Greetings Dear Community,
Every so often, I get a surprise letter from alumni of our Summer Institute. I am always thrilled to learn how young people I knew as teenagers have grown into themselves and what the trajectory of their lives has been since. Nearly all of them write to tell me that they had no clue how instrumental the summer they spent with Penumbra would be in shaping what they would do next.
They tell me that our curriculum awakened them to the complexity of the world in ways they felt had been obscured in other environments, that we provoked their opinions and fired their passions for justice, but most importantly, they tell me that they left our program wholeheartedly believing in their power to make a difference and unequivocally clear that they were expected to use every tool and talent they had at their disposal to drive positive change.
And they have.
I have received letters from civil rights attorneys, actors and writers, humanitarian doctors and nurses, immigration activists, city council members, filmmakers, schoolteachers, movement builders, and founders of nonprofits who write to tell me that Penumbra was a critical turning point in their lives.
Over several decades, Penumbra cultivated a powerful container for young people to establish their voices and affirm their emerging identities. We developed a curriculum that courageously and responsibly engages children in concepts of race, racism, and social justice while nurturing their creative resiliency and agency. We have been supported by and have trained an incredible faculty of brave artists who can powerfully relate to the children in their classes because they share racial and cultural identities, something the majority of our students report experiencing for the first time inside a formal learning environment.
The positive effects of children learning with and from adults who reflect their identities has been broadly documented. Studies report a boost in overall academic performance, an improvement in reading and math test scores, higher graduation rates, increased aspirations to attend college, and a reduction in school absences.
As schools focus on recruiting and retaining teachers of color (a longterm impact strategy), nonprofits focusing on arts and culture, athletics, leadership, and cultural community cohesion are meeting a vital need. The extracurricular or ancillary programs that compliment students’ in-school experiences provide a vital antidote for the lack of diversity in our schools.
So representation matters. That’s one part. The other ingredient is that our students learn about social justice movements in the United States. They learn about so many incredible moments when people who looked like them and their families resisted oppression. They learn how and why folks stand up on behalf of their communities and realize that everyday people can make a monumental difference when we work collaboratively and with right purpose.
Right now there is a tremendous backlash against teaching children about race in America. Why? For exactly the reasons the Summer Institute graduates write to me: it gives them agency, empowers their voices, equips them with models through which they can develop their own leadership. It gives them a reason to believe in their own power to make the world a more just and equitable place. We have to be honest and acknowledge that not everyone wants that.
There are people determined to strip schools of any curriculum that nurtures cultural pride in students of color. There are people fighting tooth and nail to rob American citizens of their hard-won right to vote. There are people who believe—deeply believe—that America should belong only to them. To those people I say, “we, too, sing America,” and we will not relinquish our right to demand that this country meet its highest ideals.
A lot of folks think that talking to small children about race is not developmentally appropriate until they reach adolescence. But BIPOC families begin talking about race with our children much earlier. We do this for several reasons: to support cultural pride, to explain unjust corrective action within schools, to attempt to protect our children from surveillance and danger. When children of color hear and feel acknowledgement of the presence of race and racism at home, but these same truths are ignored within their primary learning environment, very often led by a white teacher, they experience a kind of cognitive dissonance that increases their sense of otherness and decreases their sense of safety. Meanwhile, white children are often completely devoid of conversations around race and racial difference unless their parents and guardians explicitly and proactively seek out opportunities to engage them around these issues. Taboo and fear pervade far too many classrooms around issues of race and cultural difference—and when children see inaction it can be as or more powerful than action. We must acknowledge that silence is violence when it comes to race and racism.
If we wait until adolescence to talk with children about race, we are actively ignoring the powerful messaging they already receive as early as 18-months old about how their parents or guardians react to racial difference, what families determine as valuable, beautiful, good, kind, and safe. These fundamental concepts shape a child’s worldview. If conscious engagement of the realities of race and racism are not baked into this world building, children are at a major deficit when they are asked to engage in racial inquiry as they age. Much of what they are asked to learn contradicts what they have experienced (in some ways much more powerfully retained) and this can mean that learning about race and racism is painful, laden with shame, and disempowering. So much of the training I do with adults of all races is centered around helping them grieve and heal from this kind of conditioning. It can be heartbreaking to witness and it makes the journey so much more challenging than it needs to be.
Instead, if we thoughtfully engage children in conversations about race and difference from an early age, we can cultivate a sense of agency in determining identity, a sense of resiliency to meet contradictions in what is said versus what is practiced, and an increased sense of empathy for others. By the time they reach adolescence and are ready to engage in more critical conversations about race and inequity, they have the foundations they need to have positive and empowered conversations about social change.
There is no secret sauce. It’s really about understanding that children are getting lessons every day; we want them to be the right ones.
So, as battles rage on in PTA meetings and school board meetings, on the Senate floor and on network television about “critical race theory,” Penumbra will continue to teach toward liberation. We will continue to make room for complex understandings of our collective history and support young people in dreaming toward new horizons. While Summer Institute is currently offline due to COVID-19 considerations, we're looking greatly forward to resuming programming for young people soon.
Healing begins with acknowledging there is a wound. You can’t suture what you can’t see. The former US Secretary of Education, John B King, Jr. advised, “teach for social justice, see and love the whole child, and lead with your legacy in mind.” Penumbra’s inheritance and our legacy is racial healing. We welcome anyone and everyone to join us in this vital work.
With abiding love,