Students, faculty, staff and community members attended the second installment in the St. Thomas School of Education’s Dean Forum series on Wednesday at Opus Hall in Minneapolis. About 100 people listened to Dr. Detra Price-Dennis, an award-winning researcher at Columbia University, lead a discussion of “Cultivating Racial Literacy in the Digital Age.”

“We’re here to have a challenging conversation that is open and honest,” said School of Education Dean Kathlene Holmes Campbell in her introduction. “We’re discussing issues that many of us have been taught we shouldn’t talk about.”

Through a thoughtful, challenging and engaging discussion, Price-Dennis touched on racial literacy and its impact in the digital age and implications for K-12 education. One of the first things she shared was a collage of recognizable images of everything from the Me Too and Take-A-Knee movements, to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and immigrant children in a detention center.

“There are so many different hashtags here that take up issues of equity, race and oppression that have been circulating for the last few years,” Price-Dennis said. “They keep changing every day – almost hour by hour.

“In today’s age, we are hash-tagging our joy, our pain and our trauma,” she continued. “We’re trying to form community – organize and get together around issues of social justice, equity and activism. We talk about civic engagement, civic literacy and participation. This landscape is informing a majority of conversations that we see our kids having in school. How connected are you to what is happening in the sociotechnical landscape? What hashtags do you follow? Those are good questions to ask yourself, particularly when they pertain to issues of race and equity. What is happening in this space is influencing what is happening in our schools and classrooms and should be influencing what is happening in our curriculum.”

More and more people are interacting in digital spaces, she said, and at times, it is hard for some of them to tell fact from fiction, especially when there are professional-looking websites promoting misinformation around race or ethnicity; myth busting is crucial.

Dr. Detra Price-Dennis, an award-winning researcher at Columbia University, led a discussion of “Cultivating Racial Literacy in the Digital Age” at the School of Education on Jan. 23.

Dr. Detra Price-Dennis, an award-winning researcher at Columbia University, led a discussion of “Cultivating Racial Literacy in the Digital Age” at the School of Education on Jan. 23.

“There still seems to be a belief if someone retweets it, it’s true,” she said. “We see that at the highest levels – people retweeting things that have no factual basis.”

When addressing the topic of racial literacy and looking at the relationship between race and power, Price-Dennis asked attendees to define racial literacy in 20 characters or less. Many words and phrases were offered, including: understanding, access for all, awareness, inclusion and equity, and recognize privilege. She followed up the exercise by introducing her Columbia University colleague Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz’s work on racial literacy.

“If something is happening around race, the first place we tend to go is to the outside,” Price-Dennis said. “And what [Sealey-Ruiz’s] work over the past decade has pushed people to do is to start with yourself. Where do these issues live in you? If something is making you uncomfortable, ask, ‘Why are you reacting the way you are?’”

Price-Dennis said we must recognize technology is not neutral or raceless, since the humans behind the coding, engineering and analysis bring with them their own racial literacy or illiteracy. She asked attendees to discuss among themselves how the construct of race circulates in sociotechnical spaces and then talked about combining technology and race.

“If we did work around re-imagining how we think about race and tech together, we could have our students do work analyzing and synthesizing multiple streams of data about race, and then putting their results together with a tech tool to create an infographic about what they learned about racial literacy and digital literacy,” she said.

“The tech is available; it’s up to us to think through what it is that we want people to do with it,” she continued. “How do we use these tools to center issues of race or racism in our classrooms and in our curriculum? We can have students develop critical literacy by comparing and looking at images that index race in particular ways; we can ask them to do animation … create an animated character that can explain racial literacy in 60 seconds.”

Price-Dennis asked attendees to think about what they will do the next time a conversation with their students turns to the subject of race. And how the next racist incident will impact teaching or instruction.

“I purposely created this forum because it’s time for us to talk about race and not ignore it,” Dean Campbell said as she wrapped up the forum. “If we can start to break down some of these silos so we can begin to have this conversation, then we can put one foot in front of the other and start to change education. It’s going to take all of us to do it.”

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