A Decree for Culturally Proficient Leaders, Teachers, and Citizenry

Nicole Tucker-Smith

 Dear Mr. President:

It has now become evident that our country’s challenges around race, racism, and racial bias have become a national security issue.

A foreign entity was able to use our communication tools to prey on our prejudices and deepen our divisions. The US Department of Justice reports how Russia’s social media campaign included posts like: “Watch 150 black teens attacking white students & police at Temple University in Philly,” in order to influence Pennsylvania’s vote.

Yesterday, I was asked to address a gathering of educators, advocates, and concerned citizens in a conversation about innovation and the future of education as part of Baltimore's Light City Festival.  The theme was for each education startup founder to imagine we had five minutes with the POTUS to discuss the future of education. This was my opening. Read on for the rest of the speech or watch the video at the bottom. Contact us for more information about our culturally proficient leadership series this summer. 

Other countries are aware of our weakness and reluctance to even examine our issues around race. But now that racial bias has been exposed as our Achilles heel, what do we do about it? We are ready to rally for STEM education to make sure that our nation stays competitive, but we also need culturally proficient education to stay our vulnerabilities. 

Culturally proficient teaching is about teaching students who are different from oneself. It requires understanding your own assumptions, beliefs, and values about people and cultures different from yours.To paint the picture of why culturally proficient teaching is needed to combat racial biases so deeply woven into the fabric of this country, I would like to borrow an analogy from Jeremy Dowsett who wrote a 2014 article entitled "WHAT MY BIKE HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT WHITE PRIVILEGE".


So for those of us who have been through drivers ed, we understand that in terms of safety we are supposed to first prioritize pedestrians and look out for them, then cyclists and then automobiles. However, the actual infrastructure of the roads and our systematic practices actually put cyclists at risk. Our proclaimed beliefs do not match our behavior.

Dowsett, who has chosen bike riding as his primary mode of transportation, explains how some drivers are blatant jerks. They yell derogatory comments out of the window or splash him on purpose. This would be like the blatant racist, but most people don’t fall into this category. Most car drivers are not intentionally rude or aggressive, but they put a cyclist in danger because they see the road from their perspective, from the comfort of a car. Often a driver wants to pass a cyclist, but he doesn’t change lanes or move to a safe distance, and he passes the bike rider too closely. The driver doesn’t realize that the cyclist doesn’t have enough room to avoid a pothole or debris. One wrong move could literally mean death for the cyclist while the driver is oblivious in his car. Most drivers don’t notice how in the winter, snow is plowed out of the car lanes and into the bike lanes. The point of privilege is that the privileged people don’t see it, because the system was designed for them.


Similarly in our schools, recommended reading lists are void of prominent characters of color. Seemingly benign teachers fail to recommend students of color for higher-level coursework even when their aptitude assessments and scores are higher than their white counterparts. Students of color or more likely to be suspended for the same infractions in comparison to white students.

There’s one quote from the article that I’d like to share. Dowsett writes, “I can imagine that for people of color life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars.”

And this country was built on white supremacy. There were - and still are - laws, practices and policies designed to keep white people on top and people of color in subservient roles. Even as laws change, the infrastructure is still there. This history still affects us economically and socially and has even infected us politically.


So that brings us back to the question:

Now that racial bias has been exposed as a national security risk, what do we do about it?

I’ve been a teacher, a principal, a district-wide leader, and now I’m the CEO and cofounder of a company focused on developing teachers. Teacher education in cultural proficiency is so critical because so many of our biases are reinforced rather than dismantled in our schools. This July our organization is launching a cultural proficiency leadership program across several states. Those state leaders will, in turn, train their districts and schools using our platform to access resources and lead their communities from cultural blindness to cultural competence to cultural proficiency, where school is an instrument for creating a more just society.

As a matter of policy, we should require cultural proficiency education as teachers and administrators earn and maintain their certification. Our teacher workforce is much less diverse than our student body, and ignoring this disparity continues to put us at risk. Proactively moving forward to address our nation’s vulnerabilities head on requires culturally proficient programs and policies that put our country on the path towards seeing our diversity as a strength and not a division. 



T. Nicole Tucker-Smith



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