social justice

Race, Gender and Spiritual Preparation of the Teacher

Components of children’s development of identity includes gender and race. Nia House teachers and staff spent a Tuesday evening meeting unpacking the interplay of gender and race as a social construct and delving into the role we as educators play in children’s identity development.

We began by generating a list of stereotypes associated with gender, notions of what it means to be a “boy” or “girl”. The list looked as you might suspect- boys were classified as physical, math-minded, and tough while girls were emotional, meek, and care-takers. Together we reflected on what opportunities a child might miss out on if we subscribed solely to these social constructs. Next, we considered the roles implicit biases, or our automatic and unconscious motivators of how we treat people, play in the way we interact with and structure the school experiences of Nia House children.

Often, the opportunities, commentary, or praise offered to young children reinforces gender stereotypes. Girls are noticed for their clothing and boys are encouraged with sayings like “big boy” for doing physical tasks. When a child gets hurt, girls might be gently nurtured and boys supported for brushing it off. The list goes on and on. So, the Nia House staff asked the important question- What can we do (or do we do already) in our school community to ensure that each child has access to the full range of human characteristics?

Here is some of what the Nia House staff came up with:

·       Clothing for all. Children at Nia House can choose from clothing bins that are open for all children and whatever choice they make is accepted.

·       We refer to children as “friend” or “children” instead of as “boy” or “girl.”

·       Children sit with mixed ages and genders at lunch.

·       Bathrooms for all.

·       Works are open for all children: dolls, purse, baby washing, care of environment- folding, cleaning, gardening, building etc.

·       There are opportunities for leadership and care-taking for all children.

·       Objective observations are made for all the children.

o   Instead of saying, “What pretty red shoes.” We might say,“I see your red shoes, they look ready for running.”

o   Rather than say “What a big boy you are,” We will offer, “I see you are being very helpful by carrying that lunchbox.”

The truth is, offering children access to the full range of human characteristics seems to come very naturally to the Nia House teaching team. Yet, implicit bias is unavoidable. We are guided by the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori who tells us,

“The real preparation for education is a study of one’s self. The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character, it is a preparation of the spirit.” (The Absorbent Mind)

Montessori implored us to be spiritually prepared as educators. In the current contemporary educational climate we understand this preparation to include self-study on our implicit biases related to gender, class, race, and other identity markers.

At Nia House, we take Montessori to heart and find her teachings poignant in an educational climate where implicit bias is apparent and school success resolutely linked to gender and race. Yale University Child Study Center conducted a study in September of 2016 titled, Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? The answer to this question- yes.

“…boys in general, were endorsed as requiring the most attention by 76% of early education staff (52% more than expected by chance alone), consistent with research showing that boys (regardless of race) are at greater risk for classroom removal. Regardless of the nature of the underlying biases, the tendency to observe more closely classroom behaviors based on the sex and race of the child may contribute to greater levels of identification of challenging behaviors with Black preschoolers and especially Black boys, which perhaps contributes to the documented sex and race disparities in preschool expulsions and suspensions.”

Berkeley is not immune to this trend. In 2014-2015, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) looked squarely at the disproportionate rate of suspension, expulsion and special education placement of students based on race and gender. In that year, 477 students were suspended in Berkeley grades K-12. Of these 477 students, 323 were African American. Yet, African American students make up only 17% of the student population in BUSD. The Daily Californian reports that “Berkeley Unified School District and other organizations are working on programs that explore alternatives to suspending students, such as behavioral support and counseling.” Thankfully, the efforts of Berkeley Unified are working with suspensions on a rapid decline. Efforts including Restorative Justice, family engagement, self-esteem and healthy relationship development were all cited as efforts impacting the decline in suspensions. While Nia House supports these efforts whole-heartedly, we also take very seriously the work of self-study, acknowledging implicit bias of the teacher and educational institution.

Gender and race identity are forming in the lives of Nia House children. Also included in this staff meeting was a quick look at a fascinating CNN study which attempted to understand race relations from a child’s vantage. Though complex in analysis, this video highlights the grave nature of race identity and relations from children’s perspectives.

Though no one is immune to implicit bias, the Nia House teachers and staff are committed to an education of equity and this includes access to empowerment and expression within the full range of human characteristics. Children’s greatest obstacles towards the aim of empowerment and positive identity development just might come in the form of the teacher! Montessori writes, “The teacher’s happy task is…removing the obstacles, beginning first with those which she herself is likely to present (for the teacher can be the greatest obstacle of all).” (Discovery of the Child) The teachers and staff at Nia House exercise great humility, self-awareness, and commitment to Dr. Maria Montessori and to social justice for all the children in our care- indeed, we recognize this as our ongoing work of self-study and spiritual preparation.  

Our team hard at work:

Baby Moss leads our staff meeting:

Interview with Nia House Founder, Tia Waller-Pryde

I had the honor of sitting down with Tia Waller-Pryde, Nia House’s founder, and learned how Nia House began, her vision for the school and how she believes Montessori’s approach fits into the contemporary climate of educational equity.

I worked with pre-school aged children since I was 13 and had dreamed of one day having a school of my own. In July of 1974, I was 23 years old and had just completed my M.Ed, including a specialization and certification in the Montessori method. I was on vacation in San Francisco and was encouraged by my best friend to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to find a teaching position that would allow me to stay in the Bay Area. Not only was that the beginning of my Buddhist practice, which transformed my life (and is a much longer story), but it also fulfilled my long held desire to establish a school for low-income children.
Within two weeks of my arrival in California, I met Ruth Massinga, who then headed Berkeley Children’s Services (BCS). Ruth was a social worker by profession but most importantly, she was a strong advocate for children, particularly those from underserved communities. The city of Berkeley had recently assessed the need for children’s programs and provided funding to BCS to expand existing services and create new ones. My good fortune was meeting Ruth at just the right time. She hired me to create a new pre-school in Berkeley focused on serving low and moderate-income families.
A building on Solano Avenue was already identified for the site but needed renovations to house a children’s program. With the help of the Army Corp of engineers and sound advice from Ruth, our dedicated staff and supportive parents brought Nia House into existence. The center had a sliding fee scale with many families paying $20/month for a full-day program that included a hot meal. A wonderful community of children and their families embraced our approach and began to thrive.
For me, Montessori’s approach to learning is what education in our world should be. It is an approach that builds confidence, independence, caring for self and others, and results in self-motivated learners. Children learn to respect and value every person and to understand their connectedness to others and their environment.
The opportunity for African American and Latino children from underserved communities to have early learning experiences like Nia House is critical to educational equity in our country for a number of reasons. Research on the connection between rich learning opportunities during the early years and the healthy development and future educational success of children is overwhelming. When you then consider that we live in a world where adults still make assumptions, sometimes unconsciously, about a child’s capacity to do intellectual work based on the color of their skin, it is even more important that children are strongly rooted in the knowledge of their own capacity to learn anything. And finally, I believe that if we are ever to be successful in transforming our country into a place where people from every background and experience can grow, thrive and contribute their talents to this world, we have to start by consciously creating such environments for our children.
When I created Nia House, I believed Montessori’s approach of educating the whole child applied in an environment that reflected the diversity of our country would positively impact not just the families we served but the entire community. I still do.

To see the entire Nia House News with beautiful pictures of our new preschool playground click the link below:

40+ Children's Books about Human Rights & Social Justice

by: Monisha Bajaj

An education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves … the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.

— Maria Montessori, Education and Peace

Young people have an innate sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair.  Explaining the basics of human rights in age appropriate ways with stories and examples can set the foundation for a lifelong commitment to social responsibility and global citizenship. 

As a parent to a preschooler and a professor of peace and human rights education, here are my top picks for children's books that discuss important issues—and that are visually beautiful. Some of the books listed offer an overview of rights; the majority show individuals and organizations past and present who have struggled to overcome injustices. All offer different levels of child-friendly images, concepts and text. 

With my son who is 3, sometimes we will skip certain passages or pages, but introducing him to books like the ones listed below that include characters of different races, religions, genders, abilities, sexual orientations, and other backgrounds at an early age will hopefully lay the foundation for deeper engagement with these texts and issues later on. Lately, he has been making tea in his play kitchen for Martin Luther King Jr. and the other day asked about Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren.

Some of these books are on our shelf at home, others we have found at the library or at friends’ houses.

What’s on your list of go-to books for talking about human rights and social justice issues with your children? Let’s keep the list growing in the comments section below!

**These books should be easily searchable, and I’ve created a book list on at this link with all the books mentioned in this post.

The Right to Equality & Peace

 1. We are all Born Free by Amnesty International

About the basics of human dignity as elaborated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

2. Whoever you Are by Mem Fox

About the common humanity we all share regardless of race, color, religion, nationality, gender, ability or sexual orientation

3. Can you Say Peace?  By Karen Katz

A book about how peace looks in different countries around the world and a celebration of September 21 – the date the United Nations has declared the International Day of Peace

4. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

A colorful board book with an introduction to speaking up and acting for social change whether related to LGBTQ rights, racial justice, or sustainability.

The Right to Education

 5. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

About the landmark 1947 case fought by a Latino family to desegregate whites-only schools in California that served as a precursor to the Brown vs. Board decision in 1954.

6. Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter

About two young advocates for educational rights who were both attacked in Pakistan—Malala Yousafzai and the lesser-known Iqbal Masih. While Iqbal didn’t survive the attack on him, Malala went on to advocate for the right to education for girls worldwide and win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

7. The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles

About a young woman at the forefront of school desegregation in 1960 after the Brown vs. Board. The book shows her fortitude in enduring harassment from angry mobs to get a quality education.

8. Waiting for BiblioBurro by Monica Brown (author) and John Parra (illustrator)

Inspired by the real-life story of Luis Soriano, who started a mobile library with donkeys carrying hundreds of books over long distances for children in rural areas of Colombia.

The Right to Migrate and Seek Asylum

9. Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat (author) and Leslie Staub (illustrator)

Written by award-winning Haitian-American novelist, Edwidge Danticat, this book is about a family separated by the U.S. immigration system and how love transcends borders and orders of deportation.

10. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh

Young Pancho the Rabbit misses his father who has gone north and sets out to find him, but encounters a coyote whose help comes at a high cost. This book introduces the hardships that thousands of migrant families face.

11. Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed (authors)

About two girls who share a pair of sandals in a refugee camp for Afghans on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, offering a humanizing glimpse into life in a refugee camp.

12. Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan by Mary Williams (author) and R. Gregory Christie (illustrator)

About the lost boys of Sudan who walked long distances for freedom, and were resettled as refugees in the U.S.

The Right to Equal Treatment based on Race, Caste or Ethnicity

13. Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

A beautifully-illustrated book about the life of South African human rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and first President of post-Apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

14.  Ambedkar: The Fight for Justice by Durgabhai Vyam

About the life of by Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a human rights activist who came from a Dalit family (formerly called “untouchable”) and became the first Law Minister of India after independence. He drafted India’s Constitution and was a leading voice against caste discrimination.

 15. Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus (Authors), andEvan Turk (Illustrator)  

A book about Mohandas Gandhi, leader of India’s freedom struggle against the British, told through the voice of his grandson. His nonviolent resistance to oppression inspired movements across the world, such as the U.S. civil rights movement.

16. If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks by Faith Ringold

A book about Rosa Parks, an activist who led the boycott of the Montgomery bus system, in order to advance civil rights in the U.S.

17. Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport (Author), Bryan Collier (Illustrator)

 & I Have a Dream (book & CD) by Bernice King (author) & Kadir Nelson (illustrator)

 & for children 12+, March, a trilogy of graphic novels by John Lewis

Books about Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader of the U.S. civil rights movement, whose vision for racial and economic justice continues to inspire social action today.

Women’s Rights & Inspiring Activists

18. Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped our History… and Our Future by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl

19. Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries who Shaped History  by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl

These two beautiful books offer information on a wide range of amazing women—from athletes to activists to artists to politicians—that we all should know. The U.S. book focuses on women past and present (A is for Angela Davis, Y is for Yuri Kochiyama), who have radically transformed society. The global book introduces us to many women, and also offers a long list at the end of women to explore further – great for future book reports and projects.

20. Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchio (Author), LeUyen Pham (Illustrator)

After learning that a woman has never been President (written in 2012), Grace deicdes to launch her political career in a school election.

21. My Name is Gabriela/Me llamo Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral/la vida de Gabriela Mistral by Monica Brown (Author) and John Parra (Illustrator)

This book is about Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet and educator who was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She worked with the League of Nations and advocated for education for all children.

LGBTQ Rights

22. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (Authors), Shelagh McNicholas (Illustrator)

This book tells the real life story of Jazz Jennings’ experience as a transgender child. An important read about trans children and how to support them.

23. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (Authors), Henry Cole (Illustrator)

A story about two penguins, Roy and Silo, who with the help of a friendly zookeeper, welcome a baby of their own.

24. This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman (Author), Kristyna Litten (Illustrator)

A colorful book celebrating LGBTQ history with a glimpse into the struggles for greater equality. The handy note to parents and caregivers offers additional ways of addressing issues of sexual orientation with young children.

The Right to Fair Working Conditions

25. Joelito’s Big Decision by Ann Berlak

This book presents the dilemma faced by 9-year old Joelito: whether to eat at his favorite restaurant when the workers are being mistreated and protesting outside.

26. ¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A. by Diana Cohn (Author), Francisco Delgado (Illustrator)

This book tells the story of the successful janitor strike in LA through the voice of Carlitos whose mom works at night cleaning office buildings.

27. Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull and Yuyi Morales

& Side by Side/Lado a Lado: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez by Monica Brown (author) and Joe Cepeda (illustrator)

These two books about the United Farm Workers movement led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta introduce young people to the rights of agricultural workers, and the immigrants who often toil in harsh conditions to produce the food we eat.  

Disability Rights

28. Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson (Author) and Sean Qualls (Illustrator)

The real-life story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a young man from Ghana, born with a disability and, with the support of his family, attended school, became a cyclist and earned international fame for his achievements.

29. My Friend Suhana: A Story of Friendship and Cerebral Palsy by Shaila Abdullah and Aanyah Abdullah (Authors)

A book about finding friendship and unconditional love, co-written by the author’s then 10-year old daughter.

30. Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport (Author), Matt Tavares (Illustrator)

A biography about Helen Keller, a deaf and blind U.S. author and political activist who was a co-founded of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

31. Ed Roberts: Father of Disability Rights by Diana Pastora Carson (Author)

This book offers a glimpse the work and contributions of Ed Roberts, who became a quadriplegic at the age of 14 due to polio and later an effective advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

Environmental Rights

32. Mama Miti by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson

A book about environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner from Kenya, Wangari Maathai.

33. The Earth Book by Todd Parr

A simple board book about how we can take care of our planet and be responsible citizens of the earth.

34. Call Me Tree / Llamame Arbol & I Know the River Loves Me by Maya Christina Gonzalez (Author, Illustrator)

Two bilingual (Spanish/English) book about connecting with nature—trees and rivers—and becoming your true self.

35. One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon

A true story about one woman’s actions to address the waste and environmental harm caused by plastic bags.

Living Amidst Conflict/Violence: Past or Present

36. Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine (Author) and Kadir Nelson (Illustrator)

A story about a young enslaved boy who doesn’t know his birthday and goes on a quest for freedom.

37. Fish for Jimmy: Inspired by One Family's Experience in a Japanese American Internment Camp by Katie Yamasaki

About two Japanese-American boys living in an internment camp after the U.S. went to war with Japan.

38. The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco  

About the friendship of two girls that forms as one’s family is hiding in the other’s house from the Nazis during World War II in France.

39. Chachaji's Cup by Uma Krishnaswami (Author) and Soumya Sitaraman (Illustrator)

A story about a boy’s relationship with his great uncle who has lived through the violent partition of India and Pakistan. There is also a note at the end with information about the partition.

40.  The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter (Author)

A true story about a woman’s fight to save her community’s thousands of books from violence and war.