The Role of Identity in Anti-Racist Pedagogy

This post was written by Climate Change and Climate Justice Programs Manager Nichole Berg.


My childhood is full of cherished memories of time spent with my Aguilera family in Manly, Iowa. It was a period full of cheese-stuffed enchiladas, Maid-Rites, home-made tortillas filled with bologna and cheese and Great-Grandpa Ray’s fiery-hot salsa. It was best-friend cousins, softball, practical jokes, tire swings, chicken coops, and late night scary storytelling after playing “Ghosts in the Graveyard” under the expansive midwestern summer night sky. Sewn into the cultural fabric of my life are stories of immigration, assimilation and other forms of oppression, resilience, courage, finding oneself, finding one another, and creating a beautiful familia that would transcend all borders.

I was the first great-grandchild in the family and the first cousin with light brownish-blonde hair and hazel eyes. My most cherished relic—a photograph of five generations of Aguileras—depicts the array of complexions present throughout time in our family: my great-great-grandma Lupe, my great-grandpa Ray, grandpa Denny, Mom, and baby me on her lap. As the complexions vary across the image, so too does our preferred language, from exclusively Spanish, to variations of Spanish and English, to exclusively English.  

Five generations of Aguileras sit together on a couch. Photo courtesy Nichole Berg.

This photo tells so many stories, but perhaps the most important one is of the deep cultural significance of our multi-generational family. It represents my worldview that I am the living reflection of all who came before me; my story is all the stories of my family. It also represents my generational commitment to making the world a better place by disrupting historical patterns of power and privilege that, over time, have made life easier or more difficult for people like myself and the members of my own family.

I never had the opportunity to share this life experience growing up in the K-12 education system. In school, I found that storytelling was mostly about hearing and reading accounts written by people outside our community. Eurocentricity pervaded all aspects of my education, and it wasn’t until college that I discovered the works of authors whose stories were similar to my own. It was also the first time that I was introduced to the value of interdisciplinary studies to learn about a topic—in this case, Chicana/o Studies, which combined ethnographies, social science frameworks, language, and visual and performing arts to tell our history of oppression and resilience.  

In this way, storytelling has become a powerful way in which I make sense of the world and my place within it. It is also how I connect most deeply with those around me and how I have worked to transform the field of education and contribute to the elimination of racism from our schools from a variety of positions within the K-12 system: as a bilingual paraprofessional, as a bilingual classroom educator, as a bilingual mentor for beginning educators, and as a school administrator and now district programs manager in climate change and climate justice. 

We have a unique opportunity in 2020 to radically reimagine our public education system as a collective. This pandemic has called us to define what is truly important and reflect on our purpose as educators. It has clearly shown us that we can adapt to the changing needs of our students, leverage technology, build relationships across the world, and create new humanizing systems (look what we’ve accomplished so far!). It has also shaken us to our core and forced us to reconcile the fact that our fates are all intertwined. Undoubtedly, it is a moment of deep reckoning, truth-telling, and accountability to formally eradicate racism and other forms of oppression from our respective spaces as our primary non-negotiable moral and ethical imperative.

Because we are all in uncharted waters, we have the unique opportunity to navigate this together. We can begin by sharing stories with a focus on actions that are rooted in relationships and a commitment to anti-racism. I, too, am still growing on my journey toward anti-racism and disrupting systems of oppression in education. Perhaps these lessons I’ve learned so far might help you as well:

  • Know yourself and your comfort or discomfort zones. Each of us has our own life story that has taught us about race, racism, power, privilege, oppression, and resilience. Take steps to inspect your own implicit bias and be open to feedback when someone gifts you the opportunity to learn and grow in real-time. Lean into discomfort with an open heart and a curious mind. Create space and routines for students to share their lived experiences and show up fully present as their authentic selves. 
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, and gratitude. Being able to breathe and keep calm through the inevitable tension that arises will allow for you to make intentional choices that shift the paradigm. Reframing challenges in a positive light—as an opportunity to practice and grow—rather than as setbacks or negative situations, helps move us forward.
  • Resist the urge to compare traumas and life experiences or to listen to another person’s story with a focus on responding. Challenge yourself to listen to understand and to hold space for that person. Constructivist listening practices can help build your muscle in this area.
  • Protect your energy, and encourage the students you serve to protect their energy as well. Create flexibility in routines and expectations so that students can self-select times and ways in which they can practice self-care. This can be part of the process of creating classroom norms and procedures.
  • Invite students into the learning process through cogenerative practices. Be transparent about learning objectives and standards, and open to students’ suggestions for situational context within which they want to learn and practice these academic and linguistic skills. The world is our classroom, and students are naturally curious about how they can contribute to solving real-world problems. Offer them the space to do so in ways that resonate with them.
  • Become an explorer. Read books, watch videos, and listen to music that are borne of cultural experiences that are unfamiliar to you. Presume that there is brilliance and wisdom to be found in all sorts of genres and in media that is outside of your comfort zone. Familiarize yourself with cultural icons, especially those that have been historically ignored by the dominant cannon. Research historical and sociopolitical context to help situate their importance. Share your learning with others.
  • Be a cheerleader. Our students are looking to us as role models and mentors.  Encourage them to try on new ideas, experiences, and to “fail forward.” Create a culture of reflection and adjustment in your learning space through the use of surveys and other reflective tools. Model for students the value in lessons learned through trial and error. Applaud their healthy risk-taking and support them as they learn and grow.
  • Trust your journey. We are all in this together and together we will figure this all out.

The time is long overdue to radically reimagine our education contexts and the dexterity with which we are able to achieve this depends entirely on us. I know that right now many of us are having difficult conversations about our capacity for continuing on this journey, given all the unknowns and lack of humanity in our current context. I encourage us all to share our stories as a way of humanizing our spaces and building a supportive community with each other. I am eager to join the national conversation with you and contribute to solutions that will radically recreate our learning spaces. 

Let’s lean into the discomfort of radical change and have faith in our resilience as a collective to create the conditions in which these changes will occur. The individual work may take a lifetime, but if we intentionally co-create across our generations and center the voices of our youth, we just might find that our collective work immediately creates new lifetimes for ourselves and future generations.

Feature image by Barbara Aguilera

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