By Hannah Pickering
As a young child living in Hawaii, Kristin Leong didn’t question her identity as a biracial individual with a Chinese father and a white mother from Washington state.
Nationality and race didn’t make easy conversations for Leong when she attended schools that were mostly white. Students often assumed that she was 100 percent white, erasing half of her identity, she said.
Leong listened to her teacher explain how Japanese families were separated and detained in internment camps during World War II.
“What would have happened to my family?” Leong asked the teacher.
“She was like, oh, and looked at me kind of confused and was like, ‘Oh, no one would have even known. You’d be fine,’” Leong said, recalling how she felt brushed off.
She doesn’t recall that conversation about race ever occurring again.
Today, as a Washington State Teacher Leader alumni and former middle-school humanities teacher, Leong is building an online platform for students and teachers nationally to connect, bridging gaps which include race, gender, sexual orientation, age and background.
The project — Roll Call — is a collection of portraits that provide a space for teachers and students to have conversations about race, culture and identity. The portraits and are shared on an online platform.
The TED-Ed Innovative Educator program is a year-long, professional development program that brings together educators from across the globe who are working towards developing innovation within education.
Each year, educators from across the globe participate in the TED-Ed Innovative Educator program, Leong and her cohorts engaged in two months of online learning and then attended the TED-Ed Weekend in December of 2016. at this point, Leong pitched her idea for her TED-Ed Innovative Educator project to the program’s third cohort of innovative educators, representing 11 different countries.
Roll Call provides students with a space to feel empowered to share their voice. But it’s also a glimpse into students and teachers that isn’t often created within the school setting. And it’s building community in the classroom.
When Leong met with the other TED-Ed Innovative Educators last December, she pitched the idea of Roll Call, then immediately jumped into the project by inviting other innovative educators there to share their perspective on identity and finding common ground with students on the project’s website.
These connections are built through shared commonalities such as racial identity, socioeconomic status, language and inclusivity for students and teachers who are members of the LBGTQ community.
“The project began with these really incredible voices,” Leong said. “The TED-Ed Innovative Educator Program was such an incredible community, and it really was the reason Roll Call was able to get off the ground in the way that it did.”
From there, the project has escalated into a national conversation, with students and teachers participating and sharing their own perspectives on building connections and commonalities in the classroom.
Knowledge of the project has largely spread through word-of-mouth, Leong said.
“She’s always believed in the power of sitting down and having conversations,” Keri Zierler, Leong’s partner, said about Leong. “She’s passionate about giving people a voice and a platform.”
And for educators who identify as LBGTQ, Leong explained, the fear of coming out can be significant. Facing retaliation from administration who support homophobic fears from parents, Leong has known educators who have been called out on their sexual orientation, asked to stop spreading a ‘gay agenda’ and silenced in group discussions.
And as a member of the LBGTQ/QPOC community herself, Leong is passionate about ensuring that students have a voice in the classroom and that educators are part of the process of building community in the classroom.
While the TED-Ed Innovative Educator program ended this September, the Roll Call project continues to encourage conversation and open up a dialogue between teachers and students who are participating in the project nationally.
Texas educator and fellow TED-Ed Innovative Educator Marcos Silva first met Leong at the start to the program.
Living in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Silva understands the need to connect with students over common background and identity. A river and a border wall separate his community from the country of Mexico, and many of his students are first generation Americans.
Silva finds that as a teacher, he can advocate for his students since he is a part of their community and has stood in their shoes.
“It really allows me to find that conversation to light up that relationship,” Silva said.
It’s this shared identity that actively influences the student-teacher relationship.
Looking back, Zierler recalled how, growing up part-Japanese, she can remember having only one teacher of color — a Japanese educator in the first grade. At the time, she could not remember having any openly LBGTQ teachers.
Giving students that place to be empowered and feel like what they say matters is not easy to build. And Leong’s job isn’t glamorous, Zierler said.
Leong is no longer working as a teacher in the Washington state public school system, but now works in the role of Community Programs Curator for Town Hall Seattle. But she is using the opportunity as a launching pad to empower local schools through the Town Hall Education Platform.
She and her colleagues are working to create a project called Town Hall Ed which will connect the arts community with local schools.
“This,” Leong said, “is exactly where I should be.”