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Education Equity, Social Justice & Access with Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah (Ep 59)

/ Jason Sholl

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah has been an educator and leader for 27 years. She currently serves as Director of Elementary, Equity, and Access in California. Dr. Perez-Isiah is also an author, speaker, and advocate for Equity and Social Justice.

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Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I'm your host, Nathan Lang-Raad and on today's podcast, we have our guest, Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah. Rosa has been an educator and leader for 27 years. She currently serves as Director of Elementary, Equity, and Access in California. Rosa is also an author, speaker, and advocate for equity and social justice. On today's podcast, Rosa talks about the very important conversations around race and social justice. I hope you enjoy the podcast.

Rosa it is so great to have you on the podcast. Thanks for being a part.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Thank you for the invite. I'm delighted to be here with you today Nathan.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Rosa you've been a dear friend of mine for a few years now, and we started out in the Twitter chat realm, and I have just followed your journey and your story throughout the past few years and I'm always just so humbled to, to know you and to see all the amazing things that you're posting, all the wonderful work that you're doing, all of the... The books are writing. I just... It's almost hard to keep up with your wonderfulness. Thank you for all you do for, for education and for social justice and so many other parts of our world.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Thank you so much. That means a great deal. This is just the lens that I have for my life so I'm really happy if it makes a difference for someone then that's enough.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely`. Well as we're recording this episode, we're still trying to figure out life through the pandemic. Although, vaccinations have increased, there's some light at the end of the tunnel, but we know they have a long list to go. We also have a long list to go on conversations around social justice and race and before we started recording today, you were talking about just the work that you were doing in social justice and not squandering this opportunity to really make a difference with the momentum that this subject is having and education. And so I'd love to hear more about that and also about your latest book Beyond Conversations About Race.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Yes, absolutely. This book, I'm a contributor along with people that I have learned from and followed and look up to. So Beyond Conversations About Race is really... It was a timely piece, a much needed piece. And when Doug Reeves calls you and asks you to be part of the project, you don't think about it, you just say yes. Along with Doug Reeves, there is Anthony Muhammad, Kenneth Williams, Yvette Jackson, Washington Colorado, there are many people who have contributed to this. And what we wanted to do was we wanted to move beyond conversations, which is what's happening right now. I am so happy to hear people talking about the need for social justice and racial justice and equity more than ever, more than ever. The last few years have pushed people out of those comfort zones into actually speaking it, out loud and recognizing it. And the problem is how do you do that?

How do you do that in schools? How do you have those conversations with students and staff and what are some examples of what this might look like out there? How would you handle some difficult situations that deal with the negative impacts of racism and such? So Beyond Conversations About Race is... Is there an option? It's a guide to help people have those discussions and not just with each other, but with students. We know that our students are having these conversations and they are making their own assumptions and coming to their wrong conclusions and living it. Our students of color are living racism. So the best way to approach the situation is like we do as educators, is building capacity and this is a tool that can help educators and leaders really start to develop some of those tools and acquire the language to have those conversations.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, you have been speaking about race issues and social justice for a while now even before this racial reckoning that our country is going through, how have your past experiences really prepared you and kind of lead you to the conversations that you're having today and to beyond conversations too?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: This is my 27th year as an educator, but before that I am... But I was a child in poverty, an immigrant, an english learner, a Latina woman, a woman, all of the things, all of those pieces that intersect to create that perfect storm of injustice that many experience and so my life, in general, is what moves me to do this work, but also I want to make it clear that it truly is a journey. I have learnt so much, throughout my 27 years and the educator I was when I started my career is not who I am today. And I have always had a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for justice and even through my programs, even through my master's degree, we touched on issues of equity and I knew that there was just something that I needed, but I didn't have the words to describe it.

And I didn't have the roadmap start it and shortly before I became a principal, I worked at the district level, as a coordinator for title programs and so that opened the window. Those programs are to create equity. Those programs are to serve the underserved. And so that, got me to be really curious about... We really can make a difference in education, right? And I started a doctoral program and the focus was educational leadership for social justice. And that is where I learned more about critical race theory and some of the amazing work that has been done and that continues to be done around these issues. And that only fueled my fire. And then the last four years, I have been talking about these issues, but the political rhetoric and some of the, just really horrible things that were happening in our country, out in the open because they've always happened, but now it was out in the open. And I thought, I refuse to lose hope. So all of that just fueled my... Did not quench my thirst, but it fueled my fire to do more.

So my life, my reality as a poor child from another country, who's had teachers that transformed and changed my trajectory in life with their compassion and their support. All of that has led me to the work I do today.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, and such a wonderful and rich experience. And I love just hearing your story and how it's prepared you for the really important work that you're doing today. And I think about, well, the title of your book and it makes me think that these... I'm guessing the starting point is a conversation. So we know that actions have to happen. We know that people have to change and I think that we often as change agents... I know me personally, I get frustrated because it goes more than just telling, you can't just say your perspective is incorrect. This is the right perspective to have, or this is the [inaudible 00:09:12] you can't do that because that's not an effective way to get someone to rethink or change their mind or see the inequities or see racism and being able to self-reflect and so I know these are conversational issues that we have to work through, but I also know that there... It goes beyond that starting place of conversation.

So I'm wondering if you can kind of just provide some perspectives on that, kind of walk us through for one, how we deal with those conversational challenges? And then how do we kind of move on from conversation to actually action?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Yeah, the conversations are wonderful, but I mentioned to you in the past, how do we move? How do we sustain this focus that we have on these issues right now? And how do we continue to have the conversations that lead to action? That's a really hard piece to do. I have discovered in education without leadership, the leadership perspective is so important. I'm currently the director of a much larger district, I'm new to this position. I've been in this position for about two and a half years and it is almost three times the size of my former district.

So we're looking at about 15,000 students and I thought to myself, okay, how do we create this change? How do we focus on equity and going from a principalship, seven years as a principal, to this director position where I'm now supporting 17 principals, I wondered, am I going to make a difference here? During the pandemic I think we all realized how important leadership was. And we say that all the time. We creed beautiful quotes on Twitter and make beautiful comments about leadership, but really doing the work is hard and so in order to sustain and grow this work, we need leaders to acknowledge that this is an issue that systemic racism exists.

We need leaders who will declare that they are in solidarity with this movement for change. We need leaders who will disrupt what's been normally done by changing programs and sharing power and requesting voices and opinions from those that been oppressed or underserved. And the last thing is we need leaders who will invest. And that's for me... That's the ultimate display of, of solidarity. It's that not only am I going to declare my solidarity and acknowledge that we have a problem, but I am prepared to invest in people and in programs so that those who are underserved are no longer invisible and ignored. And if you have a leader who is leading that work with you, that believes in doing those things, I promise you there will be change. And, as director, I could see that I question how impactful being at central office will be on students and I realized, the impact is monumental. And so we need our leaders to understand that they can do that if they acknowledge, if they declare and if they invest in people and programs.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I love acknowledge, declare and invest. I'm already seeing-

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Disrupt.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Disrupt, yeah.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Acknowledge, declare, disrupt and invest. Yeah. Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I think it's so, that's so helpful to have that framework because I think that most education leaders want to help push this movement and they want to advance this movement, but many times they may not have a background like you do and anti-racism education and so it's really helpful to hear some of those really tangible strategies, the steps as tools and there's... Basically telling me here's what... Nathan, here's what you say, here's what you do.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Yeah.

Nathan Lang-Raad: [inaudible 00:13:51].

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: And it sounds so simple and it's not because it takes courage to say that. And, you asked, how do you get past the conversations into those harder...? How do you engage in those harder conversations and then move on? You just do, you acknowledge that it's hard and you acknowledge that, why this needs to happen and then you move on and you are vulnerable if you are uncomfortable because even I, I'm not comfortable with confrontation. You can do it respectfully. You can do it assertively and you can do it with love. And my opinion, and the way I have led is I will support you in doing this work and if that support isn't working for you and you're not willing to change, then sometimes we have to support people to find their passion elsewhere, because we need people in our system who, who believe in all children.

And if people are not willing to grow and do that, then I don't believe that education is the place. We have a sense of urgency. People are dying, over these topics and so we have a lot of... We have the power to create those conversations and act on them.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Thank you for the leadership that you are displaying not only in your own community, but having these conversations and sharing your wisdom and expertise through this platform and through many others, through your writings. You are truly a wonderful example so thank you.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Thank you. I work with a team and it's all of us. Thank you. That means a lot.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely.` Well, are you ready to jumping, into our lightning round?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: I do, I do. I'm ready for the lightning. Bring it on!

Nathan Lang-Raad: It's always fun because I get to know a little bit, learn a little bit about Rosa, but also get to hear some of your perspectives about education so this is going to be a lot of fun. All right. Well, we'll go ahead and dive on into the very first question. If you were on a desert island, which three books would you take with you and why?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Well, definitely I'll need my new book, Beyond Conversations About Race, just because it is a collection, a contribution by people who I truly admire and I am hungry to learn as much as I can from everybody so I know that they will provide a lot in the book for me to learn. When I became a principal, the biggest issue, I think that schools face is culture and climate and within addressing culture and climate are those issues of bias and those issues of beliefs of adults and that includes things like racism and colorblindness and all of that. And so when I became a principal, I found Dr. Muhammad... Anthony Muhammad's book, Transforming School Culture. And I don't know what I would've done without that book. It literally changed who I was as a leader. And there is a lot in there to unpack. And so I would definitely bring that with me.

He's a friend now and a mentor, thanks to social media. So I think what we do as educators and leaders, well, goes back to the type of questions that we ask. And I love the power of A More Beautiful Question. So the book is by Warren Berger and it's the Power of Inquiry. And if you really think about it, everything that we do goes back to the types of questions that we ask. And so to learn how to ask a more beautiful question, as you are navigating hard conversations is so important so I would definitely have that book with me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent, and just a side note, I have also cited Warren Berger and some of my writings too. So I have to vouch for you, that's it. It is definitely a really helpful book. So, I know three of those books. Phenomenal, thank you for sharing.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Mm-hmm.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay, next question. How do you recharge?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Well, it's something that is hard for me to do, but I'm learning how to do a better because reading articles and all of those things are... that helps me relax. Recently my daughter and I got Fitbits and I'm a little late to the Fitbit game, but man, now we are so motivated. So a lot of walking and I live pretty close to L-A-X Manhattan Beach area and so walks along the coast, walks along the beach. It helps my Fitbit numbers and it helps my heart and my mind, stress-free. So we've been at it for about a month now and we're averaging 10 to 14 miles a week. So-

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's amazing. Well, I've seen your pictures you've posted on social and I get jealous of the..., your views, you're a walking view so-

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: [inaudible 00:19:39] here. Nearby.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yep. Oh, that's so wonderful. What a great way to recharge.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Thank you.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, all right. What is the biggest challenge in education?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: I think the biggest challenge is seeing the humanity in our students. So many students are almost invisible to some systems and it is heartbreaking whether it be their humanity as children of color or their humanity as children in poverty or, or their humanity as transgender LGBTQ children is not seeing that and it breaks my heart. And I think that's a huge issue. There is so much power in storytelling, and there is so much power in relationships and when you see people and... in their humanity, it embraces all of those pieces. So yeah, we need to work on that.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, definitely. Okay, what subject did you love in school?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: I just... I loved reading. I loved reading once I learned how to read in English and I had a teacher, an amazing teacher who taught me to read in my home language Spanish, but once I started to, I read everything. I read the cereal box, I read... I remember I grew up in the housing projects. We didn't have money for books, but my mom was so amazing, she took us to the library every two weeks, to the public library and it was what I looked forward to. I don't know what I would've done without the public library. And in elementary school, we had our language arts books go obsolete until they gave them to us and I remember reading my, it was my second grade book over and over and over, but I loved it. I fell in love with reading as soon as I cracked the code.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Who was your favorite teacher and why the teacher?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: The teacher I just referred to Mrs [foreign language 00:21:56], and Mrs [foreign language 00:21:58] was my first grade teacher and she spoke Spanish, which blew me away because I didn't know a lot of people who spoke Spanish. And she taught me to read after school. She started a little Spanish club and she taught me to read in my home language after school and for the first time I felt seen, I felt validated and she's amazing and I've reconnected with her and just told her how she just helped me fall in love with learning.

Nathan Lang-Raad: So wonderful. All right. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Believe it or not, a teacher.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You're supposed to say that.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: A teacher and actually I found a journal that I kept in the fifth grade and I listed a teacher and then a principal and I'd forgotten that I did that. And so it was, it was... Those seeds were planted earlier on.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's so wonderful. All right. Who had the biggest impact on who you have become?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Oh definitely, my kids. My kids, strong female, strong women, my mom, so strong to leave everything she knew to come to a new country. I have had mentors. I've had amazing teachers, Mrs. Lucinda Clare, that was her married name. [foreign language 00:23:29]is her new last name. It was just incredible. She was a high school mentor. She didn't realize it, but I watched everything she did and said, and then re... Most recently my former superintendent, Dr. Betsy Hamilton. She is the best listener I've ever seen experienced and I want to be like her so they've greatly influenced who I am.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. What's the most positive change that you've noticed in education?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Having conversations about equity and social justice and systemic racism. I am delighted. Many people have had these conversations for years. I've had these conversations for years, seeing people acknowledge and embrace either through a book study or just building their own capacity has been amazing and now we want to move into action. That's hard, but it's manageable and it's doable so that has been great to see. Great positive change.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, agreed. What's the worst advice you've received?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Act like a lady, probably the worst advice I've ever. And I know some of that is cultural and I had to make peace with that, but yeah. Act like a lady. Be a lady. Be soft-spoken. Don't create issues.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What's the best advice you've received?

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: That would be from my friend, Kenneth Williams, Adam [inaudible 00:00:25:07]. I'm sure you probably know who he is. That we've had conversations about... I met him early on when I jumped on social media about 10 years ago and I used to talk about this scholar, Anthony Muhammad. He's amazing. I'm just... He said, "Oh, he's my friend, do you want to meet him?" But he has been a strong supporter and he told me, "Rosa, just speak it into existence, what you want to do to speak it into existence?" And I wanted to write a book. I wanted to have my own Twitter chat. I wanted to be able to impact education in some way and I am proud to say that much of that has happened and I'll never forget that. Speak it into existence.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You definitely have. I can vouch for that for sure, just from my even limited experience [inaudible 00:26:08] to see all the wonderful work you've done. I know I'm just seeing, just a small amount and so this has been amazing. I've learned more about you today as well. So this has been a very wonderful treat for me. Thank you, Rosa so much for spending some of your time with us.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah: Thank you for having me. I loved it.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I want to invite you to our second annual WeVideo Creator Community Summit. July 20th to 22nd, we will have educators from around the globe presenting on topics like personalized learning, social emotional learning, and blended learning. The summit is free of charge and you'll receive a PD certificate for attending. For more information, visit www.wevideo.com/wccs21.I hope to see you there.