Transcription of the episode “BIPOC and undocumented: A trauma-filled intersection”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Cristiana Best, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice at University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. Prior to becoming a full-time academic, Dr. Best spent 30 years in the New York City child welfare system. She serves as vice president of the New York City chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and has expertise in the areas of child welfare, trauma, immigration, narrative social work practice, and racial equity. Welcome, Christiana!

Christiana B: [00:00:49] Thank you.

Jon M: [00:00:51] You immigrated to the US from Grenada in the Caribbean as an undocumented teenager. How does being undocumented impact students?

Christiana B: [00:01:00] I  immigrated not as an undocumented teenager, I became undocumented after living here for awhile. So I wanted to be clear about that. We came with a visa, which was very legal, and after overstaying the visa, we became undocumented.

So clearly it’s a great deal of stress on young people today. Certainly it’s worse than when I first arrived in ’74.  Initially I was able to be registered in public school, which in New York City, that’s an easy thing to do. But the adjustment to, a lot was going on for me. Certainly holding the secret of being undocumented was a stressful thing. It impacted how I interacted in school because I was very concerned about what I would say and who I would say it to and how that would lead to deportation. So it was anxiety provoking and very stressful. But there were also a lot of other things going on in terms of migrating from a small Island, tropical Island, and the acculturation process. All that had a lot to do with my initial experience, in addition to being undocumented.

Amy H-L: [00:02:23] Often immigrating to the US involves children being separated from their parents, sometimes for extended periods. What was your experience of separation and how can this affect both children and their parents?

Christiana B: [00:02:40] So being separated from your parents is very difficult, whether it’s in child welfare system or through, as a result of immigration, as in my case. It’s hard. It’s depressing. Oftentimes when something happened at school or with a friend and you want to run home and talk to your mother and she isn’t there to speak to. That’s difficult. It’s disappointing. Depending on who you’re living with, life can be comfortable or it can be very difficult. In my case, we were living with guardians that were providing physical, you know, all of the beginning stages of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the emotional part wasn’t there. But I did have teachers and I had a principal that was also my mom’s teacher when she was growing up and they were significant people in my life, people who provided structure and were a safety net for us. So I have to say I was very lucky in that case. I went to school every day with teachers who were my mother’s friends at the same time, I also had to be on my best behavior, but that was also part of, part of the issue.

Amy H-L: [00:04:08] So your mother went ahead to the US? 

Christiana B: [00:04:10] She went ahead to the US and she lived here for five years before we joined her. That’s traumatic. Yeah.

Amy H-L: [00:04:23] How did that affect you as a young teenager?

Christiana B: [00:04:29] When I arrived, I was 15 and I, at that point, as most teenagers, you were going through a great deal of changes. I had a boyfriend at home. I was leaving my boyfriend to come here. I yearned to be with my mother for many years, but she was asking me to give up a lot. She was asking me to give up my life. And so it was difficult. There was anger, there were misunderstandings, miscommunication. And I also came from a culture and I should say, I belong to a culture that requires children to be compliant and obedient. In this country, teenagers are expected to express themselves. So the messages I was getting were two-fold, right. So it allowed for a lot of misunderstanding between myself and my mother. So it’s a very difficult thing and not easy at all. The separation. Most children experienced it as a form of abandonment. Even though they know their parents love them and they are in communication, not being with your parents is not something children can process and understand, right. And sometimes, even when you’re old enough to understand it on a cognitive level, psychologically, it’s a very difficult thing to hold as a child. It presents a lot of issues for the child being at home because they’re very vulnerable to a lot of social ills. You know, children are vulnerable to human trafficking, they’re vulnerable to abuse and neglect. So there’s a lot that the child has to experience in terms of the parent. There’s a lot of guilt. And the reunification, oftentimes that is what we live for,  you’re right. Both the parent and the child, children live for reunification, but oftentimes when it happens, physically living apart from your parents, you are growing and evolving most of the times though, your parents hold on to the child they left at the stage they left the child and when the, the reunification occurs, the child is oftentimes not there. So it allows for a lot of conflict and unresolved issues.

Jon M: [00:07:00] How can schools and youth programs support students who may be suffering the effects and the aftereffects as you’re talking about of separation.

Christiana B: [00:07:10] Uh, I think schools are very central because oftentimes that’s one of the most significant places that children land. So I think any child that is new to this country should be, should experience the folks who are in authority or in the school system, they should approach that child from a trauma informed perspective, one in which they try to understand the child and have the child tell them their story and tell them what, if any, help they need. For me, I went through a stage, a period of time, where I was extremely depressed, but wasn’t aware of what that was. I often thought about running away and running back home, trying to get back to Grenada. And it would have been helpful if I could speak to someone and thought that that person would understand and would not feel that by sharing my story, I would be risking deportation or I would be risking putting my mother in jeopardy in any way, shape or form. A school is not just a place where people go to learn. It’s a place where everything about that child, it manifests itself.

Jon M: [00:08:42] You know, we’re talking about programs, support for students, but as you’re talking, I’m thinking, you mentioned that the parents, for example, you know, often feel guilt or they may be very puzzled or threatened if their child is acting out. Do you know whether there are structured support programs for parents?

Christiana B: [00:09:08] I don’t think there is. I really don’t think there is. And also the whole issue of whether parents would trust to accept those types of services from an institution is also something that many undocumented parents are concerned about, right. So go asking for help or accepting help from institutions may not be the easiest thing. But I doubt very much there are programs for parents. I think though, and I’m thinking about it, sometimes as an institution, it’s really hard to be involved in parents, such as my mother’s life, because she probably would have rejected it. And I’m thinking more in terms of maybe community education or some form of community engagement that might have worked in her case. Yeah.

Jon M: [00:10:08] That’s interesting because I’m thinking about community education. It’s very different, but it’s a similar kind of issue where I know community-based organizations that are working on issues of domestic violence, for example, in immigrant communities and where it would be extremely difficult to sort of reach out directly to somebody who may be a survivor of domestic violence. But if you have a community program where you’re talking about all sorts of issues, and one of the issues happens to be domestic violence it sounds as though I could see how a community based organization, perhaps more effectively than a governmental institution, could in fact do outreach to people and could say, look, a common issue that we share is X, Y, and Z. And these are some of the things people can do.

Christiana B: [00:11:02] Yeah. I think for the West Indian community, which I’m very much a part of, one of their most significant lifelines is the education of their children and the progression of their children achieving more than they did. And so a program that promotes education might be a program that would make some  inroads in the lives of people, such as my community. Yeah. 

Amy H-L: [00:11:38] Ideally schools, healthcare providers, child welfare agencies, and community-based organizations would collaborate to support children. What do you see as the obstacles to these organizations working cooperatively?

Christiana B: [00:11:55] The mere fact that they are seen, they are institutions, governmental institutions with mandates that do not always center the family or center children, that can certainly be a barrier, certainly. But I do think when they work and when they are experienced as not being oppressive to the community or to the families and when their approach is not paternalistic, they may be, you know, may be effective. 

Jon M: [00:12:37] Are there steps that you’ve seen where, even on a local level, these institutions have been able to work more effectively? Are there structural things that can be done to encourage that since people generally are aware within the institutions that these obstacles exist?

I recall when I lived in New York City, there was an organization in Washington Heights that provided an array of preventive services, right. So the child welfare organization was involved in an indirect way and the preventive services were varied. So it covered afterschool programs. It covered, it included summer school programs, camps, and different things. So families there saw it as a resource to them. And I think, you know, on, on the ground, when you are dealing with communities, those are some of the resources that are very much needed, you know, where  where do my children go after school and what is available for them? Are they safe? Are they getting the academic support that they need? What do I do with my children in the summer when I have to go to work, um, having, camp for them to go to. Those are things that are helpful. Most of the immigrant communities, many of them, have a large number of single parents. And when there are couples, they have to work all day. And so they’re away from their children a great deal of time. So having services available that directly support these families is very important.

Amy H-L: [00:14:37] Teachers and other educators are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse, yet many don’t trust child welfare agencies to respond in ways that support the best interests of children. Given the laws and the pressures on both schools and agencies, is there a way to build greater trust between them? 

Christiana B: [00:14:59] Yeah, mandated reporters sometimes are not able to distinguish between poverty and neglect. And in most cases, it actually, it’s prevalent everywhere, in all the institutions you talk about. And in most cases we are all, we all have policies that dictate if we see something that isn’t part of the norm, and by that, I mean showing up as a white middle-class child would in the school system, there’s something wrong. And another thing that happens is that we oftentimes don’t take a moment and speak to the child. We often times don’t take a moment and speak to the family and get to know the family in a way that builds trust. And so if we see something that doesn’t look right, we oftentimes make that call. And sometimes the policies that are in place, once you start the chain of calling the state central registry, you know, it kicks into gear and it oftentimes end up not in the best interest of the family or the child.

Jon M: [00:16:18] Given what you’re describing, what could schools or child welfare agencies do that might make it easier to earn families’ trust?

Christiana B: [00:16:33] Sometimes it’s very helpful, and I mean, this seems simple, but asking families what their needs are. Like now, you know, I do a lot of research and participatory action research is so key to that understanding. Having genuine relationships with with the community, and it goes beyond hiring people from the community, because I feel, and I have seen that when organizations bring people in from the community and they train them the way the organization is designed and developed to run, we, including myself when I worked in the child welfare system, take on the mandate in such a way that it’s not helpful for the families and children we serve in a meaningful way. And so I think organizations have to change the way they interact with Black and Brown families and immigrant families. I think hiring people from the same community and the same culture is one step, but it’s only it’s part of the solution, understanding the community and developing relationships with the community. I know we had talked before and one of the things I mentioned to you was when I was living at home and my mother lived in the United States, I had an issue with school, and the principal who knew my mother and was communicating with my mother was able to contact my mother and that issue was resolved, right. Um, and even though it was, it was contacting her in a different country because he had a relationship with her and he knew me and he knew my family. I know it’s not possible for every institution to know every family, but having an understanding of the families that you serve from a genuine place is really important.

And giving them the benefit of the doubt.  Black and Brown families don’t get the benefit of the doubt. 

Amy H-L: [00:18:59] Two terms we often hear among educational thought leaders with regard to educators working with immigrant families are cultural competence and cultural humility. Would you explain the difference?

Christiana B: [00:19:17] The way I understand it, cultural competence is about understanding the facts about a particular cultural group and sort of using it as a way to interact with them. I think cultural humility, which also is  letting the person tell you who they are, what their culture is like.  No two people from a particular place or culture are the same. And then there are also so many similarities between people from different cultures. So I think what’s key here is building a relationship with the people in front of you. Um, I am from Grenada. I came here at the age of 15, but I’m not my girlfriend who lived in Grenada all her life whose children came here to go to medical school. You know, we’re two different people even though we’re from the same country, we might describe our cultural background differently. Yet there are lots of similarities. I hope I answered your question.

Jon M: [00:20:34] Yes, you did. How does the work of school social workers differ from that of school counselors?

Christiana B: [00:20:44] That’s a very good question. I don’t know that I know all, because I think in different school districts, they use school social workers differently. School social workers that we train, particularly in our school, many of them have a clinical background. And so in addition to referring children to services, they’re also able to work with them. A lot of it depends on the caseload size, but they’re able to work with them either through individual therapy or individual counseling and/or group. And so oftentimes it depends on the need of the child. You know, it’s a child who has a disability, it’s a child who is exhibiting behavioral problems. What is going on with the child?  And, uh, social workers. I’m not sure that I know what a school counselor does. I’m not sure exactly. I really can talk more about the school social worker.

Amy H-L: [00:21:54] What else could you tell us about school social workers?

Christiana B: [00:21:59] Well, I think school, social workers have to interact with the teachers and the different school personnel, keeping in mind that the children are most important in this. They are part of a team, usually a team that includes teachers and behavioral specialists. And a lot of it, again, depends on the school and their location and their assignment, but school social workers, I think, are able to provide counseling to children and, and reached out to parents while they’re concerned about the behavior and the academic performance of the child. They’re also looking at the wellbeing of the child from a holistic perspective, and they hopefully are trying to educate the other school personnel about that perspective.

Amy H-L: [00:22:58] Do immigrant families tend to have more trust for school social workers as opposed to representatives from some of these other agencies?

Christiana B: [00:23:06] I think they would first, let me say a lot of it depends on the status of the family, the immigration status and the level of trust. I think they may be more likely to trust a school social worker as opposed to a social worker from a child welfare system or anywhere else. But you also have to understand that there are different levels of trust. So that’s another important factor. 

Amy H-L: [00:23:37] Do you think there’s a need for more school social workers in most schools?

Christiana B: [00:23:41] Absolutely. I mean, the social worker is for…  I know when my son was in school, I relied on the social worker to give me a balanced perspective of how my son was doing. You know, for instance, when they wanted to test my son, I chose to test him privately because I didn’t trust the school system. But before doing that, I did speak to the social worker and ask her if she would go into the classroom and observe my son and gave me her perspective. And I trusted her to do that. I also had a relationship with the school social worker, which probably was one of the reasons why I trusted her to do that. And both her professional feedback to me and the testing results that I got from the psychologist that I hired to test my son were similar and consistent as opposed to the school itself. I also want to say that I had the option of doing that. I don’t know that many immigrants do. Sometimes they see the school personnel as an authority and they may not have the option or the resources to get the services I was able to do get for my son. Yeah.

Jon M: [00:25:17] You’ve studied what are often called microaggressions experienced by BIPOC, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. What are microaggressions?

So microaggressions are, is defined by Derald Sue micro insults, micro assaults, and micro invalidations. So it can be something that is said orally or it can be something that is done in terms of someone’s actions. In some cases ,it can be overt or subtle. It, it makes the person who’s experiencing it, who’s on the recipient end of it, feel excluded or inferior. It’s really a form of, in most cases for People of Color, it’s a form of racism, only the it’s subtle.

Amy H-L: [00:26:16] Are these microaggressions always intentional?

Christiana B: [00:26:20] It’s not always intentional because sometimes it’s unconscious and it’s connected in some ways to implicit bias. But in many cases, it is, it can be, especially if you try to correct the person and they continue to do it. Yeah.

Amy H-L: [00:26:39] What are some examples of microaggressions that might take place in schools?

Christiana B: [00:26:44] Hmm. So in schools, it can come from the teacher where something comes up about Blacks or immigrants, where they will turn to you and put you on the spot and make you feel like you can tell us about this group, right. Or in my case, people would constantly ridicule my accent or say things that made me feel like the part of the world I came from was not as important, not as accomplished. It varies, but a lot of it sometimes come from teachers where they’re unaware of their actions or their behaviors. But it’s very painful for children, especially. Sometimes now we’re seeing a lot of incidents where Black people are being killed by the police. So certain remarks that suggest that there’s something wrong with your race, there’s something wrong with your gender. And microaggression also can be related to race, it can be related to LGBTQ, gender and people with disabilities.

Jon M: [00:28:12] John Dewey argued that the most important thing we can teach students is ethical decision-making as constituted by looking at the effect of your actions on other people and on creating a democratic society. Is this framework helpful for teachers and other educators to educate themselves and their students about microaggressions and how to eliminate them?

Christiana B: [00:28:35] Yeah, it sounds to me like it is, it’s more like when I think of the humanistic approach and having the ability to reflect on your actions, cause people do make mistakes, right? We live in a world where we don’t really authentically interact with people that are different from us. And so we will frequently make mistakes, but how do you learn from those mistakes and try not to make it again? So I think, in some ways, the ability to reflect on that, the ability to recognize that you are oppressing someone, you know, and oppression may look different, but yeah, understanding people’s history, understanding why someone might experience a phrase as oppressive. When you’re a teacher, you really need to understand and go beyond the subject that you’re teaching. If you’re working with People of Color, you need to understand who they are and understand that by understanding their history and the history of oppression in this world.

Amy H-L: [00:29:58] Do you have any suggestions as to how the incoming Biden administration could enable schools and child welfare agencies to better support vulnerable children?

Christiana B: [00:30:09] Well, let’s say I’m really excited about this new administration because he has racial equity loud and clear as part of his core principles that he’s going to be following up on, right. So for me, it means that he understands the history of racism in this country and how it manifests itself today in the killing of Black bodies and the dehumanization of Black people, Black and Brown people, and that he is going to do everything to minimize it or address it. And so I’m very happy about it. The previous occupant of the White House recently signed an executive order that required organizations that got federal funding to not teach or train staff on implicit bias and understanding better how their privilege can impact them in ways that would help the marginalized groups. And so I can’t wait to see that get overturned and that we move forward in helping teachers understand that part of their preparation to work with People of Color and marginalized groups is to understand the history in this country of people who are marginalized, who have been marginalized. Yeah. And so I’m looking forward to that. I kind of hope. I hope I answered your question. 

Jon M: [00:31:54] Thank you so much, Dr. Cristiana Best of University of St. Joseph. And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or a review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops and classes. And we work with consultants to offer customized social emotional learning programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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