The Challenge is in the Moment

I attended a keynote address by Dr. James Banks at Seattle U earlier today. James Banks has been called by some as the father of multicultural education in the United States. His talk was titled: Human Rights, Diversity, and Citizenship Education in Global Times – just imagine trying to do that in an hour. I won’t even attempt to summarize his talk, but he definitely hit on some key points.

He began his keynote by referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (you can read the whole thing here). And though it is easy to talk about all its promises, it is not so easy to implement in the classroom. We have to recognize that students are citizens themselves and not citizens in waiting. Students must experience human rights and therefore they themselves must have an education in which their identities are affirmed and empowered through their experience.

Banks talked about assimilation and how through shame, immigrants historically shed their culture in order for the hope of a better life. White ethnic groups were successful at assimilating, but Hispanics, Natives, and Blacks were not. They could not ‘deculturalize’. Do schools today still ask kids to be more like the dominant culture? Are there still schools in the country that have signs in the hallways saying, “No Speaking Spanish”? Rather than make kids feel shame about their culture (or identity for that matter), we need to validate that experience and then give them context.  James Banks used Black English as an example. Do not place judgement on Black English, don’t make them feel shameful about it. They are going to speak it at church on Sundays anyway. Instead, validate their context, but also point out other contexts. Banks example was, Black English is not going to get you a tenured position at the University of Washington.

He then continued about the following identities overlapping: global, cultural, national, and regional. Most important though is that of the individual.

It was humbling how much more there was to learn and do with regard to multicultural education and Banks, insisted we write down the names and authors of books that we needed to add to our reading lists. Scholars in the field of justice, law, human rights, education, and such. Banks then told us what we had to do (besides all that reading): We had to Know, Care, and Act.


He asked us to simply think about the words pioneer or settler and then to think what words the Sioux might have used to describe the same people. Think about the term ‘westward expansion’ and think which group that simple terminology empowers. He mentioned that someone in another group he had been speaking to changed the term ‘pioneer’ to ‘illegal immigrant’ which got a laugh from the crowd. But just think about it for a second. Just knowing enough to challenge the language in our history books would be a great starting point.

Caring: Banks then cited Dante:

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”

…and quoted MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN – “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”

and mentioned Audre Lorde, the American feminist, who wrote: “Your silence will not protect you.”

Acting: We need to have the courage to act. What Banks talked about here reminded me of Irshad Manji’s talk at the NAIS conference of having the moral courage to speak up for what is right. Here is a quote from MLK Jr.:

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”

Banks closed with a quote from James Baldwin: There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”


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