A Call-in from a Native Educator Helped Me Change My Settler Colonial Behavior

Nov 2, 2022 3:54:30 PM


In March of 2021, I was in the thick of the social media marketing campaign for my company’s inaugural Stay True to the Teacher in You Virtual Summit. The summit’s stated mission was twofold: to position educators for success and longevity in education, and to transform educational outcomes for BIPOC students. One of my main priorities was to achieve a culturally and racially diverse representation of BIPOC presenters and speakers. On March 2, I sent out a reminder about registering for the summit via Instagram. The post included a flyer featuring a culturally diverse group of 22 presenters, all of whom I had hand-picked to participate.

All that sounds pretty good, but here’s where I fell short.

Shortly after posting the summit reminder, Instagram notified me about a comment from the account @indigenouseducators. When I clicked on the notification, I saw the question, “Do you have Indigenous/Native educators presenting?” The conversation unfolded as follows: 

This was the moment I recognized how seamlessly Indigenous people are erased from the minds of so many Americans, including people like me, who are well-intentioned in our efforts to center the experiences and oppression of all BIPOC. How could I continue to promote a summit pushing for educators to transform educational outcomes for BIPOC students and not have a single Indigenous educator presenting? I had white, Latinx, Black, and Asian-American educators represented within my roster of presenters and speakers, so why didn’t I think to include Indigenous educators on the roster?

I knew I had to rectify this situation, so I sent a direct message to the @indigenouseducators account, apologizing for my omission of Indigenous educators from the summit. In our private conversation, I learned that the name of the @indigenouseducators account was Trisha Moquino, who is the co-founder and education director of Keres Children’s Learning Center, an Indigenous language immersion Montessori school based in Cochti Pueblo, New Mexico.

From that private conversation, Trisha and I quickly developed a friendship. Over the past year, she has appeared as a guest on my Identity Talk 4 Educators LIVE podcast, as well as a special speaker for the summit. Trisha has been instrumental in helping me build my capacity around the detrimental effects of settler colonialism on Indigenous children. She has directed me to articles, publications, videos, and scholars within the Indigenous Educator network who have helped to reframe my understanding of settler colonialism in the United States. Here are a few of the resources she shared:



Calling In Versus Calling Out

In an article for Learning for Justice, author and activist Loretta J. Ross explains when it is appropriate for us to call someone in versus calling someone out:

Calling out happens when we point out a mistake, not to address or rectify the damage, but instead to publicly shame the offender. … Calling in is speaking up without tearing down. A call-in can happen publicly or privately, but its key feature is that it’s done with love.

Calling in is not for everyone or every circumstance. It’s not fair, for example, to insist that people hurt by cruel or careless language or actions be responsible for the personal growth of those who have injured them; calling in should not demand involuntary emotional labor. 

When people knowingly use stereotypes or dehumanizing metaphors to describe human beings, their actions victimize targets and potentially set them up for violence. Calling out may be the best response to those who refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they encourage or who pretend they are only innocently using their right to free speech.” (2019)

At the same time, as the popular saying goes, hurt people hurt people, and even though “calling out” someone may feel good at that moment, it does not guarantee the behavioral transformation that we desire to see from the individual who committed harm. For many Black and Brown folx, the cumulative effect of our racialized trauma can easily elicit an emotional response that not only hinders our progress towards antiracist solidarity, but also harms others in the process. That’s why, when BIPOC folk talk among ourselves, we must commit to the practice of calling each other in to have the difficult, transparent, tough love conversations. That’s how we cleanse our minds and nurture our souls. 

Punishment or exclusion isn’t the goal for this process. The ultimate focus should be on community building through education. Given that we live in a society where white dominant culture is the default, it is inevitable that our mental conditioning within that culture will place us in situations where we’re subconsciously harming others.

This harm can manifest itself in the most subtle ways. Sometimes it’s from the language we use. Other times it stems from our inaction towards injustices within our school communities. It could even show up in the curriculum we teach, the books we choose for our classroom libraries, the policies we implement, or how we allow our implicit bias to inform the way we grade, discipline or interact with different students.

Although clear and intentional instances of dehumanization do occur within our schools, we must keep in mind that, in most cases, the harm imposed by most folx stems from either miseducation or a lack of education. More times than not, the folx who impose the harm are individuals who simply aren’t aware of their ignorance. I know this for a fact because, as you probably have already gathered from my story, I’ve been the offender on more than one occasion.

With regard to the absence of an Indigenous presenter for the Stay True to the Teacher in You Virtual Summit, for instance, did I have any personal agenda against the Indigenous community? Not at all. Did I have any intentions of harming folx from the Indigenous community? Absolutely not.

Regardless of how I felt or what my intent was, the bottom line is that my action caused harm. My friend Trisha lovingly called me in to let me know where I went wrong. From that one conversation we had, I gained a new friendship and connections to learning resources that helped me to strengthen my knowledge around Indigenous culture.

Another important thing to point out is that Trisha gave me grace and knew that my heart was in the right place. She didn’t respond to me with anger or judgment. She invited me to a private learning session and took time to educate me on why my action was harmful. Considering that I was far from the first person to commit this infraction, I give her a lot of credit for how she approached the situation.

Now imagine how powerful it would be if we gave that same grace to our students when they harm us. Imagine how much agency our students could build if we gave them the time and space to process their harmful actions and learn from them.

It’s impossible for us to establish a culture of inclusion and belonging in our classrooms if we’re quick to suspend or isolate our students every time they make a mistake. Our positionality as teachers can easily deter our students from holding us accountable when we harm them. Therefore, it is important that we empower our students to call us in when they feel harmed or unsafe. They must see that we are imperfect and just as human as they are.

Just like them, we will make mistakes. When we mutually share the responsibility of repairing harm with our students, we are not only shifting the power dynamic to make our classrooms equitable but we are also reinforcing the idea that students must be active participants and co-curators of their educational experience.

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.

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