When Anti-Racism and Anti-Blackness Collide: A Seattle Education Association Story

by Tracy Castro-Gill, Shraddha Shirude, and Sara Lockenvitz

What follows is a story that is, no doubt, playing out in organizations across the globe. It’s a story of what happens when anti-racism and anti-Blackness collide. It’s a story that is trying to be hidden, but we have come together to make it public – as a cautionary tale – for others in the work. Slow down. Look around you. The urgency is real, but moving without reflecting and assessing is how stories like these come to be told. It is written and published with the express permission of Marquita Prinzing.

What is now known as the Center for Racial Equity (CRE) began in 2016 as an NEA Lighthouse Grant. The grant came with no directions on what to do or how to do it, so Seattle Education Association (SEA) leaders, John Donoughy, Phyllis Campano, and Michael Tamayo, were tasked with hiring a project manager to create a racial justice program within SEA. Enter Marquita Prinzing. At the time, Marquita was teaching 4th grade at Dearborn Park Elementary School, and was a veteran, K-5 educator.

As a mixed-race Black woman, Marquita has always been passionate about racial justice in education. This was an opportunity to employ her personal experiences and education in union activism. Marquita was well aware of the tokenizing space she was entering, and that she would have to be strategic if she wanted to make a sustainable, systemic change. Her first goal was to recruit critical educators, educators who already had a deep critical race lens, to be on the plan and design team of this nebulous program she was charged with creating. She did this by hosting listening sessions, and from those sessions emerged the team. The team headed to Montgomery County Education Association in the fall of 2016 to learn from their model. This group consisted of Marquita Prinzing, Michael Tamayo, Reiko Dabney, Tracy Castro-Gill, and Kate Eads. This is where the concept of the Center for Racial Equity was born, including the beginnings of the mission and vision statements. 

From the start, the vision for CRE was to be a place where anti-racist educators, with an emphasis on BIPOC educators, could be a place to grow their anti-racist practice, advocacy, and leadership skills. It was never meant to be a one-stop shop for solutions to racism in Seattle Public Schools (SPS), but, lacking critical racial equity literacy and what it takes to build and sustain a movement, SEA leadership relegated it as such. Neither Marquita, nor her role, were elevated to SEA “leadership.” She was left out of decision-making processes and not invited to strategic meetings. When leadership wanted to boast about their anti-racist efforts, however, they had no qualms about showing off their token program led by the token Black woman they hired.

After a disagreement between Washington Education Association (WEA) and SEA about the legitimacy of Marquita’s position belonging in SEA, SEA leadership determined it would be in their best interest to make the position an elected one, thus securing it from moving into the purview of WEA. Even with this controversy, Marquita won her first election with overwhelming support, and despite this, she had to continue to fight to be considered SEA “leadership.” At one point, during the Campano-Tamayo tenure, Marquita would be brought into “leadership meetings” for the first half to give a report on CRE, but then would be asked to leave when decisions were to be made. Eventually, through strategy and advocacy, Marquita was invited to lead bargaining for racial equity. Her fight to be part of decision-making in the leadership of SEA, however, continues to this day.

One reason SEA leadership may have balked at including Marquita is that Marquita has always made it clear that she does not represent the entire body of SEA members. Educators in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) have a long history of racism, not just against students, but families and fellow educators as well, so much so that SPS came under federal investigation for its severe racial disparities in discipline in 2013, and five years later, in 2018, data indicated the disparities grew. For these reasons, Marquita refuses to represent educators who aren’t 100% behind dismantling racial oppression in SPS. Her role, and the Center itself, are for advancing racial equity alongside those members who are aligned with the mission and vision statements of the Center, not for representing all members of the body. This, of course, upsets the status quo apple cart.

One tactic Marquita used to work toward dismantling oppressive systems was to create an advisory board. This advisory board is not mandated, but was something Marquita felt she needed to be an effective, reflective, and responsive leader. In an attempt to flatten hierarchies and de-silo work across the city, she invited individuals from both inside and outside SEA membership. She included principals, assistant principals, and leaders employed by the City of Seattle. Their purpose has always been to advise Marquita, not advise SEA, and definitely not to make decisions for SEA. Many are, after all, not SEA dues payers.

The recent election cycle ushered in new leadership. Prior to the election, long-time SEA Executive Director, John Donoughy, moved into statewide office at WEA and was replaced by Yvette De La Cruz. Jennifer Matter became SEA president in a contentious runoff election against Jon Greenberg which came down to nine votes. The Vice President role was vacated by Gwendolyn Jimerson after the election, and Matter appointed failed SEA presidential candidate, Uti Hawkins, to the role. Both Uti and Yvette identify as women of color, but that hasn’t improved the working conditions for Marquita. In fact, the marginalization of her work and her role has intensified with the transition of power. 

As this piece is being written, Marquita is on an extended personal leave of absence, partially because of the stress and anti-Blackness she experiences on the job. Immediately prior to her taking a leave in January, she received an email from Uti and Jennifer announcing they planned to convene the CRE advisory board to make changes to the program and bylaws. Marquita explicitly stated that their actions, in doing so, would be an overstep of power. She reminded them that the advisory board serves no role in SEA – or even CRE – decision making. Uti convened the advisory board almost immediately after Marquita took her leave. 

By February, SEA leadership had completed what can only be described as a hostile takeover of CRE, stepping on Marquita’s role as a leader and ignoring concerns raised by CRE members. Jennifer Matter, Uti Hawkins, and Kaitlin Kamalei Brandon used the CRE advisory board to legitimize a vote to place Kaitlin in an Interim Director position, replacing Marquita. This is the part where it needs to be restated that the CRE Advisory Board consists of people who are not SEA members but were allowed to vote on SEA elected leadership decisions. 

The following is a reflection from Sara Lockenvitz, long-time member of CRE and the SEA Board about what transpired during this time.

What became apparent to me at the February Board meeting was how hard Marquita has always had to – and will continue to have to – fight to legitimize her work. Despite following the norm of reporting out to the union Board and other spaces where I witnessed Marquita share and celebrate the good work in, I found it odd (implicitly and explicitly)  that it wasn’t always clear to some what CRE was all about or “doing”. The continuation of having to legitimize her work had to become absolutely crushing and I have to admit none of us could ever have any idea just how much so. How can someone ever really do “enough”?
This status quo reporting system sadly overlooks the grassroots efforts of the CRE work that was dependent upon listening to members, especially those most marginalized by the education system.  This I DO know as a flagship CRE coach, learning and growing alongside Marquita – her leadership style is not to dictate the paths I should take as a leader but to rather capitalize on my assets, my passions, and the skills Marquita always saw in me. Her leadership and friendship have meant the world to me.
Rather than uplifting and celebrating the strides Marquita has made, it became about how she may be “holding the work hostage” and making her as one person responsible for being a barrier to the important racial equity work. The conversation saddened me as a colleague, CRE partner, but most of all, as a friend.

At an SEA representative assembly in March, members of CRE and other leaders within the union, spoke against hearing a report from Kaitlin, claiming her appointment was illegitimate, an overstep of Jennfier and Uti, and an act of explicit anti-Blackness. Jennifer and Uti gaslit members, used the illegitimate vote of the CRE advisory board as justification for their actions, then accused the dissenters of anti-Blackness. Since this confrontation, Kaitlin has reportedly moved her work out of CRE. It’s not clear if this is a result of reflecting on the comments made at the representative assembly or if it’s an attempt to starve the grassroots CRE of funding and credibility. 

Our hope is the publication of these events will help inform other education associations and organizations looking to implement similar programs. Unless there is a fundamental shift in the structures and leadership of the organization, programs like CRE are doomed to fail – even when BIPOC folks are at the helm. We have witnessed too many BIPOC leaders be burnt out to the point of mental health emergencies. We can’t lose anymore leaders to this re-whiting of anti-racism. If you are planning a program similar to CRE, stop and ask yourself,“Is your anti-racism top-down, urgent, tokenized, and anti-Black?”

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