What Gives You the White of Way? How Seattle Public Schools Educators of Color Are Fighting Back

Seattle Public Schools, home of some of the most egregious racial disparities in the country, a district who claims to “unapologetically” serve “students furthest from educational justice” in their Strategic Plan, “Seattle Excellence”, is apparently trying to solve their institutional racism by attacking their own Ethnic Studies Program and the educators who have built it.

The Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG) consists of 21 K-12 educators and community members, only 4 of whom are white educators. Despite the rhetoric in the Strategic Plan’s stated goal of recruiting and retaining educators of Color, district “leadership” has attacked this group, largely womxn of Color, repeatedly since Superintendent Denise Juneau has taken over.

The most recent attack was placing the Ethnic Studies Program Manager, Tracy Castro-Gill, on administrative leave based on false accusations – a convenient way to remove her from her position – on the eve of the National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. This is significant since the ESAG is the group responsible for the curriculum used by SPS educators during the week and Tracy has always been the point of contact for questions and guidance. This is just the latest in a long line of targeted attacks against Tracy and the ESAG.

The ESAG has put themselves at risk for the sake of their students. They are classroom educators of Color who see the trauma white-washed curricula and racist teachers and systems put their students in daily. They have demanded an apology and received nothing but silence. History has shown that when people of Color, particularly educators, demand respect, demand to be valued, demand a racially just education for their students, the system will always shut them down – even when that system purports to be working toward racial justice. We’ve only gone from physical violence that students suffered demanding Black studies and ethnic studies in the 60s and 70s to emotional and psychological violence against educators of Color and their students.

This is being shared for all those districts thinking about implementing ethnic studies and all the educators fighting for it – a cautionary tale: What Gives Them the White of Way?

To Seattle Public Schools:

The Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG) is united in finding SPS, and specifically, the district office to be a hostile work environment. Harm perpetuated against the Advisory Group’s Educators of Color and Allies needs to be rectified. We are henceforth abstaining from our work for Ethnic Studies with SPS until the following conditions are met to provide a “safe and welcoming environment” as per Equity Policy#0030 Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity:

1.   The immediate reinstatement of Tracy Castro-Gill as the Program Manager of Ethnic Studies.

2.   A public apology is issued to the ESAG for the district’s treatment of its members which includes, but is not limited to, appropriation of our work, diminishing our efforts, and disregard of the workload in relation to staffing. 

  • Dr. Kinoshita and Tracy Castro-Gill worked to create a website to host the curriculum for the Ethnic Studies Program, spending in excess of $50,000. While Tracy was on vacation in February, 2019, she learned that a white woman in the Communications Department had taken over the work of the website at the direction of Carrie Campbell, Chief of Communications, disregarding the months of research and development the ESAG put into creating the website. Not even Dr. Kinoshita knew about this takeover. When Tracy wrote a letter to Superintendent Juneau imploring her to take notice of this blatant act of systemic racism, Superintendent Juneau called Dr. Kinoshita to chastise him for allowing Tracy to send the email to her and forced Dr. Kinoshita to reprimand Tracy. The blatant act of systemic racism has not been addressed to this day and the Ethnic Studies Program still has no means of disseminating the curriculum created by the ESAG.
  • When the Board of Directors questioned why Ethnic Studies was not moving as fast as they thought it should, Superintendent Juneau called Dr. Kinoshita and Tracy Castro-Gill into her office in the spring of 2019 to question them about the lack of progress and ask them why they weren’t holding principals accountable for obstructing the work, despite the fact that principal oversight is not within the scope of their positions. Superintendent Juneau then chastised Tracy for her blog posts that called out district obstruction of Ethnic Studies work instead of addressing in any meaningful way the obstruction itself.
  • After the Ethnic Studies Math Framework went viral on conservative media in September of 2019, Tracy Castro-Gill was receiving violent, hateful, racist messages and phone calls. Tracy was asked to do several interviews, but after these interviews exacerbated the harassment, she asked to stop the interviews. Dr. Diane DeBacker indicated Tracy must move forward with the interviews as part of her job description. Meanwhile, neither the Superintendent, nor any member of district leadership, offered any type of support for the emotional, racialized trauma Tracy was experiencing, including not providing a public statement of support of the work the Superintendent claims to value.
  • In November of 2019, the Executive Director of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction and the Literacy and Social Studies Program Manager met with Tracy Castro-Gill to create a plan to write course descriptions for Ethnic Studies courses that would provide graduation requirements for high school students. The ED then held a meeting with high school department heads regarding this effort, purposefully excluding Tracy from the conversations and ignoring the agreement to have the ESAG work on the course descriptions. This was the final offense that precipitated Tracy’s Medical Leave due to the explicit racism she faced in her hostile working environment.
  • During the time Tracy Castro-Gill was out on Medical Leave, her supervisor, Dr. Diane Debacker gave the go-ahead to work around the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group to write the Ethnic Studies course descriptions being offered in the upcoming High School course catalogs. Before going on Medical Leave, Tracy’s explicit direction to Diane was that she was to consult and work with the ESAG to write them. The ESAG was not consulted until Diane Debacker and Caleb Perkins, with less than a week’s notice, imposed themselves on the ESAG’s monthly work group (December 12th, 2019) derailing the previously set agenda for over an hour. It was at this meeting that they informed us that they had (1) assembled a group of educators to work on the Ethnic Studies course descriptions and that (2) they did not vet those educators for training in Ethnic Studies, Racial Equity Literacy, or Culturally Responsive Teaching while the entirety of the ESAG is trained in a minimum of one of these. Neither Diane Debacker nor Caleb Perkins were able to provide adequate answers as to why they did not do so. 
  • Superintendent Juneau engaged in gaslighting behaviors at the January 8th, 2020 school board meeting in which she implied and suggested that the ESAG was to blame for not meeting deadlines and completing high school course descriptions. In reality, the ESAG has never missed a deadline and there was no agreed upon deadline in relation to High School course descriptions. She also neglected to be truthful to the Board and public about the appropriation of this work by Dr. DeBacker and Dr. Perkins.
  • Superintendent Juneau has never reached out to, or engaged with, the ESAG with the exception of an unannounced appearance at the ESAG’s monthly work meeting on January 9th, 2020 to chastise and investigate our work. This unannounced and unasked for power play effectively derailed the set agenda and goals of the day for over an hour. When confronted with these truths and a request for apology she replied, “I’m not prepared to do that today.”
  • The Ethnic Studies work plan developed by the Ethnic Studies Program Manager in conjunction with her supervisor(s) was written and designed with the understanding that the budget includes funds for additional staff in the department. However, to date, Supt. Juneau has not hired additional staff, nor has she met with Tracy to discuss the possibility of a staff despite assuring the ESAG she would when she disrupted our January 9th meeting. Furthermore, she communicated to the Program Manager that there were no funds to hire additional staff while communicating to the School Board and Youth Council the opposite. 
  • When questioned by the ESAG about the staffing of the Ethnic Studies Department the Superintendent remained noncommittal and also floated the idea of a “consultant.” ESAG needed clarification on the role of a “consultant” as the E.S. Department is already led and managed by a nationally recognized leader of Ethnic Studies at the forefront of the movement. When pressed about the purpose of a consultant, neither she nor Dr. Debacker could provide an adequate response or reason. 
  • To date, the ESAG is an unpaid (no stipend) work group in the district creating curriculum and developing Anti-Racist and Ethnic Studies PD. SPS provided Hourly pay to Curriculum Writers in the summer of 2018 and 2019, but has not chosen to compensate the Advisory Group’s work for the past 3 years.

3.   SPS immediately begins efforts to hire a minimum of TWO staff members for the Ethnic Studies department as the workload demanded and needed by the district far exceeds the capacity of any one individual. Ideally FIVE staff are needed. This is not an unreasonable request since the Literacy and Social Studies Program Manager currently has 5 staff for two subjects and Ethnic Studies is a K-12, interdisciplinary program that includes all core curricula and the arts. Continued refusal to pursue additional staffing is nothing short of sabotage to the program. This effort should be overseen by School Board Members and the Youth Council to the district.

Until these conditions are met the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group will cease and desist on all work for the Ethnic Studies Department of Seattle Public Schools. However, we will not be ceasing or limiting our efforts with the Washington Educator’s Union, Seattle Education Association, Ethnic Studies Assembly of the Pacific Northwest, OSPI’s Ethnic Studies Advisory Board, or other outside organizations willing to enact authentic, accountable change for our students, families, and communities. 

-Members of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group

If you would like to support the legal battle to clear Tracy of wrong doing and possible harassment lawsuit, please donate to the GoFundMe campaign set up by an ally to the ESAG, SPS librarian, Jeff Treistman.


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