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In partnership: Creating space for families to talk about race

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

An illustration of diverse multigenerational families smiling, holding hands with their children, etc.
Diverse multigenerational families interacting.

Following the murder of George Floyd – the visual of which pierced people’s consciousness and laid bare the ongoing reality of racial violence – among many other horrific examples of anti-Black violence in the summer of 2020, one assistant principal at a Bronx elementary school started noticing children talking about police violence, racial dynamics, and politics in the halls of school -- and not only talking, but often mimicking adult messaging without foundational awareness. The vast majority of students at her school are Black or Latinx, with substantial cultural and linguistic diversity within the community. Seeking space for families and caregivers to have conversations about race and racism in ways that would be healthy for both them and their children, she asked her ParentCorps coaches to help.

In partnership with schools, ParentCorps works to build an early childhood experience that centers race and culture, engages parents as partners, and supports children’s social-emotional well-being. To work towards our mission, we have invested in what we call racial equity capacity building – for instance, scaffolding the personal development of racial consciousness and skills needed to recognize and interrupt racism in ourselves and others. As specified in ParentCorps' theory of change, supporting adult caregivers to understand race and racism is essential to building the kinds of environments where children can thrive. This work takes many forms -- from honoring families’ culture, lived racial experience, and expertise; to correcting harmful patterns of outsiders telling people of color how to parent; to scaffolding educators in building authentic, racially affirming relationships with families.

Approach and takeaways

Building on a trusted relationship developed over years of partnership, the assistant principal, key school staff, and ParentCorps coaches developed a plan to facilitate conversations with parents at this critical point in time.

This included:

  • Foundational conversation: Creating a space for parents to begin to reflect on their feelings and experiences with race and racism -- including the messages they received as children. Coaches introduced tools from Courageous Conversations about Race, which provides the conditions and agreements that help people speak from the perspective of their own lived experience and remain engaged even as they may feel uncomfortable.

  • Application to parenting conversation: Creating space for parents to share ideas about how to talk with children about race and racism. Building on self-reflections from the foundational conversation, coaches shared the science on how young children’s racial identity emerges -- and the potential for developmentally appropriate, everyday conversations to be protective against stressful experiences, including interpersonally mediated racism.

A text box including guiding questions

Below, Olayemi Otun and Sean Dantzler, the ParentCorps coaches who facilitated the dialogue, reflect on the event.

Sean on what it meant to him and to families: "It was amazing to see a school so invested in the community. [They] wanted to make the families of the kids feel seen, heard, and appreciated. Talking to some of the families after the workshop, they loved the conversation and the time the school put in to make sure this was a success."

Olayemi on the relationships that made it possible: “Something I can’t shake even after almost a year of not being there, is the spirit of community that greeted me every time I stepped on the grounds of [this school]. There’s a dynamism that takes place when people are comfortable and at ease in an environment… For this reason, I was not surprised at all when the staff reached out to [us] to brainstorm an idea they had to create a space where parents would be able to discuss their racialized experiences and receive age-appropriate tools to aid in the journey of exploring the conversation with their children. This was very much in alignment with the school’s responsive nature.

Given the space to have the conversations to explore their own lived experiences as well as gain and share knowledge to pass to their children, caregivers showed up and participated in the way that felt right for them in the moment.

What this experience reinforced for me is the importance of relationships in creating much needed spaces for people. Without the relationship, it would be hard to do a pulse check and to come up with interventions that address the needs. At [this school], the pulse checks thoroughly consider the students and their caregivers (family members and teachers). They make space for whatever the pulse indicates is needed.”

Further resources

Even before elementary school, young children are starting to develop thoughts and beliefs that stem from negative associations with people of color. Without adult guidance, children will make up their own, often inaccurate or harmful, stories about race and racism. They may develop beliefs and biases that the adults around them may not be aware of.

Talking openly about race can give young children the language to make sense of what they see and hear. You can start simply, for instance:

  • Talk about race every day. It doesn’t have to be serious or only surrounding negative experiences. Naming the race of characters in books or on TV is a great place to start.

  • Choose books and toys that include people of other races and cultures.

  • Celebrate skin color and physical characteristics typically associated with negative qualities (dark skin, kinky coily hair, etc).

  • Point out positive images of people of color in the media.

  • Learn and talk about the histories and experiences of people of color.

Read more from these trusted sources: First Conversations, Embrace Race, and One Talk At A Time.

Rona Taylor is a ParentCorps Specialist. Spring Dawson-McClure is an Assistant Professor of Population Health at the Center for Early Childhood Health & Development and Manager of ParentCorps Research Strategy.


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