Racism and Education Forum Offers Authenticity and Hope
By Tom Fiebiger
Taiyon Coleman and Shannon Gibney, two intelligent and thoughtful black women college professors, writers and mentors, provided a spirited dialogue on "Race and Education" at Redeemer Lutheran Church on February 14, 2017. This forum was the fourth in a series of forums on systemic racism and ways to try and understand and change it that is being sponsored by Redeemer, Westwood Lutheran and Edina Community Lutheran Church.
Shannon Gibney teaches English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Taiyon Coleman is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Catherine University. Ms. Gibney was raised in an upper middle class family in Michigan. Her parents were white and adopted her. Ms. Coleman, on the other hand, spoke of her family roots in the south, followed by her being raised by a single mom in Chicago, where she and her sister argued over going to the store because neither one of them wanted to be seen buying food with food stamps.
Both women, from different economic backgrounds, shared similar experiences and challenges encountered while working as black women professionals in an educational system already rife with racism when they entered it to do their teaching. We learned that their teaching often involves much more beyond helping students navigate sentence structure, and includes being a lifeline, mentor, cheerleader and support system to young people on the edge, homeless or without the support systems to make it on their own in a broken educational system.
Ms. Gibney spoke eloquently of her struggle working in an educational system where she found herself the subject of complaints and attempted reprimands for raising issues in her class of systemic racism and having white male students file complaints against her because the discussion made them feel "uncomfortable." She spoke of how her white colleagues were reluctant to speak out in support of her and some became more supportive of her over years of watching her being treated in a discriminatory fashion for questioning a racist educational system that our country has constructed.These white colleagues found themselves in a system where their speaking out might hurt them professionally, and yet needed to realize they needed to be less afraid and a part of the solution for things to begin to really change.
Both women brilliantly articulated the balancing act needed to both teach and mentor students in a systemically racist educational system and pick your battles to try and make a difference to incrementally change what is broken. They shared their own personal struggles as advocates in their roles as parents of students of color in a system that treats their children inherently different and with lower expectations than white students - just because they are black. They artfully responded to questions from an audience asking what white people can do to grow, learn and be a part of the change.
During the question and answer session Ms. Coleman received a "comment" from a woman who shared with the audience how Ms. Coleman"s teaching and mentoring of this woman's daughter had been truly inspirational and life changing and had motivated her daughter to be the kind of teacher that Ms. Coleman had modeled. Life changing stuff.
Ms. Coleman spoke openly of being the black person at social gatherings of her white friends and how she became noticeably less welcome when she spoke out about her concerns for the safety and future of her black son in a society where they are at risk for being shot by police. This is yet another facet of racism and education.
Ms. Coleman and Ms. Gibney have been friends for over a dozen years and their friendship, integrity and comfort of conversation back and forth truly benefitted a sanctuary full of folks hungry for such authentic conversation about what's real in our world today with respect to racism and education. The audience received a real education.
Reflections by Heather Anderson
I was so thankful I took the time to attend our recent Town Hall conversation hosted at Redeemer. Shannon and Taiyon were such an inspiration. Last week was crazy and I had to throw overtired kiddos in the car, but I wouldn’t have missed their wisdom for anything. I was moved by their vulnerable sharing of their personal and professional struggles over the last few years. Their use of the word violence to describe racial discrimination against students in the school environment really resonated with me. They shared how much innocence and faith we need to learn and create and how detrimental our schools can be for our kids of color.
Both Shannon and Tai shared of times of isolation and sadness when their white co-workers and friends understood and empathized with their struggles as black women, but refused to stand up or with them publicly. Hearing their perspective so painfully and honestly deeply impacted me. They were witty, raw, intelligent, and I hope I can hear more from them.