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'You need to hear that I matter': Equity educators help to frame discussions around race

Darlene Sampson and Colleen Toomey, principal analysts at the Western Educational Equity Assistance Center, discuss systemic racism, Black Lives Matter and more.

DENVER — Systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, civil rights and facilitating open discussion are among the topics discussed by two principal analysts at Metropolitan State University of Denver's Western Educational Equity Assistance Center.

The Western Educational Equity Assistance Center works with K-12 schools and school districts to conduct civil rights work.

The analysts, Darlene Sampson and Colleen Toomey, sat down with 9NEWS to talk about equity and unrest this year — and reflect on a way forward for the movement.

(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: What would you tell a person who has a problem with the phrase: Black Lives Matter?

Darlene: I’d ask, what are you concerned about? What does it mean to you? Do you think it means nobody else matters? Do you understand why people feel they have to say that? I am going to be more likely right now to say I think you need to go and reflect about what that means for you and what happens to you when you hear that. What does it mean to you? It simply means, because of what’s happened – because Black men are more likely to be killed by police, because our educational systems are a challenge for kids of color, because life has been unfair and unequal, people need to say it – they need to make a declarative statement – and sometimes it means I matter. And so you need to hear that I matter. And if that’s a challenge for you, then I think you need to understand and dig deeply and reflect about why that is an issue.

Colleen: I would approach that by saying, what is it about that statement that’s triggering or upsetting to you? I think it is important to remember that the statement, the phrase, the movement – Black Lives Matter – does not suggest or mean that all lives don’t matter. But, it does mean that historically, currently, Black lives have not had as much value in our society as other races and ethnicities. And we see that in the history of our country. And so, we can go back 400 years and have the same kinds of things happening. So, we have to remember that mattering is the minimum. And we want to work to center Black voices because they always haven’t had the opportunity  to be centered or seen as having value.”

Darlene: And some people get afraid because just like there’s bias about other kinds of things, they’re attributing a lot of negative things to a movement that has supported and pushed and cared about Black lives mattering. And so, I just think that you really have to do your homework and see – sometimes understand that some of this is propaganda. And some of this is made to make people feel afraid – it’s demonizing Black folks, when they say their lives matter. We have to dissect things when we hear them – like Colleen says – look at a lot of other things – think through what you’re really seeing. Because, as we even look at the protests – Black Lives Matter will anchor the protest – they’ll work hard in getting things done. And, next thing I know, it’s co-opted. It’s been changed. But, we do know that the statement Black Lives Matter is from a place of, ‘I matter.’ And, please pay attention to that, and understand that I will push and prod and ask that my life matters.”

How does systematic racism compare to individual racism?

Darlene:  Systemic racism: It is complex and it is everywhere. It’s in housing, if you’re choosing to get along. It’s in educational systems. It’s in how you walk the Earth, if someone is profiling you in the store. It is a part of the complexities of life. It’s everywhere. What do you think Colleen?

Colleen: Yeah, I agree. I think that systemic racism is really designed into the fabric of so many of the institutions we know and utilize. So, thinking about health care, thinking about politics. Who has power and privilege? It’s often people who have white skin, are in leadership roles. And, they are then the ones working to make decisions and set up systems that the rest of us have to navigate. And so when the systems are designed that way, it can be hard to break that, break those molds.

RELATED: Arrest disparity: Colorado’s Black population 3.5X more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts

What advice can you give to people who want to discuss their disagreements in a constructive way?

Darlene: You know, I was thinking the other day about when I do a podcast or I prepare for a virtual conference, I do my homework first. I don’t just start talking. And, I understand the subject matter. So, it’s the same when we discuss issues of race. Because, it’s challenging and it can bring up a lot of issues. Any issue of marginalized folks or vulnerable populations:  read, look at a podcast, try to understand better so the conversation flows better and that you can talk intelligently and with empathy about what’s going on. So, don’t go just blindly into something. Do some work first, so that you have respect of the person and what they’re going through.

Colleen: Yeah, I think additionally, like, building off of what Darlene said, is also thinking about, how do we find source material that’s different than what we normally consume? And so for me, I know it’s very easy for me to just consume media from other white people. And so, I have to be intentional about: Who do I follow on Twitter? What kinds of feeds am I looking at on my social media platforms? Who am I talking to? Who’s in my circle? And, to your question Jeremy, on how we have some of these conversations, I think intentionality around this space, setting some ground rules for how we can have a productive conversation, making sure that people feel valued and matter. But, at the same time, it’s a tricky balance because what gets hard is when – when we’re talking about identity, we’re talking about people. That can get really – you know – it’s a slippery slope, if we’re attacking other people and attacking their values or principles. So, it’s such an important distinction to draw.

Darlene: And when you decide that you want to talk to people about things that are challenging, there are some sentence stems. We can help you with that. It has to be from your ‘I statements’ of: I’m wondering if…, how are you feeling? I’ve been concerned. But, you know what – you got to have a relationship with people first. If you have been in an office setting, and after George Floyd was killed – that you have not said one word before that date to another Black person in the office or even to another white person about anything to do with equity and race you got to do some thinking and soul-searching about: Why haven’t I thought about some of these challenging issues in the media, police brutality, educational issues? What have I talked about and what do I care about? So, in order to do that and to be ready, think about what your goal is. What’s your goal for wanting the conversation? Because, you can trigger people. And, while you’re asking the question, they may be harmed over and over by these questions. And, we can’t always – for me as a Black woman – I get tired. I get racially fatigued. And, so it’s so helpful when you do your own work.

Colleen: It’s not always the responsibility of people of color to teach white people about racism. And so, making sure for me. Darlene is a colleague of mine. She’s a trusted colleague that I turn to for a lot of advice. But, you know, I have learned in working with her for the past couple of years, like, what do I need to do first, right? And how do I need to get educated about some of these different issues so that I can really best prepare myself for our conversation. And also respect. If it’s not the right time, I think that’s the other piece of this, too. We need to ask and say, hey, how do you feel about having a conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement today? And respecting the fact that, if they’re not there ready today – that’s okay. And I think doing this work in community is really important. But, we also have to respect those boundaries and that racial fatigue that Darlene was speaking about.

Darlene: And sometimes I go to Colleen and say, what do you think about this? But, we’re not a monolith. As a white woman, as a Black woman, I don’t speak for all Black people. But, I constantly am asked to speak for all Black people. What do you think Black people think? Well, I’m just one Black person. Although we have some themes that run through our culture, what is it that is common to us. But, I can’t speak for all Black people. I speak for me. I speak for the themes that run through ourselves culturally. But, we’re not a monolith. So, when I go to Colleen, it’s her perspective, knowing that she’s talking from where she comes from and I speak where I come from.

Colleen, as a white woman speaking to other white people – maybe family members or friends that have different views – how do you approach those conversations?

Colleen: Sure, it can be really challenging. I think, approaching from a lens of education, a lens of compassion is really, really critical to this work. And so – and knowing that not every conversation is going to get someone as far as they need to be – that it’s often multiple conversations. I can think back to a friend of mine who is also a white woman but was raised in a really lower, lower class home. And, she had a really hard time for such a long time really coming to understand what it meant to have white skin. And, how that gave her privilege – even though her lower-class identity was marginalized. So, it’s taken really a couple of years of work in some of these conversations around privilege and power and seen some of that resistance to this work. And I had it myself, when I first started learning about white privilege, white fragility, what it means to have white skin in America and what benefits it gives me. And, so I’m also kind of able to talk about my own story and talk about my own journey and how that journey continues. I don’t think I’m ever going to be done with this work. And so that’s the other piece of this that I think is really humanizing – when I can share – hey, I’ve struggle with this, too. It can really, hopefully open up some eyes – to know that you know, we all struggle with these things. And, when we commit to them and we start to open our eyes to the systems that exist, we can really start to work to make change.

Darlene: I was thinking about Colleen talking about her perspective in terms of whiteness. I have to work up and over on myself as well as a Black woman. I constantly have to think about how I feel. How do I monitor? How do I switch? I have to work on my feelings. I have been very, very sad – very, very hurt in the last 3 or 4 months – more than I have ever been – and I’m 100 years old. I’m like – what is going on here in terms of this world? It’s been very, very hurtful. And I also have been also proud to see the social justice action out there. But, I absolutely want to see oppression looked at – and racism in a closer perspective – not just in terms of statues and signs. And so, I’m really hoping that this will look differently next year as I worry as things open up – we have a vaccine – the pandemic looks like it’s moving away – will people still have that same consciousness, the same that I’ve had all along? I’ve always had to worry about the same things. But, just lately I saw an opening. And, I hope that it’s authentic. And, I hope it means something. So, I still have to work on myself every day. But, mine is now working on – not only my knowledge and understanding – but also working through some of the hurt that I have been feeling.

During this year’s civil unrest, you may have heard people say, ‘I don’t see color.’ How do you handle that statement?

Darleen: I laugh at first, because you see my brown beautiful skin. And, when we say we don’t see color, you’re saying, Dr. Sampson’s invisible. Not only is she invisible, I don’t understand what she goes through. I don’t know her life. And, I think people intentionally say that, because they mean well. Or, they don’t want to deal with it. But, when you say you don’t see color, you don’t see me. And, you don’t see my life. And, you don’t see what I deal with.

Colleen: Yeah, my answer is very similar in that it’s very problematic and harmful. But, I do think it’s well-intended – that people, and so many people are socialized around not seeing difference, don’t name difference. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to categorize people. But, when we say we don’t see color, it’s a very common microaggression. People of color hear that all the time. And, it really does not, not allow us to see the wholeness of that individual for example. And so, I think it is a well-intended statement, but it does cause harm, and over a time can really build. So, I do think it’s important to address it.

Darlene: I think people tie it to, ‘I’m being disrespectful to.’ And, that’s not what it is. It’s actually being very respectful, very empathic, in order to see people for how they are. And not just about color – differently-abled people, differently skin-toned people, people of size – which I call substantial. So, what is it that we’re looking at? We really want to say we see it – but, I’m not going to interact – or use my biases. I’m going to be conscious about my biases – because we all have them. I’ll be the first to say I have bias. We all have to work on it. And, as we think about what our biases are, and we are more able to open up and see things for what they are, then we’re more able to interact and pay attention to ways to engage people in authentic conversations.

How would someone in an organization work with white leaders to center racial justice work in their organization?

Colleen: I think that this takes, takes work. And, it takes commitment. And, it takes people from all levels of an organization expressing that commitment and showing up. So, it’s not just sending out a statement that Black Lives Matter. But, it’s really taking a look at policy, at practice, at hiring. Who’s a member of that organization? Who gets past the first round of resume reviews? Things like that. And so, I think about pieces in my past where I’ve seen some needs around racial justice work. It’s approaching the leaders and saying, ‘this is what I’m seeing.’ Have we talked to other folks in the office? Have we worked to center the voices of folks of color in our organization? How are they able to provide feedback? Do they feel like they can? So, those are some ways to start – to really look at policy, procedure, practice. And also, to really go to the powers that be to start having those conversations.

Darlene: And look at your data. Because, your disparities and disproportionality data tell you what’s already happening. It’s already in front of our faces. We sort of know when there are areas where we have lots of gaps. Do do a gap analysis. Do an anti-racism assessment and an organizational assessment. We work in schools. And, I always say, ‘Who are the students who are getting what they need? Who are the students who are not receiving what they need? Who is being suspended the most? What gender is receiving equal services across that?’ And, we don’t just want equality – which is what everybody gets. We want equity – which sometimes we have to add different pieces and layers and support to meet the needs of generational harm, systems of oppression, and just what a student maybe needs in general. So, that’s great. But, most of the places I’ve worked, I’ve sometimes been the only Black person, the only Black person in that role. And I always have to bring it up. Because, I see it. I need other people to be there with me at the table. And, as they look around the table, think about who’s not here, in terms of differently-abled. People can talk about someone who’s experiencing homelessness, someone who can talk about budgets. And, how do we embed equity. So, it’s got to be a lot of us, a lot of us have to do it. And it can’t just be the person who feels it, or the person of color. It has to be white people speaking up, too. And, Asian people speaking up – and people who are different – that’s what diversity is.

Say a co-worker says something offensive, and you want to talk about it. How do you approach that situation?

Darlene: It happens all the time.

Colleen: I mean, it’s so contextual. So, I guess I should start there. If we see – like, let’s say something is said in a meeting that triggers someone – causes some harm – is a microaggression. It is important to address those things as they happen sometimes. But, follow-up is always needed. And, I think it’s also knowing our colleagues, too. And, knowing how they like to receive feedback, how they like to have these conversations. And, really working around some of those pieces. But, I think leaders should be cognizant as they’re in meetings and guiding conversation, reading body language, looking at the different ways that people are responding to what’s happening in the room. So, there’s so many pieces at play. But, when we don’t address it, we allow it to continue, right? Or, we normalized that it’s okay. And, that is problematic.

Darlene: Yeah. When you see my eyes flash, that means that it’s not going well. I’m just kidding. But, what I wanted to say, too is that when I’ve had to discuss really tough challenges and issues at work or any job that I’ve had, sometimes I have to wait. I can call the person in, which means I’m going to say, ‘tell me more. I want to hear your perspective.’ Because sometimes – as a Black woman – if I’ve heard these things over and over in my life, if there’s been triggers over and over – there’s problems over and over or disconnect, or people are dismissive to me – it’s not the first time. So, it feels different for me. And it’s cumulative. And, it could be hurtful. So, sometimes I have to be quiet. And sometimes, I have to call out and say, ‘What you just said is hurtful. That is not appropriate. As we’re talking about this group, that is not how we speak about people. I want to understand more about where you’re coming from.’ So, it really just depends on what it is. Because, there’s sometimes I absolutely can reach out and I’m anchored and ready to help people with their thinking. And, sometimes it’s so inappropriate I have to say so.

Colleen: Right, I think even if say, this happened in a meeting, asking someone, ‘what do you mean by that?’ And we may hear a lot of the time, ‘I’m just joking’, ‘I’m just kidding.’ But, really saying why that is upsetting for others, or could be upsetting for others – really working to challenge some of this behavior. There’s so many things that as a society we say without thinking about the impact, right? And so, when we can – when we can start as folks who are working towards racial justice, gender justice, all of these different -isms and pieces of oppression that we’re navigating all the time, we can really start to normalize how to intervene. And, I think that is a crucial piece, especially for folks how have privilege in the room. Because again, it shouldn’t always fall to the people of color, to the queer people, to the women, to have to say something when something racist, sexist is said.

Darlene: Sometimes Colleen and I have talked about this. It’s subtle. So, we could be offering a service or workshop and I could say something with my expertise and all of my years of experience. And, they’ll differ to Colleen first because they feel more comfortable with her speaking because the majority of people that we train are white. And so, sometimes you’ll see it. And, we know it as we work in our diversity work. But, we share – because we share a trust with each other and respect for each other. We equally try to make sure the people know, we both have expertise. And, we’re both bringing it to the platform. And, it’s all authentic. And, we’ve done a great job. And, we have done the work. We both do the work well. And, so we sometimes have to do those kinds of things as well. Because, it can be subtle. And, people are unconscious about how they do that. And, they’re talking to me and they turn to Colleen to ask her the same question.

What are some good resources for understanding what’s currently going on in terms of police brutality and the anger and hurt that Black people feel?

Colleen: Yeah, there’s a wonderful podcast called ‘Pod Save the People’ – that really has spoken a lot of truth to power over the last several years – but, done a lot of work this summer around what’s been happening in our country and the unrest and the calls for racial justice. And so, the host is DeRay Mckesson who was on the ground in Ferguson in 2014 when Michael Brown was killed. And so, he has a history of activism and a history of doing this work within communities. And so, he bring on a lot of guests to talk about things that are happening In the movement. But, also looking at the data and looking at ways to work with police departments around the country to remove some of these practices that have been harmful and have led to increased deaths.”

Darlene: And I think the book, So You Want To Talk About Race, kind of helps with some of the conversations – how to start conversations, how to develop a relationship with yourself. Like, ‘where do I come from? What do I think?’ And then also, Understanding Privilege is a good book. And I think Kendi’s book about How To Be An Anti-Racist is an excellent place to start. But, there’s so many podcasts and so many webinars and there’s so much to look at – courses out there – virtual courses to take. So, do some homework first – great Netflix videos – movies. So, there’s just a lot that we can do to get ready to have the conversations. And, do them ongoing. If you open up – asking people about how they really feel and you haven’t asked them before, they may tell you a lot. And it may get strong. They may feel tough and hard, but it’s what they’ve been feeling. So, if you’re going to open it up, you better be ready to hear people’s real feelings. And you can’t minimize it: ‘Oh, it’s not that bad. Oh, look at the social protests. Oh…’ But, let me tell you, it’s bad. And if you’ve been walking the earth as a person of color or of difference, it’s always been a challenge. And so, be ready to hear real thoughts and feelings. And, don’t try to shut it down. You got to hear it. And, you have to. Your first go-to is empathy and understanding and listening.

Colleen: I think again, read from sources that are different than ones you normally consume. Broaden your perspective as to who else might be doing some of this work. Look at the community organizers in your area and see what sort of supports they need from people. Consider those leaders that you may not have thought of and how you might be able to support their work, whether that is being present, whether that is financially, whether that’s assisting. There are so many ways we can assist these movements and do this work in community.

Darlene: And I think write a journal, too. How have I been? Who am I? What did I learn about people who are different growing up? Because, that still anchors in us, as we’re adults. What do I think about particular groups? What are some feelings and biases I have to talk about? What are some of the issues I faced? Who’s in my world that’s different than me? Because we often know, there’s been several studies that suggest that white people don’t have as much diversity in their world sometimes. People of color have to and have. And so, think about who’s in your world. Who helps you with the perspective? Can you talk to them authentically about what’s happening in the world? And, I think family and friends are some of the first people to go to. And they’re some of the first who may bring different perspectives. And, you will still be loved after you have a disagreement. Sometimes it’s bad. But, most of the time you can get through it because you’re going to have the relationship, ongoing. So, check yourself, too. Name yourself. How do you describe yourself? If you can’t name yourself, how do you name other people or think about their differences? There’s a lot of things to do, that you can do to start the process, sometimes even before developing the relationship outside of who you are. But, I think it can be done simultaneously. You could still reach out to others in many different ways. Just speak to people. Do you know how many times I’ve walked this earth and people turn their head, they look the other way, they feel uncomfortable. The invisibility of looking at people with difference is there, and it’s relevant to how people of color feel connecting with you. So, that’s a place to start as well.

RELATED: For months they organized marches against racial inequality. Now they want to see change.

How do you respond constructively to someone who says, ‘If you just work hard enough, you can do whatever you want to do?

Colleen: Yeah, I think this is another one of those beliefs, this myth of meritocracy that’s in the way we’ve been socialized in this country. For those of us who are born in America, we learn about this: like pull yourself up by your boot-straps and work hard and go to work. I think it’s very important to challenge this notion. And, it goes back to the conversation that we had on systemic racism, and systems of oppression that have been created to not allow some groups of people to not get ahead. And so, when we hear those things I think, we do try to challenge them in our work, and remind folks of the intersections of identity – that in our case all of our students are navigating – that everyone is navigating all the time. And, so when we reduce folks to not being able to work hard enough to get ahead, we’re not taking into consideration some of the factors that may have led to poverty, to who gets some of the leadership roles, etc.

Darlene: And you know, I think about my parents. I’m the youngest of 10. And my parents said to me: ‘Darlene, you have to be 100 times better just to get the same opportunities.’ And I feel both sad and grateful that that was a message that came to me. Because, it puts a lot of pressure for you to do better to achieve, to work hard, and everybody should do that anyway. But, you’re always worried. Am I enough? Have I done enough? When I show up in that room, I’m Dr. Sampson. I’ve worked for my doctoral degree. But, what happens when someone shows up that might be a white person or someone that doesn’t have the degree that you have and they still have more authority. They’re still thought of differently. They’re given permission to do things that you aren’t able to do.  And so, that has been inside me for a long time, from the very beginning. I don’t feel parents should have to tell their children that. Everybody should have a right to be able to achieve, and they should work hard, and they should work on themselves. But, we know that it’s not fair from the beginning, in terms of the start and the access, and the ability to have mentors, and anything in terms of finances and housing and generational wealth. We know that oppression impacts all of those. It is a myth: that you can work hard and just get whatever you want. Some people work hard. They get whatever they want. Some people have to do 10 times the things to get the same as others. And that’s what we want to change. We want to be humane and caring to everyone. And, I don’t have to do all of those things in order just to be accepted and validated.

Are there some definitions people should know when talking and thinking about equity?

Colleen: Equality is giving everyone the same thing. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. And so, that means different things for different people. And when we look at that in schools, we know that not all students learn the same. So, they need different things to help them be the best learner they can be. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and she has a wonderful TED talk called the Urgency of Intersectionality. And this is the idea that we’re not just one facet of our identity. So, I don’t exist as just a white person or just a woman. I exist as a white woman who is able-bodied. So, we’re all kind of navigating all facets of our identity at the same time. And sometimes things happen that might make one piece of our identity more salient than something else.

Darlene: And when we talk about diversity. I always give an example of diversity is like everybody going to a dance together – a party. But, inclusivity is bringing people into the dance. Asking them to dance, asking their perspective, asking them how they feel, how do they live their life, how do they walk in their Jordans. So, we have to pay attention to what people are dealing with. They may not have Jordans. They may not have any shoes. And that’s the other thing we have to pay attention to – is that as we look at equity – people come at different perspectives at different places – and the diversity has to do with making sure that they’re at the table. If you look around the room and everybody’s white and you’re at a space of talking about equity or difference, and maybe you’re not, maybe you’re in a corporate setting – everybody’s white – that’s still a problem. Because, everybody’s got a right to be at the table. And so that’s what we want with inclusivity.

Why is it important for Black people to talk to white people and white people to talk to Black people about these issues?

Colleen: We have to talk to people who are different than we are. We have to talk to people who are raised differently, who are from different parts of the country or the world. We have to get different perspectives because that notion of storytelling, that notion of connection – for me at least – really helps me understand better the lived experiences of people who are different than I am. It’s very, very easy to construct a singular narrative about who someone is and where they come from. But, if I don’t talk to them and learn from them and hear their story, I’m just making assumptions. And so, conversations like this are so crucial to really better understanding, supporting, centering one another – being in community – doing this work together. Together we can really make more of a difference when we’re connected, when we’re united. This work is messy. It’s hard. And I make mistakes all the time. I’m always learning. And so, that’s the other piece of this – to give yourself grace with the process. Know that, as you start to showcase your commitment to the work, people are going to see that, and trust in that. And so, don’t always feel like you have to walk on eggshells around these things. We were, again, socialized to not talk about these things as white people. But, once we start to, we see all these other doors open up and ways to connect and really do this equity work together.

Darlene: And people might get angry at you Colleen. We’ve talked about that. Family might get angry, friends… it happens.

Colleen: Yes. I have been told that I am a broken record or a squeaky wheel. But, for me, this is the work I do professionally and personally as well. And I think sometimes that personal work is even more important. So that we see how this work impacts us in the whole of our lives.

Darlene: When you say the whole of our lives, you have to align your professional self and your personal self. So, I can’t be at work as an equity specialist just supporting issues around race and gender and difference and then I go home in my community and I act differently toward those same people that I am working on behalf of everyday. So, you must align who you are – you’re doing your work everywhere. You’re doing your work ongoing. And, it’s incongruent and it’s not authentic to act as if, oh, when we’re here I’m like this and over there I’m like that. You have to work on yourself everywhere.