North Carolina Organization Runs Literacy-Based Anti-Racism Camp for Kids, Professional Development for Educators

The nonprofit, we are, works with children, families, and educators with a goal of dismantling systemic racism in schools and beyond.

Teaching important vocabulary at anti-racism camp.

In North Carolina this summer, elementary school children went to summer camp and talked about systemic racism, the school-to-prison pipeline, and social justice movements. These are not hazy, lazy days in Durham.

“We tell parents that it’s not a kumbaya camp,” says Ronda Taylor Bullock, executive director of we are, the nonprofit organization that runs the program. “You don’t send your kids to anti-racism camp to have fun. They will, but that’s not your purpose, that’s not your why for sending them.”

Taylor Bullock is a former high school English teacher with a doctorate in policy, leadership, and school improvement from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her research has focused on critical race theory, whiteness studies, white children’s racial identity construction, and anti-racism.

In 2015, she co-founded we are (which stands for working to extend anti-racism education), the Durham, NC-based organization with a mission to "collaborate with children, families, and educators to dismantle systemic racism in schools and beyond." In an effort to attain those goals, the organization runs a literacy-based anti-racism summer camp, with the goals of extending anti-racist practices into homes and communities, fostering healthy racial identities in children, and building historical understanding of race and racism. we are also does presentations and workshops for adults, as well as offering educators an anti-racism professional development program, the Educator Summer Institute, and an annual Let’s Talk Racism conference.

The camp was Taylor Bullock's idea. Influenced by her first personal experience with racism at age 5 and knowing most anti-racism programs are for adults, she sought a way to counter any beliefs or racial biases at an early age. She works with a team of current and former educators and one licensed psychologist to create the lesson plans.

we are piloted the week-long anti-racism camp in 2016 with 15 kids. This year, they had 130, including participants at a satellite camp in Greensboro. For the first time, one session had more white children than children of color. While it’s "a good problem to have" because it means white families want to participate, Taylor Bullock says, it changes the dynamic. The target demographics and how to hit them is something Taylor Bullock says the staff will discuss come the fall.

The camps—one for rising first and second graders, the other for students entering third to fifth grade in the fall—are structured similar to school. Each day, there is a morning meeting then they read the book of the day. There is snack time, recess, and quiet time. Most of the day, however, is spent in large and small group discussions and hands-on activities to reinforce the lesson of the day and those throughout the week. The children also watch video clips of young activists to see that kids their age have a voice and can make a difference.

Taylor Bullock and her staff often first have to explain to many of the kids that racism isn’t something that was "back in the day." It is an ongoing issue that they must understand and work to fight in their lives. The topics can be sad and upsetting. While she sometimes must navigate responses from the white children that mirror white adults—denial, explanation of actions, change of subject, etc.—for the most part, it is a search for answers.

“Children don’t rationalize racism the way adults do,” says Taylor Bullock. “To children, racism does not make sense. Why would you treat someone unfairly? Why would you have separate schools? Why would you have segregation? … Children will ask way more questions and want to know why and get to the bottom of understanding what happened.”

Each day the organizers send each camper home with a handout for their parents or caregivers that reviews vocabulary and essential and reflective questions from the day, as well as sharing a quote or story of something their child said or did that day. Each facilitator is responsible for a small group of about six kids.

“We try to pull educators from the local schools to help facilitate the camp because the idea is they’re bringing in their experiences from school, then they’re getting exposed to this curriculum, and hopefully they’re bringing it back and taking what they’ve learned and seen into the classroom,” says Taylor Bullock. “We’re hoping to create this great feedback loop and extend our anti-racist practices.”

On Friday, parents are invited in to see what their kids have learned. The first and second graders sing a song to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” with the new lyrics they created to make it a social justice song and show off posters that are a compilation of their work from the week. The third to fifth graders show the protest videos they created to illustrate what they have learned about social justice movements.


The medium for the message

Taylor Bullock decided on a literacy-based approach. Children’s racial identities are shaped by what they see in books, she says, so we are can use books, in turn, “to counter those images and narratives that were used to give the impression that white children, white people, whiteness is superior to black and brown.”

The organization “centers black and brown authors, black and brown characters, and black and brown experiences,” Taylor Bullock says. The staff continues to strive for a goal of 100 percent culturally authentic texts where the race and identity of the author align with the race and identity of the book’s characters, though she does include some books written by white women (often with illustrators of color) in the curriculum.

To find books that “in a very concrete way talk about race, skin color, racism, activism, importance of names,” she and we are staff considers what they are trying to communicate with the campers. Then they begin their research, which involves general Internet searches for books on the topics, asking for recommendations, and reading the texts to see if they properly reflect the idea in the way they envisioned.

Each year, we are switches the texts and alters the activities to relate to the specific books, so returning campers can expand their home libraries and not repeat books. There is one exception, however: All the Colors We Are is used every year. Katie Kissinger’s book about melanin and ancestry helps kids become race-conscious and dissociate negative attributes with race, according to Taylor Bullock. Campers who already have the book are given a different title from the we are library to take home that day.


Sending kids to camp

The group gathers around a table that displays handprints made with the paint color the kids created to look like their skin.

Some parents sign up their children as a starting point for the conversations. Others consider it a continuum of what they are already trying to do at home. Those who think these children are too young to have these discussions or to even know about racism are wrong, says Taylor Bullock.

“They’re very capable of learning and challenging racial bias,” says Taylor Bullock. “Society does a disservice by believing that children are color blind. They’re not, and we aren’t either. They’re making sense of race and racism every day from a very young age, and this work has made that much more evident.” 

No one had to tell Katie Mgongolwa that young kids understand. When her daughter was two or three years old, she told her mom she wanted blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin. Her mom attributed that to movies "like Frozen," she says, and a lack of racial diversity in her daughter's preschool at the time.

“She was able to articulate and notice their differences and notice that she was different,” the Durham resident says. “I’m a white parent but my daughter is mixed race. My husband’s black. I realized at that time, there was a lot going into raising a child of color that I didn’t know that I needed to. She was already gaining a sense of understanding about race and differences and I didn’t have the tools to guide her in the way that she needed.”

At just the right time, she learned about we are and attended one of Taylor Bullock’s community education events about racial identity and children. She was immediately taken not only by the content but also Taylor Bullock herself and the way she approaches the subject and the people she is teaching.

“She provided this awesome framework for parents but she also provided a framework for children,” says Mgongolwa. “I hadn’t really seen that before, and it really made a lot of sense to me.”

Taylor Bullock and we are gives Mgongolwa the framework and language to talk about identity and anti-racism. For her daughter and herself. Taylor Bullock taught Mgongolwa what to do when people mispronounce her last name and dismiss it as being too difficult to figure out—and why it’s important not to ignore the disrespect of people not even trying. (A topic discussed in camp when they read My Name is Sangoel.) For Mgongolwa, who is a high school teacher, the educator institutes and let's talk racism conference "provide wraparound services." As soon as her daughter was old enough, she signed her up for the camp. This summer, she attended for the second year.

“They take a scaffolded approach where they start the first day building on talking about racial identity and giving kids language but then they start talking about things going on in the world,” Mgongolwa says. “So my daughter is given a language around racial identity and affirmed in it.”

The Mgongolwas found All the Colors We Are particularly helpful.

“My husband is black, I am white; more over, he is from Tanzania, so it’s really helpful to be able to layout my daughter’s identity,” she says. “She does not look like anybody else in the family because she is really a mixture of the both of us. To really be able to say your skin color is a result of your ancestry, to be given that language to say, ‘You have busy melanin or not so busy melanin’ was really helpful to help her make sense of who she was in relationship to our family.”


Eye-opening education

Durham resident Austin Dixon sent her two children to the camp this year for the first time. Her son was in the younger group and her daughter the older. Dixon and her children are white.

“This work is extremely important. I think a lot of our problems as a society are rooted in systemic racism and we as white people often have a real lack of understanding about another person’s lived experience,” Dixon says when asked why she decided to sign them up. “We have to do it no matter what age you are, but getting your kids exposed to it earlier, they’ll have a different experience growing up and can perhaps make better choices than we’ve made.”

She readily admits she has gone through life without seeing the extent of the racism around her.

“It’s a lifetime of living in this pretty blindly,” says Dixon. “I’ve always been surrounded by a diverse group of friends. I thought that was enough, but it’s not.”

She is trying to open her children’s eyes much earlier, thanks to Taylor Bullock.

“The work she’s doing is amazing and she does it with such grace and compassion,” says Dixon. “I’m really, really grateful that our kids have this opportunity. And we’re learning right alongside them.”


All photos courtesy of we are.



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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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Annie Stone

 A great source of pride for North Carolina!

Posted : Aug 10, 2019 03:17



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