Two education experts on racial equity in learning across Appalachia

Jan 29, 2021
An insightful discussion with Kandace Jones, director of the Region 8 Comprehensive Center, and Jade Irving, program coordinator for First2 Network, on the needs of BIPOC students in the Appalachian region of the United States.


In 2020, the United States of America confronted, and continues to confront, two crises. The first: a public health crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second: a social crisis in the form of racial justice protests sparked by the death of George Floyd and other high-profile cases. And while the Appalachian region is not the most diverse in the country, it has experienced new shifts in attitudes toward racial equity—shifts that will have a lasting impact on learning in the region.

What do changing attitudes on race in Appalachia look like? How should governments, workplaces, and schools address the pressing need for racial equity? What challenges do Appalachia’s BIPOC students face?

In this podcast, hosted by Caitlin Howley, director of child welfare and education at ICF, we examine the issue of racial equity in Appalachian education. The conversation with Director of the Regional Comprehensive Center Kandace Jones and First2 Network Program Coordinator Jade Irving covers such topics as:

  • Why racial equity in education matters so much for the future of Appalachia.
  • Current trends and shifting attitudes toward social justice in Appalachia.
  • The importance of student exposure and staff training in reaching racial equity.
  • The achievement and opportunity gaps in learning—and what to do about them.
  • The systemic nature of racial inequality in education, and the systemic solutions required to combat the issue.

NOTE: Jade Irving appears on this podcast in a personal capacity. She does not represent the views of her employer.

Full transcript below:

Caitlin: Hello, and welcome to the second episode of our podcast series on education issues in the Appalachian region of the country. Our conversation today will focus on issues of racial equity in education across Appalachia. I'm Caitlin Howley, director of child welfare and education at ICF. And joining me today are my colleagues, Kandace Jones, and Jade Irving. Kandace's expertise is extensive and includes racial equity, school improvement, youth empowerment, and capacity building. She currently directs a Regional Comprehensive Center, which provides capacity building services to the state’s department of education, and she previously worked at the U.S. Department of Education and with D.C. Public Schools. Kandace also really understands the Appalachian region, having provided technical assistance services here for years. Jade is currently the program coordinator for a National Science Foundation-funded statewide alliance in West Virginia called the First2 Network that seeks to improve the persistence of rural, first-generation, and other underrepresented college students in their science, technology, engineering, and math majors. Those four disciplines together are often referred to as STEM. Jade has been an instructor in English and English as a second language, and a retention specialist at West Virginia's historically black university, West Virginia State University. So, having lived, taught and worked in West Virginia, she, too, has lots of insight into the Appalachian region. So, welcome, ladies, I'm really looking forward to our conversation today.

Kandace: Thank you, happy to be here.

Jade: Thank you.

Why should racial equality in Appalachia matter?

Caitlin: Let's begin by addressing what might be the first question listeners would ask upon encountering this episode, which is about racial equity in Appalachia. Aren't there only white people there? Why would racial equity matter in Appalachia? How would you respond to those questions, Kandace?

Kandace: Great question. I believe this conversation is important in every corner of America. And we're seeing that the racial makeup of our communities is changing. So, even though we may see in Appalachia that there's a range from 1% to 10% of diversity in communities, depending on where you are, we're seeing that minorities are making up nearly half of the population growth in Appalachia over the past two decades. So, it's really important. The community is changing. But even in communities where there's limited diversity, particularly as we're talking about raising up the next generation, I think this conversation is incredibly important. Because the views that are expressed by the village, so to speak, that surrounds our children and the youth of Appalachia, will be the views they take into the world. And in my work in Virginia, in particular, we heard a lot from our rural communities that it was really challenging to retain students in the area.

So, once they graduated high school, they were leaving and going off to work and learn in other places and not coming back. How are we sending our youth out to the world? What are their views they're carrying? And what is the overarching representation of Appalachia we want them to represent? What are the values we want them to hold dear and express in the world? I think that's really important.

Caitlin: Those are huge questions, and they’re really foundational to who we are and where we're going. What about you, Jade? How would you reply to questions about why racial equity should matter in Appalachia?

Jade: Before I got here, one of the first things that I was interested in discovering was the demographics. Essentially, how many people look like me in this state? At the time, I was blown away by the numbers that I read. Refreshing myself on this information today, I’m still somewhat taken aback that 92% of the population here in West Virginia is white, 3.7% is black, and 1.7% is multiracial, and so on. I'm sure you can imagine how isolating it might feel if you are in the minority here. So, for me, it's important we educate and talk about racial equity, because we've got to recognize and understand that there are other ethnicities represented here in this state, no matter how infrequently white people might encounter or interact with them. So, in order to be impartial and fair and to contribute to a just society in our state, I think it's very important that we highlight the value of conversations like these. Talking about racial equity, so we can bring that to our communities and our schools and our businesses and just every area of our lives here in the state. It's very, very important.

Shifting attitudes toward social injustice

Caitlin: I 100% agree. So, 2020 has been quite a year. Our nation is facing not only a public health crisis but also a national awakening or reawakening to racial justice. There have been protests throughout the country in response to George Floyd's death and other high-profile cases. While the Appalachian region is not the most diverse in the country, what shifts have you noticed in terms of awareness of and attitudes toward racial justice issues in the region?

Kandace: I was really pleased to see there were some small towns in Appalachia holding rallies and speaking out against police brutality, racism, and injustice. And it wasn't just the diverse population coming out. It wasn't just people of color. It was everyone. And it was primarily white people who were coming out and saying, enough is enough, and speaking out against these injustices. So, I was really pleased to see that across the country, but specifically in Appalachia. And, you know, I think I've heard some individuals try to focus on communities throughout Appalachia that were not supportive or ones critical of the outreach happening or some of the negative aspects of the more extreme individuals. And I think that really takes away from the beauty we were seeing sprouting up throughout Appalachia: that support for those speaking out against racism and injustice.

Caitlin: Would you add anything to that, Jade, from your perspective?

Jade: Everything Kandace said is exactly what I was going to say. Throughout the tri-state area, there were protests and marches. I actually got the opportunity to participate in one of them. And it was largely attended by white people. And I was just very impressed, and I felt very encouraged to see that. But then, on the flip side, you've got people who refuse to give any voice to these matters because they fear some sort of backlash. And oftentimes, it's due to political reasons. So there was definitely an outpouring of support among white people. But then you had those people who, as Kandace said, kind of twisted it and drew negative attention, which definitely doesn't help the cause. But overall, I was very impressed with the shift toward having more of these discussions.

Caitlin: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting: these issues are contested—and deeply. But at the same time, we're seeing social change happen. So, I'm really heartened to see some of those efforts. I just want to share a few call-outs with you. I saw a news article about a protest march, or a Black Lives Matter support march, in Kentucky, in which one of the white participants held a sign that read, "No hate in our holler." And I just thought that was such a fantastic call-out to the region. I've also seen these great stickers that say, "Y'all means all." You know, it's nice to see those things kind of pop up around the region.

Jade: I love that.

The value of exposure and training

Caitlin: How do you all think that local governments and workplaces could address racial equity in the region? Do they need to be actively providing training about racial diversity, inclusion, and equity, even though their communities might not be particularly diverse demographically?

Jade: When you talk about government and workplaces and addressing things like racial inequality, one of the biggest factors that contribute to seeing growth in this area is just acknowledging it. Just giving a voice to the matter without thinking about any political backlash, without painting someone who speaks on these topics as too liberal or too anything. So, just giving a voice to the matter. Do an evaluation of the appointments that are made to the positions in your office or government appointments. What do the numbers say? I mean, use data to inform your hiring practices. I'm not saying, let's give people jobs because they're minorities. But what I am saying is that we've got to be more intentional about recruiting and retaining employees that represent every demographic in our state.

No matter how few black people, no matter how few Asian people, if there are some, let's make sure that they're represented. And, of course, we should have some training about racial diversity, equity, and inclusion. There's a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that I just love. He says, "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." We do a great disservice to the citizens of our state and to our workplaces by not providing training on topics such as diversity, equity, inclusion. 

Caitlin: Yeah. Kandace, would you like to add anything to that?

Kandace: Jade really hit all the points with that one. The only other thing I would say is that there need to be safe spaces for the conversation. So, before even moving on to creating new policies, and just trying to throw out a statement, you know, as an organization, I think we need a safe space to have the conversation, even if it's not a diverse workspace. I also think, for local governments, in particular, creating incentives for diverse businesses to come into the community, creating opportunities to attract talent from other places is really important as we think about the pipeline of workers in the area and really wanting to contribute to the workforce and to career opportunities, and expansion and growth in the community. 

Caitlin: And these things link to education, as well. So, let's talk a little bit more specifically about teaching and learning in the region. What are some ways that schools in Appalachia could help students learn and talk more about racism, racial justice, and how to pursue equity?

Kandace: I've been doing recently some good workaround evaluating bias in instructional materials. And one of the things that's arising in that is the need for students to be reading and engaging with materials that have diverse characters. Because it's really important for all students to see themselves somewhere in the material, but then also to have windows into the experiences of others. I think this will support the conversation happening earlier on and [offer] an appreciation of all of the beautiful beings that make up the melting pot, so to speak, that is America.

Caitlin: So, exposure alone has value.

Kandace: I think so, yes.

Caitlin: Anything else, Jade?

Jade: I would just add that I feel teachers should go through some training about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think they should undergo training and learn how to really develop lessons and facilitate these discussions. I'm a firm believer that children learn behavior, and they model what they learn. And I believe that racism is a learned behavior. So, who's to say that a teacher cannot undo, or at least challenge, some of what a student may have learned at home. But they can't do that if they haven't gotten the tools to challenge those ideologies, right? I've been a teacher in some schools here in the state, and I've been the only black teacher in the entire school, and a lot of the conversations in the break room would be astonishing to me because it was simply out of ignorance. So, I wonder what impact it would have if our teachers were required to go through some type of training and then to implement what they've gotten from that training in their classroom for the purposes of moving the needle in terms of equity.

Caitlin: So, exposure on one hand for students themselves, but also support for teachers to learn and get comfortable with talking about the issues and changing their practices in their own classrooms.

Kandace: Absolutely.

Achievement and opportunity gaps

Caitlin: Jade, I understand that the First2 Network is doing some really interesting work around equity, particularly in STEM participation in West Virginia, which of course, is right there in the middle of Appalachia. Can you tell me a little bit about the work of the First2 Network?

Jade: The First2 Network is committed to broadening participation among rural, first-generation, and underrepresented students in STEM. At the core of the network is the idea that diversity, equity, and inclusion are extremely important to broadening participation in STEM. To that end, we work in higher education institutions. We've got partnerships with industry leaders across the state, nonprofit organizations who all share this vision of broadening participation in the STEM field with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Caitlin: Jade, I happen to know a little bit about this project because I also serve as the external evaluator for it. And one of the things I think is really notable is that it serves a higher percentage of black and African-American STEM students than are represented in the state in general. I think the population is about 3.4% African-American in the state. And I think 12.5% of the students the First2 Network serves to identify as African-American. So, I think that the work that you all are doing is really incredible.

Jade: Thank you for pointing that out.

Caitlin: I'd like to focus on students' academic experiences and outcomes now and the disparities therein. Since the 2001 re-authorization of the nation's federal education law, states have been required to disaggregate student data, comparing various education indicators and outcomes across students’ subgroups. What we discovered is that the disaggregations revealed something we pretty much already knew from research, which is that there are achievement gaps between white and BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color). So, there are achievement gaps between white and BIPOC students, as well as between students from wealthier families and families of more modest means. As a result, we've had national conversations over the last 20 years or so about the national and regional factors that contribute to this gap.

Kandace: What I’ve appreciated in recent years is a shift from this conversation about the achievement gap to the opportunity gap. I think it's really important to bring this in because some educators and teachers over the years have focused on this achievement gap and made it seem as if black students, for example, are less able to achieve than white students—which is not the case. But when you think about the opportunity gap, you think about the conditions in the community. Where do they live? And what is the socio-economic status of the community that contribute to opportunities that are available to black students? And as you dig into those details, you see how the system has been set up. I think that's where systemic racism comes in. We have to be able and willing to have that conversation to talk about how this nation was founded, what kind of systems were set in place to keep a particular group behind, and how that has contributed to where we are today. I definitely think the opportunity gap has to be a part of this discussion as we look at the disaggregated data across subgroups.

Caitlin: Absolutely. I think the language is important because it better defines the issue. And it's also incredibly important to acknowledge and contend with systemic racist practices and laws. That stuff has a legacy that persists to this day in terms of the opportunities and life chances that BIPOC folks have. Jade, is there anything you would add to Kandace's analysis?

Jade: That was just a phenomenal analysis, first of all. I would add that not having highly qualified teachers in our classrooms plays a very large role in this achievement and opportunity gap. Since I've been here in West Virginia, I've become aware that there are a lot of teachers in the classroom with no teaching certificates. They don't have a degree in education because there are so many critical needs in our schools here, so we just kind of fill them up with whoever's willing. So, I think that we really need to move away from just putting anybody in a classroom and being more strategic with regard to having highly qualified teachers in these schools so they can help students at the level they need and deserve to be helped at.

One of the things that we're doing in our state is the Underwood-Smith Teaching Scholarship. It’s the most prestigious scholarship we have in the state, and it's centered around making sure our teachers who are coming out of college are mentored by excellent teachers, and making sure they are highly qualified and have the experience they need to help the students in our schools here. I've seen a lot of unqualified teachers in the classroom, and I'm heartened to see us moving away from that. Hopefully, we can impact the students in terms of that gap in achievement and in opportunities.

Systemic solutions to systemic problems

Caitlin: I have one more question for you, and the more I think about this question, the more impossible it is, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Based on what you've detailed here in response to the last question, these are deep and historical and systemic issues. In what ways could schools and districts and states in the region improve the educational experiences and outcomes for BIPOC students? I mean, we've talked about training for teachers, we've talked about increased exposure to BIPOC leaders, and politicians, and writers, and scientists. Are there other ways, other steps, schools, states, and districts could take to improve outcomes?

Kandace: It’s a combination of all of the things that we've talked about and really making the commitment to have this be a top priority. In education, as both of you know, there are a number of competing priorities. And, while it is a priority, I don't believe we've had the direct conversations that need to happen. That's the beauty of all that's happened this year. As challenging as it’s been, it's forced us to have some conversations that have been lurking under the surface for hundreds of years in this nation. So, I think being willing to have the conversation about how we got here, and how deeply ingrained these systemic challenges are, will help unpack all that needs to be done. And I think that it will be a combination of education working together with health agencies working together with housing agencies. An intergovernmental approach to the work will really have the capacity to solve this issue we have in many communities across the country, but specifically in Appalachia as well.

Caitlin: Yeah, it's a systemic problem, so it requires systemic effort to disrupt it.

Jade: This is a huge question, Caitlin. 

Caitlin: I know, I'm sorry.

Jade: I mean, everything that Kandace said—it's all so woven into the culture of our educational system. If you go back even to the history of education, who could even get educated? Who was allowed to go to college? There are just so many issues embedded in the system that have not been undone. So, I just don't know. Of course, there's no one answer. There are just so many different components that play into why things are the way they are for BIPOC and for people who have a certain socio-economic status. There's so much into it. I can't even get into it, because it makes my head spin, and my blood pressure goes up. 

Caitlin: I think that's the right reaction to this impossible question.

Kandace: But it's why we do what we do, right? It's why we're committed to this work.

Caitlin: Absolutely. I think, Jade, one of the things you remind me of is the idea that learning is dangerous, right? It liberates people, it lets them understand their world and question going on around them. That's some scary stuff for people who maybe have vested interests. So, I think you make a really great point. Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with me today. I mean, I am hearkening back to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s quote about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, and I think the work that both of you are doing is nudging that arc so it moves a little faster toward justice. I'm very grateful for the work that you do and for being willing to share your perspectives with us today. Thank you very much.

Kandace: Thank you, Caitlin.

Jade: Thank you.

Meet the author
  1. Caitlin Howley, Portfolio Lead, Youth and Adult Education

    Caitlin is an expert in education and child welfare with over two decades of experience. View bio

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