Trust Youth, Trust Educators | Facing History & Ourselves
Desmond Blackburn and John Deasy speaking together on stage

Trust Youth, Trust Educators

Facing History’s CEO discusses the importance of empowering teachers to create a safe learning space amidst growing polarization in the classroom.

Below is an excerpt of a conversation between John Deasy, President of the Bezos Family Foundation, and Desmond K. Blackburn, PhD, President and CEO of Facing History & Ourselves. This talk took place on January 30, 2024 at the Common Sense Media Summit during a session titled Facing History, Facing Today.

John Deasy: So let's dive deep. We are in an era where we have highly activist citizens and educators who are struggling with all sorts of new guidelines about what you can say and can't say. We are watching school boards enter areas with lots of trepidation and having to confront the notion of what actually is history. What are you facing at your organization, and how are you thinking about these issues?

Desmond K. Blackburn, PhD: There are a couple of things there I would key in on. One, I'll talk about the fear and trepidation that teachers are walking into classrooms with right now, regardless of their content. That is probably, as an educator, as a child advocate, and as a parent myself, priority number one. As I think about education being the intersection of the teacher's humanity with the student's humanity, we have teachers fearful of bringing their full and complete selves into the classroom. That's a problem. And they’re fearful of being able to tap into the humanity of individual children. I think that fear factor puts a glass ceiling on the net impact education could be having.

Two, extreme political polarization has launched within the walls of education. Being in this career for the last 28 years, and being a classroom teacher and a school-level and district-level leader between the years of 2001 and 2016, I took for granted the bipartisan support of an education agenda. Just totally took that for granted. And now seeing our teachers and our principals and our school and district leaders basically being treated as a part of the problem or as the enemy as opposed to a part of the solution feels really problematic.

John: If you boil this down to areas where we are seeing deep division, it is content, and that content is about history and literature. And so, could you talk a little bit about how you actually work with teachers when these issues come up in the classroom and share if they are feeling very nervous?

Desmond: We try to do a couple of things at Facing History & Ourselves. One, we try to empower teachers so they can empower their students with the facts. Just the raw facts, using source documents, using the voices and testimonies of people who were actually there at different moments in history—people like survivors of the Holocaust, people who walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We try to leverage all that historical fact. Then we try to ensure that we are creating a classroom environment where students can study these very troubling topics from an intellectual perspective, from an emotional perspective, and also engage their sense of morality, and do all of that while deprioritizing the opinions of the educators in the classroom. So this is not about our opinion, it's about how we create the learning environment so that young people develop their own opinions around these topics.

John: I'm going to ask you to talk a little bit about something which is really quite amazing to see, and that is the environment which you create where people can sit in proximity to difference. Students can sit close to difference, and adults can sit close to difference and have a conversation which seems to escape us right now in a large area in the country. I don't know if there's a secret sauce, but could you talk a little bit about that? It's such an important skill.

Desmond: There is no secret sauce. I would first say it is really, really hard. We're living through times, and based on one's identity, things happening in the world around us, they're alarming, they're triggering. So making sure that we're entering all these spaces with extreme grace and empathy for individuals is really important. And I can't stress enough this notion of not trying to tell kids what to think, but just helping kids to think about the world around them.

John: I'm going to ask a personal question. I’ve known you for a long time. You’re an extraordinary leader, and a man of color. You're a CEO and you’re showing up in very, very tumultuous times. Can you talk a little bit about how you're managing that?

Desmond: For all leaders, for all educators, I think we have to enter spaces being grounded in who we are, what our own personal values are, and also being appreciative of everyone else's state. I don't hide who I am. I don't hide what my humanity is. I don't hide what my system of beliefs is, and core to all of that is a total appreciation for all people who may not come from where I am, where I come from, or believe what I believe.

And so all of that is just really important. I also find listening is an essential tool. To listen to people to the point where you may not agree but you understand and you can start to create an intersection between your lived reality and their lived reality. I think that's where the companionship is created and alignment can happen.

John: What are the things on your mind, both the things that are keeping you up at night and the things that are bringing you hope and excitement?

Desmond: I'll start with hope and excitement first. With the time I spend with youngsters, young people bring a lack of a chip on their shoulders based on identity that I will self-report and say I may have had as a youngster. This includes feelings around race, economic background, and sexual identity. They're just not coming to the table with some of the hangups that my generation and perhaps a generation before came to the table with.

The inability to have civil discourse probably keeps me up at night. The inability to sit with disagreement without being disagreeable keeps me up at night because our government, and our constitution call for civil discourse. It calls for our disagreement and it calls for us to disagree in the same room without bringing harm to each other. I think that's a core principle. And so our inability to do that, our inability to watch communal institutional leaders do that for me is problematic.

John: How do you work with school leaders when you might in one context say, "We're only going to discuss this part of history, US history or world history," and in another context build the coalitions that you have. How do you do that?

Desmond: One, we're working everywhere across this country, and in many places across the globe, and we certainly do understand what you just mentioned around the political context. Keeping it focused on our nation, certainly we know where our extreme liberal communities are and we know where our extreme conservative communities are. We're working in both and everything in between. Again, I'm going to go back to listening. Listening is really important in order to understand what the local contextual priorities are and how we stay true to our commitment while honoring local priorities.

And it does take collaboration. It takes a coordinated effort. There are some communities that we work in that want us to not spend time on some topics. If we can show up as our most authentic selves and bring value to students, then we'll work with communities. Certainly there is extremism that exists, and if we can't work with a community or a school in a very authentic way while honoring how they show up with what we think is good and just for children, then we'll politely not work with that community. But we try to find a common ground.

John: Could you say a little bit about the age groups that you believe should have the ability to participate in the curricular work that Facing History develops?

Desmond: The content does discuss the most menacing parts of history, so it's been a long-standing belief that that's best done with our middle and high school students.

To be able to sit with a peer whose forefathers may have done horrific things to my forefathers, there is a level of maturity that's needed in order for us to have that conversation. And we don't shy away from any parts of it. And so we've just found that our best entry point is with the older students, middle and high school kids.

John: One of the hallmarks I find both in your leadership and in Facing History's work is that it’s done by invitation, not indoctrination. And I think when you invite people, like you do and your program does, to actually wrestle with the most menacing components of our history, you do so in a different way than laying facts on the table with blame and shame.

Desmond: Well, first of all, this whole notion of indoctrination—I will tell you, as a parent of a 23 and 20 year old, and as an educator for my entire life, indoctrinating children is not an easy thing. Kids don't just do what you tell them to do.

We have to earn our right to educate, to communicate, to enlighten. They won't let us do it. Kids are great at discernment. And I really value that from young people.

Our model has proven that teachers, of their own free will and accord, will identify their own learning gaps, will identify quality professional development resources and take advantage of all of that without school, district, and state leaders forcing them to do so. So what we're finding is that we need to do a better job of engaging our school and district leaders, because there's a glass ceiling on total impact if school and district leaders aren't invested in this work.

John: What I just took away from what you said was trust the youth and trust the educators.

Desmond: Absolutely. Honor the educators as well.

John: What is the role of parent engagement in the work that you're doing?

Desmond: What I would say to parents. . . and you’ve heard some of this articulated in polling that's been done. Elected officials, current and aspiring, are actually listening to communities and are tailoring their political positioning based on what their research tells them communities want. So I beg of you, parents and communities, ask our politicians, left, right, and moderate, for some peace in education. They’ve got to turn down the temperature on the divisiveness and the polarization. Our kids can't thrive when the adults around them, regardless of positionality, are at each other's throats.