Howard Stevenson on creating change through racial literacy

In the wake of the series of police killings of Black people that sparked historic protests and heightened national conversation about race, and amid persistent structures of systemic racism, how can people of color promote their own emotional well-being and healing? How can leaders and organizations create lasting change to advance anti-racism and social justice?

Howard Stevenson listens as a colleague talks to him.
(Pre-pandemic image) Penn GSE’s Howard Stevenson is a nationally sought expert on racial stress and racial trauma. (Image: Greg Benson Photography/Penn GSE)

To Penn GSE’s Howard Stevenson, Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and professor of Africana studies, the importance of skills and practice to navigate difficult interpersonal moments cannot be overestimated. A nationally sought expert on racial stress and racial trauma, Stevenson trains students and educators in racial literacy—the ability to identify and resolve racially stressful social interactions. Since 2016, he has brought his approach to students, educators, parents, community leaders, and others through the Racial Empowerment Collaborative at Penn GSE, of which he is executive director. More than one hundred public and independent schools and community health organizations across the country have sought the expertise of Stevenson and his team.

“Racial literacy offers an interpersonal approach to making change,” says Stevenson. “We need institutional, systemic approaches as well as interpersonal approaches. And when it comes to the interpersonal, change is not easy if you don’t have a stress management approach.

“When we teach racial literacy to young people, it’s exciting to see how they take it in directions we didn’t always plan. In one school, students started pushing their teachers and peers in a way that led to them being part of a rally that took place recently at Philadelphia’s City Hall. Young people can move the rest of us. If they get the skills to speak up, they use their voices like a superpower, and what they do with it extends beyond our imagination.”

This story is by Juliana Rosati. Read more at Penn GSE.