Find out how we dismantle white supremacy culture from Jen Benkovitz, Founder of the Leadership Collaborative.
Jen Benkovitz is one of our dope workshop presenters at the upcoming Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools 2021 Conference June 14-18th.
Register for the DismantleWSC Conference here learn about our presenters below.
Interview with Jen Benkovitz
What type of student were you and where did you find joy?
I experienced a lot of early childhood trauma and because of that had a pretty low self-esteem and lot of apathy toward learning. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed to be unnoticed or misunderstood by my teachers. I didn’t really find my footing (or joy) as a student until my junior year of college in a Children’s Literature course that turned my impression of education on its head. It was a combination of things that did it for me. For one thing, we spent each class sitting in a circle of chairs, a stark contrast to the desks in tight rows that I’d become so accustomed to. Our professor insisted that we call her by her first name (Jean Ann), and often showed up with her newborn son, Kenan, who we would all take turns holding throughout class each night. I was skeptical at first, but quickly came to love the implicit (and explicit) messaging about the importance of community. Throughout the semester, Jean Ann immersed us in learning that was meaningful, joyful, motivating, fulfilling, and challenging. It was everything I had needed (and deserved) as a K-12 student. She also offered us personalized feedback on almost a daily basis. One note in particular truly changed my life trajectory. I know there was a lot more in it, but in response to a journal entry I shared with her about my philosophy of education, she ended her note to me with the words, “You’ve got it!” I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I had really gone out on a limb with what I wrote, expressing a surprising amount of vulnerability about the ways my childhood influenced my philosophy. Those three words that concluded her heartfelt note made me feel so seen — so validated in that moment. I wish I’d held onto that journal, because reading her note was undoubtedly the very moment that I decided I wanted to be a teacher. Correction: That was the very moment I believed that I could and would be a teacher. Of all the things I learned from Jean Ann, the most important was the value of relationships. I was determined from that point forward to create spaces for my future students like the one she created for us — communities of joy, love, belonging, and deep learning.
What is the most destructive force in schools?
Only one thing?! I have such a long list. It goes without saying that each one is rooted in White Supremacy Culture. The one on top for me right now is the practice of “tracking” students based on their perceived ability. What starts off as the “redbird” and “bluebird” reading groups in our elementary schools quickly morphs into remedial and Advanced Placement (AP) tracks at the secondary level. Tracking disproportionately impacts Black and Brown students who, as a result, are assigned to classes where they experience a watered-down, prescribed curriculum instead of being immersed in deeper learning experiences that every child deserves. Often under the guise of “personalized learning” or “response to intervention”, tracking is fueled by implicit bias and systemic racism, only perpetuating and reinforcing inequitable outcomes in our schools that are widely referred to as racial “achievement” or “opportunity” gaps. It’s a vicious cycle — a modern day form of segregation, and a false narrative that must be reframed. (Cue Gloria Ladson-Billings’ call for us to pay down the “education debt” we’ve amassed at the expense of our most marginalized and oppressed students.)
As we return back to in-person learning, what should we prioritize?
Our students (and adults for that matter) have had one hell of a tough year. We need to prioritize their social-emotional needs above all else. And not just short term. If this year has proven anything, I can only hope that it’s the importance of integrating social-emotional learning into every aspect of education. I’m seeing too many schools focus on “learning loss”, and completely fail to consider the social-emotional toll of this pandemic. Now more than ever, it’s time to prioritize healing, joy, and love.
When it gets hard, where do you find inspiration to continue fighting for justice?
I’m most inspired to continue fighting for justice by the bold, unfiltered, passionate voices of our youth who remind me of our moral imperative to leave the world a better place for future generations.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Throughout the past year I’ve spent a lot of time facilitating white racial affinity workshops and courses for folx all across the country. Working alongside hundreds of participants who are committed to unpacking whiteness (including our power, privilege and perceived superiority) in a concerted effort to dismantle White Supremacy Culture, has given me a lot of hope. The most exciting aspect of this work is when I hear from participants who persist in moving the work forward in their schools through ongoing, personal reflection about their racial identity and collective accountability for enacting transformational change.
What is your favorite book, song or movie of all time? Why?
I have always experienced music on a sort of spiritual level, whether it’s through the lyrics that support or express my thoughts, or the instrumentals that feed my emotions. I honestly can’t imagine a world without music. It’s way too hard for me to name a single favorite song or album, so I’ll just drop a few fun facts here. Playing in the background right now is Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” from her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. One of my new favorite songs is “A Beautiful Noise” by Alicia Keys (featuring Brandi Carlile). And, the last concert I attended (pre-covid of course) was headlined by the one and only Trombone Shorty — easily one of the best live, outdoor performances I’ve ever seen (right up there with Brandi Carlile (and the twins) at Red Rocks Amphitheater in CO).
About Jen Benkovitz
Dr Jen Benkovitz (she/her) brings over 20 years of experience in education to her role as Founder of The Leadership Collaborative. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she began her career teaching at a Title I magnet school in Charlotte, North Carolina before serving as a school leader in a combination of rural, suburban and urban K-12 public schools in both North Carolina and Washington State. Fiercely committed to advancing equity and social justice in our schools, and recognizing her love for facilitating adult learning, Jen transitioned to serving as a leadership coach and professional development specialist, supporting education leaders both in the United States and abroad. Most recently, Jen served as the Director of School Leadership for a national nonprofit where she partnered with classroom, school, and district leaders across the country to create transformational change in their schools.
Jen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Ohio University as well as a Master’s and Doctoral degree in Educational Leadership from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jen currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her partner, teenage daughter, and multiple pets.
- Twitter: @jbenkovitz