Professor Margaret Flores, Ph.D., BCBA-D, coordinator of the Special Education program in the College of Education’s Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling, worked over the summer with colleagues in the recently-formed Special Education Equity Working Group. The group’s membership includes Peggy Shippen, Kelly Brumbeloe Schweck, Alexcia Moore, and Christine Drew. All are faculty in the Special Ed program.
“Our program area met in June, trying to come up with ways that we could better address inequalities and inequities in educational and community systems,” Flores said. “We as faculty do things individually in our classes, but we never had a cohesive plan to ensure that all of our students leave with the kind of experiences that prepare them to address these issues in schools and communities in their professional lives. Our group is making the first steps to ensure that we all do that.”
In thinking about the best ways to develop meaningful conversations, the group focused on the idea that all students and teachers in the program might read a common book. They settled on So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.
“We chose this book because it is conversational, cuts across many topics, is inexpensive, and we have copies in LRC,” Flores said. “We will start the semester by each contributing a few minutes to a video introduction about what we hope to learn as we read the book. We want to approach this by coming from the assumption that we are all starting at the bottom. We do not want our students to feel like we – their instructors – are coming from any sort of superior or enlightened position. We want to explore issues of race in our society together, and have honest, forthright conversations that will help them when they leave us and go into the schools.”
Flores said the Special Ed program is made up mostly of white women, both students and professors. She wants her students to know there are abundant resources to begin the educational process.
“It’s important as white people that we educate ourselves, and not put the onus of that on people of color,” she said. “It is not fair to ask them to bring their trauma and daily experiences into our classroom just to educate us. There are abundant resources for us to learn on our own, and we want our students to feel free to honestly confront these difficult realities.”
The group plans to have a different book every semester that explores a new theme or type of inequality after starting out with race. Other topics will include LGBTQ and trans experiences, the school-to-prison pipeline, or the inequalities present in Special Education itself.
They are also scheduling safe zone training sessions, one for undergrads, one for grad students, and one for professors.
“We don’t want our students feeling like they have to do this because their professors want them to. We want them to feel comfortable in their own environment.”
Dr. Brandi Smith has been generous with her time in presenting the safe zone training.
Flores emphasized that the group in no way feels that making such small but intentional efforts to educate students about inequity should be celebrated. However, she does state that we, as citizens in an unjust society, must all begin somewhere.
“Our goal in doing this is to give our students the tools to recognize inequity when they see it,” she said. “As white people, and as people of privilege, we don’t always have the experience, or language, or vocabulary to see and deal with it. It’s easy to ignore. We must learn how to speak up. And we, as faculty members, very much acknowledge that our own voices could have been stronger through the years.”
Since people have already written about their experiences and explored how to use right actions in wrong situations, the working group knows the importance of learning from these voices. No one needs to come in and “set things straight,” she said.
“Nothing has highlighted the disparities across our community and the larger world than the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing instances of police brutality over the past several months,” she said. “If we are to have a culture of equality in our program, we must regularly engage in activities, practices, and learning.”
“We are coming into this, both as students and as their instructors, assuming that we are all oblivious to a lot of issues related to inequities,” Flores concluded. “The pandemic just made it all the more glaring. Each year there is video evidence of police brutality and other violence against Black people. We cannot view them as “isolated” or assume appropriate change will come. The multiple blatant acts of murder and violence witnessed over the past few months were a call to action. I look forward to all of us growing together, and helping our students become better teachers with the kind of awareness we need going forward to make our society more equitable and just.”