Educators Disrupting Racism: One Journey

In Part 1 of this Q&A feature, AACTE consultant Jane West, a former teacher with a doctorate in special education and 30 years of policy experience in the nation’s capital, and Holmes Program Alumna Ashley L. White, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and 2019-20 Joseph P. Kennedy Fellow, share their mentoring/mentee relationship and how it has evolved over time to address race.

Q: What is the nature of your mentoring relationship?

Jane West and Ashley WhiteWhite:  Through my doctoral work, I became very interested in disability policy. It was through this interest that I met Jane.  Anyone who knows about SPED/disability policy knows Dr. Jane West. What I didn’t know before interacting with Jane is that, while she was an advocate for the interests of special education and students with disabilities, she was aware of the structural and ideological inconsistencies that float right beneath the surface of the equity rhetoric that dominates disability advocacy.     

West:  I had the good fortune to meet Ashley as a doctoral student through her work with The Higher Education Consortium for Special Education—an organization with which I consult. Ashley was keenly interested in advocacy and policy—my areas of focus—so we formed a natural alliance. I was, and am, pleased to mentor her in those areas as she navigated her doctoral work and her career.

Q:  How did the relationship evolve?

West: Ashley was one of very few Black doctoral students in the field of special education. She sought out opportunities to confer with me about policy and advocacy and I began to seek out insight and guidance from her as to why there are so few Black students and professionals in our field and how I could work to support/recruit more.  Through many conversations about race—including Ashley’s candid sharing with me of her experiences, perceptions and idea, and through my reflection and inquiry—I increasingly understood what I did (do) not understand.  I knew I would never be the target of racism and thus, how could I possibly have any idea what it was like without asking and listening and reflecting?  I realized, for one, that never in my life have I had a Black teacher—not during my studies in K-12, college, master’s program nor doctoral program.  I had to ask myself why and what is the impact of that on how I see the world. 

At one point I asked Ashley if she would be my race coach. She agreed. To this day, I’m not sure I know what that means, and I’m not sure if the label “coach” is the right one, but what she offers is quite valuable to me. I know when I have questions about race and ethnicity I can turn to Ashley. I work to not be one more burden to her as a White person seeking answers—and we talk about that—which makes all the difference. It’s not Ashley’s job to educate me; it is my job to educate myself.  As another Black colleague said to me recently “I’m tired of being every White person’s Black friend.”

White: I worked with Jane through HECSE as well as other organizations and initiatives. In working with Jane to extend the footprint of special education advocacy, our conversations regarding special education and disability morphed into conversations about what was missing within special education and disability conversations. Jane and I talked but we listened to each other, too. I didn’t know how much at the time, but what I shared with Jane was demonstratively connected to my experiences as a student and educator, most specifically my experiences as an African American student and educator.  What I had experienced during P-12, my 11 years of teaching, and as a doctoral student had given me a honed lens on disability and race and the ways in which these concepts promoted long-standing inequities for students and individuals with disabilities, particularly Indigenous, Black American, and Hispanic students and adults. 

As I shared with her problematic components of our field and possible solutions, Jane began to think about the ways in which her personal experiences shaped her understanding of advocacy and her professional interests as well.  What we realized is that although our personal experiences were different in many ways, they also included commonalities that helped us to understand one another’s perspectives and, more importantly, why what mattered to us mattered to us.  In particular, Jane did not share my experiences related to race and disability, but she developed a deep understanding of my experiences by connecting them to her own and drawing upon her meaningful and often painful experiences and emotions to create a space of acknowledgement, compassion, and anger for mine. 

Q:  What are the characteristics of this relationship that make it work?

White: Cultural humility is defined as the “ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the [person]” (Hook, Davis, Owen, Worthington and Utsey, 2013, p. 2). Cultural humility includes a  lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, a desire to fix power imbalances, and an aspiring to develop partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998 as cited in Waters & Asbill, 2013).

I don’t know if a person can understand/learn how to exhibit cultural humility, particularly if they haven’t developed a general sense of humility in the first place. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to humble oneself amid the toppling of systems that represent one’s societal and sometimes personal conception of superiority and elitism. This wasn’t difficult for Jane, and I imagine that was because of the way that she had constructed the meaning and importance of her life.  Jane is so valuable because of her humility and willingness to listen in a world where she doesn’t necessarily have to.

West: Ashley and I share a bond for social justice. It is deep and perhaps at the core of why we get up in the morning. Though our life experiences have brought us to that passion from different circumstances, it is the ground we meet upon. In addition, we are both life-long learners. We hunger to understand more deeply—and that motivates our continued journey together.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Q&A on Thursday, July 23.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant