Back to School Leader Q&A: Natalie McCabe Zwerger and Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz on Re-Centering Race and Equity in Education

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Today’s post concludes a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

RE-Center: Race & Equity in Education* is a Connecticut-based nonprofit that activates youth and adults to drive transformative change towards racially just schools and communities. In July 2021, Natalie McCabe Zwerger joined the organization as its new executive director after spending more than two decades as an educator and attorney, most recently serving as director of the center for strategic solutions at New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Her colleague, Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz, has been with RE-Center since 2016 and is one of the lead evaluators on its Equity-Informed School Climate Assessment team. 

I had a wide-ranging discussion over Zoom recently with McCabe Zwerger and Estrada-Peréz about how RE-Center has shown up during the pandemic, how COVID-19 made their team pivot and respond to community needs, and more. 

Melissa Steel King:
Tell me a little bit about RE-Center’s work and your roles within the organization. Who does RE-Center primarily serve?

Natalie McCabe Zwerger:
I have a unique background as a longtime educator and attorney. I was most recently with NYU’s race and equity center and often apply a civil rights lawyer lens to my daily work. The work of RE-Center is steeped in transformative change to create, foster, and maintain more equitable schools. It’s a profound mission that drew me to join the organization. 

The bulk of RE-Center’s work is in the service of children in systems led by adults. Young people can’t bear the load of transforming spaces that harm them. We focus on Black and Indegenous children of color who learn in systems led by predominantly white educators in Connecticut. We focus on supporting those educators through professional development to change the way they teach and relate to students of color who don’t look like them. 

We also work in evaluation, which enables us to make sure we have our receipts and can measure and scale impact. We want young people to feel spaces shift to be more welcoming and affirming, and to serve them in the ways they’re entitled to be served. RE-Center’s work with teachers, leaders, board members, community partners, families, and young people brings this mission into the everyday.

Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz:
I have a background in evaluation and in decolonizing work grounded in liberation and environmental justice. I joined RE-Center in 2016, initially as a volunteer and am now its research and program evaluation manager. There’s a little sprinkle of me throughout the organization’s work, to be honest, in everything from evaluation processes and facilitation to thought partnership and communications. 

MSK:
Do you work with cohorts of students in addition to your focus on teachers and school leaders?

CEP:
Both. It’s extremely important for us to not just have theoretical applications and observations but to be in community and relationship with young people, listening to and learning from them. We recently convened a quarantine series and pivoted during COVID-19 to focus on hearing from young people about their pandemic experiences, especially students of color who may be at the receiving end of systems but don’t have power over things like teacher hiring. RE-Center’s partnerships with students are grounded in leveraging our voice to build awareness among critically conscious adults to support those students.

MSK:
How has RE-Center shown up in the past 2020-21 school year? What went well, what was hard, and how did you approach the work?

NMZ:
It’s often said that you can’t do this kind of relational work through a screen and that you need to be in the same room to make a difference. The pandemic forced us to do our own organizational reflection, pausing to lean into the discomfort of distance to further collective learning. We shifted and pivoted because that’s what needed to happen. Today, it feels like we’ve rewound to the past [with the emergence of the Delta variant]. But we’ll continue to be responsive and center young peoples’ voices and support staff in the school year ahead.

CEP:
We also believe this work is relational. Yes, connecting in a human space is important. But the limitations of the pandemic fostered a spirit of creativity to find different ways of doing this work. Early on, we realized that different things would be needed to meet this moment of urgency. One of those ways was having our staff dedicate eight hours to community projects, events, or support of family. Recognizing the enormity of the pandemic and trying to implement responsive practices that take stock of our humanity is important to RE-Center’s work.

MSK:
Are you continuing to train adults virtually as an organization? Did schools lean in or opt out due to stretched systems in the pandemic?

NMZ:
There’s an interesting intersection of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Early on in the pandemic, there was a moment in time when things slowed down and organizations like ours questioned what engagement opportunities would look like. The tragic Floyd murder changed everything for us. More people were energized and animated to take on this work. RE-Center had to vet partnerships and assess readiness, and in that process we learned invaluable things we’ll definitely carry forward. One key lesson learned is to have more frequent meetings with partners but in smaller dosages. Gone are the days of a six-hour training session — and we try not to make racial equity work an “event” anyhow — now, we pick up the phone and coach a superintendent to navigate this work or have shorter Zoom sessions within our networks. 

CEP:
We recognize that we’re all “Zoomed out” so we try to make meetings shorter to ensure engagement. Hybrid models borne of the pandemic have enabled RE-Center to be in more spaces. Moving from meeting to meeting virtually is something that had been limiting before with geographic boundaries. RE-Center often had to defend our work pre-pandemic, but now there’s a growing and deeper level of understanding in the field. That’s been one bright spot amid the trauma and grief of the last 18 months.

MSK:
I see this in my work with schools across the country: folks are grappling with dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. When you think ahead to SY2021-22, what’s on your mind? What are you concerned or excited about, and what do you want to share with schools as kids return?

NMZ:
I hope this is an opportunity to lean into centering young people in a humanizing way. Many students haven’t physically been together for 18 months and it makes us wonder what being “together” looks like in the school year ahead. How can we support educators to support young people with the same concerns? The Delta variant, attacks and misunderstandings of Critical Race Theory, volatile school board meetings, these are all creating a palpable fear even with educators we’ve worked with in the past. We have to keep the momentum going in focusing our work on centering racial equity.

MSK:
Is there a common mistake schools make when they think they center students’ needs, or do you typically see an “aha!” moment that marks a lasting shift?

NMZ:
There are so many pandemic examples, especially with school-based health practices. Kids virtually learning at home are on different schedules and, in many cases, can center their own needs in ways that don’t always translate in traditional school buildings. We should afford young people the same level of trust. Scheduling and curriculum for the first six weeks of SY2021-22 are critical. Are we going to lean into new, restorative ways of structuring the school day or are we going to fall back into deficit training? Are we going to ask kids if they’re OK and if the school community can hold space for shared grief? We must ask those questions first and avoid the inclination to over-focus on deficit-based thinking like talking about “learning loss.” Instead of asking how far behind sixth graders are, maybe we should shift content and teaching approaches to respond to the collective water we’re all swimming in.

CEP:
We have to recognize the loss and acknowledge that so many young people have experienced domestic violence, tragedy, grief, and more and are going to bring that into the school building with them every day. It’s important that we hold space for humanity and for the collective loss and grief we’re all experiencing. And, to recognize that systems we had in place pre-pandemic weren’t working for young people (for example, mental health supports). Acknowledging our shared humanity is the first step toward lasting change.

(*Editorial note: RE-Center is a past Bellwether client; this version carries a minor correction for accuracy)