An Elder Millennial’s Journey to Ethnic Studies & Visual Arts, Part Two

By Alex Ng

This multipart journal is where I am documenting my thoughts as I embark on the journey of revising all of my classes from decent Visual Arts curriculum with some Ethnic Studies themes and content integrated throughout, to true Ethnic Studies Visual Arts at all levels: curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom culture.

Part Two picks up where Part One ended: the start of my year of teaching at Franklin High School after having student-taught there 2nd semester of the 2015 – 2016 school year. Rather than recollecting the whole year, I am focusing on experiences that directly influenced my journey towards Ethnic Studies.

Fast Times at Franklin High School, Part Two: Identity & Authenticity in Teaching

My classroom signage and me in the 2016 – 2017 school year

My relative “youthfulness” and status as a POC who grew up in the area and graduated from FHS helped lay down a foundation of assumed shared experience and shared values with my students that I’m not sure I ever fully deserved. One day after school I shared these thoughts with a veteran teacher and dear friend who taught in the classroom next door. I confessed to her that while my classes were going well, I didn’t think I was a very good teacher, and I felt students had an inflated positive impression of me based on my youth and connection to the school. She told me it wasn’t about whether I was a good or bad teacher: what mattered is students knew I cared. That sentiment meant a lot to me. Assumed or well-earned, I was relieved to learn that at least students knew that I cared about them.

As a young teacher I had not yet developed a thoroughly examined teaching philosophy to inform my classroom management. However, I did believe in the importance of consistency, de-escalation, and repairing relationships as critical components to classroom management that also recognizes the humanity of students. In the first week of school an argument broke out between two seniors, one Black male and one Black female student during my 3rd period Beginning Drawing and Painting class. In the middle of class, the two kids got into an argument that quickly escalated into threats to beat each other up. Moving quickly, I physically inserted myself (all 5’4” of me) between the two kids and used the best calming voice I could muster to de-escalate the situation. After they had both returned to their seats and settled into shooting daggers at each other with their eyes I called each over to my desk one at a time for some quiet conversation. Each agreed to move on and get along and from that day forward that’s exactly what they did. I enjoyed watching the cooperation and gentle ribbing that became norms in their relationship from then on. I think both students appreciated that I did not escalate the situation with how I intervened or pursue any kind of discipline. As a result of this moment, some depth was added to our relationship, and they would go on to be two of my favorite students.

Still, it is the students I failed to reach who haunt me. My biggest failing was with four 9th grade Black girls I didn’t serve well during my year at FHS. My failure was rooted in my inability to build interpersonal trust with them. Instead, they saw me as yet another fake adult who couldn’t be trusted. In fact, this exact sentiment was expressed to me several times. Their lived experiences as young Black girls in Seattle Public Schools had taught them that they couldn’t trust adults at school, and that trusting adults would lead to them being betrayed. One student told me exactly this: she learned not to trust adults at school because they are all snakes. For her final project in Beginning Drawing and Painting she created a painting of a close-up of her eye with a heap of adults in the iris of her eye all consumed by a great fire. Her painting was a direct reflection of her well-earned distrust of educators. While I appreciate that my class inspired her to express her feelings and reflect her lived experience thru art, I was never able to defy her expectation of educators or earn her trust. In the end she didn’t complete her painting, did fail my class, and left as sure of me as an adult who couldn’t be trusted as she was of all her past teachers.

I can’t claim any successes from our experiment, but I did learn something about myself: right or wrong, I am an educator who is willing to take risks and do things that I think are important.

Another memory that still resonates with me is a funny interaction between myself and one 12th grade Black male student who had lived a very hard life including the loss of both parents, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. This kid was more than three times my size and had experienced more trauma, racism, and hardship in his 18 years of life than I had in my 28. One class period, he was working on a cut paper collage project and expressing a great deal of frustration to me about the exacto knives we were using for this project. While I was trying to demonstrate to him proper knife skills, he accidentally poked my index finger with the tip of the exacto knife causing a touch of bleeding. He was quite shocked and apologized right away but in a very casual voice which suggested to me a lack of genuine concern about the condition of my finger. In return, I joked that he just stabbed me(!) but that I would be alright. This strange incident of a student drawing blood somehow became a bonding experience for the two of us.

This mammoth of a kid and I would go on to have a meaningful, fun, but often contentious relationship. We bonded over both having lost a parent (or in his case, two) after I shared with class one day that my father had recently passed away from a heart attack. Second semester he would complete a painting portraying drug and alcohol abuse which was the only artwork he made that year that he was proud of. I distinctly remember how invested he was in this painting and how frustrated he would get while painting it. He always signaled his frustration the same way: by pounding his fist against his table. When a loud, declarative thud echoed across the room and half the students jumped in their seats, I knew he was having a hard time. At first, I would go over right away to help him. But I quickly learned that he was not in a place of listening or learning when at peak frustration. So, when I tried to help him right away post fist-meeting-table, we would end up arguing. He was convinced that the paint and brush would magically respond to me but not to him. This, in turn, made me frustrated with him!

I after much contemplation, I decided to take a different approach. I mean, we could only get into the same back and forth argument so many times. He wasn’t frustrated at me; he was frustrated at his own perceived shortcomings. His frustration was stopping his learning, but I couldn’t magically make his frustration go away either. What ended up working was this: first, his fist would rain down on the table. Second, I would go over to him and quietly say something like, “I can see that you’re frustrated right now. I’m going to leave you alone until you’re feeling ready to let me help me. When you’re ready, call me over.” Then, after several minutes of quiet stewing and releasing his frustration, he would call me over and I would be able to work with him without us arguing. This became our normal routine, and in time there were fewer fists and more smiles. This painting reflecting his own experiences with drug and alcohol abuse was the only artwork he chose to keep after graduation. I still remember the smile on his face as he tucked the painting under his arm and walked out of the art classroom for the last time at the end of the year.

Politics, race, and racism were particularly strong currents running through the 2016 – 2017 school year. I recall frank conversations with a group of 12th grade Black female students about racism simmering underneath interactions between school administration and Black students. In short order this group of young women in my 6th period class and I developed enough trust between us for them to challenge my racial equity literacy and have heavy conversations about the presidential candidacies of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Similarly, a group of Latinx students in my 6th period class would often talk with me about Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric, the brewing anti-immigration sentiments in the country, and how they felt as young Latinx kids in a society that routinely signaled to them that they didn’t belong. One Latinx senior would go on to write a letter in response to Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric for a Humanities class assignment. He brought a draft with him to class and we spent more time that day talking about his letter than we did his artwork. Through these interactions I was learning how important it was for me to be authentically present with my students. They brought all their identities to class with them every day and, as their teacher, it was important for me to see and accept their identities. I felt compelled to do what I could to help them bear the various burdens that are unfairly thrust upon BIPOCs in America.

Franklin HS has a sizeable Asian student population comprised of a mix of Asian-Americans like me who were born in the U.S. and Asian immigrants who are more culturally grounded in their home countries than America. Some of my Asian students looked at me with wide-eyed wonder. It was as if they couldn’t fathom being taught by a fellow Asian (or Asian-American) who had similar life experiences to their own. A group of Asian students in my 4th period Advanced Drawing and Painting class were particularly interested in hearing about the two years I spent living and teaching in South Korea. At one point I was asked to speak at the Asian Student Association’s after-school Lunar New Year festival. I can still shamefully recall fumbling my way through a mercifully brief and improvised speech on the New Year traditions in different Asian cultures and the variety of delicious food provided that night.

a K-pop inspired painting by a Franklin High School student

Later in the year, a colleague was struggling with a rift in one of her Humanities classes between her Black and Asian students. She shared this with me during lunch one day and I, perhaps foolishly, offered to speak to her class. In a remarkable show of faith that can only exist between colleagues who trust each other, by the end of that lunch we agreed on a plan: she would supervise my class while I would meet with her class to discuss this rift. It turned out that class was 5th period and about to begin in a matter of minutes! So, we did as we said we would. I got my class started by telling the kids what they would be working on while I was next door before heading to my colleague’s class. She explained my presence to her class and then walked over to mine, leaving me to do whatever it was I could to help address this impasse.

The whole class full of students sat before me as I sat at the front of the room. I began by simply offering to listen. Things started with one Black student describing the issue to me. Then more Black students shared their understanding of the situation while I continued to listen. Next, a Pacific Islander student shared his view of the conflict, then a couple of Latinx students, and finally some Asian students began to share their perspective. The rift between my colleague’s Black and Asian students was rooted in Asian students being silent during class discussions on the historical and ongoing oppression of Black Americans. Black students felt that the silence of their Asian peers signaled their disinterest in the topic, and that their silence made understanding each other impossible. In turn, a handful of Asian students expressed that their silence was how they engaged with difficult discussions. They also expressed that silently listening is a common form of engagement prevalent in Asian cultures and that it did not signal disinterest but rather learning and reflection.

Once I felt I had an understanding of the situation I began to offer my own thoughts, framed very much as my own thoughts, not solutions. As an Asian-American I understood well the default behavior of silently listening instead of vocally engaging in difficult discussions. Although I can’t claim to be prone to this behavior myself, it is something I culturally understand. To the Asian students I tried to emphasize that silence does not help create shared understanding or, more obviously, discussion. Although in their minds they might be having all kinds of meaningful reflections and realizations, if those aren’t shared no one else will know or benefit from them. I also emphasized how deeply personal these discussions were to their Black peers and that their silence was actively creating conflict and confusion. It was understandably difficult for Black students to be charitable towards silent conversation partners when the topic was of such personal importance to them.

In the world of education there is so much student-focused talk about authentic engagement, authentic assessment, and authentic voice. But how often do we question the authenticity of our own identity in the classroom?

I also intuited that the silence of Asian students was also partly rooted in the perception that they did not see themselves reflected in the struggles and oppression of Black Americans or America’s racial landscape as a whole. I shared this thought with the class and mentioned the history of Chinese exclusion, race riots in early Chinatowns on the west coast, and the use and erasure of Chinese labor to build the intercontinental railroad to emphasize that Asians and Asian Americans are very much a part of America’s racial history and have their own histories of oppression and resistance. Over the course of the class period many thoughts were shared, and I was eventually able to facilitate Black and Asian students listening and responding to each other. I recall one student reflected that although they had gone to school with each other since elementary school, they had never discussed the racial dynamics amongst their peers like this before. After the period ended my colleague and I debriefed the situation. I can’t claim any successes from our experiment, but I did learn something about myself: right or wrong, I am an educator who is willing to take risks and do things that I think are important.

It is important to address the pervasive anti-Blackness that runs through non-Black communities of color. I could feel inklings of this in the deep divide and distrust between the Black and Asian students in my colleague’s class. The silence of the Asian students was confirming for Black students what their lived experience had taught them: that their non-Black POC peers were not their allies, that anti-Blackness lived in their hearts and minds. As an Asian American and educator of color I continue to confront this truth within myself. Nothing in life has aided me more in dismantling the anti-Blackness that lives within me than teaching Black students. They deserve better than to sit in yet another classroom with yet another teacher who is blind to their own prejudice. As educators, we must acknowledge the reality of Anti-Blackness within us. We must admit it, interrogate it, unlearn it, and commit ourselves to doing and being better.

Looking back on my year at Franklin, I feel I was generally successful at building positive relationships with my students, the overwhelming majority of whom were BIPOC. Much of this success was rooted in authenticity, consistency, and acceptance. Students could come to class every day and trust that I would be who I said I was. If students saw me care for one of their classmates one day, whether it was discussing complex matters of race and racism in America or showing compassion for a student’s personal struggle, they could trust that I would do the same for them another day. They could come to class every day and know that I saw and accepted them and their identities. As I mentioned previously, I was also somewhat of a novelty at Franklin and that did help to build positive relationships with students. I suppose there were not many young Asian, male FHS alumnus teachers with a dyed hair fauxhawk working at Franklin High School at that time.

The importance of bringing my identity into my work as a teacher was quite possibly the single most essential lesson I learned in my year at Franklin. The closer my teacher identity is to my personal identity, the more authentically present I am in the classroom. I have learned to ask myself again and again: is my teaching in line with my values? Are the things I say I care about present and alive in my teaching? In my classroom? In my interactions and relationships with students? In the world of education there is so much student-focused talk about authentic engagement, authentic assessment, and authentic voice. But how often do we question the authenticity of our own identity in the classroom? Identity is one of the core tenets of Ethnic Studies. For me, the work of understanding this tenet began by turning my gaze inward. In my year at Franklin, I was often challenged by my students: challenged to be a teacher worthy of their trust and respect. Some students afforded me the assumption of trustworthiness but most needed evidence: they needed proof that I was who I said I was. With notable exceptions, I feel I earned the trust and respect of nearly all my students by being just that: authentically myself.

An Elder Millennial Educator’s Road To Ethnic Studies and Visual Arts

By Alex Ng

The Journey to Ethnic Studies Visual Arts

This journal is where I am documenting my thoughts as I embark on the journey of revising all of my classes from decent Visual Arts curriculum with some Ethnic Studies themes and content integrated throughout, to true Ethnic Studies Visual Arts at all levels: curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom culture.

How it All Began: Living and Teaching in South Korea

I’ve been teaching Visual Arts at the public high school level for four years now. Prior to these four years, I lived abroad in South Korea for two years, teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) in 7 different public middle schools. My middle schools ranged from tiny rural schools of fewer than 100 students to a 500+ all-girls middle school in the heart of the city of Gongju. I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade and typically saw each class once a week. I was a teacher on the go. Each morning I would bus (or taxi if I woke up late!) to a different school in a different town or neighborhood in the city.

I went to South Korea to experience teaching firsthand. I knew I had an interest in teaching, but I had never done it before. I also knew that having an interest in teaching at the age of 24 was not the same as having a life-long passion for teaching. I went to South Korea to teach, learn, and decide if teaching was something I wanted to pursue as a career. My contract was for one year. If at the end of that one year I felt good about moving forward with teaching, I would return to the US to pursue a Master’s in Teaching degree. I ended up taking two years to reach that conclusion. One year was enough for me to realize that I might be good at teaching and had the passion to get better at it, but not much more than that. The second year showed me that I was growing as a teacher and building the stamina to do the job day-in, day-out without burning out due to unending failure. More on this later.

me in South Korea

My two years of living and teaching in South Korea were truly transformative. For the first time in my life I was outside of the United States and seeing the world from beyond the US-centric worldview I grew up with. In fact, America is not the center of the world, very few of our mores are truly unique to US culture, and America is very much not the envy of the world either. This was also the first time I was surrounded by diverse people whose racial backgrounds did not end in ___-American. Growing up in Seattle I was blessed to have friends and close relations from across a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. But most of us were still rooted in the American milieu. As an Asian American I was already acutely aware of having my own two feet planted in (at least!) two different cultures. In addition, a decent liberal arts education at the University of Washington had equipped me with the language and thought of critical theory and critical race theory (not to mention a pretty sweet Interdisciplinary Visual Arts & English Literature education). This education, combined with my own upbringing as an Asian American growing up in South Seattle, gave me the grounding to examine my lived experiences critically, to reflect, and to grow.

Nonetheless, living in South Korea, in the small city of Gongju, immersed in the tight-knit expat community there, for the first time in my life I shared space and dialogue with people born and raised in other countries such as South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Australia, and of course, South Korea: people with a perspectives on life not grounded in US-centric thinking. I learned a hell of a lot. I could go on and on about my life in South Korea and how my worldview was challenged and transformed, and perhaps one day I will, but this journal is primarily about teaching.

Picking up on my failures: in two years, I taught hundreds of bad lessons, probably fewer than ten good lessons, made so, so, so many mistakes, learned a handful of important lessons for myself, and ultimately decided that this whole teaching thing was definitely something I wanted to pursue further. South Korea is where I made most of my rookie mistakes. I often question how good a teacher I was for my students. Actually, I don’t. I was a bad teacher. I was a bad teacher but not for lack of trying. I tried, and failed, pretty much every day. I do think I succeeded in motivating my students to engage with their English language studies, but that’s about the only positive impact I can claim to have had on my students. On the other hand, I personally learned a great deal. It is entirely fair to say that my students taught me far more than I taught them. I hope this will continue to be the case for the rest of my teaching career.

A Brief Stay at Western Washington University

At the end of two years I returned to the United States, briefly to Seattle, then found myself living in Bellingham, Washington and attending the Master’s in Teaching program at Western Washington University. For the first time in a long, long time I was surrounded by whiteness. Perhaps for the first time ever, I was surrounded by whiteness without the ability to retreat to an established POC space with faces I knew and people I shared a history of lived experience, love, and mutual understanding with. Thankfully, my time at WWU was brief. The most I can say about my experience in the Woodring College of Education’s Master’s in Teaching program is that I was able to tailor the experience to my interests. The professors demonstrated flexibility and trust in giving me autonomy to direct my own teacher education. At the same time, several racist events prompted me to get involved with the campus community beyond what I had ever imagined. Many meetings, discussions, practicums, boring classes and exciting conversations later, I was a graduate of WWU with a Master’s in Teaching degree!

grad school me

Writing this now in the year 2020, I recognize that I am not the same iteration of myself who graduated from WWU in the year 2016. Still, who I was in 2016 was a culmination of the previous 28 years of lived experience. Below are excerpts from my teaching application cover letter written right after I graduated and provides a good summary of my thinking on myself as a teacher at that time:

My name is Alex Ng. I am Chinese-American, born and raised in the south end neighborhoods of Seattle, Washington. My K-12 education took place entirely in highly diverse, high needs public schools and communities. As a student, I learned firsthand what it feels like to struggle, to have unrealized potential, to see other students not make it, and to see some students succeed in spite of all the systems that sometimes work against them. These experiences have shaped who I am as a person and a teacher. I carry them with me each-and-every day as I pour all of myself into my work. I aim to recognize and validate who students are: their lived experiences and identities, while working to help them become better versions of themselves.

As a graduate student in Woodring College of Education, I helped the secondary education department navigate several internal issues around inclusion and culturally responsive teaching. In doing so, I learned how to build relationships with my peers and professors within the college. My work within Woodring led to me serving on the University President’s Taskforce for Equity and Inclusion where I was able to continue this work on a larger, systemic scale. In this capacity, I learned a great deal about the interconnectivity of all the different efforts across the university to address important issues of equity, inclusion, retention, and representation.

I believe students have the potential to transform their communities. I want to help them along the way. Simply put, I want to find an educational community where my voice can make a difference both to the community as a whole and in the lives of individual students who struggle to envision their own success.

In the midst of my final quarter at WWU an old friend and Visual Arts teacher at Franklin High School reached out to me. He was going to take the next year off and wanted to know if I would be able to fill his position for the year. Some quick coordination later, I was a fresh-faced student teacher at Franklin High School teaching Visual Arts with the mutual understanding between myself and my friend that I would be hired as the Visual Arts teacher for the following year while he enjoyed his well-earned sabbatical.

Fast Times at Franklin High School Part One

My semester of student-teaching was wonderful, deeply exhausting, and highly motivating. I was teaching again after enduring a year and a half of almost nothing but grad school academic minutia. Three days into my student teaching placement cooperating teacher handed me his gradebook and told me I would be teaching all his classes for the rest of the year with the exception of his after school muraling class. I was finally where I wanted to be, teaching every day, teaching content I loved to students I loved, at the school I graduated from, and I loved (almost) every minute of it!

Franklin High School student art

It was while student-teaching at Franklin High School that my attempts at teaching content relevant and responsive to the lives of my students began in earnest. My friend and cooperating teacher gave me a wide berth to teach what I wanted, how I wanted. With my newfound freedom, I created and taught a project called “Art That Speaks” where students briefly learned the history of art & protests with a focus on the art of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the Hong Kong Yellow Umbrella Democracy Movement and the aim of creating their own protest art. I tried to highlight each cause and how strong visual iconography helped to express the message of each protest movement. Once the learning targets and focus skills were communicated, students were tasked with creating their own protest art, a large-ish painting that expressed their message on a topic of socio-political interests to them. Students created paintings about reproductive rights, body consciousness, BLM, environmental justice, teen mental health, gender representation in ballet, and more. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was my first, teeny-tiny, novice teacher, baby-step towards Ethnic Studies…

Stay tuned for future installments from Alex Ng. In the meantime, follow him on Instagram: @mr.alex.artteacher.

Dear Denise Juneau: Eagles Demand Representation

Ninth graders from Cleveland High School in Seattle Public Schools wrote letters to their superintendent imploring her to update the 9th grade reading list to include more Black and POC authors. Below are some excerpts from the letters, posted with permission from the students. 

Anqi Lui

Hello. My name is Anqi Lui and I am a Chinese-American student at Cleveland STEM, a diverse high school consisting of over 30% African American students making up its demographic. Recently, we’ve noticed an inconsistency between the strategic plan and the 9th grade reading list. According to the Seattle Public Schools’ Strategic Plan, it states that “Seattle Public Schools (SPS) strives to provide safe learning environments, and a curriculum that incorporates a student’s life experiences and culture…” But currently, only 3 out of the 25 authors on the 9th grade reading list are black, and they are all deceased.

I rarely ever touched books written by black authors, and never realized what kind of issues they ever went through until recently. This became a problem for me, because all my family has ever taught me was to stay away from black people, even if I already knew that was wrong, they engraved a fear in me that I always try so hard to get rid of, but never succeed. The books I’ve recently been reading have opened up a window for me that helped change my perspective more positively.

Jacob Mulugeta

My name is Jacob Mulugeta and I am a student at Cleveland High School. I believe there’s not many books in the school district’s 9th grade list that contains Black authors. The school district has not updated their book list since 2008.

In general, I would like you to include the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds. I say that is a problem because children of color or not won’t learn many things about the Black culture if it’s not coming from someone who is Black. It is important because we can’t have our schools supporting Black Lives Matter movements or have Black Lives Matter assembly if the students don’t even know the history or what they are fighting for. 

Kaitlin H. Fischl

It’s important for schools to not only teach us our history, our roots, and of our past, but to teach us about the current social justice issues and revolutions that impact us now. Trevor Noah, a South African comedian, writer, actor, and host of the Daily Show, interviewed Angie Thomas, author of The Hate You Give and On the Come Up. Trevor Noah asked what Tomas’s thoughts were when she heard schools were banning her books because of the profanity in her writing.

Tomas responded with “…I can’t lie, I was so angry because I knew that was a cop-out… There are exactly 89 instances of the F-word in The Hate You Give… But last year alone, over 800 people lost their lives at the hands of police brutality… When you’re telling me that it’s the language, no that’s not what it is, you just don’t wanna talk about the topic”. Sheltering kids from these realities help no one but the oppressors. If we want to see change, we have to arm ourselves with knowledge, and from that knowledge; the power, and voice to make a difference. Books by Angie Thomas help students like me, an Asian American, empathize, relate, and understand the struggles my race prevents me from experiencing. Her books give me the tools to fight for members in my community and show me why support from everyone, regardless of how they identify, is necessary.

Phuc T Nguyen

I have read a book written about Vietnamese past lives, the book is called The Best We Could Do written by Thi Bui. This book talks about the experience of my family and talks about immigrants like me. I was surprised when the teacher teaches the whole class about Vietnamese history and their perspective. This is important because of the way that Thi Bui added pictures into her novel and how she added a couple of Vietnamese into the texts, this makes the students and me to understand a little about the background about the Vietnamese immigrants. This makes me feel involved in the class, this makes me less lonely, less marginalized. I also read another book called Inside Out and Back Again written by Thanhha Lai. This is another book that presents a very powerful story of me as an immigrant, talks about my background, and family. This is important because the books will reflect [back] people’s identity, background, and daily lives, when students read those books it truly sparked out my identity and background.

Selam Moges

We lose ourselves in books: we find ourselves there too. 

During the past month me and my peers were assigned with the task of reading a book written recently and by a[n author of color], and while reading All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Bredan Kiely, I saw myself so engaged with the book that I just didn’t want to put it down.

As someone who is truly inspired and motivated by this book, I ask you to please consider including All American Boys to the Seattle Public Schools 9th Grade reading list. 

This book dives into issues such as police brutality, racism, and internal conflict within young people, all common conflicts that are present in society today.

Why are we trying to shield teens from realities in our society ? These things happen and it’s important for young people to be aware of them early on. All American Boys not only opens our eyes to the problems of the world, issues we will eventually face as we grow, it also helps us learn how to avoid and detangle ourselves from similar issues.

You say that our district makes it a priority to teach and explore the different cultures that attend our schools, but how is that happening when the reading list contains only three black authors, and their books were written over 40 year ago!

Selam, who identifies as Black, never received a response and wrote again after the murder of George Floyd for “another favor”:

Dear Superintendent Juneau,

Hellooooo!! It’s Selam again. I don’t know if you have received it, but I wrote you a letter earlier this year about how it was important for our district to include books written by black authors in the ninth grade reading list, and I’m reaching out again to ask for another favor.

I’m sure Seattle Public Schools prides itself for being a district that celebrates a broad and diverse set of students and staff. There have also been many policies implemented to protect the community, but I’m also sure that you recognize you need to do more, particularly with the Black community, hence why I’m suggesting that SPS should end their contract with the Seattle Police.

What happened to George Floyd was not the first, and it’s pretty clear that because of the world that we live in, it probably won’t be the last. The very systems, institutions, and processes that we’ve been told to trust and believe in have failed us. Not once, not twice, but time and time again.

It’s time that we take action and proceed to fix this dysfunctional system one step at a time.

When SPS ends their contract with the SPD, the department becomes defunded, which has proven to push departments to reform their officers which is something we desperately need. We can’t continue to be outraged for a certain amount of time then forget the injustices till they happen again. We must do something!!

Please…help us feel heard. Haven’t we been oppressed enough?  We’re tired. 

#BlackLivesMatter

Best Regards,

Selam Moges

The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

What Now?

Welcome to part 5 of the 5 part series, The Failures of Ethnic Studies (and how to fix them); Ethnic studies educators advise administrators. Unlike parts 1-4, I will not be analyzing data collected from educators, but instead offering some of my own personal thoughts and reflections on what I have learned from the data coupled with my own experiences leading an Ethnic Studies initiative in Seattle Public Schools. I have been kind of dreading writing this part, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that some people look to me for insights and answers, so I’m offering what I have here.

If Not Ethnic Studies, Then What?

#ReWhiting, that’s what. In my district, Ethnic Studies has been effectively eliminated and replaced with “Seattle Excellence,” which seems to have become interchangeable with “Black Excellence.” District administrators are claiming this is being modeled after the Kingmakers of Oakland, which is a fantastic program from what I can see, but I need to know more about the systemic changes that occurred to make the Oakland program a reality. In Seattle, it’s being plopped down into racist structures. We are hiring “Seattle Excellence” coaches for buildings with large Black student populations and we have an African American Male Achievement “team” at the district level, but nobody is really sure what any of them are supposed to be doing. If it’s anything like other, similar initiatives, like My Brother’s/Sister’s Keeper, it will look something like a homework help/test prep. group. I know that’s not the purpose of these groups, but I’ve seen them in action, and under white leadership, that’s exactly what they become. Past initiatives to “support” (change) Black students have done nothing to change the organization structure or policies, so it is unlikely this new initiative will. 

Here I am reminded of the Paul Gorski quote Sarah used in part 1 of this series: 

Equity efforts should never be about fixing anything about students who are marginalized in schools. They should always – always – be about fixing whatever is marginalizing students in schools… Effective equity efforts focus not on fixing students of color, but on eliminating racist conditions.

From my perspective, this focus on “Black Excellence” implies that Black students are in need of fixing, especially when an entire department is created and coaching positions are needed in schools with high Black student populations. I try to imagine being a Black student and seeing these coaches coming in to help me be “excellent” while students in predominantly white schools have no such coaches. This is more about window dressing to alleviate white guilt and not at all about Black students or racial justice. 

Here I provide a couple of logic models – one for “Black Excellence” and one for Ethnic Studies, as defined by educators in this series.

Notice how the inputs differ from the first to the second? Ethnic Studies inputs focus on the system, while the Black Excellence inputs are very limited in scope. But, more importantly, I want to point out that at no point does the Ethnic Studies model suggest changing students. Students and their families are part of the inputs and outputs, but the responsibility for change is on district staff. I have recently stopped saying “family engagement” because that is too surface level for me. Participation seems more appropriate, as a viable Ethnic Studies program must start and finish with students and families. The district and staff are only vehicles. I created a much more detailed Ethnic Studies Logic Model you can read here. All of the outputs are supported by peer reviewed research that I intended to link before I was put on leave. I will get to it, eventually.

It’s hard for me to put aside my initial response to the “Seattle (Black) Excellence” initiative, one of a deficit model. We need to work towards building an educator force that recognizes and values the excellence that ALREADY EXISTS in Black students and other students of Color. Ethnic Studies can do that. 

This brings me to my next topic:

Ontological Distance

If you’ve ever been a teacher you’ve no doubt heard, “for the students,” to justify ignoring the needs of educators. When I was receiving hateful, racist messages after the Ethnic Studies math framework went viral, a district administrator told me to “suck it up,” “put on my big girl panties,” and “remember to put kids first.” I argue it’s this mentality that sticks us in this deficit model loop; always trying to fix students instead of fixing ourselves, and thus, the system.

I think what is clear about themes that emerged from the data is that we need to fix ourselves; we need to overhaul the system, not just how it operates, but who is operating it. Michael Dominguez, in a chapter of the book Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies, wrote about a concept called “ontological distance.” What Dominguez means by this is the distance between where we are in education and where we want to be in our praxis. I see ontological distance as the answer to the “opportunity/achievement” gaps that put the focus on changing students instead of changing systems and educators. 

But how do we get there? What does Ethnic Studies in the form of education reform look like in practice? Dominguez gives five ways that we can decolonize our practice and center the change on systems instead of students; thus closing the distance between where we are and where we want to be. In his chapter, he’s speaking specifically about teacher preparation programs, but I argue that we can and must do this with in-service educators:

  1. Decolonial teacher education must displace colonial epistemologies, and foreground epistemologies reflective of youth and community wisdom.

To me, this means we must completely discard the way we view education, much like what Jacob said in part 2 of this series. 

At its core, ES [Ethnic Studies] is about disrupting racial inequities through education and action. In practice, this requires that teachers and students learn and work in solidarity with each other (and their communities) to disrupt racist policies and practices within their own communities. For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.

Instead, we must create a system that reflects the wisdom and needs of the people we serve – the youth and community. Current initiatives in various districts, including social/emotional learning (SEL), positive behavioral interventions and support (PBIS), and programs like My Brother’s/Sister’s Keeper continue to work in a deficit model and focus on students instead of the racist structures that oppress them. Displacing colonial epistemologies means creating a new, asset-based framework created by and for the communities we serve. Students and families must identify their needs and define education and then we work to realize it.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must engage educators with frameworks of race that capture the dynamic ways in which youth racial and cultural identity is being produced and reimagined. 

“Dynamic” is the key word here. Too frequently people see Ethnic Studies as a pre-packaged, corporate curriculum, but it can never become that otherwise it’s status quo and no longer Ethnic Studies – which must come from the communities it’s meant to serve. Identity and the definition of race are constantly evolving. We must provide educators PD and a framework to work with, not “curriculum,” at least not in a traditional sense. Above all else, educators need to learn how to get out of the way of their students who are experts on their own racialized identities and experiences. This is what respondents in this series called for in part 3

We don’t need some corporate watered-down version of Ethnic Studies. We need this to be led by strong educators of color – not someone who is bought off to shut down the anti-racism work.

I argue we must go beyond the quote above from Sarah and include community and families. This is something I tried to do in my role, but I had limited success because of systemic barriers. I was not able to compensate community members, family, or students because district policy requires payees have a business license. There is also a policy against paying students for any reason. This is one way the system needs to be restructured; policy needs to be written and/or revised to make room for this kind of meaningful participation of community, family, and students. 

Individual classroom teachers, however, may be more successful than I was. They can ask students to co-develop lesson plans and ask community members and families to come in and volunteer their time and expertise. Teachers must be given a framework for this to help them center the voices of their most marginalized students in a way that is asset-based and works to restructure the learning environment and content, not students. For a district-wide curriculum however, asking people of Color to donate their time and expertise only perpetuates a system of racism and oppression. It’s common practice for families to volunteer in their own children’s classrooms, but to expect families and community members develop curricula for free labor for an entire district is exploitation. It’s antithetical to the concepts of Ethnic Studies to exploit the intellectual and emotional labor of the very people who are working to be liberated.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must rethink the ways that field experiences position the expertise of educators in relation to youth and community knowledge. 

We have to redefine what expertise and leadership are. This was clearly reflected in the data of this series. Educators are experts in things like pedagogy and, to a more narrow extent, content. For the most part, we received the same white-washed curriculum our students are expected to endure. Unless we’ve done a whole lot of self-learning, we are not experts on a lot of the issues our students face. It’s impossible for us to be experts on every student. We need to reprogram ourselves out of thinking we know what’s best and work with our students and communities.

Dominguez is specifically addressing the “sage on the stage” phenomenon, in which teachers believe their work is to fill empty vessels, but I argue further that all definitions of leadership need to be redefined. In addition to redefining who we identify as “leaders,” we need to remove systemic barriers to leadership that marginalize our most effective educators – EOC. Linda expressed her concern about such barriers in part 4 of this series:

I think there are historic barriers of who is promoted, who is connected, and who is seen as a leader. Those barriers need to be addressed and removed. Also how people who are already seen as leaders are then continually tapped for other things (leading to burnout) or on the other side people are designated as a leader and then are not encouraged or forced to keep learning and leading…so they get stagnant.

I don’t even think we should be using the term “leader” when referring to district administrators. That word and the expectation that comes with it supports hierarchical structures and practices that necessarily oppress and marginalize “subordinates.” I recognize that some people need to be in management roles, particularly in large organizations, but “leadership” is a concept we must redefine.

Michael Fullan talks about “named leaders” vs “emergent leaders” in his book Change Leader. He discussed how “named leaders” are often so named because they meet the needs of those in power, while “emergent leaders” emerge into visions of leadership, even though they usually lack positional power, because they motivate people to change. Emergent leaders can be more effective than named leaders because they have the support of their colleagues. This creates a situation in which those who have positional power work to discredit emergent leaders, like Dr. Kinoshita confirmed in part 2 of this series:

However, in fact, what’s actually happened in this effort is that [some] top district leaders have actually treated this as something that is threatening, and so, therefore, has put limits upon the entire initiative, and put limits on all the stakeholders.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must actively confront coloniality and create alternative frameworks and identities endowed with hope and possibility. 

We can’t just tell educators to be anti-racist and dismantle the status quo without providing concrete examples of what that looks like. We have indigenous frameworks that we can draw from, but they are so starkly different from what we know that we have to re-learn everything. The XITO collective uses the Nahui Ollin, a Nahuatl framework, to train educators to decolonize their practice, but there are other indigenous frameworks from around the world to draw on while at the same time offering alternative identities for our students through their ancestors – drawing on their strength and wisdom.

Again, this takes me back to Jacob’s quote, “For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.” The Nahui Ollin, which is Nahuatl for “four movements,” is cyclical, which means we are always acquiring new knowledge and shedding disproven information. Nearly all examples of indigenous epistemologies I have learned about are cyclical in nature, yet our current education system is linear. It’s literally based on mass production models of the Industrial Revolution.

Sankofa Bird Lined Journal: Ghanaian Adinkra Symbol Meaning Go ...

Indigenous American frameworks focus heavily on decision making that takes into account the knowledge of ancestors while looking forward to future generations. In some ways, there is no concept of time because the actions of one affect the lives of all. There’s the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa – to look back before you look ahead. But Western epistemologies are unrelentingly linear. “Progress” is valued above reflection so much so that when I do PD on racial bias and tell people most of the work lies in reflecting on our own beliefs and value systems, invariably someone asks, “But what actions can I take??” because reflection isn’t seen as a useful action in Western epistemology.

  1. Decolonial teacher education must engage practices that unpack coloniality and explore liberation in the mundane, everyday work of teaching.

The beauty of creating Ethnic Studies curricula is that it’s all around us. A teacher can pick up a textbook and critique the coloniality of it, and it’s a practice not only in Ethnic Studies but critical thinking, reading, and analysis. It’s not an Ethnic Studies program if it only passively covers racism. We must confront it head on and teach ourselves and our students how it is actively affecting us in the moment. And we have to do it in such a way that makes students feel hopeful about their ability to change the trajectory white supremacy set them on, but we can’t do that until we fix ourselves first – including administrators. 

Our job, as educators, is to illuminate realities that have existed in the shadows and provide a language to our students they can use to name their everyday experiences and create the tools they need to liberate themselves. And we need to provide these to our students right now, not when they enter “real life.” In many ways, our students are living “real life” more than most of their teachers. When people ask me what my goal is in my work to eradicate racism in education, my answer is always, “To work myself out of a job.” What I mean is, I hope to provide students with windows and mirrors that help them understand why they are where they are and how to get where they want to go. When we’ve created an education system that does this for all students, not just the privileged ones, I’ll be able to rest.

What Now?

See what I did there? I returned us to the beginning because Ethnic Studies must be a circular practice, always returning to our purpose. Our goals will determine our work. Is our purpose to fix students, or fix ourselves? I believe our goals should be to fix ourselves so we can serve our communities. If our goals are to serve our communities, we should constantly be reflecting on where we are in our personal philosophies and paradigms, how that’s shaped by the needs of those we serve so that we can work together on a racially just, pluralistic education system, and then we’ll come back around again to redefine our purpose and goals. That’s my definition of an education system; it’s cyclical and never ending with educators and administrators learning alongside those we serve.

Closing “Achievement/Opportunity” gaps is a Western way of thinking about education. It’s linear and views students as lacking something and needing to be turned into some ideal, which is defined by white supremacy. Ontological distance, as defined by Dominguez and expanded upon here, is a process, especially since race and identity are dynamic and constantly shifting. The needs of the communities we serve will change depending on circumstances. For these reasons, ontological distance should always exist. We should never “close” that gap because it provides space for reflection and growth.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening on an administrative level. I can say I only know of two administrators in my district that even come close to being able to realize what’s been discussed in this series. Three if you count me, but I won’t be an administrator for much longer. The Borg has come for me.

What’s next? I think the solution lies in students, communities, and critical educators who are willing to keep fighting. Maybe the folks who say Ethnic Studies must always be a struggle are right.

The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

Welcome to part 4 of the 5 part series, The Failures of Ethnic Studies (and how to fix them); Ethnic studies educators advise administrators. For ease in reading, I am including the color-coded table of respondents and the graphic of the emergent themes. If that’s confusing for you, please see part 1: Introduction.

Part 4: Words and Deeds

Respondent Demographics

Respondent names are pseudonyms. The colors will be used in quotes to help you follow trends between and within districts.

Emergent Themes

These are the four dominant themes that emerged from the data that I will be referring to and they will be bolded and italicized to bring your attention to them.

Words and Deeds

I included this last question as a kind of catch-all question. I hoped that it would pick up on any supports Ethnic Studies educators felt they needed beyond infrastructure and policy. No new concepts were introduced in this question, and so no new themes were generated by these data. 

However, the Ineffective leadership, including too few POC theme was revisited the most in these data. It was very clear in the data that respondents felt that current leaders were failing them and failing to create authentic, viable Ethnic Studies programs – with the exception of district 2 whose educators were cautiously optimistic. I can break this data down into four sub-themes of the types of leadership Ethnic Studies educators are looking for: Trusting Leaders, Visionary Leaders, Leaders of Color, and Leader Practitioners.

Trusting Leaders

Trusting leaders, in this context, does not mean that educators need to trust leaders. It means the opposite. The educators have a strong desire to be seen as the leaders they are and to be trusted to create and implement an Ethnic Studies program they are trained and have the expertise to do. All of the educators interviewed for this series have an education in Ethnic Studies or related field and/or have engaged in extensive anti-racist and Ethnic Studies PD. That’s more than can be said for most administrators. In my time working on Ethnic Studies, which includes creating and delivering PD, a total of zero administrators have signed up and attended a single PD session. A trusting leader – an effective leader – will either educate themselves, or acknowledge they lack the necessary expertise, get out of the way, and create space for experts in their organization to lead the work.

Another factor of a trusting leader is to trust that anti-racism and Ethnic Studies are the morally correct things to do for their students and staff. Terry explains how fear prevents administrators and educators from acting in the best interest of their students. “Our district operates from a position of fear – they’re concerned that having honest conversations about race, power, and privilege will result in people with means complaining and threatening legal action.” We must put the policies in place that protect anti-racist leaders and mandate anti-racist practices, then trust those with the expertise to implement them. We cannot be driven by fear if we are to serve our students and families of Color. We have to trust the data telling us that anti-racist practices, like Ethnic Studies, work. 

Visionary Leaders

I want to go back to Jacob’s quote from part 2 on infrastructure. Jacob explained, “At its core, ES [Ethnic Studies] is about disrupting racial inequities through education and action. In practice, this requires that teachers and students learn and work in solidarity with each other (and their communities) to disrupt racist policies and practices within their own communities. For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.” This seems to be the basis from which the educators are calling for visionary leaders. They want a leader who has the ability to look beyond the “way it’s always been” and envision something new and different from what we know. With the current situation with COVID-19 school closures, this could be an opportunity to envision a new system that includes Ethnic Studies as the foundation on which we build a new education structure.

Unfortunately, our current system rewards leaders who are good at maintaining the status quo. I’ve made the argument before that this is a way districts weaponize leaders of Color, but it really applies to all leadership positions. Those whose strength is maintaining the status quo are moved into leadership positions. Those who challenge the status quo are pushed out. This practice is intensified against EOC because of racial bias. Gina wonders, “I’m not entirely sure why ‘leadership’ ever got into education if they aren’t visionaries and revolutionaries.” I argue that many educators entered the profession because they are visionaries and revolutionaries and then are gatekept from leadership or are pushed out by a system designed to reward those who maintain the status quo. Our current leaders aren’t in place, for the most part, because they have good leadership skills; they are there because they know how to follow orders.

Leaders of Color

*Caveat: Here I am reminded by the voices in my head that, “All skin folk ain’t kin folk,” so I want to be clear that I am talking about critical EOC; EOC with a strong foundation in anti-racism and Ethnic Studies. My predecessor is a Black educator who said, “All lives matter,” and led a protest against the Black Trans and Queer themed day of Black Lives Matter at School. Critical EOC is key.

There are so many layers to this part of the data. First, critical EOC is key, which is why I’ve used the above caveat in three of the sections of this report already. Not only are leaders of Color weaponized, we are also tokenized. The example in the caveat is an example of tokenization. District administrators who chose to place that educator in that role only saw a Black woman and had no understanding of and/or no concern about Ethnic Studies and anti-racism. 

Another layer is the desire of EOC to step into leadership positions. I was wary of doing it partially because I saw the lack of respect for the position I stepped into with the example of my predecessor, and largely because I have heard the horror stories of leaders of Color and how they’ve been treated and pushed out in the past. And now here I am, two years in and on administrative leave… I wrote about my apprehension when I accepted the job, including the fact that I knew the Borg would come for me eventually (except I used Star Wars analogies). “If that happens, I’ll be ready, and if I get pushed out, I’ll be ready. The next rebel will come, though, and their work will be easier because of the chunk I’ll take with me.” The reality is that many EOC balk at stepping into leadership positions because they know their revolutionary visions aren’t welcome.

The last layer I’ll address here – which is definitely not the end of the layers – that came from the data are the systemic barriers in place that prevent EOC from being seen as viable leaders. I think Linda painted the best picture of this: “I think there are historic barriers of who is promoted, who is connected, and who is seen as a leader. Those barriers need to be addressed and removed. Also how people who are already seen as leaders are then continually tapped for other things (leading to burnout) or on the other side people are designated as a leader and then are not encouraged or forced to keep learning and leading…so they get stagnant.” It’s important to note that the leaders who are “tapped” to lead initiatives are almost never promoted and provided the title for the resume or the increased income for their intellectual and emotional labor. Instead, white leaders keep those perks for themselves and check a box with a Brown face on the work. And while Linda was not being specific about EOC, her statement rings true with so many EOC. The fact that we’re disproportionately disciplined at higher rates precludes us from many leadership opportunities.

Leader Practitioners

The respondents were clear in their data: they want leaders who get shit done. Like Heather said, “Walk the Talk. Actions speak louder than words.” Gina agrees with Heather, expressing her frustration saying, “I am tired of barriers. Words need to match actions. If people see themselves as thoughtful, educated, and progressive, they can’t just talk about it while blocking action.” As you can see, the emergent theme of Ineffective leaders, including too few EOC is very closely tied with the All Talk. No Action. theme. I think all of the emergent themes are to some degree, but for this one, the leaders are the ones who are talking too much and acting too little. Or in some cases, acting in a destructive manner, as with district 1.

I’m struggling to write more on this, but what more is there to say? It seems pretty straight-forward – do something! Back your words up with actions. Get on board Sarah’s sense of urgency: “We have to do this work. It is too important not to make it a priority, regardless of barriers.

Concluding Thoughts on Words and Deeds

I’m not sure how I feel after looking at these data. What and who we have isn’t working for Ethnic Studies or anti-racism in our schools. Going back to part two and the systems theory pyramid – how do we change the hearts and minds of the named leaders or force them to make way for visionary emerging leaders? Does the answer lie in educator unions? Maybe a formal alliance between students, families, and educator unions? I always consider Frederick Douglass’ wisdom when he said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Can we rely on existing leaders? The answer is looking like, “No.” 

Next week’s post will be the final post called “Now What?” Unlike the first four parts, part 5 will be a personal reflection on the data, what I knew before analyzing this data, what I learned, and what I think we need to do to make Ethnic Studies and anti-racism a reality in public schools.

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The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

Part 3: Policy

Welcome to part 3 of the 5 part series, The Failures of Ethnic Studies (and how to fix them); Ethnic studies educators advise administrators. For ease in reading, I am including the color-coded table of respondents and the graphic of the emergent themes. If that’s confusing for you, please see part 1: Introduction.

Respondent Demographics

Respondent names are pseudonyms. The colors will be used in quotes to help you follow trends between and within districts.

Emergent Themes

These are the four dominant themes that emerged from the data that I will be referring to and they will be bolded and italicized to bring your attention to them.

Policy

I chose to ask a question about policy for these interviews because it’s part of the systems theory I use when analyzing how systems operate and where to apply leverage to affect change. The dictionary defines policy as “a course or principle of action.” If we go back to the systems theory diagram from part two and use the dictionary definition, policy lives in the philosophies and paradigms (principles) section and the trends in policy and practice (action) section, yet it tends to receive the least attention in education activist work, especially at the district level. When thinking about where to apply pressure, policy hits two major parts of a system and has the power to affect the ultimate outcomes.

I think for me, personally, this is where the most interesting and enlightening data appeared. A couple of other themes emerged in this data, but they are minor themes. I want to discuss those first, then get into how most of the respondents felt about the policy needed and the efficacy of current policy. 

Sub-Theme 1: White, Male Optimism

Two white males were interviewed for this report: David and Jacob. Overall, they provided the most optimistic responses, but that trend is most clear in the section on policy. For example, when asked if he felt existing policy is effective, David’s response was, “Yes.” There was no critical thought or analysis of the effectiveness of the policy, but his colleague, who is also white but female, gave a more cautiously optimistic reply. Acknowledging that the process is still very new, Dawn states, “The move to create an ES course and providing time for teachers and district level employees to create the course has been positive. However, I am concerned that only opening this course creation to social studies teachers has resulted in very low inclusion of teachers of color.

Jacob claims that, while his district has a race and equity policy, there is no policy for Ethnic Studies, specifically. He explains that he may prefer it this way. “I worry that if ES is mandated via policy, it would put the system in charge of ES,  making it easier to control and defuse the work. As we function now, ES lives in a gray space, ‘in but not of’ the system, allowing the growing program to be flexible and adapt as needed. For now, this is working.” He further explains that, “having a board policy that tells me my work is to ‘eliminate systemic disparities’ and ‘ensure systemic equity’ provides a sense of purpose and support for ES work.

A few things about Jacob’s statements stand out to me. First, he is the only respondent to prefer there be no policy or mandate. Second, it’s important to know that Jacob is a district teacher on special assignment (TOSA) for his district’s Ethnic Studies program, so he has positional power and racial and gender privilege. Third, I’m struck by the idea that having a policy provides a “sense of purpose” for Jacob. It would be interesting to survey the respondents further on the sources of their drives for social and racial justice. While the policy Jacob cites claims to “eliminate systemic disparities” and has the most direct language of the three district equity policies, it still provides no accountability other than stating, “The Board directs the Superintendent to develop and implement a system-wide racial equity plan with clear accountability and metrics, which will result in measureable academic improvements for [district 5] students. The Superintendent shall regularly report progress on the plan and outcomes.

Why are the only two white, male respondents so optimistic and positive about their experiences in their districts? It’s an interesting trend that should be further explored. Are they not seeing and feeling the resistance, or does their whiteness and gender shield them from resistance? And does their positivity gain access for them to decision making spaces that are less available to a critical EOC who is likely perceived as angry and jaded?

Sub-Theme 2: Policy Does What?

Only a few educators demonstrated a clear understanding of the role of policy in terms of their roles as educators. When asked what policies exist or should exist to support Ethnic Studies, most educators responded with staffing or curriculum options. For example, David’s response to the question, “Does your district have existing policies that support ethnic studies?” was, “Yes—we will have a 12th grade senior social studies elective course offered at all three high schools starting 20-21 school year.” 

The conflation of policy with goals, both board and superintendent goals, was another pattern in the data. When asked if she believed existing policies are effective, Dawn responded, “Our School Board supports this; this will be helpful to run interference IF pockets of resistance emerge.” It’s important to note that superintendent and board goals change with the players, whereas policy is systemic and dictates how operations are managed. Goals are more fluid, whereas policy change requires board approval. For example, under Superintendent Larry Nyland, Ethnic Studies was a prominent board and superintendent goal in Seattle Public Schools, which made it possible to direct funding and resources to the new Ethnic Studies program. When Superintendent Juneau came on board and led the creation of her new strategic plan, Ethnic Studies was omitted, thus removing the funds from the Ethnic Studies program. Had there been an Ethnic Studies policy, the funding would have survived the shift in goals.

Larry Nyland’s Plan

Denise Juneau’s Plan

All Talk. No Action.

The All talk. No action. theme dominated the policy data. I believe two things are happening in the data that led to this: not understanding the role of policy may cause people to believe district leaders say one thing and do another, when actually they are following the policy or lack thereof; and those who do understand policy understand that existing policies lack authority and accountability. District 1 educators referenced this theme the most, which makes sense since it is the only district with a racial equity policy that contains the least direct language on implementation and accountability of the three districts. And as Heather argues, “The policy itself doesn’t mean anything unless concert[ed] measures are implemented.” I argue that, especially when it comes to racism, this is purposeful (#ReWhiting).

Sandy doesn’t know of any policy that includes Ethnic Studies specifically, but says, “Policies? Not really. I mean Ethnic Studies has been included in some decisions and trainings and language, but that is not enough,indicating an understanding of the need for policy to go beyond rhetoric. But what happens when policy is blatantly violated with impunity? Faith references the existing racial equity policy in her district, saying, “Presently the Policy is ineffective is (sic) when each commitment has been violated by the disbanding, closing, and erasure of the Ethnic Studies department.” Faith isn’t alone in stating that district 1 goes beyond the All talk. No Action. theme and actually violates existing district policy. Brian implies the violation of district policy is a function of Ineffective leadership, including too few POC, saying, “[T]he new superintendent doesn’t seem willing to support the work.

No Mandate

So, what do we do about policies that lack concerted implementation measures? I’m going to try to suggest what types of policies may be helpful based on what respondents indicated is missing in their districts to support an Ethnic Studies program. Complaints about there being No mandate seem to hold the answers to what types of policies are needed. After all, a policy can be a way to mandate implementation if it has actionable language. 

The equity policies in each district call out some kind of closing of gaps, but they fall short of mandating any actions to do that. District 2, for example has an “equity policy” that “directs the Superintendent to develop and implement a system-wide equity plan with clear accountability, transparency, and measures,” but as mentioned earlier, a “plan” can change with the superintendent, making this policy useless in terms of implementation and accountability. And while district 2’s equity policy specifically calls out racism: “The Board acknowledges that institutional racism exists and that longstanding institutional biases have resulted in significant, measurable, system-wide achievement inequities for students,” the superintendent’s “equity plan” for professional development skips over anti-racism (it’s not mentioned anywhere in the plan) and directly into “racial equity,” thus Leading with equity instead of anti-racism. In fact, all three districts with some form of equity policy are Leading with equity instead of anti-racism.

As mentioned previously, Jacob is the only educator to not call for a mandate. Every other educator called for a mandate of some type. I am making four recommendations for must have policies for a successful Ethnic Studies program based on the respondents’ insights.

Policy Recommendation 1 – Mandate anti-racist and Ethnic Studies professional development

For the districts that haven’t started any Ethnic Studies program a huge barrier is there’s No Mandate for educators to engage in anti-racist PD. In fact, none of the 5 districts has a mandate for anti-racist PD, but this barrier seems to be exponentially insurmountable in the districts that don’t even have an equity policy. Terry tells a story about their efforts to collaborate with colleagues on Ethnic Studies curriculum development and how the lack of anti-racist professional development complicates it: “I’m currently working largely with folks in our curriculum department, but none of them have substantial background in equity work, much less ethnic studies. I often find myself re-explaining the basic principles of an ethnic studies curriculum while content and curriculum that amplify dominant narratives and fail to critically engage systems of power are pushed on me.

Several educators, including those in districts with equity policies, indicate a need for a mandate of anti-racist and Ethnic Studies professional development.

David – “ALL educators and district personnel must be trained in cultural relevance training and how to engage with our students and communities of color, this is not just a classroom teacher and administrator task, this is office managers, bus drivers, paras, nutrition services, and maintenance staff too.

Sarah – “Without a mandate, policy, training and support, this spotty grass roots way of teaching Ethnic Studies is not making the impact that our students need.

Sandy – “ . . . the district needs to offer high-quality PD for ethnic studies teachers such as the Ethnic Studies two week training or bring in guests like the XITO institute. Both of these things have been done by [the Ethnic Studies Program Manager] and they were the best and most useful PD I have ever been a part of, and truthfully, the only district PD that has actually improved my practice.

A few calls were also made for mandated curriculum, like a graduation requirement, but the overall emphasis was on professional development. Educators fear that a mandate on curriculum could have negative unintended consequences. I have witnessed firsthand how educators think they are already teaching Ethnic Studies, but are actually perpetuating harmful stereotypes and racist tropes, particularly when teaching about the U.S. history of genocide and slavery.

Policy Recommendation 2 – Define the type, number, and degree of EOC leadership in Ethnic Studies

District 2 is in the process of creating a high school Ethnic Studies course and has a team of 10 educators working on developing it. Of the ten, only 3 identify as EOC – specifically 2 Native American members and 1 Indigenous/Pacific Islander member. I had to pause as I typed that because this is something I frequently run into. Ethnic Studies comes from a history of violent struggle led by mainly Black and Chicano activists. Knowing that a majority of white educators are working on an Ethnic Studies initiative triggers a visceral response for me. How is this, in itself, not a form of #ReWhiting? Dawn addresses this issue in district 2: “I hope in [the] future, we can broaden the content and invite more [EOC] to the table. However, I also acknowledge that this work should not solely be on the shoulders of [EOC], but I feel we need to have their voices driving the conversations. This lack of representations may need to be addressed by district level policy.

I recognize there is legal precedent forbidding racial quotas; however, a policy that requires a system check of Ethnic Studies and anti-racist work being done, something akin to an equity tool, can and should be mandated via policy. If an Ethnic Studies or anti-racist initiative is being led by mostly white educators, there should be some evidence about the efforts – and failures – to recruit EOC to the work and a plan to address these issues.

*Caveat: Here I am reminded by the voices in my head that, “All skin folk ain’t kin folk,” so I want to be clear that I am talking about critical EOC; EOC with a strong foundation in anti-racism and Ethnic Studies. My predecessor is a Black educator who said, “All lives matter,” and led a protest against the Black Trans and Queer themed day of Black Lives Matter at School. Critical EOC is key.

Policy Recommendation 3 – Protect anti-racist educators

We are still in situations in which districts have equity, race and equity, and racial equity policies and are still pushing out anti-racist educators. I could offer myself up as an example if I weren’t barred from discussing the details of a current investigation into some of my recent anti-racist actions, but I’m sure many of us don’t have to look too far to find someone who has been punished or intimidated because of their anti-racist work. Sarah tells about just such an incident she experienced: “I had a student removed by the principal to place them in another classroom because the family did not like what I was teaching in the classroom. The principal said my ‘Got Privilege’ shirts, lanyard, and education were “divisive” and her talking to me was intimidating.

If we can’t protect anti-racist educators from the inevitable push back from families and community, we can’t have a successful Ethnic Studies program. It was a white family member that set into motion one of the more notorious incidents in Seattle Public Schools when the district suspended Jon Greenberg’s curriculum on race. That was in 2013, and some argue the only reason it received such media attention and support from the union is because Jon is a white man. We know that EOC are disproportionately punished at similar rates as students of Color and while white educators leave the profession after an average of 5 years, EOC only stay for an average of three years – and that’s ALL EOC, not just the anti-racist ones. It seems a policy is in order.

Policy Recommendation 4 – Locally sourced curricula

This recommendation takes a page out of the definitions of anti-racism in part 1 of this series. The corporate nature of curriculum is part of the racist institution that white-washes curriculum. Even if you ignore that reality, Ethnic Studies is rooted in indigenous epistemologies, which means a connection to land and community. Ethnic Studies curricula should be created by the people it is meant to serve. I think Sarah said it best: “We don’t need some corporate watered-down version of Ethnic Studies. We need this to be led by strong educators of color – not someone who is bought off to shut down the anti-racism work.

Seattle Public Schools has actually created this policy by amending an existing policy dictating the process of selecting new curricula. The policy was amended to include educator created curriculum as an option instead of limiting the process to corporate textbook bids. It’s a start, and I think it doesn’t go far enough. There needs to be a provision for including student and family voice in the creation of that curriculum. 

Concluding Thoughts on Policy

This data left me wondering what the role of NEA and its affiliates could play in educating their members about the role and impact of policy. The data make it clear that educators and activists will miss the mark every time if they are confusing policies with goals and aren’t working to hold the district accountable to the policies that already exist. It’s hard to hold someone accountable to a concept you don’t understand. I don’t even know the answer to this question, but why can’t educators write policy? Can community members and students write policy? Do we have to wait for district administrators to propose the policies recommended from these data? That sounds like a next step: research the process of proposing policy – who can write and propose it to school boards for approval?

Next week’s post will cover the responses to the third question, “What do district leaders need to do and say to support implementation?”

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The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

Part 2: Infrastructure

Welcome to part 2 of the 5 part series, The Failures of Ethnic Studies (and how to fix them); Ethnic studies educators advise administrators. For ease in reading, I am including the color-coded table of respondents and the graphic of the emergent themes. If that’s confusing for you, please see part 1: Introduction.

Respondent Demographics

Respondent names are pseudonyms. The colors will be used in quotes to help you follow trends between and within districts.

Emergent Themes

These are the four dominant themes that emerged from the data that I will be referring to and they will be bolded and italicized to bring your attention to them.

Infrastructure

Respondents were asked the question, “What type of infrastructure is required at the district level to support implementation?” The sub-questions asked questions about district structuring. For example, one sub-question asked, “Ideally, what department should ethnic studies work live in?” Questions were also asked about staffing and what types of positions exist to support anti-racism and Ethnic Studies. 

              

#ReWhiting

An interesting cycle of sorts emerged from the data, in that we have districts in different phases of implementation from hostility, to early implementation, to “end stages.” Districts 3 and 4 don’t have an equity policy, though district leaders talk about equity in their goals and operational rhetoric. Educators from both districts paint a picture of a working environment that is hostile. Sarah and Terry provided the most anecdotes about their experiences with blatant racism and inaction from the district in the face of racism. District 4 has had an Equity Director position unfilled for over a year, and Sarah says, When I search in the district site for Equity under staff or Equity Team, the search yields zero results.” 

Districts 2 and 5 are in the early implementation stage of Ethnic Studies. District 2 is currently developing a high school course they hope to be available to high school students next school year. District 5 has been delivering Ethnic Studies through high school courses for about 4 years, recently began an 8th grade course, and is hoping to expand to elementary school. District 2 has an “equity” plan and policy and district 5 has a “race and equity” policy.

District 1 is the only district represented in the data that has a “racial equity” policy. District 1 is in what I’m calling end stage implementation, with “end stage” meaning Ethnic Studies and anti-racist educators are coming under attack from the institution which is actively dismantling the gains made. Linda explains what this looks like: “The District HAD a Ethnic Studies [Program Manager] and the Ethnic Studies Advisory [Group], but those positions are under attack.” 

Gina adds, “[The Ethnic Studies Program Manager] was there, and she had hundreds of us ready to revolutionize the way we teach, and then she wasn’t there anymore (except that she totally is, and we’re still here, too.).” Gina’s statement is in reference to the grassroots origins of the movement. Though district 1 may currently be hostile to Ethnic Studies expansion, a group of educators is persisting and organizing to fight back.

District 1, more than any other district represented here, embodies the All talk. No action. theme, since they are dismantling an Ethnic Studies program despite their racial equity policy and other racial equity goals. Their actions are what my best friend and fellow teacher activist calls “#ReWhiting.” #ReWhiting is what happens when racial justice crosses implicit boundaries – goes beyond box checking – in racist organizations. The organization mutates their systemically racist policies and practices to absorb the anti-racist efforts and keep them in check. Kind of like an institutionally racist Borg.

I’ve looked for answers to what comes after end stage implementation, but I can’t find any examples. The Tucson Mexican American studies program comes to mind, but the Borg came for it, too. I suppose one could look to university Ethnic Studies departments and programs, but even those are continually under threat of losing funding, and if students don’t have opportunities to take Ethnic Studies courses prior to college, they aren’t likely to enroll in them once they leave the K-12 system. I suppose, at least in district 1, the next stage is being written. Some believe, however, that this will be an endless #ReWhiting loop and Ethnic Studies is meant to be a struggle. 

Organizational Structure

Educators were asked to describe the structures that exist in their districts that support anti-racist Ethnic Studies curricula and what they believe is missing in their organization’s structures. The leading theme for these responses was Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC. This is a particularly interesting topic to consider because “It’s just the way we’ve always done it” seems to be the reason for existing structures. I know that, in my district at least, the organizational structure creates a competitive environment that silos work and pits departments against one another for funding and human resources. In my opinion, this is a product of capitalism and the politics of scarcity as well as the hierarchical structuring of leadership that enables white supremacy to have a stronghold.

To that end, most responses to these questions were about radical changes to organizational structures. Educators in district 1 indicated the structure of the Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction Department (CAI), itself, needs to be reorganized to meet the needs of a viable Ethnic Studies program. Linda blames Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC, stating, “I don’t see folks in CAI being leaders in this work so it would take a complete overhaul.” Heather goes a step further and offers a concrete suggestion on how to start this overhaul: “Ideally, the Ethnic Studies Department should oversee other departments because its framework is fundamental to all aspects of education.

Ethnic Studies belongs in every grade level, content area, and department because Ethnic Studies is education reform, not just curriculum.

Sarah worries about Ethnic Studies being marginalized like many other programs that are assumed to be only for the benefit of students of Color, like ELL services. Jacob contends that to prevent this marginalization, we must re-imagine how we teach and learn: “At its core, ES [Ethnic Studies] is about disrupting racial inequities through education and action. In practice, this requires that teachers and students learn and work in solidarity with each other (and their communities) to disrupt racist policies and practices within their own communities. For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.” Jacob’s philosophy frames the universal sentiment of respondents: Ethnic Studies belongs in every grade level, content area, and department because Ethnic Studies is education reform, not just curriculum. This calls to mind the No mandate theme. Is a mandate a solution? This will be discussed in part 3 of this series on policy.

Jacob’s statement may help explain why some districts are openly hostile to anti-racism and Ethnic Studies: its fundamental goal is to challenge power structures and white supremacy – the very thing modern education systems are built on. In an interview I conducted with former Seattle Public Schools’ Chief of CAI, Dr. Kyle Kinoshita, Dr. Kinoshita confirmed this perceived threat by district administrations. “However, in fact, what’s actually happened in this effort is that [some] top district leaders have actually treated this as something that is threatening, and so, therefore, has put limits upon the entire initiative, and put limits on all the stakeholders.” (#ReWhiting) This is an example of Ineffective leadership, including too few POC.

Organizational Leadership

We talk about “systems,” “institutions,” and “organizations” like they are some nebulous entity free from human influence, but I like to start with systems theory; systems exist because of the philosophies and paradigms of individual humans working together. When we want to move a system, we start with the individuals. We change hearts and minds. In the case of district administration, it’s the district leaders who have proven to be intractable. This seems to be why the Ineffective leadership, including too few POC emerged most clearly in this section of the data. The fact that the respondents believe anti-racism is a prerequisite to racial equity may give another clue about why the Ineffective leadership, including too few POC theme was so popular here.

For example, Faith believes that Leading with equity instead of anti-racism is failing to dismantle racist organization structures, full of Ineffective leadership, including too few POC: “It is not enough for Administration to not be actively against Ethnic Studies; they need to be actively fighting for it and supporting it. It takes transformation of positions and leadership. The system of education as it is designed currently (in my district specifically and in school districts generally) does not support ethnic studies.” 

To quote Heather: “We need a visionary leader.

Indeed it took visionary leadership to break through a district that was refusing to say “Black Lives Matter” in 2016, but that’s exactly what a group of dedicated activists did in 2017 in Seattle Public Schools. Then superintendent, Dr. Larry Nyland, forbade district employees from wearing #BlackLivesMatter t-shirts and had district employees wear “EOG” (end opportunity gap) shirts, instead (Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC). By 2018, not only were district employees wearing #BlackLivesMatter shirts, but the district was paying educators to write Black Lives Matter at School curriculum for the entire district. These are some of the same activist educators who wrote the curriculum for Ethnic Studies in Seattle Public Schools. Dr. Kinoshita explained that this visionary leadership came from outside of district leadership. “So, in that sense, that form of leadership came external to the district structure which was kind of important in the sense that within the district structure there were built in barriers to the authentic development of that work, but by having the leadership external, this ensured those barriers didn’t impede the development of the content.” But as we see with district 1, grassroots efforts are easily dismantled precisely because they come from external forces.

Unions – The District Isn’t Entirely to Blame

Though the questions posed to educators were specifically about district operations, several respondents brought up union action, or more aptly, inaction. Keeping to the #ReWhiting cycle, the districts that are most hostile to anti-racist work have the most anti-racism hostile unions and the district pushing the hardest for structural change has the most active anti-racist union work. Sarah, from district 4, is hopeful that her union will turn around with a change in leadership (Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC), but she tells a story of how bad it can be:

We have had a local union president who has forcibly pushed back against all equity work within our union. She is gone now, and our newly elected Executive Board has more diversity and people who are interested in leading anti-racism work within the district. Our new Pro-Tem President and Rep. Council approved an endorsement of Black Lives Matter at School Week but did not do any special professional development or organizing around it.  This is only a small step in the right direction.  We have a very long ways to go and much work to do to build community relationships with BIPoC and our union members.

Several respondents call for more severe consequences for educators who engage in racism. Terry tells a story of a blatantly racist incident in their district that had no consequences for the offender. Oftentimes, district administrators will blame the teachers’ unions for inaction, claiming contract language limits their options. Sometimes this is true, and it’s fair to say that educator associations aren’t doing enough to mitigate harm caused by their members. And sometimes finger-pointing is just another form of All talk. No Action.

. . . in January one of our white security guards called a Black student the N-word multiple times over the course of two days. He also threatened him physically. Five Black students witnessed the incident. That security guard was never held accountable, students were never called in to explain what happened, and the teachers who brought the issue to the attention of administration were gas lit and pressured to stop ‘stirring the pot’.

Concluding Thoughts on Infrastructure

To bring this full circle back to the #ReWhiting cycle, a pattern emerged in the data from the question on infrastructure. Educators in districts 3 and 4 are in the hostility stage, struggling to start some kind of movement toward anti-racism. They are operating under fear, urgency, and hostility. Educators in districts 2 and 5 are in the early implementation stage. Their responses, while still critical at times, are mostly optimistic. They felt supported at this point and are hopeful about the outcomes. They were more philosophical in their responses, reflecting on their own positions in the work. Educators in district 1 are d-o-n-e, done. They have been radicalized and are in fight mode. They see the Borg and have phasers on kill. They are also the educators that talked the most about ineffective leadership and the need to restructure the district. It’s unclear what the next stage will be, but for a viable Ethnic Studies program, this is where district administrators should be looking – especially districts like 2 and 5. What organizational structures are impeding the work? What vision do current leaders lack? How do we change the hearts and minds of district leaders? How can we re-imagine the infrastructure of education to support Ethnic Studies?

Next week’s post will cover the responses to the second question, “What policies are in place and what policies are needed to support implementation?”

STAY TUNED!

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SEA President Runoff!

The first round of elections for SEA officer positions is complete and the Schools Seattle Deserves slate won every single position that ran! Congrats to the newly-elected anti-racist educator leaders!

The fight isn’t over, yet, though! Jon still needs support to win his bid for president of SEA. WAESN is endorsing Jon and the slate because we are excited about the possibility of it becoming a model for educator locals across the State! We compiled a pro/con list prior to the first round of voting that has been updated to include only Jon and his opponent, Jennifer Matter.

And now that the slate has won several victories, we want to share what the newly-elected leaders have to say about why they’re supporting Jon for SEA President! Imagine the power of anti-racist educators holding nearly all leadership positions in SEA!

Jennifer Dunn – SEA Board of Directors, High School
I am voting for Jon Greenberg because he is the organizer we need to lead the fight against white supremacy and white fragility in Seattle Public Schools. He knows how to uplift the voices of students and educators of color and knows how to build strong relationships with families and communities to counter the hierarchy of SPS.
Michelle Vecchio – SEA Board of Directors, High School
Jon has the support of members of SEA, parents, community activists, and Seattle leaders, because he knows that our success in strengthening and supporting the schools Seattle deserves rests upon building strong ties within and across schools and in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities beyond the walls of our buildings.
Edmund Trangen – SEA Board of Directors, High School
Jon Greenberg has inspired his students, colleagues and community through his activism and advocacy, and as our union president, he will do what he’s always done: demand better for our members, our students and our society.
Jeff Treistman – SEA Board of Directors, Middle School
I am voting for Jon Greenberg because I believe he understands that the fight against white supremacy culture means utilizing our power as a union, our collective labor. With us at his back he will not back down and together we will work for the schools that we deserve.
Amanda Hubbard – SEA Board of Directors, Elementary School
I believe in hard work and I believe in action and Jon Greenberg has both of these qualities in spades. He’s been an educator and community organizer for 20+ years working alongside BIPOC to make our schools better for our students. I believe in his experience and frankly, his results. We deserve a partner and leader who’s not afraid to stand up for racial equity and demand our district be better. It’s the right time to hold SPS accountable to its policies. It’s the right time to continue our fight for racial equity. It’s the right time for Jon Greenberg, veteran educator and steadfast union member, to lead.
Bruce Jackson – SEA Board of Directors, Paraprofessionals
Both candidates are strong, but I’ve worked with Jon on the front lines in our struggle for Ethnic Studies and Racial Equity. I know he can lead us to new levels of Educational Justice while maintaining fair pay. He is the one we need to get us through the eminent contract negotiations and the blowback from Covid 19.
Sarah Lockenvitz – SEA Board of Directors, Middle School
I’m voting for Jon because he has such skill mobilizing members and community members to challenge the status quo and white supremacy. Also I admire how he uplifts and emboldens students’ voices!
Jennifer Lee Hall – SEA Board of Directors, High School
I am voting for Jon Greenberg because he understands the urgency of rooting out the white supremacist constructs that still abound in the Seattle School District — the policies and practices that harm our students and staffs, and effectively stop real education from happening. He is the leader who will work to effect lasting, needed changes in the way the SEA advocates for our members, our students, and our families. Vote Greenberg!
Marquita Prinzing – Director of the Center for Racial Equity
I am voting for Jon because in my work as the Director of the Center for Racial Equity, I have experienced the way Jon centers POC voices, specifically women of Color. I have seen him in spaces with educators and students of Color where he is being visibly reflective on how much space he’s taking up and checking himself on when to step forward or step back. His ability to recognize and use his privilege gives him one of his greatest skills – collaborating with diverse groups, and when the most equity literate people feel seen and heard when working with him, that is a sign that he’s the right person to lead with us, not for us, in achieving racial justice. I know this because I feel seen and heard by Jon. I’m voting for Jon because I know he isn’t in this for personal power or gain; the power in everything he does and every issue he values is with the people, and he will infallibly fight for meaningful, systemic change to achieve what we know is right for us and our students.

The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

Part 1: Introduction

Washington State Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) has posted a couple of blog posts regarding the debacle that is the Ethnic Studies situation in Seattle Public Schools. Since I have been working on the Ethnic Studies initiative starting in 2016, I have encountered time and again situations wherein administrators are the barrier to Ethnic Studies and anti-racist work. This got me to wondering about the experiences of educators in other districts, so I reached out to educators who are currently teaching Ethnic Studies content in various districts and asked the following questions to try to understand what educators who are doing the work need from administrators to implement a viable Ethnic Studies program:

What type of infrastructure is required at the district level to support implementation?

What policies are in place and what policies are needed to support implementation?

What do district leaders need to do and say to support implementation?

I interviewed eleven educators from five districts via email to understand their experiences, perspectives, and needs in relation to Ethnic Studies curriculum implementation. Member checks were regularly conducted with respondents to verify I am accurately interpreting and presenting the data. To protect these educators, I am providing pseudonyms for both the educators and their districts, but their racial, ethnic, and gender identities are provided, since those are traits important to consider with their responses. I will color code their quotes to help readers follow the trends in the different districts. 

The purpose of collecting data and reporting on the findings here is to offer insight to district and state administrators who are considering or implementing an Ethnic Studies program. I hope that it will offer some insight into to the expertise of educators and other activists who are trying to push a program into their districts, including the barriers they face. My hope is that this data will help district leaders, named or emergent, understand where their anti-racist educators are in anti-racist praxis, what they’re accomplishing, how they’re struggling, and what they need to support anti-racist educators and a viable, robust Ethnic Studies program.

This will be a 5 part series broken down into the following posts:

  1. Introduction – That’s what you’re reading now.
  2. Infrastructure – an analysis of the responses to question 1
  3. Policy – an analysis of the responses to question 2
  4. Words and Deeds – an analysis of responses to question 3
  5. What Now? – a discussion of where we go next based on the data

*DISCLOSURES*

I am employed as a district administrator for one of the districts represented. It’s challenging to maintain confidentiality for respondents and disclose my exact position in the data being analyzed. There is reasonable fear of retaliation against respondents, so this is the most information I can disclose at this time.

I identify as Xicana and use they/them and she/her pronouns.

I am a Doctor of Philosophy candidate writing a dissertation on the relationship between curriculum and retention of educators of Color. The major of my program is education with a concentration on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and evaluation. I have an undergraduate degree in social sciences and a Master’s degree in teaching social studies. I am certified in the State of Washington to teach social studies and English language arts in grades 5-12. I am the Executive Director of WAESN.

Respondent Demographics

Academic Language

Going through the responses made it clear that the first follow up/clarification question I needed to ask of the participants was how they define equity, racial equity, and anti-racism because they did not use them interchangeably, as some tend to do. I think that’s an important distinction to make before I offer an analysis on the responses to other questions. I’m less concerned with “official” or theoretical definitions, and more concerned with how these educators define the terms, since their personal definitions impact their practice more than anything else. Interestingly, the educators who offered responses to my clarifying questions all gave similar definitions. 

Equity – Every educator responded that equity means providing access to systems and resources, focusing on groups that are historically and presently marginalized. 

Racial Equity – This term means the same thing as equity, but with a focus on race and acknowledgment of systems of racial oppression.

Anti-racism – This is where there is some variation in opinion among the educators. Every educator used the term “dismantle” in their definition. They all see anti-racism as dismantling racially unjust systems, institutions, practices, and beliefs. A couple educators included capitalism as one system that needs to be dismantled, particularly when it comes to high-stakes testing and standardized, Eurocentric curriculum, and a few white educators included the need to work on their own racism and biases. 

Terry says, “I do not think the vast majority of our administrators can even begin to imagine how corporations and testing and other seemingly innocuous and color-blind practices and institutions are barriers to equity. They do not see the ways that our schools policies and procedures were designed by a privileged class of white folks and correspondingly protect the interests of those people.” This alludes to the general feeling of all the educators that anti-racism is a prerequisite to racial equity; policy and decision makers have to understand and be literate in racial oppression, what it looks like and how it manifests, before they can begin to address inequities. 

Jacob agrees with Terry’s sentiment about which order the terms need to occur: “For me, racial equity is the ultimate goal, but to achieve racial equity, systems and the individuals within the system, must approach their work from an anti-racist stance. For me, it is a prerequisite, a mindset, and a practice that needs to be in place in order for racial equity work to occur.

And Sarah shared her feelings about this order of operations by quoting Paul Gorski: “Equity efforts should never be about fixing anything about students who are marginalized in schools. They should always – always – be about fixing whatever is marginalizing students in schools… Effective equity efforts focus not on fixing students of color, but on eliminating racist conditions.

I’m starting with these definitions to build some background knowledge to better understand why these educators feel the way they do. A tangible knowledge gap exists between the educators implementing Ethnic Studies in their classrooms and administrators who are writing policy and making funding, and therefore, staffing decisions. This gap is the source of noticeable frustration in the responses of the educators. 

This knowledge gap translates into a policy and practice gap with every district represented skipping over anti-racism and going directly into equity. Districts 1, 2, and 5 have equity policies, but none have anti-racist policies. In my work as an administrator, I frequently see school leaders using equity, racial equity, and anti-racism interchangeably. In a conversation with racial equity leaders in my district I asked what we were doing to define and delineate these terms with our teaching staff. The response was, “I don’t know why that’s important,” from one leader and, “It was hard enough getting people to say racial equity,” from another. We’re in trouble when that’s what our “racial equity leaders” think.

Emergent Themes

The questions posed to these educators were about what they need to successfully implement a viable Ethnic Studies program, and the themes that emerged from the data indicate districts are operating in a deficit. The message was that none of the districts are close to ready. Below is a graphic representation of the four major themes that emerged from the data. Though the questions were asked in an asset based framework, asking what exists and what is needed, the answers were largely framed in a deficit model that quickly went from asking how we can make Ethnic Studies successful to Ethnic Studies educators venting about district leadership failures. This fact is data that administrators should seriously consider when planning racial equity initiatives. They can’t expect educators who feel unprepared, undervalued, and under-resourced to carry out lofty goals and strategies.

All talk. No action. – This theme presented itself more than any other theme. It appeared across responses to all questions and all districts. Every single respondent brought it up in some form or another. It means exactly what it sounds like. The educators felt that most “equity” work in their district was more about buzzwords and empty goals and policies than actually working to meet the needs of students of Color, let alone anti-racism.

Ineffective leadership, including too few EOC – For this theme, I included both positive and negative statements, including statements about poor leadership, the need for “visionary” leadership, the lack of educators of Color (EOC) leading racial equity work, and the need for EOC to be in leadership positions, in general. 

*Caveat: Here I am reminded by the voices in my head that, “All skin folk ain’t kin folk,” so I want to be clear that I am talking about critical EOC; EOC with a strong foundation in anti-racism and Ethnic Studies. My predecessor is a Black educator who said, “All lives matter,” and led a protest against the Black Trans and Queer themed day of Black Lives Matter at School. Critical EOC is key.

No mandates – Again, this sounds just like what it says. None of the districts represented in the data has a mandate for anti-racist or Ethnic Studies professional development (PD) (not even anti-bias PD), and none has a mandate that students take an Ethnic Studies course. Respondents felt like a lack of a mandate allowed educators to opt-out of anti-racist work, especially those who need it most.

Leading with equity instead of anti-racism. – “Racial equity” is the shit right now. It’s everywhere. Sometimes, it’s just “equity,” you know… for the fragile folks who can’t say “race.” As mentioned above, anti-racist educators see racial equity as the end goal and anti-racism as the starting line, but no districts have anti-racist policies; they have equity and racial equity policies. Respondents are feeling this misalignment of work, and that’s part of the reason the All talk. No Action. theme was so prevalent.

Concluding Thoughts on the Introduction

Hopefully, this introduction sets the reader up with the appropriate language and framing for the analyses to come in future posts. Reading the interview responses was painful at times, as the frustration and disappointment was palpable, especially from respondents of Color and other marginalized groups. One goal of WAESN is to create a collective community of critical educators, and reading these responses helped me understand the urgent need for this to become a reality. Some folks are out there in hostile districts trying to do this alone, but if we can start to get on the same page, have the same working definitions of Ethnic Studies and anti-racism, then maybe we can offer some support for those of y’all who are isolated but persevering! 

Next week’s post will cover the responses to the first question, “What type of infrastructure is required at the district level to support implementation?”

STAY TUNED!

If you appreciate our work, please consider subscribing to our organization. You will become an official member of WAESN and receive invitations to our monthly board meetings.

Click the contribution button below to sign up for monthly donations. Want to donate more than $5 a month? You’ll have that opportunity after you click!

Thank you for your support.

SEA Presidential Candidates Pros and Cons

Today begins voting for Seattle Education Association’s officer elections. Members of the WAESN Board of Directors put together this pro/con list of each of the candidates running for SEA President because Ethnic Studies is a topic on some of the candidates’ platforms! WAESN has endorsed a slate that includes Jon Greenberg for president of SEA. This pro/con list makes the reasons pretty clear!

**The list has been updated (05/01/2020) to reflect the runoff election between Jon Greenberg and Jennifer Matter.

CandidateProsCons
Jon GreenbergJon’s campaign video includes some of the anti-racist and organizing work he’s been involved in on top of his 20+ years teaching in Seattle Public Schools.
Some highlights are:

SEA, WEA, and NEA representative experience

Organizing for racial justice at SEA, WEA, and NEA representative assemblies

Picket captain during the strike of 2015

Member of ERAC – a racial equity advisory group to the superintendent – since 2014

Led the initiative to create an Ethnic Studies Program in SPS with the NAACP in 2016

Member of the SPS Ethnic Studies Advisory Group

Advisor to the NAACP Youth Council

Jon is well versed in racial equity literacy through his anti-racist work and professional development to support his praxis as an Ethnic Studies educator for over 20 years.

Jon repeatedly shows up to publicly challenge district leadership about their lack of commitment to their own racial equity rhetoric.

He regularly and readily cedes time and space to BIPOC who may not have the access Jon’s white male privilege grants him.

Additionally, Jon has the endorsements of prominent educators and organizers of Color, including Nikkita Oliver, Larry Gosset, Jesse Hagopian, and our organization.
Jon has been accused of being divisive, but most of those accusations come from racially fragile community members who would rather not advance racial justice.

Jon is a white male leading racial justice. We recognize this is a paradox and we endorse him because we know no other candidate has his experience in praxis.

Jon can seem like he takes up a lot of space and exploits his white, male privilege, but it’s important to note that several educators of Color asked him to run for SEA president. Jon initially was wary of this idea and consulted with womxn of Color he respects who also told him to run. 

Jon wears a lot of hats both in education as well as in the community and may be spread too thin to accomplish the lengthy and ambitious objectives of the Slate. 
Jennifer MatterJennifer created a campaign video highlighting some of her union experience.
Some highlights are:

Bargaining in 2013, 2015, 2019

SEA Treasurer

Bylaws Committee Member 

SEA building representative

Jennifer, like Derek, claims to value racial equity, but lacks any evidence of working on racial equity initiatives other than serving on a building racial equity team.
Jennifer has great union leadership experience, and that seems to be where her experience ends. A Google search turned up nothing other than an SEA video from 2010 about the power of unions.