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Don’t be Afraid — Talk about Race with Your Students

As students across the state go back to school, 1 in 3 will fail to identify a single caring adult on campus. For Black, Brown, Native American, Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian Students, these relationships are even more scarce, and students of color frequently report feeling unnoticed and uncared for by teachers and staff.

When Black, Brown, Native American, Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian students do have access to caring adults on campus, they frequently report those relationships as being the key to helping them navigate the systemic hurdles faced in school and their communities. Positive bonds between students and teachers encourage higher levels of motivation among students and bolster higher academic achievement and more positive social-emotional adjustment. When teachers and students are able to learn about shared commonalities, teachers can better connect with students of color—leading to a reduction of achievement gaps.

Hear directly from CFJ student leaders in Long Beach, Oakland, San Jose and Fresno on how race and relationships shape their educational experience.

Do you have a caring adult at school who you feel you can reach out and talk to? How do you feeling having, or not having, someone like this?

Sierra Salas, San Jose

My freshmen year I didn’t have a teacher who I felt I could go to and that felt really lonely. Because sometimes fellow students don’t know how to answer your questions or have the experience so it can be hard. But sophomore year I found some teachers I could turn to as I transitioned and they really supported me. It was really nice to have that older adult perspective for stuff and I could talk to them about school or my home life.

–Sierra, San Jose

Yeah well it’s like something about my gender. I don’t really share that. But I feel close to them. It feels nice because when you have a bunch of teachers you don’t like, you don’t want to be there. If you like them, it makes you more excited for class. You look forward to it.

–Spencer, Long Beach

Good. I had something happen. It was good to have trained professionals counselors who knew how to help.

–Ajalon, Fresno

Why do you think it’s important to have relationships and feel supported in school?

I don’t feel supported in school by staff but I feel like I have a lot of outside support. I’ve been able to create a community for myself outside of school and I feel like CFJ is my community — like they support me and guide me. They’re not my teachers but they motivate me and encourage me to work for my future.

–Yota, Oakland

In SYLA we went to a mental health center. We learned that relationships are an important thing for humans. Humans want to fit in and feel supported. First and foremost just to be able to pay attention in class you have to be mentally and emotionally ok. Or you won’t care.

–Spencer, Long Beach

How can students and staff build relationships at school?

Yota Omo-Sowho, Oakland

TEACHERS NEED TO BE COMFORTABLE HAVING DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS. I’m just sick of it, they always, always turn you down because they’re uncomfortable. But if you want me to be in a relationship with you, you need to be willing to hear me share my story and you need to be willing to share who you are with me.

–Yota, Oakland

Having someone from your background, there is more comfort. You can relate to them more. It’s easier to trust someone who looks like you. They understand a little better. I got close to a black teacher, a Mexican teacher. It helps with your social skills. They [teachers]  need to talk to students more when they’re getting in trouble. They [students] don’t do bad things to be bad people. There is a reason they do what they do. Talk to them. Ask them where their head is.

–Ajalon, Fresno

Do you have any teachers of color?

There’s this whole thing in Oakland about it not being affordable anymore, so you spend a whole year with a teacher being open and then like the next year they’re not even there. It breaks my heart because you know, you have a connection with a person and then it’s just gone.

–Yota, Oakland

Ajalon Elliott, Fresno

How do you see race show up at school? Is racial justice or race talked about in class? Does this make you feel good or bad?

My Race and Social Justice class was one of the only classes where we would talk about race. It was a history class, but instead of white history we talked about the people who get brushed over: African American, Chicano, Filipino, and the truths underneath. It was interesting and engaging and better than other classes. I liked it more because I got to learn about myself and my history. In the past years, not so much. In Modern World History I learned European history, not African history or Mexican history. It made me feel like I was acknowledged. In other classes I didn’t feel like my history was being acknowledged. It made me feel good. It was something that I was interested in and I wanted to learn. I got an A in that class.

–Ajalon, Fresno

It really is brought up a lot. Especially because we have clubs like Latino Student Union and Black Student Union [spaces] where students are feeling seen and embraced by others who understand them in a way is really amazing.

–Sierra, San Jose

What are the issues that you see affecting youth of color? Which ones have affected you?

There’s definitely implicit bias and how teachers expect us to behave a certain way. It starts in a classroom where a teacher expects certain stuff from you, and it got to the point where I didn’t even want to be there anymore because I wasn’t respected.

–Yota, Oakland

Usually the kids that get kicked out are kids of color. A stereotype put on them is that we are all bad, or we all have attitudes with teachers. There are preconceptions teachers bring at the beginning of year, but it’s not true of all students.

–Ajalon, Fresno

Spencer Lara, Long Beach

People automatically assume you were not born in the US. That you don’t have citizenship. All these assumptions before they even speak to you. Just by seeing the color of your skin. Want to make comments without speaking to you. One time my neighbor threatened to call the police.

–Spencer, Long Beach

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