A Life-Time Journey to Issues of Diversity, Equity and Racism

December 27, 2020

During the fifty-plus years of my career as a Waldorf teacher, the themes of equity, inclusion, and racial justice have woven through my personal biography and my professional life. What I am sharing is only one perspective as our biographies unfold in a particular place and time. What we bring karmically into the issues we meet, are opportunities for us to reveal what we bring with us, as well as offering possibilities to awaken to new ways of being. A personal narrative is one window into the issues of our time. To the extent that it is helpful to look through that window, I welcome the chance to welcome you in.

The theme sounded early as I am a child of the end of the Depression years and of World War II. My father, Israel Kletsky, came from Belarus (White Russia). As a secular Jew, he was devoted to social justice. In fourth grade, our class toured the Freedom Train, a seven-car train that traveled across the United States, displaying the historical documents at the heart of American democracy. I was deeply impressed by them although at the time I didn’t really understand the significance of their words.

My dad and I loved baseball. Because we lived in the Bronx, we should have been Yankee fans, but because the Brooklyn Dodgers was the first team to hire an African American baseball player, we quietly left the Bronx and took the train to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to watch Jackie Robinson play. Why had it taken so long for a baseball team to be integrated? From that time on, I felt the discrepancy between the ideals and reality of America.

When I was twelve, my family moved to Hollywood, Florida so we could have a better life than in the city. The contrast was intense. In many ways it was wonderful, we had our own little house, I could bicycle everywhere, the beach was close by, and I attended a school in which I felt safe. What could be wrong with that? But it was 1950, a time of segregation. Benches and water fountains were marked “For Colored Only” and “For Whites Only”. I felt discomfort in my young adolescent soul. What about those inspiring words in the founding of America? I returned to New York City at age 16 with the words in my heart, “What are you going to do about this?”

Just as I had been teased in Florida for my New York accent, I was now being teased for my southern accent which showed up in certain words and phrases. I joined an organization that included workshops on working across racial lines, and I became a speaker to parent and student groups. Through our class in American history, I began to understand the meaning of those freedom documents, how the Bill of Rights reflected the understanding that the ideals were an intention, and that it would be up to the people to continually fight to realize them through adding amendments and changing attitudes.

I attended City College of New York, which offered free higher education to outstanding academic students of immigrants and poor families. While doing research in psychology, I focused on the question, “How do children think?” This question led me to explore different forms of education. However, what drew me to Waldorf education, in addition to the creative methods, the role of a class teacher, or the life in a Waldorf school, was that Rudolf Steiner created a school where the children of the factory workers and the children of the factory owners would-be classmates.

Through the help of Professor Stewart Easton, I received a full scholarship to go to Michael Hall School in England for the Waldorf Education Program. During my Waldorf teacher training in 1959, I asked Francis Edmunds, “How does this wonderful curriculum, developed for the child of central Europe, and then adapted for the English child, relate to the children of America?” He gave two answers. First, I should address myself to the archetypal question behind the curriculum, relate it to child development, and find the appropriate material from the culture in which the children live. Second, he said, “That is your task, Betty.” From those answers in 1960, I lived with these questions and sought answers.

My first husband Franklin Kane and I became class teachers at the Sacramento Waldorf School in 1964. We were both committed to social change in Waldorf education, but our most immediate task was establishing our family, and together with colleagues, re-founding the school which had come very close to closing.

In 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, our world shook. The ideals that had inspired me as a child and that drew me to Waldorf education became center stage. We became active in the Civil Rights movement, fighting for Blacks to be hired in food markets and hotels in Sacramento. During the days, I was a busy class teacher, and in the evenings and weekends, I was on the picket-line protesting inequality or stuffing envelopes and printing flyers. It was a family affair.

In 1976, Carl Stegmann gave a series of lectures in Sacramento called “The Spiritual America”. He connected the ideas that Rudolf Steiner introduced out of Anthroposophy with American ideals in a way that brought depth to our challenge. A group of us, inspired by Stegmann, founded Rudolf Steiner College, and for years, Nancy Poer and I taught courses on the Spiritual America while at the same time I was also fully immersed in founding and teaching in the Sacramento Waldorf High School.

Up till then, I felt that Waldorf schools in America were still imitating the European roots of the school movement. In addition, while the Waldorf schools in Europe were mostly state-supported, in the U.S. they were financed by tuition, resulting in a lack of equity. Teaching American history to Waldorf high school students and introducing Waldorf education to adult students at Steiner College, brought the discrepancy between ideals and reality into a new focus. Why weren’t we doing more in our curriculum to include the contributions of Native – and African Americans?

In 1974, there was a knock on our front door. A large, burly African American man stood there asking if this was the right address. Keith Jefferson (aka Temba Sadiki) came in for dinner and stayed in and around the school for the next decade. He was shocked that I was white because he was a member of a group of black musicians in Kansas City who were deeply involved in Rudolf Steiner’s work. In addition to Keith Jefferson, it was our good fortune during the 1980s to have Diamela Wetzl and Jim Staley teaching in the high school. Diamela brought a rich background and deep immersion in Latin American history, economics, and culture. Jim brought three years of teaching in Nigeria as well as years as a journalist and an interest in international issues. The four of us worked out of anthroposophy and were asking questions about teaching contemporary students. The high school faculty accepted our suggested changes in the high school curriculum to include blocks on Asia, Latin America, and Africa and to bring in more contemporary world situations.

In 1989. I was giving a talk on Waldorf education in Berkeley, and an African American parent told me she loved Waldorf, but she didn’t feel welcome in the school. I invited her to join me as we formed a multi-cultural committee to look at the curriculum and even the pictures that hung in the rooms that could make a person of color feel unseen. In February 1990, the Multi-cultural Committee of AWSNA met and identified the process by which broader inclusiveness could become a vital aspect of Waldorf education. Teachers and some parents from a number of Waldorf schools on the West Coast gathered, “What we specifically had in common was our commitment to Anthroposophy/Waldorf Education and our heightened concerns over the alarming invisibility of “people of color” in our schools” Seven questions were drafted to address education for wholeness. Teachers began to take up these questions in their schools, but change moves slowly.

In the 1990 issue of Multiculturalism in Waldorf Education, I wrote, “Waldorf education serves the spirit of the age, Michael, addressing itself to children of the consciousness soul age, relating to the challenges which confront the human spirit; arising out of a changing technological, information-oriented society, and arising out of the dynamic relationship between the teachers, children, and parents in a particular school. The beauty and uniqueness of Waldorf education is the ability to be universal and local at the same time because it understands the child to be born into a particular family and folk while at the same time being born into the human race. In other words, in its being, the child lives between the world of spirit and its own physical organism. In between is the whole world of soul — the world of feelings—the world of interactions between the experience of being human and the experience of being Chinese, Indian, Italian or American. The path to the universal human is through the folk, just as the path to universal love is first awakened through the love of the people closest to the child. In order for the teacher to understand the child, it is essential to understand the being of the child within their environment.”

At one point, a teacher commented that there were no true fairy tales in Africa, so I began researching. What started as an article led to twelve years of research resulting in Africa, a Teacher’s Guide, formerly titled Hear the Voice of the Griot!). I received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, and a group of us began to give workshops on Africa at AWSNA conferences. This book offers aspects of African culture following the Waldorf curriculum so that teachers from Kindergarten through twelfth grade can find helpful information to teach their children.

It was during this same time that I became involved with helping support the first Waldorf school in public education, thus addressing the equity issue. The Urban Waldorf School in Milwaukee was established in the inner city with a population of children over 90% African-American. The teachers and pedagogical guides worked to address the needs of the children and the curriculum. In addition to bringing relevant story content, they had an outstanding gospel choir. This school carried out its mission for over ten years.

Yuko Okada, my colleague at Rudolf Steiner College, and I addressed the question of East and West and developed a course devoted to how spiritual questions were addressed from an Asian perspective in relation to those from a Western perspective. In 2000, I was invited to give a month of lectures in Japan. It became clear that the Waldorf school in Tokyo was patterned after the school in Munich, Germany, with little reflecting Japanese culture. After returning home, I and others took up the theme of reframing Waldorf education in its local surrounding whether it was a school in a different country or a school within the U.S. with various ethnic groups. As teachers became more confident with child development and archetypes of stories, they made necessary changes to the curriculum. These situations reflected the advice Frances Edmunds gave me in 1960.

I have come to understand more fully the power of the freedom documents that inspired me as a child and to realize that they are vehicles for strengthening our feelings and our will. It is up to us as individuals and as a nation to work to realize those ideals. It is also up to us to do the same with the intentions embedded in Waldorf education. It is not only a matter of dealing with outer issues but engaging in deep self-reflection. The Michaelic Impulse of our time is cosmopolitan, to bring different streams together, recognizing the spiritual in each individual. The words of Rudolf Steiner, “Imbue Yourselves with the Power of Imagination, Have Courage for the Truth, Sharpen Your Feelings for Responsibility of Soul”, are more relevant than ever.