By Elisa Gall
I’m excited to continue our RWW Interviews series today with a conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Denevi. Elizabeth is the Associate Director for Mid West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit that works with schools across the United States to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development. Before that, she served as Director of Studies and Professional Development at the Chicago school at which I work - and she is a current parent in my school community.
Elizabeth writes and presents nationally on topics of social justice, equity, and diversity as educational excellence. She recently co-founded (alongside Jenna Chandler-Ward) Teaching While White, a new blog and podcast resource for promoting racial literacy and helping educators build skills to create anti-racist classrooms. I look forward to learning from TWW and I hope everybody adds it to their resource lists and bookmarks toolbars.
How did you get started doing anti-racism work? What has changed over time?
I started when I was teaching ethnic studies courses. As I got more into American history and literature, it became impossible to ignore issues of race. I went back to do my PhD so I could study racial identity development and to develop strategies for teaching about racial identity and racism in schools. Unfortunately, not much has changed over 25 years. We are still struggling to understand how race affects teaching/learning. And most teachers do not know that racially diverse classrooms create higher levels of critical thinking.
Can you share with our readers your definition of “diversity?”
“Diversity” is simply the presence of difference. In a school context, we are referring to differences which impact learning. Since we can correlate racial identity development with academic achievement and the social construction of race in schools, we know that racial differences matter. We need to explore our own racial identity as teachers so we can help our students to explore theirs.
Can you tell us about your new site?
I felt like I needed a way to keep my Whiteness front and center in my work with schools. And I don’t like to do anything alone, so as Jenna and I continued to talk about the kind of work we wanted to do with teachers, this felt like the right way to go. Writing has always been a way for me to consolidate my thinking, so I was eager to try the blog format. And Michael Brosnan has been a wonderful writing partner for years as he published the first piece I ever wrote about being White. Jenna had the brilliant idea to do a podcast, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. I think it’s a very powerful medium that I’m eager to learn more about.
Who are your heroes, both within and outside the education world?
Oh, my. This will sound corny, but my husband, Randolph Carter, is one of my biggest heroes. He was a Black Panther and has spent his life working for social justice in all kinds of contexts. He never quits and never backs down. He is uncompromising when it comes to the lives of children and people of color in schools. And he has raised three amazing children.
In your opinion, can classrooms or libraries ever be “neutral?” Why or why not?
Absolutely not. This is such a critical issue. I am talking to teachers across the country who are terrified to talk about race or what is happening around race and ethnicity in our country right now. Most are White teachers who are scared to death of getting in trouble for saying or doing the “wrong thing.” They have seen their colleagues sanctioned, and even fired, for challenging racism and racial privilege in our current climate. They hope their silence, or even their decision to avoid any “controversial” topics, will keep them safe. The problem is that it’s an illusion. Because staying quiet is the same as keeping the status quo in place. And this collusion with racism extends way beyond classrooms and into administrative offices and boardrooms. The leadership structures are just as complicit, hoping they can just “go along to get along.” It’s an old story, but one that will always have the same ending. Teachers make choices every day what to teach. There is no generic curriculum. We have so much content out there, and we carefully choose what to teach based on many factors. Not one of those factors – be it our experience, identity, or location – is neutral.
Do you have a favorite children’s book to share? Can you recommend a professional book?
What a hard question! Because I’m a mom of multiracial kids, I love Black, White, Just Right because it names and affirms racial difference as just that -- different, not deficit. I’m also a huge fan of Todd Parr because his books do the same thing: affirm difference. For teachers, I love Mica Pollock’s work and Robin DiAngelo’s scholarship on White fragility. I’m also a fan of Paul Gorski because he has held our feet to the fire on promoting equity. He reminds us that our work to make schools more just and fair is not about “inclusion” or “cultural competence.” It’s about being excellent, informed, well-trained teachers who know how to manage all kinds of differences so all children can thrive.
What advice do you have for other White people working on anti-racist practices?
Challenge racism because it’s bad for White people. If you try to end racism for people of color, then you can choose to fight or not. And if you get tired, or it gets hard, you can stop. If you do it for you, because it’s the only way you can get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, then you won’t stop. And you will see why racism is bad for everyone. The effects of racism clearly impact White people and people of color differently. But as B. D Tatum noted, it’s a kind of smog, and we are all breathing the same air.