Social justice learning in a predominantly white school
Ted McCarthy • Principal Leadership Article
Growing up in Lowell, MA—the setting for Mark Wahlberg’s movie The Fighter—in the 1970s and 1980s, I never thought that I was privileged. My dad was a mechanic, my mother was a homemaker, and we were far from financially comfortable. My extended family consisted of cooks and contractors, hairdressers and house cleaners. No one in my family was well off, which meant that everyone worked hard for the life we had. My dad would leave home at 5:30 a.m. and return at 7:00 p.m. I remember many nights listening to my parents argue about paying bills, worried about what would happen if we ran out of money. We had enough to survive, but there wasn’t any money for extras. The idea that my working-class family was privileged seemed crazy. What advantage did my family have over another?
Forty years later, I understand why that isn’t so crazy after all. As a straight, white, able-bodied man, I’ve never wondered if I was pulled over because of the color of my skin, never worried that I was getting paid less because of my gender, and never questioned my choice to marry any person I loved. Why did my thinking shift on these issues? Because of my work as an educator.
When I was growing up, my parents never sat me down to talk about systemic racism or any of the other “isms” that prevent so many people from reaching their potential. I believe that many caring teachers and dedicated administrators who are white had similar experiences where systemic racism was never mentioned at home. For the parents of my students at Sutton High School (SHS) in Sutton, MA—where I am currently the principal—I believe their experiences also reflect mine.
Sutton is located about 50 miles west of Boston; it’s a small town with great community spirit. The excellent school district is a point of pride. Serving approximately 1,300 students, Sutton School District is 90% white. In addition, the teaching staff is nearly all white, and the administration is 100% white. On their own, these are neutral facts, but they do undeniably shape how students and staff experience school. Like any other homogeneous organization, it takes intentional and consistent effort to examine biases and find areas for improvement. And while words and phrases such as “social justice,” “implicit bias,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “privilege” are more common topics in schools in the 2021–22 school year than in previous years, oftentimes the folks in charge of schools—superintendents, principals, teachers (most of whom are also white)—are uncomfortable engaging in these discussions. They are also uncomfortable leading and supporting social justice work in their schools. When I started at SHS eight years ago, I was also uncomfortable with these topics.
How We Started
One year, at a National Honor Society induction ceremony, my son Tommy asked, “Dad, why are there only white people here?” This was an important observation. The students at the ceremony were almost exclusively white. For Tommy, who attended a school with far more diversity, this school event seemed odd. Yet at SHS—a school that was 95% white—it was our reality.
There were few efforts to address this lack of diversity. Given that our school was almost entirely white, and because, anecdotally, students of color seemed to find academic and social success, there wasn’t much motivation to address issues of equity and inclusion. Honestly, I now understand that in my first few years at SHS, we were oblivious. Instead of seeing social justice issues for what they were—indicators of the larger structural and cultural problems in our society—we dealt with them as isolated events. Declaring a single incident racist, homophobic, or sexist is easier than having a conversation about challenging the systems and structures that allowed that incident to happen.
One day in my second year as principal, I was working with Mike, one of a handful of Black students in the district. During our conversation he said, “Mr. McCarthy, what do you want me to do? They call me the ‘N’ word and say that I’m their boy.” Mike was one of the most popular students in the school, yet his white friends had no idea how hurtful their casual use of the “N” word was to their friend. At that moment, I had nothing to say to him. I knew that we were failing him and every other student in our school.
A few weeks later, after dealing with another bias-related incident, I realized that we couldn’t expect change if we weren’t willing to address these issues. As a faculty, we had an open discussion about the offending incidents, and many folks in the room agreed that we had an issue that needed direct attention and focus. Others disagreed and believed that biases and attitudes weren’t going to shift. As the meeting ended, I promised the staff that I would keep them updated with how we were going to address these issues, and I assured them we would do something dramatically different.
In his 2017 essay, “James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil,” author and activist Clint Smith highlights one of Baldwin’s most quoted lines from his 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers.” “The paradox of education is precisely this: that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”
In order to make SHS more inclusive, we knew the work needed to begin with our students. We realized we weren’t challenging them to critically examine where they were being educated. To make significant shifts in our culture, we couldn’t wait for 100% of the adults to get on board. As author Paul Gorski calls it, we couldn’t “pace for privilege.” We partnered with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and adopted its World of Difference Institute program to provide our students with the skills and knowledge they needed to wrestle with subjects like race, bias, and privilege. That first year, ADL trained 25 of our students and six staff members to facilitate lessons with their peers that dealt with these challenging topics. We called our social justice group “Connections” because our hope was that by connecting with and getting to know each other better, we would create a more inclusive school community.
For the past five years, ADL has returned to train our “Connections Team” to facilitate these conversations. The group has grown from 25 students to over 40 this year. Once the students were trained, we needed to decide how we would put their skills to use within the school. Where would this training have the biggest impact? We decided to focus on the ninth graders. In their first year, all ninth graders learn about our values and the main tenets of our school community.
Each February, after being trained, our Connections Team runs a six-week, six-hour workshop series with our ninth graders. During the workshops, they discuss implicit and explicit bias, microaggressions, and privilege. The team answers their questions and helps them understand how they can be upstanders and allies in our school. When we survey students—at minimum, twice a year—one question we ask is “What was the most powerful learning experience you had in school this year?” Students consistently report that the conversations and lessons during the Connections workshops were some of their most important learning. These workshops have taught the school leadership team that students want to learn more about these topics and want to use the information to be positive members of our community.
Another highlight of our Connections program is our annual conference. In 2019, after a few successful years of working with our Connections Team members and the incoming freshmen, we wanted our students to look outside our school. So, we created a conference as a way for students who had invested in social justice at SHS to meet students from other schools who were doing similar work. After a few emails, we had more than 30 schools from across Massachusetts eager to visit our school to participate in the conference. We reached out to local college professors, nonprofit organizations, and staff from other high schools to find presenters.
We fundraised to have Dr. Bettina Love, a professor from the University of Georgia who specializes in education and social justice, as our keynote speaker. That day, more than 500 students and staff came to SHS for #ConCon2019 to learn more about social justice work and how to make the work come alive in their own communities. While we had to cancel our 2020 conference due to COVID-19, we held the conference virtually in 2021, with 700 participants attending from all over New England. Most of the schools represented had nearly all-white demographics like ours. In her address to the conference, Dr. Love said, “There’s going to come a time in your life when you are going to need this stuff. Not only for you, but for humanity.” Our hope is that the conference continues to provide a place for schools to access resources and learning that will help them tackle these issues in their own school communities.
Professional Development and Curriculum
The best faculty meeting that I’ve attended in my time as a principal was one that I did not run. It was run by four of our students: Emma, Max, Dustin, and Emily. They led the faculty through activities that made the teaching staff think about their role in creating safe classrooms for all students. They talked about privilege, and why it isn’t as loaded of a term as people think. They facilitated conversations about microaggressions, and how seemingly small slights aren’t so small if the same people must repeatedly endure them. Most of all, they were passionate about creating a school where everyone feels included. As four white students with privilege in our school, they recognized the responsibility they had to help make our community a better place for everyone and wanted our staff to feel the same.
Professional development (PD) opportunities like this have been an important part of how we have shifted our school culture. We have been intentional in providing yearly PD for our staff on a variety of social justice topics that both challenge them to think about their own practice and provide tools and resources to help them grow and improve.
In addition to district-led PD, our staff has benefited from many resources provided by outside organizations. For example, staff members from the state of Massachusetts’ Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ students have come to present on how to best support our LGBTQ+ youth. In addition, our educators have attended workshops by Facing History and Ourselves to help them connect issues of race in their classrooms, and History UnErased has provided resources to our humanities teachers to better embed LGBTQ+ voices and narratives into our curriculum. While it is always nice to have PD and support come from inside our schools, it is also equally important to recognize when you need to call on experts in the field to guide your work.
Curriculum is another area where we have made consistent efforts to make changes for our students. Curriculum is ultimately a choice. While we all must follow the standards of our various states, schools often have considerable agency over the how and what of content delivery. Historically, SHS chose to reinforce a white, Eurocentric curriculum. The traditional novels that were taught in English class or the narratives that were—and weren’t—reinforced in history class perpetuated the idea that people of color and other marginalized communities were not part of the American story. For over a year, our humanities teachers met as a group and in departments to review the curriculum and find ways to highlight voices of color, women, and LGBTQ+ communities. Teachers wanted to not only lift marginalized voices but challenge the deficit narratives that often accompany how these groups are portrayed. Of course, with finite time in the year, making changes or additions to the curriculum in one area means changing or moving things around in other areas. Our teachers had to consider how they could more meaningfully highlight issues of marginalized communities throughout their courses. Changing novels or short stories or poems in English class for ones written by authors of color is relatively easy. Ensuring that communities of color are highlighted and examined throughout the U.S. history curriculum takes considerably more work. While we are not yet where we want to be, we feel we are headed in the right direction.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Not too long ago, my superintendent called me about a conversation with a parent who was upset and concerned that the “high school is pushing critical race theory.” We all need to realize that almost all growth comes with discomfort and a lot of hard work. Over the past few years, our Connections Team has been asked to consult with other schools interested in doing more to address issues of bias and prejudice. When we work with other schools, we like to share a quote from author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: “In no other capacity is a problem solved by not talking about it … It’s extremely hard to treat racism. It’s extremely painful. Just like it’s extremely hard to treat cancer.”
Until recently, too many schools have been uninterested in engaging with social justice work at all. And now that many of us are doing so, we find that having these conversations with our communities is hard, and, at times, painful. As school leaders, and particularly as white school leaders, we need to lean into these conversations. Shortly after George Floyd was murdered, The Washington Post published an article “When Black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.” In the piece, the author Tre Johnson laments how often he and other Black individuals experience white people claiming to care deeply about issues of racial justice whenever another person of color is the victim of police brutality. They post messages of support on social media, start listening to the “right” podcasts, or join book clubs. These “actions” become stand-ins for doing the sustained work we need to do if we are truly interested in creating communities our kids deserve. Schools need to make sure we are doing the work in a deep, meaningful way—not just joining book clubs—so that we can move our school communities forward.
I feel a bit uncertain as the white guy talking about social justice. I know that my world view is small, and that I still have more to learn from those who have been doing this work for a lot longer, and whose lived experiences put them much closer to the center of these issues. But I also know that this is not a “them” problem—it’s an “us” problem. White teachers, administrators, and counselors need to take a lead role in creating change in their schools. We can’t rely on people of color to teach us or do the work for us. Even if we never considered ourselves “privileged,” to quote author Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” What I’ve seen from my own students and community—as well as the schools that have become our partners and allies—is that we are on our way to doing better by our students.
Ted McCarthy is the principal of Sutton High School in Sutton, MA. He is also the 2021 Massachusetts Principal of the Year and a 2022 NASSP Principal of the Year finalist.