A Day with Racial Literacy Leader Dr. Howard Stevenson

On October 26, as part of Chapin’s ongoing commitment to advancing its Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) work, Dr. Howard Stevenson, a nationally sought expert on teaching emotional and racial literacy, spent an illuminating and productive day at 100 East End Avenue, connecting deeply with Middle and Upper School students, the full professional community, and parents/guardians.

An award-winning clinical psychologist, Dr. Stevenson is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he serves as the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and Professor of Africana Studies in the Human Development and Quantitative Methods Division of the Graduate School of Education. Additionally, Dr. Stevenson leads the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, a research, program development and training center at U Penn that studies and promotes racial literacy in schools and neighborhoods.

“Everybody has a racial story, and every story is important and powerful,” Dr. Stevenson told a group of several dozen parents and guardians during the powerful evening session, which was introduced by Head of School Suzanne Fogarty and Associate Head of School Xiomara Hall.

“I was so enamored with Dr. Stevenson’s brilliance, personality and professionalism, and I’m thrilled he’s been with us all day,” said Ms. Hall, who first heard him speak in 2014 at a leadership conference. “You’re in for a treat and a lovely conversation.”

Raised in Delaware, Dr. Stevenson began by describing his own upbringing and how he was shaped by his parents, particularly his mother, who was “very direct” about the way he and his siblings needed to act in public. “It wasn’t about us. It was about how other people saw us,” he clarified, adding, “The way she challenged disrespectful people was amazing.”

He encouraged the audience to talk candidly about their own experiences. Prompted by the question, “What messages about race did you get when you were growing up?,” the participants broke into small groups and engaged in honest dialogue. He then asked them to reflect on their feelings, both emotionally and physically.

This activity sought to illustrate the importance of developing and strengthening one’s “racial literacy,” which he defined as “the ability to read, recast and resolve racially stressful encounters.”

While acknowledging adults’ understandable desire to protect children from difficult topics and encounters, Dr. Stevenson emphasized the importance of open, age-appropriate discussions around race to provide children with important strategies.

In his sessions with Middle School students, Dr. Stevenson recalled how he felt as a child when he wasn’t treated respectfully because of his racial identity. He asked the two groups (Classes 4-5 and Classes 6-7) to examine feelings of their own brought on by upsetting situations and whether acting on those emotions was always the most constructive choice. He also focused on the importance of storytelling. By sharing their stories and listening intentionally to the stories of their classmates, Dr. Stevenson told the Middle School students, young people build empathy while feeling heard and validated.

Dr. Stevenson spent time as well with the Upper School Coalition, a student leadership group comprised of representatives of affinity groups and culture clubs (a full list is here). He also visited an American Experience (AmEx) class, the cross-disciplinary course for Class 11 that brings together history, literature and visual and performing arts.

During his afternoon session, Dr. Stevenson asked professional community members to reflect on a racially stressful situation in their lives and to “calculate, locate and communicate” the feelings it stirred. This exercise helped inform our educators about how to facilitate the practice of racial literacy with students and diffuse situations that may appear in the classroom. After a candid discussion, Dr. Stevenson offered helpful advice and suggestions, for both the PC and students, on how to mindfully navigate such encounters and, in turn, make healthy decisions.

Thank you, Dr. Howard Stevenson, for sharing your compassion, perspective and far-reaching expertise with the Chapin community!