Welcoming Diversity at Unschooling Conferences

We live in a society in which racism and its wounds continue to play a big role. While I think unschooling has solved so many problems, it seems the issue of racism still needs special attention in order to welcome diversity at unschooling conferences and in the scene as a whole.

Over the last few years I’ve been to several huge (700 people plus) unschooling conferences around the country and have noticed a real lack of diversity. Much more upsetting I’ve heard stories of seeming racism.

Honestly, I think the racism has mostly been subtle exclusion that comes from a fear of trusting and welcoming diversity and what it might bring. I don’t think it’s hateful bigotry. Nevertheless, it has a sad effect.

Last year at the Northeast Unschooling Conference, near Boston, Massachusetts, Erika Davis-Pitre led a session about diversity. Erika is an African-American mom of four unschoolers, now 16-30 years old, and one of my favorite unschooling speakers: she’s both hilarious and profound when she talks about following your joy.

At the diversity session she talked about how the first year of the Northeast Unschooling Conference there appeared to be a lot of diversity among the hundreds of homeschooling families. But many people noticed the following years there was less and less.

Erika explained she can’t speak for everyone but gave an example of why that might be:

Earlier at that conference an African-American boy, about ten years old, wanted to take part in an activity, but was stopped by the unschoolers running it. They said he had to ask permission from his mom first and they pointed to Erika.

He said, “That’s not my mom.”

They said, “Yes, she is.”

Erika said it’s not the original assumption that bothers her.  (“There’s a black child and a black woman: they must be related.”) It’s continuing to insist after the child has said otherwise.

Unschooling is about trust and this child was not trusted, first of all to participate in the activity without permission from a parent (which is unheard of at an unschooling conference), and then not trusted about who his mom is!

“It’s not a big deal, but it is a big deal.” That’s how Erika Davis-Pitre described it. Nobody  really got hurt, Erika stepped in and said that she is in fact not his mother and was believed. But it is that type of thing that may drive people away.

Rethinking Education is an unschooling conference in Texas and clearly does something right because it’s the oldest in the country and seems to be the most diverse. But an incident of apparent racism occurred when I was there in 2007 that certainly felt like a “big deal” to the mother involved:

An African-American boy about eleven years old was accused by a security guard of breaking something. The mother of the child was upset and scared, so she tried to grab an unschooling mom for help and support. She explained to the unschooling mom that her child said he didn’t do it.

The unschooling mom said, “Well, sometimes kids lie when they get in trouble.” And she walked away.

Eventually, another unschooling mom came to support them and a child who witnessed the whole thing came to the boy’s defense. But the incident had a lot of negative meaning to this mother of a child who had just left school and entered the unschooling community.

She wasn’t so upset about the security guard, he wasn’t part of the unschooling community, she was upset about an unschooling parent not trusting her child and not supporting them: throughout the conference she and other African-Americans wondered if they were really welcome and included in all this talk of freedom and empowerment.

My point is not to villainize the people who displayed what seems like racism. I’m trying to bring to light the fact that we all have deeply ingrained fears and distrust of which we may not be aware and yet negatively affect our actions and keep us from doing what we truly want.

Most unschoolers have realized rooting out their own fears so they can really trust their children and themselves has amazing results: we may need to make a special effort to do the same with people who appear different than us.

Just like when you start trusting your children or yourself, this may take time, fears may need to be faced, and wounds may need to be healed. But trusting and welcoming diversity will be a great service to those families and will be a great service in enriching the unschooling community and, I believe, the whole world.

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6 Comments

Filed under diversity, race, trust, unschooling, unschooling conferences

6 responses to “Welcoming Diversity at Unschooling Conferences

  1. Jessica

    We did not feel particularly welcome or comfortable at the NEUC and will not be returning this year. It’s nice to see this discussed. Thank you.

    • Hi Jessica thank you for commenting and sharing your experience. It’s clearly something that does need to be addressed and I think many people don’t even realize that.

      I’m going to be speaking at NEUC again this year and I’m really looking forward to it. My hope is as people get more aware of how unwelcome some people feel it’ll inspire people to make more of an effort.

  2. Carmen

    Eli,
    Thanks for encouraging a discussion of this topic. I certainly would love to see not only RACIAL diversity, but diversity of all kinds – economical, political, religious, cultural, etc. – represented within the unschooling community.

    As a Christian unschooler I have certainly seen first hand the religious intolerance that can exist within the unschooling community. I think it’s unfortunate and definitely discourages open and honest communication. However, I attribute these attitudes to the individuals expressing them and not to the larger, more diverse unschooling community.

    Which brings me to this.

    In the second example you listed, how was the incident racially discriminatory? It seemed more of an insult towards children overall, not towards African-Americans specifically. Why did those involved choose to see it that way or am I misunderstanding? It seems like the comment of ONE person was taken as the attitude of the larger community and this is extremely unfortunate. Why did the parent choose to put so much energy into the negative of the situation instead of the positive – she was supported by another unschooling mother and another child. The comment made by the other mother belongs to that mother and not to the rest of the community. To begin to doubt whether or not African-Americans were welcome at the Conference seems like a really large leap to make. Were there other incidents to support this?

    I think trusting and welcoming goes both ways. People can find always find a reason to mistrust and feel excluded if they so choose. We all have our fears that we must face and looking inward rather than outward for the source of our fears is really tough.

    I would hope that people would return to conferences with the trust that they ARE welcome and that their being there creates the type of community in which we will all thrive and grow.

    Thanks again, Eli, for providing your insights!

    Carmen
    Austin, TX

  3. Hi Carmen, thank you also for sharing your experiences and thoughts. I totally agree about the need for welcoming diversity of all kinds, including religious diversity as in your case.

    I’m glad you brought up the question of whether or not the incident at Rethinking Education was actually racially based. The conclusion I’ve drawn is that it certainly wasn’t the right thing to do (the unschooling mom should have stayed and supported the boy being accused and his mom) and it may or not be racially motivated.

    I didn’t mention it in this piece but I actually got to know the unschooling mom who didn’t believe the boy and walked away. She’s a very cool person and very passionate unschooler. I honestly think that if it was the more usual image of the hippie family in the same situation, she just might have given that security guard hell.

    I am white, though I’ve travelled a lot I still haven’t experienced much racism firsthand. But I think the experience of racism can often be very subtle. I think her and others’ doubts were based on a general feeling and this was one incident as an example.

    That’s why I talk about the need to be welcoming: it’s a general attitude and approach. And it is just often easier to welcome people who seem more familiar to you. That’s why I talk about maybe just having to make a special effort.

    But you’re absolutely right that other people did support the family and there are plenty of people who totally welcoming to everyone. I do want everyone reading this to know that.

    People do have the power to make the most of a situation and take the good and leave the bad. I don’t agree with everything people say or do at these conferences and do that myself.

    But I do actually disagree about trust and welcoming going both ways: the person or group doing the welcoming, the majority of white hippie unschoolers, is the one with the power and I do think welcoming is their responsibility.

  4. Very interesting post, thank you. I’m just starting to explore unschooling but I’ve already gotten the sense that the unschooling community tends to overlook its own problems surrounding diversity and discrimination.

    Being another white hippie parent myself I know how easy it can be to accept privilege unconsciously and reassure myself that we live in a ‘post-racial,’ ‘colorblind’ society where unschooling is equally easy for all families. But that kind of thinking doesn’t help me any and it certainly doesn’t help families of color trying to find a place in the unschooling community.

  5. Pingback: Diversity, Unschooling Conferences, and Steinbeck, MLK, and Gandhi Quotes « Eli Gerzon’s Worldschooler Blog

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