‘They Created a Space For People Like Myself’: How an Online Community of Rhode Island Educators of Color Supported Each Other Through the Pandemic

Participants engage in the February 2021 EduLeaders of Color meetup. (YouTube/Equity Institute)

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This story is published in partnership with The Boston Globe.

Although navigating school during a global pandemic presented new challenges for almost all K-12 staff nationwide, some educators, like Jeffrey Wright of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, faced an additional difficulty that many others did not.

As the only Black male educator at Blackstone Valley Prep, where two-thirds of the student body is Black, Hispanic or Asian American, students and parents often would come to Wright with school-related questions and concerns — seeing him, perhaps, as an easier point of access than other teachers or the administration.

Jeffrey Wright (Jeffrey Wright via LinkedIn)

“They look at me and they feel I’m someone they can identify with,” said Wright, whose job, officially titled “scholar support specialist,” is a cross between a dean of students and a dean of culture at his charter school, he said.

Wright relishes his connections with students. Helping youth thrive was the reason he chose to work in education. But being a go-to contact is also an “extra burden,” he said. Wright has frequently dealt with imposter syndrome, asking himself, “Am I doing this the right way?”

“That’s a lot for one person to carry,” he told The 74.

That’s why, throughout the last school year, Wright looked forward to one evening a month when the experiences he usually shouldered on his own would be shared.

In monthly sessions, called EduLeaders of Color meetups, Wright would tune into a Zoom call full of teachers who understand the burden of being one of the few or only educators of their racial identity at their school. Hosted by a Providence-based nonprofit called the Equity Institute, which receives funding from the Rhode Island Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund, the meetings welcome anyone in the education space to tune in — regardless of race — but are designed particularly to help Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian-American educators connect with one another in a state where 89 percent of the teaching force is white.

“They created a space for people like myself,” said Wright.

A Blackstone Valley Prep classroom (BVP via Facebook)

Research underscores the academic and social benefits that teachers of color deliver for all students, but particularly for students who share their same racial identity. Many experts point to teacher diversification as a pressing need in public education, yet nationwide, 79 percent of educators remain white compared to only 47 percent of students.

Rates of turnover are also higher among teachers of color than their white colleagues, perhaps in part because many, like Wright, carry additional responsibilities or feel isolated in schools with majority-white staff. To help retain Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian-American educators, gatherings like the EduLeaders of Color meetups may prove a promising strategy.

Travis Bristol (UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education)

“Programs like EduLeaders give teachers tools to navigate some of the challenging experiences that they have in their schools with their principals, with their colleagues,” said Travis Bristol, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education who was familiar with the Rhode Island sessions. The gatherings may not change the systemic conditions that can push teachers of color to leave the profession, he said, but “it gives them tools to cope. It gives them tools to stay day to day.”

Similar programs exist elsewhere, the Berkeley professor told The 74, including in Boston, Tennessee and California. The EduLeaders of Color programming differs from many others by focusing on growing participants’ professional networks and encouraging their leadership potential, according to its co-founders Karla Vigil and Carlon Howard.

When COVID-19 struck, it meant the EduLeaders meetups, which began in 2016, had to go virtual, forcing Equity Institute co-founders Karla Vigil and Carlon Howard to re-think the structure. Even online, 60 or more individuals, who work at traditional public schools, charter schools like Blackstone Valley Prep and or in higher education, regularly join the calls.

“Online it’s been a little different. We’ve had to change the format,” Vigil told The 74. “We’re very particular about creating an environment that feels welcoming, that feels healing, that feels diverse in all ways.”

Equity Institute co-founders Carlon Howard, far left, and Karla Vigil, far right, at the institute’s headquarters. (Equity Institute via Facebook)

Immediately upon clicking into EduLeaders of Color events, it’s clear the meetings are a far cry from the stuffy Zoom calls filled with awkward silences and empty black rectangles that participants may be familiar with from professional settings.

Music plays in the background as people log in — usually hip hop, rhythm and blues or reggaeton. Participants each receive $20 Grubhub gift cards for their free registration, so they can enjoy takeout from their favorite restaurant alongside the conversation. Most of those who join keep their cameras on and some even pull up customized backgrounds for the event. The facilitators announce that there will be a prize awarded at the end to the participant who’s been the most lively in the chat box, and throughout the session, the messages continue to scroll steadily.

Vigil and Howard have read extensively about white supremacy culture, which pervades many professional settings, its theorists posit, through an emphasis on time scarcity, valuation of the written word over the spoken word, and other structures — and they intentionally design their gatherings to counter those norms.

“It’s not that rigidity that you think of when you [think of school], like you have to dress a certain way, you have to look a certain way,” said Wright. “In this meetup … it’s a party. We come together. We come here, we can chill, we can laugh. It’s OK if you have a thought — you can blurt that thought out. To me, that’s exactly what a learning environment should be.”

The social side of the gathering can also double as a networking opportunity, said Wright. He himself landed a role as a board member for the Community College of Rhode Island, his alma mater, through a connection from the meetup’s organizers. The pandemic has made the natural interactions more difficult, said Vigil, but after each session, she and Howard still try to connect individuals via email who they think would benefit from being introduced to each other.

Each monthly session, advertised through social media and word of mouth, features a different theme: In February, the importance of teacher diversity, in March, helping introduce students of color to STEM and in April, how to climb the professional ladder. The organizers carefully select panelists who will uplift the identities of those joining the call.

That means “making sure that the folks who are talking, taking up airspace, who are the main speakers all come from the backgrounds of many of our young people, and particularly our young people of color,” Howard told The 74.

During the gatherings, while panelists or other participants speak about their experiences working in schools, Wright often thinks to himself, “Man, I went through that. I know what that’s like. Yes. I’m not alone,” he said.

That’s precisely the point, said Vigil.

“[Participants] feel like they’ve come to share common ground with somebody so they don’t feel like they’re in a silo — because many do feel like they’re in a silo in schools.”

She understands Wright’s burden as one of the only Black teachers in his school. (Another Black man is joining the ranks at Blackstone Valley Prep this year, Wright noted.) The isolation of having been one of the only teachers of color in her Providence school, Vigil explained, contributed to her choice to ultimately leave the classroom in 2016.

During his teaching days, Howard said he was repeatedly called upon by other educators to deal with misbehaving children, many of whom were Black. For his white colleagues struggling to get through to young people of color, “I was their connecting piece,” he recalled. Not only was the extra responsibility tiring, but because he was mostly tapped to discipline students acting out in a system he understood to be fundamentally slated against them, Howard began to feel like an Uncle Tom, he said. “I didn’t want to be in that type of position.”

“The tax that we carry is large. It’s heavy. It’s felt,” added Vigil.

With widespread access to vaccines, the Equity Institute is now gearing up for its first in-person meetup since the pandemic struck. The Sept. 23 session will be held in Providence with in-person attendance capped at 40 and dependent on proof of vaccination, said Howard. It will also don a new name: Converge — a representation of the group’s purpose as a space to gather.

But regardless of the rebranding, regardless of whether the meetups continue in person or return online as the Delta variant causes COVID-19 cases to surge, Wright is confident that the demand will persist.

“I think that there are a lot of educators who can really benefit from this,” he said.

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