Taking Action: Advancing Social Justice through the Transformation of International Schools

January 7, 2021   |   By Mariana Castro and Christina Nelson

The International Educator

As we write this from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, with its wintery snowcapped buildings and frozen lakes, we recognize that we are on the Native lands of the Ho-Chunk nation as well as other indigenous peoples. We begin by acknowledging the circumstances that led to their forced removal and honor who they are and their history. We also acknowledge our roles in this history and the circumstances that brought us to and keep us in positions of power.

As educators of international students, the acknowledgement of this history and our positionality is as important as reflecting on the feelings created by these acknowledgements. If our immediate reaction is guilt or irritation, then it will be impossible to use that recognition to compel us to do anything but feel shame and anger. When we recognize the allowances provided to us and the reasons behind them with the intention to have it shape our perspectives, we are more likely to see and interrupt the existing bias and institutional racism that impact our international communities.

In other words, acknowledgement is not enough. Reflection without action can lead to cynicism and to unrealized potential. Nevertheless, acknowledgement and reflection are the first steps towards action and a critical step in the journey of advocacy and activism in education. After all, action without reflection can become meaningless, lead to educator burn out, and even harm rather than help our students. For this reason, in this article, we invite you to engage with us in a specific type of reflection: critical reflection. Critical reflection imparts change in our practice, our beliefs, and our values. It pushes us to action.

We want to explore institutional racism in terms of the systemic barriers, the policies and practices that lead to unequal access and to exclusion. John A. Powell, professor of law and director of the Othering and Belonging Institute (University of California, Berkeley), suggests the opposite of exclusion is not inclusion. Inclusion can be interpreted as an invitation to participate in the dominant culture. For example, inclusion at a prestigious school or university might look like this: “You are welcome into our school as long as you behave like us, talk like us, be like us.”

Powell proposes belonging as the opposite of exclusion. Belonging “…means that your well-being is considered and your ability to help design and give meaning to […] structures and institutions is realized” (Powell 2012, p. 5). In other words, belonging invites the system to change to accommodate individuals and not the other way around. In an international school, for instance, an example of inclusion could be inviting students who are part of the local community and identifying curricular and pedagogical ways to support their learning.

To help us engage in critical reflection on the institutional racism present within our international communities, we encourage you to ponder these three questions with us:

  • Where do you see injustices masquerading as good intentions in your international school community?

Identifying injustices is not as simplistic as searching for a smoking gun. It is not a search for “individual bad actors intentionally doing bad things with nothing but racial animus on their minds” (Obasogie 2016). While it is important to identify the injustices that are clearly unfair, it is just as important to identify those injustices that may occur despite our good intentions. An example of this practice in international schools could be hiring only “native” English-speaking teachers from particular countries. The school may have the good intention of providing excellent role models for language. Nevertheless, the ideology behind “nativeness” in any language is flawed because languages thrive and look differently depending on the context in which they are used (e.g., English used in Sydney, Australia versus English used in Singapore). Hiring only “native” speakers from certain countries sends the message that only certain variations of English are valued, which excludes others, and creates injustices in our schools.

  • What do you notice about the explicit and implicit ideologies and cultural and social norms that are valued by your international school community?

Just as fish are not aware of the water in which they swim, so we, too, are unconsciously swimming in the waters of our own ideologies and cultural and social norms. Internalized racism and implicit bias show up in our norms and ideologies, pushing back against belonging, propagating inequality, and marginalizing others based on the ways they live and express themselves. In some schools, there are norms that regulate salaries and promotions. Some of these norms reflect the value placed upon languages, nationalities, and cultures. Since these norms are based on shared ideologies by dominant groups, they are rarely questioned, but they exclude and create social injustices in school communities.

  • Where do you see exclusionary decision making in your school communities?

We all make decisions based on our life experiences, using what we already know and often including others who share similar life experiences, similar thought processes, and similar procedures to reach decisions. By excluding people with diverse backgrounds in decision making, we also exclude potential innovative approaches and keep people with shared backgrounds and ideologies in power. Symptoms of exclusionary decision making might include curricula that do not leverage students’ languages and cultures as valuable resources or a population of predominantly white educators that have grown up with English as their dominant language.

As you engage in advocacy and in the fight for social justice in international schools, we encourage you to keep critical reflection at the heart of your practice. We hope the questions we posed in this article inspire you to continue this work and to transform our international schools into sites of belonging.