“All of us benefit when systems of discrimination and injustice are dismantled. We’re all able to be more of our human selves, and able to treat each other with more humanity.”
These powerful words from educational researcher Dr. Charlotte Jacobs resonated with parents, faculty, staff, and community members at Friday’s virtual presentation on “Gender and Race Conscious Education.”
Her visit focused on how parents and schools can understand and facilitate the process of positive identity development in adolescents. She noted that this occurs across race, gender, and class boundaries, and highlights the need to make schools more equitable spaces. “Education is a process that happens both inside and outside of schools and classrooms,” she said, noting that students learn about social norms and expectations prior to entering school.
Research indicates that children as young as age 3 are able to discern physical characteristics tied to racial and gender expression — and sometimes attach meaning to those identifiers. Similarly, the messages that students receive about race and gender are crucial to identity development, and influence how they understand the world around them and how they interact with one another.
“When we think about equity and the work that we’re doing in developing a race and gender conscious education, it’s the idea that everybody is getting what they need so that they can feel that their humanity is recognized, and we treat each other in as human a way as possible,” Dr. Jacobs stated.
Addressing the Academic, Social, and Emotional Needs of Adolescents
In their research, Dr. Jacobs and a colleague drew on established positive youth development (PYD) theory and model, a strength-based framework that focuses on the competencies and skills that young people need to develop in order to live a successful and meaningful life as they move into adulthood. While PYD establishes five main competencies — Confidence, Contribution, Character, Competence, and Connecting & Caring — the studies were conducted on mainly white middle class students and schools. Dr. Jacobs expanded on PYD to be more applicable to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) youth and girls by adding the elements of Critical Consciousness, Resilience, and Resistance.
For her presentation, Dr. Jacobs elaborated on Confidence, as well as her three additional competencies.
Critical Consciousness: For girls, critical consciousness means a growing awareness of how social relations and identities operate within a larger context of power relations that is connected to different social identifiers — and how they as individuals and in groups are situated within those contexts. For example, BIPOC students are able to notice patterns related to their inclusion on diversity websites, inclusion in marketing and admission materials, and power dynamics.
Supporting critical consciousness development, Dr. Jacobs noted, requires “courageous conversations” when adolescents question race, gender, and other social identity structures, as well as intentional naming of negative or harmful gender or racial stereotypes. Emphasizing the “counter-narrative,” in response to dominant narratives, messages, and stories, brings in diverse experiences that expand students’ understanding of others, and opens the door for more inclusive conversations.
Confidence: This internal sense of overall positive self-worth and self-efficacy includes positive racial/ethnic and gender identities and esteem. Research has indicated that, for BIPOC youth, having a positive sense of racial identity is a helpful protection against internalizing harmful messages, experiences, and discrimination. For white students, white racial identity development is oriented around stages or phases where they learn about racism, and think about what it means to be white, benefit from structures of whiteness, and have their experiences often seen as the norm or desired.
Dr. Jacobs specifically noted the importance of formal and informal identity-affirming spaces with clearly articulated audiences and purposes. These spaces communicate that students are valued, respected, and heard, and provide them with a positive atmosphere to share experiences, feel supported, and engage in cross-divisional or even cross-generational interactions and learning.
Resistance: “Knowing how to resist and advocate for oneself is important in terms of being able to call for equitable systems and structures,” Dr. Jacobs said. “It’s important specifically for those with marginalized identities.” Studies indicate that BIPOC students who question these systems and establish boundaries are often viewed as aggressive or disrespectful, as well as punished more harshly and surveilled more than white counterparts. These negative responses to resistance originate in a misunderstanding of what resistance truly is — and are countered by approaching the situation with curiosity and empathy, and asking what this person is trying to communicate.
Dr. Jacobs highlighted the importance of leveraging adolescents’ strengths and promoting resistance as both an individual and collective action. A Girls Leadership research report noted that Black and Latinx girls expressed high interest in leadership and wanting to create change — and it’s important for adults to listen, reflect, and encourage these aspirations.
Resilience: This ability to utilize coping mechanisms to persevere through adversity, as well as critically analyze structural dynamics, is key to adolescents navigating the world around them while working to create more inclusive and supportive environments. For BIPOC students, resilience should focus not only on how to navigate these situations, but also address how they take care of themselves accordingly. White students’ development of resilience necessitates an understanding of how their actions affect BIPOC students, and a desire to learn from their experiences and not internalize missteps as personal failures.
Additional Takeaways from Dr. Jacobs
Here are some additional considerations to help understand and address race and gender conscious education.
- Schools and partners should view themselves as collaborators in this work, as schools develop educational systems using a gender and racial conscious lens.
- Education occurs both in the classroom and in the world around us — and the messages that students hear influence their identity development.
- The intersectionality of our different identities — such as age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status — are tied to access to certain opportunities, structures, and policies.
- School administrators can help address the needs of BIPOC girls by viewing students as the experts of their experiences, and respond accordingly via actions, policies, and practices as they engage in conversation.
- BIPOC students often experience racial battle fatigue as they try to maintain their humanity and identity in face of messages and society. This fatigue is known to cause psychological and emotional stress.
- Self-care through mindfulness, mental health counseling, and having spaces to process is crucial to helping students manage adversity.
Dr. Jacobs, who spoke at last summer's Summit on Racial Justice at Agnes Irwin, is an associate director for the Independent School Teaching Residency program for the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Dr. Jacobs has co-authored the book Teaching Girls: How Teachers and Parents Can Reach Their Brains and Hearts. In addition to her work at PGE, Jacobs also serves as the executive director of the Girls Justice League, a nonprofit organization supporting the social, educational, and economic rights of girls in Philadelphia.