New Roads School in Santa Monica holds discussions about racism with students K-12

The New Roads School in Santa Monica, a private college preparatory school, is holding a series of discussions with its students, staff, parents, and the community about race and systemic racism.

The series is called "Critical Conversations Speakers Series," and was started with noted scholar and author, Professor Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi popularized the term "antiracist" in 2019, and held a moderated virtual discussion with other area private schools and charter school attendees as well.

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"The Critical Conversations Speaker Series really evolved from looking at the social unrest in society and the issue of systemic racism, and trying to determine how we can engage our community and really thinking deeply about this issue and what kind of critical tools our community would need in order to make sense of the issue, in order to understand what their roles would be as an individual and collectively to effect systemic change within our school community and the larger society," said Luthern Williams, the Head of New Roads School.

According to Luthern, nearly 1,000 people attended the first virtual event including people from Australia.

"People were really hungry for the conversation because I think people feel at a loss as to what to do in terms of how they can mobilize in order to effect change in their own lives, in their communities, in their schools and in the larger society because I think people really want to figure out how can we move together as a society towards this vision of the American promise," said Williams.

Williams said it's important for their school to teach children to listen and understand others.

"At our school, it's really to me not about indoctrinating people to believe one way or another but it is about getting our kids the critical tools to make mindful decisions where they're thinking about the impact of their words and actions on others. We also know that kids are, through their social conditioning, already getting information about race and understanding and what that means in who they are and how society assigns value to that," said Williams.

Williams believes children are the key to the future when it comes to navigating racism.

"Our children are to me the greatest hope that they can actually engage these issues in a different way and a well reasoned way and think about how the choices that they make as a result of what insights they have will lead to a society that works for everybody. What I hope comes from this series is that people begin to engage in public civil discourse and model what that looks like to actually, to interrogate a topic and look at that topic from an analytic and well-reasoned perspective, and question assumptions and really listen to one another," he said.

Students like Mateo Buadu Colbert, a senior at New Roads School, were in attendance for the first speaker.

"It's eye opening. A lot us [students], when we have the opportunity to speak on systemic racism, we often all have something important and valuable to say that adds to the conversation as opposed to not saying anything about it and being able to have these kinds of conversations with my peers, we get to come to our own conclusions," said Buadu Colbert.

Buadu Colbert believes it's important for students to tackle these discussions.

"While it's important for the adults to know it because they're the ones running the school, a lot of us are in the last stages of our primary school learning and after that, we're going off to college. We're going to be grown-ups, and if we don't learn about it [racism] now, when are we going to learn about it? I think it's better to start learning about systemic racism and how to be an anti-racist earlier than opposed to later," he said.

Aaliyah Mack, 17, who is a senior at New Roads School, has also learned and has grown from the experience so far.

"I think it's really important that we're having this conversation, especially in the climate we're living in now. I think it would be ignorant not to [have the conversations] because there's just so much that's going on, and you would be turning a blind eye if you just didn't want to learn about it. It's important more than ever now because we're seeing a lot of protests because of what happened with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more," said Mack.

Mack plans to go to college and earn degrees in Sociology and Education. She has a passion about the achievement gap, and will create a nonprofit to give students access to resources some day. She believes the teachings at the school helped nurture her passion.

"The school is teaching us to speak up. The school is teaching us that we are the change that the world so desperately needs, and I think that when we have an environment like that, that's constantly encouraging, it pushes us to want to do better, and I feel like a lot of different schools tend to lack in that area, pushing their students to want to see the limits that society puts on us," she said.

Even the youngest students have an opportunity to participate in the discussion.

"Our community question was 'what does it mean to be complicit and complacent in systemic racism,' and we did that from Kindergarten all the way to Senior year. Of course, we did it differently with the Kindergarteners, and they began to understand what that means within their own community as they create norms of inclusion with one another. In high school, they looked at it in terms of the history of racist ideas and looking at white fragility, and the middle school did it through science fiction as a way of looking at something else to understand this issue of racism and how it was playing out," said Williams.

Annie Tedesco has a 5-year-old daughter enrolled in the school and believes it is essential to have discussions about racism for students.

"To have language given to me or ideas and thoughts given to me that helps me teach her, it's really the best kind of education we both can have because I don't want to shy away from it. She notices differences. She sees differences, and I don't want to pretend they're not there. I want to answer her questions," she said.

She talked about how it can be difficult to navigate those conversations as a parent.

"I think we [parents] shy away from it a little bit because it seems like a big adult concept, and you don't want to teach ugliness or something to your children, but children are not only precious, right, but they're also naturally inquisitive and I think we do them a disservice by assuming they don't understand.

"I'm sure some parents feel very strongly about not wanting certain things to be taught but it's honestly happening anyway. Having it labeled, having it understood basically sort of like facing the monster has made me feel a lot more comfortable about being able to address it and talk about it without feeling shy or embarrassed or I shouldn't say this or that. It's been a really helpful tool," she said.

Tedesco said it helps both the parents and students learn.

"One of the reasons we send our kids to school is to learn to critically think and not just accept things on the surface like this is the way it is but to really want to know why. Why is it this way? Why are certain people marginalized? What does that even mean? That is something that we need to teach more of, not just blatant acceptance but really to understand and think about it," said Tedesco.

Williams said he does get pushback from some parents.

"It's a whole community learning experience because the children are going to raise these issues with the parents and in some ways the parents are learning from their children. The children are saying 'I don't quite agree with what you're saying or there's an assumption embedded with what you're saying.' Some of our parents are grateful, some are not," he said.

However, Williams believes there are important lessons to be learned from the series that adults should mirror in society.

"There are glimmers of hope. Our children can help us develop a roadmap for how to make the great American social experiment work and these children just make me very proud," he said.

Williams plans to have at least three to four more speakers by the end of year to participate in the series.