Published: Jan. 12, 2022 By

Shelia Freehill has been a teacher of multilingual learners in the Saint Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) for the past 20 years. She was a fellow with Teachers for Global Classrooms with the State Department and is a National Geographic Educator. Sheila is an advocate for equity and inclusion for all students. Sheila has a master’s in human development from Pacific Oaks College and specializes in bilingual education.



This essay explores the experience of a white woman trying to support social justice in a white male-dominated culture, a culture that continues to resist moving towards change that supports equity and inclusion. The author reflects on her experience as a classroom teacher and presenter at the 2021 Educator Institute for Equity and Justice. In this piece, the author argues that the time has come to be brave and speak our truths.

Keywords: vulnerability; whiteness; equity; speaking out 

Controversial for Whom? 

Why is it controversial to read these books?” This was a simple, yet thought-provoking question that was asked during my session entitled, “Decolonize Your Library by Using Books as Mirrors and Windows.” Our session was focused on bringing multicultural books into the classroom at the 2021 Educator Institute for Equity and Justice. The question to debate is: controversial for whom? 

As I stood in front of my peers, I felt more vulnerable as a white heteronormative woman than I had anticipated. My palms had grown sweaty. I forced myself to be proud of myself for showing up to support this conference and what it stood for amidst the intense political divide that is destroying our country. Most of the participants in the group were white female classroom teachers, but I was grateful to have a few men and people of color who had chosen to join my session. 

I have grown tired of being afraid of what may happen when I stand up for my beliefs and be an ally for marginalized populations. The fear of losing my job or upsetting someone in power had kept me quiet for a long time. I had waited for over twenty years as an ELL teacher to feel supported by my school district to openly talk about equity. I have long understood the reality of my white privilege as I have worked to provide educational access to my students. 

During COVID, a small group of teachers from my school formed an equity discussion group and an equity book club. For the first time in my career, I had joined a community of like-minded educators to discuss a topic I have always felt was lacking in our white-dominated educational community. As educators, we were, and still are, processing the horrible murders of George Floyd, countless other people of color, and the reality that everyone experiencing this awful pandemic was not experiencing it in the same way. Many people are navigating the inequities of our country, hardly holding on to their lives upon a sinking inner tube while the one percent are upon yachts on the Caribbean Sea.

Each person in our group was in a different place along the continuum of understanding racism, white privilege, and social justice issues, but we all shared a desire to shift and begin the life-long journey of understanding racial oppression. We had created a safe place to share our questions, thoughts, and experiences as primarily white educators working with a diverse school community. Towards the end of the year, the participating teachers were asked by a district employee to consider presenting at the Equity Institute. At that time, I had felt a new sense of safety because my school district was encouraging us to speak up and embrace the issues of equity in the classroom. Unfortunately, I was now feeling aware of the dangers of speaking too loudly.  

Ruth and the Greenbook by Alexander Ramsey Calvin, We are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, We Came to America by Faith Ringgold, Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal, Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall, and Something Happened in our Town by Ann Hazzard, Marianne Celano, and Marietta Collins were a few of the children’s books I had ordered from my grant funds and brought to share with the session at the Equity Institute. These books have been displayed on the shelves of my classroom and woven into the lessons that I teach with my multilingual learners. I also share them with my colleagues so that they can read them to their own classes. In addition, I had participated in writing diverse history lessons to be shared with other teachers throughout the district on a district committee to encourage teachers to address House-Bill 19-1192. I have been collecting diverse children's books for the past thirty years, and I had recently been awarded a grant to purchase books that represented the metaphor of mirrors and windows, and sliding glass doors. I had spent countless hours researching books that celebrated children of color and environmental issues such as global warming, addressed issues of equity, and were stories that had characters that celebrate the diversity of my students. My presenting partner and I had chosen the topic of diverse children’s books because using books is a great way for teachers who are wanting to support and empower all learners to open up a conversation in their classrooms to discuss identity and diversity and to represent all learners in the materials we use to teach our students.    

During this past year, I had felt more support than ever before from my school community. Unfortunately, only an hour before presenting, I had been informed that SVVSD had changed their equity statement on their website and pulled out the financial support for teachers in the district to attend the conference at the last minute. Why? Why does equity scare people in power so much? This fear of backlash has kept our society quiet for a long time. This fear is what is dividing our country. People of color and non-heteronormative people have been afraid for a long time. 

Why should it be so controversial to talk about what is true? Our brave voices are bringing discomfort to those who have held most of the power for too long. It is beyond time for everyone to feel some discomfort, not just those who have been oppressed. It is beyond time to talk about equity, social justice, gender, and race. It is overdue. Our children deserve better. 

As I looked out at the mix of participants in my session on bringing diverse books into one’s classroom, I was honored people of color had chosen to join me, but I was nervous I would say the “wrong thing” and not mean to. While I am always trying to be aware of the language I use, I did not want to marginalize anyone. I wanted to honor everyone’s place at the learning table. But, again, we are allowing our fear of upsetting the few from honoring the voices of the many. 

The discussion was active and engaging during our session with people sharing some of their favorite diverse children’s books. The people in the room had asked open-ended questions and we had the opportunity to share our love of books with others. At one point, my teaching partner made a comment saying it could be challenging to teach books that are seen as controversial. One of the participants asked the group, “Why is it controversial to teach these books?” It opened a lively discussion about equity and justice for children. It also really got me thinking about perspective and fear. 

I personally don’t believe that reading a book aloud about racism, gender identity, or immigration policy is taboo, but as educators, we have been cautioned to be aware of the content we are sharing as it may upset the community. We are not supposed to be biased or to side with a political issue. Nevertheless, it is vital for children to see themselves in the books we read to them. Honoring the identities of children is critical for their success and self-love. This fear of “rocking the boat” has encouraged my self-preservation and quiet sharing of books with students that represent them, their stories, their histories, and their culture for years behind the closed doors of my classroom. I have long believed students should see themselves represented in the books we read and the lessons we teach in class. After completing my graduate program in bilingual education, I have made a point to represent all people in my class. The idea of why these books are controversial is the underlying issue we are up against. That question kept me awake that night and many since then. I saw my whiteness screaming back at me. Who was I to be up in front of this group telling others to diversify their classroom when I have always had the privilege of seeing myself in the books I have read to my daughter? And, who am I to not be up here? We all need to be a voice for change. 

In order for children to grow up feeling proud of their cultural identities, we, as educators, need to teach students about the countless amazing people who share their identities. We all need role models and brave leaders to pave the path towards our greatest selves. Everyone deserves to see themselves and their story in the books they read or the music they listen to. We need to see all people as human beings. Learning, living, loving beings. We need to come from a place of empathy and love. Until we realize that we are all human beings, our world will be missing out on the beauty and wonder diversity brings to the table. We all have so much to learn from one another. I want to stay true to my beliefs and be my genuine self with my students. Our future depends on it.