“Some people might suggest that ending systemic racism is too big of a problem to solve,” says the ever-optimistic Matthew Kincaid, “But I believe our collective future depends on our ability to heal ourselves from the scars oppression leaves – on both its perpetrators and its victims.”
Kincaid’s the mastermind behind Louisiana-based programme Overcoming Racism, an organisation that’s tasked itself with stopping racism right at the root by taking the fight to schools in the US, empowering teachers, and teaching kids how to make a difference.
But how exactly do you go about stopping racism once and for all? And, when that’s your goal, what does success actually look like?
Kincaid grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood in St Louis, Missouri, but attended predominantly white schools, and had to navigate those two different worlds without much explanation as to what racism was, or how it might affect his life. That was until, at the age of 14, he attended his first anti-racism workshop. The impact it had was enough to drive him to start his own anti-racism organisation just a decade and a half down the line.
“The tragic history of racism in America is well documented,” he says, “but there have never been any major reforms aimed at requiring teachers to teach about race and equity in the classroom.” And that, Overcoming Racism says, is key:
“If there is one place that must function as a lens for equality it must be our education system,” he explains. “So we function under the belief that we can either continue struggling with the symptoms of educational inequality, or we can finally address the cause – systemic racism.”
And schools, Kincaid says, are environments that can unwittingly harbour that cause: “Education can do one of two things,” he tells us. “It can either reproduce negative societal outcomes, or it can totally transform them.” He knows this first-hand, having previously worked as a social studies teacher and school administrator.
That’s why the latter – the potential for transformation – is the space where Overcoming Racism plants itself. “In America, 82% of teachers are white,” Kincaid adds, “and they’re responsible for ensuring that outcomes are equitable for children of all races. So we want to ensure that all children in America receive an education that considers their unique cultural, linguistic and socio-political reality.”
To that end, Kincaid’s organisation has now trained over 2,000 US educators in the importance of bringing positive racial messages to the classroom – with real, tangible results:
“In some of the networks that we work with – ones that govern multiple schools – Overcoming Racism has been able to make curriculum changes alongside changes in school-wide systems and policies that really impact the daily experiences of students.”
Examples? How about the fact that, in the school where Overcoming Racism has been operational the longest, suspensions have been reduced, student happiness has increased, and academic performance has lifted. Even better, over 90% of teachers would recommend the programme to other schools.
The first lesson here, as far as Kincaid is concerned, is that leaning on your own experience is the secret to success – no matter what your goal:
“My experience as both a classroom teacher and school administrator is invaluable,” he reveals, “because I understand the inner workings of schools and the challenges with making changes over time.
And the second? The importance in finding the right people to help you and your mission succeed: “My advice is that the world needs you, but you don’t need to go it alone. Our initial batch of Overcoming Racism trainers, for example, all come from education backgrounds as well.
“You are always stronger as a team,” he says. “So try to find ways to get other people involved in your work.”
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