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Reflecting on the Tenacity and Tensions of Transformation

By Joel Llaban Jr.
Reflecting on the Tenacity and Tensions of Transformation

The tensions and collective scaffolds and strands strengthen and sustain this bamboo bridge, taking us from current to desired states. (Photo source: Joel JLlaban Jr.)

This year-end reflection shared during the AIELOC Year-end Community Visioning is about us, folks who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), People of the Global Majority (PGM), folks from the Global South, for us and by us, as well as allies and co-conspirators who are near and dear to us and our lived experiences. This is also for White folks, White folks from the Global North, who are ready to embrace this critical reflection as a gift of learning, to lean into our truths and experiences, and those who are ready to reimagine and co-create a different construct with us — hopeful, healing, and liberating. Throughout the development of this reflection, I made a deliberate effort to shelter myself from the “white gaze”, a term by Toni Morrison and made known to me by our friend and educational leader Darnell Fine, so I didn’t have to revert to the cycle of silencing or gaslighting myself in aid of white comfort. This is not a research article, but a personal reflection that after a year evolved into an article aimed to name and notice, provoke thinking, weave strands of wisdom and wonders from experts, and hopefully inspire individuals and communities to take action and tell more of our street data and our stories. It is not all-encompassing and while it uses ‘we’ it does not aim to represent or speak for all, because surely there are missing perspectives and strands of thinking due to the limited lenses of our identities, positionalities and contexts. Rather, it is a way to make sense of the many threads of reflections, conversations, and experiences within our communities. The questions I ask and the challenge I pose here are the same ones I ask myself. This is not conclusive nor a conclusion, knowing that as we grapple with complexities, changes, and new learning, our thinking evolves. There is this revered wisdom from Audre Lorde and bell hooks that I lean into when we are tempted to edit and suppress our voices: “Your silence will not protect you.” “When we are committed to doing the work of love, we listen even when it hurts.” 

Today and every day, we celebrate this innovative, transformative, brave, and loving community. This community has grappled with pain and power, anger and action, and rage and reflection. It is a space of resistance, recollection, and resilience. It is a community that is in symphony with a global movement from people who we may or may not know yet. It is in consonance with our relentless pursuit for sustainable, restorative, intersectional, antiracist, and loving change. This community stands on the shoulders of people who have come before us and alongside us in this movement and is enriched and sustained by the boldness and brilliance of the many authors, experts, and community leaders of today, whose lives and lessons we learn from. 

Our “Beloved Community”

The Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC) is our “beloved community” (Love 2019), a wellspring of care, a place for connection, collaboration, research, and learning. It is a cultivator of leadership and an igniter of action. Many of us were once strangers in siloed existence, yet with shared questions, wonders, and reckoning, we challenged “the way we’ve always done” and the systems of oppression we’ve inherited and or co-designed in the international education ecosystems. It is within and through AIELOC that we have gravitated toward each other with our intertwined fear and courage. We forged a stronger community of practice and a community of purpose. Despite real and incalculable fear, we find ways to challenge and influence changes in systems. Systems that while some of us consequently and subsequently benefit from, have not really been designed for all of us despite their claims of inclusion. We have taken the risks to co-inquire and co-investigate the lack of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice in however ways we can in places where we can. While the recent silos can be attributed to the pandemic and travel restrictions, these were, in the grand scheme, deeper than what is currently manifested. The silos of BIPOCs in white-centered cultures and systems might be self-imposed, by-design, and or systems-imposed. Because many of us did not fully see ourselves here — we never got to see others.

Most of us have not seen each other in person and yet the friendship, co-creation, affinity, and comradeship we have are fuelled by the congruence of our cause as we pursue our radical dream of intersectional justice. We are immensely grateful to Kevin Simpson, the founder of AIELOC, and his team for the deep sense of belonging and for providing shelter to many of us. Kevin and AIELOC are formidable, selfless, and bold in amplifying our identities, our voices, and our actions. Creating spaces, and removing barriers to access. We are grateful to the growing number of affinity groups and the facilitators within AIELOC who help us host and heal our past experiences, from hostility to happiness. 

Rage and Radical Love & The Shelter We Needed

This yearend reflection is not aimed to sentimentalize narratives of internalized oppression or victimization, but an acknowledgement and expression of rage and love, that requires sense-making, theorizing, articulation, and transgression not only to challenge self and systems as we nurture our liberatory consciousness, but also a way to heal the traumas we carry. 

Many of us needed shelter at AIELOC because we have witnessed and been exposed to the violence of the unexamined powers and privileges of whiteness, white supremacy cultures, of anti-Black and AsianHate, colorism, sexism, and casteism. We have been recipients of linguistic injustice and accentism, Islamophobia and patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia. We have experienced identity invalidation and erasure, microaggressions, gaslighting, and so many more in our physical, historical, socio-emotional, and virtual spaces. Much of these harms live in nuance, heavily breathing in the interpersonal, while some are blatant and baked in the institutional. Much of this violence has consequential trauma that can be cyclical and recurrent, and so deeply internalized and normalized that much of its working exists within us. We knowingly and unknowingly march along with the denials, damages, and dangers, that further reverberated the question Cornel West posed, “How did I become so well-adjusted to injustice?” 

Many of us needed shelter at AIELOC because it is in this brave space where we value truth-telling and energize each other for action-taking. It is a sacred place where we share and seek warmth and wisdom because we have been surviving in places where the repeated questioning of our worth renders us exhausted and demoralized. Within AIELOC, our rage is unfiltered and our tears are storytellers because our authenticities and vulnerabilities are valued as we center healing, as we “center voices of the margin,” and “uncover stories of hope and harm”, and use these street data as “tools for learning and transformation” (Dugan & Safir, 2021). It is in this space where we also acknowledge our roles and responsibilities and interrogate our culpability for the injustice we have become so well-adjusted and complicit. It is where we say, That’s enough and It’s long overdue. It is where we ask, What harm have we caused? What radical dreams can be built? What actions can we take? Who else is not here? Who else have we left behind? 

Diversity & Reimagining Representation

It is in the AEILOC community where we radically dream to complete narratives that will include us because our hegemonic systems have been designed to know, listen, understand, design, and tell a “single story” (Adiche, 2009). We have been systemically positioned to be patient, which makes us perennial and peripheral witnesses to the story of whiteness to which none of its narratives is our authorship and creation and yet we are also contributors to and recipients of the burns and brunts of its historical and institutional domination. Our ideas and identities, credentials, and credibilities are legitimized only when they get uttered from a white person’s mouth. 

Our call for diversity and representation in recruitment for school leaders and leaders in the classrooms is perceived, for some or many, as a cancellation of or an attack on white male identities, which in itself has received denial, defensiveness, and to a certain extent, vitriol; perhaps results of white fragility, white apathy, and what Cheryl E. Matias coined “white emotionality”. However, there is a need for folks to understand that the call for diversity is meant to ensure children - particularly Black, Brown, neurodiverse, and queer children - in Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's words have "mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors" that allow them to see themselves in their own fullness through narratives found not only in the books they read but also in the diverse adults around them; adults whose identities and narratives are lights, prisms, and mirrors to children, reflecting their own power and potential. 

The call for diversity in recruitment — that is for schools to intentionally and actively hire historically marginalized identities — is intended for diverse identities where we can co-lead and co-create so that children will witness strengths, capabilities, characters, abundance, and completeness in the diverse adults around them. It is for children to learn from diverse adults in their lives at school the many different ways of knowing, being, and expressing. That there are many different ways of living, learning, and loving — beyond whiteness, beyond western-ness, beyond heteronormativity, beyond neurotypicality, beyond Eurocentrism, beyond our colonized mindsets, beyond our monochromatic “literary imaginations”. We need to examine and break the biases we hold in order for us to shift and see internalized ideas far beyond our construct as we understand ourselves and our systems deep within.

How might we shift the way international schools recruit leaders and educators? Oftentimes,  “diverse candidates” are given the onus to be “marketable”. For individuals to be more, to do more, and to prove more. The very fact that BIPOC, women, LGBTQI+ leaders and educators already made it this far in an inequitable track, means we are more and have done more, just to make it here. We are more than enough! It is for recruiters to re-examine their biased and racist ideologies that underpin and sustain inequitable recruitment practices. BIPOC applicants do not need more workshops on how to design a marketable resume or how to interview, instead it is recruiters that require deep learning and unlearning on ways to seek out, see, and cultivate the value of candidates who do not look like them, their characters, competence, and geniuses. What might be other hiring practices beyond recruiting from our inner circles because of convenience, network, affinity, fraternity, paternalism, and the value proposition of whiteness to the elites of and in the Global South? 

While diverse recruitment has become a prioritised response or action, the work first and foremost must also be for schools and organizations to design and cultivate anti-racist, inclusive and equitable cultures and environments in order to sustain, and not burn out their new “diverse hires”. The diversity of our school is a consequence of our beliefs and actions on inclusion, equity, and justice. The diversity of our schools and organizations is a consequence of our intentional disruption of hostile, racist, and sexist environments. When we are inclusive, equitable and just, we will become diverse — and what a gift that is! 

When it comes to looking for BIPOC candidates, recruiters sometimes speak of not compromising quality or looking for qualified diverse candidates. What undertones might some of these statements have? Do we allude to the same qualifiers or implicit assumptions for white candidates? White male candidates for leadership would receive a “He needs this first admin experience. It’s his time.” BIPOC, women, LGBTQI+ candidates would get: “I wish she/he/they had more admin experience. Let’s give them more time.” White leaders are given chances to falter and be flawed in their roles and we readily view it with empathy, offer second chances, leeway, and “mistakes are part of learning”. We stay silent in bad decisions made, or worse, the acceptance of “that’s just his leadership style.” BIPOC, women, LGBTQI+ leaders faltering and flawed and it will be seen as lack of experience, lack of training, or “family obligations have taken over”, “they were not ready for it”. What other examples might you have of this broken pipeline, consequential of double standards and deficit narratives? How are we contributors and interrupters? We are not ‘canceling’ white male folks in leadership —  we are calling out the toxicity and harm of the ideological and institutional racism, as well as sexism, classism, ableism, native speakerism, and linguistic injustice inherent in our systems, which are sustained by what Michelle Mijung Kim, author of The Wake Up, alluded to as the “conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement.”

The call for diversity across the board — from people, curriculum, literary imagination, and ways of knowing, to the many other essential elements that are foundations of children’s states of becoming and states of being at schools — undergirds the needs of Black, Brown, neurodiverse, and queer kids for role models and mirrors in their identity development as they take ownership of and celebrate the validity, beauty, strengths, joys, and genius of their evolving and expansive identities (Wickner) so that they can live their authentic selves free to show up and take up space without shedding any part of who they are. Children need the various essential elements diversified and reimagined in order to provide counternarratives to “single stories” about themselves and others. Lorena Escoto Germán, author of Textured Teaching wrote, “All young people need to see themselves and others in powerful renditions of themselves that offer counternarratives to what our schools have historically taught us.” Estelle Baroung Hughes, president of Africa Learning International and principal at the International School of Dakar challenges us in a recent conference to “start by diversifying our brain, and the children will see that and become more open-minded.” Hughes added, “International education was built in a colonial context, very elitist, and a very very exclusive brand, so we made this happen, centering one culture and excluding others intentionally. So it is time to undo this work as intentionally as it was done, we need to undo it.”

It further brings to mind the brilliance of Christopher Emdin, author of Ratchetdemic, and one of his thoughts about reimagining academic success for all students. “To achieve a state of consciousness that allows one to operate in the world having mind, body, and spirit activated, validated, and whole without distortion or concession as one acquires all essential knowledge." How might we need to rewire the ways we view and act upon the power that are barriers to or enablers of diverse access? What might we need to systematically dismantle in order to develop diverse accessible pathways for all? Emdin invites us to "imagine a school system that is designed for students' complete self-actualization and how young people emerge from their time within such a school system—fully aware of their greatness and infinite potential." Children need to be able to see tangibly and intangibly in all systems and spaces that greatness and infinite potential can also inhabit the bodies and minds of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Peoples of Color, neurodiverse and queer folks. 

White children also require for themselves role models who will show up as truth-tellers and upstanders against systemic racism in the adults around them who have intentionally learned and practiced to “destigmatize privilege” (Kleinrock, 2018). Adults who understand and decenter whiteness in the service of antiracist visions. They need to see white adults who are self-reflecting, educating, critically transforming systems, and not debilitated by guilt and shame. They need role models who are in coalition and solidarity with BIPOCs, People of the Global Majority, and People from the Global South in building anti-racist actions, influencing policies, power-sharing, and healing. They need role models who understand that equity, inclusion, and justice are not zero-sum and that nothing will be taken away from them when they decenter, actively remove barriers, and provide access to others. White children need to see white adults who acknowledge their whiteness, as well as break free, unsubscribe, and unlearn white supremacy cultures, and deeply understand that “though white supremacy was built by and for the benefit of white people, it resides in everyone”, and it harms everyone; and that “white supremacist delusion still forms the foundation of racism we’ve seen throughout history and the present-day…embedded in every aspect of our society” (Kim, 2021). 

Alexander Gardner-McTaggart, a lecturer at the University of Manchester, shared in his research entitled Washing the World in Whiteness; International Schools’ Policy that “policy makers do not utilise the unique opportunity of running an international school to bring awareness of injustice or whiteness, and its pervasive power – nor do they embed related policy. Whilst there exists a ‘ … critical understanding of multicultural education … ’ there is no ‘ … anti-racist education as well as the pedagogy necessary to enact it’ (Kenyon 2018, 29). Rather, it appears that international schools systematise individualised neoliberal freedom and somewhat blatantly promote an internationalising cultural hegemony.”

White school leaders and leaders in the classroom are well positioned for anti-racist work if they choose to, using their historical and contextual influence and impact, their systemic privilege and power to leverage change. To model for white children ways to actively resist the mindsets, behaviors, and systems that perpetuate harm. To challenge systems that disproportionately, predominantly, or solely benefit white people. To be in genuine solidarity with other anti-racist, anti-bias, and culturally responsive & culturally sustaining educators with the understanding that, as defined by Muhammad Khalifa in his book Culturally Responsive School Leadership, “oppressive structures and practices will remain in place unless the status quo is challenged and educators and leaders know how to properly push against oppression” Importantly, it is for white educators to see self and others in new lenses — using lenses that are asset-based, additive, and humanizing. 

Our Socialization, Systems of Oppression & Liberation

This antiracist vision and radical dream have to be in every educator’s and institution’s moral imperative, in alignment with what Angeline Aow, International Advisor for the Council of International Schools posited, “Schools are a reflection of society, and schools, I think, are also an opportunity for us to help shape what society will look like in the future.” To use our powers and privileges as levers for change. And in white-centered institutions, to examine “whiteness at the center of the reproduction of structural inequality”. Bettina Love, the author of We Want to Do More than Survive, wrote “White folx truly concerned about understanding racism, about being in solidarity with dark folx, about building community, and folks who are interested in intersectional justice have to start learning about Whiteness and how it functions.” It is also for all of us to resist the continuous subscription to the pressures and pleasures of our internalized superiority and to the harmful narratives of dominant cultures and identities that we have internalized and inherited. Contrary to isolated work of “doing equity” work championed by “equity warriors” (Dugan, 2021), this moral imperative must be the bedrock for schools and organizations as we aim for educational justice. Ceci Gomez-Galvez, a thought leader on linguistic justice, shared her radical dream, “Equitable and inclusive practices become foundations of how educational systems are built. That it is not something we talk about separately from what already exists, but rather the norm of how we build and design learning experiences”. 

Learning from our dear friend and thought leader in our community, Alysa Perreras, this movement requires white and BIPOC educators and institutions to become “traitors to the systems of oppression” by acknowledging, problematizing, defining, and dismantling. “Oppression is historical, yet its structures continue to shape the lives of minoritized people. It is reproductive, and requires little effort to reproduce.” (Khalifa, 2018) It is therefore time to rethink and reimagine our early, institutional, and cultural socialization growing up along with its enforcements, rewards, sanctions, and shame (Harro, 2008) that have resulted in the development and fossilization of our ideologies, beliefs, behaviors, and biases that can easily be metabolized into discriminatory, oppressive, harmful actions. What explicit and implicit messages did we receive as children that were affirming and invalidating? Conversely, What messages do children now explicitly and implicitly receive from adults and institutions that are affirming and invalidating? 

Bobbie Harro’s frameworks, the Cycle of Socialization and Cycle of Liberation, are examples of tools to inquire about as we examine our personal, historical, and current realities and redirect us to the movement towards liberation. In our teaching, through culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogical frameworks, resources, and practices, all children need a reimagined socialization moving forward: that success, strength, abundance, and beauty can also live in Black, Brown, neurodivergent, and queer bodies — a radical shift from how we have been socialized. Many of our socialization at home and in schools, through a range of media, in our curriculum and communities, in the arts, and in languages, have formed our internalized oppressions and ideologies, which have been defined by and marked against what has been considered as standards, valid, and the norm, considered acceptable and legitimate. While these socializations have influenced and undergirded inequitable and exclusionary institutional designs based on a “norm”, these are gravely manifested in our internal cognitive wiring as well as in our interpersonal interactions. And so in our commitment to liberation, we need to continue to nurture our liberatory consciousness that according to Barbara J. Love “enables humans to live their lives in oppressive systems and institutions with awareness and intentionality, rather than on the basis of our socialization to which they have been subjected.”

It is our responsibility in education to provide spaces in our classrooms where students are agents in naming and critiquing injustice to build a better world. In the words of Gholdy Muhammad, author of Cultivating Genius, “As long as oppression is present in the world, young people need pedagogy that nurtures criticality.”

Stretches and Shifts

The colonialism, sexism, and racism at the foundations of our systems are better exposed and illuminated. There are many educators who are creating dissonance, confronting and renaming realities, refusing to collude to take privilege, and not asking permission to enact change within their schools and organizations. (Harro, 2018) We have noticed how individuals and institutions are experiencing stretches and shifts. However, our socialization for power-hoarding, neutrality, and the protectionism of personal and institutional ego compelled us to rush to make ourselves hostage and debilitated to some of these weaponized narratives of the “perceived loss of reputation as western, English-medium schools” that “parents are looking for”. We have heard it expressed, “There are not enough BIPOC candidates in the pool”. Already feeling exasperated, some of us further say, “It will take time for us to get there.” “We have conflicting priorities.” Some are either feeling helpless or projecting helplessness, “We have discriminatory host country laws and we cannot do anything about it.” “This is the business model of international schools.”

The pandemic was also an excuse to not address a historical “pandemic” of intersectional injustice that we have long ignored. Some have also siloed DEIJ and treated it as an add-on, a side committee, an adhoc, a little think tank, a book club, or any other affiliative structures and scaffolds so long as it does not change the very pillars that hold up the system. And while they are starting points, they can also communicate an implicit message that DEIJ is an after-thought, a periphery, an additional burden, a “now-we-have-to-do-this-in-addition-to” an already busy school life. Anti-racist, anti-bias, and anti-oppression work can already become too much and too cumbersome to handle for those who hold power, or those who are proponents of the preservations and resistant to the de-privatization of their privileges. “Why can’t we all just get along?” “We value all children.” “This is now making me confused about my culture.” “We have always been an inclusive school.” “We have an inclusion program.” “We are an international school, we value all cultures.” “We are already doing works on equity.” “I read diverse books to my class.” “We have so much on our plate.” I will leave you to explore how these statements might be problematic or emblematic of our contexts. “Educational leaders and teachers will either reproduce oppression or contest it.” (Khalifa, 2018)

In some contexts, the DEIJ engagement and work were high in the beginning when it was about white folks trying to be nice by helping and saving the marginalized, until it is about being kind — by being anti-racist and posing discomfort to our privileges, a threat to white supremacy and the traditional programming of power. To be kind is not to “suspend judgement” on racism. It is to be judgemental of racism! While the struggles are or may be unrelatable to the white population in our school, it is deeply personal for BIPOCs in our communities. Hanif Fazal, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at the Center for Equity and Inclusion, wrote in a post “Educators must be willing to engage equity work as mission-critical, ongoing, and personal, personal, personal to them. This is more than just learning about strategies and pedagogy. This has to be held as a deeply personal journey, that over time will shape their practice.”

Xoài David, international school alumni and founder of Organization to Decolonize International School wrote“There is such adulation of the Western world across the Global South; international schools need a conspicuous number of Western teachers to be deemed desirable by the local elite. Parents dream of sending their children to Ivy League schools, Oxford and Cambridge. They want their kids to internalise whiteness as a standard. The denigration of our own cultures has been going on for so long, and enforces the narrative of Western superiority”. It can be easy and tempting to find reasons why DEIJ cannot be pursued, instead of courageously leading and facilitating the learning and action taking of our communities to deeply examine the gravity of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work as a bedrock for child and adult protection. 

We have to shift our purpose and the transformational why for this work, from our prioritization and overvaluing of what parents want to what children need, so we get to move away from using parents as collateral for not doing the work on DEIJ. While parents’ voices must be listened to and valued, they also need to be informed and guided on the transformative purpose of DEIJ. Schools need to involve parents, including parents in community leadership and those in school governance, in visioning, learning, and action-taking. To start with the idea that this work is a work of partnership, community, and shared accountability; and not adversarial or can be done in isolation. 

Parents need a kind of parent education that is focused on identity-centered learning (Wickner) as well as an examination of racist ideologies, decoloniality, and our internalized worship of whiteness. Parents need to understand that DEIJ is ultimately child safety. Particularly the safety of Black, Brown, queer and neurodiverse children to learn, exist, and form and own one's humanity. Schools have committed not to be complicit in sexual abuse and physical violence in our schools defined in the tenets of Child Protection. Why would racism, sexism, and classism be any different when all of these are forms of oppression and dehumanization? We know we cannot afford to be selective on what is defined as harm and what constitutes harm.

Let us challenge ourselves to interrogate how sheltered we are by powers and privileges that have provided us the luxury and choice to opt out. These are barriers to transformation and obstacles to equity and justice. Let us design transparent and measurable outcomes of DEIJ work grounded on a more lasting and transformative purpose, beyond checking off equity work from our to-do list. To cultivate truly participatory processes that will include folks as co-creators and co-designers. We have to go beyond the act of merely seeking feedback from our communities and call the process inclusive, and yet continue to have impactful and influential decisions made by a select few. Michelle Mijung Kim suggests that we have to “begin by moving beyond good intentions to interrogating our deeper “why” for committing to social justice and uncovering our ‘hidden stories’”. Kim added, “Our waking up to other’s suffering isn’t enough; change requires that we wake up to ourselves - our complicity, our power, our capacity to transform ourselves and the world around us”.

Belonging, Allyship & Co-Conspiracy

While our community at AIELOC continues to generate support and partnerships from white co-conspirators, we also know this movement doesn’t come without a cost. It is "good trouble" and with it are its eternal partners: risks, retaliation, and silence. Some of us were silenced. Some doors were closed. Some lost jobs and friends. These are not particularly new phenomena, as many of us, BIPOCs experience silence and being silenced in different layers in our careers and lived experiences in international education. There is the overt silencing as well as the kind of silencing that manifests in the intangible. It is in the interactions and decision-making where our identities and/or ideas are reduced, omitted, forgotten, tabled, set aside, invalidated, whitesplained, and whitewashed. In this work, leaders committed to DEIJ and anti-racist anti-bias work need to genuinely listen to silence, the silent, and the silenced in our communities. To be in communication and solidarity with folks farthest in the margins, as opposed to remaining in echo chambers with the loudest voices in their hierarchies and enclaves of power, and from whom they have been used to getting approvals and affirmations. In a like manner, how might we decenter and examine some of our epistemologies of leadership that are nourished by white supremacy cultures that we have been socialized to believe, behave, subscribe to, and practice, including perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, worship of written word, power-hoarding, binary thinking, fear of open conflict, and paternalism, that have long exhausted the humanity of marginalized identities? Tema Okun, the author of White Supremacy Culture, identified these characteristics for us to deeply reflect upon.

We have come to realize that holding up a mirror for the system to which we seemingly belong is a risk. Seemingly — because our belonging is conditional to what systems deemed "best fit", compliant to the defined qualities, levels of acceptability, and stipulations defined by and marked against the dominant cultures and identities. Who gets readily conferred the “assumption of competence”? Isabel Wilkerson, the author of Caste, writes “Marginalized people have a hard enough time moving about in a world built for others.” She added, “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It’s about power, which groups have it or which do not. It’s about resources, which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not. It’s about respect, authority, assumptions of competence - who is accorded these and who is not.” Where might the power to transform, diversify, and include, live in international education? How might some of these power structures and imbalances be harmful? What kinds of power might we have, that when harnessed with equity and inclusion and justice at its core can transform our communities into places of genuine belonging? 

As a pathway moving forward, schools and organizations need to engage in intentional and honest reflection about the depths of our individual and systemic identities, the harms of “othering”, and who we predominantly see and think of when we invoke, “You belong here”. We know that our learning ecosystems were not designed for everyone, and so by default, not everyone belongs. Because if we truly belong in the here and now, then we see more of our identities and stories in the Boardrooms and leadership teams. And in the classrooms and libraries, unquestioned and undenied, and certainly not in segregated boxes which are labeled “diverse books” in reference to and marked against white narratives. Adrienne Maree Browne posed these questions in an interview on On Being, “What does it look like to imagine beyond the constructs? What does it look like to imagine a future where we all get to be there (to truly belong), not causing harm to each other, and experiencing abundance?”

Bradford Philen, international educator and author of a number of books including Autumn Falls and When the Color Started, observed and made a connection when we spoke about language and definitions and DEIJ in schools, How student social-emotional well-being (SEL) work sort of swallowing DEIJ work that needs to happen. Meaning, schools will showcase SEL as DEIJ work, and while the two have connections they cannot be interpreted or viewed as synonymous.” This reminds us of Dena Simmons’ words quoted on Ed Surge in an article written by Mary Jo Madda, “What’s the point of teaching children about conflict resolution skills,” Simmons says, “if we’re not talking about the conflicts that exist because of racism or white supremacy? Without that nuance, she says SEL risks turning into “white supremacy with a hug.”

Pathways Moving Forward

The reasons and relevance of international education’s existence — the reimagined essence of its purpose, informed by the acknowledgement of its history, the shifts of its contexts, sustained by the diversity of its people — must be centered in our community’s radical dreaming; in order for us to come to a realization that as international schools, perhaps we have to transcend from being a white-centered system with exclusive attachment to white and western epistemologies; and evolve and expand into learning communities with wide-encompassing intersectional identities. To (re)examine terms such as “global citizenship” and “intercultural understanding”, or what it means to be “international” — and problematize how these terms are perhaps coined from a position of privilege, white-referenced and white-centered. To continue to grapple to find the impact of these terms beyond what we can consume and commodify within the perimeters of our privileges. 

Alexander Gardner-McTaggart wrote, “Internationalism through international schools is often an extension of Englishness and whiteness, an Anglo-Internationalism steeped in post-colonialism at once derivative and constructive of what it means to be international. This Englishness grants symbolic capital to those who have it, and enacts symbolic violence towards those who do not.” (Bourdieu 1984) How might we continue to reshape a definition of “internationalism” that is more responsive, relevant, agentic, restorative, decolonial, and impactful to our world beyond the elite walls we are in, to the kind of world we envision for adults and children? — especially to Black and Brown adults and children — to belong, to matter, to thrive, and to succeed?

Interrogation of Power, Privilege, & Positionalities

The power, privilege, and positionalities of self and systems do not like to be interrogated. The AIELOC community, alumni groups, and other BIPOC communities have held up that mirror; and some power holders who found the growing revelations unpalatable may have also vilified the individuals of this community, publicly or privately, or in remote comforts and enclaves of their caste-mates. Folks may have also armored up using white fragility, and a range of manipulative and subtle techniques to convince us that their ignorance of intersectional oppressions, their “journey in learning”, their need for guidebooks, pathways, and models, or their “you need to understand where we are coming from”; as well as “I am ignorant”, “I am still listening”; and “meet us where we are” need urgent care, sensitivity, and attention over the marginalized identities’ everyday lived experiences in oppression, dehumanization, and injustice — and while these statements are real and honest expressions of needs, fears, and hesitations, some are also used as intentional ways to deflect and divert. What ends up happening is that there is more work educating white folks, shouldered by BIPOCs, using our “race-related traumas as their education tool” (Kim, 2021) as opposed to addressing in solidarity the systemic inequities experienced by the marginalized communities. 

Solidarity over Saviorism

How can we ensure that we are shifting the kind of support BIPOCs need in leading this work at schools and organizations? To be provided with genuine leadership, time, accountability, finance, agency, autonomy, space, and support instead of exhausting our energies in navigating power structures? How can we minimise knocking on doors and asking and waiting for permission from powerholders instead of working together in genuine co-creation, coalescing, codependency, and coalition? (Harro, 2008) How are DEIJ leads better positioned for shifts in representation, a kind of representation that has “real decision-making powers to influence”? (Kim, 2021) How can we ensure that we are not just focusing our energies caring for “white emotionality”, and dodging the invalidation of white leaders who are resistant to decenter themselves in their effort to “do good”, and therefore in their effort to “do good”, they overcompensate and occupy space and inadvertently silence others? Unless we re-imagine power and examine power imbalance, this type of “representation” can make it appear that schools and organizations are “doing the work”. (Kim, 2021)

Michelle Mijung Kim emphasized that “different marginalized communities have been shouldering the pain and resisting systemic oppression for centuries, and while some of us may have just now become conscious of them for the first time, our excitement to do good should never come at the expense of those who have already been doing the work without us”. BIPOCs who are leading this work at schools and organizations witness white leaders’ expedited proclamation of their safety, reflectiveness, increased racial literacy, and that they “get it”, yet we wonder about the emotional safety or trustworthiness about the nuanced ways they “ally” because their resistance to truly listen, and the power-wielding, silencing, talking over, gatekeeping, and white centering have further replicated the harm to marginalized identities. Some have been positioned as figureheads with the real decisions still carved out and carried out by white folks. 

What shifts might need to be done when folks self-identify as allies who are purportedly “doing the work”, and yet resistant to decenter the need for control, with a self-serving sense of urgency for self and organizational accomplishment? How might this lead to a false sense of solidarity? This reminds us of what Daniel Wickner, founder of Identity Centered Learning, coined toxic self-protagonizing, which further creates and replicates intended or unintended harm to marginalized identities. How can we avoid that “false generosity” that Freire defined for us? It can happen when this work is done without true co-creation and when our engagement in DEIJ work is only meant to coddle one’s own goodness in search of the immediate sense of absolution in order to dust off the “guilt”. Michelle Mijung Kim illuminates the idea that “when our why positions ourselves as do-gooders going out of our way to help others, it creates an imbalance of dynamic rooted in saviorism that causes harm despite our good intentions.” 

Because of the surge in activism, we have this sudden urge to engage in systems work but are sometimes not preluded or paralleled with self-work. For some leaders, it has become clinical or technical work in educational leadership, making this work one of the next projects, initiatives, or book club; yet they are also tentative or resistant about being in solidarity and partnership with BIPOC individuals and communities where they can be listeners, in order to re-imagine and challenge their thinking, to unsettle their positions and comfort, and to listen and respond to the lead from BIPOC educators and school leaders. What can I learn from others beyond the constructs of my identities and positionalities?

Some continue to see the AIELOC community as an ‘other’, viewed from a place of distance, or as an act of dissent. While some tend to listen more to other white folks who are “leading”, and to some extent commodifying this work more than from BIPOC facilitators because perhaps they tend to receive more affirmation of their “journey” or validation of their goodness in “how they’ve helped the marginalized and the under-represented”, as opposed to learning from BIPOCs who are creating disruptions and sharing radical ways to rename realities. It is both surprising and unsurprising, considering the observed penchant for white centering, to see the number of white folks who have suddenly become “experts” in this work, and while well-intentioned, this posturing has also dimmed the lived experiences and expertise of BIPOCs. Kim added, “Too many still approach social justice work like community service as if we’re doing a favor for marginalized identities, as if we’re spending our time and resources to be selfless and as if we are deserving of grace, because “at least we are trying”. Kim added, “This attitude is problematic as it centers us as martyrs while mischaracterizing the necessary work of addressing centuries of systemic oppression as charity work”.

What might folks need to decenter in order for us to surface who gets harmed; and who requires individual, generational and systemic healing, reparation, and restitution? Our friend and educational leader, Jessica Wei Huang, reminds us to “Stay strong and to resist the urge to tend the discomfort that comes with the loss of power and positionality. Let us support each other, BIPOCs and white friends, in the intellectual, political, and emotional labor it takes to dismantle white supremacy in our own hearts and minds.” 

Holding Multiple Truths

We need to hold these multiple truths: To celebrate the work of the growing number of international schools and organizations that are beginning, advancing, consolidating, and carving strategic pathways for DEIJ; as well as name and notice the absence of deliberate attention and intentional work on DEIJ in international schools and organizations. The public statements, optical and performative allyship, the change of social media profile photo frames, as well as the indignation of the murder of George Floyd, had an expiration date. The silence, however, commenced months later; and then DEIJ were cut off, relegated, or deprioritized. 

We have the choice to opt out because we have been sheltered from the tyranny of a much deeper and more expansive intersectional oppression and dehumanization, beyond what many of us can comprehend and experience. We have witnessed in the comforts of our safe spaces more pronounced evidence of injustice: the global inequity in vaccine distribution, the occupation and terrorization of Palestine, anti-LGBTQI+ protection laws drafted and passed into law, the systemic obstruction and selective safe passage of refugees to safety, and violation of farmers’ land rights, not to mention the injustice that are unreported or do not make it to our mobile screens. Many of us in our gated communities can only bear witness to a glimmer of this dehumanization from our limited lenses through our “service projects' that we know can also be riddled with saviorism. College application essays can be peppered with “We’ve helped the poor', “supported our local communities', and “raised funds”. “We’ve integrated SDGs into our units.” “We’ve shown videos about poverty to inspire kids to take action.” We have taken photos of our “donation drives”, among other actions, that if we are not deeply reflective and critical enough, while well-intentioned and helpful, could fall into saviorism or performative acts of generosity, and render subsequent and continuous commodification of the oppression of people in our effort to “think, feel, look, and do good”. 

Tensions & Pain Points

We are at turning points of transformation. This requires us to hold on to the tensions and tenacity that come along with growth and changes. Margaret Wheatly wrote, “Hope and fear are intimate, eternal partners.” It is sometimes difficult to hold both emotions in one container, living in fear of the uncertainties and pushbacks, while also steadfast and hopeful that we are cultivating our dreams and radically committing to liberation. As we continue to pursue this hope in mind, Paulo Freire has invited us to think of the word radical, differently and more profoundly. “The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a circle of certainty within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully (they) enter into reality so that, knowing it better, (they) can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider (themselves) the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but (they) commit (themselves), within history, to fight at their side.” 

We have the proclivity to skip grappling with the messy. “White supremacy wants us to believe there are efficient solutions to complex problems, thereby encouraging us to prematurely ditch the necessary grappling when we cannot find a simple solution to a problem at hand.” (Kim, 2021) We have the tendency to “spray and pray” (Dugan) equity and justice work and to conceal stories of harm and gloss them over with contrived positivity, cultural harmony, and “getting along”, and penalize in many forms and ways those who question and speak up because we don’t want to confront and unravel the uncomfortable truths that we live in a racialized world and it is historically and currently harmful. It is too risky for the business model to upset the status quo. 

At times, we settle for professional learning on concepts and frameworks that minimally challenge, if not intentionally minimize, inequity and injustice. Frameworks that only leave us reflecting on our denial or adaptation to cultures, how to be culturally sensitive, or understanding interculturalism. While they can be starting points, we also need to be bold in delving deeply into inquiring about whose identities and cultures are perceived as dominant, powerful, and valuable. Muhammad Khalifa shared some questions that will expand our understanding of culture from a singular lens into a prism: “Whose culture can be seen? By whom? If it is seen, who can represent it? What is not seen even though we are all looking and experiencing? Who can represent that culture? Why did we want to see that culture in the first place? What are we contributing to the oppression of these cultures by potentially exoticizing it?” 

And I am adding a few more: Whose identities and cultures are silenced, acceptable, minimized, tokenized, viewed from a distance, referred to as “low-brow” culture, and non-mainstream in proximity to the standards of whiteness? Who has the power to include and who is on the outside waiting to be included? What shifts and balances in power can be made?

Protective of Readiness and Neutrality

Given the injustice happening around the world, how might those who are in power be more protective of people’s lack of readiness and neutrality, as opposed to those who speak out and name injustices, those who challenge us to rename our unjust realities, those who are taking leadership risks, those who are reshaping power structures, (Harro, 2008) and those who raise for us the levels of our critical consciousness in order to transform cultures and systems? 

Conversely, how might those who are in power have also sharpened their “leadership” tactics to deny advancing racial and gender justice? We have heard the reasoning that accreditation is not a regulatory process. However, the changes and impact of international education, and how it is shaped, are consequences of what accreditation has defined, and by default regulated. How are we selective about what to define as part of standards? If we are not mistaken, child protection is non-negotiable, fire safety is non-negotiable, and fiscal health is non-negotiable. Anti-racism must be non-negotiable. Lorena Escoto German left us with these words at the end of her book, Textured Teaching, “I want to hug you with these words: We are in no position to be apolitical or neutral members of society. As educators, we are either dismantling the unjust system in education, or we are complicit in it.” She added, “Know that when you teach in a holistic way that is working toward our liberation, you will receive pushback and you will face discomfort.” 

Many of us at AIELOC were asked to stride with sensitivity and palatability with our calls to action. We were asked not to offend. We were asked to be patient. To show a kind of optimism and positivity that also holds us hostage from speaking our truth, because if one raises questions and challenges the status quo they will be implicated for being negative, for being divisive, when what we are doing is calling out the systemic harm that we, too, are contributors. We were asked for this call for systemic change to be spoken with gentleness, kindness, care, and with less anger. Where might, in the vision and action that undergirds DEIJ unkind, careless, and insensitive? How might DEIJ work not be grounded on radical love for the lives and protection of adults and children? How can we interrogate our incessant defense of the status quo, of the non-political stance, and of neutrality — designed to protect and perpetuate systems of oppression? Michelle Mijung Kim has this to say, And even if we position ourselves as the neutral party just wanting to help with someone else’s situation, we create a false sense between us and our active participation in other’s oppression, ultimately failing to recognize that there is no such thing as neutrality within unequal systems”.


Some of our community leaders and members at AIELOC have been invited into different spaces that hold powers and privileges because of diversity and representation matter. In some of these spaces, seats were readily offered where we were able to co-create some new ways of being, knowing, and doing together. They invited us because they know we can, and not because they had to; and so we showed up in our authentic selves, unarmored, honest, and fearless. In some spaces, however, our silence is covertly ensured, where much of the rules of engagement are singular and controlled, lacking genuine curiosity; and more mindful of self-centered institutional implications and interests, with mitigative platitudes over transformational impact. 

There were manifestations of denials, detours, minimizations, and exceptionalism.  The genuine invitation to truly co-create ends where personal and institutional control and power were threatened. The participation lines were marked. These inner workings of white supremacy cultures are alive and breathing. Our collective work, along with the work of the global movement on anti-racism, is perceived and labeled as divisive, combative, and social media "noise" because it has surfaced for them a kind of truth they didn't want to confront. Wilkerson nailed it, “You cannot solve anything that you do not admit exists, which could be why some people may not want to talk about it: it might get solved.” 

Continuous Mobilization and Strengthening the Movement

We know the work of this community has impacted our well-being, and the relationships we have with ourselves and others. BIPOC, along with our white co-conspirators, together have learned to stand alone, strengthened by the words of Audre Lorde, "Learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled. Challenging the world's ways was lonely work then, and it's lonely work now." We questioned and doubted ourselves, and we almost always do, not because we can’t but because oppressive systems make us feel and believe we can’t. Some of us have lost friends because we have come to a point in our self-knowledge that the incongruence of our values has become inviolable.

We wonder how much of our intersectional identities and narratives are truly valued, included, celebrated, and not merely tolerated, assimilated, and tokenized in schools and in organizations. How much of our contributions truly are listened to for the transformation of our systems, or are our contributions merely filtered and siloed for what fits the easy routes for institutional preservations, lofty goals, and mitigative actions? Let us come together in a kind of solidarity that Audre Lorde defined, “Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.” 

The future may seem opaque and uncertain, and yet we forge ahead. We are all here together, in solidarity; however you identify in congruence and integration to this movement, trying to live and learn from the warmth and wisdom of Audre Lorde: "speaking truth to power", "making our own tools", "vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a change"; "our being and our existence become a form of political labor"; and "believing over and over again that what is most important must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of being bruised or misunderstood"

As we continue to persist and work, may the words of Lorde keep us grounded, “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” Therefore, let us give ourselves and our systems permission to further complicate our relationships with our contexts. It is in this questioning, the unpacking of our own contributions to systems of oppression, and the complexifying and stretching of each other’s thinking that we can hopefully further polish a renewed or re-imagined essence of what it means to educate anti-racist “global citizens” who will lead and build for others an equitable, inclusive and just world.

Here's to the many coming years of continuously mobilizing ourselves! Here’s to writing and telling our own stories. Here’s to planting seeds of trees whose shades we may not be able to sit under (Henderson). Here’s to radically dreaming! To witness, name, and celebrate the tenacity, truths, and tensions of our communities’ transformations. To write more angry love letters! To love and liberation! 


Paul Gorksi | Avoiding Racial Equity Detours 

Tema Okun | White Supremacy Culture 

Isabel Wilkerson | Caste

Identity Centered Learning | Wickner

Layla Saad | Me and White Supremacy 

Audre Lorde | The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House 

Shane Safir & Jamila Dugan | Street Data

Jamila Dugan | Beware of Equity Traps & Tropes 

Bettina Love | We Want to Do More than Survive

Michelle Mijung Kim | The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change

Destigmatizing Privilege | Liz Kleinrock

Resmaa Menakem | Trauma in Leadership

Washing the world in whiteness, international schools’ policy

Culturally Responsive School Leadership | Muhammad Khalifa

We are in a time of new suns | adrienne maree browne

Sustaining Courage

Anti Racist, Responsive Leadership in International Education

Shared Systemic Accountability

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text, other than the quoted and cited lines, belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee, or other group or individual.

Joel Jr LLABAN | (siya, he, him) is the Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Justice of the International Schools Services (ISS). He was previously a Learning Specialist, Instructional Coach, and Schoolwide DEIJ Lead at The International School of Kuala Lumpur. He has worked at the International School of Brussels, International School of Beijing, and Cebu International School. He has been working in education for 19 years as a classroom teacher with concurrent involvement and leadership in schoolwide curriculum, assessment, professional development, innovation and futures of learning, and strategic planning. He also served as a department coordinator and an accreditation coordinator. He is trained in international accreditation as a team evaluator and has been involved in accreditation visits to different international schools representing NEASC and CIS. Currently, Joel serves in the advisory role of the Council of International School’s Board Committee on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Anti Racism. He is also a member of the Editorial Team of The International Educator (TIE Online). Joel holds a Master of Education in International Education Administration from Endicott College in Massachusetts and a Certificate of International School Leadership from The Principals Training Center. He is a proud member of AIELOC and ISS Diversity Collaborative. Connect with Joel on Twitter @JoelJrLLABAN.

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