Joe Truss on Dismantling the White Supremacy Culture of Schooling

white supremacy in school

“The toxicity of white supremacy culture is ubiquitous,” said Joe Truss. He calls it “the unnamed foundation of our system.”

Truss, a middle school principal in San Francisco, has been hosting workshops for educators this summer on tackling white supremacy.

We spoke with Truss last week. He described his leadership path and a bit of what he covers in his workshops.

On Learning to Lead

Truss grew up in San Francisco with few advantages. He earned an “Unofficial masters in classism.” Early on he learned about the sociology of race. He did well enough in school to get into Berkeley where he studies Spanish. He did a master’s in teaching at Tufts and then taught in Honduras for a year. He returned to the Bay Area and was taught Spanish at an Envision school and developed an appetite for leadership,  for “clearing the hurdles to do the right things.” He returned to Berkeley for a master’s in leadership.

For the last five years, Truss has been principal at Visitacion Valley Middle School. His early work as a principal was vision driven and equity-focused, “trying to make the vision happen.”

A few years into the work he realized that “it needed to be collectively generated,” that he had to build capacity for others to lead.

The move “from dictator to facilitator is a balance because you can’t just step back or the system will take over,” said Truss.

On White Supremacy

In his workshops, Truss references a paper from almost two decades ago on White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones. It outlines 15 characteristics of the dominant culture that may be overlooked sources of racism including perfectionism, individualism, power hoarding, a focus on “one right way” and the belief that “progress is bigger and more.”

“The masses of people are starting to wake up to the reality that oppressed people have known all along. The system is racist and it is broken. It will take us working together to start thinking about how to fix it,” said Truss.

His workshops build community with people taking up this work and, in particular, explore what White Supremacy Culture has to do with distance learning. He shares best practices for promoting antiracism.

“We have to be understanding of what our kids, educators, and families are going through,” said Trus. “During this pandemic, we must place our most marginalized, targetted, oppressed, and underserved at the center of our focus, for once.”

Truss has another two-day workshop, Unpacking Whiteness, Building Justice, running August 15 and 22. Participants will explore leadership identity, power and privilege and ask “who do I need to be right now, for my community? The workshop will help educators return to school with a commitment to antiracism and liberation.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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