Diversity Days Don’t Prepare Students to Change the World

Nearly 26 years ago, I was called a spic for the first time in my life. It was the first day of class on my college campus. The impact of this experience was profound. I was 18 years old when I learned there was bigotry in the world and, in effect, blind-sided and unprepared.

Eva Veg-Olds
Eva Vega-Olds

That brush with hate brought to light two lessons that, years later, continue to influence me as a professional: There is hate in the world, and there are people in the world who will stand up against hate. As a student, I was unsure what to make of the experience, and I was unsure of what to make of the allies who showed up to support me. Students, of every race, spoke up and spoke out about the unacceptability of what happened. They seemed far more ready to deal with what happened. Ultimately, the experience was the spark that sent me down a path of social and intellectual discovery, and the desire to help a community heal from bias, prejudice, and hate.

Years later, I have spoken to thousands of intermediate, secondary, and postsecondary students and educators about the experience I had on my school campus. The reactions are often similar. There is disbelief this happened at a school.  But what’s not to be believed? Almost every student and educator has seen bias, prejudice, or hate in some form with their own eyes, whether on the news or in the halls. Students often cannot explain it, but once given the vocabulary, their experiences encountering hate may be startling to hear.

Bias shows up as stereotypes about complex groups of people, i.e., boys, immigrants, women of color, etc. are like this and are not like that. Prejudice is an evaluation, with certainty, that groups are one way and not another and are often rooted in opinions, formulated by stereotypes. Hate flares less often, but we know it is present the first moment we hear a slur or violence leveraged to intimidate someone or some group. Students will often reflect how hated a group is by their visceral need not to be like “them.”

For some, the rationale for not addressing bias and prejudice is the belief that elementary, intermediate, and high school students are too young to be educated about the ugliness of hate. Some schools take a decidedly “colorblind” approach, by rationalizing that race and other differences “shouldn’t matter.” Others believe the diversity work of celebration and special events is enough. These approaches miss the mark and formulate a foundation from which bias and prejudice can take root because of the educational voids that can be filled by biased influences.

Diversity work is not the same work involved with countering bias, prejudice, or even hate in society or in schools.  Diversity work can lead to contributing positive attitudes about differences; however, without the work of combating stereotypes and promoting equality, it can devolve in ways that inadvertently promote stereotypes. Many schools, for example, have represented the Mexican culture with tacos and sombreros, not thinkers, not poets, and not industry leaders. This is why the goal of combating bias becomes so critical.

So, how can educators adequately prepare students to engage in a world in alignment with our values on diversity, inclusion, and nurturing a world free from hate? How do we prepare them to do the work of justice? Here are thoughts.

  • Scaffold. Stay away from clichés and teach students actual terms that will serve as a foundation for future lessons. Many youth can recite the adage of “never judging a book by its cover,” but far fewer can apply an understanding of the concept to stereotyping or even more advanced discussions on topics, like scapegoating. Use real words and provide real context.
  • Don’t bubble wrap your students. Youth are not protected by silence, and more often than not, can be empowered and engaged by truth. Talk with students, in age-appropriate ways, about what’s happening in the world related to bias and discrimination. Use data to show societal trends, related to inequality.
  • Use books to fill the gaps, foster empathy, and promote acceptance. Books can provide a more inclusive, expanded “normal.” Reading about female protagonists of color, people with disabilities, or diverse family experiences in stories, not about what makes them different, opens the world of possibility for them.
  • Know your own voice. Reflect on your own biases and do the work in managing them when creating curriculum and facilitating classroom discussion.
  • Encourage student leadership. Acknowledge that bias, prejudice, and discrimination exist in the world and facilitate student empowerment to take the lead in making the world a better place.
  • Give students skills to support their capacity to engage in social justice work. Giving and receiving feedback, personal reflection, critical thinking, exposure, and acceptance of different narratives, active listening, and engaging in discussion—rather than debate—are skills to be honed. Great leaders have these skills.

Diversity celebrations are fun, but they do not prepare students for the work of social justice. Let’s prepare students to change the world. Let’s prepare them to lead.