Building a kinder, more just homeschooling community

In this extraordinary time, I’ve been thinking hard about issues of racism, inequality, sexism, classism, ageism, homophobia, and intolerance. Part of that has been wondering how these “isms” affect my communities.

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In 2011, my two youngest kids were founding members of the Boston Area Homeschoolers’ Queer Straight Alliance (BAHS QSA for short). Their very first meeting was in my living room. About six tweens/teens were asked by the adult advisor, a close friend of mine who my kids have known their entire lives, whether they felt or saw any prejudice directed at queer people in their community. Absolutely not, they replied, without missing a beat. We’ve always felt welcome and supported in the homeschooling community.

The kids wanted to raise a little money to contribute to some of the causes they cared about, and decided the time-honored bake sale tradition was the way to go. Since they had no school building at which to market their goodies, it seemed logical to set up the bake sale at park day. There were two homeschooling support groups in our area at the time, with Wednesday park days that overlapped. The QSA kids decided to go to both, and started planning. When they published their notices on the support group e-lists, all hell broke loose.

One of the groups had several members who were upset. The same old, tired arguments were carted out and discussed ad nauseam. “Political” issues should be kept out of park day. The bake sale raised topics that were inappropriate for young children, many of whom would be at park day. Some people even said that because the QSA clashed with their beliefs, they would feel disrespected and excluded if a QSA bake sale were held at their support group’s park day.

Some tried to counter these points. This was a project initiated by kids and they should be supported. Live and let live. Just don’t buy the cookies.

A few people called out the complaints for what they were. Intolerance. Bigotry.

I was a member of the group that had no problem with the bake sale (I’d been booted out of the other group, but that’s another story). The dissenting group suffered days of email controversy. People on “both sides” quit. They held a meeting to discuss the issue with membership and invited the QSA kids to speak. I worried about subjecting them to the not-so-thinly-veiled bigotry being given a platform in the name of allowing everyone a say, but I told my kids that whether to attend or not was their choice. My youngest went.

The meeting, along with the whole experience, was an education. It opened the kids’ eyes to an underbelly they hadn’t known was right in their midst, and it solidified and strengthened their commitment to going ahead with the QSA. They had discovered firsthand how important their work was to their very own community. They went on to meet regularly, host proms and drop-in nights for queer youth, present workshops at the state conference of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, and advocate for gender neutral public bathrooms in their town.

As for the bake sale, it went off, at both park days, with flying colors. It was a joyous event, with yummy rainbow cupcakes, genderless gingerbread people, and all manner of sweetness. Many families I knew were thrilled with the QSA’s work and welcomed it. Others, not so much. A friend who I’d known for years, and whose kids had grown up with mine, thought the idea of a QSA was “ridiculous.” Another mom approached me at a homeschooling potluck to ask if my daughter was gay. Those who know me know that it’s rare for me to be rendered speechless. That time, I was.

The BAHS QSA was a positive thing for the local homeschooling community. The kids had fun together while doing good work, and the group’s existence signaled to new and existing homeschoolers that a welcoming, safe community space was there for queer kids and their allies. The BAHS QSA was powered by kids. The question I ask myself is, what about the adults? What can we do to make homeschooling a more just environment for all? Simply saying “we’re inclusive” is not enough. Both of the local support groups involved in the bake sale story were “inclusive.”

I always felt that the diversity of ideas in my homeschooling community helped encourage tolerance. While we didn’t all agree when it came to religion, politics, child rearing, or how to homeschool, we interacted respectfully, and except for some significant dramas here and there (including the one that got me kicked out of the aforementioned support group), we achieved peaceful coexistence. As I continually strive to become more “woke,” I find myself re-examining. Yes, there were a couple of non-traditional families and every so often a family of color, and yes, they were welcomed, but were they really seen? I’m not sure, because for the most part, we were a bunch of white, straight families who just happened to make the same radical choice.

Although my kids are adults, I’m still fortunate to be involved with the local homeschooling community. To my delight, families continue to ask me to work with their kids on reading and writing. The community has changed. It’s much bigger, and it’s more racially diverse, partly because of families looking to sidestep racism in schools. But racism isn’t confined to schools. It’s systemic, and if we want our community to be truly welcoming, it’s something we white people need to learn about and talk about.

As any slow homeschooler or unschooler knows, there’s no end to learning, and if we want our communities to do more than give lip service to “inclusion,” there’s plenty of work to do. For me, understanding my own white racism is a work in progress, as I think it must be for all of us. My current step in that process is reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.” It’s also studying resources provided by change makers like Akilah S. Richards.

Kendi points out that policies are either racist, or antiracist. How can I create an antiracist, antisexist, anticlassist, antihomophobic, anti-ageist, and anti-inequality mindset for myself, then bring that mindset into the work I do leading writing groups and book groups with homeschoolers? How can we, as homeschoolers creating our own systems like support groups, co-ops, and other structures, create group policies that are antiracist, antisexist, anticlassist, anti-ageist, antihomophobic, and anti-inequality?

The answers will take work, study, and self-reflection, but neutrality is not an option. I can’t think of a better way to end than to echo Amanda Ginn’s words, from her article titled We Need to Talk About Hate in the Homeschool Community  “Let’s begin, together. Let’s commit to a safer, hate-free homeschool community where everyone belongs and no one is left out. We need each other, friends.”

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