Why Diversity?

This year we’re making a commitment to racial diversity. At least 20 attendees of #TMC19 will be educators of color. We will reach out to our networks to make sure that people know this conference wants to be more diverse. We will take specific actions to make sure that people know this isn’t a surface level commitment, we are determined that TMC will be a space that welcomes everyone and where educators of color will be specifically included. So far we are planning:

  • A time on Tuesday, July 17 for all of the educators of color to gather, get to know one another, and learn about the plan for the week.
  • An equity strand of presentations running throughout the conference.
  • A safety plan for travel to breakfast, dinner, and evening activities.
  • Waived registration fees for all educators of color (speakers and attendees).
  • To consider any and all other ideas for ways to make the conference a better environment, specifically for educators of color.

Diversity is in. But why?

I want to help create and sustain diverse communities, both in the math education space and elsewhere. But I feel a tension between two different arguments for diversity that I want to consider in conversations about how to make spaces more diverse.

TMC writes on their blog:

According to this excellent TED Talk, “Ethnically diverse companies perform 33 percent better than the norm.”

One might call this the “diversity makes us stronger” argument. I believe it. I am a better educator because of educators of color who share their perspectives, yet those voices are not often those elevated by folks with the biggest microphones in education spaces. But if the only argument for diversity is to help white folks in largely white spaces, that diversity is fundamentally extractive. People of color and other marginalized folks do not exist to benefit those who already have power. I’m incredibly grateful to Jose Vilson, bell hooks, Mariame KabaJacqueline Keeler, and others for their writing and activism. But they and other people of color have no obligation to seek me out and educate me.

The second argument for diversity is that we should honor the agency and humanity of every individual, acknowledging that our institutions have conspired, past and present, to keep some out. This means creating spaces where every individual can find what they need — in the math education space, that every teacher can grow and see themselves and their learners reflected in their professional development. I see it as an argument about freedom. As Carla Shalaby writes:

A free person retains her power, her right to self-determination, her opportunity to flourish, her ability to love and to be loved, and her capacity for hope.

-Carla Shalaby in Troublemakers (xv)

The second argument for diversity says that we should have spaces where every individual can be free to flourish, to love, and to believe in the potential of education. Folks have no obligation to make spaces diverse for the sake of diversity or the benefit of majority; instead, we should see diversity as the end result of rethinking the ways professional development spaces are organized to value every individual.

Centering the humanity of every individual is a conscious choice, acknowledging our country’s history of oppression. How do we respond to government-supported housing segregation? Inequitably resourced schools? Systematic plunder of wealth? It’s not an accident that some voices are excluded; it is the ongoing legacy of oppression in our country. And bringing folks in with an emphasis on their humanity and freedom helps us to see diversity as an opportunity for more productive collective action, rather than an exercise in pity that reifies existing inequities. Here is Matthew Kay on having meaningful race conversations in the classroom:

If the race conversation is about a hard problem, encourage students to (1) locate their sphere of influence, and (2) explore personal pathways to solutions. If, as argued in the previous chapter, our students deserve to consider the hard problems, they must also be invited to solve them. This balance reminds them of their agency. Without it, the discussion of race controversies is likely to make students feel a bit like punching bags, peppered by jabbing misery narratives that set up a knockout conclusion. We teachers, with all of our culturally sanctioned agency, can be surprisingly blind to this barrage… Imagine the frustration of having various narrative bits dumped on a desk before you and being asked to contemplate them without the opportunity to put them together into a whole.

-Matthew Kay in Not Light, but Fire (121)

Our students need narratives that not only teach about the realities of inequality in the world, but help them feel a sense of agency in making change in the future. In the same way, education spaces need to move beyond token diversity to a paradigm that values every individual and the potential for change when we bring educators together in spaces that are inclusive and empowering. I’m excited that Twitter Math Camp is working to make the conference more diverse. And, I hope that we as an online math education community can continue to work toward diversity as a necessary means to ambitious goals as well as an end in itself.

6 thoughts on “Why Diversity?

  1. Michael Pershan

    I really appreciate you taking on this topic, as not enough people do.

    I’m not sure what this means:

    …we should honor the agency and humanity of every individual, acknowledging that our institutions have conspired, past and present, to keep some out. This means creating spaces where every individual can find what they need — in the math education space, that every teacher can grow and see themselves and their learners reflected in their professional development. I see it as an argument about freedom.

    Here’s my understanding of what this is saying. The first reason for diversity for TMC is “TMC would be better at what we’re trying do with more Black and Latinx people, along with other people of color present.”

    So, what’s the second reason? Here my best read, currently: “If TMC was a place that gave e.g. Black math educators PD that’s interesting to Black math educators, then Black math educators would come to TMC. Further, TMC has an obligation to provide Black math educators with PD of interest, because of how the PD needs of Black math educators have frequently not been met because of racism. So don’t worry about recruiting Black math educators; worry about creating experiences that would be of interest.”

    But what I’m unsure of is whether this is what you’re saying, or if you’re saying that TMC has an obligation to provide every individual with PD that they need. Or if you’re saying that the vast majority of people in education already have good experiences already, so there is de facto no need to focus on their needs.

    I’m also unsure if you have a vision as to what that PD would look like. What are the changes to the PD that TMC would have to make to be attractive to everybody, including Black math educators, Latinx math educators, and other math educators of color?

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Good questions. I don’t feel like I have great answers, but I’ll give it a shot. Looking at the TMC18 program, most of the sessions seem to be about math or about teaching, with very few about students or context. I’d argue that is one thing largely missing from TMC (and from most other math ed professional development) that would represent a place that prioritizes the experiences and needs of people of color. In my experience, those sessions tend to be “all or nothing” — i.e. it’s either a social justice-oriented presentation, or it’s straight math or pedagogy. This stuff isn’t on the radar of most people in that sense.

      A place TMC does this well is with keynotes. My first year (’14) the keynotes were three white men who were all out of the classroom. Since then there has clearly been a conscious effort to get different perspectives for the keynotes. These things send a message about the values of the organization and whose voices matter. Obviously this does both things: it includes educators of color to improve TMC, while also functioning to elevate voices and send a message about their importance. It’s not one or the other, but you can have the first without the second.

      Those are both presentation-oriented. I think there’s also a lot to the ways that social spaces are organized and newcomers are welcomed/not. TMC is working on a lot of this which is awesome. I don’t have great answers, just feel that it’s worth examining our assumptions going into this type of enterprise.

      Reply
      1. Michael Pershan

        Thanks for the responses.

        I guess I see things a bit differently. At the handful of NCTM conferences that I’ve been to there has been a much larger percentage of educators of color than at TMC. I think the PD offerings aren’t that different between a TMC and NCTM. So I don’t think it’s the PD stylings that are fundamental to TMC’s particularness — it’s everything else. The hotel, the three-day love fest, the particular progressive edu rockstars that people are centered around, the culture, the style, the non-professional professional gathering. This is not scalable; it has a weird cultural appeal. Honestly, a lot of it isn’t for me.

        My friends and colleagues who are people of color don’t strike me as having wildly divergent PD needs compared to educators as a whole. Some seek out math, some seek out social justice, some like techniques and lesson ideas, etc.

        So I think the PD is perhaps the wrong thing to focus on. After all, was PD ever what made TMC different?

        Reply
        1. dkane47 Post author

          I definitely agree getting beyond the content of the PD here, but I’m not sure I agree with the comparison. NCTM is well-established and is the default math education organization in the US, so it has a critical mass of educators without trying very hard. Their conferences also have so many sessions there is inevitably more to choose from. TMC started from scratch, and started as a largely white group of teachers, which I think puts it in a bit of a different situation, and different questions to answer.

          But either way, I think you’re probably right that the atmosphere and the culture matter more than the content.

          Reply
  2. blaw0013

    I am intrigued my this TMC project. I’ve been thinking about the problem on similar contexts. I wonder if the most significant hurdle is how NCTM, TMC, school, is a White Space (or Danny Martin’s White Institutional Space). That’s not to say poc aren’t interested to participate, but as I understand (limited, as a very white person) such spaces feel like visiting, instead of home. I don’t know much about what I’m saying. But I know when I’m in a Black Space, or a Latinx Space, and it’s different than how I feel in a White Space. Please forgive my half-formed thoughts on this.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      I’d love to understand that better. What influences whether someone feels at home? There are obvious answers, and I’m sure a lot of smaller subtle ones.

      Reply

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