PittEd Justice Collective webinar series explores anti-racist leadership


The PittEd Justice Collective’s first webinar series featured students, educators and school leaders discussing a variety of topics related to race, injustice, education and more.

This series comes as the country continues to grapple with historical systemic racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic

“We are in two pandemics,” School of Education Dean Valerie Kinloch said. “We have COVID-19 that disproportionately affects African American communities, Latinx communities, and other communities of color across the world. We are also in a racism pandemic. And this racism pandemic forces us to continue to grapple with the historical legacies of inequities and social inequalities in this country.”

The Transform for Tomorrow Series took place in three different virtual sessions throughout mid-July.

Kinloch started the PittEd Justice Collective, a three-year working group, at the beginning of June following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police to form initiatives to address anti-racism, equity, education, justice and community engagement. 

The Grable Foundation, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Transform Tomorrow and Remake Learning also collaborated with the collective to put on the series.

Justice Learning and Leading

Part one of the series — Justice Learning and Leading, which took place on July 14 — tackled the topics of anti-racist leadership and the history of racial injustices in the U.S.

The speakers included Lori Delale-O’Connor, an assistant professor of education at the School of Education; Dennis Henderson, deputy chief executive officer for Manchester Academic Charter School; and Linda Lane, the former superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public School District. Kinloch served as the moderator.

The session began with the speakers describing what anti-racist leadership looks like. Delale-O’Connor described it as “a fundamental shift in the ways we think about leading and teaching and learning.”

For a leader to engage in anti-racist leadership practices, Delale-O’Connor said, the leader has to acknowledge that racism is a systemic issue that is pervasive in schools and communities.

Consistency is another key attribute necessary for anti-racist leaders, Henderson said, and they have to remain vigilant of systemic racism and how it operates while working consistently to address systemic racism.

For Lane, anti-racist leadership requires the leaders to be anti-racist themselves. And being an anti-racist requires a certain degree of introspection, she said.

“One of the ways to learn if you’re getting started, or if you’ve been on this journey your whole life, is to write a racial autobiography, to face your own complicity, to be honest with yourself and expose that same vulnerability that you’re going to ask your staff to do,” Lane said. “They need to know you went there first.”

The speakers said anti-racist leaders also should be aware that this work requires vulnerability, and leaders should expect opposition, and, if necessary, be prepared to “go it alone” while looking for allies. Allies, including those outside of education, are necessary for spreading anti-racist ideals, Henderson said.

When speaking to families about anti-racism, leaders should be sensitive, and “leave people’s dignity intact,” Lane said.

“Because advocating is one thing, humiliating people, embarrassing people, you can go too far. And if you’re expecting that people are going to change just like the kids, we don’t do that very well when we’re scared. We’d rather just button down and not even talk to you,” she said.

Justice Teaching in STEM

Part two of the series — Justice Teaching in STEM, which took place on July 16 — featured discussions on anti-racist approaches to teaching STEM courses.

Panelists included Kari Kokka, assistant professor of mathematics education in the School of Education; Michelle Cody, a mathematics teacher at Willie Brown Middle School in San Francisco; and ReAnna S. Roby, a postdoctoral scholar focusing on Black girls and women in science education, maker spaces, and more at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Kokka, Roby and Cody have focused on social justice math and science education, which both challenge traditional notions of mathematics and use social justice issues to help students engage with math and science education.

“Part of that looks like, what does it mean to de-center whiteness in science,” Roby said of social justice mathematics. “And by doing that, what does it mean for us to acknowledge there are multiple ways of knowing and engaging in science? And historically, some of those ways have been privileged or given a platform while others have been diminished.”

For example, Roby considers the work her grandmother did to keep her home or support her local community to be a type of science that isn’t acknowledged but is still valuable.

Cody expanded on this idea, adding simple actions, such as a parent going to a grocery store looking to feed their family with limited money is math in practice.

“We don’t elevate that, we don’t elevate that there’s some examples that families are doing every day that show that they are math geniuses,” Cody said.

Historically, white male mathematicians have enjoyed economic privileges that allow them more time and resources to engage in math and science, she said. Often, she uses issues facing underprivileged communities as a way to introduce real-world issues to her students and provide a unique entryway into math and science.

“By engaging the students in these radical conversations about the travesties that are happening inside their community, or that they’re seeing inside the world, and then adding that math to it allows it to stick and allows them to be able to be like, ‘you know what, this is important and I’m going to use this later on in life,’” Cody said.

Part three of the series, Justice, Listening and Strategizing, took place on July 21. This panel was made up primarily of recent high school graduates, undergraduate and graduate students who each shared their personal experiences with educational inequities in their schools.

For more information, the full virtual discussions can be accessed through the PittEd Justice Collective’s main website.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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