A White Teacher’s Reflections on Attending POCC (NAIS’s People of Color Conference)

My New York City private school has supported faculty and staff attendance at NAIS’s People of Color Conference for many years. For those unfamiliar with it here is their overview:

The NAIS People of Color Conference is the flagship of the National Association of Independent Schools’ commitment to equity and justice in teaching and learning. The mission of the conference is to provide a safe space for leadership and professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. PoCC equips educators at every level, from teachers to trustees, with knowledge, skills, and experiences to improve and enhance the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in their schools, as well as the attending academic, social-emotional, and workplace performance outcomes for students and adults alike.

While POC colleagues, knowing of my commitment to the work, suggested I go I hadn’t, thinking it wasn’t a space for white allies. Finally, this year I decided to go, learning that there would be a place for me to learn and grow in my white allyship, and feeling the greater and greater urgency of the work we need to do regarding white supremacy and race in our schools. I am so grateful to my school’s commitment to sending any faculty or staff member who wants to go. I believe we were between 30 and 40 strong. Additionally, a group of our high school students attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference that runs in tandem with POCC.

It was great to see how this conference is so fortifying, empowering, and so much more for my independent school POC colleagues. Connecting, reconnecting, feeling seen, heard, having a safe space to testify, and so much more was going on. The celebration of POC heads of school was wonderful to see — so many standing on the stage. And even more, to start this coming year, one of them the remarkable Lisa Yevette Waller who is leaving my school to head the Berkeley Carroll School.  (Happy for them and her, but she is going to be missed terribly:)

Here are some of the workshops and sessions I attended:

  • The Opening Session with wonderful speakers including journalist Lisa Ling.
  • Black Boys Doing What? Evaluating, Selecting, and Incorporating Children’s and YA Lit Featuring Black Boys with educators Dr. Kim Parker and Jack Hill. This was an outstanding workshop — if you get an opportunity to see these two, run!
  • Old School Diversity to 21st Century Cultural Competency featuring Rosetta Lee.  Lee had done work at my school and so I knew this session would be worthwhile. I wasn’t disappointed — so much to process in what she said and shared.
  • Black Male “Privilege”: The Highs and Lows of Hyper Visibility. This was perhaps the most significant workshop for me, both because of what was said, but also because most of the panelists were current or former colleagues. Brave, honest, insightful — these are just a few of the words I have for this important panel. Thank you Brandon Guidry, The Berkeley Carroll School (NY); William Fisher, Trinity School (NY); Kenneth Hamilton, The Dalton School (NY); Dwight Vidale, Riverdale Country School (NY).
  • Marian Wright Edelman’s keynote “The State of America’s Children” was such a call to action as well as heartening as she shows so much confidence in our being able to make the future better at a time when it feels overwhelming to do so.
  • Marc Lamont Hill‘s closing keynote. With only a few wry references to his firing by CNN a few days earlier, he focused in on what this audience needed to hear. He was fierce, strong, and fortifying.

However. I’m not sure about my being there as a white ally. I had expected to be one of a few, but there were 1400 white folk among the over 6,000 attendees. That seemed bizarre to me, but it was explained to me was that many private schools have few diverse staff and faculty so roles such as diversity directors are held by white folk. Another reason I observed was that administrators were attending (certainly a good thing) and they are still very white overall. And then there were many whites attending because their schools, like mine, are committed to doing the work. So I can’t fault the reasons we were all there, but it is still troubling to me that a conference for POCs was so full of white folk.

Related to this is that I had very mixed feelings about the white affinity group meetings. These were enormous — over 1000 people so kudos to the planners for managing that so well. Still, for all the warning of discomfort, I didn’t feel much at all. I get that we white folks there were in different stances and situations, but I have to say I was disappointed. I’d been told that white allies at the conference were farther along on paths of action, but the work we did in the white affinity group meetings felt very cautious and overly sensitive to participants. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I wonder how much participants came away with that will be helpful when we go back to our schools. It was difficult. Some were overly complacent about fellow white colleagues, others didn’t seem to register microaggressions, and still others were depressingly unaware about all sorts of things. It felt all incredibly careful, scripted, and vague to me.  Not sure what the answer is, but if that many white folks are going to be coming, there must be something more that can be done?

And as for coming — I don’t plan to go again. I thought it was amazing and I got a huge amount out of it, but this is NOT a conference for white person me. It needs to be a People of Color Conference and that isn’t what I am. The importance for independent school POCs to come together was visible at every moment. That needs to be honored and respected overall.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go to POCC, to spend time with colleagues I didn’t know (at the airport and other moments:), to learn, to stretch, to force my thinking, to undo ideas, and so much more. Thank you to my school and NAIS for this important event.




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Learning to Do Better as a White Ally at NAIS’s POCC

This week I will be attending NAIS’s People of Color Conference after having heard about it for years from my POC friends and colleagues. Participating in some incredible workshops led by some of our high school students who had attended in previous years and being told that there was space for white allies had me eager to go. And so now I am, hoping to learn, listen, and to come back a better ally for my school community and outside as well.  If anyone familiar with the conference has recommendations for me, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


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Orisha Priest Jaye Winmilawe’s Review of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone

The rave reviews and accolades for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone have been many. And while I too appreciated the book, I did wonder how someone who practiced Orisha and came from the culture being represented would feel about it. And so I was very pleased to read Jaye Winmilawe’s insightful review in Africa Access Review. She begins:

Adeyemi’s ashe or power as a writer is expressed in the success of her debut novel Children of Blood and Bone. She was awarded a groundbreaking seven figure YA book contract and a movie deal, at 23 years old.  The book has been well received, note the numerous reviews and the NY Times Best Sellers listing for over 34 weeks (presently).  So, what new could another reviewer say about this work?

Not many can assess its representation of African Yoruba Orisha culture, history, diaspora and modernity. Thus, since I am a scholar, children’s book author, and priest of the Orisha (Yoruba and Africa), it’s fair that I chime in.  My own questions about this book upon it’s March 2018 launch were:  1. How does it represent Africa and the African Diaspora? 2. How does it represent the Orisha (Orisa) and Yoruba?  3. Is this book appropriate for my elementary school-aged children and/or their library?

I highly recommend her review (and, actually, all the Africa Access reviews).

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The Book That Made Natasha Tretheway What She is Today

I was fortunate enough to meet and work with former poet laureate Natasha Tretheway years ago when she was an artist-in-residence at my school, a memorable experience that has stayed with me ever since.  And so I was delighted today to see her in the current New York Times Book Review’s By the Book feature.  While all of it is worthwhile reading, one answer stood out for me as I might answer with the same book though from a different point of view.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“The Diary of Anne Frank.” I read it when I was in the fourth grade and it showed me how a young girl from another time, place, race, culture, experience and situation could be so like me, that I could connect to her through a shared need, the necessary utterance of her words, and that my capacity for empathy could be deepened by reading the intimate account she left us in her own voice.


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CLNE aka Children’s Literature New England

The wonderful entity known as CLNE has closed its doors. It was a very special and wonderful organization that impacted my life in major ways.

Starting in 1999 (relatively recent compared to those who were involved many, many years before me) I began attending the annual summer institute of Children’s Literature New England.  I hadn’t intended to make it an annual thing, but like many others, once I started I couldn’t stop.

The institutes were extraordinary.  They were sometimes in New England (often at Harvard, Vermont, and other nearby places(, but sometimes farther off in Cambridge, England, and Toronto, Canada. There were required readings, some quite dense, lectures, small group discussions, poetry, singing, talks of a caliber quite remarkable.  And those who gave the lectures and talks! Ashley Bryan, Brian Selznick, M. T. Anderson, Alan Garner, Elizabeth Partridge, Nikki Giovanni, Neil Gaiman, Katherine Paterson, Susan Cooper, Tim Wynne-Jones, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Diana Wynne Jones,  Jill Paton Walsh, and so many more.  The directors were Gregory Maguire and Barbara Harrison. The other attendees were incredible too:  writers, editors, librarians, educators, booksellers, and every sort of person who was besotted with children’s literature. In 2005 I was honored to be a speaker and in 2006 to be a discussion leader at the final institute. Afterwards, there were other events, some of which I attended with pleasure.

It was a grand and wonderful organization. I thank everyone involved.



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The NYTimes and NYPL Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2018

Thrilled to see this year’s list. Having been on the jury a few years ago I know how exciting it is for the list to be finally announced. A wonderful collection of titles — congratulations to all involved! You can see the full list with art here.

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Just in Time for All Hallow’s Eve, A Q & A with Adam Gidwitz about Grimm, Grimmer, and Grimmest, a Delightfully Not-Too-Macabre Podcast

Adam Gidwitz, author of the wonderful A Tale Dark and Grimm series recently dropped a totally fantastic podcast series, Grimm, Grimmer, and Grimmest. Adam had told me it was in the works ages ago so I was excited to listen to it and was not disappointed. I’ve watched Adam tell stories to kids for ages and he is truly wonderful. And so is this podcast series as they’ve done a terrific job giving that same experience to listeners. The production is outstanding, heightening Adam’s unique and witty storytelling talent. I can’t recommend it enough anytime, not just today. In fact, last week I was on a field trip with my class of 4th graders and, on impulse, brought along a Bluetooth speaker and played three of the stories on the bus ride. The kids were completely absorbed. And right now, as I write, I’ve got three who couldn’t go to PE because of various ailments and they are listening (and giggling and participating) with pleasure. So, yes, I can’t recommend them enough!

To celebrate I invited Adam to answer a few questions about the podcast.

Let’s start by you giving us a bit of background as to why this sort of podcast exactly. What is it about the Grimm stories, the oral tradition, and the translating of that into a medium of today that speaks to you? 

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote their stories down starting in 1810, drawing principally on stories that were part of the oral tradition in Germany at that time. Many of these were stories that were told around the hearth at night. Which meant that they weren’t just for kids. They were for everyone. Yes, the kids had to like the stories. But so did Mom, and Dad, and Grandma, and Crazy Uncle Friedrich. In a time with no electronic entertainment, no film, no radio—this was one of the prime modes of family entertainment. What’s exciting to me about podcasts is that they lend themselves to the same kind of family entertainment. Instead of turning on a TV and not looking at one another for three hours, I am imagining families making a fire in the fireplace, or everyone curling up in the big bed, and listening to an episode of Grimmest together. Or just laughing together on the drive to and from school. That works, too.

Where did the podcast idea come from and how did you work with Pinna to make it a reality?

I’ve been telling Grimm fairy tales to kids for about a decade now. The idea for my first book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, came from an experience of telling a truly grim Grimm tale to a classroom of second graders. One of them asked me to make it into a book, and I did. Since then, whenever I visit a school, a library, or a book festival, I am often telling real, grim Grimm tales to the kids. My favorite part of which is hearing them laugh and scream and make unexpectedly zany comments. I had been wishing that there was a way to share these experiences with more people. There was something so magical about telling these old tales live, and getting the reactions I was… So when Pinna came to me last year and said, “We’re looking for authors to create audio shows for kids; do you have any ideas?” I said, “YES!” 

So the podcast sounds like me going into a classroom of kids, and beginning to tell a story. But then we zoom off, aurally, to the Kingdom of Grimm, where actors and sound effects and atmospheric music help me tell the tale. But we keep jumping back into our world as I ask the kids questions, or they laugh, or they heckle me (yeah, they heckle me). All of that is unscripted and, in my opinion, the best part of the show. Though the stories are pretty good, too. 

How are you choosing the tales to tell? I mean, there are so many!

Right! Well, when I wrote my books A Tale Dark and Grimm, In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion, I went through my big book of Grimm’s tales and chose some of my favorites. But they had to fit together somehow. And there were many that I loved but that I had not fit into the books. So I went back through the books and chose twenty of my favorite Grimm tales—ten for season one and ten for season two. I then did some rewriting. Not to fracture the tales: I’m honestly not a big fan of fractured fairy tales—I like the real ones. I just like them retold for modern kids. That doesn’t mean changing the setting or softening them at all. It means making the jokes work today (because humor, of any kind, doesn’t tend to age well), and ensuring that modern kids can care about the main characters, and get invested—which makes the modern kids more scared when something terrifying happens. 

How did you schools and kids participate? Did you do the sessions over and over or once and then just edited them? They sound incredibly immediate, just like the ones I’ve seen you do with our students over the years. 

Thank you! So, I would rewrite the tale, as I said above, and then I’d read it to the kids. They’d only get to hear it once, though we had two schools, and at one school there were two groups, so there were a few stories I was able to read three times. But always to different kids—so the kids’ reactions are indeed immediate and unscripted and absolutely genuine. I didn’t even ASK them to comment. But once they knew they could, comments just burst forth. And we captured them on the mics. The first time that happened, it was a magical moment. I was reading them my retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, and I think I made them laugh, and there was this beautiful giggle. And I remember looking at a microphone and thinking, “We got that. We captured that. Everyone is going to get to hear what kids sound like when they really love one of these fairy tales.” It was one of the happiest moments of my year. 

What else would you like to tell us about the podcast, series, and anything else?

Only that everyone can hear all of Season 1 now, for FREE, on Apple Podcasts! We don’t know if they’ll be on there for free forever, so go listen right now! Just search Grimmest on Apple Podcasts and it comes right up! And I really recommend listening all the way through Episode 10. I think you’ll know why when you do… 

Indeed…thank you, Adam. Now, everyone, go and listen. You can thank me later. 

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