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A Lesson from Ferguson

A teaching case inspired by Ferguson, Missouri, guides educators on how to explore the topic of race in class.

The shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black male, by a white police office in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, caused civil uproar and sparked an ongoing nationwide debate about police force used on African Americans. As the world watched racial tensions unfold throughout the community, Ed.L.D. candidates Tracey Benson and Veronica Benavides and Ed.D. candidate Raygine DiAquoi wondered what was happening inside those Ferguson schools, so in November 2014 they went to Ferguson to find out.

The result of that research is an 11-page case study, “Lesson from Ferguson: Leadership in Times of Civil Unrest,” exploring the organizational response of three school districts in St. Louis County following the shooting. The case study examines how education organizations respond to incidents involving racial tensions and the racialized context in which educators operate, but often do not acknowledge. The latter is often a complex one for educators. The HGSE students hoped that a teaching case might provide a resource for educators that would encourage dialogue on the responsibilities of schools and communities to address racialized events.

“There is a gap in our ability to talk effectively about issues of race,” Benavides says. “When we started writing this case, we began to see the implications of what this means.”

Though Benavides and Benson had been working together already on issues of teaching diversity and race to educators, they sought out DiAquoi, whose dissertation research explores how African American parents speak with adolescent sons about racism.

“Veronica and Tracey thought that my area of expertise and the skills that I have accumulated as a qualitative researcher would benefit the team,” DiAquoi says. “I could not turn down the opportunity to contribute to such important work.”

The students were provided an opportunity to conduct the research through the Dean’s Equity Fellowship, a fund established earlier this year for HGSE students conducting social justice work in the Ferguson or Greater Boston areas.

About a week before the indictment, they traveled to Ferguson without fully knowing what to expect. They were pleasantly surprised by the openness of the community.

“We were there when folks were very tense,” Benson says. “There was so much pent-up energy that we didn’t know what was going to happen.” They went to Ferguson with merely one contact to conduct research, but left with nearly 20.

“The community was so open and willing to talk,” Benson says.

As part of their research, they split into two teams focusing on the school district and the community. They interviewed superintendents, school board members, a former mayor, and teachers from three different school districts: Ferguson-Florissant, Riverview Gardens (where the shooting occurred), and Jennings. They also interviewed community organizers, parents, community center workers, and church leaders.

“One of the surprising things to me is the general lack of capacity to be able to talk about issues of race,” Benavides says, recognizing that they too questioned how they would respond to such an incident as educators.

But, they say, it can be done. The results of their research demonstrate how to successfully normalize issues of race in the school environment.

Educators should be able to proactively make social justice and issues of race a part of the school’s conversation — long before an incident like Ferguson occurs.

Having never written a teaching case before, they relied on the guidance of Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching Matthew Miller, and admit that much of the experience has been trial and error.  The case touches upon issues of crisis management, school leadership, and race and equity. Furthermore, the case also reinforces what they initially suspected, which is that learning how to contextualize race and talk about it is a much-needed part of becoming an educator and system leader.

Since the premiere of the case study at the HGSE Alumni of Color Conference this February, they have gone on to teach it at least four more times and have received requests for its use both inside Harvard University at large and other universities around the country.

As for how this experience impacted their own views and work in education, they all agree that it has convinced them even more about the need for this type of research and work to be available on all levels of education.

“The death of Michael Brown, and so many others, presents a predominantly white and female teaching force with the opportunity to critically examine and discuss systemic racism,” DiAqui says. “I see multiple opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration on the topic of racism. This is particularly important during the current period of colorblind racism.”

Additionally, they hope some of this teaching will begin at HGSE with the case becoming a regular part of the curriculum for Ed.L.D. students or even master’s students.

“Harvard can be a place where we break the silence on conversations of race,” Benson says.

Join Benson and others as part of the Askwith Forum, Ferguson and Beyond: Educational Strategies to Address Racism and Social Injustice, on Monday, April 13 at 5:30 p.m.

Benavides and Benson will host a Ferguson case discussion on Wednesday, April 15 at 6  p.m. in Askwith Hall. Audience members will have the opportunity to read the case and engage in a case discussion. No pre-work required and all members of the HGSE community are encouraged to attend.