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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
Black doctoral students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education led a webinar on their research into racial injustices in the education and research fields Thursday.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education Solidarity Collective for Black Lives organized the panel in partnership with national advocacy group Black Lives Matter At School, the W.E.B. Du Bois Society, the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, and Harvard’s Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs.
The virtual conversation was moderated by GSE Ph.D. student Zenzile S. Riddick and featured fellow doctoral students Nadirah F. Foley, Jeraul C. Mackey, Shandra M. Jones, and Julia R. Jeffries ’13.
Foley, whose research focuses on education inequality in suburban school environments, said suburban schools can often appear great by all performance measures, but Black and low-income students at those schools can often feel invisible in the classroom.
“Even in these ostensibly integrated ‘good’ suburban schools, Black students and lower income students, and particularly those who are at the intersection of these forms of marginalization, are having substantially separate and unequal experiences,” she said. “I think their stories deserve to be told.”
Jeffries, who studies the methods and roles of white teachers teaching about race-related topics in an urban environment, said she divided her research into two parts: an internal evaluation of privilege and proactive steps white educators can take toward providing students with an opportunity to learn more about the social context they live in.
“Unpacking their own whiteness and their own experience of whiteness and what it means to be a white person teaching particularly in an urban context is continuous work,” Jeffries said.
She said teachers should teach social studies in-depth but focus on projects that are “directly related to their current context and community” rather than broad strokes.
In a similar vein, Jones said her research focuses on how giving students an opportunity to develop and think about their racial identity affects educational outcomes.
“When I arrived at this work, I was thinking a lot about how race and ethnicity are so commonly associated with negative outcomes in education,” she said.
In many cases, though, a student coming to understand their racial identity can inspire academic success, Jones said.
“There are folks for whom when they think of that part of themselves, it’s exciting, it’s fuel, it’s part of the metal they put on to face the world, and that it actually fuels their further success,” she said.
Mackey, unlike the other three panelists, focused his research on social inequity in the job market and the changes necessary for fairer outcomes.
“For the majority of organizations in the U.S., they have at their founding racial inequality and exclusion,” he said.
To tackle this problem, Mackey noted that some policy changes are effective at reducing hiring bias, such as blinding resumes or removing degree requirements.
Still, policy is not the primary solution to the issue of workplace inequity, he said.
“It’s not simply creating better policy — that in some ways does create a more fair process and does attenuate some of this inequality — but being able to look at the cultural norms and assumptions that really permeate through our organizational structure,” Mackey said.
As the panelists discussed their research, they offered insight into some of the reasons why they chose to conduct it.
“There are things that my particular lens allows me to see and allows me to think: ‘Well, that might be an interesting area to explore,’” said Foley, who grew up attending a suburban school.
Jeffries also connected her efforts to her past experience in school, noting that she “never felt necessarily affirmed” in her racial identity in school.
Mackey said he took on the research into job market inequality because he felt he could make an impact.
“It’s not about ‘how do you create a nice paper that’s going to be read by other scholars,’ but really ‘how do you do research that has an impact and really can change the culture of organizations,’” he said.
— Staff writer Omar Abdel Haq can be reached at email@example.com.
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