Lacey Robinson, UnboundEd
A two-part interview with Lacey Robinson on race and the importance of building authentic, trusting relationships with each other and our students
I am pleased to share my interview with Lacey Robinson, President and CEO of UnboundEd.
This interview is very different from the others in the Rethinking Intervention series, for two reasons:
It is audio-only
It was recorded in two parts
The two-part structure is deliberate and important. We approached the first half the same way we approached the other posts in the series—Lacey shared her story and offered insight into what does and doesn’t work to intervene effectively and accelerate student learning. The second half is a conversation Lacey and I had about the way racism and white supremacy culture influenced what I did with the first half.
I want to thank Lacey for calling me into this conversation, and for bringing honesty to the discussion. We hope listeners will join us in continuing the important dialogue, so relevant to our interactions as humans in the world and to the work of education.
—Emily Freitag, Instruction Partners CEO
Part 2 (July 22, 2020)
EF: This is Emily Freitag picking up my conversation with Lacey Robinson, CEO of UnboundEd. Now, this is about five, maybe six weeks actually after the first half of our conversation and a lot has changed in the world in that time. For logistical reasons we weren’t able to finish our first conversation, so we are finishing it today. Before we do that, Lacey and I wanted to bring you in on an interaction that we had related to our interview that we think is really quite relevant to the work of the world and the work of educators right now. There were a couple of things that happened. After our first interview, as we do with all of these, we transcribed it and my communications team brought me some of the great quotes from the interview. And I included a quote from Lacey at the end of my weekly email without clearing that with Lacey. She knew she’d done the interview, she knew it was going to go up on a podcast, but she did not know that this quote was going to be in the email. Furthermore, I misspelled Lacey’s first name—and I just want to own that this was two weeks after George Floyd, and I had just committed to lifting more voices of color personally and in our own organizational communications—and to add insult to significant injury, I do think I was longing for the cover of this quote from a black woman to end an email. Lacey felt that and called me into a conversation about it. I will let her share her experience of it, but upfront, Lacey, I just want to say to you again, we’ve talked about this, but I’m going to say it again: I’m deeply sorry. I do think you felt appropriated and I think there was an instinct of appropriation, and I learned from it. We’ve changed a number of things about how we do these interviews. I want to thank you for calling me into that conversation.
LR: Well, I accept that. And I accept it with a lot of grace and mercy that I felt back from you for allowing me to even have the space of calling it out. I’m also going to make an assumption. I feel like when things like that happen, the fragility oftentimes on my white colleagues’ side is so big and so strong and so powerful, that they don’t open themselves up to even wanting to have a conversation or they get defensive. And then I would say the fragility on my side as a woman of color is the fear of how it’s going to be received. To see both of us push through that, I think was a very powerful thing. So I appreciate you even giving us time to even talk about and discuss it.
EF: I think so many educators are trying to talk about race more and as a white woman who was raised to believe that color blindness is the aspiration, I am unpracticed at it, and I am uncomfortable in a lot of those conversations. You and I have some history actually really talking about our own organizations and our organizational commitments and actions that I have always appreciated. So we even had some practice at this before, and it was still hard. I was nervous. I was sweating before I called you. But I think it was really important for me to be able to hear your experience of it, and to name the changes and actions that it would lead to.
LR: I think it ultimately boils down to this, and I appreciate you naming the time period in which all of it transpired. I have experienced through my own self-reflection and also just the power of me witnessing folks of color in this particular time coming out and saying, Listen, the psychological safety net is gone. And the feeling that I don’t have a choice but to speak my truth or literally I will suffocate. You know, I can’t keep swallowing it and hiding it, I have to be transparent. And I think George Floyd’s—what I now say is his sacrifice for all of us—was to do exactly what you and I ended up doing. To not skirt around the feelings and the impact of actions and words was what it really boiled down to. And I actually have to thank you for this, because in the time of the response to the misspelling of my name and me looking at the quote, there were other things I had been battling with. I think you saw this in some of my rollout of social media—because what Emily’s not saying is that that was the cherry on top of things that had happened to me over the course of those two weeks while everything was going on in the world. I had this thing bubbling up in me that I just really wanted to say to my white colleagues, friends, and family members, that it’s not enough for you to say, “Oh, I’m so sad about what’s going on.” I felt like it wasn’t enough and the burden I was feeling of having to constantly try and educate them on why it’s not enough was wearing me down. What it boils down to for me that I’ve recently heard that has helped me on my road to redemption, is this virtual set by Frances Frei out of the Harvard Business School. She talks about trust, how you define trust, and she talks about how the definition of trust is logic—the logic of the person and if what the person is saying is authentic, and you believe that the person believes it. And, is what they’re saying rigorous? As in, does it have an oath behind it? And then, more importantly, that the logic that the person is using is not contradictory to their actions—saying one thing and then doing another. The logic goes along with authenticity, which is just who you are, the real you, and who you show up as—not your representative. Then there is empathy, as in the way that you present yourself into the world or how you are in it for others. What I love about this triangle—logic, authenticity, and empathy—is that Frances Frei takes us through trust and that it speaks to me as a woman of color. And it speaks to the constant negotiation and evaluation that I go through, particularly in this landscape of educational reform, a landscape that has way more white counterparts than counterparts of color. And a landscape where I, quite frankly, had to learn the rules of engagement in order to even have some sort of aspiration and career progress. So I think for me, I’m always looking at and now that she’s named it for me, where the logic, the authenticity, and the empathy is. And if I’m honest, I would say that prior to you and I having our conversation, I grappled with the logic. I love that you said, “I was raised colorblind and I am new to this.” You may not willingly know that maybe everything hasn’t centered on or rooted in your beliefs, and as a person of color, my antenna goes off. And that’s not to say that you have to be 100% rooted in everything that you say. But that’s to say that as a person of color, I’m raised with an antenna to help me with my psychological safety net that says what this person is saying sounds like logic, but it may not be, or this person is not being authentic, or this person is not being empathetic. And for me, I battled with the logic part of it because, and correct me if I’m wrong, we had not had a conversation with you admitting, “I was raised colorblind. I’m learning. I’m being more forthright.” Up until that interview point, you and I had not gone to that.
EF: That sure is true. I had pulled you in on, “Here’s where I am on my journey, here’s where I’m going next,” but I hadn’t really said, “Let me tell you where I’m coming from.”
LR: So, my trust was not there. And when that happens, Frances Frei says that the person is exuding a “trust wobble,” which means your triangle is a little out of balance. I think in these conversations, it’s important to be able to name that. Then this is where I think the grace and mercy come in. You may be just now centering your logic or a person may be centering their authenticity or their empathy and it’s okay to name that.
EF: Absolutely. There are so many connections to other interviews we’ve done and it makes me think about students actually, and the trust that students have to feel from their teachers. In particular, the trust that Black students and students of color need to feel when so many of their teachers are white. I think it’s 78% of teachers are white women.
EF: Thank you for correcting me. That’s a very big number. I was talking to Pam Cantor, and she was talking about the marshmallow test that everybody loves to talk about, the test to see if you will delay gratification and wait for the next marshmallow. She talked about a researcher who replicated that study and put students in a room where there were a bunch of broken crayons. The researcher told the students, “I’m going to bring you whole crayons,” and for half the students she did and half of the students she didn’t. And guess who waited for the marshmallow? The students who got the whole crayons, the students who had trust in the researcher. It completely negated the underlying the research, with the point being trust matters so immensely.
LR: It’s huge. So I think when you think about trust, and you think about that logic and authenticity and empathy, you can have a white teacher standing in front of students of color who says, “I believe in you. I love you. I want to see you succeed. I want you to be the best person you can be.” And then they go and crack open the ELA lesson and completely gut it of its rigor. Because you’re not fluent enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, or your writing is too weak to answer this question in the form of a personal essay. What they don’t understand is that that logic gets taken out of that trust. Because it doesn’t matter what you say, your actions are telling me how you really feel. I think that that’s extremely important for us as educators to understand that whether you recognize it or not, whether the students have the vocabulary or not, their inner antennas go off of whether or not I should trust you. As an educator of color, before I put these lenses on that I now wear—to check myself, to continuously ask myself if I am moving more towards antiracism or racist ideas—before I had this lens, I would say that my empathy was wobbly because I wanted my students to take on the same personification, the same values I had. Pretend that meritocracy is the way to be—if you could just speak like the way I speak, if you could just dress like the way I dress, if you would just do those things, you’ll be successful. Especially middle schoolers, I was in middle school, and they will call you on your empathy in a minute: “You don’t really care about me, you just want me to be like you.” Then the authenticity—you cannot get in front of any human being and pretend to be something that you’re not. They’re going to know it.
EF: And everyone knows that right now there are so many organizational commitments to antiracism, and we have one on our website. I think it really heightens the question about authenticity. Lacey, we close all of these interviews with anything that you really hope educators will hold on to as we start this year. Just anything that is on your mind and heart.
LR: First and foremost, I want to say that I want all of them to be safe. I talked to an educator today who told me with tears in her words that she just updated her will. I don’t think as human beings we should have to decide whether or not our wills should be updated because we have to go back to our jobs. It’s not fair. And this false characterization that the United States has for an educator is going to be to our demise. Yes, we give it our all. Yes, we sacrifice dollars. Yes, we sacrifice time. Yes, we are taking the helm of making sure that our future is solidified and propelling us forward as a country, but we are human beings. And if I had my way, none of us will go back into a building, we will take our dollars and our time and we will figure out how to give to the students who need the most. Where do we put the students whose parents have to go outside the home? How do we provide them the right level of education? There’s a way we could do that without opening up buildings and causing this experiment that’s about to happen in some of our states. And I know that’s controversial because I know that there are educators out there that want nothing more than to get in front of their kids and to see their faces and to feel their energy. But safety is the first thing. And then second of all, I want educators to understand that you have to have—again, I want to borrow this from Frances Frei, I want to make sure that I get this right— if you want your kids to succeed, you have to have high standards and deep devotion at the same time. You cannot have high standards and low devotion. You cannot have high devotion and low standards. High standards and deep devotion come to justice. And recognize that she says the opposite of justice is neglect. And what if we as educators would stop every day and ask ourselves: Is this justice or is this neglect?
EF: Wow. That is a very powerful image and closing. Thank you Lacey. Thank you for our relationship and thank you for the wisdom and insight you’ve brought to this conversation. Stay safe friend.
LR: You too, talk to you soon.
Part 1 (June 4, 2020)
EF: Please tell us about your journey as a student and as a learner and what that has shaped in your view of education.
LR: I usually start with my third-grade experience because it sort of magnifies and really showcases what I was as a learner. So I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, in a town called Englewood. We literally integrated the town. It was myself, my sister, and my mother, along with one other African American family in the community. I know it was only one other family because I went to a school and we were the only people of color in the entire school.
And so, my third grade stands out for me because it was probably the first time I recognized that not only were some children in the school treating my sister and I with disrespect and racism, but I had a third-grade teacher who blatantly said she did not teach black children how to read. And my mother, being the maverick that she is, refused to take me out of the class. She was like, “If you don’t learn now, you’ll never learn how to get along in a world where people are only going to see a piece of you and make any sort of observation and analysis about who you are. And the sooner you learn to fight that, the more readily equipped you’ll be.” And so, she coached me every night and I learned how to get along to get by. Pretty much up until college that had been my MO in school. And I will say I think it was probably one of the best gifts and worst nightmares my mother could have ever given me, but I get it now.
So, have I had teachers along the way that were biased and racist? Absolutely. Have I had teachers along the way that were the opposite? Absolutely. It helped me learn right away that my intelligence, my knowledge, the things that I learned in school, partly were coming from school and partly were going to come from my own fruition.
EF: Thank you for sharing your story. Tell us from your experience as an educator, and as a leader of an organization that works with educators, what motivates your sense of hope about what we can accomplish in education?
LR: I had the tremendous opportunity as an undergraduate at a historically black university, Florida A&M University. I had an opportunity during my teacher residency to do my residency at the Marva Collins Preparatory School in Cincinnati, Ohio. This set me in this forward motion, about how the same messages I got as a student, students 10, 15, 20 years down the road were still getting the same messages, and that regardless of those messages, if you put students in an environment where rigor is sought after, their identities are honored, and they are challenged on a daily basis—not just by the teacher, but by their peers—that they can do anything.
I always talk about my first day of my teacher residency. I walked into a second-third grade combined classroom. What was really cool about Marva Collins was there was grade-level, but there really wasn’t grade-level. When I walked in, the students, I’ll never forget it, we’re in the middle of a discussion on Animal Farm. And I remember sitting there for the first few minutes, like, “Are they reading Animal Farm? I didn’t read that until high school!”
These were second and third graders. And, by the way, you couldn’t tell who was second or who was third. I mean, just the fluency they had. And what was really cool was that, if you really think about Animal Farm, it’s a book about animals, right? It’s a story about animals and what kid is not going to be able to connect to a talking animal?
What’s really cool was that the teacher was taking the themes of Animal Farm and she was relating it to what was happening in the neighborhood. The school sat near Procter and Gamble factories in Cincinnati, Ohio. And they were trying to acquire more land. And the land that they wanted was a neighborhood playground. And so it was in jeopardy of being bought and torn down. So, the students understood what it meant to stand up for their rights, and she was using that story juxtaposed against Animal Farm to get them to understand the themes and what a leader is like. It was just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And I remember being blown away and it just stuck in my head that no matter what, if you hold students to a high level, whether they struggled with fluency or not—because there were strugglers in there—if you get them to relate to what it is they’re learning, so really the “why,” and to make connections, which is really what learning is, that they can do anything. And so that’s what has propelled me as a teacher and a leader.
Then, moving on from there and seeing the inequities. I had opportunities to teach in predominantly African American and Latino underserved communities, and I also had an opportunity to teach in very high socio-economic communities. The differences were amazing, beyond just resources, but in what people believe the students can do. So that’s what informs me every day.
That is why our true north is always planted in instruction and equity with a big E. Name that institutionalized systemic racism is pervasive. It is intertwined. It is part of our current DNA in education, just like it is in all of our other systems. Not acknowledging that and not examining how it plays its role…well, that debunks the reason why we’re even trying to move students along the education system.
EF: Especially given that 86% of teachers are white, and the fragility and bias and privilege we know that comes with that, and the very significant and lasting impact that has.
Tell us more about what UnboundEd has done to unite what sometimes gets siloed, so that it’s not like, “We’ve got our equity work over here and our instruction work over there.”
LR: I think the most significant thing that UnboundEd has done and continues to do is to simply show that justice is in the details of teaching and learning, that it’s not enough to have a staff meeting where you’re discussing either the plight of the current community you’re supporting, or even having courageous conversations in a staff meeting. If you as the instructor don’t understand the pervasive role that bias may play in those discretionary spaces in your instruction, then having those ‘courageous conversations’ without that self-examination is nothing more than voyeurism.
We work really hard at UnboundEd to show that first of all, having grade-level, rigorous, engaging, meaningful, affirming instruction is social justice work. It is one of the ways that we ensure that education is an equalizer. The other piece to that is having been a practitioner myself, knowing that students will come in not with all of the prerequisite skills needed for that grade-level. I, as the practitioner, have to have my knapsack filled with all the scaffolds. Understanding those scaffolds are literally the meaning of that—which means it’s temporary, that eventually, they should fall away. Knowing the difference between a scaffold and a modification, and having enough guts to ask myself, “Is there a reason why I am not offering up the grade-level in this moment? Is there a reason why I’m choosing to modify rather than scaffold?” Understanding the role that my perception plays in what gets executed, amplified, and in how students are defined as learners in ELA and mathematics.
It comes from the foundation of culturally responsive teaching. Gloria Ladson-Billings has always been what I call one of my “equity warriors.” She was introduced to me in undergrad. She’s the reason why I went to the Marva Collins School. I had a professor who pushed me to understand what it meant to have culturally-responsive teaching. It challenged me to go spend time in a school with that at its center. Having had that experience, I’ve seen that not only can [culturally-responsive teaching] be done, I know it can work. And teachers of color aren’t the only educators that have to hold it at the center.
So our work is really based on that. We do a lot of unpacking the standards, understanding how they play a role in aligned curriculum. We acknowledge that, let’s be real, the aligned curriculum is not as it stands right now represented in a culturally relevant light—meaning that a lot of our students don’t see themselves in who is identified in that curriculum. But that doesn’t mean that we as practitioners can’t insert it.
We spend time having conversations and quite frankly putting points in our programs and our products that support educators in really building their lens around, “What does it mean to have equitable, grade-level, rigorous, engaging, affirming, and meaningful instruction?”