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Karen Robinson is the Speak Truth to Power program director at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
Similar to masking, new “culturally responsive” teaching standards have emerged in several states as the latest flashpoint in culture wars — making public education yet another arena reflecting the deep polarization of American society.
This teaching practice, which covers concepts including implicit bias, historical inequities and student advocacy, has been dismissively labeled as “critical race theory” by some detractors who are reaching into a dusty bag of tricks to sow division and intolerance.
“Parents say they’re running for local school boards to fight ‘poisonous’ critical race theory,” one Fox News headline reads.
As a human rights educator for 30 years, and a lifelong Quaker whose faith has caused me to confront white privilege and racism, I feel not only qualified but compelled to reject such notions, and instead point out the vast benefits of such programs, for teachers and students of all races, creeds and backgrounds, and furthermore, for our communities at large.
Training teachers to step outside their comfort zones and walk in another’s shoes not only makes them better educators, it invites students to critique structures of power and challenge inequalities that exist in families, schools, and societies.
I’ve been immersed in human rights education for decades, first at Amnesty International, and now with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power program, and teaching critical thinking about cultural lenses and racial biases fits naturally within this work to empower students to be empathetic and emboldened changemakers.
Our new partnership at Bangor High School is a case in point. The first-of-its-kind initiative incorporates human rights education and social-emotional learning opportunities into the school’s curriculum, practices, and culture — providing Bangor educators with professional training and development to cultivate an inclusive, dignity-driven learning environment.
Like so many other schools across the country, BHS has been strained in recent years. An investigation of racism in the school system yielded several recommendations from an independent counsel, and our hope is that this new pilot partnership will serve as a strong asset in helping BHS address concerns.
As the national debate around culturally responsive teaching continues to unfold, Bangor High School has an opportunity to serve as a model for the nation of how a state can utilize local control to implement these principles of equality, decency, and justice in a way that uniquely suits their own school climate.
It is through these deliberate partnerships, through scrutiny of past practices and openness to change, that we can become one nation, once and for all.
We must teach students to question. We must teach them to fully understand the ugly reality of two Americas so that they can work for and dream of one. Bangor High School, by embracing its diversity, will show us the way.