Where do we go from here? A conversation with EMU professor Dr. Rema Reynolds about needed approaches and reforms in education and how to raise racial awareness and understanding.

A protest sign reads "The Future is Our to Create"

YPSILANTI – This week, the EMU Today news hub continues its look at what needs to be done to move our country to a better place in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Here is a conversation, with the national protests as backdrop, about needed educational reforms with Rema Reynolds, an Eastern Michigan University professor of leadership and counseling and an expert on educational systems and developing school leaders.

Rema Reynolds
Dr. Rema Reynolds

Q and A with Dr. Rema Reynolds

Q: What must be done in our education system to increase racial empathy and understanding? 

Reynolds: I see three separate issues here. First, we need to talk about race and racism explicitly across all institutions, disciplines, grade levels, and P-20 curriculums. 

For example, I run a student voice program in Detroit with a recent graduate of EMU, Dr. Clyde Barnett. We talk to 10th, 11th and 12th graders about everything. 

Since February, we’ve been discussing discipline policies, dress codes, and the school to prison pipeline. And then COVID-19 happened. Our discussions moved online and became even more critical

COVID-19 has really influenced and impacted their personal lives and families. In one meeting, a girl's grandmother was trying to figure out how to recover her daughter’s body from the hospital. So what happens now, when you don't have a funeral, you can't all go to the burial?  All these things we take for granted. Here, we're having a meeting about student leadership and transformative change, and her grandmother is figuring out how to bury her daughter. That’s a lot to deal with, right? 

Black communities are being hit harder than everyone else in terms of health disparities, in terms of the lack of quality health care and the lack of quality and nutritious food.

We can’t talk about COVID-19 without talking about the health effects of structural racism. Here we're having a conversation about why family members and church members and friends are dying, and race doesn’t just come into the conversation – it’s always been there. It’s in the fabric of what we are dealing with and why we are dealing with it. 

Race can’t just be something we talk about in a one-off training. It’s always there. So in this project designed to lift student voices and encourage their leadership, racism had to come up because racism affects their voices, affects their leadership, affects their families, affects them. So, if you find yourself in a conversation or a lesson, ask how racism plays a role. Chances are it’s there, even if no one is bringing it up. You can bring it up.

Empathy is a different matter, the second issue I see here. You can know all these things about race and racism, and how minoritized populations are disproportionately affected. But it's hard to get to empathy when all of our schooling is normed on competition.

It's not really popular to be empathetic. It's actually more popular not to empathize with other people, and more advantageous to compete with one another. Our schools are structured on this false conceptualization of meritocracy, meaning our empathy is consistently eroded, if we even had it in the first place. If we didn’t watch Mister Rogers or Sesame Street as children, I don’t know ...

I think what’s needed is a collective school model where we depend on one another. Where we're thinking of positioning teachers as co-instructors and co-learners with students, and students as co-learners and co-instructors, I think that would be a way to teach empathy. It has to be intentionally taught.

And the third piece is understanding, that is, critical thinking. How are we creating critical thinkers who question the whys and hows of a phenomenon? Are we teaching students to ask critical questions, practice Socratic inquiry, to analyze social issues? I would say no. Rote memorization can be found in AnySchool, USA.

Here’s a justice issue that needs questioning: Nationally, we spend over $70 billion dollars on corrections yearly. Right now in Michigan, we pay at least $20,000 more to imprison a Michigander than we do to educate a Michigander. What are our priorities? Our values? If you couple spending practices with the Right-to-Read law that was just rescinded, and the corporatization of prisons, the proliferation of private prisons, is it surprising that over 86% of all those who are incarcerated are illiterate? What are your chances for doing something legitimate to care for yourself and family if you cannot read? What connections can we make here?

Connections between what occurs in schools and what happens to adults, and then an examination of the ways taxpayers’ dollars are spent – that's the understanding piece. Are certain populations who don't have access to literacy targeted in ways that other people with access are not? If so, how?

I wonder if we really try to understand. If so, somewhere along our P-20 education we need to learn and teach critical questioning and inquiry. We’d encourage students to be curious, to decipher meaning and uncover undergirding principles and policies that shape our realities.

Even just listening to one another's stories and valuing stories and experiential data as data, I think, is really important. 

Oftentimes, we don't take the time to connect with folks and have relationships where we could even get to racial understanding, or that we could see not just what is on the outside of us, but what is inside, to see our connectedness and interdependence.

Q: To what degree can our federal leaders influence the changes you outline?

Reynolds: Through funding equitable schools and developing curriculum that is actually culturally responsive and inclusive. I think that federally and at the state level, we have done a disservice to disproportionately poor and minoritized populations. 

And I think what doesn't get talked about a lot is low-income white students. In rural Michigan, they are often faring worse than those who are always touted as the poster children for all things failure, Detroiters. 

Federal and state leaders conversing about equitable structures and funding policies would be beneficial to everyone. 

Q: What sort of classes or training would you recommend?

Reynolds:  EMU offers a Leading for Equity and Justice certificate program. We're the first to have such a program. Through co-constructed modules, we address transformative leadership, social justice leadership, culturally responsive leadership, community leadership, and racially responsive leadership. 

And we are doing pretty well. There is a real demand for the programming at this racial awakening moment we are in. We had three sessions scheduled over the summer, and two sections each session. There were six sections with about 25 people within them. And the people are grassroots organizers, politicians, educators, consultants, board members, parents – there's all kinds of people in this certificate program. 

Since last week, with all that has happened with the protests and rebellions, we had 50 people on the waiting list. So we've had to add three new sections. People are really hungry and wanting to know what leadership steps they can take to address and redress, and eliminate and dismantle inequities in their schools. And not just in their schools, but in their communities, within our larger society.

Especially during COVID-19, people need to reimagine and rethink schools online, in an environment that gets them to engage with people across the state, across the nation, and across the globe. 

I do wish more of my higher ed colleagues would experience the certificate. We need persistent development. Sure, I’ve devoted my entire life to thinking about race and racism, otherness, equity in access, and justice and fairness and what that all looks like in schools for minoritized people. But am I an expert? Absolutely not. 

Cultural competence or proficiency is a fallacy. Culture shifts all the time. And so I have to be a continual learner.

I think we get into these spaces, particularly in higher education, where we feel like we know. And now we're the expert, and now we're creating knowledge, without ever going back to figure out what new knowledge is being created that could add and scaffold into our existing knowledge. 

Equity should undergird all we do. We, as practitioners and scholars, need to continue our learning. One-off trainings are wholly insufficient.

But I also think it's also imperative that we change preparation programs. Right now, if you do a survey of leadership programs across the state, most of their “diversity courses” are electives. Eastern is the only program I can find that requires what we would call a multicultural, pluralistic class. For everyone else, you can elect to take it or not. 

I teach Ed EDLD 513. It's a family and community engagement course. When I got the course, “parents” meant white, middle-class parents. The whole class endeavored to train principals on how to engage white, middle-class parents. Problematic.

So, yes, you could teach a class like that. They get taught all the time. It's a general class, not a “diversity” class, right? But why would you do that? There is now a module on Asian parents, a module on Latinx parents, a module on Black parents, on parenting children with disabilities and schooling implications for those folks. If you’re not thinking about who isn’t represented in your teaching, then you're teaching from a white-centered, middle-class paradigm. 

We have to hire folks who are doing that work. They don't have to necessarily look like me. But they have to be dedicated to doing that work, to changing the curriculum by which we prepare our educators. 

So, I wouldn't say a class or a training. The learning ever evolves. We have to do way better in our preparation programs. And then in our P-20 classrooms. How we doing this work across all contexts, in social work, in business and in psychology, how are we addressing minoritized issues? 

Are we just teaching one way? I used to hear all the time that good theory is good theory. Good leadership is good leadership. Well, good for whom? For whom is it not good? 

Q: Are there specific geographic areas where such training is particularly needed? 

Reynolds:  It’s needed in all geographic areas, all types of schools. I’ll offer a personal example. 

I grew up in a small, southern Michigan town called Sturgis. My brother and I were often the two Black kids in school. I got an early education in racism. 

The first day of kindergarten, a boy called me the n-word. I beat him up. They sent me home. That's a problem, one, because it's half a day. I feel like they could've just let me stay. It's just a half a day. Sheesh. But then secondly, the boy didn't receive punishment, other than the ones I gave him. 

My mother asked the principal, “What's going on with him? Is he being suspended?” The principal said no, “He's bruised. He's battered. He's beaten. He's not getting suspended.”

My mother further probed, “Well didn't he call her the n-word?” The leader of the school said, “Well yeah, but that's not the same as hitting someone.” I believe racial slurs are violent. Incendiary words penetrate and leave deeper wounds than temporary bruises. 

So in that moment, the principal had an opportunity to one, heal me, the one who was racially traumatized. She missed that opportunity. 

She also missed an opportunity to address race and racism with the boy, at the very least, but also to the school. I mean, my brother and I are THE two Black kids. Could she not forecast the necessity for instruction and guidance around how we needed to be treated, on how we might be the same or different from our peers? It was a missed opportunity to educate, but also was derelict in that she didn't protect me. 

I fought several fights throughout my school years, because there weren't consequences for people saying racist things to me, or doing racist things to me. I had to defend myself, my humanity, when the adults in the building should have been doing that work. 

And so, years later, on Facebook, all those kids (in my school) are now grown-ups. And they befriend me. And they're in my inbox, apologizing for this and apologizing for that, and feeling guilty and shameful, which I think is awesome. 

The real shame, however, is that if they had known better, they could have done better. School officials failed them as much as they failed me. 

And so there isn't a specific place. Classism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia have to be taught and retaught everywhere, all the time. White folks are victims of white supremacy and whiteness in ways that we don't often recognize. You can look at the international resistance now to see that we're all affected when people don't learn how to respect one another. 

We need to do this work everywhere. All the time.

Q: What is the result of a lack of education in these areas? How do you see that playing out around the nation today? 

Reynolds: The result is where we are. I see it playing out on Twitter, CNN, and our local news. People are upset. They're hurt. They're angry. And so this lack of education is landing us here, where we're continuing to repeat, over and over, the same social atrocities and reactions to those atrocities. It took me earning a Ph.D. at UCLA to really understand, on a systems level, what I was experiencing as a child and as an adult. 

It shouldn't take that long. Why couldn't I have learned those things in sixth grade? I read the autobiography of Malcolm X in eighth grade, and it was mind-blowing. Because I was able to see, oh, this is not just my problem. Other people are having this problem in different ways around racism. It was illuminating. We need to shine similar light on policing.

At a systems level, we need to think about policing, not just the history, but where we are now. Ponder the different models of policing, community policing, and why some police officers aren’t methodically exposed to culturally responsive training. Nationwide, 81% of police agencies require only a high school diploma to be hired. That's it. Cosmetologists are required to have more training hours to beautify than police officers who are charged with serving and protecting diverse communities.

Recruits who don't have a two-year degree or a four-year degree and have not been exposed to newer, culturally respectful frameworks through extensive training are likely to adopt and enact policing models that have been systemically and historically oppressive and abusive to Black people. Writer and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander breaks this down in her work.

We're in this moment because there is a lack of education. There is a lack of education for the people who are lawmakers, policymakers, our leaders, and our police. Until we intervene with education, we'll continue experiencing more of the same. We need disruptions. 

At Eastern, I've been heartened by the president's messages around this, and his bravery in naming anti-blackness, and then specifically saying that this is not a people of color situation and that a particular group of Americans is being targeted. That’s really important and brave. Leaders have followed his lead – the provost, my dean, all courageously, unequivocally saying Black lives matter.

And I've so appreciated EMU being a pioneer in different ways, around education, and thinking about equity and access and inclusion and belonging and safety for all our students.  

And I'm heartened, also, about being asked to talk about this moment and what it means for Black students and for Black faculty who have been targeted for different reasons, but who are also feeling the pain that those folks who are out resisting feel.

I end my classes asking students to give me one word to characterize how they felt about our time together. My one word today is: hopeful.

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

June 10, 2020

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Media Contact:
Geoff Larcom