Shahanna M. Baldon begins her job as chief diversity officer of the Madison Metropolitan School District under greater scrutiny than the typical educational administrator is subjected to. Attention to -- and tension over -- issues of race in Madison schools are at a high pitch these days. A hard-hitting campaign to found a charter school to close the academic achievement gap between white and minority students helped fuel public demand that the district find a way to help all students reach their full potential. Hiring a chief diversity officer to coordinate initiatives to foster diversity in the district is one part of Superintendent Dan Nerad’s far-reaching plan to close the gap.
Baldon, 41, is a Milwaukee native and former teacher whose given name -- a Hindi word meaning “princessly” -- was bestowed by her father, who came across it among students in his own classroom. Baldon did her undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a masters degree in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. A class at UW-Madison with Thorsten Horton, the son of Myles Horton, who trained such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. at the famed Highlander Folk School, put Baldon on the path that led her back to Madison.
“Studying with Thorsten Horton was the experience that made me decide that I wanted to be a teacher and go into school districts and affect major, major systems change,” Baldon says. She spoke with The Capital Times about a concept of diversity that goes beyond black and white. What follows is an edited transcript.
The Capital Times: From some reading online I’m drawing the inference that your heritage is African-American and Jewish. How do you identify?
Shahanna M. Baldon: I identify as a black person and of course anyone who has close personal relationships with black people knows we are very diverse; indeed blackness is a construct that we experience as a social reality. I have developed an identity as a mixed heritage person. I also have a very strong identity as a Jew, and identify strongly with my Native American heritage. And I’m a mom and a daughter and an educator, and along with all my cultural heritages that inform my identity, I’m also really acutely aware of how our other roles in life effect our identities.
CT: So it’s important how people identify themselves and are identified by others around race and ethnicity?
SMB: You just brought up something interesting: how people identify themselves versus how people identify them. This is something that we need to get a handle on, because the way I identify is not necessarily the way that others identify me, and frankly our assumptions about individuals from our own groups and other groups have all kinds of implications at cultural, individual and institutional levels and even up to the development of public policy. So, do race and ethnicity matter? My answer is an emphatic yes.
CT: What needs to happen to change the way those identities around race and ethnicity operate to affect how kids learn?
SMB: Although there is a piece of our work that will be around identity development -- the bigger question is not how folks identify, but how oppression targets folks based on the groups they’re assumed to belong to. The work of eliminating barriers to student achievement and to staff reaching its greatest attainments that are connected to racism are indeed entrenched in the day-to-day operations of any educational organization. The work that I do around addressing these issues is experiential work. The work of unlearning racism, for example, is emotional work that needs to be done with purpose. I do believe that my experience and the models I work from will bring new elements to the work of teaching and leading for diversity and social justice in our school district.
CT: What might the “experiential piece” piece of diversity work here be?
SMB: This work will be done all over the school district from the classroom to the board room. We will use active listening to support the emotional connection with memories about social justice issues. We will encourage folks to build listening relationships throughout the district, and will facilitate an element of on-site coaching -- it’s not going to be a one-shot deal.
CT: What needs to happen to enable a parent of color who does not now feel it’s possible to build a positive relationship with his child’s school to believe it and do it?
SMB: Parents of color are a really diverse group. First thing we need to do is to think about diversity within groups. For example, a middle- or owning class African-American who is born and raised in Madison and has family and friends here may need totally different support from a Hmong family that is just relocating here from Minnesota.
CT: What about the parent of color -- or the white parent -- who feels alienated from the district, maybe from bad experiences back in their own school days? They are being labeled as just not caring in some of the recent debate here over achievement.
SMB: That’s because of racism and classism -- for anyone to assert that someone doesn’t care about their child. No matter who the parent is, if they don’t feel connected, that’s a problem... If a parent walks into a school and someone doesn’t smile at them and welcome them, that is going to create ripples in the pond that are going to negatively impact the work that we’re trying to do.
CT: It’s that simple and that powerful?
SMB: I really think that in the process of changing hearts and minds there are things we can do quickly and easily that can help to transform people’s experiences. Sometimes it is as simple as how we greet someone. What terms we use when we address them. There are behaviors called “unaware racism” that often negatively impact parents’ experiences -- and of course the folks who behave this way are totally unaware that they are doing it -- but the end result is that people feel targeted. The work of unlearning racism is about changing hearts and minds, but it’s also about changing behaviors.
CT: You’re the district’s first chief diversity officer. How significant is the creation of the position?
SMB: Corporations have figured out that recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce will make them more competitive and this concept has been embraced by educational institutions as well. One thing that is really exciting about my position – there aren’t many public school districts that have chief diversity officers. You see chief diversity officers in the corporate world, you see them in higher education, but not so much in public education.
CT: How does the targeting of public education by Gov. Scott Walker set the stage for your work with the Madison schools?
SMB: We have endured the terrible demonization and demoralization of teachers around the state over the past year. We need to be cautious how we engage teachers in one more thing -- but this work is work that will help all the other work go better.
CT: Have you had a chance to get an idea of what social life might be for black professionals here in Madison, given the small size of the African-American community?
SMB: A little bit. I know a lot of young adults who grow up here leave here, black and from other backgrounds. And I’ve had people ask me: “Why would any black professional want to come to Madison?” My answer is: I’m a born and bred Wisconsinite and I am honored to have this opportunity. A big part of retaining a diverse workforce is community development. In the past, there has been great luck in getting people to come to Madison to work for our organization, but getting them to stay was an entirely different matter.
CT: How do you handle the idea that Madison is “too white” while recruiting teachers of color?
SMB: It that really what people think about us? I wonder how much of that is true. We’ve also heard that teachers of color don’t want to come to Wisconsin because it’s snowy. Do we know if that’s really true? One thing we’ll do is think more strategically about recruiting people from places that are close by. We’re also working hard on thinking better about growing our own. We have young people in our classrooms who will become teachers and principals in the course of their adult lives – how do we put supports in place to create a pathway into our school district? Other disciplines do -- molecular biologists do it -- why aren’t we going out to the middle schools? Besides our young people, we also have staff in our district who, with some assistance, would be able to move into different areas of our workforce.
CT: Anything else you’d like to touch on?
SMB: We have lots of different students in our district who are under-achieving; they are not all young people of color, they don’t all qualify for free or reduced lunch. And I really am the chief diversity officer for everyone. I’m looking forward to helping us to reframe our narrative so we on one hand so we keep our attention on the real urgency of ending systematic disenfranchisement of students in certain groups from education here, while at the same time thinking bigger about diversity. It’s really not just a black and white thing. It’s about all of us coming together and redefining our narrative about who we are and what’s important to us, because we are one family.