Tackling racism is hard
Tackling racism is hard
Tackling racism is hard
Jane Larsson Executive Director


By Jane Larsson 



Tackling racism is hard. And if it’s hard for me, as a white woman who has a position of considerable responsibility and the authority/power that comes with it, I do not yet imagine how hard this is for people who have been living with discrimination their whole lives, who are tired of 'tackling' it and cannot wait for the day when it will be over.

“Why didn’t you call me?”

My wake-up call was a conversation with my colleague Nunana Nyomi as he struggled in the days following the news of George Floyd’s death; one more black life lost through violence. It prompted him to write a piece on his experiences as both “a victim and beneficiary of international education” as a black student and now as an adult working in our profession. During our call he explained the acute pain he feels each time the life of a black woman or man is lost through racial violence while seemingly going about their daily lives, yet his relational suffering I had not imagined. The only response I could manage was, “It never occurred to me to call you.”

Nunana Nyomi and Jane Larsson conversation about racism

In the days that followed, the realization that our thoughts and feelings were so completely different prompted the start of a real dialogue.

My moment of realization reminded me of remarks my friend Paul Poore once made when writing about the hidden elements of culture as “the space between the bars, the silence between the notes”. I see my colleague Nunana regularly (that is, virtually right now), we talk about our work, our challenges, our families, our colleagues, our lives, and we have talked about race and racism. But we never really talked about it. We talked around it, we talked about the ‘bars’ and the ‘notes’, but not the ‘spaces’, they remained hidden, silent.

Responding to the wake-up call

Ever since that day when Nunana and I began to really talk about our different perspectives, I have been keenly aware of the importance of looking at racism and discrimination through multiple lenses and considering how we can most effectively address it in learning institutions.

The work to purposefully and intentionally 'tackle' racism has begun in schools and universities across the world and for us too. So, what does 'tackling racism' mean at CIS and how will we hold ourselves accountable to each other and for the young people we are educating?

Over the last few months, we’ve been consulting with people who are working to improve society and the divisions that exist due to racial and other differences. Each one has rightly questioned our commitment to do this hard work over the long term.

During our first conversation with staff, we found that many were not ready to talk about race, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. “My parents taught me not to talk about race. That it isn’t nice.”

We quickly saw how people approach this topic based upon their personal experiences. I’m finding that even the framing of the challenges is complex, as we are writing our plans on the basis of our lived racial experiences (inevitably), ranging from those who has suffered greatly from discrimination to those who have benefited from privilege. For example, the writing of a charter for our work and setting goals has been a significant undertaking, with some favoring compliance-oriented language and others favoring inspirational language.

What have we learned?

Developing a shared understanding through common terminology is an important first step.

The concept of ‘intersectionality’ has been useful to study as we look at multiple forms of racism and discrimination. Kimberlé Crenshaw's TedTalk provides a moving description.


Some experts advised us to “begin with love.” A number of educators are urging us to adopt a compliance approach, “Can’t we repeat the success we had with the International Taskforce on Child Protection when we changed accreditation standards? Let’s do that again to tackle racism.”

These comments prompted me to think quite a bit about why our work in child protection was successful in raising awareness and implementing new practice. Racism is a human rights issue to be addressed through child protection and global citizenship education.

One of the things I have witnessed in taking on difficult topics is how they make people uncomfortable, and how it doesn’t really work to berate or scold someone into doing something when they don't understand why they need to do it. Someone who has been abused, discriminated against or marginalized feels and can be openly upset with people who don’t see it, who haven’t experienced it or who are willfully unjust. We cannot minimize the need or time we spend to develop a shared understanding on why racism exists and to develop the courage and language to address it as we undertake our efforts.

This work is challenging beyond anything I’ve done before. As a leader, another significant area of learning for me has been to check my assumptions—ones that have long guided my working style and leadership.

The need to check my assumptions came during a 'test run' of a new workshop we were developing on implicit bias.

  • My assumption: Everyone realizes there are no hidden agendas in our work at CIS to address inclusion, diversity, equity and anti-racism.
  • My awareness: People express concerns of a hidden agenda in our work at CIS to address inclusion, diversity, equity and anti-racism.
  • My hope: We can bridge our perspectives to advance a shared agenda of change across CIS and our membership community.

Will we address racism as a compliance issue? Does our work start with accreditation?

One school leader recently told us: “We are dedicating time to how to be a school that is working actively to be one of racial equity where adults and children in our community are committed to being anti-racist through our actions and words. One way to make this work sustainable and embedded, out of many, would be for our accrediting agencies to hold us up and accountable through their standards and principles.”

Indeed, accreditation is a powerful lever for change and one that works. The drivers for school improvement in our international framework include both child protection and global citizenship. We are already strengthening our emphasis on principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism within our accreditation protocol. At the same time, we are educating ourselves. And as we did with child protection, we will begin to tackle racism through multiple means.

  • Educating ourselves on this topic, to develop understanding so we can take meaningful action to address systemic issues. Documenting our assumptions, agreements, arguments and beliefs about this work.
  • Avoiding knee-jerk reactions. For example, changing guiding statements or policies overnight, issuing empty statements, or avoiding any communications on the issues. How deep are we in our understanding that our system is a problem due to our systemic privilege?
  • Developing an inclusive process to incorporate diverse perspective on the way forward.
  • Mapping the lack of and opportunities for diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism in international education.
  • Helping our communities understand what process we will use and what steps we are taking and communicating these as clearly as possible.


What steps can you take in your community?

  1. This is a massive educational campaign. To create understanding (as we saw with child protection education) there is truly a need to gain our attention through story-telling, and sad stories they are: What does racism look like in your community?
  2. Describe its prevalence. Share the stories and the data on the extent and impact of racism (in multiple forms) in your community.
  3. Hold yourselves accountable for your actions through an inclusive process – distribute leadership to engage stakeholders in this work.


In his last essay before his death, US legislator John Lewis wrote this advice, later quoted by President Obama in his eulogy at Lewis’ funeral, “We have to give it all we have.”


Where are we in holding ourselves individually accountable? Where am I? I am swimming in the deep end of the pool, underwater, with lots of people who are trying to swim towards each other and help, but in currents that are pulling us apart. Inevitably our lived experiences are different and they impact our entry points to this work, so we have to swim hard.


We’re going to give it all we have at CIS.

I hope this story of how we are tackling racism at CIS is helpful to you. We’ve committed to share what we are learning, as we learn through our own organisational self-assessment, and you can find an outline of our process below.

As we each consider the social damage systemic racism creates, one artist created a compelling portrayal through her illustration of 'Power and Privilege in Pictures' recently posted on Twitter. It may prompt valuable discussion in your community.


Power and privilege in pictures by photographer Dr Sarah Haq


Power and Privilege in Pictures

I spotted this on Twitter, posted by Dr Sarah Haq. Turkish photographer Uğur Gallenkuş portrays two different worlds within a single image.




Undertaking our organisational self-assessment at CIS

The CIS Board of Trustees established a committee of stakeholders to undertake this work, including CIS Board members, staff, school and university members and volunteers.

The I-DEA Committee’s Charter:

As stakeholders in the CIS Membership Community, our charge is to recommend to the CIS Board of Trustees a series of actions to accelerate the ethical renewal of international education institutions so they in turn can take active leadership in nurturing and sustaining inclusive, diverse, equitable, and anti-racist communities of learning, anchored on human and children’s rights. ​

Our goal and the eventual product of the committee’s work will be to set forth recommendations on what CIS can do to address racism, discrimination, equity and inclusion within CIS and in the communities we serve. 

Strategic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Management Plan Development Guide Source: SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management)
A successful strategic DE&I management plan is one that is relevant to an organisation’s mission, vision and business objectives.

Getting started: Self-assessment questions we’re using at CIS:

  1. Who are your organisation’s key internal and external stakeholders whose needs and concerns must be considered?—Actions: Draw the CIS Ecosystem
  2. What are your organisation’s key objectives that diversity initiatives must directly support?—Actions: Review CIS strategies and objectives 
  3. What changes are needed in your workforce to help ensure that your organisation can meet its key diversity objectives?—Actions: Review Staff/Volunteer data and demographics 
  4. What changes are needed in your workplace (e.g., how people work together) to help ensure that your organisation can meet its key diversity objectives?—Actions: Review CIS Guiding statements and policies 
  5. What changes are needed in your products and services, or in how they are produced, to help ensure that your organisation can meet its key diversity objectives?—Actions: Inventory of products and services 

Once complete, initial action steps include:

  • Obtain agreement across the Board, Executive Director and senior management (Leadership) team about the key stakeholders and diversity objectives.
  • Define the changes needed in the areas considered by the above questions. Focus specifically on changes needed to achieve the agreed upon goals.
  • Assess the current situation versus the changes you envision to identify the gap.
  • Define initiatives to close the gap. Measure the extent to which the changes are put in place.
  • Do not be satisfied with input strictly from within CIS; rather, continue to seek the counsel of all key world geographies represented in your organisation..



This post was first published in an issue of CIS News in December 2020.

Related content:


Tackling racism is hard
  • Diversity (I-DEA)
  • Global citizenship
  • Intercultural learning & leadership
Tackling racism is hard