Embracing Difference & Diversity with Liz Kleinrock

February 14, 2023

Liz Kleinrock (she/her) is a Korean-American, queer, Jewish, antibias and antiracist educator of both children and adults, and creates curriculum for K-12 students, specializing in designing inquiry based units of study. In addition to her work as a classroom teacher, Liz also works with schools and companies to facilitate learning for adults that supports antibias and antiracist practices.

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John: Welcome to another Edition in this wonderful New Year of 2023. We’ve got with us today, Liz Kleinrock. She’s an educator, author, and consultant, and she also runs Teach and Transform, welcome to the impact podcast, Liz Kleinrock.

Liz Kleinrock: Thank you so much, John. It’s wonderful to be here talking with you today.

John: Liz, thanks for making the time. I know the beginning of any new year can always be hectic and busy and we were trying to put this together later last year. And well, both our schedules just didn’t align. So thanks for making time today for us.

Liz: It’s wonderful. Thank you so much. I’m glad we were able to look back and make this happen.

John: Yeah, I’ve had all the honor and the blessing of learning more about you, both of my studies about you, and also listening to you on different podcasts, and watching you on your TED talks. But for our listeners and viewers who are just exposed to you for the first time, share a little bit about your fascinating background so they can learn more about you as well before we get into talking about all the important and great work you’re doing at Teach and Transform.

Liz: Thank you. The first thing you should know, I kind of joke about this but if I just listened to identifiers, it’s definitely a mouthful. So I am a trans racially adopted Jewish queer Korean American woman. I was born in South Korea. I grew up in a Jewish Ashkenazi family here in DC, and I have been involved in education and a lot of different capacities over the past 13 years or so. I have been a classroom teacher. I have taught K through 6 grades. I have been in the Office of Equity and Inclusion at two different schools. I have also been an elementary school librarian. As of May 2021, I’m also a published author for adults. And as of this fall, I’ll also be a published author for kids, and I do a lot of consulting work around anti-bias and anti-racism for schools of all different sorts, for companies, and nonprofits. I’ve worked with religious organizations. It’s really hard to describe what I do in one sound bite. I definitely do not have it down to a cystic elevator pitch quite yet.

John: All the identifiers that you’ve shared were great, but isn’t there a new one too? Aren’t you also married as well?

Liz: Yes, I am also, as of October of 2022, I am married. My husband was born in Mexico. He’s a chef here in DC. And we are young and just very happy in this like post-wedding period of our lives. It’s been great.

John: Honestly, given that I’m much older than you and I’ve been married now, almost 40 years. I have to tell you, Liz. That’s one of the greatest and most fun periods of anybody’s life when they marry the right person, so, first of all, congratulations on your new marriage. And second of all, just enjoy that period as long as possible, as long as you can make it, that post. And then if you’re lucky maybe a lot of 40 Years of post. Scary periods like I’ve had.

So I think that’s wonderful. And as you shared with me, some of the books behind you, are at on some of the topics that we’re going to be covering today such as anti-bias and anti racist teachings that you do, but they’re on food because your husband is a chef.

Liz: Yes. We have a very extensive cookbook collection and the ones behind me are just part of the collection. If you could see forward, there would be a lot more.

John: So if you were going out. I know you live in DC, Almond Fresno today in my head office is, if you and your husband were going out tonight for a romantic dinner, where would you go out in DC tonight? What’s one of your favorite? I know they can never be one. But what’s one of your favorite restaurants together?

Liz: That’s a good question. It’s so hard to choose. A South Asian inspired restaurant called Daru opened here. I think early last year or maybe the year before, that’s owned and operated by a friend of my husband. The food is phenomenal. There are two Korean restaurants in DC, also owned and operated by a friend of ours, Danny Lee, he owns Anju and Mandu. Trust me they’re the only and awesome best Korean food in DC proper. And our friend Nat Adler, also opens up like a traditional red sauce Italian restaurant called Caruso’s Grocery at the barracks neighborhood of DC and we like that one a lot too.

John: Now, I’m hungry. They all sound good.

Liz: I’m hungry too.

John: Well, that’s sound so wonderful and again, congratulations. So let’s get talking today about Teach and Transforming and all your important work and, first of all, for our listeners and viewers want to find Liz and all the important work she’s doing, you can go to teachandtransform.org. Liz, how did you even came over? Your parents adopted you when you were, how old?

Liz: I was about six months old when I came to the states.

John: Six months old and they adopted you. Were you raised in DC area?

Liz: Yup, DC proper.

John: Wow, that’s great. And so, you gave out those identifiers a little while ago and, ethnically speaking, you look Korean but you were raised by a Jewish Family. Were you as comfortable as with Chuseok as you are at Hanukkah? Is that how this works?

Liz: I’m getting there with a comfort around Chuseok and other Korean holidays because they weren’t something that I grew up with. Honestly, the only other Korean people I saw in our neighborhood growing up operated the dry cleaners, a couple of blocks away.

John: Really?

Liz: And there were some Asian students that migrated. I went to the same school from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, handful of Asian students and I think more South Asian than East Asian. But DC is not known for being a hub for the Asian Community, certainly communities at Virginia- very close by. Annandale and Arlington have a much higher Asian population but in DC, it’s known as being historically a black city. So thinking about what it means to grow up as a very visible Asian-American person in a white presenting family and a very white neighborhood of a historically black community has definitely impacted my own understanding of identity growing up. As well as the work that I do, why I care so much about this.

John: Were there other children in your family when you were growing up or were you an only child?

Liz: I’m an only child. My mom has two sisters and my dad has two brothers. And there were other extended family members in the DC area growing up. And so I spent a lot of time with cousins but just in my house. It’s just me.

John: So they were Ashkenazi Jews, so your mom and dad are still alive I take it?

Liz: I get to see them now every week or two, which is really nice. I moved back from California about two years ago. It was definitely a pandemic move but I had been in Oakland for about 10 years.

John: You were on the West Coast for quite some time? I’ve been meaning to talk about that for a little while so I want to talk about that. Let’s go back then. So you were raised mostly in the Jewish faith with the Jewish traditions, and everything else, all wonderful things that come with that, and being a native New Yorker, I get to know those things as well. So many of my friends were Jewish. When were you that exposed to Korea? Have you ever met your birth parents or family? And How has the exposure been to South Korea at all in your young life?

Liz: Growing up, it was really limited. I think there were one or two Korean kids in my grade at school. I wasn’t super close with them. I think my first kind of push when it comes to exposure is an internship I had in my senior year of high school. What I thought for a very fleeting moment, “Oh, maybe I’ll try pre-med in college.” That was very short-lived. But when I had my internship at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital here in the DC area, I was in an office where one of my co-workers, actually three of my co-workers were Korean and was able to just learn a little bit more. I think it was actually the most proximity I’ve ever had with Korean people in a regular basis. And it wasn’t until Senior High School. And from there when I was in college, that’s, I think, where a lot more of the exploration with my identity started. I decided to, I suppose, compensate in some way for the lack of education in understanding I had had growing up. I decided to be an East Asian Studies major. I took at least three full years of Korean language classes. I had my first Korean boyfriend. I tried to hang out a lot with the Korean International students. And I even had my first internship in Korea between my Junior and Senior year of college. So I consider college to be a lot of like me, trying to catch myself up.

John: Sure.

Liz: And it’s certainly not lost on me that if I hadn’t done that only personal investigation and that self worth, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

John: Right. How was your first experience in Korea?

Liz: It was pretty nuts. I remember just thinking how it’s so different to be in a place where I don’t stand out.

John: Right.

Liz: Where in the United States preaches so much about uniqueness and individuality, and you want to stand out. I think, in so many ways, we do and I still do. And there is still something very comforting about being around people who look like you, who share a certain affinity.

John: Right.

Liz: So that was something that I had never experienced until I was about 20 years old. And certainly there were a number of people in my life, both peers and co-workers, I had when I was doing my internship in Korea who were very accepting, warm, and welcoming. And there are always going to be people who are going to say you’re not enough, even though you look like us, you aren’t raised the same way, you don’t understand certain cultural norms, you’re not fluent in the language. Unfortunately, my my college boyfriend ended up in that latter camp, which was very unfortunate.

John: Yeah.

Liz: It was still a good learning experience for me. And I think even going through some of those really uncomfortable situations with people have cemented it even more like my own desire to know who I am and to know that I do belong. Even if other people think that I don’t.

John: That’s right, that’s right. Have you been back since?

Liz: Yeah. Actually, we spent part of our honeymoon in Korea. So we got married at the beginning of October, and then literally a day and a half later we’re on a plane to Korea.

John: No, what?

Liz: Yeah, the first six day is where actually a program that I had applied to and gotten into the Overseas Korea Foundation. And they had opened up this program to 150 Korean adoptees from 15 different countries around the world. And we were all allowed to bring a plus one. So if there are any International Korean adoptees listening and watching this, you can check out Okay Ave[?] Air Korean adoptee program. You’ll have your airfare, your lodging, and your food covered for a six days. You get to meet adoptees from all over the world. And you get to bring a plus one who’s also paid for. So my husband got to come for free too, which was amazing and he’d never been before. It was just a really wonderful experience to be able to share with him, especially as part of our honeymoon.

John: Did he love it? Was it the greatest?

Liz: He loved it. And I’ll be back there next summer also. So I’m really happy to know that I’ll be returning soon because the last time I was there for college was in 2008. It’s been a while.

John: Right. Will you go there on business? Or is that a pleasure trip when you go there?

Liz: It’s kind of both. Next summer, the chores part will be about 10 days with an organization called Asia families. And they also do a lot to support families with adopted Korean children, as well as adult adoptees. So it’ll be really nice to be in another adoptee Community.

John: That’s so nice. One of the nicest and most impactful movies that I watched in the last couple years is a movie called Found. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but it was based on Chinese children who were adopted in United States.

Liz: And so is it about the twins?

John: I don’t know if twins in particular, it might have been in one of the story lines, but it was children who are adopted from China. The parents unfortunately had to give up the children. And they wanted to go back and they went back with the documentary team with professionals helping them in trying to find their their birth parents.

Liz: Wow.

John: With their parents in America. It was unbelievably moving and it was from 2021. I highly recommend it to anybody who has a heart and has a soul and wants of watch just things that were not all necessarily exposed to. So Teach and Transform, and for our listeners and viewers to see what Liz is up to and all their important and impactful work, you can go to teachandtransfom.org.

Liz, what informed you as a child or where along when you’re growing up? Did something inform you that when you became older and had a world of opportunities to go and do other things, even though medical you already had decided wasn’t going to be part of your future, why did you decide to start teaching our youngest and most tender minds in America about the misunderstandings that are surrounding the very tough topics, maybe even taboo topics of anti-bias and anti-racism? How did you come up with such a specific Mission and great calling?

Liz: That’s a good question. And I have to be totally honest, I don’t think it was intentional but also not.

John: Yeah.

Liz: When I talk to students about career idea and I learned a lot about them instead of asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?, “Think about what problem do you want to help solve when you grow up?” But that framework was definitely not presented to me when I was a kid. I think if you would ask my parents, my dad somewhere has a list of jobs I said I wanted. I think I wrote this list on a piece of paper when I was like 11 or 12. And there are things on there like, “I want to be like the next Mia Hamm”, “I want to be a professional flute player for the national Symphony Orchestra”, “I want to be a photojournalist.” All of these things that are so far from what I’m actually doing right now. But I think growing up, I just had this idea that a job and a career had to be some sort of structured 9 to 5, where you go to an office building and you have a boss. But I don’t really think kids these days are really, well, trained is the right word, but are encouraged to think about how you could try to create your own job based on a need that you see happening in the world, right in your community. But when I graduated from college with my VA and East Asian studies, I graduated in 2009. So, pretty much Peak recession. Not a great time to enter the job market.

John: Right.

Liz: I had applied to a couple of jobs through them there because it was really hard to find anything. And in my junior or senior year of college, I had started volunteering with local public schools. I had done tutoring, like after-school art programs, and I just really loved working with students. I really came down to this job with the international Refugee committee, and a job teaching in Oakland. They’re both in the Bay Area and I chose the the teaching path and thought, “I’ll try this on and if I hate it, I’ll just try something else.” But it stuck, and I’ve loved it and it’s pushed me in so many different ways. And I feel like those paths of having some really strong amazing mentors, working with some really incredible students, who really have opened my eyes to so many things that I was just not privy to growing up, has led me down this path where the more I’m able to try to engage young people with topics and conversations that are not traditionally covered in school. I personally found that I had the most success when teaching in that way. And then when a lot of the work that I was doing with kids had gained a lot of attention from other educators through social media and schools asking about training or professional developments. I think, I was and still am in many ways of dealing with imposter syndrome but it was never something that I intended to go out and write books about or wanting to teach other people. I just wanted to be a good teacher for my students. And I’m grateful that I have had a lot of friends, colleagues, and mentors who have fostered what I’m doing, and have encouraged me to go out and share it, because I don’t think that’s something that I would have done on my own. I didn’t think I was confident enough. Everything feels fairly serendipitous too. It showed me that I have made good decisions and it showed me that I am pursuing something that I’m passionate about, and that has yielded really positive results from me. But I can’t say that I set out with a particular course that I was trying to navigate through certain years of my life.

John: I’ve been a serial entrepreneur, social entrepreneur, most of my adult life. And when you look back on your own life, and you’re very young, but still looking back is always a good exercise for all of us as we try to make better and good decisions as we move forward. You sort of wonder, “How do I end up here?” And my mother was a social worker and my father was a serial entrepreneur. So that’s not a hard one. A social worker and serial entrepreneur together creates a, I guess, a serial social entrepreneur. For you, when you were growing up, did you go to public schools?

Liz: No, I went to an independent school from pre-k to 12th grade. Same school.

John: And how was your experience with regards to the diversity in that school, and how the other kids and also teachers treated you?

Liz: Well, because I was going to school mainly in like the 90s that early to mid-2000s, I think it was still very much this race evasive mentality, where you’re taught not to talk about people’s differences. Or like, say, “I don’t notice race”, “I don’t pay attention to that” and I think that’s what you were supposed to do. I would say that diversity at my school was pretty surface level. Kind of like on an admissions brochure kind of way, where if you open up this pamphlet, you’ll see kids who look different from each other. But when it came down to it, a lot of it was fairly homogenous. And I think talking to friends now in adulthood, friends who came from financially under resource backgrounds, that was a really big challenge for them to navigate this institution that was full of such wealth and privilege. When it came to political mentalities, granted it was like a very liberal progressive environment and that is how I identify. And I still think I could have benefited from teachers and peers, who pushed me to think a little bit differently. I didn’t meet a republican my age until college because I went to school in St. Louis Missouri. So, when you’re in the Midwest, you’re going to come across people from like a lot of different backgrounds. And having conversations with friends I made from places like Arkansas, Iowa, and Arizona, really pushed me and really taught me that like, “Oh wow, I think that I have this like steel proof opinion or argument.” And I really don’t at all because I’ve just been preaching to the choir for most of my life. I’ve never really been pushed to critically engaged with other people.

John: That is so interesting, and like you said, it was like one of those pro forma United Nations type of look on how everyone look. Was there a lot of discussion?

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Liz: Yeah, I think the joke my friends and I would say is that we look like a Benetton ad.

John: I was going to say, “Oh Liz doesn’t know Benetton.” But I’m glad you said it. You’re right. What was it called, United Colors of Benetton or something back then, right?

Liz: Yup.

John: What did mom and dad do, by the way?

Liz: My dad is an architect. He says he’s going to retire but that still has not happened yet. And my mother is an epidemiologist and she retired in January 2020. So her retirement did not start out the way that she thought it was going to.

John: Wow, she retired in one respect, you could say at the perfect moment and what, who’s making you say, it’s a non perfect moment. So you must have a lot of fascinating discussions with her about what really just happened, and what’s going to happen in the future with regards to Covid and other potential pandemics?

Liz: Yeah, I mean for one thing I think that’s the first time a lot of people realize that her job even existed, like, “I could have been an epidemiologist before.” that’s all we’re talking about. I think she wanted to do spend time with friends, travel, and get involved in community organizations. And because when the pandemic hit, she wasn’t able to do any of that. So I feel like now and a little last year is when she’s been able to explore that a little bit more. She started taking piano lessons on Zoom, which I think is really cool.

John: That’s really great. That is so sweet. And that just goes to show you that people could stay relevant their whole lives. People who were curious, life Learners, that’s such a great way to be in life. And they say those are the people that have actually longest and the best lives anyway.

Liz: Yeah, I think my parents really modeled that all idea of lifelong learning, like my dad is a professional artist. He’s an architect, he’s had many shows about his paintings, he goes printmaking, he builds furniture but he still takes art classes here in DC. My mom is taking music classes. My dad actually encouraged me last year when I was really stressed out. He said, “You need to do something that exercises the other part of your brain that isn’t being used for work.” So I started taking Ceramics about five months ago, and I really love it. And I start up again next week, actually, and that’s a great.

John: That’s so nice, good for you and good for your parents. What great role models. Talk a little bit about the primary mission of Teach and Transform. You and I are in an elevator now. We’re on the ground floor, we’re going to the 60th floor together, and I say, “So Liz, what do you do?” And you tell me, “I run the Teach and Transform, I created Teach and Transform.” And I say, “What is that?”

Liz: Well, I’d also say, “It’s just me.” It is an organization that one day, I hope to be able to grow that focuses on increasing equity and inclusion through anti-bias and anti-racism practices. We try to respond to the uniqueness of every community because there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to anti-bias and anti-racism work. That looks like in some ways like audits of what’s happening in a community or in a workplace. It’s thinking about particular sessions or professional development on specific topics. Or working really long term in thinking about how we can shift culture within an institution to try to make it as welcoming as possible, and also trying to mitigate harm for others as much as possible.

John: And the children that you teach are mostly 1st to 4th graders?

Liz: I taught K through 6. Most of my experience has been teaching upper Elementary. I’ve spent the most time in second, third, and fourth grades. Middle School was was short but I really enjoyed teaching middle school. It’s a good age group.

John: And why do you feel it’s important? Why is that a great age to be reaching them on these critical, and like you said before in other talks you’ve given another literature that I’ve read, sometimes tough, sometimes taboo topics of anti-bias, anti-racism and things. Why is that the right age group for you to be touching them and informing them?

Liz: I think especially around third, fourth, and fifth grade, from my experience working with youth, I find that kids around that age are really able to start exploring abstract topics, which is really nice and they’re still a little egocentric, but they are certainly developing this understanding that they’re part of something a lot bigger than they are. When I work with adults, I talked a lot about this process of learning and unlearning. I think the unlearning is often harder and it’s often a more necessary. When we think about everything that we’ve been exposed to throughout the course of our Lives. How those experiences and relationships impact the biases that we have and how we treat other people. And with the younger kids there is certainly the unlearning that needs to occur but there’s still a lot less of it than there is than working with somebody who’s like my age or like my parents age. Kids are just really curious. I think that they often don’t have a lot of the shame or hesitancy that were socially conditioned to fall into when it comes to topics around identity, things that are deemed too political, or things that we’ve seen other people, maybe respond in a negative way to. Kids are just curious. I always will say that kids are exposed to the exact same things that adults are exposed to, but we don’t give them any context or any tools for guidance on how to navigate these topics or conversations. If you have the radio or a podcast on in the car and you’re driving your kid home from school, your kid is still listening. They might be picking up bits and pieces of it, but it’s important to contextualize it. If you’re having a discussion about politics around the dinner table, your kid is still listening to that too. You actually have no idea what they’re picking up on, what they’re making sense, out of what questions they might have. And I think being able to have these spaces that are structured that invites children in to ask questions and try to figure out, “How do I ask this in a respectful way?”, “How can I ask something without an enormous amount of judgment?” or “If I hear to something that’s really harmful to other people, is there anything that I can do about it?” And I’ve noticed that with kids who tend to be a little less interested with the more traditional subjects in school, when you start talking about current social issues, they are engaged in a way that they never are when it comes to like a very traditional. Like math lesson or reading or writing lesson. I think they just had this layer of complexity and interest to what we’re doing.

John: Your Ted Talk was very powerful but what I thought you did so brilliantly, was at the end. You amalgamated the commentary feedback from your students. And you showed a sign that the end of your Ted Talk that I believe said something close to, “If I’m off, please, correct me.” We could think the same way you do.

Liz: I remember that. Lucy? She’s in high school now. It’s so weird.

John: That’s very powerful stuff. Talk a little bit about why you wanted to stick the landing of your Ted Talk with that thought and that commentary, and leave your audience and viewers with that important message.

Liz: Because I knew my audience was going to be predominately adults and even though, yes, kids are younger, it doesn’t mean that we have to intentionally infantilize them in certain ways. It doesn’t mean that we have to talk down to them because kids notice that and they don’t respond well to it. They like being patronized as much as an adult would probably like it. And I think we tend to forget, as adults, what it was like to be a kid. It’s not like our consciousness shuts off at a certain time, and we get reprogrammed with adult thinking. We’re the same person. We evolved over time and truly for a lot of people who say like, “Oh, you know, this is, It’s too advanced, it’s too complex. We should just let kids be kids.” Okay, at what age then, would you like to flip the switch on and say, great, you’re going to be a critically engaged person in our society. You’re going to be an active citizen. At what age is that supposed to happen? As we know in schooling, when things are presented through a lens that combines a lot of different topics and issues rather than just presenting an idea in isolation, it’s going to stick a lot more. And so what I really love to do in my teaching is thinking about how can I do what I need to do as an educator? I still need to teach things like, Reading, Writing, Math, and Science. Absolutely. But instead take this lens that through I’m which I’m teaching these subjects, I’m still hitting my standards, my learning objectives with kids. But I’m being really intentional about the text that we read, the questions that I asked, or the ways that I ask kids to communicate or collaborate with one another. How I asked them to express their learning rather than just standing in the front of the room talking at them, telling them what to think. I know int my big piece and that talk also was, we’re not trying to teach kids what to think, we’re trying to teach kids how to thin. I know that I should leave these days because schools and libraries have been under so many attacks from people who paid to say, “We’re indoctrinating kids.” I think for many educators out there who are really committed to their students, you’re not going to be standing at the front telling your kids, “This is what I think. So, I’m just going to fill your head with all of these ideas.” Because even during presidential elections, if my kids ask me, “Who are you voting for?” They might be able to figure it out, but I’m never going to tell them who I’m voting for. Even when I’ve had students who have been really intense Trump supporters, and my class not shutting them down, not shaming them, pushing their thinking and asking for explanations as to why you might say a certain thing or believe a certain thing, but it’s really about trying to make sure that they can back up what they’re saying. If they have a different opinion from the pier, how can you express it in a way that doesn’t cause harm to another person too.

John: Now for our listeners and viewers who just joined us. We’ve got Liz Kleinrock with us today. She’s an educator, author, consultant, and much more. She’s the founder of Teach and Transform. You could find Liz and her important work at teachandtransform.org. Liz when I was growing up many years ago, and I was in grade school at PS 94 Queens, New York. There was no Liz Kleinrock. How was the acceptance bin of your work as a teacher, as an educator, by the other educators that are teaching children at your school as well?

Liz: I would say that it’s been far more positive than negative. There are always going to be people who don’t see why it’s important or maybe the content makes them uncomfortable. So therefore, they don’t want to do it with their students. But I do think that especially since the Resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, that happened to the spring and summer of 2020. That there is an increased understanding that this is something that is necessary, that we need to really grapple with. I think a lot of it, disagreements, just come from people not being on the same page of how those issues are supposed to be dealt with. Like what is the best course of action here. I think that there is a lot of curiosity. There’s a lot of desire to do the right thing, and unfortunately, I still think that there’s a lot of fear surrounding it too. Or people don’t know what to do. They’re afraid of making mistakes or messing up, which is a very natural part of any sort of growth or learning process. But the stakes are really high so it makes people uncomfortable and I understand that. What I really tried to get it in my work is acknowledging the discomfort that many people feel and also not letting that be an excuse for folks to opt out.

John: You brought up Black Lives Matter and the protests during the pandemic. Has teaching these important but tender subjects, pre Covid and post Covid, changed in terms of level of Engagement, topic matter, and level of interest level, from the children themselves?

Liz: I think that students now are coming in with a lot more background knowledge and understanding that they were pre Covid. Kids would often start with being able to engage in class if they had a personal experience, if their identity connected to one of the topics we were discussing, if their parents talked about this at home. These days, it seems like kids have a lot more exposure to conversations and issues around social justice topics. Where I find that kids know more and more coming in, which is really nice. In that way, you don’t always have to start from square one. And there are still kids who come in with very little background knowledge. So, in some ways, it’s also hard because the gap in understanding is also very large too. Because kids who come in knowing a lot want to continue in pushing their own learning and understanding and other kids need a lot more support of understanding, like the basic concepts. I think that there is a lot more intentionality with schools to recognize that schools will always call like a DEI, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work because a lot of schools I think are too scared to actually say, we’re focusing on racial justice or anti-racism. They don’t actually wanted name the word “race.” But if you go into like any school’s webpage these days, you’re going to find a DEI section of the web page. Which is something that I don’t think really happened as much pre Covid.

John: Interesting, and by the way I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with our listeners and viewers, Liz is not only teachandtransform.org but she’s also a great author. This very important book is a great book “Start Here, Start Now,” which is great. Liz, why did you write this book? And what’s your intention with this book? For our listeners and viewers who are interested in bringing more of what you’re teaching to their Community.

Liz: I really have my Instagram and social media community to thank for how this book came out. I started my Instagram, also my handle is @teachandtransform in 2015 maybe. It was really because I was sharing all of this work that I was doing with students on my personal Facebook and Instagram account and just figured, “Wow, like I bet a lot of people on here don’t actually care about teaching.” I would really like to try to create some sort of portfolio or maybe I can be connected with other like-minded educators.  So I made this other account and started posting more examples of work. Pretty much everything that I post on my social media is something that’s been originally created. So I was sharing lesson plans, examples of student work, and anchor charts that we were making. And I got more and more questions from teachers about like, “I want to be doing this to, where do I start like, what can you recommend?” And so when I had this opportunity to write this book with my publisher, and just figuring out that it’s a really big topic. What should be included? I asked folks on my Instagram, “Hey, if you’re a teacher out there and you want to be doing this type of work but you’re not, why are you not?” And I had a couple hundred people respond to it. And based on those responses, I sorted them into themes. Those themes became the focus for each chapter of the book. At first, it was supposed to be framed around on how you overcome these barriers, but throughout the writing and editing process, I talked to my editor, “Wow, this actually seems like too negative. This is not just focusing on like the issues that we think prevent us from doing in this. But rather, how could we set ourselves up for success? How can we be proactive?” So there are chapters about how to set yourself up for success when working with your school administration. If you think your principal’s not into this, or if you’re worried about parents and caregivers pushing back, what can you do? Or if you feel like you just don’t have enough time in your school day, like most of us do. What can you then do to try to work these things into the subjects you’re already teaching. My two favorite chapters, one is making space for difficult conversations in your classroom because that is something that came up a lot. “I’m afraid a kid’s going to say something racist and I’m not going to know how to respond to it or I get a nasty question, I don’t know how to react.” And then also having a chapter of focusing on students that are white. Because I’ve heard from a lot of schools, especially in very racially homogeneous areas, there’s not a lot of interest for this work because we’re an all white community are almost all-white Community. People just don’t feel the need for this or are super worried about hurting white children’s feelings. So taking a lot of those very common themes, I wanted to create this book based on successes I’ve had in my own professional journey, as well as interviews with other educators who have taught in different schools and locations. It’s meant to be very hands on. It’s meant to be very applicable. I wanted teachers, who pick it up to be able to implement something tomorrow if they wanted to.

John: And how has the response been, since you wrote it?

Liz: It’s been really good. I was really scared because it’s essentially like the first ten years of my teaching, career wrapped up into a book, and that can be really scary and very vulnerable to put yourself out there in that way. And also knowing that the activism community can be very harsh too. If you write something and someone decides the wording is undesirable or problematic, that’s it. You don’t know how people are going to respond to it so I’m glad that the reception has been really positive and I’m super grateful for that too.

John: It’s actually almost a little bit of what your dad does. Art is the same way. You create art, and book is art . It’s really artistic in many ways. Writing is a form of art, and you don’t know what the response is going to be but you put it out there and with all the best intentions and you hope the reception is gonna be well. But obviously Liz, I’m on your Instagram site. Now you have 170 thousand followers. Obviously what you’re doing has resonated massively. I said this to you off the air, and one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the show was I know I don’t have the ability, we don’t have the ability yet in society but maybe one day we will, of cloning people. As a business person, you want to have the next big thing but you don’t want to be too early. You don’t want to be Myspace, you want to be Facebook. And it seems as though you’ve really, like you said, “Part serendipity,” and anyone who’s successful who doesn’t give luck its due is not being frank with themselves. And you right up front said, “Part serendipity,” but it seems to me that these issues that you’re covering are now getting more media attention than never before. When I was a child or young man, were these kind of issues covered in the media with regards to, what the ex-president said, or what Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby’s done, or some of the most recent comedians that take their art and take it into a way that has become controversial, not to say it’s not art but somewhat controversial and raise these topics. So it seems as though you making sense of these very important issues and sharing them and teaching our youngest and most open and tender Minds about them, the timing couldn’t be better as a society goes.

Liz: Thank you. I wish it wasn’t so needed.

John: I know. That’s true too but since it is, thank God there is you and what you’re doing. And again for those who want to “Start Here, And Start Now”, Liz Kleinrock’s book ,is the 10 year compendium of all of her information, teaching her first 10 years. But you brought up social media and we talked about your Instagram a little bit, talk a little bit about out though, the challenges that I didn’t have to deal with as a child, you’re now teaching these young and impressionable minds. But they’re also now only exposed to what mom and dad say, and their friends say, and the media says, but they’re also subjected to this new and numerous platforms of social media. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, the list goes on. How does that make your job more challenging or easier so to speak? Because they’ve already been exposed in their open to learn more about these very interesting but strange topics.

Liz: I think the exposure can be such a beautiful thing. I think a lot about my queer students, especially my trans and non-binary students, that there are such incredible queer communities that can be found online and if you feel like you are the only person of a certain identity where you live or where you go to school, being connected on social media makes you feel far less alone. It could be really validating if you’re struggling in that way. It also means that unfortunately students and children are exposed to lot more misinformation, but so our adults. And I think what we see now is this really need for very explicit critical media literacy, teaching, and instruction in schools that unfortunately all of us of our generations and above completely missed. It just didn’t exist and it’s really hard to educate children about something that you don’t know and something that you haven’t experienced before. It means that I’ve done a lot more lessons about what does it mean to have a digital footprint? The stuff that you post on Instagram or TikTok when you’re 13 years old, might sound really funny. But you know, when you’re 24 and searching for a job, is it still going to be as funny? How’s that going to age? Understanding that what you write on the internet actually lives forever because the kids typically do not have a great sense of time or concept of what “forever” actually means.

John: About when you’re 17 applying to college?

Liz: Yeah, that’s a whole other thing. “You used to do that ,ew?” And using those is an example for kids because that is a little bit more immediate and tangible. It means that we’ve had a lot more explicit conversations about trying to determine sources when it comes to information. Like, how do you check the source for bias? What are ways that you can spot misinformation too? So unfortunately, something that our former president did was popularized this term “fake news”, where I’ve heard students kind of throw it around jokingly. I’ve heard them use it in more serious ways like, “Oh wow,” that’s just something that also people now tend to say when presented with a piece of information they don’t like. So how do we have conversations around that as well? It’s really complex. Also, knowing the packaging of social media messages, you have what a 30-second reel or like a tiny Instagram square post, or like a certain character count on the tweet. It can be really hard for not just kids but anyone to understand that because the workaround anti-bias and anti-racism is really complex. And not everything can fit into a reel. Not everything can fit into this perfect little sound bite. So sometimes I see very complex topics being watered down a lot to fit into that packaging size. I would say, one other plus thing though is, because I do operate mainly on Instagram and social media and I’m used to these little bite sized chunks of information, is that I know that I’m getting even better at breaking down complex topics into smaller pieces, which can be more easily digestible for kids. So that’s certainly one thing that that’s been positive coming out of it but it’s hard. And as my partner and I think about starting our own family, navigating devices, and social medias. It’s all very new. We’ll probably just figure it out as we go along.

John: Talk about ant-bias and anti-racism. What is one of the most common misunderstandings that are out there that you try to help, teach, and rectify in the classroom?

Liz: There’s so many things. I think the people seem to understand that this work is uncomfortable. What I think a lot of people don’t think about often enough is that how the discomfort is so necessary. And a lot of the lessons that I do at kids, I’ll ask them to think about a time where maybe they learned a new skill like, you learn how to ride a bike or you learn how to swim. Chances are, you’re going to swallow some water, you’re gonna cough, and splutter a bit. You’re going to fall off your bike and get some scraped knees. And those are necessary parts of the learning process. No one just hops on a bike and gets it right the very first time but don’t shy away or back away when you have those moments of discomfort. I think it’s also important for folks to know that this work is nonlinear. It’s not like there’s a curriculum or something for scripted exercise, where everyone starts at the same starting line and we end at the finish line, and then it’s done. That’s not how this works at all. Because a lot of folks I worked with in schools, some who are more resistant will say, “Well, I’ll do it for like the PD but like when I go home like I have no interest in this, at all.” And I think that can be really challenging if you think that this work is only supposed to exist between 9 and 5. It’s not going to go well. And I think if you switch any other identity, if you are a white woman and you decide, “This work makes me uncomfortable, I will do it at work but I don’t care about it in any aspect of my life.” How would you then respond if a man said, “Well, I’ll I could think about gender equality and sexism at work because I have to, but I don’t care about it in my personal relationships or on the weekend or anything.” It probably wouldn’t stick very well. I think a lot of folks will say it’s just for adults. We’ve talked about that a bit. I think a lot of workplaces often get this wrong where they’ll say, “Well, we have a department or an office of DEI. We have a director or officer of DEI so we’re good.” But if the work only lives within one person in your organization, if that person leaves, then you’ve done nothing pretty much. It’s really about thinking about building long-term capacity. It’s about shifting culture where everyone is involved. We’re not just saying it’s this one person’s job or responsibility, and also that it exists in every single field. I have still been toying with this podcast idea. I really want to spend some time talking to people in lots of different fields to show how racism and bias shows up in every single career path. I found articles about racism in the lives of Coroner’s, like people who deal with, you know, quirks and has experienced racism or Reese’s biases towards like the people who are recently deceased. It exists. One of my friend is really involved with a dog rescue community. Then she talks about racism that occurs there, as well. It’s everywhere. It permeates everything. It’s not just school, it’s not just politics. It is, it’s everywhere.

John: Well, you brought it up. So let’s talk about that issue. The media has covered more unprovoked attacks on the Asian community in the most recent years. It’s even say since Covid more than ever before, at least it’s been covered. What do you prescribe to this rise in unprovoked, horrific, and tragic attacks that have been on the Asian community? And frankly, speaking mostly woman who are attacked by men. What do you see or when you’re connecting dots or thinking about these very big and important topics, where is this coming from? And where are we going?

Liz: Good question. I know that there were many who had knee-jerk reactions and said, “Oh, it’s because our former president was saying, like all these like, you know, racist slurs and, you know, racist puns and whatnot when it came to covid.” But the fact is that this type of racism has existed in the United States forever. As long as Asian people have been in this country, this has been something that’s been going on. I think if we look back at some of the very long lasting stereotypes of Asian people. One of the longest standing, is this idea of like the Perpetual Foreigner, always being asked, “Where are you from? You don’t belong here, that your otherness shows that you are meant to be somewhere else.” I think combined with like the social and political landscape, especially between US and China relations, doesn’t help it at all. As well as the enormous erasure of Asian and Asian-American History in our schools. That one of the lessons I did with my students during API month, I asked them if they could name up to three, Asian American people, either from history, or present day, and out of all of my students, I had six periods of kids. I think the pie chart came out to only about 7% of my students said they could actually do that. Most, the other said, they were not able to. So if there’s no visibility, if people don’t even understand the communities that we’re talking about, ignorance breeds ignorance. And so I hope that we can see more states try to include things like ethnic studies in their curriculum, being explicit about including Asian American representation in history, and that way people can start doing that big unlearning process. It’s a thing that we’re going to have to do collectively.

John: Well, since you said your husband is a chef and your delicious food books behind you that I’ve been staring at besides when I’m in this conversation with you. I’ll go back to the late, Anthony Bourdain. I still love him and I still miss him. And how he made us want to be wherever he was, because not only of his study of the delicious food, street food, and other grandma type food that he would experience in these beautiful and magnificent countries that he got to explore and then share with us. But he also never shied away from the social political situations, historical or current, that existed in those countries or cities that he was visiting, and the mixture and the melting pot of all of those topics just made every viewer with a heart fall love and want to be wherever he was, and be with him enjoying it at the same time. So when you go back to your very wise comments that you just shared about the feeling of otherness and also the lack of knowledge of traditional Americans. Here’s a couple things that I want you to think about, and I want our listeners to think about. Only about, give or take, 39% of all, Americans have a valid passport today. So it’s very low rate of passports, number 1. Number 2, numerically speaking, about 30%, or more of those folks have been to either Canada, Mexico, or South America, and most likely Europe. 7% or less have ever been to any part of Asia. So, when you think about the lack of understanding, there is this legacy intrinsic xenophobia that exist in our history in America about, “The Boogeyman” China. Chine then gets literally washed into every other society, unfortunately, but it goes again the lack of knowledge or you want to call it ignorance, benign, or whatever, it’s still ignorance, and everything gets thrown into that “China Pot” of “that’s evil” and therefore it’s dangerous, and therefore I’m not going there. So the lack of understanding, love, and for those who haven’t been in her thinking about it, obviously, just go because you don’t know about a society, culture, and people until you just go and smell their air, and walk their streets, and eat their food, and meet their people, and get the real joy and pleasure. And I’ve had 30 years of since ’93, I’ve been going to Asia. It’s been one of the greatest parts of my life. And I’ve shared it with my nephew, my son, and soon my daughter, and granddaughter are going to come with me on a trip. But the lack of knowledge of what’s going on there, which this then fanned by leaders and common media figures. Nancy Pelosi just did it when she went to Taiwan. Donald Trump did it while he was president. And during the the Covid period in blaming Covid on Wuhan, and all that other kind of stuff. It just deepened our fear and xenophobia. Unfortunately, Liz, you said you lived in LA. I got to live in LA during one of the most tragic moments in American history. What was then called the Rodney King riots, which have been whitewashed and now call the LA riots. One of the things that aren’t not talked about, and I lived it, I saw it with my own eyes and ears. It wasn’t so much of an attack on black on white and white on black during the Rodney King riots. What it was war and attack of the African-American community on, specifically, the Korean Asian American community in LA, and other communities. And the festering hurt feelings, hatred, and other bad things that we’re going on between those communities that became incendiary during the riots themselves, which sparked an outbreak of crime on crime. And people say, “Really? That really happened.” I’m like, “Oh yeah.” And the scars and hurt feelings are still there. And then when I got to meet with, I got to co-found Homeboy Industries, Father Greg Boyle post riots, and we got to meet with African-American leaders and Latino leaders and something called Rebuild LA. Peter, you brought his running. A lot of the African American leaders that I met with told me back then, there was a systemic hurt feeling that day, the African-American Community back then didn’t understand why the Korean American community and other Asian American communities have come to America, post, they’re coming to America, and had achieved much more of what was perceived to be the American dream in terms of education, In terms of professional careers, monetary enrichment, political awareness, media awareness, and political piece of their part of the American Pie. I always think back to those days in the words of others that knew much more about me, sociologically speaking, I still feel that that goes on today, and I still feel that that’s part of why we continue to see very overt tragic criminal behavior against the Asian American community in the United States. Does any of that make sense to a much younger person like you, who’s much more educated than me on these issues?

Liz: I think there’s a lot of complexity wrapped up in that because unfortunately anti-blackness has been in part of pretty much every Community out there. Clearly, the Asian-American Community is not exempt from that. I would also say that in the historical context of the Rodney King riots, thinking about many of the Korean people who are immigrating from Korea to the United States, and something that we have seen very typically with lots of different groups that have immigrated to the US, is being able to identify immediately who is considered at the lowest rung of the ladder who is treated the worst by our society.  And what can we do to distance ourselves from that group as much as possible? And I think there’s no question about that because our entire country, our economy is based on the enslavement of black people, that when folks come over to the US and say, “Wow, black folks are treated the worst. We want to make sure that we’re not treated like that.” Does it make it okay? Absolutely not. Also knowing that many of the Korean people emigrated from Korea and during that time period are also dealing with the trauma of the Korean war too. And it’s certainly not like folks in the US that see them as black, white, or any race, are being educated about that trauma or that experience. And the same way Korean folks, were coming over from Korea are not educated about the legacy of enslavement or systemic racism in the United States. So it’s not part of the curriculum they have. And so you have all of these people with different amounts of historic trauma, some of which is very fresh, many are still living every single day, put into the same neighborhood, the same community, with complete ignorance and misunderstanding of one another. And then to combine all of that, we’re set up in a society that is, for the most part, very much governed by white supremacist’s values and mindsets, where a scarcity mentality is thrust upon us. Where we think if one group is getting some sort of assistance or recognition, that means that my group must be missing out on this. And in the case of the riots that happened in the early 90s, folks thinking, “Okay, there’s only so much justice to go around and another community is getting something, and that means that we’re not.” And we still see that every single day here too. We see it all the time with the Black Lives Matter movement, and how many folks unfortunately will respond to that with All Lives Matter. And it’s like, “Yeah, we know that and if you’re able to say that then you should understand that black lives matter.” Why can you not say that? It doesn’t mean that you’re missing out on anything else. So combining all of that, I truly think that mutual ignorance is the cause for so many of these racially-charged issues that we see, both today and in our country’s history.

John: Great way of putting it. I never thought of it that way. And you’re right, unfortunately, you’re so so right. And that’s why I wanted you to make sense of it because you may better sense of it than I did. Mutual ignorance. And like you said the zero-sum mentality, “if someone’s getting that, I’m getting less or nothing,” is, of course, not correct but it’s how things are perceived here in the United States. When you talk about the Korean American war though, I go a little bit further with that. They were coming here. They were not just about the Korean War, but that was actually a Korean genocide that they were escaping from, many of them.

Liz: Absolutely.

John: And because you were raised and see yourself as both Asian-Jewish, which is fascinating, I have this discussion all the time with my Korean friends and business partners, and which, because I grew up a little neck two towns over from Flushing, I got to see that first wave, and I got to see the massive success of the Korean American Community here in America. And I have a lot of Korean Partners as well in Seoul, but it’s fascinating to see also the balancing act of how things have turned out in terms of the Holocaust versus the Korean genocide. I’m Armenian. And so, my people survived the first genocide of the 20th century. And so my discussion with my Jewish friends and my Korean friends gets to be a little bit interesting about genocides in that, Koreans and Armenians are very aligned on genocidal issues because they have unrecognized genocides. So the trauma, scars, and wounds are still open. Whereas, it doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the Jewish inside the Holocaust, but theirs at least was recognized and there’s a way to move forward then when something’s recognized, and they some sort of healing that can happen. So, it’s always interesting talking to my Korean friends in Jewish friends and comparing on, again, the mutual ignorance that goes on. And also some awareness that happens around when a genocide, or any harm is recognized, by anyone that’s created trauma, or harm and they at least recognize it. I think there’s a point where there could be some sort of closure. Talk a little bit about teachers who are trying to be responsible in terms of equity and inclusion. After all these years of doing the great work you do, you’re the go-to person. These teachers that are listening and watching the show. What would you tell them when they’re trying to be responsible, wherever they are in the world or in the United States, on equity and inclusion? What’s the best advice you can give them besides buying your great book?

Liz: I would say that you are absolutely going to make some mistakes, and that’s okay. And that you can start small, you can find one topic, one book, one lesson, that you really want to try to shift your lens and how you’re approaching this with your students. It doesn’t mean you have to throw your entire teaching practice out of the window. Because I think that’s what a lot of people often think, you have to totally reinvent the wheel. I think teachers who care about this work are probably already doing a lot of really great things. So it’s sustaining positive practices that are already happening, and choose a one place to also get started.

John: Tell us a little bit about how you’re not only the author of this book, but you have four more books coming out. Talk a little about when those books are coming out and what their topics are, Liz.

Liz: Sure. So they’re all kids’ books. They’re all coming out with HarperCollins. Three are picture books. One is pretty much non fiction. The first one that comes out is going to be on the September 5th, it’s called “Coming Out Are Celebrated All Year Long” because I have done a lot of public speaking out about the importance of decentering Christmas, and Christian holidays and traditions in school. And to note that decentering does that mean erasing. It doesn’t mean ignoring. It’s just to mean that we can recognize that we often create social hierarchies based on cultural dominance and to be mindful of that, in the language that we use.

John: So, I missed that one. We had a little technical glitch. What was the name of that first book coming out?

Liz: It’ll be called, “Come And Join Us.”

John: Got it. Wonderful. And that comes out this September?

Liz: Yeah.

John: Wonderful. Then what comes out after that? What’s your series going to look like?

Liz: “January 2024” is a book that I worked on with my friend, Joanna Ho, who is the incredible author of “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.” And “Eyes That Speak to the Stars”, which are the first firming look at East Asian physical identity. And the third book in that installment is going to be called “Eyes That Weave the World’s Wonders”, and it’s about an Asian girl, who was adopted, who notices that her eyes don’t look like as the people in her family. And it’s pretty much just the story of me and my parents, and it makes me cry every time I look at it. I’m really excited for that.

John: Have your parents read it yet?

Liz: Yeah, they definitely cried too.

John: If you’re crying, they have to be crying. Got it.

Liz: And then the one that follow that are two books of the same theme. Right now the title is “What Jewish Looks Like”, it’s a biography book where we highlight the lives of 30 sick Jewish people who are diverse across every identity. Because I grew up hearing a lot of, “Well, you don’t look Jewish,” So trying to push back against that bias and that type of stereotype. I’m co-writing that with my friend, Caroline, she is absolutely amazing. And then the book after that is the picture book version of that first one. So the first Jewish book is for more like middle-grade audiences and the second one is for a more elementary school audiences but same topic.

John: Liz, and for a listeners and viewers to learn more about Teach and Transform, of what you do. You also not only are a teacher, and obviously a prolific author, but you’re also a consultant. What is your consultancy look like and your public speaking look like?

Liz: It looks like [inaudible] ones for districts. Non profits to large national corporations, as well as religious organizations. I’m trying to get a sense of what does their community need? Certainly I see more of the, I call them the One and Done type, where they want you to come in and talk about a topic for like 1 hour and that’s it. I definitely prefer being able to build long-term relationships with clients because you’re not going to 60-minute anti-bias trading your way out of hundreds of years of systemic issues.

John: Not in one 30 minutes talk. 4 hour. So do you do your consulting in your public speaker as well, besides being a teacher.

Liz: Yes. I’m not teaching full time this year. I’m focusing more on the consultancy, speaking, and writing more. I actually just submitted a draft of my first stab at a middle grade novel to my agent. So, fingers crossed.

John: Wow! That’s awesome. And any final thoughts before we sign off for today you want to share with our listeners that our viewers?

Liz: Just appreciation that you’re still listening at this point. There are so many amazing podcast and conversations happening out there and just a lot of gratitude that you chose to spend this time with us.

John: Well, thank you Liz. And like I said to you at the top, and I said to you off the air, I’m very grateful for you as a person, we need more of you doing the impactful and important work that you’re doing. And for those who want to learn more about Liz, you go to teachandtransform.org, or you buy her book, “Start Here, Start Now.” Liz Kleinrock, you are making the world a better place. I’m grateful for you as a human being, continued success. I look forward to having you back on and sharing more of your books that come out and sharing your journey. You’re so young, you’ve got so much greatness in front of you, and thanks for being a guest today on the Impact Podcast.

Liz: Thank you so much, it’s wonderful.

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