By Kim Korona
As we observe Black History Month, it is an important time to remember that while Black people and their experiences have been an integral part of our country’s past in countless ways, there has been a pervasive erasure of Black people, their perspectives, and their accomplishments from U.S. history. We can begin to rectify this by making a concerted effort to acknowledge the past and present injustices that Black people have endured while paying tribute to the strength, courage, leadership, and perseverance of Black individuals. We can also honor those who have fought against oppression, overcome insurmountable adversity, and achieved extraordinary success despite all odds.
But there is more to do beyond taking a more holistic approach to teaching Black history. The renewed demand for a racial reckoning in the United States that resurfaced this past summer calls for dismantling white supremacy and radically reimagining a compassionate, equitable, and restored world. This means working to infuse anti-racism into all aspects of our society. Each of us can utilize the positions we hold to dismantle racism and rebuild more just systems.
I wanted to share some of the steps I am taking in my role as a humane educator to bring an anti-racist framework to the work that I do. This is not a complete list by any means; it is simply where I have started.
Introspect and Reflect
As educators, it is important to look inward and to reflect on our own awareness and perceptions before we teach others. We live in a system of oppression through which some benefit and others are penalized solely on the basis of their (actual or perceived) race, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, (dis)ability, and religious/spiritual/or secular beliefs. As a cisgender heterosexual middle-class white woman, I recognize the implicit biases that I bring to my work and the privileges I have experienced in life. These are privileges that I did not earn, but from which I benefit nonetheless. In acknowledging this, I can strive to filter my implicit biases and find ways to challenge unearned privilege. It is of course easier said than done, but being aware is the beginning. As educators, if we are honest with ourselves about these aspects of our lives, we can take meaningful action and find age-appropriate ways to discuss these systemic issues with our students as well. Teaching our students about this reality is one concrete way that we as educators can begin to work toward more inclusion and equity.
Connect to Black Changemakers Past and Present
To bring an anti-racist perspective to the work we do, it is imperative that we educate ourselves on the historical context of racial injustice, as well as present-day calls to action. We need to understand the problem to create and advocate for real solutions. I have recently learned about some specific historical injustices that Black people faced, as well as Black heroes and visionaries, previously outside of my awareness. Here are a few (among many) people from the past who I have recently been inspired by:
- Robert Smalls – A Civil War hero who escaped enslavement by commandeering a Confederate ship and brought its 17 Black passengers, three of whom were children, to freedom. As part of the Reconstruction Era, he became a politician who advocated for free public education and universal health care. 1
- Revered John Lemon – A humane educator for the American Humane Association who vocally challenged racial segregation and institutional discrimination. He was a pioneer in the field, making connections between kindness toward animals and kindness toward people through racial and economic justice. He was responsible for the creation of more than 500 Bands of Mercy (youth groups focused on promoting care and respect toward animals) and gave hundreds of presentations across Alabama and Virginia. 2
- Olivia Hooker – Survived the horrific Tulsa (Oklahoma) Massacre at six years old. The experience inspired her to fight for civil rights and she went on to help found the Tulsa Race Riot Commission “to ensure victims of racism and violence are not forgotten.” She also became the first African American woman to join the Coast Guard, proving that women could do the job. 3
Here are just a few of the many present-day visionaries who inspire me:
- Dr. Bettina Love – An education researcher and author who has provided a roadmap to help educators recognize the intersection between race, education, abolition, and Black joy. Dr. Love advocates for educators to work “with parents and communities [to] build communal, civically engaged schools rooted in Abolitionist Teaching with the goal of intersectional social justice for equitable classrooms that love and affirm Black and Brown children.” 4
- Aph Ko – Author and activist who founded Black Vegans Rock, a “digital space that seeks to spotlight everyday Black vegans who are looking to get their work, art, music, restaurant, book, or other projects in front of other vegans. [They] seek to specifically cater to Black vegans…[who] are regularly excluded or erased from mainstream spaces that deal with animal rights, food justice, feminism, and anti-racism.” She has inspired people to look at the intersectionality between all of these issues in a new light.
- Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – These three women are the organizers who founded the Black Lives Matter movement that has inspired people all around the world to take action and is, as they describe, “a Black-centered political will and movement building project” now consisting of a global network of 40 member-led chapters. Each of these activists has a long history of dedication to and expertise in advocating for human rights and justice, including issues related to universal healthcare, domestic workers, immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, prison abolition, and anti-racism.
In the history of Black oppression, there is also a story of resilience and resistance. As Keisha N. Blain, historian and editor of the recently released book Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 tells us, in recounting history it is critical to “capture the spirit of determination that has guided Black people in the United States every step of the way.” 5
When I recently volunteered to tutor at an after-school program, I brought readings about remarkable Black figures, who my students said they had never heard of before. They were empowered to see the incredible accomplishments of people who looked like them and overcame injustice and discrimination. As humane educators, we can empower youth to take positive action by lifting up Black changemakers of the past and present to strengthen the agency of young people today.
Teach Content Through an Anti-Racist Lens
Over the last year, I’ve attended several webinars about abolitionist teaching. In the process, I’ve explored how we as humane educators can embrace abolitionist teaching in our own work, and what that would look like in practice. For example, in listening to early education experts Will Tolliver, an environmental educator, and Dr. Aisha White, director of the PRIDE (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) program, I realized that we should be especially mindful of the ways in which we teach about kindness — especially with early learners – to avoid sending the wrong message. Some adults may teach young children that kindness means we must always smile, act politely, and be agreeable (or young children may interpret their lessons that way). 6 We don’t want young people misguidedly growing up to think that they cannot speak up for themselves or for others.
We can prevent this outcome by being explicit in what we mean when we teach kindness. As a concrete way to incorporate this awareness into our work, we added language to the introduction of our Kindness for All Pre-K curriculum training. We explained that:
“When we teach young people about kindness, it is not about being silent when it comes to injustice or silent when it comes to mistreatment. We want students to know that kindness is about thoughtfulness and respect toward everyone, and it is also about standing up for ourselves and others when we see inequality or mistreatment. We want students to value and affirm differences, and when they or someone else they know is not valued, they have a right to use their voice to speak up, and they also have to hear and listen to others when they speak up as well.”
While teaching children to be kind is foundational to humane education, we must do so in a way that empowers students to stand up for justice and equity.
Acknowledge Our Shortcomings
As we think about humane education through an anti-racist lens, it is imperative that we re-examine our own programs with scrutiny. For example, a core component of humane education is understanding how a topic or issue interconnects people, other species, and the natural world. However, we must make these connections in thoughtful ways that focus on the needs of both people and animals, as well as the sustainability of the environment. What we must avoid is comparing the suffering of animals to the suffering of human populations that have been exploited, which minimizes the experience of the people and is itself a form of exploitation. 7
I recently reviewed a lesson that I created almost two decades ago while I was in graduate school and realized that I was culpable of doing this very thing. I had to own this and take action to make it right. While I will not use this lesson when teaching students, I will use it in professional development trainings as a teachable example of how important it is to be critical of our own work and as a representation of how not to create a humane education lesson. No matter how well-informed we think we are, it is important that we are open to rooting out our own racially unjust practices. Having been conditioned to hold implicit bias and not see the racial injustices around us, we will likely make mistakes. And when we do, we can acknowledge them and take measures to remedy our errors.
Amplify BIPOC Voices in the Animal and Environmental Movements
Currently the narratives of white people dominate our culture, compelling us to make a conscious effort to amplify BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color) voices within our field. The majority of professional humane educators today are white women, and white people are over-represented in both animal and environmental agencies. Although this issue is nothing new, it still has yet to be adequately addressed. In 1912, racial justice and animal advocate Reverend Richard Carroll wrote, “I am the only colored speaker on the program, and in fact I have not seen a single colored visitor,” referring to his experience at an animal advocacy conference. 8
While I don’t have all the answers for how to resolve this issue, I think we can start by admitting the issue exists and spreading awareness about organizations whose focus is to make the animal and environmental advocacy spaces more inclusive. We can support these organizations financially (if we are in a position to do so) and through volunteerism. These are some of the organizations I have donated to recently:
- Encompass –Aryenish Birdie, founder, launched the organization “after witnessing and experiencing an urgent need for a more equitable animal protection movement.” In college, Aryenish studied how systems of oppression manifest and take root in society and individuals through a lens of sociology and philosophy.
- Companion and Animals for Reform and Equity (C.A.R.E.) –James Evans, president, has led several groundbreaking initiatives that are reshaping animal welfare, while also advocating for more diversity and inclusion in the field. The organization’s mission is “to bring diverse voices to the Animal Welfare industry while also advocating for a more inclusive path to pet adoption for all.”
- Outdoor Afro – Founder Rue Mapp, conservationist and outdoor enthusiast, was named by Root 100 as one of the most influential African Americans in the U.S. (2012 and 2016). Her organization is “the nation’s leading, cutting-edge network that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature.” It is changing the face of conservation and leading the way for inclusion in outdoor recreation and experiences in nature.
We can also encourage agencies, especially those with which we are directly involved, to have a diverse board of directors and to develop diverse, equitable, and inclusive hiring policies and practices.
Continue the Work
Anti-racism is an active process. As a humane educator, I will always continue making an intentional effort to bring an anti-racist lens to my work. We want to ensure that we are not unconsciously reinforcing racism in the very act of teaching humane education. We can remain diligent through continued efforts such as: ongoing introspection; actively pursuing educational opportunities for self-growth; incorporating diverse representation and narratives from the past and present into our programs; regular re-examination of our work and content; and supporting and promoting efforts to create more diversity, equitability, and inclusion in the profession.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but these are just some of the actions we can take to bring an anti-racist perspective to our work as humane educators. I think these steps will enhance our teaching practice, elevate the field, and most importantly benefit the youth we serve.
- Egerton, Douglas. “Terrorized African-Americans Found Their Champion in Civil War Hero Robert Smalls.” Smithsonian Magazine, (Sept. 2018)
- Davis, Janet. The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America. Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Morning Edition, National Public Radio. “Before Making Military History, She Witnessed One Of History’s Worst Race Riots.” (20 Feb. 2020).
- Love, Bettina. B. Love Official Website Bio.
- Morehart, Phil. “400 Years of Black Life: Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain Reflect On a New Volume.” American Libraries, (23 Jan. 2021).
- Focusing on Young Leaners: Tools for Anti-Racist Teaching. PBS Learning Media.
- Ko, Aph. Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide to Getting Out. Lantern Books, (16 Sept. 2019)
- Davis, Janet. The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America. Oxford University Press, 2016.