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Courageous Conversations in the Classroom Part I: A Partnering Tool to Achieve Equity in Schools

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support and Maria E. Restrepo-Toro, Educator, Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, Manager of the New England MHTTC

Equity in education has been a hot topic of debate for many educators. We used to talk about equality before acknowledging that neither equal outcomes nor equal supports solved the racial or socioeconomic achievement gap in American schools. Now, many school leaders understand that students with varying levels of resources, guidance, and structure at home need diverse levels of support in school to have a chance at an equitable outcome. Still other leaders are discussing the need to remove some of the systemic barriers that have drastically widened the achievement gap because of interconnected problems related to poverty, racial discrimination, lack of mental health support, and the politicization of education. To address all of these issues, we must start by having some truly courageous conversations about these difficult topics.

With COVID-19, the disparities in schools have become even more apparent as districts with funding to provide 1:1 technology initiatives have had easier transitions into distance learning compared to struggling districts whose focus has been meeting the basic needs of students without sufficient food, clothing, or shelter. Still other districts have struggled to communicate with or provide quality learning resources to families who do not speak English. School communities are discovering and discussing a wide array of equity concerns they may not have noticed before. Schools around the country are seeing that when they take the bold step of beginning courageous conversations about these inequities, healing and justice can begin.

A Framework to Help Schools Facilitate Courageous Conversations

Courageous Conversations™ is an “award-winning protocol for effectively engaging, sustaining and deepening interracial dialogue” developed by researcher and educational consultant Glenn Singleton (Courageous Conversations, n.d.). It was developed to help create parameters and expectations that will facilitate more productive dialogues about racial equity. Some schools and organizations have expanded these conversations to include other equity issues—many of which are inter-related to race—that are stigmatized in their communities (i.e., poverty, incarceration, substance abuse). Singleton and his colleague, school improvement researcher and author Curtis Linton (2006), share three key elements of a Courageous Conversation:

  1. Engages those who won’t talk

  2. Sustains the conversation when it gets uncomfortable

  3. Deepens the conversation to a point where a meaningful action occurs

Why Talk about Race?

Repeated bullying, otherizing, and conflict around one’s racial identity can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Many bullies who are racially-motivated act out of fear or misunderstanding and never stop to understand their victim’s lived experience of discrimination.

Often, when we engage in dialogue with another person, we have difficulty practicing active or reflective listening. Instead of using eye contact, refraining from judgment or interpretation, and confirming that we’ve understood our conversation partner, our instincts often have us formulating our response before we’ve even given the other person a chance to finish their thought. In some cases, we interrupt them to share what we think rather than truly listening to what they think. If we aren’t actively listening to each other, we are probably not having the same conversation.

That is why Singleton and Linton (2006) developed four agreements that those entering into a Courageous Conversation must commit to before the dialogue can begin:

  1. Stay engaged.

  2. Speak your truth.

  3. Experience discomfort.

  4. Expect and accept non-disclosure.

These four conditions are what allows everyone involved to feel like there is a safe space to express what’s on their hearts and minds without fear of judgment or aggressive confrontation. The most important job of the facilitators of Courageous Conversations—in schools, often a principal or other school leader, potentially a student leader—may be to help set these rules of engagement in a way that welcomes all voices into the discussion. When people know that they are entering into a conversation that may make them uncomfortable but are assured that these learning moments that come from stepping outside of our comfort zone are held in confidence, they are better able to really speak their truth. They may find that their truths are not that much different than the truths of others from different racial backgrounds. They are also sure to learn that there are many things about someone from another culture’s experience that they didn’t fully understand.

When everyone in the room is using the same norms for conversation, there is more room for growth and less room for contention. Schools could use these norms for classroom discussions as well as Courageous Conversations.

A Compass to Guide the Conversation

When the Courageous Conversation begins, facilitators can anchor it in the present moment by asking those participating to reflect on their own feelings, beliefs, and need for action- or knowledge-based perspectives. There are four primary ways that people deal with racial information, events, and/or issues that correspond to the reflection points: 1) emotional, 2) intellectual, 3) moral, and 4) relational. It can help keep the conversation civil when participants return to this compass both in tense moments and in moments of discovery. Leaving room for reflection at key points during the conversation helps everyone process the big ideas being discussed so that they have more takeaways to affect beliefs and actions after they’ve left the table.

Having Courageous Conversations at School

There are many great opportunities for having these conversations at school to begin the process of addressing racial inequities in education. Some ideas include:

  1. During a professional development session after staff have received training about equity.

  2. During morning meetings, homeroom, or advisory courses after students have been introduced to the four agreements. Older students can also use the compass.

  3. During all school assemblies, especially in response to a problem affecting a large number of students (i.e., bullying, the suicide of a student, other injustices).

  4. At school board meetings, state or federal government agencies, and other places where decisions about funding and staffing are made.

  5. In meetings with parents.

  6. At restorative justice circles, especially if the offense was motivated by some kind of prejudice.

The first step to addressing racial inequities is to talk about them. Not everyone, especially those with racial and/or economic privilege, is aware of the systemic prejudices that cause everyday harm to non-White people. Many students of color experience painful microaggressions and bullying because of their race every day. School leaders have an obligation to address these issues that can cause long lasting self-esteem issues, mental health challenges, and in some cases, suicidal ideation or completion. Read about school districts across the country who have found success with Courageous Conversations in Part II of this series and learn how to facilitate a Courageous Conversation in your elementary or secondary school in Part III.


Courageous Conversations. (n.d.). Courageous conversations about race.

Singleton, G.E., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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