Robbinsdale Area Schools, one of the 11 members of Intermediate District 287, is participating in that district’s second “Year of Learning” – a different kind of racial equity training rooted firmly in physical responses to trauma.
Radious Guess, diversity and inclusion director for Intermediate District 287, first worked with Minneapolis-based therapist, writer and speaker Resmaa Menakem in a previous job. She asked him to provide a keynote address to District 287 staff.
He ended up doing much more.
School year 2020-21 was the first Year of Learning in Intermediate District 287, co-created by Ms. Guess and Mr. Menakem, and presented to nearly 100 staff. This school year they have launched a second Year of Learning, and this time around they have extended participation to Intermediate District 287 members, including the entire cabinet of Robbinsdale Area Schools and many of its school administrators. With some members of the first cohort back for a second year, the current group is nearly 90 strong.
Anthony Williams, community education executive director for Robbinsdale Area Schools, notes that the Year of Learning is different from other trainings he has attended, which tend to focus on the mental impact of racial trauma.
“This is more focused on the physical impact,” says Mr. Williams, who is African American. “We’re called to be aware of the body and how it feels in a certain space. It feels necessary to focus on the body” if we are to begin to address how racist acts affect everyone in the most fundamental way.
Robbinsdale Superintendent David Engstrom, who is white, is “fascinated by the concept that we don’t heal from trauma cognitively. We have to heal physically.
“The training has made me much more aware of the need to get out of my head and pay attention to what is going on in my body. That makes me uncomfortable, but it has stretched me.” Admitting he is still early in the learning, he adds, “My focus is on the culture and climate of this district, and I believe Resmaa’s training ultimately will have a positive impact.”
The Year of Learning is, as its name suggests, definitely not a one-and-done affair. It is a 12-month commitment that focuses primarily on how “white bodies” (white people) and “bodies of culture” (Black, Indigenous and people of color) react physically in the presence of each other. Menakem theorizes that white people brought centuries of trauma with them when they came to America, and have yet to come to terms with it.
As he explained in a 2020 interview with Krista Tippett of the On Being public radio show, he saw the need to create a different approach to healing trauma.
To slam people in the room, given the histories that our bodies have experienced, and just slam people in the room willy-nilly and then say, “Let’s talk about race,” means that you are not giving the respect to the issue of race that it deserves.
Instead, during the Year of Learning, bodies of culture and white bodies meet separately from one another four times during the year. All bodies meet together four times. And in between the larger meetings, groups of three people – “triads” – meet to discuss the reading material (Menakem’s New York Times bestseller My Grandmother’s Hands) and practice ways to “settle” their bodies. As the program description puts it, “The separate body group sessions create safe spaces for bodies to share and reduce the possibility of harming or re-wounding other participants.”
The goal is to recognize and settle the racial trauma we hold in our bodies, with the aim of propelling in participants “a cultural shift . . . personally and professionally.”
Guess describes this shift as an increased ability to address racist behavior when we see it. She believes Menakem’s practices will create “a resource in our bodies that lets us enter into conversations” we might once have avoided, such as those addressing a colleague’s microaggressions or bias.
There is much more to the Year of Learning than we can describe in one short piece. Look for more on this training in a future edition of We R All In.