Want to Close Achievement Gaps, Close the Relationship Gap

Earlier this week I spoke at Launch’s luncheon. Launch is a fabulous organization providing preschool and out-of-school time care with an eye towards supporting the whole child and family. A colleague asked if I could share my speech, so here is an edited version.

What I want to talk about today is relationships and why relationships matter.

In my job, I focus a lot on relationships. I’m fortunate to work for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. SESEC is a community based coalition of nonprofits, schools, parents, and allies focused on closing opportunity and achievement gaps and doing it WITH communities of color. As a coalition, we use a racial equity lens and we work to deepen and widen the network of support for our students.

Our SE community is diverse. If you walk around neighborhoods in SE you’ll see and hear kids doing their thing – taking part in robotics programs, speaking in Somali, Chinese, and Spanish – maybe even simultaneously on the playground. You may also see Launch teachers walking their preschoolers in matching Pepto-Bismol pink or neon orange t-shirts on field trips to the Wing Luke Museum, or walking to the library for storytime.

These things show our community is strong and resilient in the face of poverty, having to figure out how to deal with the under-funding of schools, and supporting families who are stressed because of threats of deportation. Because we have a strong community we can face these challenges and better protect children.

One of the ways we do this is by listening to our community, especially families of color. A recent project was a community wide survey on family engagement with schools. This survey was unique, it wasn’t like the surveymonkey links we get over email. Our community owned it and drove the entire survey process. We asked ourselves what is the value of the survey, and we landed on trust. At every step or when we got stuck on questions the design team asked “How is this building trust with the community?” We worked hard to live this value and check ourselves against it.

It was an amazing survey process. We gathered over 600 survey results, primarily from families of color, it was translated into ten languages and offered oral interpretation if needed, and the results are being used in so many different ways.

I want to share with you one finding, how families like to receive information.

Launch Luncheon

As you can see there are huge gaps in the bars. White families prefer email, while families of color prefer in-person communication or phone calls. Seattle Public Schools is now 54% students of color, which means these results are magnified and will continue to grow if we leave them unchecked.

The data from the survey tells an important story. This slide is demonstrating a relationship gap, which translates into opportunity and achievement gaps. If we can’t communicate effectively we aren’t going to close achievement gaps.

Many times, we default to what we know and what is easy, such as email. This is fakeqeuity – fake equity. Fakequity is taking the easy route. How it plays out sounds like this “We translated the email into different languages, they should have read it…” or “we don’t have time to make personal calls or schedule meetings.” These messages place blame, instead of stopping to examine why there is a communication and relationship gap.

Email is a one-way passing of information. Even if it is translated cultural nuances are missing. As an example, when we were working on our survey translation a Somali partner said:

“This isn’t a Somali survey. You took an American survey and translated it, that doesn’t make it a Somali survey. We speak directly and we ask open ended questions.”

This feedback was critical, we changed course and worked with our Somali partners to collect survey results differently. Many of them used interviews to collect stories. In one case a Somali parent who was collecting surveys went door-to-door and was invited in for tea and through that relationship they talked and prayed about their hopes and frustrations with their children’s education.

When we shared this data with families of color many of them said the data resonated. They saw themselves in the data and understood the results. As an example, some of our immigrant families said receiving information in-person and via phone allows them to ask questions, an email or flier doesn’t allow for this relationship building.

So, what does this mean for our schools and for all of us today? It means we need to slow down and take time to build relationships. Relationships are the glue that holds our communities together and it gives us the empathy to want to create change.

One of the reasons I am a fan of Launch is I see how they want to build relationships. From the moment, I drop my child off we are greeted with a warm hello from Ms. Florence. I also see Launch investing back into the community. They are at community events and supporting the schools they are in. When Beacon Hill International School rebuilt their playground Launch staff was volunteering. These relationships make change possible. When Launch, staff saw the data on how families like to receive information they used the data to reshape how they interact with families, focusing more on in-person and family engagement. We need more people pushing for change.

We also need more people to be brave and kind in talking about race, racism, privilege, hope, and community. We need to be able to talk about these things the way we talk about the Seahawks. They aren’t taboo topics, as we saw from the data snapshot, race is impacting outcomes. By being brave and voicing what we believe about race we change the narrative. When we talk about race, we can begin to change. Not talking about race allows the status quo to continue hurting all students, including white students and students of color.

Students can’t wait for slow incremental change. We need to extend our relationships and begin to ask hard questions of ourselves and of our schools.

Your work and my work is simple and hard at the same time. We need to pay attention to race. We need to notice how race and relationships show up in our everyday interactions and in our systems.

Systems are what are left when everyone leaves the room; it is the policies, the practices, and the relationships that either drive us toward equity or maintain the status quo.

Pay attention to elections and ask candidates hard questions and hold them accountable when they are in office. Strong relationships help us remember what we are accountable to and why.

This is also why it is important to grow relationships beyond our comfort zones. I hope you’ll extend yourself and get to know someone outside your comfort zone. These new relationships will deepen and widen the networks of support our kids need from us.

Thank you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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What are you reading and watching

Before we start if you’re not busy next Wednesday come join me for lunch at the Launch luncheon. I’m speaking at this fundraiser and super excited to support this great organization. Launch provides child care and preschool services and they do it with a spirit of inclusiveness and relationship building. See you at lunch.

harukiEarlier this week a colleague of color, who is interested in learning more about race, asked if I knew of any good textbooks or places to go to learn about race. I sort of chuckled, hopefully it was only audible in my head although I’ve been told I don’t have a poker face, and I said “well, you can’t really read just one book, it is more about diversifying media and perspectives overall.” To understand race and what it means to people is to remember there are multiple truths to every story. Diversifying what we read or the media we take in is one way to learn about race.

I have two focus areas for myself this year: first is to practice more gratitude, and the second to be aware of how much energy I put into English-only speaking spaces. This year I’m aiming to try to take in more media from non-English sources (translations and interpretations count). As a monolingual English speaker and reader I know I have a limited view of the world because my world is filtered through an English only lens. As an example, there are some cultural nuances I will never catch on to by only understanding English. Mindy, my colleague, is fluent in English and Cantonese. She recently explored some of the roots of Cantonese language and said there are many words in Cantonese that have literal translations. Such as the word troublemaker, 搞屎棍 (gaau si gwan), literally translates into “poop stirring stick.” I’ll never look at a toilet brush the same way, or use that word in the same way again.

My personal challenge this year is to read more books and articles from people of color, especially books and media from non-English speakers. If you have any suggestions of good books, movies, or online videos from non-English perspectives please let me know, please note I will need translated or subtitles since I’m not ambitious enough to learn another language right now.

Because I couldn’t think quickly enough when my colleague asked what reading and media I recommend, I’ll answer the question here. This is my recommended list of reading and media.

News and Blogs

  • South Seattle Emerald: Marilee Jolin, the Executive Director of the South Seattle Emerald, recently visited with an advocacy and policy cohort I help to facilitate. She shared the Emerald’s vision for diversifying news. The Emerald is a great South Seattle resource and they prioritize running stories from South Seattle residents, which includes a lot of people of color. I enjoy their coverage and seeing so many different perspectives shared. If you aren’t in Seattle purposefully seek out your city’s version of the Emerald
  • Nonprofit With Balls: We have to give a shout out to our friend Vu Le with nonprofitwithballs.com. While Vu’s focus is on nonprofits he often interweaves communities of color perspectives into his posts.

Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds

I get a lot of my news from online resources, especially social media because of this I try to make sure I am following a wide and deep range of people and organization’s on social media to get different perspectives. Here is my short list of feeds I find thought provoking:

  • Equity Matters– Heidi does a great job of posting articles and writing short explainations of why they matter. She also does the extra work of looking for articles by authors of color to promote different narratives versus just mainstream media.
  • The Atlantic – while this is a mainstream liberal news organization, I enjoy their diverse topics and focus on race. Especially when they have writers of color featured, such as Ta Nahesi Coates
  • Colorlines
  • There are many others, too many to list.


Here is a list of books I’ve read and recommend, most of them by authors of color. There are quite a few kids books on the list since I read to my kids and well I needed to put kids books otherwise the list would be sparse since I don’t read a lot of IMG_20170306_200343adult books these days.

  • The Underground by Colson Whitehead
  • When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson
  • March by John Lewis
  • Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie
  • Peach Girl by Raymond Nakamura
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (I’m on page 7 and so far I like it, yup recommending a book after only 7 pages, feel free to judge)
  • Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
  • Visas for Life by Yukiko Sugihara
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  • At the Same Moment Around the World by Clotilde Perrin

To give you an idea about how important it is to seek out diverse check out this infographic by publisher Lee & Low. If we pickup books that are easy we default to reading books by white authors. More interesting infographics by Lee & Low here.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you would suggest as ways to diversify media. Let me know what you recommend and I’ll put it on my list of things to read, watch, or listen to.

Posted by Erin

More thoughts on Language for Racial Equity


Last week we wrote about dual language programs and the value of them. I’m happy to share my partners from OneAmerica reported the bill to expand access to bilingual education for Washington’s students (HB1445/SB5529) have passed BOTH chambers of the legislature budget committees with bipartisan support. The next step is to get a similar bill passed out of the Senate. To lend support to this effort please join OneAmerica’s mailing list.

This is the second part of last week’s blog post. Heidi (of the fakequity team) sent me detailed notes and thoughts about dual language and how language factors into racial equity. This is how our conversation went. “Hey Erin, You wrote a good personal narrative about dual language programs. What happened to all of my notes?” “Yeah, I couldn’t fit in all of your detailed notes. Sorry.” So to make sure Heidi’s good thinking and notes are shared with the blogosphere here are Heidi’s ramblings and thoughts about language, race, power, and learning with more personal narrative by Erin.

Assimilation and The Price of Assimilation

“Lastly, let us not forget that the eradication of our Native languages not only brings about spiritual and cultural loss, but the elimination of our languages has been central to colonial and genocidal efforts. The colonizer wants us to forget that we are originally free peoples who had our own forms of governance, spirituality, ways of living and languages. Eradicating our languages is a means to eradicating who and what we are as Indigenous peoples.

 “Teaching an Indian youth in his own barbarous dialect is a positive detriment to him. The first step to be taken toward civilization…is to teach them the English language.” -Commissioner of Indian Affairs John D.C. Atkins, Native language Survival & Revival

Language is one of the ways people of color are told and forced to assimilate into mainstream cultures. In the United States that meant Native and indigenous people were forced to give up their languages and in many cases children were forcibly removed from families and sent to boarding schools where they were reprimanded, including physical punishment, for speaking their Native languages. Across races this legacy of forced assimilation, and English only is now deeply embedded into our society, workplaces, and education systems. We no longer see losing home languages as an act of cultural genocide, but one that is just the “way we do business.”

The normalization of English only practices (whether conscious or unconscious) means the original colonizers have succeeded with their original intent to forcibly assimilate through language elimination. Monolingual English speakers and systems almost always make non-English speakers come to their turf, on some occasions wander out of the English only castle (translation and interpretation), but rarely spend time in spaces that are using other languages as the tool of power. Because they don’t want to and don’t have to give up that power.

Cost of Assimilation

Language assimilation and loss were and still are the ultimate tool of assimilation. Because language holds cultural insight, perspective, and value taking away a home language takes away these connections. Forcing or using only English defaults us to being limited to thinking and tools that benefit the colonizers.

Defaulting to an English only framework places people who speak a different language than English at a disadvantage, we are always trying to fit into the American/English speaking framework because we are using someone else’s tools.

“Thinking in English leads to thinking and acting like the colonizer.” – Native Language Survival & Revival


As an international transracial adoptee, I [Heidi] see how much value is placed on “economic security,” learning English to be able to survive and hopefully thrive in America. There is lesser concern about the “cultural loss and separation,” and even with economic security, adoptees still face trauma from adoption, racism, and cultural loss. For adoptees who want to reconnect with their country of birth, and biological families loss of language can create retraumatize or create new trauma because there is no sense of belonging – not belonging in the adoptive culture, but not having a homeland to return to. Language ease makes you feel comfortable in the US, but seeing yourself mirrored in society makes our birth country’s a place of comfort until we open our mouths.

In immigrant and refugee families loss of language can create gulfs between family members. Parents or grandparents who continue speaking their mother tongue and children who may be English only cannot connect with each other. Or the power dynamics are reversed when a young child who has to translate for their parents. This disconnect is taxing within families and can create trauma within families. Programs such as dual language programs that help students maintain and continue to grow in their home language are wonderful bridges and helps children develop racial pride.

Language as a Tool for Racial Equity

Language is a very tangible way to move closer to racial equity. When we design for two or more languages we default to hiring different people, using different cultural norms, learning different history, etc. We intentionally slow down and begin to see our work as more complex and inclusive.

“Guajardo is acutely sensitive to the critiques voiced by Alvarez and others. “Without the infusion of culturally appropriate, culturally relevant approaches, I think that we don’t touch the spirit of the region,” he said. At one point, he was interrupted by a phone call; someone from the MBA program was looking for a course taught in Spanish to fulfill a breadth requirement. He pitched a Mexican- American studies class. “Stephanie would be great for the MBA students,” he told the person on the other line. “She would turn [the business students] upside down with all kinds of Chicano studies stuff that they would do well to know.” – Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University

Racial equity work is about creating relationships with people different than us so we can begin to have expanded world views. Language and ability to use language as a tool to make this happen is important. Erin recently took her kids to the public library and there was extra space in the Spanish language storytime. Her daughter loves storytime, so much so they have to have play storytime at home. Yet during the middle of the Spanish storytime the kids asked to leave because they ‘didn’t like it,’ they couldn’t understand what was being said, but they could follow along, but they stayed. It was important for the kids to not be at the center and it was ok they didn’t understand. Learning empathy and how to struggle with language is an important part of developing racial equity skills.

In a final thought a friend shared this thought: “I dream in Somali and think in Swahili. If I take time to answer you, know that my brain is trying so hard to translate my multi-lingual syllables in your English language.” English is her fourth language which she forced herself to learn to survive life in colonized world. “I love and appreciate folks with deep accent. I often want to hold them upon hearing their accent.. it shows they are rich in language and culture. That I’m not alone. That they come from another world just like me.. and their courage speak for itself through their accent. Diaspora. Immigrants. It’s so beautiful I have no words for it.” 

By Heidi Schillinger and Erin Okuno