An old friend once said to me, “Education is power that no one can take away from you, because it is ingrained in you where it cannot be touched, but only seen through your actions.” Twenty-six years ago, these words became a reality for me as I forged ahead to become an educator. As far back as I can remember, I loved going to school, learning new things, and teaching them to others. Me becoming an educator was no coincidence; it was something I was destined to be from an early age. Growing up in New York as an individual from a minority group, I remember a number of my teachers in grade school told me I would never amount to anything because of the language and cultural barriers I was experiencing. I was determined not to let this self-fulfilling prophecy determine my destiny or the destiny of others who are seen as the “other”. My experiences molded who I am today, an educator who believes in racially and ethnically just education in public school education.
As an educator who has worked in the largest public-school system in the country, my passion and purpose has always been to work with school communities to embrace the great diversity in our school system, and to provide students with the best rigorous education possible. I was always determined to create an environment that validated every student’s life experiences as tools for learning. I put this into action when founding the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) in 2007, the country’s first Arabic dual-language public school.
My vision for racially and ethnically just education was at the heart of the founding of KGIA. For schooling to be racially just, students of all backgrounds must have a voice and a place at the table with their families to take ownership of their learning, and become partners in the process.
In the beginning stages of developing KGIA, I was adamant about developing it in partnership with the communities it was set to serve. I brought to the table a design team reflecting the diversity of the NYC public school that had teachers, students, lawyers, community activists, community leaders, and elders. This team saw that KGIA was going to be more than just a dual language school, but a school that was going to prepare inner city youth to become global citizens prepared to take on the 21st century challenges through community connections. But I learned important lessons from the experience. If you want to prepare students to meet this kind of prejudice, you need to train and equip teachers with tools to engage in “Culturally Responsive Education” that is academically rigorous and personally meaningful and relevant for their students. Students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds should be viewed as full human beings, who should be valued. Only then will they feel connected with who they are racially and ethnically, as part of a broader caring community.
The importance of this kind of education is what it led me to create Bridging Cultures Group Inc. (BCG) earlier this year. BCG trains educators and other professionals – including attorneys, medical personnel and social service providers — to undo stereotypes against all groups, but particularly Arab, Muslim and South Asian cultures.
What I’ve seen in my work is the transformative power of education. But as the recent racist and discriminatory events in our society proved, we still have a long way to go. Earlier this year, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced a plan to provide anti-bias trainings for 250 new teachers and 360 current teachers. The necessary funds were added to the executive budget, but funding has not been released by City Hall.
Students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds should be attending schools where they see their families as leaders on the School Leadership Team, the Parent Teacher Association, and/or volunteering to strengthen their child(ren) schools. They deserve schools where equity is at the heart of every initiative, where students’ culture, language, family, and history are seen as rich sources of experience and knowledge, not as deficits.