Educators in Tacoma recently came together to protest against systemic racism.
Now, many teachers are challenging their school districts to reform curriculum to become more inclusive. Specifically with anti-racism education.
Obtaining education has always been synonymous with liberation and empowerment. However, for Black, Indigenous and People of Color our education system perpetuates systems of oppression and rewards white supremacy constructs.
We have to realize that Black and people of color have only been integrated into public schools alongside White children within just the last 60 years. Until the late 1960’s most Black, Latina, and Native American students were educated in segregated schools.
Many were also completely excluded from attending higher education institutions.
And while Black kids have been physically integrated, the same cannot be said about honoring and respecting their history and culture.
Where does that leave our Black and Brown kids today? Unfortunately, the school curriculum has not adapted to meet the needs of a diverse community of children with different backgrounds, languages, histories and traditions.
Working for this kind of inclusivity will be a process that begins with recognizing colonialism and the damage it has caused.
To understand more on how the educational system can work towards dismantling racism we spoke with Kayla Stewart, a woman of color, and Program Specialist at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). OSPI is essentially Washington’s educational department responsible for creating and enforcing policies in K-12 public schools.
She says, “We set the boundaries districts can operate within. Washington is a local control state which means districts can control how they work with students, communities and parents so long as they are within bounds.Therefore, there is a lot of variability in how districts choose to operate.”
Kayla has been actively demanding changes by challenging local leadership to speak up and address racism within our schools.
“I wanted them (UPSD Superintendent and Mayor of University Place) to call out the racism we face in our communities…and let people of color know we are here for you, we understand what’s happening, and we’re wanting to work with you to come up with solutions,” she voices.
Along with other community members, Kayla proved the immense influential power people have when the University Place School District finally responded to their concerns and criticisms.
Now, the UPSD website has a section dedicated to providing resources for anti-racism and made the following statement:
[Education can help us understand and end racism. We commit to educating students by improving our curriculum and providing additional professional development for UPSD staff.]
Without racial literacy our education is incomplete. Without antiracist education and training we fail our students and communities.
So, where can we go from here?
Here are 8 key ways Kayla believes we can make lasting changes in and out of the classrooms:
1. Hire the right people. All of us have been educated by White teachers. Who in turn have been educated by White teachers. It’s a white-washed cycle that lives on repeat.
Kayla reveals, “I worked in Tacoma Title 1 schools and we had maybe 2 or 3 Black staff members in a school where Black students made up 80% of the population…One year we had a Black Vice Principal and I could just see an instant shift in our kids, our parents and the community as a whole.”
Is there a shared understanding of inclusivity amongst your school’s staff? Are internal racial biases addressed and criticized? Is your school working to recruit and retain Black educators?
2. Talk the talk AND walk the walk. We need to have educators who are willing to confront our history and fight for racial justice.
“At every level there is a way to talk about race…there’s plenty of scientific evidence showing kids being very aware of race from a young age,” she notes.
3. Diversify textbooks and library resources. There are so many diverse writers covering wide ranges of studies including history, arts, culture, philosophy, and more. And yet, there are not enough resources and texts written by BIPOC authors within our schools.The limited texts featuring such authors are usually a side-bar “these people also contributed.”
There should be more than one chapter on slavery.
There should be more on BIPOC successes, heroes, and inventions that have shaped our current economy, government and environment.
There should be more accurate depictions of the genocide of the Native Americans and Africans.
And we’re only skimming the surface.
4. Hold our government responsible. It is past time to decolonize our curriculums and the best way is by demanding policy changes.
In order to have a real policy shift we need to hold our governments accountable for implementing anti-discrimination legislation, legal mandates for inclusion and policies to remove barriers.
Kayla asserts, “We’re really looking at our policies and procedures from the social justice and racial equity perspective and being really critical on ourselves about it.”
We have proven time and again how powerful we are when we use our voices and unite for a collective vision and goal. Teachers, parents, principals, and communities are highly influential in determining the school curriculum. We can create a culture of inclusion and assert our children’s right to education.
5. Elect school board members who are actively anti-racist. Unfortunately, there is racism and oppressive practices at every level of the education system, and school boards are not excluded.
Your school board is responsible for overseeing, managing and advocating for the needs and desires of their school districts.They also establish policies to keep schools on track with the goals they have set for their students.
To fully embrace anti-racist education, the board members responsbile for creating the framework for your school’s direction, culture and curriculum need to also be or work towards being actively anti-racist.
Board members are leaders and therefore have immense influence and power in creating an environment that values and supports anti-racism.
6. Require Anti-Racism Training for School Staff – Every school has funding for continued professional development. Why is anti-racism training not a part of this when white supremacy and white privilege is so prevalent?
“You have those teachers that are sending Black students out into the hallway for misbehaving just because they don’t know how to handle the behavior,” she says.
Statistics have shown Black students are suspended, detained, demerited and isolated in schools for trivial things every day at a severely disproportionate rate to white students.
Inclusion means schools need to have the right training and resources to teach students with diverse needs and learning styles. Especially for students who face racism, marginalization, and exclusion.
7. Leave police at the station. Or atleast outside of schools. School officers are supposed to prevent mass shootings and crimes–but are they actually making schools safer? Statistics answer with a resounding N-O.
For students of color, the presence of officers has a profound negative impact on their education, safety and future. According to many studies, students of color are more likely to be harshly punished for ordinary misbehaviors than their white peers. If you’ve heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, you know exactly why this is so concerning.
Many times students who have been “disciplined” (read as: humiliated, berated, detained, surveilled) by police at school will have their first contact with the criminal justice system soon after.
This kind of criminalization and excessive disciplinary actions practically groom children for containment by pushing them into the criminal justice system at alarming rates.
While Seattle has promised to remove officers due to students and staff feeling unsafe,Tacoma schools are still in the process of evaluating their contracts with police.
8. Empower students. Let the youth speak. Their voices need to be heard and their pain, experiences and questions acknowledged.
Kayla urges educators and the youth to, “Open up conversations. It doesn’t just have to be in the classroom, there are huge opportunities in after school programs to have these dialogues.”
When students feel like they’re being heard and valued at school they will succeed better academically. Students should feel empowered to call out microaggressions and racist rhetoric.
School reformers and activists will need to band together to make our schools a place of liberation and empowerment for all. Not some.
As Langston Hughes once famously penned, “America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath – America will be!”
Let’s do better. Let’s school better.