Written by Melissa Beeko, Primary Learning and Staff Development Coordinator, The British School, Rio de Janeiro
Here is the opening to a reflective piece I wrote in June 2020 entitled ‘When Winning Feels Like Losing’:
It has taken me a couple of decades to realise (with the help of my sister) that I am competitive. I absolutely love games - and I play to win. Give me an opportunity to participate in a murder mystery and I will lose my mind!
So, we are going to play a little game. You may have seen this game on social media, sometimes played between couples or parents and children. It is really simple - you just need all ten fingers, the first person to put all fingers down is the winner. Let’s go…
Put one finger down if:
● You've been called a racial slur to your face.
● Pretty much every single male friend of yours (from the same racial group) has been stopped at least twice in their lifetime by the police while driving.
● You regularly sit in meetings and find that you are the only person from your racial group.
● You have been labelled aggressive.
● You have been regularly mistaken for someone at your workplace from the same racial group, even if you do not regularly interact with them.
● Every time you have changed your hairstyle, you have considered whether it is professional enough for your workplace.
● You have been followed around a shop while browsing.
● You make a conscious effort when walking around a shop to carry items in a manner that demonstrates that you have no intention of stealing the items in your possession.
● You have a male friend, of the same racial group, who has been stopped while driving in a tracksuit because it ‘doesn’t seem like they own the very nice car that they are driving’.
● You have been mistaken for a cleaner or a maid.
● You have, on more than one occasion, been told that you are ‘articulate’ or ‘eloquent’ after speaking.
My fingers are all down, so I guess I win? If your fingers are also all down we get to share the prize. Well it’s funny, because on this occasion I do not feel like a winner and am happy to give this particular prize away…
2020 was significant for many reasons. As well as dealing with the pandemic and everything that came with it, in June of that year we bore witness to the murder of George Floyd. It was not the first time that the world witnessed a police officer exercising their power in a way that was disproportionate to the alleged crime, but after witnessing George Floyd’s life ebb away, people around the globe decided enough was enough. Authentic conversations were starting to happen.
When I wrote the reflective piece in 2020 I was experiencing feelings of anger, frustration and sadness. Sadness at what I had allowed to be said to me and around me over the years (at times without challenge), and sadness at a situation that seemed so hopeless. I was, and continue to be, very grateful for that reflective piece because it was cathartic. I am also grateful for that piece because it spurred me into action. I have spent the past three years working in staff development, working to make deep and meaningful changes to the practices we employ in school. What better focus is there for our school than deepening our understanding of anti-racist practices to ensure that we as educators are intentional about creating a learning environment that is safe and respectful for all?
And so, in October 2020, our whole school diversity, equity and inclusion journey began.
I worked closely with my staff development team colleague on this focus. We were very aware that meaningful changes would not happen overnight, nor would these changes be easy. We pledged to have a long-term commitment to all aspects of DEI, starting with race. Aware of colleagues’ different starting points in individual understanding, we set out to organise a programme of training that would increase knowledge, include opportunities for reflection and discussion, and most importantly provide practical suggestions to support change. We wanted the training to be delivered by external speakers and we wanted trainers who understood our specific context as an international school, specifically within Brazil. After meeting with many prospective trainers, we selected four fantastic people who really took their time to ensure the content of their sessions was tailored to our objective. We adopted a two-pronged approach through our INSETs which allowed the trainers to provide staff with information - history, terminology, facts - but also an opportunity for self-reflection. We built upon this further by ensuring DEI was one of the main themes running through our education conference.
There have been many positives during the last 18 months of work. Feedback indicated that staff had begun to deepen their understanding and most wanted to continue learning. Some sections of the school also made changes to the curriculum and learning environment quite swiftly. Our journey is ongoing as we continue to ensure such positive changes are reflected school-wide.
My takeaways for anyone about to embark on a similar journey are these:
● Be clear (and realistic) about what you want to achieve
● Share the load - this work takes time. Different perspectives are invaluable
● Ensure DEI work does not just become the responsibility of the person of colour
● Find trainers who understands your particular context
● Be ready for resistance / denial. Remind yourself that everyone has a different starting point.
● Find members of staff who will carry the baton
“If you don’t see yourself in the learning you are acquiring; if you don’t ever get your name pronounced properly, and if you are treated as though you are no different to anyone else, then hereby lies a problem.” Naila Missous, Teacher, Blogger
In my 2020 reflective piece, I said that sometimes I do not always feel like a winner, but since then there have been many times that I have. I feel like we are winning when I am invited to visit a class to listen to a presentation about how certain international BAME people have greatly impacted the world (some of whom I have never heard of). I feel like we are winning when I attend a DEI focused lunchtime club run by students and listen to the powerful conversations they have. I feel like we are winning when I look at the texts being used to teach Literacy and can see a variety of cultures and races represented.
What’s next for us as a school? We are continuing the conversation this year and broadening our focus to other aspects of DEI, specifically gender. And personally, I am looking forward to us all experiencing more wins.