Dr. Joy DeGruy calls herself an “ambassador for healing.” When the widely-traveled author and speaker delivered the keynote address to the event “Supporting Black Student Success” which was co-sponsored by Chalkboard Project and KairosPDX, she shared a wide-ranging view on racism and education.
DeGruy is the author of the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome—America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, which explores the deep trauma of slavery and segregation on the African-American community. A faculty member at Portland State University with more than two decades of experience in social work, she also has deep roots in Portland.
Speaking at the May event in Portland, DeGruy examined the education achievement gap through the lens of history. She provided a multi-faceted context to the question of why so many black students struggle in the education system nationally and specifically in Oregon.
Afterwards DeGruy shared more of her thoughts about “healing” education in a one-on-one interview with Chalkboard. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
At the Supporting Black Student Success event, you spoke eloquently about Oregon’s history of institutional racism. How do you see that history impacting lives of today’s children of color?
The history of segregation in this country separated everyone and created the idea of ‘othering’ people. We know in Oregon that black people were excluded from living in certain areas, and that where they did get to live, they got sub-standard housing and jobs and education.
Black people have figured how to thrive in a hostile environment, where they don’t feel wanted or safe. Those stressors have become a part of daily living for families. So when children feel that stress, it follows them into the classroom. And when teachers don’t understand that reality, the students get labeled developmentally delayed, oppositional-defiant, hyperactive, etc.
How can teachers do a better job of connecting with their students of color?
They have to engage the students in ways that appreciate their experience and that see the world through their lens. Whenever I engage with young people of color, I engage them in ways that helps them realize they have intrinsic value despite being in a system that may not be fair.
This is not complicated. You check in with them: ‘How are you doing? What’s happening? Anything we need to talk about?’ Now, sometimes you get teachers who say that’s not their role, that’s not their responsibility. They have to open their eyes to what’s really going on!
When I visit successful education programs around the country, I see master teachers who can integrate their students’ social and cultural realities into the learning experience. These teachers have high expectations. Their kids feel honored and cherished and loved, and they want to achieve. And not all these teachers are black—they connect because they ‘get it.’
There is lot of talk in public education about “equity.” What does the word mean to you?
That’s an interesting question, because the concept doesn’t seem that deep to me. It’s telling the truth. It’s making certain that what is honest, just, and fair is on the front line of what’s driving an institution.
People can talk as much as they want about equity, but what they have to do is put in place the structures and policies that enable folks to function given that knowledge of the truth. Equity has to be figured into a pragmatic approach towards finding solutions to our problems.
What needs to be done to support this sort of pragmatic approach to equity in education?
We have to fight for our schools. We need leadership. We already have good people that have stepped up into these positions. We need more people with political savvy, and with mental, emotional and spiritual fortitude. We need leadership with stability and longevity for change to be sustainable. Otherwise we’re constantly reinventing the wheel.
- Student Success
- Equity and Diversity
- Quality Educators