become a school leader in a school that I really loved. And so, this is now my 10th year as the assistant principal, and it's been an amazing journey, both as a teacher and school leader, and also as a school. When I was first placed at the school in 2004, we were on the state's persistently dangerous school list. Even though we had that label, there was still a lot of beauty within our school community, but also, we asked, what are the challenges we're having within our school that we need to do better in? Over the years we really got to be a part of a true school transformation with collaboration and a willingness to question what we're doing, what I'm doing, and the role that we play in our community. 

Outside of my time at PS 63, I've continued to be involved in education in different ways. I've had the unique opportunity to teach grad school and teachers and to be a part of really cool working groups that are thinking about policies, and changes for schools citywide or even nationally. I was an NY America Achieves policy fellow for a year and US Ambassador Fellow for two years and got to take some of what I've learned to the national and federal level sharing my perspective to inform policy. As the years go on, I’m thinking about how I’m still growing and also still a part of the work in different places.

RE-Center:
Can you talk about how you've navigated all of those roles as a white identified person?

Jodi Friedman:
When I first started teaching, and was placed in my school, I knew I was a white educator serving in a Black and Brown community. However, I don't think I understood what that meant for me or the lens with which I was making decisions or engaging with families. For example, I used to teach my kids in fourth and fifth grade about some of the statistics of outcomes of people of color, but I approached it from the lens of like we've got to work hard and beat the statistics and not how the system was designed that way and how to fix the system itself. It put the onus for change on the children and them having grit as opposed to the concept of systemic inequity and how we fight back. 

Over the years I definitely started to understand more about what my whiteness meant both as a teacher and then definitely over time as a school leader. And so, understanding how decisions I make might be perceived by different families and being reflective about the relationships I have or don’t have and why. With my own staff members, I think about how I am being perceived and am willing to take accountability for harm that I have caused. I have to be aware that as a white woman, decisions are not going to impact me the same way as it will others and the implications of that.

RE-Center:
Can you speak to what advancing equity and racial justice look like within your spheres of influence? 

Jodi Friedman:
At my school it started with understanding what racial justice is and how race plays a role in schooling, both for myself and our staff. We thought about what equity actually means and pushed back against the idea that everyone should get the same. Instead, it's about how we’re redistributing resources and access to those who traditionally don't have it. And so, for us, this has meant shifts in our curriculum, which started off by first asking what are we including in the curriculum and what are we not. It also helped us to really look at some of our policies. Over the past seven years, this has meant rethinking uniforms, rethinking recess, rethinking pep rallies, student participation and voice in our school, rethinking our grading policy, and our homework policy. Examining all of these things that we traditionally did without questioning the status quo; we later understood that a racial equity lens had to be applied to all of it. This lens has changed a lot of our training and PD to help us realize that racial justice is not just lessons on racial justice, but it is what we teach daily, and how we teach it, our interactions with each other and others, and our policies. We learned that culturally responsive education is about high expectations in academic areas, as well as the content and pedagogy with which we are teaching it. We’ve also been looking at our data and disparities from a racial equity lens.

RE-Center:
What does advancing equity and racial justice look like in the school district as a system?

Jodi Friedman:
I was part of the group that helped create the language for the definition of Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education that was later adopted into policy by the NYCDOE in 2019, and I think that was a huge victory. Often, when we use words, we all mean different things by them, so having normed language as a city of what Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education is feels really important. As a school leader, having equity practices as policy has been incredibly helpful. Sometimes when we have conversations as a staff, or as a school about, for example, participating in Black Lives Matter at School and if there is ever contention about discussing racism or privilege, we can reference the DOE Policy. When bringing language or lessons of gender inclusivity into the classroom, if there is pushback we can say ‘Oh no, we have a right to talk about these things, we have a right to talk about gender inclusivity in kindergarten because it's actually in our Respect for All policy.’ So, when we're able to put things in writing and have the district behind us, it does make the work a little bit easier. 

RE-Center:
Can you speak about what accountability means for you in this work?

Jodi Friedman:
I think accountability has really shifted for me over the years. I think I used to think of accountability as being in trouble or something from the top down. My white fragility would definitely expose itself in those moments. But over the years, through a lot of the work both inside and outside of school, I've been blessed to be a part of groups of folx really thinking about this idea of accountability as an act of love. It’s understanding moments when they help you see that you aren't living up to the values they know you hold or that you’re having an impact that you didn't intend. It's still not always easy, but I’ve gotten a lot better at accepting being held accountable as a gift. Accountability means I also have to commit to holding others accountable as an act of love, which can be just as hard or sometimes even harder for me. We started practicing in our school questioning ourselves and our practices asking, “Hmm, who is this centering? Who is this marginalizing? Whose voice is not being heard? Who is this impacting? Does this align with our mission or belief?” After questioning, we have to commit to disrupting inequities or harm when you, your colleagues, your school, or your spheres of influence are the cause. This means engaging in crucial conversations with both myself and others often. 

RE-Center:
Can you talk about your thoughts on this anti-Critical Race Theory rhetoric happening across the nation right now, and how you’ve felt the impact of it?

Jodi Friedman:
I know originally when the conversation came out about Critical Race Theory many people were outraged and defenders were often saying, ‘Oh, well that's like not what we're doing. That's like a college level course.’ And honestly, I really didn't know exactly what Critical Race Theory was. I had to google it, but when I did, I thought even if we did do this, it would be okay. This idea of talking about race and its impact on people's experiences and our country’s history is important and we already do that, but from a white lens- its built into our standards and curriculum. Critical Race Theory is important to help people understand that racism is not just at the interpersonal level (good vs bad people), it’s ideological and embedded into our institutions and the foundations of our country. This is the actual history of our country, not a slant or disinformation. I know we're doing that in our school already, and that's not going to stop. I've seen some people being really scared of the pushback, and depending on where they are, which schools and which states across the country, that pushback could be so far as losing your job. But what I've seen happening is people watering down their language. So they are doing it, but almost doing it undercover. I think I'm lucky that it hasn't impacted my experience, but it will be important to try to help other folx navigate how to continue doing the work when there are actually laws against it or fines against it. Things feel really scary as an educator and as a human when you literally can't tell the truth or have to provide, for instance, “an opposing view” of the Holocaust or think about the perspective of a slave owner.

RE-Center:
Can you speak to how you move in relationship with the community you serve?

Jodi Friedman:
Through the work of Zaretta Hammond, I learned that true relationships require active relationship building which includes a sense of familiarity with each other, vulnerability, concern, competence and interest. I have used this to help guide relationships with families. I serve a community of largely Black and Latino families in the East Village and I think part of me being in relationship with them was first doing my own work of unpacking things and understanding their experiences way better. I've been really trying to listen more. Anytime there are meetings with families, whether it's individual families or the PTA or the school leadership team, we’re ensuring that both I and the staff have protocols and spaces in place for parents to truly engage. We've really been trying to shift how we have conversations with families and allow their voices to be heard; sometimes that doesn't mean through their actual voices; it might mean an anonymous survey or them having a conversation with someone who they really trust. It also means truly listening when caregivers are upset and ensuring they feel both heard and that we have taken steps to both address their personal concern and reflect on what this means for our broader school community. We have to be vulnerable and admit when mistakes are made and work hard to repair them. 

A step we took this year - every class crafted their own Learning at Home policy based on what their families wanted and this looked different in each class. Sometimes equity means having a class policy rather than a school wide one. 

RE-Center:
What would you say or what advice would you give to other white educators right now who are wanting to teach and/or lead with a racial equity lens?

Jodi Friedman:
I think “find your people.” There's so many places and spaces, other white educators and mixed demographic groups who are willing to help push you and be thought partners. Even if you don't feel like you have those people in your school (though you probably do) you should find your people outside of the school, because this work is very hard to do on your own - you need accountability partners as well as places that will continue to help push your thinking and challenge you. You're going to make mistakes along the way, and that's okay and that's growth and we just have to make as much effort as possible to mitigate harm. Also know that we were probably creating harm before and we just didn't know it. So just accept it and then be accountable for it. And if our goal is to create human beings who are making this world a better place, there's no way to get around teaching through an anti-racist, anti-oppressive equity lens. It’s not an add- on, it is the foundation. 

RE-Center:
Last question - what are you reading or engaging with at the moment that is nourishing you as you stay steadfast in your commitment to equity and racial justice?

Jodi Friedman:
Oh, good question. I love young adult novels. This summer, I read Juliet Takes a BreathFuriaThe Education of Margot SanchezConcrete Rose and The Purpose of Power. I spend 4-8 hours a month engaging with the different groups that I'm a part of outside of work that keep me thinking and growing and expanding my influence, but also, you know, growing in myself.  At the end of the school day, I'm always like, oh man I'm exhausted, but then when I show up, I'm so grateful that I did because the collective energy work that's being done is just really powerful and nourishing. So again, I say, find your people.  

Hear more from Jodi here:

Opinion: What Happened When One NYC School Decided to Really Talk About Race

The S.T.A.R. Academy’s Equity Journal

As a Racial Reckoning Sweeps the Nation, Parents Still Await a ‘Rallying Cry’ to Change How Race and History Are Taught in Schools 

Shaping an Anti-Racist School Culture

Examining Learning Through an Anti-Racist Lens


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