Two side-by-side headshots, from left: A white woman in a red dress with a black headband and a Black woman in red lipstick and a patterned headwrap. Above them is the lettering "Cultivating Inclusive Space through Education with Karen Thomas."

Cultivating Inclusive Spaces through Education with Karen Thomas – Episode #10

Think of the people in your life. What makes them who they are? And, how can you honor their unique preferences, experiences, and needs while still holding space for yourself? In this episode of Care Work, Karen Thomas, the content facilitation manager at Ethos, a former K-12 teacher, and an adult educator of parents with transracially adopted children, talks about how her own life experiences and direct work with kids and parents taught her how do just that.

Episode Show Notes

Press play for a deep dive into:

  • The importance of balancing what you can and can’t control
  • How to navigate  the multi-layered trauma of transracial adoption among parents and kids
  • What it takes to create safe spaces for every learning style
  • What changes the education system needs to make to support true equity in learning

Important resources from this episode:

Connect with Karen Thomas:

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos –


KAREN: Wherever you are at and who you are with and what things you are dealing with, create that space. You don’t have to go out and find something else. Like, you can do it right where you are in your community, in your family, with your friends, at work. Whatever is currently happening, create space for healing through that so that you can move forward with it.
ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda Wolfe. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
Take a moment to think of the people you love and value most in your life. What makes them who they are and how can you honor their unique preferences, experiences, styles and needs while still holding space for yourself? In this episode of Care Work, Karen Thomas, the contents facilitation manager at Ethos who also happens to be a former K through twelve teacher and an adult educator of parents with transracially adopted children, talks about how her own life experiences and direct work with kids and parents taught her how to do just that. Listen to this episode to understand the importance of balancing what you can and can’t control, how to navigate the multilayered trauma of transracial adoption among parents and kids, what it takes to create safe spaces for every learning style, and what changes the education system needs to make to support true equity in learning.
ALIDA: Welcome, Karen. I am very excited. As I was telling you a little bit before we got started, I love interviewing folks on the Ethos team because I get to ask them about stuff that we don’t get to talk about day to day. So, I’m specifically interested in your approach to care work, and I am looking forward to being surprised. I’ve been surprised every time I’ve interviewed other team members, so I’m thinking that’s going to be the same here.
KAREN: Well, I hope I can keep up that standard.
ALIDA: I want to just start with the basics. So when you are asked what you do, you regularly describe yourself as an educator. And I would love to get a sense from you of what does it mean to be an educator?
KAREN: To me, being an educator is teaching, and that could be anything. And then I think the other side of that is also constantly learning. So, constantly learning whatever I’m teaching to try to become an expert on that, in hopes that I can break it down in ways that help people learn better. And then I think also learning my audience and whoever I’m teaching. So that’s kind of like on the spot learning. There’s some prep you can do to it to understand how brains work and all that. But that’s a lot of, um, holding space, managing folks, and being super responsive. Learning is a huge piece of educating.
ALIDA: I think it’s interesting to me to hear you say that, because you’ve also been in so many different types of educator roles. So you’ve been a third grade teacher, you’ve been a teacher of other teachers. You now teach folks within organizations. You’ve also taught parents specifically of transracially adopted kids. You’re teaching in all of these different spaces. Do you see any differences or similarities in those multiple modes?
KAREN: The biggest difference that pops into my head is just environment. Like, when I was teaching third grade, I had a classroom. I was very intentional about cultivating culture, and I had the autonomy to do so right? Like, when they walk in my door, I curate all of that based on them, and they obviously contribute. The teaching that I did for teachers was actually very similar. The teaching I do now is bit different because it’s, um, shorter periods of time. It’s usually through zoom. There’s a little bit of cultivating there, but there’s a lot of things I don’t have control over for folks to come into the space. And I found that to also be with parents that adopted transracially. So, that’s the biggest difference that pops out to me is environment.
ALIDA: I noticed that you use the word cultivate a lot when you describe all of these environments and physical spaces. I’m interested in it because cultivating seems to be a theme in your life. So I know that you have been a gardener, you’re a long distance runner, but your running is really tied to the community that you’re cultivating in the group that you’ve sort of organized and connect with. And then you have literally been cultivating people through teaching for the entirety of your career. So talk to me about the role of cultivation in your life.
KAREN: I think I like using that word because it’s something that’s created together on the spot and is super flexible. Usually. Like yes, I have intention to make a very specific environment, especially for children or for people who are learning with me, but that often doesn’t go as planned, and that’s okay. That word, to me, brings, like, here’s our intention, but it will morph depending on like, what happens and who’s in the space. And it’s funny that you bring up gardening, because I guess I never really thought of that as a piece of that. But it’s the same, right? Like, I have an intention to plant these plants. I have an intention that the weather will be a certain way at this month during this time, but like, depending on all of those things like, that never really happened. So the garden looks very different than what I drew in the beginning of the season, but you still reap so many benefits from it, and it’s still fun. I still learned. We still grew together. And you carry that learning to like, the next garden or to the next classroom or to the next group of folks that you’re working with. So cultivation, I guess, is never finished or never fully started. I guess it’s kind of just like, always happening.
ALIDA: I know that when you introduce yourself, you usually name three identities. You say that you’re transracially adopted. You say that you have been a public school teacher for most of your career, and you say that you’re a long distance runner. And all of those, interestingly, have very, very tangible relationships to space. I would love to talk a little bit more about those identities, why those are the ones that come up for you, what they mean to you, and maybe how this is related to your relationship to space.
KAREN: I think they have all developed me into who I am today. Like, how I show up are deeply rooted in all three of those aspects of my life. And I have done work in all aspects of those. Running I use, I think, to stay connected and grounded in the work with transracial adoption and educating, which now is in diversity, equity, inclusion work, and belonging work, which is high stakes and very heavy. And so I use running to stay in these realms, um, in a healthy way. So as self care and running and transracial adoption, I think, have a unique connection that maybe isn’t apparent to most people. I grew up in a white family, in a very white community. I moved back to that community because I needed support with my daughter, and my parents are still here. And so as I started running as an adult, I realized I’m running alone in a community I don’t feel safe in. And I didn’t really have access into any of those running groups. And so out here, like, I could see people running, but it was usually during the day when I’m working, and very different, and I also didn’t feel safe.
So right before the pandemic, I went online, instagram, and found some black running groups, and they were all in the city, and I showed up. So one, going to a space where I felt like I was taken from the black community by myself was huge for me. I did a lot of work in therapy to be able to be like, this is what I want, this is what I’m going to do. Went, met a lot of people, and from there, it just spiraled into me being entrenched in this community of black runners. And so, like, finding my space there has been life changing in everything. So that connection is really unique, and one kind of drove the other. Like, I’ve always been a runner. It’s something that actually helped me thrive here in the, um, community I grew up in. Like, I’m the only one that went to states or nationals, and so it gave me some space here growing up that maybe I would not have had. And so for that to come full swing and do it the opposite way, is kind of special.
ALIDA: I think understanding the connection, too, between sort of the importance of your running communities and this relationship between being a runner and a transracial adoptee. If we go back a little bit, maybe we can talk about what is transracial adoption?
KAREN: So transracial adoption is basically just when a family from one race adopts a child of another. Typically in the United States, it looks like white families adopting black or brown children.
ALIDA: What does it mean to you to be transracially adopted?
KAREN: I think it means a lot of things. So this is how I describe it to parents, is adoption usually always has an element of trauma and separation, right? And so that is just a fact of adoption. There are beautiful sides to it, too, but that is one very real side that does not get talked about a lot. So we have that, but then there’s this extra layer of race, so this extra layer of not belonging, so being taken away once and then being taken away again. So I always call it like a double layering effect that parents who do this really need to understand to be able to support their children best. And so to go back to your question, I think it’s trauma, I think it’s complicated. I think it can be beautiful. I think it enforces communication in ways that people don’t have tools for or understand. Yeah, and I think it takes a lot of learning and healing, which I guess when we talk about trauma and healing, that’s kind of that relationship of, beauty and not so beautiful in one, and both are necessary, or both go together no matter what.
ALIDA: It strikes me as a really unique way of offering care because you’re essentially, as someone talking to parents who are adopting transracially, teaching them how to parent? In a way? You’re teaching them how to care for kids in this very vulnerable space. And most likely, you’re also offering them care as they prepare for this major life transition. I feel like this might be a really good entry point to talk about your care work. And maybe we can start with what do you teach parents, both who are adopting transracially, but also parents with kids in your classrooms? What do you teach them about caring for their kids?
KAREN: I think at the root, it’s teaching children to know themselves and then to be able to have space to allow others to know themselves. So what that looks like in a classroom would be, how do I learn best? What are my goals and how do I advocate for those? To my teacher, to my parents? How do I know when something’s not aligning? As parents, we have large goals for our children often, and sometimes that doesn’t align with the child. And if we’re never teaching our children to figure out their needs in that situation, lots of other things come up and gets very complicated as they grow older, which is a really familiar story that I’m sure we all know and probably have felt from our parents. When you put that into the context of transracial adoption, it’s really understanding and helping your child understand their needs, since it won’t be represented inherently in the culture that they’re being brought up in.
So socialization is super important, and that’s just basically saying how we understand the values and how to operate in our communities. And so it looks very different for different folks. And specifically in my situation, for white and black people, it is very cultural differences are very different. And then on top of that, both of these cultures are operating in a system and have to operate very differently in systems. And so I have siblings. I have two brothers, um, but one brother is adopted and is also black. The other one is white. And my parents also had another child ,um, biologically and so she’s also white. And so what they were giving all of us really benefited my, Katie and Scott, their biological children, but didn’t benefit Kevin and myself in the same way, because our society views us differently.
And my parents, not realizing that, didn’t know how to socialize us that would meet our needs. I mean, we were socialized. It was harmful to our inherent needs as black, biracial children in this world. And so I think having parents understand those pieces are important and understanding needs, even if, like, for my sister, my white sister and my mom, that’s important too. There are needs there that my sister had that my mom may or not have had. Um, and so learning to teach our children to listen to their needs and advocate and talk and communicate is super important.
ALIDA: Well, it sounds too like there’s this implicit challenge in all of this, which is how do you teach a parent to help their kids know themselves if the parent themselves doesn’t know who they are? I’m sure you’ve encountered that. What do you do in a situation like that?
KAREN: In a situation like that, especially if I’m talking to parents who’ve adopted transracially, it’s a lot of, that’s like a therapy realm. You need some professional help to kind of go through and determine what are your patterns? Why do you have these patterns of operating? Because that often will then lead you to some of those core needs that weren’t met for you. And also, learning how to listen to those core needs is a skill that has to be practiced and is not easy. So, I’m 37, 37 years of practice of not getting those needs met, is a lot of patterns around that that I have to break down and bodies are adaptable. And it’s hard for me sometimes now to figure out what I need. I have to really practice to stay still and to listen and to see how that manifests for me. And so it’s a lot of internal work. With that being said, you know, there are some things that we can do, like set some structures and some best practices to support an immediate to make sure that some of these things are happening while at the same time parents are maybe doing some internal work or shifting some things for themselves.
ALIDA: I think you’ve also had a consciousness of whose needs maybe aren’t as likely to get met. So I’ve heard you talk about becoming a teacher and really wanting to advocate for your students, especially because you knew when you were in school that you were having to really stretch and adapt to fit the classroom as opposed to having your specific learning needs met. So how did you do that? How in your classroom did you make sure that you were listening, understanding, putting things in place for your kids to make sure that they could have the best conditions to learn?
KAREN: It was a lot of handing over pieces of our environment to the kids. I mean, I think realizing that this is not my classroom, this is our classroom, and so what does it actually look like? And so doing a lot of like, call and response type activities to reinforce memory and to help folks feel included. And for me, so what Alida is referring to is I’m also dyslexic, and I did not actually know that until I was an adult. Um, but like, I struggled through school. I probably didn’t read, read until fourth grade. My mom would, like, have me listen to books on tape so we could get through it. I was put out of the classroom all the time to do work I didn’t understand. And so school was not an easy place for me. And then on top of all the racial issues that came along with that, which is what I usually attributed it to at first, until I learned that, like no, I actually learned differently. That was a huge piece of it. And this whole time I’m thinking, well, it was because I’m a black girl, and that is what I was told, that I misbehave and that you know, I have attitude and that this is not a space for me. And so I learned that through my daughter, actually, which then let me have some grace. So having practices that allow all kids to participate no matter where they’re coming from in a lower stakes way is super important.
So call and response. Lots of chart paper. I didn’t buy posters. We made them together. And we had, like, a chart cabinet where they would all be so you can go back and reference it at any time. We did, like, circles in the morning where kids were part of the check in. Like, we all shared and people knew how to share. I mean, it was really, like, conflict management. So if some big problem did come up, we could all come back and we would be used to speaking in the circle. But doing that daily, allowing kids to kind of dictate where we learned, like, we had standards, but allowing their input, like, here, here’s what we’re going to learn. See what’s interesting and what kids input. And then going with that. Kids love to share what they know. So if a kid would share something, bringing that in, like making sure I noticed that and bringing it in immediately. I also made sure, and this came on this was not my first few years of teaching, but this came on a little bit later, too, is having them really understand. Like, I have to grade you, here’s what this means. So we did a standards based so, like NP not proficient. Okay. What does not proficient mean for you as a learner? What does it mean for me as your teacher? And then what do we do with that information? So we had like, very clear signs up, and we talked about all the time and made it kind of not a shame place. Like, I’m not proficient in this yet. Why? And then what’s our next step? So it’s never just like, you’re not proficient and we have to move on. So taking time to like, no, we’re talking to humans. These are humans, and they need to.
ALIDA: Understand where they’re at, it seems like that idea of not proficient yet, that yet, what do we have to do? What needs to happen? Why is that happening? Even though we’re talking about it in the context of third graders, it seems like when you’re talking about antiracism or you’re talking to parents about transracial adoption, or when you’re leading sessions on equity, which you do now all the time. That frame is so extremely important. And also the frame that exceeding expectations doesn’t mean there’s no work to be done or there’s no more learning to be had. It just means that we have to talk about perhaps how the learning could evolve or change. How do you bring that lens or perspective into your work now with adults?
KAREN: Yes, well, especially when we’re talking about race or identities and being together in community, which is typically what we talk about now, and how to do that best, you’re always learning. I mean, there is never a point where you’re like, I’m excelling. And I think people that do this work know that because there’s so many pieces to it, there’s so many different types of people and different needs. And that shifts based on context. That shifts based on a time in someone’s life. That shifts based on their new understanding of who they are. And we’re always constantly coming back to like, okay, we’re here right now. This is where we are. What do we need to do to keep being in this space productively? Or whatever the end goal is? And also understanding like, our brain and how we think and how emotions work and how trauma works and how patterns work, I think is also really important, which I didn’t mention, but that was also a big piece that came prior to kids being able to talk about, like, all right, I’m not proficient here’s where I need to go, is understanding the brain first. This is how we learn. And so it kind of takes that personal emotion out of it in a good way, like the shame part out of it. Like, here’s how our brain works now. We can have the conversation about where we are and why we operate that way, and then we can have this conversation about where do we go, what do we need to adjust.
ALIDA: I think that we have a real opportunity here to talk about sort of this moment of transition in your life, because we’ve just talked about how you’re applying so much of what you’ve learned in teaching kids to now teaching adults and actually navigating a lot of issues directly now that were sort of under the surface in the classroom. And so the place that I want to go to is, you left teaching. And it’s an interesting story. You leaving teaching because you are someone who did not burn out on teaching itself. So normally, when I talk to teachers, including on this podcast, there gets to be a point where they have a sense of maybe depersonalization with the kids, where they’re just like, okay, I know that I’m burnt out and I can’t do this anymore because now I see the kids as my problems and not as the people I care for and serve. But that wasn’t you. You didn’t feel that way. You didn’t have that transformation. But you ultimately decided you couldn’t have the impact that you wanted because, even if you were creating and cultivating this beautiful environment within your classroom, you weren’t with these kids the entire time they were going through this school system. So what were those elements that you wanted to impact? And ultimately why did you decide to try to do that in different ways?
KAREN: Yeah, you’re right. I was not burnt out from teaching. I love teaching. I miss teaching every day. I left because I was not feeling like I had the impact that I wanted. And you’re right, it was structural and it was the system. And I was on committees you know, to restructure curriculum and DEIB committees and having these conversations and didn’t see a lot of change. And so I think what really got to me was, I’d have these students for a year and we get some progress, but then the next year it wasn’t guaranteed that they would have a classroom that would honor and foster and have them thrive. And so then what do you do with that? Like, that was really hard for me. And our system is extremely harmful to students and I’m going to say all students and then specifically to black and brown students, or students who have different ways of learning. And so working in a system like that and being a part of it became very burdensome to me. And that is the piece I couldn’t handle.
ALIDA: I love that you are calling out specifically the students who are most impacted because often what we say is underserved. We say that they’re coming from underserved communities. And the question that comes up is, okay, so what isn’t being served to them? What aren’t they getting? And so what is the school system doing to harm kids today?
KAREN: I think the biggest thing is not fostering spaces for critical thinking. And I say that hesitantly because I do not mean that teachers are not fostering critical thinking skills in their children, because they are and they’re working very hard to do so, in a system that is very, very broken. And I want to bring it back to the system. I mean, the system is huge, obviously, and this is a wide range, but it goes from how we fund schools, right? That’s part of the system that doesn’t serve students everywhere. It’s the fact that we have private school versus not private schools too. And like, who is deemed to have the best of the best. And how does that show up? Well, it shows up in resources and it shows up in how students are managed within a school. It shows up in what are they exposed to? It shows up into what does the school actually even look like, smell like, is there running water that they can drink from? What does the food look like? I mean, very basic needs. And so that all goes back to the larger thing of like community where some of these communities are from.
So that’s one way, I think, that it doesn’t allow for critical thinking. Right. You need to have needs met first. Also, in what does a curriculum look like? What is deemed important for students to know and why? Is it for a test? Who are they seeing in their books? What are they not seeing? What topics are chosen to be talked about? Are these kids invested in those topics or not? So there’s another piece and then I think in understanding how students learn, and what they need to learn is another piece that educators need to be educated about. When I came out of school and it’s changed this is many, many years ago. It has changed.
But I think I hear a lot of the same things. Like, I was not prepared to go into the classroom and deal with 30 kids needs that are all very different, right? Like, I didn’t have enough education on all the specific ways of learning that I would need to fluctuate through thinking about that. And that’s a lot for one person. I say that a lot. I’m like, well, we should never expect one teacher to be able to do that, right? So why don’t we have structures where there’s multiple teachers in a room? Like, you know, and again, it goes back to money and all these things. But this is why, I mean, it’s a system thing, and it’s not built for all kids to thrive, especially kids that are an oppressive system specifically for them.
ALIDA: I always like to follow up some of these hard truths with hope for the future, optimism for the future. And I know that that’s a place that you lead from, too, because we have talked about specifically being based in Chicago. It’s hard to talk about education and education reform without talking about Eve Ewing. Part of what I love about Eve Ewing’s work is that she’s an Afro futurist. And she is somebody who is thinking about all of the potential to unlock and all of the gifts and all the knowledge and all the wisdom that exist in kids that we typically talk about as failing on tests and not hitting graduation rates. And so I’d love to ask you a little bit more about what you see either in Eve Ewing’s work, because I know you’re a big fan of hers, um, that is hopeful for the future, or also just where you see potential for learners in our communities into the future.
KAREN: Yes. Eve Ewing is definitely a hope in the future. Um, and she does it so gracefully. So I really appreciate all the work that she puts out. And I think one of the things I really love about Eve Ewing is that she can talk about these hard truths, but do it in such a beautiful way that it helps you understand and it helps you listen and it engages you and makes you feel like you want to have an investment in something. And she does that through her poetry. She does that through how she moves in the space. I mean, if you’ve seen how she dresses and presents herself. A very grounding and calm force if you’ve seen her talk. And so our world is very ugly, especially in education world, but there’s a lot of beauty, and I think you need to hold those together. So it goes back to the trauma and the healing. They’re very intertwined, and so is the ugly and the beauty, right? And so, I think she does that very well in how she presents her work and how she talks about really hard things. To me, we’re stuck because we haven’t looked at anything. We haven’t really grappled with the trauma, and so we can’t heal. And so I think, to move forward, we need to like, heal. And I think that takes learning and unlearning.
ALIDA: When you think about people listening today, how do you invite them to make the world more beautiful?
KAREN: So, I think I’ve done a lot of thinking around that. Actually, you know, coming out of education, I felt a little lost in my purpose and you know, had to get a little bit more grounded. And so I think I’ve been working on my why. Um, and so I think what I would like to leave with listeners is creating space for healing so that we can all enjoy a meaningful and expansive life together. So I think whatever that means, because there’s a lot of space out there, and there’s a lot of different places of healing. So, wherever you are at and who you are with and what things you are dealing with, create that space. You don’t have to go out and find something else like you can do it right where you are, in your community, and your family, with your friends, at work, whatever is currently happening, create space for healing through that, so that you can move forward with it.
ALIDA: The takeaway that I have is to listen to this episode again, [LAUGHTER] um and write out some of the things that are really staying with me, with others who may feel the same way. Where can they find you, Karen?
KAREN: That’s a great question. Um uh, I’m on Instagram. You can find me at K period Run. You can find me at Ethos Talent. My email is on the website, and if you’re in Chicago, hopefully you can find me running in the streets somewhere. So say hi.
ALIDA: Well, thank you so much, Karen. It’s been a pleasure.
KAREN: Thank you, Alida. It’s been great.
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.

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