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?”


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.

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?

So, You Want to Be an Anti-Racist Educator

by: Amanda Hubbard, K-5 Educator

          I am an educator of color in Seattle Public Schools and I’ve been struggling to find where I matter. Teaching and being with my students are the easy parts of being an educator compared to navigating the politics and social tensions of the school system. To say it is challenging working within a racist system is an understatement because at the end of the day we know we are upholding that same, racist system. So, about seven years into my career I started to burn out. Working in ‘failing’ schools, I struggled to find how I was making a lasting impact. I worked hard each year building my kids up only to witness how that system beats them back down to where they started. If I was going to stay in education, I needed community and allies to keep me going. I sought out trainings on racial equity and teaching for social justice. I served on Racial Equity teams. I organized professional development (P.D.) for my buildings and I am so grateful that this work eventually led me to the Ethnic Studies Task Force and Advisory Group. It was working within a women of color dominated space that I realized my own identities beyond being an educator. Questioning and building anti-racist curriculum was liberating work; defining a decolonized curriculum centered on our students and critical thinking was liberating work. I could not get enough and quickly focused my pursuit of racial equity on Ethnic Studies and getting the message out to as many educators as possible.

Seattle Public Schools antiracist educators from Seattle Education Association’s Center for Racial Equity and Culturally Responsive Teacher Leadership Cadre

Accordingly, I attended and helped facilitate the Ethnic Studies (E.S.) Institute this summer and it awakened something in me. Inspired and shook, I felt thrust into the uncomfortable position of facing the many and unintended ways I perpetuate institutional and systemic racism in our public schools. As it happens though, this is the first step in becoming an anti-racist educator. Examining our practice is something we came back to again and again throughout the Institute. We analyzed lesson plans and units for the themes of E.S.: Origins, Identity, and Agency, Power and Oppression, History of Resistance and Liberation, and Action and Reflection. We asked ourselves how these themes revealed themselves and how they might be problematic and then revised our lessons and units to better meet the needs of our students of color. Little by little the weight of being antiracist in our practice and content eased. Working in solidarity with fellow antiracist educators renewed and affirmed for me that not only was this work critical to the health, success, and joy of our students of color, but that we are part of a bigger movement. It made me feel, for the first time, that we would be able to sustain this work.

A meeting with colleagues to plan sessions for the E.S. Insitutute

As I’ve said, thinking about systemic and institutional issues led me to pursue continuous professional development on racial equity and I am thankful every day for the knowledge and community that Ethnic Studies provides. However, it is only through reflection that I realized what was driving me. In fact, E.S. has been a slow-burn type of awakening for me. Through collective knowledge building and discussions on colonialism and how it continues to shape us and our educational system I started to realize the kind of educator and person I wanted to be. I realized there’s a part of me that was lying every time I would say “I loved school!” as the reason why I became a teacher. Writing the E.S. frameworks demanded a level of self-reflection and vulnerability I had not ever tapped into. What would it mean to have our students and their identities at the center of our curriculum? What would a culturally responsive and relevant curriculum for a biracial, daughter of an immigrant girl really require? This felt like uncharted territory and part of the reason is because to create the language needed to begin decolonizing curriculum we also needed to decolonize ourselves. This meant dredging up memories I had carefully suppressed. This meant declaring that I became a teacher, not because ‘I loved school,’ but because I knew and know that students like me deserve more from their schools.

Growing Up in a White Supremacy

I remembered all the times I would agonize over my homework trying to answer questions that asked me to explain why I thought learning what we were learning was important. Even by middle school this question presented no challenge; I knew there was so much to learn! We learned about the revolutionary War and read My Brother Sam is Dead, we studied the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece, and we lingered in the middle ages so long that we put on a huge Medieval Faire complete with costumes and reading far too much about King Arthur. I remember thinking, “What new and exciting cultures and histories would we learn about next?!” Except there was no next, not really. We slogged thru England and France’s futile wars, we unpacked battle after battle in U.S. History, and read and read about white American boys and men in staggering quantities. No matter the era, between North America and Europe it all eventually blurred together becoming indistinguishable fragments of history and literature; overwhelming in its whiteness. By the time I hit high school, when I was asked to justify why what we were learning was important, I knew that the correct answer was always- whatever my teacher said was the reason. I had to do little to no reflecting or critical thinking, I just had to parrot everything the teacher said.

“Upon the receipt of my diploma the world had taught me about the inferiority of Filipinos so well that I did not once question their erasure.”

my mom and I, senior year of high school

Realizing these things imploded my internal life and narrative. Figuring out how and why, as an excelling student, I was so disengaged from school made me furious. I was furious because I realized this maintain-the-status-quo lesson, bad enough as it is, disguised far worse ones. While learning the parroting lesson I was internalizing lessons about who matters in the world and who does not. Lessons about the types of lives worth writing and reading about. Amongst all this “important” curriculum I never learned about a single Filipino and the coverage of other leaders of color was embarrassingly bare. Upon the receipt of my diploma the world had taught me about the inferiority of Filipinos so well that I did not once question their erasure. That is how insidious and significant the lack of representation is for our children of color- we rarely question it because by the time we finish our K-12 education we have internalized the message of inferiority. Students of color (SOC) are shown their excellence and potential for greatness through precious little beyond MLK and sports or music stars. Their ambitions sound more like fairy tales than realities. We tell our SOC to dream these things while their white peers are given countless models of greatness personified making their ambitions limitless. My people have famous scientists, writers, and engineers too, but who would ever know it after thirteen years in public education? All people of color know that their people, cultures, and countries, will rarely show up as anything more than a ‘fun fact’ or ‘bonus’ learning in our current curriculums.

The Unspoken Evil of Assimilation

How was I supposed to grow up to know that Filipinos ARE important people when I never once learned about them or how their labor helped build the U.S.? In this U.S. “Melting Pot” the expectation for assimilation is so stifling that my mother chose not to share any of her history with her children. Our pleas for stories of P.I. [Philippines] were met instead with questions like, “Did you do your homework?” or “How’re you doing in class?” These questions and the hundreds like it drove home the point that our biggest responsibility was to do school and not make a fuss. Not to learn, but to excel was our priority. This effectively sealed me off from half of who I am. As a child my reaction was to stop asking for my mother’s stories and, instead, tell myself that she does not have any worth telling. Once you combine my devaluing of my mother with the absence of any single person that resembled me or had a story like mine from school, then you begin to understand that I was part of another generation in this cycle of trauma and oppression. My mom was too fearful of her children not being accepted to share herself with us and my rejection of her for that is a painful truth without remedy. I could not and did not understand how the immense pressures of assimilation and the desire for something resembling her own upbringing drove her to make those decisions.

my mom and I after my master’s graduation

“Recognizing that people of color have been saving themselves for just as long as people have oppressed them was gratifying. It helped me make the connection that I am resilient like my mother. I am powerful like my mother and I do not have to accept her suppression of our culture anymore.”

Growing up I could only see her struggle; it took time and experience for me to begin to see her strength. Four years ago, my mom had a stroke that not only mentally impaired her but changed her into a childlike version of her former self. I lost my chance to know and understand her, but I found healing in Ethnic Studies. The framework and themes helped me reconcile my memories and experiences with my feelings. I was able to contextualize my mom’s abusive parenting. I understand now that she has countless experiences being underestimated and treated unjustly as a brown woman who speaks with an accent. She took the pain of those experiences and channeled it into criticizing her children into submitting to her high expectations. The weight of her struggle is eased when viewed through the Ethnic Studies theme and lens of Resistance and Liberation. It disabused me of the notion that I was powerless. Recognizing that people of color have been saving themselves for just as long as people have oppressed them was gratifying. It helped me make the connection that I am resilient like my mother. I am powerful like my mother and I do not have to accept her suppression of our culture anymore.

Ethnic Studies is Community

So, I grew up to be my mother’s ‘American’ daughter, but no amount of assimilation could compensate for the fact that I’m not white. No amount of assimilation helped me to find connections to who I am or where I fit in the world. The reality of our society is that I might be “half” white on paper, but never once have I been mistaken for white in this world. For every job interview I’ve had I had to prepare to watch my interviewers adjust their faces and expectations when they matched name: Amanda Hubbard (white) to face (ambiguously Asian). This is true for parents and families meeting me as their child’s teacher. This is true for me when I introduce my dad as my dad. These truths are founded upon our acceptance as a society of whiteness as the norm and color as the exception. When we challenge those ideals with Ethnic Studies, we are choosing to heal ourselves. E.S. chooses to normalize the experiences of POC and not treat racial equity work as taboo or rude to talk about. We pose critical questions about what we are learning, who it is for or about, and which powers and oppressions are present. Ethnic Studies provides a way to educate ourselves and our students about the differences in our world, the power dynamics of our world, and how to change them for the better using your own reflections and action steps.

Educators critiquing their content and practice

One of the biggest strengths of the E.S. institute was that, by the end of the first day, it provided the information and space for 100 educators to begin to define who they are and what they want to be. We watched Curtis Acosta teach from the heart and connect with his Xicanx students using culturally responsive teaching and texts. We knew we wanted to be authentic and engaging like him and we analyzed his teaching moves finding the connections between the content we were learning about Ethnic Studies and how we needed to show up for students. We critiqued who was or was not represented in our lessons and units and debated their merits knowing they came from educators in the room brave enough to share them. We pushed ourselves to be vulnerable and acknowledged that we weren’t sure how all of this was supposed to work, but we trusted and respected each other enough to figure it out together. We are growing and increasing our impact because we create and sustain supportive learning environments and community.

Interrogating whiteness in our institution and practice

The culmination of these experiences is that E.S. is the gap-closing answer to eliminating the chasm between our white students and our students of color. It brings the real ‘real world’ into the classroom. Students of color have curriculum that not only reflects them, but centers and empowers them to engage with it, challenge it, and ultimately shape it for the better. E.S. decenters whiteness from our content and practices and instead centers our instruction on students critically asking and answering: who is telling the story? Who benefits from its telling? Who has the power in the story? My school experience was not a unique one but there wasn’t a way for me to know that. School did not concern itself with the lives of immigrants, the working poor, or non-‘first world’ countries, me. I realized that school taught me how to do school, but it was teaching that taught me how to learn. Ethnic Studies is teaching me how to help our students.

How to Start an Anti-Racist Student Group in Your School

By the Emma Fedore, Cece Chan, Aneesa Roidad, and Jon Greenberg of the NAACP Youth Coalition

Featured image by Chloe Collyer

The painful truth about public education is that racism is as common as bored students and overworked teachers. While many in our home of Seattle take pride in the city’s “progressive” reputation, the students of Seattle Public Schools, especially students of Color, know reality starkly contrasts with this reputation.

In fact, Seattle Public Schools is home to some of the worst racial disparities in the entire country – and the district has known about them for decades and decades. Yet little has changed – exemplified recently by a white teacher calling 911 on a 10 to 11-year-old Black child. To make matters worse, district leaders rarely invite students, those most negatively impacted by this racist system, to the racial-equity problem-solving table.

In Seattle, we decided to stop waiting for an invitation. The NAACP Youth Coalition (N-YC), a coalition of antiracist youth representing 12 high schools and universities in the Seattle area, formed to put a stop to the above realities. In the past two years, we have hosted anti-racism workshops for youth, organized youth panels for educators, and led school board mobilizations. As a result of our efforts, the Seattle School Board endorsed the Black Lives Matter at School movement, one of the first school boards in the nation to do so.

Image of CeCe Chan by Sharon Chang

In these two years of activism, we have learned many lessons on organizing and making change, lessons we want to share with both the youth and educators so that the movement for racial justice can continue to spread.

Step 1: Find like-minded, passionate people in your school

            Where there is racism, there are people committed to fighting it. Schools are no exception. It’s just a matter a finding them. And starting small is perfectly fine. As Marge Piercy writes in “The low road,” “Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge.”

As an individual, students may not feel comfortable or safe enough to confront racism in your community, especially if it is coming from an authority figure. At Ballard High School, clubs such as Multicultural Committee offer a restorative and safe space for students of Color to voice concerns, celebrate their culture, or simply vent. Your school likely offers something similar or has ethnicity-specific groups such as a Black Student Union. 

            If not, many buildings usually have at least one visible antiracist teacher, who is likely connected with the youth most invested in antiracism. In the case of the NAACP Youth Coalition, we identified committed students across Seattle Public Schools through Social Equity Educators, an action-oriented caucus of Seattle’s educators union.

            The group that forms will be essential, not just for completing the subsequent steps, but also to provide a network of support in work that can be draining. Furthermore, there is safety in numbers, as students, teachers and administrators have power over us. They may be able to abuse that power with one student, but it becomes far more difficult with a unified group. Having a support network not only keeps you safe, but it can inspire students and hold the school accountable as the group moves forward with challenging racism. 

Step 2: Research past and current changemakers for guidance and inspiration

You may find that your history textbooks have skimmed over or silenced voices calling for radical change – especially if those voices belonged to people of Color. 

For instance, the skewed narrative that puts European “settlers” (virtually never called “colonizers”), not Native Americans, as the protagonists of United States history perpetuates white supremacy. Although textbooks have finally begun to acknowledge the egregious crimes committed against Native people in this country, they still fail to recognize the tenacity and strength of these people. By educating yourself on the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island, you are reframing the power imbalance that we’ve been taught. 

To challenge the sanitized narratives we learn in school, seek out books and essays written by authors of Color. Watch documentaries like Precious Knowledge and Agents of Change about the youth-centered struggles for ethnic studies. Scour the Internet, find podcasts, and then discuss them with your friends. Educate yourself on the struggles and successes of different ethnic and racial groups across history. Forming a holistic worldview will prepare you for activism that respects the voices and perspectives of those who have too often been written out of our history classes.

Social justice work is rooted in community, but it begins with an individual’s willingness to learn and grow. You can’t always control other people’s mindsets, but you will always have the capacity to educate yourself.

Step 3: Establish core values

It’s important to know what you’re fighting for. You’ll need to establish core values to set a foundation for your group or community. Why? Well, sometimes people have disagreements or get carried away with outside drama. In those moments (which will happen) when you need to pull everyone together, core values will remind everyone why they gathered for social justice in the first place. 

There’s a reason why organizations have mission statements; they help establish the group’s core values. Before we even had a name for our group, the founders of the NAACP Youth Coalition put antiracism at the center, recruiting students who had already been doing the same at their schools.

Step 4: Turn your values into demands

Once you have your core values, turn them into actionable items you want to get done or change you want to see. You believe in racial equity? Great! How is your school going to get there? 

At the earliest meetings of the NAACP Youth Coalition, we looked to recent activism at Seattle University, where students were demanding a more anti-racist humanities department.

One of the first priorities of the N-YC at the start each year has been collaboratively establishing our demands. During this past year, we decided on eight (read the full text here).

The NAACP Youth Coalition demands that the Seattle Public School district: 

  • support the #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool actions indefinitely;
  • improve its curricula, including mandatory Ethnic Studies, to better serve all students;
  • increase opportunities to integrate voices of students of Color into its decision-making processes; 
  • prioritize the occupied renovation of Rainier Beach High School;
  • fund post-secondary opportunities in an equitable way;
  • improve its discipline practices, implementing restorative justice district-wide; 
  • prioritize training staff of all schools as well as central office staff on issues of race, equity, and racism, even if schools fail to apply for to Race & Equity Teams; and
  • prioritize hiring and retaining more staff of color in all buildings regardless of demographics.  
MLK Day Celebration at Garfield High School/Official Launch of the NY-C

After launching the NAACP Youth Coalition on Martin Luther King Day in 2018, each school board testimony we gave, workshop we attended or put on, and event we participated in has been in an effort to further our demands. Our demands are increasingly becoming part of the conversations at Seattle Public Schools, as they have been distributed at Racial Equity Team trainings, as well as the district’s Youth and Family Racial Justice Summit and Ethnic Studies Summer Institute!

By no means is your list of actions or demands permanent, especially if your demands are actually being met, as was the case with the Seattle School Board endorsing the Black Lives Matter at School week of action. Since our membership continues to evolve and grow, we will revisit them each year to ensure they reflect the will and needs of our current members.

Regardless, your demands should always align with your core values. 

Step 5: Start a club at your school and plan fun activities

            Now that you have committed youth, core values, and a list of demands, formalize your group! Clubs are a great way to take action within your school and the greater community. I know it can be exciting but remember to take your time to think out details of your club. Not all schools require a club constitution but we highly recommend making one! A club constitution forces you to think about the purpose, membership, duties, and responsibilities of your club – helpful and necessary steps if you want your club to be strong and organized. 

After you’ve gotten your club approved you can start thinking of how to market your club. For marketing, you should definitely be using social media like Instagram or Twitter. Using your Snapchat story is also a great way to advertise. Just think about what platforms you have and how you can use those to your advantage. You can also go “old school” and design posters to hang up around school. Lastly, if your school begins the day with daily announcements, advertise your club through this existing channels.

Next is planning club activities. Yes, your club should be focused on making change, but there’s no reason not to have some fun while you do, especially at the start. For your first meeting, draw crowds in with food (because we all know that students love free food). Make sure to tell everyone about your meeting schedule and social media presence, which helps your fellow students stay connected and aware of the events happening with your club. 

Another fun idea for club activities is potlucks! Potlucks are a fun way to bring a community together while also eating some bomb food. Ever heard of a joint potluck? Sometimes joining up with other clubs to do a collab potluck can symbolize allyship and respect. For example, if your club is associated with a specific race and a core value is supporting Black Lives Matter movement, then it might be awesome to do a joint potluck with your school’s Black Student Union! Not only will this bring more people but it opens a conversation around allyship and the BLM movement all in one event.

Crafts are always a fun activity, such as collage making with old magazines, poster making, or any art piece that speaks on cultural identity, oppression, and liberation. Asking art teachers that you trust is always a good idea. If a tragic incident has happened in the world or in your community, making a memorial to visually display peace, love, and justice is always beautiful. 

Of course, maybe an antiracist club already exists in your school, in which case: join an existing club!  Sometimes you don’t have the time or availability to make a club, and that’s totally okay! Just because you aren’t a physical leader of your own club doesn’t mean you can’t make change. Join an existing club and don’t be afraid to speak your truth and what you believe in. Existing clubs are looking for passionate new members. Whatever your role, you and your voice matters!

Step 6: Find and create opportunities to make change

            Okay, so you’ve done your research. You’ve got core values, a list of demands, and a group that meets regularly. Now it’s time to find and create opportunities that accomplish your goals. What posters, activities, or conversations can you create? Who can you partner with to create them? How will this accomplish your intended goal(s) or reach your audience?

None of those questions has just one answer or an answer that is “right.” There are many ways to take action, and what’s best for your group largely depends on the individual circumstances: the nature of your club, your school community, how supportive (or hostile) your school administration is.

Some groups have used heritage months as educational opportunities for schools in which whitewashed curricula are the default to show that marginalized groups in the school are indeed valued. For example, if it happens to be May, Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month, then maybe you watch Crazy Rich Asians with your Asian and Pacific Islander club to open a discussion about the importance of racial representation in the media.

Once you are a formally recognized club, it’s easier to influence your school. As part of school clubs, NAACP Youth Coalition members have led staff trainings and organized assemblies, both on issues of race and racism. At the building level, don’t be afraid to email teachers, administration, and department heads about the change you want to see happen in your school.

Erica Ijeoma at a school board meeting; Image by Sharon Chang

To make change at even bigger level, N-YC frequently targets the Seattle School Board, the elected body in charge of the district policy. In Seattle, this body – along with the superintendent, who is hired by the Board – has the power to turn our demands into a reality. Our school board mobilization to promote the national demands of Black Lives Matter at School, demands that align perfectly with our own, gained significant media attention (here, here, and here), which increases our influence with district leaders.

Whatever you decide, find ways to get to the decision-making table!

Step 7: Get funding

            During the NAACP Youth Coalition’s first year, a couple of Seattle School Board directors reached out to meet with the group. At this meeting, the Directors told the group that to make change, they need to keep showing up at school board meetings. This response revealed a fundamental flaw with the system: it requires privilege to fight for racial equity.

If you are facing multiple, interlocking systems of oppression, who has the time or ability to keep showing up to pressure school board directors? Furthermore, we can’t leave it to the privileged to lead the fight for racial equity, as they are the ones who least understand racism and other forms of oppression.

Rita Green, education chair of the local NAACP and one of the group’s founding adults, had a solution: pay the youth for their antiracism efforts. Green applied for and landed a Best Starts for Kids grant, which meant that our group’s youth could receive a stipend for N-YC’s many efforts. No longer do adult coordinators have to ask students to volunteer their time to make change.

During our first year, before the grant, the group only represented a few schools, mostly in the more affluent North End of Seattle, and membership declined by the end of the year. With the grant, however, at the end of year two, our membership is larger than ever!

Next year, we plan to hit the ground running. And we’d love to help you do the same! Please stay connected through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter or contact one of our coordinators.

Windows and Mirrors, Roots and Seeds

by Jennifer Dunn

I’m packing my bags this morning for the third time this summer and it’s still July. On August 1st I will have traveled through six states in 30 days. I just returned from a week-long training for new leaders with the National SEED project (created by none other than Dr. Peggy McIntosh)  in San Anselmo, California. One of the most important takeaways from this SEED experience for me was this: windows and mirrors. It is a practice that works well for Ethnic Studies and racial equity work because it is a flattening of power dynamics between two people. I can now see myself in relation to anyone and ask myself am I a window or a mirror to this person? Is my story a window or a mirror to their story? We are all in relation to one another.

Storytelling is a centerpiece to SEED work. In one session called “Schooling Stories”, I was asked to write about a time in school where I witnessed or experienced oppression and to write in the present tense. This is what I wrote and shared that day:

“I’m in the 8th grade. It’s 3rd period and the subject: Texas History. Today, we are learning about the Alamo. I sit and listen to my white teacher explain how the brave white men Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William B. Travis all came to save the Alamo from the encroaching Mexican army. My heart hurts. I become so aware (once again) that most of my classmates are white. I look at their faces for reaction to this story but their faces reveal nothing but acceptance of the heroism of these men by the storyteller. I feel embarrassed and ashamed of being Mexican, of feeling like the defeated, of being the other, so I flip through the pages of my textbook looking for any story to counter this one. It isn’t there. As the story goes on, the capture of the Alamo by the Mexicans is clearly not the point, and includes the eventual triumphant capture of General Santa Ana disguised as low ranking soldier hiding in the grass in a nearby… I just can’t even listen anymore. I slide my hand into my pocket to reach for the headphones through the hole I have cut in my jacket packet and up through my sleeve from my walkman to listen to Selena belting out No Me Queda Mas.”

I wonder…Is this story a window or a mirror for you? As a student? What about as a teacher?

I cried while reading that story to a circle of strangers but mostly I think because it was the first time I got to tell it in a space that was honored rather than dismissed as insignificant. The first time that anyone had even asked me and ultimately revealed the roots of my pursuit of education justice. Then I had to have a real long look at myself in the mirror as a teacher and cry all over again wondering how many times I have been guilty of doing the same thing in my own classroom- controlling the narrative; telling other people’s stories. When I was 13, I didn’t have the tools to resist or even name the “master narrative” or the “single story” of white supremacy in curriculum and institutionalized racism. Today, I do.

This incredibly powerful activity of windows and mirrors at SEED training was presented first with artwork. As participants, we were asked to approach a table of copies of paintings and then to find a partner and discuss whether the image was a window or a mirror for us. This is the painting I chose:

Barbacoa para Cumpleaños by Carmen Lomas Garza.

This painting is a mirror to my childhood.  A childhood I felt joy at home and then shame about when I was at school. For years, I literally hid my home stories away at school and downplayed my roots. The Mexican and Tejano traditions practiced at home were assigned no value in my classes. Indigeneity was a thing of the past and the only way to “succeed” was assimilation. The decision I was forced to make in school was to accept and assimilate or rebel and be labeled a troublemaker.

My brother (a BRILLIANT mathematician) stopped attending school in the 10th grade.

Circa 1986: One will reject the system early, the other will work to dismantle it.

I assimilated.

Today, this “Schooling Story” reminds me of how I would like to be in relation with students and other people in public education. Another important part of SEED work is being in “just” relations with others. Windows and Mirrors is a tool in pursuit of just relationships but the road ahead is long because the system is so powerful. As an educator I am STILL pressured to assimilate to institutionalized norms and have been guilty of perpetuating assimilation in my own classroom when I have done things like teach AP and complied to testing culture. The pressure to produce “rigorous” content at “high standards” is very strong. The call for uniformity and the polished appearance of “excellence” – so loud. Still, I reset my practice mantra today that education is for liberation-not assimilation and that I will receive much criticism along the way in search of the real thing. Already I am labeled “not a team player” and a rogue with a bad attitude and, of course, the wrong tone when I do not consent to the status quo.  

Ultimately, our stories are not something we can see or hear by simply looking at one another and yet it seems more and more that we are creating a society where we are judged mostly by our social media profile “appearance”. I am suddenly aware of the irony of adding something to my “story” on Instagram and how many of us are probably faking it so we can appear successful. I also feel sad when people say things like “You look nothing like your name” and sigh when people look at me and ask, “what are you?” (Decolonizing Mixed Chicanx, btw.)

Stories involve investment in relationships. This SEED work reminded me that I need to make more space for storytelling in my classroom and in my adult relationships. Telling our stories is how we become centered in our roots and invested in the work authentically. It is how we can connect with one another- and ultimately a seed for “just” relations.

But I must tell my own story-not the story I have in relation to another-that is their story to tell. When I speak for others, I am not in “just” relations with them.

As I recommit myself to the cause of racial equity over assimilation in public education, I am also now writing my own education liberation story. I move forward as a teacher but as a co-researcher in indigeneity and honoring storytelling with others. I vow that I will not tell people’s stories for them. How about now? Am I your window or your mirror? Just checking.

Windows and mirrors came with this caution:

Be mindful of who you are in relation with.

Too many mirrors is vanity.

Too many windows. Voyeurism.

Now I am back to packing my bags for Tejas/Texas to spend time with family, but also in search of the stories I was never told or asked about in school. As I return home, I come to dig at roots. As I dig, I endeavor to go deeper than the Spanish (colonizing) language that was deemed unacceptable at school to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. I look beneath America, to Aztlan and to Turtle Island and I am not alone. Already I have met a lot of other people looking for surfacing the same thing- their missing or erased stories.

Finally, my thoughts return to the first bag packing of the summer. After the last day of school, my partner and I set off on a road trip to Wyoming via Idaho and Montana. I am definitely also going through some eco-anxiety right now and have had this fear lately that if I don’t see some of Turtle Island now, I never will.  On the road, we listened to Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. In this novel, Butler reveals her philosophy called Earthseed in a not too distant future (2024, y’all) where climate change and broken government has led to societal breakdown. Butler says, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” I have also been reading adrienne maree brown’s (she does not capitalize any part of her name like bell hooks) Emergent Strategy (hopefully the subject of my next post!) where brown harnesses social justice leaders from past and present and weaves together the intersectional issues of climate justice and racial justice.

Seeds taking different flight patterns in the breeze on a morning walk. Some go together in a cluster. Some go in pairs. Some go alone.

In brown’s work, she looks to nature for solutions to heal our planet, ourselves and our communities-by being like dandelions, through our roots and seeds. Brown also repeatedly mentions in her book that “what you pay attention to grows.”

The response that forms in my mind right now to that is “The future is in the past.” I need to check out the roots but pay attention to what seeds I plant for others.

Everywhere I look right now:

windows and mirrors, roots and seeds

Follow Jennifer @JenniferisDunn.