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Weaving Stories of Racial Equity and Healing

Courageous Equity Leadership Fellows Inspire Courageous Conversations

Drexel University Courageous Equity Leadership Fellows
From left, 2022 Courageous Equity Leadership Fellows Hannah Stern, Cianni Williams, Xavier Johnson and Erin Bailey stand before the tapestry created by participants of the racial healing session. Photo credit: Andrew Stern.

March 29, 2023

The Courageous Conversation® Global Foundation promotes interracial healing by creating safe spaces for authentic dialogues among people of all races. The foundation’s Courageous Equity Leadership Fellowship program trains college students to become leaders in engaging their communities in conversations that create change. The 2022 cohort of Fellows included four students of Drexel’s School of Education: Erin Bailey, BS ’25; Xavier Johnson, MS ’23; Hannah Stern, BS ’24; and Cianni Williams, BS ’24, MS ‘25. The Fellows used the tools of the Courageous Conversations® protocol to host a racial healing session on Drexel’s campus in November, 2022. 

The year 2020 produced multiple crises and seismic shifts within our world, from a global pandemic to a divisive presidential election in the United States. The world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, national calls for racial reckoning and social justice, and international protests against systematic racism and the long history of violence against Black and Brown bodies. The events of 2020 could not be ignored.

While the advancement of equity and social justice has been a core value of Drexel University’s School of Education (SoE), it was in response to the painful events of 2020 that SOE’s dean at that time, the late Dr. Penny L. Hammrich, launched additional programs and initiatives to create space for racial dialogue and to confront systems of inequity. These efforts included the formation of the Dean’s Equity Leadership Team (DELT) and partnership with the organization Courageous Conversations® to conduct a “Beyond Diversity” training for faculty and staff.

It was through Courageous Conversation® that DELT’s steering committee [Deanna Hill, Sherri Manson, Kristine Lewis Grant, and Ayana Allen-Handy] became aware of the Courageous Equity Leadership Fellowship program. For the committee, the Fellows program was a natural way to engage students in SoE’s ongoing equity work and offer meaningful opportunities for students to enhance their coursework and develop the tools to act as equity-centered, civically-engaged leaders in the field of education.

Students from colleges and universities around the nation apply to the fellowship program each year, and in 2022, four SoE students – Bailey, Johnson, Stern and Williams – were accepted into the program. For Williams, the fellowship program reignited a long-standing passion. She says, “In high school, I started a club called ‘Students United in Multicultural Awareness’ and was co-president of the Black Student Alliance. I created events where people of different backgrounds could talk with one another. The fellowship program relit a fire in me to get back to pursuing equity work.”

Bailey adds, “Racial equity and social justice are really important to me and part of my mission as a teacher. With the fellowship program, I wanted to get even more tools in my teaching toolbox for being actively anti-racist.”

The 2022 fellowship kicked off with a three-day conference in Houston, Texas, where students learned the concepts and practices of the Courageous Conversation® About Race protocol.

Of the “Four Agreements” within the protocol – stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept non-closure – Johnson says, “the stay-engaged agreement was a very important piece for me, and knowing that being engaged can also mean actively listening. Sometimes, our inclination is to always respond to what someone else says. The protocol taught me that we don’t always have to do that.”

The protocol’s “Compass” was another tool that resonated with the Fellows. Says Stern, “The Compass has four components: thinking (what’s on your mind), feeling (your emotions at any given moment), believing (your morals and how those shape you), and acting (what you do). For me, it was a tool for looking within myself about what I believe about race and my racial identity and how I interact with the world. It helped me reframe what I’m good at and what I need to work on.”

Bonding with students from other institutions was also an important outcome of the conference, not only when exploring issues of race and racial equity but also when it came to thinking about the logistics of organizing a racial healing session.

Says Johnson, “Hearing from the other Fellows was really eye opening. It was valuable to connect with others from different backgrounds, cultures, traditions, and vulnerabilities, but with correlating thoughts and experiences.”

Echoes Williams, “We got close with students from other universities and bonded over shared experiences. And we learned so much from returning Fellows – the tips and tricks for organizing a healing session. I felt like I had close peer mentors, and I was able to learn from them how to be an effective facilitator.”

Back on Drexel’s campus, the four Fellows got to work planning a racial healing session for the Drexel community, having regular virtual training sessions with a Courageous Conversation® mentor, and planning sessions as a team and with the DELT steering committee. The event took place in November 2022 and brought together a diverse mix of faculty, staff, undergraduate students, and graduate students.

“There were three components of the event,” says Bailey. “First, we wanted to introduce the components of the Courageous Conversation® protocol to help steer the conversations. Then, we broke up into smaller groups with some guided questions about racial identity, experiences of race, and what racial healing means to each of us.”

Continues Bailey, “The third component was a creative response to the conversations we had during the session. Each person created a piece of writing or visual art that we put together into a tapestry. I believe in the power of art to engage in conversation, and the tapestry was a visual representation of how our stories of racial identity are all woven together.”

The racial healing session was a rewarding experience for everyone who attended, and the resulting tapestry still hangs outside the Justice-oriented Youth Education (JoY) Lab at the School of Education. For the four 2022 Fellows, the impact was profound.

Says Stern, who’s majoring in secondary education with a concentration in English, “This experience helped me grow as a person and understand my complex identity as a human being in this world. As a teacher, I’m going to be more aware about how race influences how I teach and talk to students, and how race has affected students’ place within the education system.”

Williams is in the SoE’s combined BS/MS degree program in advanced teaching curriculum. She’s majoring in secondary education major with a focus in social studies and minoring in history. Says Williams, “Social studies and history are about human experiences and emotions, and as a woman of color, I have a passion for teaching stories of minority experiences. The fellowship was perfect because I will have a better understanding of how I feel and how students feel when talking about harder subjects, especially if students shut down. The tools of the protocol can help people move forward in a difficult discussion.”

“For me, the fellowship changed how I look at interactions with the families I serve,” says Bailey. “I’m an early childhood education major, and I own and operate a home daycare and preschool program. The Courageous Conversation® protocol is a blueprint for creating dialogues with others that are productive and healthy. I can use it to become a better teacher to families of color and make my program culturally sustaining.”

And for Johnson, the fellowship had a broad impact on his experiences not only as a graduate student in SoE’s master’s in human resources development program, but also as an adjunct faculty instructor and in his professional role at Drexel as Director of Labor Relations and Equal Employment Opportunity. Says Johnson, “In the graduate courses I’ve taken on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), social justice, and organizational change, I can use the tools of the fellowship to place myself within the case studies we’re learning about. I can incorporate the tools into the 1-credit civic engagement course I teach, which looks at issues like racial equality, equity, resources, and access.”

Continues Johnson, “The Courageous Conversation® tools also play out in my day-to-day role at Drexel. I do trainings with faculty, staff, and students on discrimination, bias, and microaggressions. I facilitate mediations and restorative justice conferences.”

The Courageous Equity Leadership Fellowship program also connects Fellows with a greater societal mission. Says Johnson, “I believe we all have a moral responsibility to better ourselves. The Courageous Equity Leadership Fellowship program gives us opportunities to reflect on racial identity and equity and to not be complacent bystanders to these issues. It allows us to challenge ourselves and to have meaningful conversations with other people, whether we have similar views or not.”