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How Listening Informs the Way We Talk about Racial Equity

Our Vice President of Equity & Impact shares how our community is helping us rethink how we talk about racial equity.


At DonorsChoose, we believe in community. It’s our community of donors and partners that bring classroom dreams to life, our thriving community of more than half a million front-line educators (including more than 90,000 educators of color), our community of vendors shipping resources to classrooms across the country, and our staff community that energetically connects the dots in this ecosystem. 

Community is also at the center of racial equity work, and as an organization committed to combating racial inequity, we think it’s important to elevate the voices of our communities and to share how we’ve reoriented our thinking on a number of fronts — including the words that we use to describe identities. Since launching our Equity Focus last September, here’s where we are on this journey. 

In a nutshell: We’re listening.

We’re listening to what teachers tell us through their projects.
Our Equity Focus rallies our entire organization around a new goal focused on schools where at least 50% of students are Black, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander, or multiracial, and at least 50% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. In shaping our Equity Focus, we’ve relied not only on research showing how a student’s race impacts their access to equitable education, but on what we’ve learned from listening to the language in our teachers’ projects. Our #ISeeMe campaign was born out of hearing teachers tell us about the importance of “students seeing themselves” in their learning environments. 

We’ve built a framework around listening to our customers, with an eye toward equity. 
We’ve developed a set of principles that guide how our DonorsChoose racial equity work shows up in the world and the words we use when talking with our customers. Two of these principles are: “We believe people of color should feel welcomed, affirmed, and respected when engaging with our channels and as part of our community”; and “we believe we all play a role in combating inequity, including racial inequity.”  We recognize that as the world continues to change, our customers will change, and we’ll evolve as an org. So will these principles.

We’re evolving as we listen to what teachers tell us, when we ask. 
When we first started shaping our Equity Focus, we used the terms Black, Latinx, and Indigenous to describe the teachers and students at the heart of this work. And while we’ll never purport to propose a one-size-fits-all solution to how we describe students and teachers who identify as such, we learned two things about these language choices after surveying our teachers late last year:

  1.  More DonorsChoose teachers who identify as Hispanic or Latino/a/x prefer we use “Latino/a” or “Latino” when reference to country of origin isn’t possible. 
  2. More of our DonorsChoose teachers who identify as Native American/Indigenous/First Nation/American Indian prefer we use “Native American”. 
Survey question: How do you prefer DonorsChoose refers to Hispanic or Latino/a/x teachers in emails and on the DonorsChoose website when it isn’t possible to acknowledge their specific heritage? Tell us the extent to which you prefer each of the following terms, or suggest an alternative term.
Survey question: How do you prefer DonorsChoose refers to American Indian or Alaska Native teachers in emails and on the DonorsChoose website when it isn’t possible to acknowledge their specific heritage? Tell us the extent to which you prefer each of the following terms, or suggest an alternative term.

While "Hispanic" was as popular as "Latino/a," additional teachers preferred variations like "Latino" and "Latina," which argued for using some derivation of "Latin."  We're defaulting to using the term "Latino" as our best effort to listen to the community concerned while also trying to avoid presupposing a gender binary. While we’ll default to use of Latino, such language preference confirmed by teacher voices, we will strive to be as inclusive as possible in thinking about the context of when we’ll stray from this use. We’ll consider: When might we be able to use a teacher’s country of origin to better describe that teacher and their community? How might use of Latino, Latina, or Latino/a impact members of the community who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming? We’ll continue to adjust to meet the expectations of our teacher community, and we’ll start by mirroring our language choices with what teachers are telling us in the data.

We’re engaging with our staff, their stories, and race-equity scholarship to help us make tough choices on this journey. 
I’m especially grateful to a host of colleagues, including our Employee Resource Groups: DALE (the DonorsChoose Association of Latinx Employees), BOSS (the Black Organization of Soulful Staff), RAD (Representing Asians at DonorsChoose), our Equity Council, and Steve To (our Director of Equity & Experience) for always championing the voices of the community in our race equity work. While our entire team is committed to addressing inequity, it’s these folks whose identities, stories, and family histories are baked into the decisions we make. 

As we round out this school year and as I lead our organization into becoming more race equity-forward in our impact on students and teachers, we’re deeply committed to making intentional choices about the language that we use. As a Black woman, I bring my own roots to the table in these conversations, always recognizing that race has a painful and complex history and therefore requires care and intentionality in the words we use. 

When in doubt, or when the answer is unclear, we’ll look to the community to guide our decision making so that we can ultimately rally as many resources around students and teachers as possible.

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