The 180 Podcast: LaShawn Routé Chatmon and Kathleen Osta: What Is an Equitable Learning Environment and How Can Your School Build One?
LaShawn Routé Chatmon & Kathleen Osta: What Is an Equitable Learning Environment and How Can Your School Build One?
We hear a lot today about the importance of creating equitable learning environments for all young people – providing each child what they need to learn, develop healthily, and thrive, which means some might need more than others depending on their starting point. From classrooms to local school board meetings, the issue – if not battle – over what it means to create an equitable learning environment, what to teach, and how has taken center stage. So in a social context where the definition can vary from community to community, how does it get implemented? Does an environment that is equitable for one child necessarily mean it becomes unequitable for another? Where is the balance, and how does it get struck?
LaShawn Routé Chatmon is the founding Executive Director, and Kathleen Osta is Managing Director of the National Equity Project. National Equity Project works with education leaders across the country on these very questions – helping design and implement community-driven approaches to equitable learning. Both have worked in schools – LaShawn as a teacher and leader, Kathleen as a social worker – and, offer practical guidance on how to build and implement approaches that work.
Chris Riback: LaShawn, Kathleen, thank you so much for joining me really appreciate your time.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Chris Riback: I think we should start with the big picture and National Equity Project. What does the National Equity Project stand for and do? And LaShawn, maybe let’s start with you.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Yes, the National Equity Project is a national non-profit organization that supports schools, districts, intermediaries, government offices, and foundations to help leaders and communities deliver on their promise to provide meaningful, relevant, equitable learning experiences and outcomes for all young people and their families.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: And we do that by helping build the capacities, will, skill, and knowledge for them to actually advance equity where they are.
Chris Riback: So I’d like to ask you more about that connection between communities and leaders, because at NEP, you address what you call inequity by design, and you do it across a number of areas. How does inequity in healthcare, criminal justice, or housing connect with inequity in education? Kathleen, maybe we can start with you.
Kathleen Osta: We understand the inequities in education to be created by policies, laws, and structures really from the beginning of the founding of this country.
So we see that young people live in communities and are whole people connected to families, and they have differential access to the resources and opportunities in our country. And that shows up within the walls of a school building when young people don’t have access to safe green space, when they don’t have access to healthy foods, when their families don’t have access to jobs that pay a living wage, to job security – all these things impact the lived experience of young people and families, and then they show up at school and we wonder why they are differentially prepared for what they are trying to do.
Chris Riback: What is equitable education?
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Well, I think there’s a larger question at play, which is, what is education, versus what is schooling versus what is learning? And part of it is, we understand that learning actually takes place inside, outside, of school buildings, right?
And equitable education, is one that actually is taking into consideration the full young person, the context that they’re learning in, and is committed to providing what they need when they need it for them to actually achieve social, emotional, and academic outcomes. And so we’re doing what needs to be done so that that can actually happen.
Chris Riback: Where’s the key challenge in what you’re describing? Is it in the message, is it in the idea of what you’re saying, or is it in the system and the structures and the operationalization of what you were saying? People kind of get it and shake their heads, yes, oh, I understand what you’re saying, LaShawn, but we just can’t get it done? Or do they look at you with question marks in their eyeballs and are like, what are you talking about?
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: I think people get it when it actually is working. I think when people see young people thriving in a learning environment, people see that and actually want that. They want that for themselves, they want that for their children, they want that for other people’s children.
It’s a complex endeavor to actually redesign a learning environment so that it actually really does work to support the thriving of all young people. It takes some capacity building for adults, it takes some changing in structure, it takes some commitment and some courage to actually do things a different way.
It takes actually listening to young people and what they need and be committed to actually redesigning things in accordance to what young people are calling and saying that they need, which is by the way, in alignment with all the things we know about what young people need to learn, develop, and thrive.
Chris Riback: Kathleen, help me visualize the difference between an equitable and an inequitable classroom. How is it different from traditional classrooms?
Kathleen Osta: I’m thinking of a particular classroom in one of our districts where a teacher really has engaged in deep redesign of his classroom, of his curriculum, and of the way he does school.
And the most important thing was he started by listening to his own students. His students loved him, and revered him, and spoke very highly about him. But when he surveyed them to find out what their experience was, he found out, 90 plus percent of them felt he cared about them, but only 9% of them felt the work was meaningful.
And that was a real moment for him as a 25-plus-year teaching veteran, he had to confront that. He leaned in with his own students and said, “wow, you all, you know I care about you, but you’re not finding this class very meaningful.” And they said, no, we keep learning about these disconnected facts, we don’t see ourselves represented in the curriculum, we can’t do anything with what we’re learning. And he revamped the whole show. He asked them, not just, what do you want to learn, but how do you want to learn?
And I want to be clear, this isn’t to say that all the skills of reading, writing, math, thinking critically, aren’t important, but what’s the entry point? How do we hook young people in ways that they get to show us what they care about and where their brilliance is? And so he had the young people design their own projects, some collaboratively and some individually.
And if we ask the question, if our primary purpose is that our young people are meaningfully engaged learning, thriving, healthy, and well, what would we do differently?
And the young people are crystal clear and consistently, across the country. They are saying, please let us learn more about who we are and who our people are and what the rich and inspirational and painful parts of our histories are. Show us the contributions our people have made, and that our families have made to the world that we live in and help us learn things that matter to us right now.
So they were like, we’re in this pandemic and no one’s asked us to talk about what are the impacts of this pandemic on your family, on you, on your community, and what could you be doing?
Chris Riback: LaShawn, I’m a principal, I’m a superintendent, or even a teacher. I want to engender equitable education in my school or district or a classroom. What resources do you have for me? How do I begin?
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Well, currently, we are in partnership with the Building Equitable Learning Environment network. Districts actually can apply to be a part of this district network, where there is coaching, development, capacity building, community building that is happening.
Part of what we talk about in our work is being able to really see, engage and act differently. And so some of that is connected being to being a part of a team that spans from superintendent to young person. One part of what you asked Chris is about like, are there differential supports for different role groups?
And while we think it’s important that there is work that by role, you are learning how to do, it’s also intentional for us to actually put cross-functional teams together so that we can actually stay present to what is happening at all of these levels of the system. So we’re making some meaning and some sense about the kinds of things that we’re learning to try together, and can therefore be amplifying that work when we’re testing.
Chris Riback: How do you mesh what students want with academic standards with rigor, Kathleen?
Kathleen Osta: Students want academic standards and rigor. So when they’re telling us that they want to be learning about things that are meaningful to them, that’s not not rigorous. That means that if we help bring content forward that links to and connects to things that matter in their lives, that they’re going to lean in in a very rigorous way.
I mean the projects that we’ve seen come out in the work products that have come out when young people have had a voice in designing them and in choosing the method by which they learn something are profound, they’re rigorous, they’re high standards. I think that is a huge misconception is, this idea that if we were to create an environment where young people felt seen and belong, that somehow that would weaken academic rigor and standards.
I think we have to just flip that and really think hard about what standards matter. How much does it matter if someone knows X, Y, and Z content, and has X, Y, and Z skills, if they in fact, are suffering tremendously from depression and anxiety, and we aren’t paying attention to that?
Nobody is arguing that young people don’t need skills and don’t need to be able to think critically and apply themselves mathematically and linguistically. That’s all true, but how we do that can be in a way that cares for the whole of who they are. And in my view and experience when we do that everyone learns more. It’s not watering down, it’s actually increasing the vitality of a learning space for everyone.
Chris Riback: Why is an equitable classroom a place where more learning happens? LaShawn, what does the science of learning and development have to say about this, about how students learn best?
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: I think the science is telling us all the things that young people tell us, learning is contextual, right? Learning involves our whole person, right? Not just our cognition and our intelligence, but in fact, that we bring our whole personhood to this endeavor of learning, that it matters where we are, the things that are happening around us, it’s contextual that we can’t just throw discrete facts at young people and think that they’re supposed to stick and be meaningful.
One of the most promising things that happened during the pandemic, actually adults and young people got to see each other as human, right? Like we were suddenly in each other’s lives in ways that we hadn’t been.
This shared experience that we had laid the best case for the science of learning and development that we could have possibly asked for. So the question is, will we actually respond to what we’ve learned about what young people, and the adult communities that they’re in, or because we want to feel like we’re in control of something, will we just force ourselves back into the boxes that we knew didn’t serve all children in the beginning?
And I don’t just mean all Black and brown and low-income children, I mean white children, too. The suffering that is happening across communities for our young people and for our families, we can actually do something about that. And so will we? Will we be courageous enough to do that work?
Chris Riback: Kathleen, will we? Will we be courageous enough? What do you see out there and what do you see that the science says about it?
Kathleen Osta: I see a lot of leaders who are leaning into this moment courageously. There’s a lot working against their courage though right now, because there’s a very strong pull to return to “normal.” I think there’s a lot of fear among particularly white, middle class and affluent parents that somehow creating a more equitable system means watering down something for my kid. So I do think that there are things that schools and school leaders can do right now to make schools more equitable.
But the engagement with community and the organizing that needs to happen to really bring forward multiracial coalitions of people in communities, demanding a school system and school systems that care for the whole of young people, is going to be critical because there’s a hyper individualism and a very much a paradigm of a zero sum game that operates.
And it’s a limiting mindset, and it’s not in line with what we know about human flourishing, which is that when we’re connected to one another across our differences and have opportunities to learn in new ways, and when all parts of our human ecosystem are thriving, we all do better. That is not a widely and deeply internalized paradigm in this country.
Chris Riback: We know the conversation that you’re talking about. Have you seen tactics? Do you have guidance around how to have that conversation?
Kathleen Osta: I think we have to have that conversation. Part of what National Equity Project does every day is support people to shift from, we call it shift from being a hero leader with the answers to being a host leader, where the most important thing a leader for equity can do is create a container and a set of ways of being that engage people in honest, difficult conversation, that’s hard and can be uncomfortable and even painful, but that it’s worth it, that it’s worth staying at the table together through that struggle because on the other side is something better for everyone.
Chris Riback: But why is it better for why is it better though for my child? What do you say to the parents who fear that academic rigor will give way to time spent on identity development and racial reconciliation?
Kathleen Osta: How we enter these conversations depends on the starting conditions in a given community. If we start by asking, what’s working well in this community and what is not working well, and for whom, we find very often that there are families and parents who are not satisfied with the system as it is.
I think we reassure people by interrupting the either/or, either we care for the whole of young people or we have academic rigor. We literally know, kids can’t learn in an environment where they feel under threat.
And for many of our young people, and not just ,as LaShawn said, not just Black and Brown young people, but for many of our young people, going into schools feels threatening, being in learning environments the way they’re currently constructed signals threat to their nervous system. And so they can’t possibly access their full intellectual and cognitive capacity if they’re under threat, for whatever reason, if it’s because of bullying, if it’s because they move every 48 minutes to a new teacher in a new subject, and it doesn’t coherently sit in the land well in their brain, whatever the threat is, how could we reduce that so that we see more flourishing, so we see more intellectual development and you can’t get to intellectual development without social emotional wellness.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: I’d also add a couple of things, Chris, because the truth is racial identity development is already happening in our schools. And so the question is, whose identity is being developed positively through schooling the way that it is. So that’s one thing.
And so part of what we’re trying to hold open is that there actually is a way for us to ensure the positive identity development of all children and not just actually children of the dominant culture, because there’s a lot of things about their identity development that is positively stabilized and built into school curriculums all across the country.
The other thing is that racial literacy in this diverse, pluralistic democracy that we live in is a part of what should be everybody’s education. And so, to Kathleen’s point, it’s not an either/or. It’s like, we actually have to understand something about ourselves in this very racialized society, and that that doesn’t just mean victim blaming or guilt. We have identities and we actually can acknowledge our past histories as a way to understand how we got to be in this place.
But that understanding is necessary for us to get to a new place together. I get and understand the fear, and yet there’s something so much more powerful beyond the fear of us talking about what has happened in the past. That reconciliation is required in order for us to be able to see our way through to a different present and to a future that actually works for all of us.
Chris Riback: In listening to you both, I’m curious as well about identity development. How do you see it forming? Where is it working? Where is it lacking? What does it mean for hiring? How do you see identity development forming?
Kathleen Osta: Identity development is a key task of adolescence. We, as humans, are always trying to navigate, how do I fit in this place? Who am I? And the way that we learn that is by how people respond to us and the extent to which we see the things that we care about and the parts of ourselves represented around us.
So, who is teaching matters. If I never see a teacher that looks like me, that’s going to impact my sense of who’s the authority on knowledge. What I see in my environment, so if I only see people who look like me working in the cafeteria, that’s also going to send a message.
So being really cognizant of the environment that young people are learning in. Young people are just absorbing everything around them even if they’re not consciously doing so. So their brains are tuned in for, am I accepted? Do I belong? Does what I have to say matter? That is adolescence. And they are very sensitive to any cues of social rejection or any ways that who they are might be under appreciated or judged.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Part of what we know is true about how the brain works too, is the effect of association. So when Kathleen is saying that identity development is happening whether we are explicitly teaching something or implicitly, by the kinds of associations that we are providing, or that young people are actually connecting to.
Listen, I have three Black sons, right? They’re young adults now, my youngest is a senior in high school, and my husband and I, in raising our children, didn’t hold any expectation that our three sons would get truthful, contextualize, affirmative history stories or images about them as Black boys and men, or about who they are, where their people come from.
We didn’t hold that that was actually going to be provided. And so we curated spaces, communities, where we live. Where our young three boys could both be affirmed, knowledgeable about the history of Black people, of Black men, and also see a variety of Black people, and particularly men, who were holding and occupying a multitude of spaces.
It was important that we arm them with that. And the truth is, we are not alone as Black families or other families of color who found it necessary because we had our children in public schools, to actually provide this kind of dual education. That’s still the reality of how we are, in some ways, inoculating our young people and preparing them to go into a system that might otherwise not be places that affirm who they are, or to tell them the truth about the contributions of people who look like them.
We have to be committed to building communities where that learning and that affirmation can actually be had for every child. We did that as a separate activity, and lots of parents that you will talk to, across class, will actually hold the same thing.
We made sure our doctors were not all white, we made sure that our dentists were not all white, so that our young men could actually associate all the things that they could be in the fullness and richness of what is true, not just limited to what they could be exposed to in school. That is a problem, right, and so addressing that feels fundamental when we talk about expanding and revisioning how young people come to feel like they belong in a place, that is a fundamental part that has to be addressed.
Chris Riback: That’s a 24/7, 365 mindfulness.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Even today, I was literally just on the phone with one of my girlfriends yesterday, who has a Black eighth grade son, whose teacher brought in a cotton plant from her family’s farm to teach them, as they were in this unit around slavery.
I was a teacher of African-American studies. So I got the benefit of actually being able to actively build and curate a whole different set of experiences for young people. But what we still hear is that what young people learn about Black people in school is limited to slavery, and then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Nothing in between, nothing before, and very little after.
That’s still young people’s experience of learning about Black people in America. And so young people, like, that’s what I’m supposed to take away from this? And so when we talk about belonging, we talk about expanding curriculum so that young people not just see themselves, we’re not just talking about your face on a page or like whether or not there’s a poster of Sojourner Truth in your classroom.
It’s like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We are actually talking about really integrating and creating contextualized understandings of the contributions of people, of whole people, of indigenous people, of Raza people, of Black folks, of the Filipino, to the building, creation, and ongoing sustainability and evolution of our country.
Kathleen Osta: Of our world.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: That shouldn’t be contested curriculum at this point. And so the fact that it is, yes, is one of the problems that I think we are trying to actually support school communities to do something about right now. And if we follow what young people are asking, it’s a no brainer, this is a win-win and young people want to understand who they are, where they come from, how they contribute, how they fit, for the purposes of actually being affirmed in their own agency to continue making the world.
Chris Riback: What’s your strategy then when we try to have those conversations and some segment of the population won’t even come to the table, reject it outright, if they’re threatening educators for doing this work?
Kathleen Osta: I would say, one thing is, it’s not optional. We are legally required to provide a quality education to every young person in this country.
So what LaShawn said about stories and creating a container where stories are shared, that’s foundational for us, but it’s not the only thing. Because there are legal and moral and ethical reasons we need to provide quality education that we’re not going to wait for everybody to be okay with.
We won’t get there if we do that, if we wait until all the people who have all the resources right now, and all the power right now are like, okay, cool, I’ll share, no, we’re not going to get there that way.
And I would just say, too, the conversation is not about taking something from someone and giving it to someone else, it’s about re-imagining how we do it and expanding opportunity. There are huge debates all over the place about tracking, gifted and talented courses, all these things.
That is a representative of this fear that my child is special and I’m down for equity, but I need to protect all of this for my child because they deserve it, and because all the reasons, all the stories. This is about saying, great, your child does deserve that, and so does every child, and your child won’t have less if more children have what your child has. Your child will have more, a more rich lived experience and world perspective that reflects the global population. Like there’s more for us here, not less.
Chris Riback: LaShawn, anything to add on the strategy?
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Our strategy right now is not about winning an argument with the small numbers of people who are suggesting that we need to keep education exclusive and fundamentally unchanged. I think there is a greater majority of people who right now we actually need to invite to get into this game, because their silence, kind of much in the way of the 1960s, their silence is going to have an impact.
We talk in our organization about rebel leadership and about courage and commitment and doing the right thing even though the right thing is hard. We are suggesting that more and more people show up to say, these are the things we actually do believe all of our young people deserve and they need, and we need this in order to be a thriving nation, and we need this to be expanded, and we need new visions about what education can look like right now, in ways that serve and are of service to the population of young people who exist in these systems right now.
They weren’t designed for this level of diversity and all kinds of diversity, and we know that, but we’re still running a system that in some ways is quite antiquated. So it should change and it should evolve, and we can do that, but we also need other people’s standing and saying that, and being in relationship with each other for the right thing, as opposed to trying to get in a fight with a minority of people who are trying to hold something back.
Kathleen Osta: I would just add to that, LaShawn, that we don’t want to send young people into a place that hurts, we want to send people into a young place that helps them heal and thrive. And the young people have plenty to say about it. And our job as adults is to partner with them and create systemic ways of listening to them over time. And I believe that’s going to take some of this charge out of this ideological battle that’s going on and take it back to the human level of what’s needed and why.
Chris Riback: So among the many things that I have heard both of you say during this wonderful conversation is, integrating the humanity into our institutions and into the leadership and into the learning. Listen to our students, just heard you say it again right now, Kathleen. And LaShawn, you just mentioned, very briefly, rebel leaders and how you talk about rebel leaders.
Well, the NEP website, you not only note rebel leaders, but you also note that “rebel leaders make good trouble.” Of course, we all recognize the reference to the late Congressman and civil rights leader, John Lewis. What are rebel leaders who make good trouble?
Are they born, or are they made, and in terms of education and in terms of what you both hope you see going forward for our students and our country, how do they know when they should self-activate? And again, to use your words, LaShawn, get into the game?
Kathleen Osta: Well, I love that question, Chris.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: I do, too. And I think part of it comes from our belief that we didn’t get here by accident, right? And that what needs to get undone and revisioned won’t get done by chance. So while policies and practices and procedures and all of those things are necessary, they’re insufficient because people make change happen.
So at the very core of our strategy is a deep belief that people have the capacity to solve the problems and address the issues of their day, not alone, and not without support, but that they deeply have the capacity to do that. So rebel leaders, anyone, we talk about leadership just generally as taking responsibility for what matters for you. And so we believe rebel leaders do that, right? Often without permission and sometimes breaking rules that need to be broken in order for us genuinely and collectively to advance. And so we invest and believe deeply in people, and by the way, we’re not talking about formal leaders, rebel leaders, inside kind of our definition of taking responsibility for what matters, means anybody can lead.
We see young people as rebel leaders. And in fact, in our history and in social histories, young people have always been at the forefront, at the epicenter of social change. And so listening to young people is not just a novel strategy of the National Equity Project. Listening to young people and moving with where they are demanding things be, it’s also just being a good student of history.
People make change, and so rebel leaders get into good trouble by acting together to advance our collective humanity, to advance educational equity, to advance the things that are going to allow for us to have a world that actually works for everybody.
And we suggest and support people to do it, even when their voice shakes, even when their palms are sweaty. We’re not suggesting that it’s not hard sometimes. It’s hard. We’re watching our adult leaders and our young people stand in courageous moments right now. And be challenged. And we’ve got to do it anyway; we have to do it anyway.
Because the alternative is for us to fully return to a place and a state, particularly in our school communities, that we know young people were not just not being successful, but dying, but being depressed, but not showing up. There is a spirit and a commitment that’s required right now, from all of us who believe ourselves to want to be advancing equity and justice and belonging in this world, something is required of us. And so that rebel leadership is just to symbolize and to signify that, yes, it’s going to take us perhaps being less comfortable than we would otherwise in order to advance things for all of us.
Chris Riback: Kathleen, you have any problem with getting into good trouble?
Kathleen Osta: Oh no, that’s my favorite. Disruption is needed and we all come, like LaShawn said, with innate wisdom and with a desire to connect and to realize our full humanity, and real leaders create the conditions where more leaders can step up and break the rules that need to be broken. And we need to think critically about what rules do we need now for the world we are living in and the world we want to create.
I’m all about it, and our job is to be shoulder to shoulder with people so they have the courage and know they’re not alone. It’s not just this one person’s move, but it’s moving in a collective direction and taking risks that are worth it.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: I would definitely want to leave us on a hopeful note, not to actually be naively optimistic, but to suggest that we have managed, in our history, to overcome many, many obstacles. And we are here with a new opportunity to be better than we have been in our past. And we believe, despite all of the challenges and all of barriers and obstacles, to having environments and school communities that are thriving, that it’s possible, that it’s absolutely possible and it must be.
So we partner with people to ensure that that reimagining and that redesigning is inclusive, co-created with young people and with the community.
We believe that they know best what’s needed, and that our jobs as educators are to be responsive to those needs, to give people what they need, to restructure things in ways where more of our young people can thrive. There has been a tremendous amount of suffering in this very short time, and we don’t actually have to suffer.
We really actually can rebuild this so that we’re giving young people the experiences that they need. And so that they’re a part of shaping that and creating that.
Getting into good trouble, this is a worthwhile struggle for us. And we have to stay joyful in it. Equity is also not just about shaming and blaming and doom and gloom. There is joy and progress that has come from multiracial coalitions building and dreaming.
And we choose to place our energy on people who are moving collectively to create greater justice and belonging in the world. We’re trying to grow those stories.
Chris Riback: Kathleen and LaShawn, thank you. And I look forward to seeing you both get into and stir up some more good trouble. Thank you for your time.
LaShawn Routé Chatmon: Yes. Thank you.
Kathleen Osta: Thanks you, Chris. Appreciate it.