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Doug DiStefano is #HackingRacism


Doug DiStefano (fifth year CLAIR Ph.D. student) was admitted to the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at Columbia Business School (IE@Columbia). The program “provides a no-cost opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurial teams to go from concept to launch. It is a chance to tap the knowledge and network of one of the world’s great universities while developing a high-potential entrepreneurial venture.”

How did you #HackingRacism come to be?
I was offered the chance to teach “Children’s Literature in a Multicultural Society” at GSE. One week, I invited my co-founder, Darold Cuba, to guest lecture with me. We have been studying race, how it comes from racism, and how racism was designed as a way for Western colonialists to gain social-economic-political control in the European feudal class system.

Hacking Racism Co-Found Darold Cuba

Hacking Racism Co-Found Darold Cuba, image by Justin Thai

During the lecture, he provided the background for the origins of racism and I connected its influence in children’s literature and other areas of the curriculum. We realized we both enjoyed teaching this topic and saw a consultancy opportunity, so we teamed up and founded #HackingRacism.

My wife, Caitlin, teaches in the dance department at Columbia/Barnard and has her own start-up. She thought the IE program at Columbia Business School would be perfect to incubate our fledgling company. We completed the application, pitched a business plan and were accepted into the program. It all happened so fast.

Can you tell me a about your project?
We seek to “hack” racism, or systematically change how race is taught, learned, and discussed in academic and educational settings through a Bottom-Up Approach and a Top-Down Approach.

A Bottom-Up Approach to hacking racism starts in elementary school by using multicultural literature that challenges traditional narratives. A reading workshop model spans across content areas, and uses a systematic 5-D process that supports children in evaluating race issues:

  1. Define – what is the definition of race
  2. Debunk – the myth of race – construct created to disenfranchise by perpetuating the European feudal class system into colonial outposts
  3. Dissect – the implications of defining race
  4. Discuss – acknowledge one’s own biases in order to open dialogue
  5. Draft – a new definition of race

A Top-Down Approach to hacking racism involves concentrating heavily on pre-service teacher education. Through a skillfully crafted curriculum based around quality biographies and children’s literature, teachers can be instructed through modeling and practice on how to conduct a reading workshop that focuses on issues of race.

The better informed incoming teachers are about race issues the more comfortable they will be in addressing them in their classroom. If early elementary teachers are targeted, this top-down strategy of hacking creates a circular model of education, reinforcing a bottom-up approach. We’ll also address college students and adults who are not becoming teachers through numerous books, journals, articles, essays, blogs and other, diverse content.

Finding quality literature that supports hacking racism and does not portray people of color in tropes and stereotypes (Bogle, 2001) is challenging. After co-teaching a course on multicultural children’s literature at Fordham, we conceived the idea of creating a series of biographical news articles and other content geared for grades pre-K thru 12. We are not attempting to create another direct, instructional program but rather add authentic, complementary, instructional tools that can be used across grades and content areas to round out the narrative of the human experience.

When narratives of any kind are challenged, there is a certain amount of discomfort and resistance because it forces individuals to evaluate core beliefs and concepts that have fundamentally formed their foundational worldview. #HackingRacism starts by educating children about race, and begins the process of forming an individual’s narrative of race as a child, when they are most flexible, before stereotypes and tropes exert influence.

What is your anticipated outcome from this project?
People do not have literacy about race. Most teachers are afraid to address race because they do not have the tools to do so. We are filling that gap by providing specific literature with concrete tools to open up discussions about race in a workshop model applicable to all ages and learners. Ultimately, we would like to create a viable enterprise that is continually challenging conventions and informing individuals of all ages about race through quality literature and diverse media.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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