Teaching about race: Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence offers racial justice class for all ages

  • Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/2/2020 8:39:55 AM
Modified: 1/2/2020 8:39:33 AM

Racial justice can be a topic that people of any age find challenging to discuss. But at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, children as young as kindergarteners will begin learning about the tenets of racial justice in an effort to promote these conversations.

Beginning on Sunday, the Unitarian Society will kick off its first set of racial justice classes, with different variations of the course catering to people of all ages.

“It’s sort of been a push form the Unitarian Universalist Association at large to be doing this work,” said Jessica Harwood, director of Faith Development and Community Engagement at the Unitarian Society, “but I think there’s a need that our country and culture has right now to be doing this work.

“Because this is a place where social justice is really important, it felt like it’s the right time to be really focusing on that work for ourselves and the way that we can impact change in our community.”

Working with University of Massachusetts Amherst student Leigh Gehringer-Wiar and Williamsburg fifth grade teacher Kathryn Joyce, Harwood will teach a curriculum to children in grades 4 to 8 centered on the history of race in the United States, structural and institutional racism and skills to combat racism. Younger students will complete an Anti-Defamation League curriculum focused on discrimination and prejudice, while adults will participate in discussion groups related to the book “Raising White Kids” by Jen Harvey.

The Unitarian Society began holding anti-bias classes at the beginning of the year, which Harwood said received good interest and engagement among students, and the racial justice classes will continue this social justice curriculum.

For both children and adults, the ultimate goal of the classes will be to encourage “being an ally and an active bystander,” she added.

Unitarian Society member Cherry Sullivan said that her two sons, aged 5 and 14, have participated in previous classes at the church and are signed up for the racial justice courses.

“My hope is that when we look at racial equality, that it’s intersecting with all the other social justice topics that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) are interested in,” Sullivan said, citing issues such as climate change, sanctuary communities, and LGBT and gender equality, which are “about race in a lot of ways.”

“Not only race, but it has to do with white privilege, white supremacy and systematic oppression,” Sullivan said, “so I think that kids learning about it in age-appropriate ways is such an important foundation… you can move our community to be a better place in the long run.”

Harwood acknowledged that teaching racial justice sometimes introduces information that can be distressing, especially to younger children, and requires “a fine balance” when designing courses to be both educational and age-appropriate.

“A lot of the principles are helping them to understand their own identities and have the language to start talking about other people’s identities, and normalizing that it’s OK to talk about race,” Harwood said, “but making a distinction between talking about race and being able to talk about racism in our country, and the difference between that and stereotypes.”

Sullivan, who plans to participate in the adult classes, said that it is vital that adults work alongside kids when learning about racial justice and “model the fact that these are OK conversations to have.”

“The adults have just as much work to do as the kids,” Sullivan said. “Maybe even more, because we have many more years of ingrained reactions, thoughts and systems in us … We have a lot more to dismantle as adults, so the fact that adults are doing that alongside the kids is really important.”

The classes are non-denominational and open to non-members of the Unitarian Universalist Society, Harwood said. Some basic values of the faith are present in the classes, Harwood said, but Unitarian Universalism encompasses “social justice and spirituality more in a personal sense, rather than adhering to this certain belief system or practice.”

“It’s basic values of how to treat others in the world, and then leaving it up to people to decide what they want to believe in,” Harwood said. “And then there’s a value placed on the importance of deciding what you believe in, questioning your beliefs, and making sure your actions align with what you care about. And justice and equity are very important.”

Children’s classes will be held from Jan. 5 through Feb. 24, while adults will begin a book discussion group on Jan. 5 and continue into a monthly listening circle beginning Jan. 19.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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