LPS Multicultural Leadership speaker underlines ‘The Fierce Urgency of Now’ for inclusion, equity, excellence

Author, keynote speaker and workshop leader Gary R. Howard took Lincoln Public Schools employees on a journey of inclusion, equity and excellence on Wednesdayat the 23rd annual LPS Multicultural Leadership Institute held at Lincoln Southwest High School.

Howard said one of the most important questions for him is: “How do we create schools that do a better job with more kids, across more differences, more of the time – without asking kids to give up who they are?”

And he stressed the urgency about the question, citing Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We have come to this hallowed spot to remind American of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.  Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”

Howard is a national and international multicultural educator with more than 40 years of experience working in civil rights and cultural competence, founder of the REACH Center for Multicultural Education and author of “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know.”

“Your school district is becoming increasingly diverse, and that is a beautiful thing but also a challenge,” Howard told the LPS audience.

Howard started by describing the beginning of his own personal journey, a story that began when he was a senior at an all-white suburban high school in Seattle, Washington – but then arrived in college to encounter the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  “I was totally unaware of the movement, I had the luxury of ignorance…the height of privilege. I felt like I was in a country I did not know.” 

At that moment his path took a different direction, learning and growing aware of diversity, polarization.  “I became passionate about making sure that no kid would graduate from high school as ignorant as I was.”

Howard’s talk Wednesday focused on what he called three key concepts:

  • Inclusion: Students and employees feel welcomed, seen, safe, respected.  At schools, everybody is welcome. Our job as educators is to create that environment where everyone is welcome.
  • Equity: What we measure and what we don’t. School outcomes (positive and negative) are distributed equitably across different demographic and identity groups. Resources are distributed equitably across all groups, schools and communities.  Equity does not mean treating people the same – it means giving all kids the resources they need for being successful.
  • Excellence: Holding the bar high: We keep the bar high in all we do. We educate students for life and for reflective democratic citizenship. We empower students and employees in the preservation of their identity and culture.  Substance, depth and critical thinking are as important as test scores, and more important than mere compliance.

Howard explained that there are several phases of the work in this area, starting from an internal personal culture and personal journey – working out to professional, organizational, then societal/structural.

He stressed that the concept of cultural competence could be defined as: “The will and the ability to form authentic and effective relationships across our differences.”

Kids get messages very young, he stressed.  “In fact, kids are more comfortable to have these conversations. Their world is global. But some of us grew up with ‘I should not see the differences, otherwise I’m a racist.’”

When we tell children not to talk about our differences, Howard said, we create what he called, color blindness.  “Differences do make a difference.  Kids are different, their experiences, their families, their cultures, backgrounds, family histories, belief systems…but they don’t have to get in the way…If we pretend differences don’t exist, then we as educators are in the way.”

Bottom line, Howard said, culturally responsive teaching is:  “Teaching and leading in such a way that more of our students, across more of their differences, achieve at a higher level and engage at a deeper level, more of the time.  Without giving up who they are.”

And please remember, Howard told LPS employees:  “The journey of cultural competence goes on forever….We’re never done with it.”

Published: June 1, 2017, Updated: June 1, 2017