After Eric Garner: One School’s Courageous Conversation

Posted by Steven Becton on December 10, 2014

As I prepared to write this post, I had to confront the most difficult, yet most important, person that I would be in conversation with: myself.

I am an African American male with a 21-year-old son. I have always prided myself on staying "above the fray" in conversations about race. I try to find a place of mutual understanding, to give others the benefit of the doubt, and to attempt to see an experience from the other’s perspective. As a Facing History and Ourselves staff member for the past 13 years, and its Associate Program Director for Urban Education for the past four, I regularly facilitate conversations of this nature with students, educators, parents, and community leaders around the world.

After a New York grand jury decided not to bring an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner, I went back and again watched the video footage of Garner's final few moments during an attempted arrest in the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. I watched Garner breathe his last breath as several officers wrestled him to the ground, one with a chokehold that later proved lethal.

As Garner took his last breath, I nearly lost mine. I just could not make sense of it. I could not find that middle ground, that higher ground. For some reason, this particular incident was a trigger for me. It triggered anger, fear for my son, and outrage toward law enforcement. I started looking for simple answers, knowing that there aren’t any. I started looking for someone to blame, knowing no one person is at fault.

As I watched the video, I could not have a rational debate regarding whether the police actions were justified or legal. I saw a human being die a senseless death. It was breathtaking to watch. I felt something that I deemed worse than anger. I felt hopelessness.

But I knew that I could not stay there.

As a Facing History staff member, I needed to do what I ask our students to do. When confronting difficult historical moments or current events, I ask students to resist generalizations, to judge responsibly, to consider reliable sources, and to make conclusions without prejudice. I ask them to avoid retreating from uncomfortable conversations, to participate in them actively and thoughtfully instead. I could not resign myself to believe that black lives have less value than any other life. I could not live with the conclusion that all white police are racists. I did not want to assume that even the particular police in this specific event are racist. I do not know them. All of those conclusions were too simplistic. I knew that if I were to fall into the troubling pattern of seeing these experiences only from my own perspective, it would lead to drawing simplistic and divisive conclusions.

I needed to be in conversation with others.

I turned to my colleagues, my family, my friends, and to social media. I found a range of responses to the Garner verdict. Some people did not even know about the incident. Some were apathetic, more occupied with last-minute holiday shopping. Some expressed outrage for what they considered a murderous act at the hands of the police. Others sympathized with the very hard job that police have, and concluded that those involved in Garner's death were only doing their job that day. Still others thought that Garner should have been more compliant.

What was most revealing was that these opinions cut across racial lines. That was actually refreshing. In spite of news coverage suggesting something different, there is no monolithic response from the white or black community. The most common sentiment was that the death of Garner was sad and tragic. My personal hopelessness began to lift as I listened to others, and as we shared a common struggle to understand these events, and how to prevent them.

As I engaged in conversations with others, I was reminded of the privilege and responsibility of living in a democracy, even an imperfect one. I have the privilege of civil discourse that can lead to necessary change. I have the responsibility to listen to others without judging and labeling. We all need to be in conversations where we feel safe sharing our most vulnerable emotions, raising our most troubling questions, and listening to others’ perspectives, and are encouraged to act responsibly.

My colleague Karen Scher, a program associate in New York, brought me into such a conversation that she had the privilege of witnessing. The conversation took place last week in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies. The high school, which has about 580 students, regularly engages young people in difficult, critical discussions throughout the year.

On Thursday, December 4th, as tensions ran high in New York City and protesters filled the streets following the decision in the Garner case, about 80 Lab School students and 15 teachers and administrators met for what they called a "Courageous Conversation." In contrast to the tone outside of the high school, the conversation inside was open and honest, as members of the Lab School community addressed their fears, hopes, and concerns for their high school, as well as their world.

The conversation began with the administrators and teachers setting some ground rules: Students and staff were invited to speak, one at a time, when they received a "talking piece." The school community was encouraged to share what was on their minds and in their hearts in the days and weeks since the verdicts in both the Garner case and the decision not to indict a police officer in the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. And Assistant Principal Mark Berkowitz reminded students to stay engaged, speak their truth, and, perhaps most difficult, to try to expect and accept non-closure. With ground rules for the conversation in place, students began to share their most honest thoughts.

The group that day, just like the school itself, was diverse—Asian, white, black, and Latino students, from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds. So was the range of responses. Some students expressed fear, powerlessness, and anger; others expressed their disdain for what they saw as deeply rooted institutional racism playing out in their country. They shared their stories; they walked in each other’s shoes. One student explained that her family was afraid that, as a person of color, she was no longer safe. A white student shared how she struggled with the role that privilege plays, and how it made her feel a greater sense of responsibility. Others placed the incidents in historical context and raised questions about power relationships, as well as the role institutions can play in perpetuating racism.

This space was safe for those who were ready to move on from the national dialogue, as well as for those who sympathized with the police. There was a range of valid responses. Fortunately for the students at the Lab School, the administration has created a climate that’s conducive for courageous conversations like these.

"This is a school that has fostered community in its various spaces," Karen told me. "Students have the tools to listen to one another, students respect one another even if they disagree, and there is value in all of the voices in the room."

The Lab School, along with other schools in which Facing History works deeply, has made it a priority to create the kind of school climate that allows for a healthy response to difficult conversations. These schools embrace rigor while allowing room for a variety of emotional responses. The Lab School and others like it practice the habit of raising ethical questions that often do not have simple solutions. For example, the entire staff has engaged in a study of the text "Courageous Conversations about Race" by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton, and many members of the faculty are trained in restorative justice circles and anti-racist practices, all of which informed the dialogue that took place on December 4th.

The conversation that Karen witnessed did not happen by chance. The school and teachers place a priority on building trust between students, creating safe spaces for young people to have difficult conversations, developing student's voices, and preparing them to navigate difficult current events. At the Lab School and other Facing History schools, students take deep dives into historical case studies, which provide context while avoiding facile parallels between historical and today. This rigorous examination of history provides the critical thinking skills and nuance necessary for thoughtful engagement around current events.

Still, some may ask, To what end? What comes out of these conversations? Do they really help? Ask the faculty that attended the Lab School discussion. In the Courageous Conversation, some expressed feelings of anger and disillusionment. Yet, following the dialogue, many expressed feelings of hope. They saw possibilities for change in the students' dialogue. They found hope after seeing their students challenge stereotypes. The community committed to continue the dialogue weekly, to not let it go away once the media moves on.

And I can breathe again. I can hope again, not because I am any less troubled by the tragic loss of life. I find hope in knowing that there are many people who are trying their hardest to walk in someone else’s shoes. Many are trying to resist dehumanizing or making villains of those who have a different perspective. Many are trying to create safe, reflective classrooms and community space for civil discourse.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt has said that the essence of being human is participating in moral discourse with others:

The things of the world become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”

Here are a few takeaways for classroom teachers:

In addition to teaching about complex decision-making and difficult topics, educators must model appropriate behavior for civil dialogue. Students need to see the adults in their lives face troubling events with honesty, listen to one another, overcome differences, and refrain from the kind of polarizing conversations that tend to dominate national discourse.

  • Start with creating safe and reflective classrooms, so you are better prepared to have civil discourse when troubling things happen in the world. Here is a teaching strategy that can help you contract to have safe conversations in class.
  • Use pedagogical strategies that foster active listening.
  • Use primary source documents and a variety of other sources to help students clear the F.O.G. (separating Facts, from Opinions, from Generalizations).
  • Promote a climate of respect, create space for diverse viewpoints, model a culture of questioning, deepen reflection through journaling, and honor different learning.
  • Teach this way daily, not just when something newsworthy happens. The classroom is a place to practice democracy. Here are 60 student-centered teaching strategies that engage young people of all learning styles.

How do you help young people create safe space to discuss difficult issues? Comment below.

Topics: Classrooms, Teaching Strategies, Democracy, Students, Human Rights, Safe Schools, Teaching, Schools, News, Identity, Teaching Resources, Teachers

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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