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Blog: Expanding Equity at Mastery Charter Lenfest Campus

Layla Helwa
Teacher, African American History, Mastery Charter Lenfest Campus

 

How a book club and strong partnership between a teacher and a principal set the stage for achieving a school’s equity vision

Since I started teaching 9 years ago, racial justice work has always been a top priority for me. I am a firm believer that education is for liberation and in order to achieve that all people invested in our students’ success need to be doing the work of disrupting racism.

In May, after the murder of George Floyd, my principal reached out to ask if I was interested in being the founding leader of a staff book club, an idea I proposed the year before. Strengthening racial justice work at our school seemed more urgent than ever and I quickly agreed. My principal and I both wanted the book club to be high-impact. It would be called a “book club” but neither of us wanted for it to be just the bare minimum of reading and talking about a book.

I envisioned being explicit and intentional about our purpose. We would choose books that addressed racism head-on, written by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). These books are the foundation of our work to address racism in ourselves and our school communities. Most importantly, the books would inspire our collective action. How does systemic racism negatively impact our lives, our classrooms, and our school community as a whole? What is our role as educators in taking action? Our goal is to create antiracist educators that have the tools, curriculum, knowledge, and confidence to say something when something needs to be said and do something when something needs to be done.

Our first meeting was mandatory for all staff. We decided to use How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi as our first text. We purchased 60 copies of the book from a wonderful local Black-owned bookshop and got to work.

 

“The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.”

– Ibram X. Kendi

Throughout the summer, the staff at Lenfest has truly embraced “the work”. I have been continuously inspired by their collective vulnerability and honesty during our conversations on racism. Using the term book club might make it seem “casual,” but what we do is far from it. My principal and I have tightly co-planned every session. We ensure that our purpose and questions for each meeting are thought-provoking and promote staff members’ reflections based on the reading and include commitments for action. Each session aligns with the vision of our school’s Expanding Equity committee, which sets school-wide priorities and goals to eliminate structural inequity in our school.

We’re evaluating our practices in our classrooms, our curriculum, and our culture systems. We’ve all collectively articulated our commitment to change and are setting detailed goals for this school year. I am excited about the contributions we’ve made toward making our school a more just and more free place for students and staff alike and look forward to creating more opportunities for staff and students to continue “the work.” At Lenfest we are not in the business of intellectualizing racism, we are working to dismantle it.