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.


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.


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. 



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?”


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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


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?”


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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.

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.

2020 SEA Officer Elections

Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) is in the process of filing for 501(c)4 status. We are choosing 4, instead of 3, so we can lobby for ethnic studies and racial justice on the State level, but today we want to start with local educator association elections! The WAESN Board of Directors has voted to endorse the Racial Justice/Ethnic Studies slate for Seattle Education Association’s (SEA) Officer Elections.

Additionally, the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG) has voted to endorse the Racial Justice/Ethnic Studies slate. Several ESAG members are running for various positions, as indicated below. This slate was assembled in response to the SPS central office administration’s blatant disregard and disruption of the Ethnic Studies and Racial Justice work union members have fought so hard for.

SEA is the only local in Washington State with a program focused on racial justice, the Center for Racial Equity, whose director is an elected position and part of the leadership team. SEA is leading the State on organizing for racial justice, and that is why WAESN is choosing to endorse this slate. Educator unions can be a powerful tool in advancing racial justice and Ethnic Studies and we hope this might serve as a model for all Washington Education Association locals.

The Slate

President: Jon Greeberg (ESAG Member)

Treasurer: Vallerie Fisher

Center for Racial Equity Director: Marquita Prinzing

SEA Board Members:


Amanda Hubbard (ESAG Member)

Usana Jordan

Middle School

Sarah Lockenvitz

Jeff Treistman

High School

Jennifer Dunn (ESAG Member)

Michelle Vecchio

Jennifer Hall

Edmund Trangen

Ian Golash

Paraprofessionals Department: Bruce Jackson (ESAG Member)

Substitute Department:

President: Stan Strasner

Vice President: Peter Henry

The Platform

Racial Equity

  • Centering ethnic studies and culturally responsive practices
  • Creating equitable systems for supporting students and improving restorative practices in our schools
  • Recruiting and retaining educators of Color
  • Eliminating standardized testing

Fully-Funded Public Schools

  • Hiring more support professionals, including family support workers, counselors, and full-time nurses in every building
  • Ensuring healthy and safe school environments
  • Advocating for progressive funding and budgeting at the district, city, and state levels

Empowerment of Our Union Community

  • Bargaining with transparency for the common good
  • Increasing member voices in union decision-making
  • Building more community partnerships
  • Holding district leadership accountable to its own policies and rhetoric

Critical Praxis

By Amy McClellan and Doug Baer

Of recent, we have had the fortune to collaborate with powerful people and change tact, avoiding a collision course with the annals of time and a legacy of “more teachers harming students.” Trapped in a seemingly sea of whiteness, we glimpsed on the horizon a building swell, a swell that would grow into a wave, like that of a tsunami. The aftermath of tremors from a fault line in Tucson Unified School District, a wave surging to the Greater Puget Sound region, spilling onto the school districts of Seattle, Edmonds, Shoreline, and Mukilteo. Though, as with all threats, bulkheads of resistance emerge, designed to weaken the impact of the impending change. Holes and cracks can’t keep all the water out. We will rise. Together.

Several school districts in Washington state are sideways-hugging the idea of incorporating Ethnic Studies, and creating space for change and liberation, while others will maintain a fortified white-washed bastion against it. Some districts will choose to adapt and grow, while others remain stuck in an antiquated, post-industrialized, racist schooling program that attends to the needs of some students, while harming the lives of many of our students. As good fortune would have it, we landed in districts that appear concerned with making the desperately needed changes, centering the lives of our students of color and moving to humanize the system of education. 

Mukilteo School District formed a committee comprised of seven educators from its three high schools, Assistant Superintendent, and Director of Curriculum, with the charge of creating and implementing an Ethnic Studies course; initially to be rolled out Fall of 2019, but quickly realized it was unobtainable because of the much-needed teacher growth, and thus pushed out to Fall of 2020.

Mukilteo School District’s Ethnic Studies committee intends to design a sustainable model, a program not designed for merely checking boxes, but a program with the flexibility to eventually go across all content areas, and vertically through all grade levels. The committee is grateful to not be alone in its journey, to be able to collaborate with members of neighboring school districts—some in infancy stages like Mukilteo, others in adolescent phases.  

A newly formed, committed group of like-minded educators from Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Shoreline gathers throughout the school year to lean into culturally responsive and anti-racist teaching. Jeff Stone, Ethnic Studies Lead in Edmonds, and the principal organizer, shared after our initial 2019-2020 gathering, “There is nothing more inspiring than a room full of educators, in the middle of November, engaging in after school learning meant to disrupt white supremacy.”

During the November gathering we worked in small groups, attempting to define and understand Ethnic Studies.

Draft of our Collective Thinking Thus Far from First Inter-District Gathering, 2019-2020

Additionally, we read “What is Ethnic Studies Pedagogy?” and “Ethnic Studies 10 Common Misconceptions” both found in Rethinking Ethnic Studies.

“This book is food for the movement. It is sustenance for every educator committed to understanding and enacting Ethnic Studies. We take this gift as a guide for the needed work ahead.”–Django Paris, James A. & Cherry A. Banks Professor of Multicultural Education, University of Washington

We began to identify the needed skills to hone, and knowledge to cultivate in order to become anti-racist and culturally responsive educators within the realm of Ethnic Studies.

Draft of Skills and Knowledge from First Inter-District Gathering, 2019-2020

Attending these monthly inter-district meetings continues to be a place where critical learning moments occur, much like those experienced at the inaugural Ethnic Studies Institute, summer 2019.    

Along with the meeting’s agenda, often the value of the gatherings is in the intimate conversations and connections formed with other educators on the same journey. Amy McClellan, Shoreline School District, shares the following about our November gathering:

Being transformed by collaborating with our Ethnic Studies inter-district community gives me space to explore the messy work and be vulnerable, and self-reflective.  Being with fellow Ethnic Studies Educators supports me to be more courageous and continue to grow and be pushed beyond being just “culturally responsive” or “multicultural.”  I’m learning to lean into critical praxis with the goal of centering the lives of my students; empowering their agency so we can collectively disrupt and dismantle the system. 

My journey of attempting, through my practice, to be an Ethnic Studies educator is murky and challenging and I often get in my own way. I belong to the 89% of white educators in Washington state, and was schooled by educators who looked like me and centered the western European narrative, hence forming my bias. Being able to come together to decolonize my teaching with colleagues from neighboring districts is invaluable. Shoreline School District is in its infancy in how Ethnic Studies will play out. To have space to dialog on moments like the following, helps me know better and thereby do better. Last October, I attempted to help students deconstruct the myth about Columbus by posing the research question: Should we celebrate Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day, neither or both? 

Discussing this assignment with a colleague from Mukilteo, who is also learning and growing in their Ethnic Studies practice, the following ponderings came to light.

We wonder: 

  • Did the wording of my research question give legitimacy to Columbus, who was a genocidal murderer? Would I ever ask a similar question if it was a day to honor Pol Pot, Andrew Jackson or Stalin? 

  • Did I play it “safe” by not solely centering Indigenous People’s voices, and did I give too much space for Columbus Day? Did I fall into the pitfall of trying to remain “neutral” as an educator, and present multiple perspectives, thereby discounting the system of oppression and my position of privilege?
  • Did I hope my students would “get it” and see the injustice through the content, and by reading about the Taino’s lives and culture and the Day of Mourning Movement?
  • Did I want to give a platform to the experiences of the Italian Americans and their desire to be “American” but fall short in really unpacking the racial history and assimilation? 

As Paulo Freire states in A Pedagogy for Liberation, it is “through dialog, reflecting together on what we know and don’t know, we can then act critically to transform reality.” This experience solidified that for me. Being able to come together and be reminded of my bias and positionality is humbling albeit a fruitful and necessary part of the work.  

Together we can embrace the rising tides of change, harness our collective communities, and strive to center voices of students. Unpacking our bias and continuing to explore avenues by which to disrupt the system remains the challenge before us.

Ethnic Studies in Seattle; Some history and analysis with Dr. Kyle Kinoshita

It’s been a while since our last post, and trolls have taken notice of our work. That’s always a good sign we’re headed in the right direction! We haven’t gone anywhere. We’ve just been incredibly busy building and growing. Keep an eye out for updates on our legislative demand! There is progress!

Below is the transcript of an interview Tracy Castro-Gill conducted for her doctorate program with Dr. Kyle Kinoshita, retired Chief of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction for Seattle Public Schools. Kyle was the district office administrator in charge of implementing the ethnic studies program after the school board unanimously passed a resolution supporting a new ethnic studies program in 2017. Kyle retired from SPS last July, but still teaches at the University of Washington in an administrator preparation program.

Identify the categories of key stakeholders.

Ok. Right. So, I’ll preface all my comments to say that ethnic studies is not a typical curriculum, such as English Language Arts or math because of the fact that, in particular, it deals with issues of race and equity, and because of that, it’s colored by the fact that in some ways it stands in opposition to institutionally established curriculum. So, that means that, in the case of the Seattle effort, the key stakeholders actually turned out to be members of the ethnic communities here in Seattle that have historically been underserved by Seattle Public Schools, and these stakeholders had been asserting for quite some time – decades probably – that in particular areas of curriculum that represented them, their communities, their history and current reality were not represented in the overall curriculum in Seattle Public Schools. So, I would say that was one category, the community. There was a related community internal to the system which would be teachers, teachers of color, and teachers who had a strong equity focus who also saw the lack in the curriculum and wanted to actually take some action to do something about it. As well, to a lesser extent, within the administrative structure of Seattle Public Schools there were certain individuals who actually sympathized with this and hoped to actually attempt some kind of action. That’s that question in terms of the categories.

How are stakeholders identified?

Right. I think that, again, not being a traditional sort of curriculum adoption or curriculum development effort, in some ways the stakeholders identified themselves, and that this was an effort that came about from the grassroots, both externally and internally. So, in many ways, they did not necessarily wait for the typical sort of pathway in which some district leadership selects and identifies stakeholders. They asserted themselves in terms of their identity of leadership. It just happened that, in this particular case, the district leaders involved began to recognize that and then really began to understand that these stakeholders not only had to be strongly represented in the effort, but they had to take leadership roles as well. 

How are stakeholders brought into the work of creating and implementing the program?

Let me say that in some ways there are some parallels to a traditional curriculum effort in that the kind of representative bodies that are created in order to provide input into curriculum development and adoption, there were kind of rough parallels in the sense of developing what now is known as the advisory committee. These are representatives from various parts of the system, particularly, teacher educators as well as people from the community. These are things that are part of a traditional curriculum effort. What was different about this, however, is that, you know, in many ways the stakeholders were actually active in some ways even prior to the effort in terms of developing ethnic studies. As they self identified themselves, the leadership which emerged was a community and activist and district partnership, or collaboration. They then recruited  stakeholders into committee work and into the actual work like writing curriculum as well as evaluating curriculum.

…I think would be important in finding an ally inside the organization and finding a way to expand presence in the organization in order to just handle, really, the structural parts of it. But, you know, if you wanted to talk about the leadership in content and development and the political leadership, these were essentially the activist educators as well as the community leaders…

Which category of stakeholders have been leading the work?

This is an interesting question in that it’s a unique kind of collaboration between the different categories. So, if you want to talk about, for example, that the structural leadership – having an internal district leader – was one component and that meant, for example, having a department as well as a manager level administrator leading the work. This meant that you could bring to bear system resources of both budget and space and time and, sort of, permissions that would kind of allow the work to develop. So those are kind of the structural pieces and lessons that I think would be important in finding an ally inside the organization and finding a way to expand presence in the organization in order to just handle, really, the structural parts of it. But, you know, if you wanted to talk about the leadership in content and development and the political leadership, these were essentially the activist educators as well as the community leaders, just in terms of helping provide direction, in terms of ensuring the authenticity of the work. I would say that it was the activist educators in the community that provided the main leadership of the work, and it was not something that came from within the district structure. 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. 

some of the SPS Ethnic Studies Advisory Group educators leading the work

Which category of stakeholders have been in the margins and need to be moved to the center and why?

Well, another interesting question. I think that I spoke earlier about the fact that you had several categories of stakeholders who were active in terms of leading the work in different ways. I think, in some ways, it’s the whole effort that can sometimes be put in the margins in the sense that once both the external activist leadership as well as the internal structural leadership get to a certain point where the work develops and will begin to impact some of the areas of work. In fact, the overall effort can tend to be marginalized and thwarted. So, I think that the structure that was developed both internally, with the district leaders that participate in the work and who advocate for the work, as was the collaboration together with the activist educators and the community, they need to be continually recognized as the leader. They need to be brought to the table to assist the work, becoming a central part of the work with Seattle Public School students and obstacles need to be removed. 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.

Which category of stakeholders are absent?

Well, I think that I would say that there’s kind of two flavors of absence. One, if you think about the fact that there’s still many communities within Seattle who have been shut out of, or marginalized, from the overall process of education and those are ethnic communities who need to be – always – better represented. This is not necessarily the fault of the effort; it’s just that the effort being at its early stages. It still will probably continue to bring in stakeholders from the community who are not currently connected. Those could be, for example, some of our immigrant communities, some of the communities who live on the margins of society because of a particular kind of oppression exercised by the government. Things like that. So, that’s one type of absence. Another type of absence is different, that I would say, in that, the stakeholders – one set of stakeholders, in fact – are [some of] the top district administrative leadership. They are absent in the sense that they are not behaving in such a way that would actually support the authentic development of the initiative. And I use the term very carefully: [some of] the top district administrative leadership, vs. another stakeholder that I neglected to mention, for example, the elected school board, in fact, is one set of stakeholders that in a variety of ways have vocalized support for the effort. There have been some members who have questioned why the district administrative leadership has put constraints and limits and not, in fact, encouraged the development of this effort. 

Which category of stakeholders have been oppositional?

I think that kind of goes without saying that there are sectors of society for whom this kind of curriculum and its content are pretty threatening. So, and although it has not yet been kind of a central theme, yet, you do have the opposition of more privileged sections of the community, geographically, and some cases are located, for example, in the north end of Seattle. So, you have people who purport to adopt the liberal Seattle stance who have been vehement in terms of opposition to some of the people and the efforts of ethnic studies. So, for example, a community blogger who has traditionally been a bit of a gadfly on the district scene, again, purporting to be a Seattle liberal, who is vehement and really began to expose herself as a closeted racist because of the fact that this, the anti-racist content of ethnic studies, was so threatening. And, she represented a sector of society, you know, some of the folks who subscribed to the blog who cheered this on. So, you could see that that sector of society would actively stand in opposition to this curriculum as it would develop and get out to students.

screenshot from “Save Seattle Schools”, which had become the gathering place for white supremacists hiding behind the “liberal progressive” label and anonymous “monikers” until the blog’s author moved out of Washington

Added later: [Kyle notes that there are objective obstacles by the very nature of the structure of school districts, irrespective of whether individuals may or may not support ethnic studies.]

In some ways this [obstacles at the district level] isn’t unique to ethnic studies: Any district structure has other stakeholders that compete for resources; their time, space, etc. In district structures, it’s often fairly common that they work in silos. So, that has been the case that there has been probably greater and lesser cooperation, for example, within the curriculum department around the development of ethnic studies that had to be sort of considered and dealt with and still essentially need some work in trying in terms of developing the breaking down of silos and the collaboration with the other curriculum areas in the department, which have their own kind of mini-organizational structures. As well, that also can take place within the larger categories of the organization. So, for example, you often times have competition between the curriculum department and the human resource department in terms of who really takes charge of race and equity issues. Who is allowed access? Who is allowed monetary resources? There is also competition, for example, within the organizational structure with student services who is charged with a multi-tiered system of support initiative, which also takes up quite a bit of resources in terms of money as well as time and energy of the people in school buildings. So, all of these sort of structural categories of [internal] stakeholders compete for resources, time, and access are [objectively] , barriers and obstacles to the development of ethnic studies.

Because of the fact that principals, in particular, have been put in the position of accountability for things like student assessment results, that can sometimes be a barrier put in place to actually develop the equity perspective and develop the ethnic studies perspective within the curriculum.

 (Kyle noted that principals are conflicted in relation to ethnic studies due to how the educational establishment has defined their roles in an urban district over the last twenty years) There are several reasons for this. One is that the accountability structure that has been in place for nearly twenty years, starting with No Child Left Behind, really dictates and directs the way curriculum and instruction is developed in schools. Because of the fact that principals, in particular, have been put in the position of accountability for things like student assessment results, that can sometimes be a barrier put in place to actually develop the equity perspective and develop the ethnic studies perspective within the curriculum. It’s really a false dichotomy because of the fact that even if you were to consider performance on things like assessments, engaging and rigorous content is a part of the ethnic studies initiative and, in fact, would not be in contradiction with the academic engagement of students of color. This has actually been proven in emerging research.

What institutional/bureaucratic systems support the creation and implementation of the Ethnic Studies curriculum?

I think, again, what has been pretty instrumental has been the structural development of a support system within the administrative structure of the district and the really intentional collaboration with the activist section of educators as well as the community. I spoke earlier about how that collaboration had been structured whereby the institutional leadership within the district structure helps direct resources, helps to clear obstacles, helps to find channels to other educators and then reach the students, and the fact that they also consent and advocate for the active leadership of the activist groups in terms of the actual content and development of the respect of ethnic studies. The development of that kind of collaboration, I think, is really beneficial to ensure that, not only is ethnic studies created, that it’s eventually institutionalized in various parts of the system.

What curriculum models (banking, learner-centered, critical theory, etc) are most frequently employed in classrooms?

I think that the current model – we’re kind of witnessing this torturous transition from the 20th century industrial model in which, basically, low-level and Eurocentric curriculum is developed in such a way that it is to be passively memorized by students and regurgitated. So, right now, there’s actually – within any given classroom – a really interesting and, sometimes, eclectic mix of those kinds of approaches in which teachers deliver [information one-way] with more learner-centered activities in the sense of putting the student more at the center of the learning. So, you have both of these sorts of trends existing within the same classroom, even within the same subject area, even within an individual lesson. In terms of critical theory, I would say that that is one of the things that is – unless you have the individual discretion of a teacher, who on their own initiative sort of develops incorporation of critical theory into the curriculum – it is definitely something that is very inconsistent and depending on the school and the geographical area, could be more or less common to a particular group of teachers. 

Added later:

Sub question: What role does high stakes testing play in the current classroom environment?

. . . decontextualized, low-level, unengaging, irrelevant curriculum has been developed and really brought into the classrooms where you have kids from communities that are ill-served and done under the name of “improving student achievement”, which is, essentially, code word for increasing the test scores.

Over the last twenty years, it’s had a major impact. So, for example, in [the past] particularly in schools where you have populations that are the least served it’s done two things to the curriculum: one is that a disproportionate emphasis on the so-called “basic subjects” of reading and mathematics have developed to the exclusion of other parts of the curriculum, but even within those areas the impact has been that decontextualized, low-level, unengaging, irrelevant curriculum has been developed and really brought into the classrooms where you have kids from communities that are ill-served and done under the name of “improving student achievement”, which is, essentially, codeword for increasing the test scores. So, in that sense, that the accountability system that began twenty years ago under No Child Left Behind – has had various iterations – still continues to have major impact and major damage [to efforts in replacing the Eurocentric focus of the] curriculum. Countervailing, I think, efforts have been because of the fact that education is not simply kind of a unitary sort of system. You have educators who, in a variety of ways, often times will rebel against [the Eurocentric, industrial age curriculum] and attempt to incorporate more student-centered, more relevant areas of curriculum. So, these kinds of dynamics are going on within any number of schools

educator activists from the Washington Education Association rebelling against Eurocentric, industrial age curriculum

How can Ethnic Studies curriculum improve curriculum models and make them more learner-centered?

You know, I think that one of the research findings of ethnic studies is that when you develop curriculum and curriculum approaches that really align with and approximate the reality of the students in the schools, in particular students from communities of color, you can see the engagement and the academic focus really develop. In fact, an ironic sort of finding is that the further development of ethnic studies curriculum and the further access to students of color actually accomplishes many of the academic gains that traditional institutions are trying to accomplish. So, I think that, in particular, the relevancy aspect is something that can be much more engaging to students of color but to white students as well. And by relevancy, I particular mean that for, example, the anti-racist focus, as well as the fact that the adoption of different cultural perspectives – it turns out to be much more interesting that the traditional Eurocentric presentation and perspective than was in the traditional curriculum.

NWTSJ Reflection

by Erin Herda

Our Work is Movement Building

Saturday morning, a day for sleeping in, a day many of us dedicate as a non work day, yet hundreds of educators made there way to Chief Sealth High School to engage in a day of workshops to develop and reinforce their skills as transformative and disruptive educators. Teaching for social justice can be lonely work, so days like the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice (NWTSJ) conference are essential to keeping the work alive. Creating that critical community of support that is sometimes, or often, lacking at our schools. Every time I attend I am reminded why I keep fighting for ethnic studies and systemic change through policies, curriculum in my district, and most importantly that I am not alone. We are not alone. There are educators and preservice teachers who are dedicated to eradicating white supremacy from our educational systems. 

Build a Better World

The morning started off with the keynote, Barbara Madeloni, reminding us that our work is movement building to disrupt racism and white supremacy in our schools and community. It is through  collective leadership that takes on the structures of power that we will start to see change. This message came just at the right moment for those of us who have started to feel beat down by the inaction around us in our building and our school districts.

Ethnic Studies Now

Enter Washington State Ethnic Studies Now. The collective efforts of students, educators, and organizations dedicated to seeing Ethnic Studies (ES) as a pedagogical shift in K-12 education across the state and nation. This year attendees of the Northwest Teaching For Social Justice Conference had the opportunity to spend the whole day immersed in ethnic studies from a 101 workshop designed to introduce educators to what ethnic studies really is and the conceptual framework they use to decolonize the classroom and curriculum. A second session dedicated to working with educators who use the ES framework and students explaining the pedagogical shift necessary to truly implement ES. And in the last session we were invited to hear a panel of educators: Tracy Castro-Gill, Jeff Stone, Jesse Hagopian and Lisa Rice, moderated by Wayne Au, about their own experiences with ES from implementation to self care.

Here are some of my takeaways from this session.

Educators role in pushing for ES pedagogical shifts to implement ES.

  • Ethnic Studies is a pedagogical shift, not just curriculum. You have to be willing to unlearn being an expert and hand over some of the control to the students. Exploring the pedagogical shift before content.
  • It centers the whole child first. Understanding each student and the difference between them.
  • Bring the student voice into the classroom, check in. Peace circles.
  • Disrupting the things that have been taught that reinforce the power structures.
  • White educators must explore their own whiteness.

How do you find resources?

  • The News, use the principles of Black Lives Matter to guide curriculum. Project based, TALK TO PEOPLE and READ! (emphasis added)
  • Seattle Framework, Collaborating with other teachers. Own experience with activism. Hip hop artists to disrupt the master narrative. Draw on the community.
  • Anything can be turned into Ethnic Studies curriculum

How do you protect  BIPOC while creating critical growth for white students?

  • You must be your authentic self if you want the students to be theirs.
  • Talk across differences, talk to students ahead of time to lessen impact, its messy work dig in and repair. 
  • Don’t run away from discomfort.
  • Teach that whiteness is a racialized existence, example from Bacon’s Rebellion. 
  • Teaching intersectional identities and have students explore them through projects and poems.
  • Students need to analyze their own identity.

How to build networks of communities of care? THIS WORK IS HARD

  • You have to decolonize your brain.
  • Work with and collaborate in the community.
  • Get over the idea of leaders.
  • No meaningful change happens individually. Join together.
  • Build your community by calling the meeting…and keep calling the meeting.

Moving forward

I still struggle with how to keep that buzz of the work alive when I enter my building and hear staff mock restorative practices, or that a coworker said that a teacher was in the wrong for teaching LGBTQ+ history, or that talking about race and racism is divisive to the staff. Does it really matter that there is a tiny island of us teaching with the ethnic studies framework and challenging the power structure if everyone else is reinforcing white supremacy through their curriculum and actions? Yes it does, It matters because it is clear that we are not just “first year teachers who want to save the world” (said to me by an administrator in the beginning of my career) rather we are professional educators who continue to grow into our critical pedagogy and disrupt systems that hurt our students and communities.

Ethnic Studies is not just a curriculum it is a vision of the future we need for a just and equitable society, it is what we owe our students in a system that harms them and their families daily. It is the only path for education I can see.

Ethnic Studies: Choreographed Refusal

Featured Image: Educators at the Seattle Public Schools’ Ethnic Studies Summer Institute 2019 engaged in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed strategies to learn about and reject cultural appropriation.

By Jeff Stone

As more and more K-12 educators in Washington engage in ethnic studies, having a common focus will be key to our collective success. At Washington State Ethnic Studies Now, one of our aims is to refuse the white gaze  as we spread ethnic studies into every corner that defines the education systems we work within.

White Gaze

In the late 90’s, the late Toni Morrison spoke of her refusal to write to appease the white gaze of America. Instead of writing to the expectations or lens of a dominating white society, her writings centered Black experiences and realities. Morrison refused to write (and live) by standards imposed by whiteness. 

These imposed standards of whiteness are the white gaze. The white gaze frames how we are supposed to behave, how to think, and what to value. It tells us what is normal, right, proper. And, when people think, act, or be outside of the gaze, they are seen as abnormal and broke. 

In education, the white gaze results in a whitewashed curriculum, white middle class values/norms driving pedagogy, biased discipline decisions, and English only instruction. It frames white students as the standard of academic success upon which BIPOC students are compared. When considered at all, the histories and values are BIPOC communities are often seen from a deficit stance. Something to be fixed or rid of. 

But, it does not need to be this way. Refusing the white gaze has a long history in BIPOC communities. It is nothing new. However, recent scholarship by Dr. Django Paris and Dr. H. Samy Alim has resulted in a push for the white-centric K-12 education system to reflect upon the goals, content, language, pedagogy, values, and outcomes of education. To reconsider the aims and intent of our educational systems.

As educators of and for ethnic studies, we believe that a key aim of our work is to promote ethnic studies in ways that refuse this white gaze and forge new paths for student learning. To forge these new paths, we need to be in solidarity with our BIPOC communities to reimagine the curriculum and pedagogy found in our systems. To reimagine the point of schooling to look beyond the white gaze.

Washington Teachers

The majority of teachers in Washington identify as white and are teaching a fast growing Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander student population. For many Western Washington districts, students who identify from these communities are now the majority of students served.  As the movement grows, this means that many white teachers will be teaching ethnic studies alongside their BIPOC peers.  

Key for all educators, but especially white educators, will be to act and work in solidarity with their BIPOC communities. But what does this mean? 

Being In Solidarity

Programs such as Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Summer Institute and XITO are providing teachers with content and pedagogical shifts necessary for the critical examination of educational systems dominated by the white gaze. These programs teach the skills to disrupt and refuse.

To be in solidarity requires us to go further than learning. We must act. As individual teachers, schools, and districts build their ethnic studies programs, we purposely build them in ways that refuse the white gaze.  We must work with our BIPOC students, families, and communities to define what this refusal looks like. How do our communities wish to refuse the white gaze? How do our communities imagine their K-12 education? What role(s) do our communities want in this rebuilding process? 

Educators using ELL strategies to conceptualize vocabulary terms at the SPS Ethnic Studies Summer Institute 2019. This is the gesture for the term “stereotype.”

There are no easy answers in this work, but we must begin to and continually engage with our BIPOC communities around the implementation of ethnic studies in ways that refuse the white gaze. 

What Can Refusing the White Gaze Look Like?

Refusing the white gaze has many faces. Some big, some small. It can mean collaborating with students and families to redefine the meaning of academic success: What does your community want out of school?  Refusal can look like translanguaging practices that encourage the maintenance and growth of their home languages.  Refuse to use resources that glorify the dominant narrative by bringing community elders into your classroom to teach and share. Refuse through grading practices, accept late work. 

Our Collective Call to Action

Our Washington State Ethnic Studies Now movement is only as strong as our community.  In this spirit, we pose the following questions to you. We are a collective community, able to learn with each other. So let’s share with each other. Reflect upon and share your ideas around these questions. Pose other questions for us to consider. Let’s be in community.

  • As you, your school, and/or your district engage in ethnic studies, how are you being in solidarity with the BIPOC communities? 
  • How are your actions of solidarity disrupting the white gaze of education in ways that your community desires?
  • What roles do Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities have in your process of refusal?