For equity, colleges need to change more than policies

When I was working on my master's degree in the 1990s, I read several autoethnographies that explored literacies. Gilyard’s Voices of the Self changed how I thought about my work as an educator. At the time I read it, I was working with urban preschool teachers pursuing degrees in early childhood through a scholarship. As I have continued my education and my career, as a person I have become quieter and quieter. I have learned to not offer up opinions or ideas. I am increasingly an imposter at work and in my family. For me, this is the price of changing my voice to one that got me A’s on papers and later, funded grant proposals, and promotion.

I am a white person of privilege. I have no way of knowing what the price of conformity is for students of color.

When my family moved to the midwest, I had to go miss recess one day per week to learn how to pronounce words correctly. It mattered that I didn’t give voice to my r’s because the principal strategy for reading and spelling was “to sound it out.” I sorted my r’s and l’s and learned not to overlook them or to put them in words where they don’t belong.

I worked my way through college. Neither set of my (divorced) parents would permit the use of their income taxes for purposes of financial aid. I could not accept scholarships offered, grants, or loans. I worked minimum-wage retail jobs, I worked night shift jobs that paid a bit more than minimum wage when I could get them. I could not afford more than 12 credit hours at a time but often had to go at a pace of 9 credit hours per semester.

Last Friday, I was talking with urban high school teachers in an attempt to learn from them about urban first-time-college students. Having served on a charter school board, I know what students lose when they leave high school and head to college — meals, transportation, caring (if nosey) teachers who don’t play, specific learning supports, and access to school counselors and social workers. One teacher brought up struggling with how/whether/when to address white conformity for her students transitioning from a school where 100% of the students are African-American/Black or Latinx to a college that is majority white.

As colleges and universities become increasingly diverse, and aspire toward equity, I wonder what that will look like. I see people changing policies and starting peer mentoring programs, food pantries opening, and before COVID-19, more on-campus study space. All the while, at many colleges and universities the attrition rates of students of color have not changed.

I think we need to value African-American culture and Latinx culture in our pedagogies, andragogies, and literacies. It is more than reading books by diverse authors, although that is important. For decades, linguists have accepted African American Vernacular English / Black English as a dialect of English. As postsecondary education moves toward being competency based, I question the purpose of continuing to privilege mainstream English. I try to have a casual learning environment where students can express themselves. Students do not always need to code-switch.

At the same time, some students want to learn how to write papers that get As for the cultural capital. I would like to see college classrooms help students openly navigate casual versus formal language and not presume recognized dialects informal. This might make postsecondary education more accessible and more equitable.