How a researcher learns from practice

Photo of Michelle Woodbridge

I recently attended the “Supporting Students Impacted by Racial Stress and Trauma” webinar hosted by the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH) in partnership with the Central East Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (MHTTC). This learning experience changed the way I think of myself and my actions as a researcher, a Center leader, a child advocate, and human being. I wanted to share with you, our readers, how I hope this powerful experience will alter my research and practice from this day forward.

Before I say more, I want to recognize that the NCSMH and its partners provide information on meaningful and effective ways to support the mental health of students, families, and educators. They host events, conduct research, provide technical assistance, and promote evidence-based practices locally (in their Baltimore neighborhood) and nationally. I don’t intend to speak for their highly qualified experts on the vast content and experiences they share freely and generously (with core funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau). I only want to share the way my participation in these learning experiences nurture my professional development, improve my research and evaluation practices, and edify me as a lifelong learner.

Drs. Brittany Patterson and Kris Scardamalia (of NCSMH at the University of Maryland) presented this webinar, one in a series on Cultural Responsiveness and Equity. They opened with a conversation about the intersectionality of oppression—how the multiple layers of social and political identities and their associations with power and privilege—can accumulate and affect the well-being, growth, learning, and success of individuals. It gave me pause and made me ponder:

  • How have I personally experienced power or discrimination based on my race, gender, education, abilities, body size, wealth, and other factors?
  • Do I fully understand what I bring to a space—what my presence in a space may mean—when I interact with students, families, and colleagues? Do I do enough to create a safe space?

Drs. Patterson and Scardamalia had turned the tables—turned the equity lens into a mirror—and asked us to first confront and acknowledge the pain, the power, and the privilege of our identities. This webinar wasn’t about telling me how to arrange collaborative group work in classrooms, facilitate relationships with mental health providers, discuss behavior issues with parents, provide training to educators on trauma-informed care, or establish equitable personnel policies in our center. It wasn’t about having easily scripted conversations and prefabricated procedures. It was about continually doing the internal work to unveil my own biases and weaknesses so that I could move forward, despite my stumbles, to improve myself and the way I walk in the world. It’s about not inflicting additional pain and suffering, even unknowingly, on those who have suffered racial trauma. It’s about working to dismantle the systems and practices that perpetuate racial oppression by starting with the discrimination and power I have personally experienced and wrought on others.

Their messages reinforced that good practice needs daily practice. If I truly want to embody this work, I need to hold myself accountable to meaningful, concrete ways I will work to daily change my behavior and attitude, to learn from practice, to practice what I learn. It is in this spirit that I will:

    • Be willing to make mistakes. I acknowledge that I have learned more from my mistakes in my life than from any of my achievements. So I will open myself up to vulnerability—to feeling unsafe, panicked, and awkward—and subject myself to judgment, ridicule, and criticism in order to do better. Is that not what folks from marginalized groups feel everyday?

I will try to speak up more often about social and racial injustice. I will stand against hate. I will stand with people of color. I will use my voice to admonish wrongdoers and to articulate the values I hold dear. Even if I put my foot in my mouth, I will not give up. I will apologize and commit to doing better and being better, every day. I will re-focus on impact, not intention.

In my leadership position at work, I will do my best to create space for critical feedback and to be responsive to it—to learn from and lick my wounds when it’s negative, and not be overly confident when it’s positive. I will try to admit my imperfections but not surrender to them. I will continue the journey to be a better version of myself.

    • Decenter myself. I don’t have all the answers, and I shouldn’t pretend that I do. I will work hard to put my ego, guilt, and shame aside and to adopt humility. Although these feelings are important to acknowledge, I will try to focus on improvement and growth so they will not derail me from making progress.

I will not deny or minimize the pain or suffering of others that I have directly or indirectly caused. I will check my defensiveness and fragility to give people the time, space, comfort, and fortitude to speak their minds, open their hearts, and talk about what has happened to them, without the focus on me or my pain. I will not add the burden of my tears to their suffering.

I will think about how I enter any space. Is it with whiteness? Ego? Authority? Resolve? Assumptions? Intentions? Knowledge? Pride? I will think about what this brings to the space and how this impacts my actions and my interactions with others in the space. I will de-center myself by providing opportunities for others to make decisions and assume leadership roles; I will try hard to let go of and not hoard my real or perceived power and authority.

I will think carefully about how we frame our research and evaluation work with our participants and partners, to our clients, in our methods, and in our reports. I will seek reviews and advice from community members, hold to the tenet “nothing about them without them,” and vigilantly inspect our work with them for bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. I will adapt and improve the questions we ask, how we partner with, and how we learn and write about Black, Indigenous, and people of color; families living in poverty; students of different gender and sexual identities; and individuals with disabilities to focus on strengths, abilities, and transparency.

  • Amplify voices of the nonwhite community. I will try to listen more and talk less. I will intentionally ask questions, allowing those impacted by racial trauma to talk about their experiences. I will pause to let other voices in the conversation,to honor the silences, and to really hear and see them—and then act on their suggestions.

I will learn from books, articles, blogs, podcasts, and documentaries by authors and artists of color. I will continue to participate in discussions and book clubs with my colleagues and my community centered on social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belongingness. I will appreciate the opportunity to learn about and understand the root causes and impact of racial disparities, racial violence, racial discrimination, and white supremacy—and my role in it.

I will work with educators and interventionists to learn about how they talk to students about race, how they help to reduce race-related stressors and heal racial trauma, how they build cultural and racial pride, and how they increase resilience, health, and wellness of their staff and students.

I will question my intentions and learn how not to subscribe to the deficit model. I will emphasize and learn from the powerful, intelligent, healing, faithful, beautiful, supportive, and resilient resources and assets of nonwhite communities and individuals. I will work to translate and apply what I learn about these critical issues to help empower and heal children and their families.

I will work with leaders in our organization and with external partners to diversify our workforce and to examine our promotion criteria and leadership and career opportunities. I will pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal messages that I and others send about who and what we celebrate and reward. I will support and mentor people of color, and I will believe them when they tell me how the system is broken.

These actions are not what my colleagues in the academic and research communities are usually rewarded for or prioritize. We are about standardization, perfection, statistical significance, reputation, efficiency, acclaim, and opinions. Those research-minded competencies and objectives can have great value when they are not weaponized or prioritized above being conscientious, kind, open, mindful, and fair. I know it will take practice for me to prioritize the latter over the former.

I am grateful for this call to introspection and action. This is my prayer: I commit to working to embody these values and these practices every day. I want to be a more competent researcher, a more curious learner, a more effective ally, a more trustworthy colleague, a more compassionate friend, and a better human being. I will seek to be a better version of myself every day. It’s a start.

Dedicated with deep love and appreciation to my friend and colleague, Kori Hamilton Biagas, for her generosity in sharing knowledge and experiences, patience despite my inadequacies and failures, and willingness to walk with me on my journey.

Topics: Featured Resource Trauma

Tags: Antiracism Equity Racism