Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 19 2012

Our Commitment to Diversity: Are we missing something?

I just wrote about the silliness of personifying TFA in order to complain about it. But for now, I’m talking outside the realm of my own personal TFA experience, and while I guess I could just email this straight to TFA’s Executive Vice President of People, Community, and Diversity (maybe I will), I still want to start this conversation and hear your thoughts.


Our Diversity Core Value: “We act on our belief that the movement to ensure educational equity will succeed only if it is diverse in every respect. In particular, we value the perspective and credibility that individuals who share the racial and economic backgrounds of the students with whom we work can bring to our organization, classrooms, and the long-term effort for change.”

It’s interesting, because the webpage on TFA’s diversity statement doesn’t mention equal access to the organization as being something we need to ensure. The stated reasons we strive for diversity are pretty much based in the interests of the organization and our mission: a) we benefit from the talent and energy of all, b) it increases our chances of TFA entering “circles of influence” nationwide, and c) we want to be a model for other organizations. Then there’s d) that special word about the profound additional impact of corps members who share similar racial backgrounds as our students.

I suppose it might be kind of awkward for us to say access to TFA itself is an amazing life-changing prestigious opportunity that should be accessed equally by members of all races—the site is wonderfully single-minded about the mission to close the achievement gap, and stopping to acknowledge that being accepted to TFA is an “ends” of sorts might be a distraction from that intense focus. But I find it interesting that in the diversity statement, the diversity core value, and the “diversity in the corps” page on the admissions site, the only blip that addresses access (specifically, access of people of color to TFA, not vice versa) is the following, found in the list of initiatives to increase diversity: “Providing interview preparation resources, including online tutorials, to remove any barriers that might prevent candidates from displaying their true abilities during the application and interview process.”

It feels like even with all the reading material we provide on diversity, this is the only place the TFA website acknowledges extra barriers that people of color face, except for noting that a disproportionately small number of college graduates are African-American or Hispanic.


I don’t know exactly what that means. Maybe it’s appropriate for TFA to keep the service-y image and save talking about extra barriers for DCA sessions within the corps. Maybe the initiatives TFA takes to increase our own access to people of color (recruiting at HBCUs and HSIs, focusing on campus organizations like Black Student Unions or the Native American Student Alliance, etc) are enough and differentiating access of TFA to POCs or access of POCs to TFA is splitting hairs. Maybe we don’t want donors to think our website smells too much like Affirmative Action.

All it means for me is that I’m left wishing our official blurbs on diversity would at least mention something about oppression or racism. While this omission might not seem particularly harmful, it still allows the casual web surfer to read everything TFA has to say about diversity and still deny systemic racism and believe in meritocracy. I think we should go further and acknowledge that the mission we are so focused on will never happen if we don’t directly challenge those ideas.


Solution: I think we should adopt a Commitment To Diversity On Steroids—on our website’s pages about TFA and diversity, I think we should a) acknowledge unmistakeably that systemic, institutionalized racism exists, provide a short explanation of hegemony or white privilege, and link to sites or organizations where readers can learn more, and b) specifically adopt and rephrase initiatives not only to increase our own access for our own benefit, but to make ourselves more accessible.


Possible? Inconsequential? Asking too much? Beside the point? Thoughts?




13 Responses

  1. Russell

    Keep in mind, though, that the percentage of nonwhite TFA corps members FAR, FAR exceeds the percentage of nonwhite college grads in general. So nonwhite corps members don’t have “equal access,” but rather enjoy preferential access. I think TFA is generally quite lax with accepting African American corps members, as well as men from any race. (A recruiter once told me that no Spelman applicants are denied unless they fail to meet GPA requirements.)

    • Wess

      I’m not talking so much about building a diverse corps here, since I know without a doubt that is a genuine priority for the organization. I doubt TFA is “lax” with accepting anyone, and I find it pretty hard to believe your recruiter friend’s comment about Spelman.

      I’m worried about the public picture we paint for everyone reading our site. I don’t think we can achieve our mission if we’re not an actively anti-racist organization, and right now the message we send out about diversity definitely shies away from being so provocative as to say that racism exists.

  2. Wess – I’m so glad to reading this. I totally agree that TFA can’t address racism until it names it. We’re working on that in the Bay – I’ll email you the Director of Diversity of Initiative contact info and I’m sure he’d be glad to be a resource for you!

    • Wess

      Oh hay! So good to see you here; we miss you!
      And ohmigoodness yes, I would LOVE that contact info.

  3. Also Russell – that was some racist shit you just said. Instead of being all TFA and nice about it, I’ll just tell you that at a CM of color, you are a large part of the hostility and pain that makes POC teachers run not walk away from TFA. Nice work.

  4. Russell

    Exactly how was my comment racist? I have no problem with the obvious and statistical advantage nonwhite applicants to TFA have. I do, however, give a side eye when people think this advantage is not enough, and that even MORE advantage needs to be given to nonwhite applicants. At what point, then, would we be creating two separate tracks to TFA, one in which white females need to be impossibly exceptional to be selected (since there are “already too many” of them – and they are already underrepresented compared to the share of new traditional teachers who are white females) while a subset like black males need to simply show up with the minimal gpa to win their spots? Sadly,, I think there are many people who would see no problem with such a system.

    • Wess

      And what of the obvious and systemic disadvantages nonwhite applicants face?
      Offsetting those disadvantages is the point. Otherwise we claim the playing field is level, that everyone has the same opportunity to pull on their bootstraps, that those at the top deserve to be there and those at the bottom deserve it too. The point isn’t to create two separate tracks, but to actually make the existing track fair.
      That’s how your comment was racist. And your second comment even more so.

      Thanks for engaging, for real. But please find time to explore the basics a bit before you reply:

    • I suppose you have a meaningful breakdown of those stats? A greater proportion of CMs of color when compared to the proportion of college grads nationwide doesn’t automatically mean that of the applicant pool, TFA is accepting applicants of color preferentially – for example, there could be a disproportionate number of people of color in the applicant pool if more visible minorities than whites were choosing to apply. Alternatively, if TFA is placing weight on certain useful criteria (e.g. being from the regions in which TFA operates, previous participation in anti-racism work, etc.) that could favor people of color without it being ABOUT color, much like university applications’ “legacy” points favor whites without it being about color.

      Basically, to be able to draw any meaningful conclusion from looking at the demographics of the current crop of CMs, you need to know the demographics of the applicant pool.

  5. Russell

    The existing track is unfair? Are you under the impression that there are large and disproportionate numbers of nonwhite applicants that are being denied access to TFA? The statistics show that is not even close to being the case.

    Thanks for engaging, for real. But please find time to ask a recruiter for percentages of acceptances for white applicants and acceptances for black applicants.

    It is absurd to suggest that nonwhite people have a disadvantage when applying to any social justice program.

    You can’t just call me racist (which is such a loaded and vague pejorative these days anyway), and then when I disagree with your categorization, say that I am even more racist. It’s not logical.

    • Wess

      The track to TFA is more than just the application process. The track to graduation from high school, entrance/success in/graduation from college, and opportunities for developing some of the leadership/achievement traits TFA looks for in applicants is unfair, yes. There are large and disproportionate numbers of nonwhite people being denied access to opportunities of all sorts, yes.

      I’m not calling you racist because you disagree. Your comment was racist because it implied that people of color in TFA don’t deserve to be there. What if, maybe, the acceptance rate for black applicants is higher because a higher percentage of black applicants are qualified? Take “perseverance in the face of challenges,” for example–just by living american life, applicants of color probably have more experience facing significant challenges than most white college graduates do. Or “ability to work effectively with people from a variety of backgrounds,” or commitment to TFA’s mission in general–these are issues that, statistically speaking, college graduates of color are more likely to have experience with than white applicants. What if corps members of color actually deserve to be corps members? We’d continue efforts to make access more equitable, that’s what.

      The point is not to be “lax”–it’s to increase access. I admit that was a relatively undeveloped point in my post, but I’m not disputing your recruitment numbers at all. I am, however, trying to make you understand that our society is racist, and if we perpetuate the patterns created by it, we are racist as well.

      • Russell

        I’ll go ahead and bypass the low hanging fruit – that you think college admissions is harder for nonwhites. I will also bypass the inherent assumption you make that nonwhite=poor and disadvantaged, and white=a life less challenged. I know you have been taught to believe that, but that doesn’t make it so. Also – news flash! – there are other challenges than the color of your skin.

        No, I will let all those obvious things go, because you reveal your true hypocrisy in one very simple way…

        You say I’m racist because I believe whites are inherently more qualified for TFA. I do not believe that, but I do believe that holding that assumption would be racist. Then you go on to argue why nonwhites would be supremely qualified for TFA.

        From one of the websites you so condescendingly linked to, “In short, racism is the belief that a particular race is (or certain races are) superior or inferior to another race or races.”

        • Wess

          That was condescending. I’m sorry about that.

          I noted that your comment was racist because you implied that people of color only get in because of their statistical advantage, that they obviously only met minimum requirements and are less qualified. Then I explained some ways that nonwhite applicants may (yes, generally and statistically, just as in your first two comments) have higher acceptance stats, without the system having been “lax” to let them in.

          I’m thinking this is the appropriate time for me to bow out of this conversation, because we disagree much, much more deeply than I originally thought and it’d be silly to try and understand each other in an angry-comment thread.

          So, peace. You’ve given me some things to think about; I hope you have some things to think about, too.

    • whitelady

      By saying a disproportionate number of nonwhite applicants are being denied access to TFA, she probably is referring to the disproportionate number of people of color who have to grow up in poverty and thus are de facto denied opportunities that make it easier to do well in high school, go to a good college and do well enough there to be eligible for TFA. Personally I’m not saying affirmative action of any kind is intrinsically always fair, but it does attempt to even the field made uneven by poverty etc – and uneven in greater proportion for people of color than whites.

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