By Shaheena Khan, formerly Director of Education Strategy & Ventures
In June, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation began publishing a set of essays about our role in addressing systemic racism in our society. Our CEO Jen Rainin wrote candidly about her acknowledgement of white privilege and her commitment to building an equitable and just society.
As a Black woman who grew up in an Islamic culture, this was a meaningful statement. At the same time, as a person working at a privileged institution, I acknowledge the collective responsibility of all of us at the Rainin Foundation to ensure that these words have meaning.
Equity is at the center of everything we do in the Education program area. Our objective is to ensure that every Oakland child enters kindergarten ready to learn, and reads at or above grade level by the end of third grade. Rainin Foundation funding has largely supported professional development for early childhood educators and community-based organizations focused on literacy development.
Education is an essential lever in determining a child’s trajectory for success in life, and yet we continue to see systemic oppression against students of color in our own community. The failure at every level of decision-making in this country to provide a quality education to children of color is the product of deeply held biases. These biases result in obstacle after obstacle put in front of children of color—less money for their schools, teachers who are inadequately supported, and harsher punishment for behavioral challenges, among other indignities. They all serve to reinforce the status quo, telling these students that they don’t deserve better and then blaming them if they are unable to surmount these tremendous barriers. It is a vicious cycle of oppression and injustice. This system will not change until we all recognize and address these painful truths. Making changes to programs in systems that are fundamentally broken will never get us there. We require a powerful transformation.
“This system will not change until we all recognize and address these painful truths.”
By addressing our desperately inequitable education system, we can go a long way toward creating a more just society. The Rainin Foundation cannot change this system single-handedly, but we can be an important part of the solution. As Jen Rainin has stated, we can use the resources at our disposal, our standing in the community, and our collective and individual voices to push for change wherever possible.
The Power Of Community Knowledge
The Education program has focused on finding ways to address these systemic problems, but we know this moment demands that we do even more. For starters, the members of our community who are most deeply impacted are uniquely equipped to identify solutions; however, they need the access, influence, and resources necessary to bring about change. We want to make sure that the voices in our community that are calling for change are heard, and that community leaders have the tools they need to succeed. We created our Community Strategy Council for Educational Equity and Excellence, made up of Oakland teachers, school leaders, administrators, students and parents, literacy coaches, and others to provide a forum for new ideas and to be more responsive to community needs. One of the solutions that emerged from our Community Strategy Council was the plan to create parent supports to bridge the gaps between home and school to strengthen the learning ecosystem. This action is supported by research that shows when parents are engaged in learning, their children are more likely to do better.
“We want to make sure that the voices in our community that are calling for change are heard, and that community leaders have the tools they need to succeed.”
The Community Strategy Council is helping us better understand the systems and policies that impact early learners and come up with solutions that will make a difference in students’ lives. They will examine policies and practices related to student discipline and how we can reimagine schools with alternative practices that reinforce positive student behaviors.
We are also integrating equity in other ways to make sure that Oakland’s education system truly serves all students. Research shows that there are academic benefits when students can look to the head of the class and see a person who looks like them. In particular, there are not nearly enough men of color teaching in our classrooms. The Rainin Foundation supported the Unity Council and Oakland Unified School District’s Office of Equity and Office of Early Childhood Education to pilot a Men of Color Early Education Teaching Fellows program. This pilot program launches this school year and builds on the successful SEEDS of Learning model to train community members to be highly skilled classroom tutors. It will provide professional development, life skills, mentors, educational opportunities, and other wrap-around supports for men of color to enter the field of teaching and help them succeed once they get there.
Advancing Equity In Our Practices
Finally, we are working to strengthen our grantmaking program. Our grants are currently awarded by invitation. We know that there are organizations out there doing important work and we’d like to learn about them. Many of those organizations are led by people of color who could make important contributions, but we haven’t made it easy for them to be recognized. This is a weak spot that we must address.
Across the Foundation, we are conducting an audit of all our processes and practices, including how we select our grantees, with an eye toward ensuring these internal systems address equity and avoid exacerbating existing problems.
We are able to begin to address these complex challenges because we are now having the kinds of conversations about systemic racism and its effect on our students that we simply could not have had even a year ago. Out of the pain of this moment, extraordinary progress is possible.
“As I look to the future, I see the potential for breaking down policies that prevent our students from succeeding.”
As I look to the future, I see the potential for breaking down policies that prevent our students from succeeding. I see an array of solutions that are born in the community, based on respect and understanding of our children, and which deliver a powerful set of supports that wrap around our children and their families. Our children deserve nothing less.