Back to Episode # 14

Intro  00:00

Life After Now.


Liz Bolsoni  00:07

Hello, and welcome back to the life after now podcast. I'm your host Liz Bolsoni I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and think about what it means for your life after now. You'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have first hand experience and expertise surrounding education in this state. It's time to get empowered and energized for your future. So today, I'm really excited to introduce Derek Francis. He is the manager of counseling services in the Minneapolis Public Schools. And he's here today to talk about how we can best support students of color, BIPOC students who are facing racism and social isolation. Derek, thanks so much for joining me today.


Derek Francis  00:55
Hey, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.


Liz Bolsoni  00:57
So before we dive in, I have a little icebreaker that I wanted to ask. If you have words of affirmation or advice to your high school self, what would you say?


Derek Francis  01:07
Yeah, I, goodness. So high school me. Yeah, this was 2004 when I graduated, I know, I'm old, older than most of y'all listening. And so back then, my confidence was really low. Like I, when I say confidence was low, I just was nervous about going into college. And so and just was nervous about "Am I good enough student?" And I went to a school that was predominantly white. And so I was navigating, like, "Do I fit in? Am I too Black? Am I one of the good Black kids?" Because I got really good grades. And I was an athlete. And so I always tried to figure out well "Am I am I good enough?" And so the advice I'd give myself is to have confidence that, "Yeah, you may stand out, you are different, you are one of the tallest people that are gonna be in this space, but you are designed on purpose to look the way you are. And be you." I would also give the advice that to have confidence, have hope that you have a future. Because I used to worry like, well, "What if I don't find a career like or what if no one hires me? And what if I don't get into college?" And so I just started realizing that I have gifts, and we all have gifts and talents that we get to utilize in a world that we discover as we grow older. So that would be the advice to myself.


Liz Bolsoni  02:28
I'll take that advice, too. And anybody -- high schoolers, really -- anybody listening should listen to that advice. So we're just gonna jump right into some kind of heavy stuff. But this state, specifically, and the country as a whole has gone through quite a year with political and social unrest, as well as nationwide reckoning with systemic racism, social injustice, and broadcast instances of police violence, to name a few. So in your work with high school students, what are you noticing, as they respond to and reflect on these traumatic events in our cities and in our state?


Derek Francis  03:04
Yeah. Oh, man, I, first of all, the heartbreak of what's been going on in our city, it's real. And I experienced it authentically, too. I'm a Black man in the U.S. I grew up here. I'm a Black man in Minneapolis. And so the things that we're seeing on recording, you know, that stuff happens. Not just -- y'all just seeing it now because it's being recorded. But it happens day to day, it happens. It hurts to think about sometimes that they're students watching that. And so the part that I've noticed as a school counselor working with students is that they want to talk about it. And so not just in little pockets, they want to talk about it for real, authentically, whenever they feel like it, when it comes up, as it's hurting them. And so, that was loud and clear. And I believe educators had to get their skillset up to know how to have these conversations with students. So I think that was one of the key things in our work as school counselors was making sure we created spaces where students can talk about what they're seeing on the news, and hearing at home, and how they're feeling about it. What wonderings they have and questions they have around what's going on. And then also, it's important for us to help students know that they have a voice for calling out racism when they see it. A lot of students experience racism in schools throughout our state. And so students when they saw -- and the topic of race came up with George Floyd being murdered, it created an opportunity for someone to say, "Well, you know what, I've experienced racism, too." And we started to see people who collectively were like, "Man, I know what that trauma of feeling oppressed feels like." And so being there to not just hear students and hold listening sessions, but say, "Alright, we're going to do some action because what you're saying students, that's for real." And so I think that's one of the key ways that we as school counselors, we're integral in supporting students. And then the last part was helping them celebrate the joy of being students of color, of anti-racism work, social justice. And so there's a lot of educators in Minneapolis, who did events such as -- Roosevelt [High School] did racial justice day where the students had some educational pieces during the day, and then they did a walk from Roosevelt to George Floyd Square. Other schools did posters and artwork and spoken word. And so we're encouraging kids to speak up and talk and share about how they're feeling and to feel proud of who they are and their identity.


Liz Bolsoni  05:36
You know, I would agree that we want to talk about it as students and in a way we really need to in order to move on in any other aspect of our education, we need to address those things. So that's a really interesting observation. But for example, let's say students who are in predominantly white high schools, or students who are facing experiences of racism in their high school campuses, what can they look forward to if they're fearing that that might continue in their postsecondary education options? And what do you have to say to encourage them?


Derek Francis  06:06
Yeah, I, and that's something that I, in my career has been the defining moment of why I am in the work that I do. So as a school counselor, I -- and as a student, I noticed and I experienced racism in school here in Minnesota, our great state, Minnesota  Nice that we call it. But if you're a student of color in high school in Minnesota, you know, the stuff you hear in the hallways, the isolation in the schools. And so as a school counselor, I navigated major racial incidents, when I was at Champlin Park High School, where we had racist things put on social media, and said in school and on lockers. And so I know it's real, that you hear these things, and you see it, and it's people who sit right in the classroom right next to you that are doing it at times. And that can hurt. And so I want to first of all, let you know, that's messed up. I gotta be real with you. Minnesota is a state that has predominantly white colleges and universities. I think Augsburg University is the only school, and I believe Minneapolis College, where they actually have more students of color than white students. And so you're more than likely going to a predominantly white school here in Minnesota. And so those things may continue to happen. I hope those colleges and universities take notice and work on it. But what I want to tell you as a student of color going to these postsecondary institutions is that, "Be bold, don't change who you are." That's something I wrestled with. I tried to not wear my earrings, or not wear my flat brim hat, not wear my chain. I was like "Nah, man, I'm gonna be me. I'm wearing my -- I'm coming in and showing up how I am." Because you know what, there is space for you to be who you are, there's going to be other people who can grow and soak in the knowledge that you bring, your experiences. You don't have to change the way you speak, your style, because you know what, there's people who need to see what it's like for you to be authentically you. I'm half Liberian. And so I made sure to bring my Liberian food to campus, and eat it on campus, and share it with people in the dorms. And I think it's a way for us to show that our state is drawing to be more multiracial, multiethnic, and so you don't have to be a certain way to go to college. Dress the way you do. Speak the way you do. And also know that I do think there's colleges and universities out there that are really looking to get more students of color on campus, and that their spaces where you can find affinity so that you can feel comfortable on campus. And I think those schools that are saying they want to be more inclusive, start pushing them to say, "Alright y'all say y'all want, y'all want more people of color on campus? How are you making sure that we're comfortable here. That, that the dorm spaces are not -- there's not discrimination happening in our dorms, and that our teachers and staff are hearing us and that we're celebrating students hear from diverse backgrounds and, and call it out, calling out racism want to happen in our community." So I really think that you can go and be a leader on these campuses.


Liz Bolsoni  09:10
Great. So for students on college campuses, who are experiencing some social isolation, what advice do you have to overcome some of those feelings, or barriers to being involved and feeling welcome, or a part of campus.


Derek Francis  09:24
So I think it's so important to be aware of your new surroundings and be aware of yourself. Because I know sometimes you might get a taste of that experience if you're the only student of color in a class. I know I've felt that before where I'm like, "Oh, man, I'm the only one in here." I think it's also important to know that their environment might be slightly different. So I know some students that I've had go to smaller schools. They'll say they're going to play sports, and they'll be like, "Wow, this is a small town that I really am interested in." And I think first of all, finding a connection or a network of people. And so if you do have groups that you're a part of, I think that's really huge to make sure that you're doing those things on your front end proactively. Finding people and affinity spaces. But I also think preparing yourself, knowing that the restaurants and places that you're used to going to, might not be there. The stores that you go to, to get your hair products, to get braided up, to get dreaded up. Ain't nobody dreading you up in a small town. You gonna have to find your people, you might have to, you know, throw something out, let that hair last a couple weeks. I would say that to our students, because they're like, "Man, there's no shops in the area?" No, you ain't gonna get, you know. So I think Be mindful of those things. And also understanding of your presence. There's going to be people who are not as familiar, comfortable with people from -- people of color. And especially in our time right now, where things are so divisive. I think being aware of your surroundings means also being bold and speaking up, being able to have a voice. So if you see something going on, having -- and when it's safe, but making sure you have people that that you know, can speak up and protect you as well. And then the other thing I like to say is not shying away from the hard conversations of race. Some of the folks that you might be going to school with -- you might have, you're more likely going to have a roommate of a different race, or someone the hall, and then the topic of race is going to come up. And so instead of shying away from it, instead of being like, "Man, I don't want to make it weird, uncomfortable." This is your opportunity to say you know what this is, you know, a chance for me to share who I am, share my identity. Chance for that roommate who might be like, "Man, I just never had the opportunity for them to have a real dialogue." A lot of people, their first time really having real conversations about race is in college. And so offering grace is one of the hardest things to do in these conversations. Because you know, sometimes people will say things that are off-color or messed up. And so finding ways to call people in to say, "You know what, hey, what you just said, you may not realize, but that's, that was kind of messed up. What do you mean, by that? Let me help you rephrase that, or help you understand why that's not correct to say." So I think offering ourselves the opportunity to be in these spaces, and show people how to build relationships with people of different backgrounds, I think is something that we could really you could really do as a student in a small town.


Liz Bolsoni  12:19
Yeah. And I would add to, you know, finding professionals on campus or other students who feel comfortable to, to be that engager and calling people out because sometimes it's -- you, you can't offer grace and that's understandable. Sometimes it's just, it's a step that's really, really hard when you're going through trauma. So it's really important to have people that are delegated to be in that role. That's a, that's a great add. So you know, you talked about how campuses in smaller more rural areas are usually predominantly white. Even in the cities, there are a lot of predominant white colleges. Will you talk a little bit about those differences? Let's just kind of unpack what is the difference between a rural college or an urban college. Well, how are those campuses different? How do they affect students of color differently?


Derek Francis  13:07
Yeah, I've, so I've been a school counselor. And I've traveled to a lot of the colleges in Minnesota. And so what I noticed about schools here in the cities, usually students are able to find a sense of community, whether at school, and if not, within the community. Because the Twin Cities area is so diverse as people who are from so many different backgrounds in the area, you can find restaurants, places to get your hair done places to hang out where there's people that look like you. A lot of students tend to live in the area, they're kind of like, okay, home is maybe 20 minutes away, I could go home, get a cooked meal, I have people in the area that I know. And so, and usually more familiar with the campus. And so as a student of color, and from stories and from the experiences I've seen, when I've traveled to smaller town schools, when you go to those postsecondary institutions that are further out, then you're going to be in school in an area where it is predominantly white. Just looking at the population of Minnesota, you're going into towns where it's 80, 90%, white. As opposed to here in the Twin Cities where you know, it's a lot more diverse. And so being mindful that you're -- that isolation, you're gonna feel it. You might walk into spaces where, way more frequency where you're the only one. And especially at your age, when you're in high school or your first year college, you're still developing your identity of who you are. And so I think it's important to have confidence in that. But I think the other thing is postsecondary institutions, they're looking to support this work, I think, be mindful of how you're transitioning students in. What programs do you have for orientation or Summer Bridge. And then also, I think, talk about how the community can best support. I think it's, being honest and having a conversation about when racism happens in your building, when people say things that are hurtful. I think so many times people say, "Hey, like schools will post something on their social media, or make these broad statements and have listening sessions, but they don't really have action sessions, where you see something different happen. It's all -- a lot of people reading books and doing these small groups. So I really think postsecondary institutions need to start putting their money into investing, being intentional about scholarship opportunities for students to do racial justice work. Not just keep having your students of color show up and talk and be on these panels, pay them, give them positions where they're having these dialogues with kids at your school who have never had these conversations. That in itself is well worth it for y'all because you're sending kids off to colleges and universities, saying they graduated from your school. How are you not having these conversation about race. I think it's so important that you, that you put your money where your mouth is. But then also have nights and community events where you're intentionally talking about getting to know people of different backgrounds, getting to know people who are different cultures, I know that going to Augsburg in the Cedar/Riverside area, I went to Augsburg not knowing or having a lot of friendships with people who are Somali or Muslim or in the area. And so what Augsburg did a great job of is helping me build relationships with people in the neighborhood by having events where we went on campus and served, or we walked around campus and sort of went into the community. And that helped me build my -- and yeah, remember, this was 2004, a couple years after 911, where people hadn't messed up ideas, and racist thoughts and viewpoints towards Somali and Muslim people because of 911. And I had some of those that, through being at Augsburg and getting to know the people in the community, it changed my biases, you know. And that's some of the things that I think that colleges and universities can do to help build connections is to put students in authentic positions to get to know people of different backgrounds. And so, and then also being real. There's racism that happens at our colleges at a systemic level. There's laws and policies that need to be changed. And so if your college is one of those where you're not addressing how people in the organization are treating other people, because it starts, you know -- you can't say you want to be an inclusive school, if you're not even inclusive in your own staff, you know. Look at your staff. A lot of these colleges don't have staff of color. They don't have a lot of representation of staff of color. So you can't say you want to be doing this work if your own staff isn't reflective, if your own staff hasn't had these trainings, if your own staff hasn't talked about race until George Floyd's murder last year. And then the last thing I'd say is an allyship. So many people say, "Hey, I want to be an ally, I want to be an accomplice." That means addressing yourself. So when you're hanging out with your friends, or at the cabin, or at the lake, and you have friends, they're saying things that are racist or off-color, you got to start disrupting those spaces. You can't be like, "Oh, that's just Dad, or that's just Bob or Grandpa or my cousin, or that's how we talk at the cabin." No, no, no, no, you gotta start saying, "Hey y'all, you know, at school when we talk about calling out racism and stuff, like that's trying to touch, that touches my heart, and I got friends that are of color who said this stuff hurts. So we can't be talking like that here." You know, that's the real work, because you can, you know, when people aren't all seeing what you post on social media, you got to do it in your real life. So I went on a tangent there because everyone wants to be an ally, but they don't know how to do it in real life. Instead, they just want to post it on social media where they can see it. You got to do it when when not everyone's watching, too.


Liz Bolsoni  18:48
Yeah. And to get a little further into allyship as we are transitioning back in a lot of instances transitioning back to in-person school, high school or college, what is your ask of non-Black classmates, non-Black faculty in high schools or colleges? What is your ask to them in order to become better allies? Do you have any specific words for that?


Derek Francis  19:14
First of all, I know a lot of white students I have worked with, colleagues I've worked with. This past year has been an eye opener for some and many are just starting the journey of having a dialogue where you're hearing about race. Some folks grew up in homes where the conversation on race didn't come up or when it did, it was like, "Shh, don't talk about it. I know that man over there is Black, but don't call attention to it. That's rude. We're all people. I don't see you as Black." You know, and so some people -- everyone's at different parts of their journey. And so my key ask for my friends that are listening in that are white is, first of all, be really mindful of how to take feedback when someone tells you, "Hey, what you said or something you said the other day, that really impacted me." I think it's so important to have the skills with -- if a person of color has the guts to tell you, "Hey, what you did or said, or that comment you made, or when you didn't speak up." If they got the guts to come to you and say, "Hey, what you did, that bothered me, or that hurt." It takes so much to do that. So instead of getting defensive, or say, "I have a lot of Black friends." or "I would never do that." Have the humility to say, "Hey, I'm going to listen, I'm going to hear what you're saying. I'm going to set aside my, what I think you should be feeling, and empathize and actually listen to you." Because so many times the defensiveness, the fragility steps up, and that takes away from actually listening. Another thing I want to share for my white colleagues out there is speaking up goes so far. You might hear people saying like, "Oh, silence is violence," and "You got to speak up." It's so true, because there's been times where I remember someone speaking up for me, where I was the only person of color in the space and something -- a racist comment was made. And I watched and I was like, "Dang, are we gonna just let it ride? Or is somebody here gonna say something?" And I remember that colleague speaking, him saying, "Hey, you guys, something was said here that wasn't right." And then they came to me and say, "Hey, Derek, like, I just, you're on my heart. I had to speak up." You might think that's small, but that right there is real, especially when you're the one, the only ones and someone speaks up for you. You'd be like, "Oh, you really down with me like that." And that goes further than a social media post. I don't care how much you post on Facebook. If you don't do it right here in front of me when everybody, when I need you, is not as strong as that post you put on. So I went on a tangent. I was speaking from my heart, y'all know, there's some hurt behind that. So I had to just put it out there how I felt it.


Liz Bolsoni  21:51
If I were gonna put it into four words, I would say I think you're saying, "Be humble. Stand up," right? Don't sit down, stand up.


Derek Francis  22:00
Yeah, yeah, I like that.


Liz Bolsoni  22:02
Okay, perfect. So I could really talk all day with you. But we are going to wrap up and I have a last question. So we've talked a lot about challenges that Black students or BIPOC students are facing right now, during -- you know, we didn't even talk about the pandemic, but that's another, another aspect. So considering all of this, what do you think education looks like in Minnesota for the future? Or what should it look like? And what are your hopes?


Derek Francis  22:28
Yeah, and so this is what I get really involved in is just -- and I do it from a school counseling lens, how to be -- do it from a more racial justice lens, and how to make it inclusive so that all students coming into school feel welcome, feel like, "Hey, I can share about my identity and my culture and my background, and feel good about it, and not feel like I have to hide it, or be picked on. Or I can't wear my African clothes to school. Or I can't bring my palm butter to school. I can't talk in my accent, you know, or I can't wear my" -- I want students to feel like, "No, I could be me. And someone's picking on me here. They're gonna call it out, and we're gonna address it." And so what that looks like, from, in my opinion, is teaching students about other people's cultures and backgrounds in a way that's educational. So even with the murder of George Floyd, have an opportunity to talk about -- yeah, that's something tragic that happened -- but teaching about people that are of color that have done beautiful, positive things throughout their careers, throughout our country's history, throughout our city's history. I think showing representation in our schools with staffing. I think that's going to be huge so that when students come in, it's so -- there's something about seeing a teacher, I only had one teacher of color all throughout high school, but it's something about having someone who, who looks like you, who you don't have to sugarcoat stuff, who you look at them, you just know like, "Oh, you know what, you know, I mean here." So having our educators of color -- so we have a lot of school counselors of color in Minneapolis. So then we have conversations about race, we talked about what it feels like, but we also empower students to say, "Hey, you're Black is beautiful. The way your dreads, yeah, girl! Yes!" Your, you know, talk about what it means to be a Black person in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and not seeing it as a bad thing, changing the narrative to say, "Yeah, you know what, I do have skills that I'm good at. I do have things, I am smart." So I think building that self-confidence for our students, especially students from, that have been historically marginalized. That's gotta be key. Because here in our schools, there's more stendent, there's becoming an increase of students of color. Our school in Minneapolis, we're two-thirds students of color. So our work has to be from that lens of empowering our students and communities of colo. And that's the other thing is connecting with our local communities. So yeah, quite a bit there I shared.


Liz Bolsoni  24:56
Oh you're good. You know, I think that's perfectly said. You can't address Black death or injustice against Black people without celebrating Black life. Right? So that's really that that was really beautifully put.


Derek Francis  25:11
We're still here. We've been through so much.


Liz Bolsoni  25:14


Derek Francis  25:14
And we're still here and thriving. And yeah, we got to highlight them. Sorry. Yeah, I think that's important.


Liz Bolsoni  25:23
Yeah. So thank you so much for sharing your time with me and joining in this conversation. Hopefully, people have, you know, listened and understood some strategies of being able to cope with this traumatic past year and maybe with some isolation you're facing in your high school, your college, and let's disrupt racism on our campuses, when we experience it or when others experience it, right. So thank you so much for for joining us today, Derek,


Derek Francis  25:52
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it so much.


Liz Bolsoni  25:56
I also want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you for spending some time with us today. This podcast was brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. I encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes on our website at Make sure to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, everyone I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.

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