Black is Beautiful

Jordyn Bryant

This month’s guest blog post comes from a University of Washington undergraduate student, Jordyn Bryant, and reflections on learning from a course called, Race Ethnicity and Education.


Black history is rich. Black history is painful and traumatic. Black history is intricate, beautiful, empowering, and full of complexities. It is also overpowering and violent, especially to a young Black student. To a White student it may be shameful and embarrassing. But history is history, right? We must teach history through a lens of neutrality, right? “Teach facts as they have occurred. Incorporate the perspectives of both sides. Don’t make White students feel uncomfortable. Exclude the despicable. Teach the American Dream.” How do we unpack a history as complex and gut-wrenching as Black history? How do we teach a history that is still ongoing? How do we show our students that they are both products of history, and catalysts for meaningful change? 

Manifest Destiny | John Gast | 1872

For decades, American history has been taught from the limited perspective of the victor. We have been taught concepts of Westward Exploration and Manifest Destiny. We learn about our founding fathers, while they look far from being closely related to many of us. Black history is squeezed in between lessons. It is short. It is vague and uninspiring. It is a story of inevitability and peaceful rebellion. Black history should be centered in the history classroom. Black Excellence should be shouted from the rooftops. I argue that in order for this shift to occur, we need more Black history teachers, we need to teach Black literature in a way that is meaningful, and we need to teach Black freedom struggles in a way that is accurate and uncensored.

As we work to facilitate a history classroom that incorporates meaningful, impactful lessons that will leave a lasting impression on the students, we first must start with who is standing before the class. At the University of Washington, I have taken Black history courses by Black professors that were incredibly inspiring. Given their positionality in teaching this history, they were able to share personal anecdotes and connections to the pervasive nature of racism. They were also unafraid to argue that a true retelling of Black trauma involves the exposure of many atrocities committed by White Americans throughout history. 

Data from the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction show that, while Black students make up 4.6% of the State’s K-12 student population, Black teachers (orange) make up less than 2% of the teaching force.

As explained by Gloria Ladson-Billings, “The first reason for naming one’s own reality involves how political and moral analysis is conducted in legal scholarship. Many mainstream legal scholars embrace universalism over particularity.” The beauty of particularity is that it humanizes history. It reminds students that they are active members of history and have the agency to determine the trajectory of their own future. By having a personal relationship with this history as a victim of systemic oppression, Black teachers are the most qualified to convey such a dynamic to students of all backgrounds.

Black history is not, and should not, need to be confined to a standard social studies course. The teaching of Black history through authors such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler can be an extremely powerful tool in conveying the emotions of those experiencing slavery, or those grappling with Eurocentric ideals of beauty today. Through literary devices and personal narratives, the incorporation of Black writing into a language arts course can be quite effective in conveying the ways that systems of oppression affect the individual. In Morrison’s writing, for example, she grabs her audience by the throat and forces them to hear the cries of Pecola and feel the rage of Cholly in The Bluest Eye

A Google search of most beautiful women demonstrates the Eurocentric ideals of beauty.

In an academic context, Black history is often conveyed through the telling of concrete timelines and seemingly justified circumstances surrounding economic necessity. By utilizing the mode of storytelling and centering the voices of the oppressed, this history can be conceptualized in a way that is honest and vulnerable. As this history is characterized by racist structures, struggles for freedom, and overt discrimination, students find this does not stray far from what Black people continue to experience today. A major flaw in our education system lies in the way that history is taught as stories of the past with little connection to where our country is currently. As students, we deserve to learn that protests and resistance from the Civil Rights Era have directly informed the ways that our people fight against police brutality and mass incarceration today. 

In I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin discussed the intricate relationships he had with major figures like Malcom X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the film we must grapple with the ways that Black bodies are slammed to the ground during protest, and Black activists are unjustifiably murdered for seeking basic human rights. In the classroom, this history is diluted. Though less painful to experience, we are stripped from the reality that Black people have a history that is violent and intergenerationally traumatizing. Students deserve to know the whole truth, so they have a toolkit to disrupt such systems of oppression that continue to harm our people.

When such systems are so pervasive and prevalent today, the teaching of the origins of such inequities must be exceptionally accurate. Rather than continuing a cycle of silencing the Black voice and the Black experience in America, the classroom must be a space where this story is nurtured and prioritized. This is essential in our undoing of generations of racism on the end of the perpetrator, and sorrow on the end of the abused. History cannot be neutral. To make an attempt to teach in such a way is an act of violence. Young children of any background deserve to know the truth of our country’s darkest histories so that they grow into rounded, well-informed adults. Black history requires a level of discomfort and a hefty amount of reflection. 

However, once the student has come to understand the pain of Black history, they can then appreciate The Black Renaissance, and Black joy for true beauty that it represents. For so many years, Blackness has been criminalized and criticized by our society, while turning a blind eye to the culprit of such misrepresentation. By turning the mirror onto the true history of our nation, we can truly begin to take steps towards an informed and impactful future.

Questions for America

Poetry by Ronnie Bwambale Bryan

This month’s blog post comes from a student poet.


My name is Ronnie Bwambale Bryan. I was born on April 25th, 2003, in Fort Portal, Uganda. I don’t want to write my full life story. I’m not sure if anyone will be interested in reading about this brief but significant chapter of my life. I’ve decided to share this experience with you since it encapsulates who I am as a person and as a writer. 

I was born into a warm and loving family. This love and warmth are what made me the person I am today. My parents worked extra hard to give me and my siblings the best childhood. As a child, I was very emotionally intelligent, and I understood my feelings before I could even speak or write. However, even when I learnt how to speak, I was not able to express myself. This is because I was a very quiet child who had a hard time socializing even with my family. So as soon as I joined school and learnt how to write that is all I ever did.

I loved literature because of the writing aspect of it. It helped me to organize my thoughts and be able to write them down on paper. This, to me, made sense because it helped with my functional writing. I took this habit of writing even outside of class and I occasionally wrote poems and short stories during my free time. Instead of talking to my parents or siblings like most people do, I opted to write. I used to write them letters every day, and I would slip them under their bedroom doors. At the time I didn’t consider myself a writer. This was just my way of “talking” to my family. The more I wrote these letters, the better my writing became and the more I felt, the more vocabulary I picked. This is because new feelings unlock new words. 

Fast forward to today. I am a poet. Poetry, for me, is more of a lifestyle than a hobby. I have been through some traumatic events that still linger to this day. For a while, I did not know how to deal with the trauma until I watched a certain show. One of the characters in the show said, “If you can’t accept and move past rejection, or at least use it as writing material – you’re not a real man.” The moment I heard this I experienced an “aha” moment. For me, it was not about rejection, but my trauma. Since I could not move past the trauma, I decided to use it as writing material. That is how I discovered poetry. My interests have changed over the years and that has also changed what I write about. That’s the beauty of life: you live and you learn. My life is a canvas, and I am the artist. Right now, my painting isn’t complete but someday it’ll be a delightful sight.


REVERIE

I love to write

To write is to create

To create is to bring meaning to the world

The feeling you get from collecting your thoughts

And putting them into words is unmatched

Thoughts aren’t easy things to collect

It’s like trying to collect seashells in a desert

To collect your thoughts is a fine line between sanity and insanity

So why do people write?

FREEDOM

Shackles off my feet    

And yet I am trapped

Trapped in a cage

 called “mindset”

The key to this cage is in my hands

Freedom is the key

But what is freedom?

Until I figure that out

I am confined in this prison

Trapped to rot in here forever

My ignorance is going to be my downfall

No one taught us freedom in school

And now I’ll pay dearly with my life.

ENIGMA

I see secrets behind your eyes

What are you protecting me from?

Bold of me to assume that

What are you trying to protect yourself from?

I see you. You’re different

Lip service doesn’t please you

More of an action person, aren’t you?

Trying to figure you out

But figuring you out is harder than solving a scooby doo mystery.

QUESTIONS FOR AMERICA

Dear America,

When are you going to grow up? 

You think you are grown but in reality, you are a toddler.

When are you going to realize you aren’t the best?

You flaunt your weapons while those same weapons take innocent lives.

Dear America,

Why is everything about racism a debate?

All lives matter until it’s black lives.

Why isn’t healthcare more affordable?

Having a child shouldn’t cost thrice as much as rent.

Dear America,

Why do I feel hopeless when I watch the news?

So much potential in the lives thrown away.

How does it feel to be you?

I bet even you don’t know the answer to that.

Tezcatlipoca

written by Andrea Malagón

This past spring, our Executive Director taught a course in the Department of American Ethnic Studies called Race, Ethnicity, and Education. They invited some of their students to submit their reflections and essays. This is the first of several. Below, Andrea Malagón, reflects on their learning from a study called “Abby as an Ally” that follows a white student enrolled in a Native American Literacy course and their journey of unlearning Whiteness.


I didn’t think I would like the reading Abby as an Ally. I thought this piece was going to be about white fragility and what white people need from movements. It’s hard for me to read about whiteness because I never know where it’s gonna go. I really like the approach of the author. I’ve never read an academic paper where there were paragraphs about the technical stuff and then vignettes about Mrs. Bee’s classroom. That structure was very new to me. I would like to write my academic papers and dissertations like that. It feels nice to know that the author had that option. If he had it then maybe I can too. 

I’ve never read about whiteness in this way. I never thought an article about a Native American literature class would center around a white student. It sounded dumb to me in the beginning. Especially since the class had Native American students. “Why would you do that?”I asked my computer screen. I wanted to stop reading, but I kept reading instead to figure it out.

This article showed me how one person reflected on their whiteness. How her privilege moves through spaces, lives, hearts, and minds. Her privilege was moving and working to her benefit even at that young age. She saw that. She thought about that. She got uncomfortable with her past. In adulthood, to me at least, it sounds like she was able to reconcile with her identity as a white woman. A white person. It takes time. I could have read this and thought, “Why can’t every white person be like Abby?”That’s not productive thinking. Not everyone cares to learn about the weight their identity carries. Some people don’t want to face guilt and let it settle in. They react negatively instead. While that is weak, it’s what they have on them. Weakness. Those people are in their own psychosis.

While I relate to the Native American students from the reading when they are angry that their land and people were taken away from them, I also relate to Abby because sometimes it’s hard to be mad when you don’t know the whole story. I have to agree it sounds crazy that the land I go to work, school, and walk on used to belong to someone else. It’s hard to get over those thoughts of, “Wow. I can’t believe life used to be like that,” to then think, “The US came to be by stealing land and labor.” It’s ugly, but it’s true. Everyone consumes knowledge differently. The intersections of our identities are a reason for that. 

It’s hard to read about whiteness because I don’t have it the way white people do but I have something close to it. I think I struggle with liberating myself from the white gaze because I despise the whiteness in me. I’m not trying to uplift or flaunt it. I want to be aware of it. Whiteness is a privilege. Any proximity to whiteness is a privilege. Neutrality is a tool used by those with white privilege.

Silence is never neutral.

Silence is never neutral.

Silence is never neutral.

Silence literally kills people.

When you discuss racism as a white people problem instead of something that people of color have to endure you’re holding white privilege and white supremacy accountable. To be honest, I’m starting to see these two concepts more similarly than before. I thought they were like peanut butter and jelly. Two spreads that go together.

Now, I feel like they are in the same jar (pictured above). They’ve always worked together. In a perfect world, we would all be sweet like fruit salad and sprinkle cinnamon on orange slices and marvel at the abundance. We don’t live in a perfect world, but there’s a lot to learn from it.

Abby as an Ally showed me that there’s nothing wrong with trying again after feeling uncomfortable. There is nothing wrong with having feelings after hearing and taking in someone else’s point of view. It’s no wonder I have such a hard time trying to reflect. When I have uncomfortable feelings I tend to deflect. There is work that can be done there. I just need to stop rejecting it. I wish I could reflect on my emotions to the same caliber I reflect on history and public policy. It’s definitely a missing puzzle piece for me. This class and AFRAM 101 with Brukab Sisay really have shown me the power of reflection. While I might not be “good at it,” maybe there’s something meaningful happening when I notice I can improve that skill.

CRT and School Funding

Who controls education in Washington State, Part 3

In order to understand who controls education in Washington State, we must follow the money and the 50 year battle for equitable education spending 

“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex.”

Washington Constitution, article IX, section 1

***The hyperlinks throughout this post provide important context if you are unfamiliar with some of the legal history of education funding in Washington state. Here is a great introduction video

In this blog series, we have used the principles of CRT to shape our critique of how governmental bodies such as the EOGOAC, WA Leg. Education Committee members, and corporate media have limited and distorted the path towards education justice in Washington State. We have asked and answered this question of “Who Controls Education in Washington State?” because our advocacy work has brought us in proximity to and conflict with the various governmental bodies and private interests that have their hand around the neck of the levers of change in our education system. In the first blog post, we targeted the EOGOAC because our work at WAESN has included directly holding them accountable to their duty to our community to close the achievement gap and in the process; centering cultures of our community members. We find ourselves watching the watchmen, having to oversee both who controls education (legislation/private interests) and the structures of accountability and implementation (EOGOAC, PESB, and OSPI). 


After experiencing the rhetorical games, gaslighting, incrementalist reforms, and the exclusionary practices of the EOGOAC and OSPI, we zoomed out to the larger discourse around education in our second blog post. Here, our analysis looked at how the corporate local media, liberal and progressive legislators, and right-wing advocates have dominated the education advocacy discourse with a fear-mongering and limited framing for the value CRT brings to the path towards education liberation. Despite cooptation, misrepresentation, and out-right demonization of CRT, educator-organizers, led by POC-femmes, continue to fight for education justice and liberation using the framework of CRT. In this third post, we will zoom out further to do an analysis of the political-economic and legal structures that control our education system. We will continue to use CRT to recognize injustice in our education funding, respond to biases and inequities, redress the status-quo reforms of the past 50 years – including reparations and abolition of racist systems, actively cultivate equity in education and its funding, and build a system to sustain equity efforts for long-term solutions.

In order to combat the liberal “Culture War'” obfuscation, right-wing organizing, and attacks on CRT, we hope to begin to reframe the conversation of CRT’s influence in our political advocacy work and our vision for a decolonized ethnic studies. As Dr. David Stovall importantly reminded us in WAESN’s 4th Annual Assembly Panel on April 30th, 2022, in conversation with Dr. Anita Fernández (XITO) and our own WAESN organizers, we do this work in order to revolutionize our education system so it reflects the collective determination of our communities. This informative talk reminded us that schools are sites of struggles over collective memory and collective amnesia, and our work is grounded in the question of, “What knowledge should we pursue?” and, “How should we ensure accountability?” It also reminded us of the nature of our work. Firstly, CRT is a critical framework from which to engage in power analysis in pursuit of racial-justice, and secondly, we will be attacked, coopted, and excluded by the loudest, most powerful, moneyed voices.

session from WAESN’s 4th Annual Assembly on Organizing for Ethnic Studies

Many make claims as to the connections between CRT and education, so we want to clarify a few things before we continue. As we explained in part 2 of this blog series, many liberal education advocates circumscribe CRT (CRT-informed-teaching) as just a matter of curriculum/content in the classroom — i.e. teaching black authors or hiring black teachers. While these are fundamental demands of a CRT-informed politics of education, we must not limit the scope of CRT with changes of representation in the classroom. In pursuit of a just education system, we must extend our reading to the ways in which our classrooms are constructed, how our schools are funded, and our districts have been shaped by centuries of racial capitalism. In this post, we argue a CRT-informed politics of education must include the redistribution of funding. At WAESN, we believe that without recognizing inequity and historical injustices, CRT-lite curriculum changes proposed by liberals will not redressing the harm done to communities of color. We hope by reading this series, our readers understand that our current racial caste system is perpetuated by centuries of inadequate education funding and unjust revenue policy enacted by our state government. To put it in simpler terms, we will look into the recent history of where the money comes from, how it is collected, and where it goes. In an era of mass disillusionment and critical conscious raising impacts of COVID-19, the 2020 election, January 6th, and the 2020 BLM Uprising, we have the important duty to prepare our students for a changing world in perpetual crisis.

What is the McCleary Ruling? No equity, but more $.

Of all 50 states, only Washington declares providing basic public education as its “paramount duty.” Yet since the 1970s, Washington State courts have ruled that our legislators have failed to pass education policy that complies with our constitution. In the most recent case in 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary case that our legislators had still not “amply funded” “basic education.” The EOGOAC was tasked with closing the achievement gap in 2009 following this decision. With the passing of legislation that increased spending from 2013-18 (incld. EHB2242), the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state complied with the constitution to fund basic education in 2018. Some recent voices in education were placated by these education funding reforms and satisfied with the ruling. We at WAESN, among many other education advocates, are unconvinced that these changes did anything to redress the inequitable and inadequate funding policy of Washington State. In addition to failing to uphold effective community “accountability” mechanisms (the EOGOAC), our legislators have pushed through funding policy that has enabled historical inequity and injustice. We must watch the watchmen.  


It should be recognized that Washington State has significantly increased public spending on education since the 2012 McCleary ruling, as our legislators will quickly boast. State spending on public schools increased $14.2 billion or 110% from 2009–11 to 2019–21. By comparison, over the same period, all other state spending increased by just 52%. While much could be said for improving our national rankings from 29th to 18th in State spending on education per pupil, it does not mean we are making education our paramount duty here in Washington state, let alone are doing anything to redress historical inequities that our revenue and spending policies have created. Despite such increases, the achievement gap remains for students of color and our funding policy too often burdens working families.

In order to recognize injustice in our education funding and respond to the status-quo reforms of the past 50 years, we will turn our attention in the next installment of this series to the State’s reliance on property taxes to fund these budget increases, the problematic role local levies play in school funding, and finally how all of these reforms fail to take into account the legacies of racist policies that shape our communities, families, and classrooms.

Jewishness and Ethnic Studies

Part 2: Zionism and “The Jewish Question”

This blog post is a continuation of the dialogue between WAESN Executive Director, Tracy Castro-Gill, and Educator/Librarian, Jeff Treistman. The first installment tried to answer the question, “Are Jews white?” This installment explains Zionism and tries to answer the questions, “Are Jews indigenous to Israel?” and “What is ‘The Jewish Question’?”

We enter into this dialogue because some conservative, white Jews argue that the focus on indigeneity in ethnic studies is intentionally antisemitic and is used to consider Israel a settler-colonial state. Some Jews believe all Jews are indigenous to Israel and have a right to take the land back from Palestinians. While Jeff and I may not entirely agree on the term, “settler-colonial,” we do agree that the actions of the Israeli State are crimes against humanity.

Ultimately, the concepts of indigeneity and Zionism are being used to fuel the attacks on ethnic studies scholars of color and shut down ethnic studies across the country. The infringement on ethnic studies by conservative, white Jews insisting on addressing “The Jewish Question” in spaces that are meant to center people of color is also interrupting our movement.

What are Zionists and how are they influencing ethnic studies movements?



Tracy: Now may be a good time to introduce the difference between “Jewish” and “Zionist.” Much of the push-back against ethnic studies from Jewish people has come from some Jewish folks who may more accurately be described as Zionists. I read a tweet recently from a Zionist suggesting that ethnic studies’ focus on indigeneity and indigenous epistemologies is harmful to the State of Israel and is the basis for why we consider the modern State of Israel a settler-colonial state. From my understanding, Zionists believe all Jewish people are indigenous to Israel, but is that true? 

What are Zionists and is the modern State of Israel the indigenous homeland of all Jews across the globe?

Jeff: Personally, I’d prefer you to just call them Zionists. Again, the number of Christian Zionists far outnumbers the total number of Jews in the world but I don’t know in what way Christians may factor into that argument against Ethnic Studies. MLK considered himself a supporter of Israel and even a Zionist, so there are clearly nuances.

Indigeneity is yet another complex topic. I am Jewish but I don’t claim indigeneity to the land of Israel/Palestine. In my understanding indigeneity has to do with the formation of a people-hood. In that sense I have a better claim to indigeneity in Eastern Europe because that is where the people-hood of Ashkenazi formed. I could successfully apply for a Polish passport because I can prove my grandfather’s birth in Warsaw and locate the graves of my great grandparents who are both buried in Warsaw. The Palestinians are indigenous to Israel/Palestine because their people-hood formed there. I don’t think anyone can dispute that. But there is another legalistic category that needs to be highlighted, that of aboriginal rights. Aboriginal rights are granted to the first peoples of a land who have created cultural ties to a land that has been uninterrupted  at least since prehistoric times. In that sense Jews have the right of entry, sojourn and settlement in Israel/Palestine, especially in the Judean Hills where Jerusalem is located.

Current Israeli State and Palestinian territories

When it comes to the modern State of Israel, my focus goes to the concept of Statehood. Jewish anti Zionists in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century were opposed because they were opposed to Nationalism which was surging in Europe. Jewish Anarchists, of which there were hundreds of thousands, opposed the state, any state, outright. They saw the state as the dominant force of the oppression of all peoples. The State of Israel oppresses Palestinians and violates their indigenous rights and for that reason it is criminal. I don’t understand how Zionists can claim indigenous rights while disallowing the rights of Palestinians, it just isn’t logical. And aboriginal rights do not grant the right to statehood.

I don’t really buy the settler/colonial argument but I do buy the anti-imperialist argument. In my view the Global Imperialists weaponized the Jewish question and made Israel into a proxy state for the prosecution of the Cold War and its proximity to oil resources. This does not excuse individual Jews who embraced the power of the state for their own purposes. In my mind Netanyahu is a criminal and I hope he sees jail time but most people are just trying to survive and get by. That is why I blame the state and not the people.

Tracy: Thank you for clarifying that Zionism isn’t limited to Jewish folks. 

I think in these discussions of systemic power it is essential to differentiate between the system – in this case the State of Israel – and individuals. I’m not sure how you can distinguish between settler-colonialism and imperialism, though. Colonization is establishing control over land and its resources and people. It becomes settler-colonialism when the colonizers choose to live on the land they’ve colonized. Who are the “Global Imperialists”you mention that weaponized the Jewish question? If they aren’t the Jews themselves, are they the same Europeans who colonized the rest of the world? 

In our previous discussions, you mentioned the connection between the modern State of Israel and a European movement called Protestant Nationalism which aimed to expel Jews from Europe into Israel. This wouldn’t be the only example of Europeans being settler-colonists by proxy. After the successful revolution carried out by enslaved Africans in Haiti, British colonists brought Chinese folks into their colonies in the West Indies to,“provide a security,”against revolts. While the Chinese may not have been the colonizers, the West Indies were still settler-colonies. Couldn’t the same be said of the modern State of Israel?

This brings me to another question I kept asking Emily in her interview. She kept referring to the,“Jewish question,”as you did in your last response, and I kept asking her why it’s a,“Jewish question?”There are so many parallels white Jews and people of the global majority could be making instead of making it all about the,“Jewish question.”Why do some white Jews, in particular, insist that their experiences with oppression and genocide are somehow unique? There are far more examples of genocide among people of the global majority than white Jews. Each racial and ethnic group has stereotypes they face that can also be amplified by interrogating how they benefit from them. One notable example is the model minority myth about Asians. The myth that Asians excel at all things math and science related is harmful to both Asians and non-Asian people of color, and we have to explore and dissect it to understand how it perpetuates anti-Blackness no matter how much Asian people are discomforted by it.

Thank you to reader, Deepa, for reminding us of James Baldwins’ thoughts on Jewish anti-Blackness.

That was a lot, so let me repeat my questions: How might the modern State of Israel be a settler-colonial state even if Jews, themselves, aren’t the colonists (using the West Indies as an example)? If Jews want to be part of an ethnic studies curriculum, they can’t try to be excused from having their identity pulled apart and examined for how it is used to oppress others, so why do white Jews, specifically, continue to insist there is a “Jewish question,” that is somehow different, or outside of other questions about identity, power, and oppression?

“If it weren’t a question, this piece we are working on would not exist.”

Jeff Treistman

Jeff: Yeah, “Global Imperialist” is pretty vague. I apologize for reverting back to the 70’s rhetoric; this is a term I used to use with Black and White members of the Revolutionary Student Brigades when I was in college. It refers to US and British governmental and business interests. When the State of Israel was established it meant the beginning of the end for the libertarian socialists who settled in Israel/Palestine on communes that were committed to living side by side with the Palestinians and other ethnic groups who were already living there. These folks did not bring a lot of capital with them and were dedicated to hard work to make a living. It wasn’t easy but it was better than trying to survive the pogroms that raged in Eastern Europe in the last part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Then Hitler happened and post-WWII sympathy allowed the creation of the State of Israel and the course was set for where we are today. The left in Israel lost favor and power over several decades as capital flowed into Israel. Other factors like the influx of Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) and later, in the 90s, with the influx of Jews from Russia and Ukraine, Israeli politics significantly changed. But there are still Israeli Anarchists today advocating for a “no state solution.”

If you read the linked article on Jewish aboriginal rights, it makes a compelling argument for the Jewish rights of entry, sojourn and settlement. Even though this argument is being used by Zionists, I find the preponderance of evidence makes an irrefutable case for the connection that almost all Jews have to the land of Israel/Palestine. Based on that I think the use of the word “colonist” is incorrect. European colonies were settled by people with no connection to the land at all. I won’t repeat all of the arguments in the article but I will point out that ancient biblical text and extra-biblical text, Greek and Roman history, archaeological findings, genetic sequencing, the continuous presence of Jews in the territory (mostly as third class citizens), and the 2000 years of Jewish diasporic yearning for a return, all play a part for me in feeling the connection. This is probably an area where we will have disagreements but there it is. We do agree that Israel is acting like an apartheid state today.

apartheid – any system or practice that separates and politically and economically oppresses people according to color, ethnicity, caste, etc.

In 1843 Bruno Bauer wrote The Jewish Question. The following year Karl Marx wrote a response, On the Jewish Question. This was the beginning of a wide ranging debate in 19th and 20th century European society that pertained to the appropriate status and treatment of Jews. It was also called the Jewish Problem which fed into the Final Solution of the Nazis. Earlier I referenced a book called The Finkler Question, whose title is a play on this. It is frequently used in-group in the Jewish community. If it weren’t a question, this piece we are working on would not exist.

Humanistic Jews do not use the word unique when talking about the “Jewish Question”, preferring to use the word “particular”. All peoples are unique and using it to exclusively talk about Jews is contrary to our concept of Humanism. There have been many genocides in world history but the one particular to Jews is called the Shoah or the Holocaust. There are many diasporic people in the world as a result of various horrible situations but the ones particular to Jews are the Babylonian exile in 600 BCE, the Roman dispersion of Jews after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, and the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. Something else particular to Jews are the continuous persecutions over the last 2600 years.    


As for the white Jews who want to be part of the Ethnic Studies curriculum, I suggest that they start by welcoming Jews of Color (JOC) into the big tent of Judaism and learn about their struggles to be accepted as Jews by the Jewish mainstream. And I suggest that WAESN partner with JOC to illuminate the racism they experience in too many Jewish spaces. Studying How Jews became White Folks should be a prerequisite for white Jews to see how Jewish complicity with whiteness has been harmful. When I say this, I am expressing my solidarity with Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish history, warts and all, because many Jews have also been stalwart supporters of and activists in racial justice, social justice, labor rights, immigrant rights and the separation of church and state. 



Reflection

How can we hold multiple truths about who has historical claims to the land of Israel/Palestine?

What are some examples of a government acting out of alignment with the values of its people?

How do we discuss the oppression various groups experience without minimizing each group’s particular experiences?

Why is it important to understand and critique positionality in ethnic studies discourse, especially in terms of identity?

Jewishness and Ethnic Studies

A conversation between WAESN Executive Director, Tracy Castro-Gill  and Educator/Librarian, Jeff Treistman

My former colleague and current friend and co-conspirator, Jeff Treistman, and I sat down to discuss the tension between ethnic studies and Jewishness. What we produced is a lengthy dialogue about some of the largest points of contention. This is the first installment of three. Each installment will end with some reflection questions for readers, especially educators.

This first installment centers around the identity of Jewish folks. Are Jews white?



Hello! I am Tracy Castro-Gill. My pronouns are they/them and I identify as Xicanx. I’m a mom, grandmother, and friend. I’m also a racial justice advocate, former middle school educator, and education scholar. I’m one of the co-founders of Washington Ethnic Studies Now and serve as the Executive Director.

Hi, I’m Jeff Treistman. My pronouns are he/him and I identify as a white Jew (or Ashkenazi). I live with my wife of 40 years, have an adult daughter and sustain many friendships. I’ve worked as a musician, a chef, a wine merchant, an educator and as a school librarian. I’m a long time member and in the leadership program with the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Tracy: So, for some context, this blog post is being written as a conversation between myself and Jeff in response to some criticism I’ve received from some Jewish folks recently over my insistence that most Jews are white, my view of Israel as a settler-colonial state, and my support of Palestinian Studies in ethnic studies programs. I’ve also raised concern over the Washington State’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) actions in the development of the state’s ethnic studies framework that included granting white, Jewish organizations and individuals the authority to vet and veto the work of people of color.

As a non-Jewish person, I want to be sure I’m not missing anything, and that I’m listening to reasonable Jewish people with a deep understanding of Jewish history and contemporary concerns about the recent rise in antisemitism. I say, “reasonable,”because there is a trend of white Zionists shutting down and working against anti-racist scholars of color. Members of California’s Jewish legislative caucus penned a letter denouncing the work of ethnic studies scholars of color saying, “We cannot support a curriculum that erases the American Jewish experience, fails to discuss antisemitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, singles out Israel for criticism, and would institutionalize the teaching of antisemitic stereotypes in our public schools.”The thing is, ethnic studies, historically, has never been about Jewish Studies. The focus has always been on racially minoritized groups. Also historically, there are four races: European, Asian, American (including all of the Americas, not just the USA), and African. Oceanian was recently added as a fifth race. Ethnic studies has always been about Black, Latinx, American Indian, and Asian experiences. European Jews don’t fall into these categories. 

Emily Alhadeff, a Jewish blog author, asked to interview me about the work being done in Washington State on ethnic studies. I agreed, but recorded the interview because I was afraid she’d misrepresent my view – which she did. In her piece, she claims I bullied a Jewish member of the state workgroup on ethnic studies simply because she was white and Jewish. The fact is, the member in question, Linda Clifton, repeatedly admitted her ignorance of ethnic studies. Alhadeff says, “Clifton challenged the use of the term ‘Indigenous epistemologies,’”because Clifton admitted she doesn’t know what it means. Indigenous epistemologies are the foundation of all ethnic studies curriculum. Why was she on a committee to create a curriculum she knew nothing about? I was told it was to, “make sure we didn’t have another ‘California’.”

original recording of interview used in The Cholent by Emily Alhadeff

White Jewish people insisting on being included in a curriculum that has never been about them reeks of white privilege, and when I say that, Jewish folks come back with something along the lines of, “Well, Jewish identity is complicated.”Aren’t all identities? The fact that Linda Clifton and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle were given a kind of supervisory role over educators and scholars of color also smells bad. And still, as a person who considers themselves a critical learner, I want to learn more.

My first question to you, Jeff, is, “Are Jews white?”

Jeff: Yes, except for when they aren’t. If we are just talking about the United States, out of a population of approximately 6 million US Jews, 300,000 identify as Jews of Color. Most US Jews are Ashkenazic descendants of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. In Israel/Palestine Ashkenazi Jews make up about 45% of the Jewish population with Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews making up another 45%. Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) make up 3% and the last 7% are various mixes of the first three. (You can learn about differences and similarities here.)

Jews were accepted in the United States as white from the very beginning when the Constitution guaranteed the free exercise of religion and gave Jews rights they never had anywhere else before. Jews were full citizens, not ⅗ for Africans or barred outright like Asians. During the colonial period it was different. Jews were banned in most colonies except in the settlements of New York City, NY, Newport, RI, Savannah, GA, Charleston, SC and Philadelphia, PA. Even with legal acceptance Jews have always been “othered” and the privileges that come with whiteness were slow to materialize. Many non-WASP whites in the US see the post WWII period as when they “became” white, in other words, when they started to lose the stigmas that came with their ethnic backgrounds. In addition to Jews, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners and even the Irish can trace a history of discrimination that their families experienced.

Tracy: I love that you brought African and Asian experiences into this conversation, and I will add that Indigenous people in the Americas were victims of genocide, excluded from human rights, and considered sub-human. Race and power, of course, are all relative. I also appreciate the article you shared with me by David Schraub, “White Jews: An intersectional approach.” I often tell people that ethnic studies doesn’t exclude Jewish identity, but takes an intersectional approach to it. I appreciate how Schraub complicates Whiteness in Jewish identity and asks, “What does Whiteness do to Jewishness?” As I read it, though, it felt like he was talking to white readers. I understand his point about how Whiteness amplifies stereotypes of Jewish people, especially stereotypes of power hoarding, but it would be interesting to understand how people of color see Jewishness. His analysis lacks a deeper discussion of the positionality of white Jews in relationship to folks of color. Do folks of color see white Jews as white and Jewish, or just white? ← Rhetorical question. I personally can’t discern white folks from white Jewish folks unless there’s an obviously Jewish name. For example, I did not know Alhadeff is a Jewish name. I guessed Treistman was a Jewish name when we met because of the ‘man’ suffix. I didn’t know Linda Clifton was Jewish until she told me.

Schraub suggests that one thing Whiteness does to Jewishness is amplify the stereotype that Jews have some kind of superhuman power over all things and all people. How, then, do we critique the privileges Whiteness confers on white people  – a central topic of ethnic studies,  including white Jews, without getting caught up in antisimetic tropes?

Most Jews take a yearly reckoning of their actions during the high holidays and should be encouraged to include the costs of Whiteness in their personal reckoning.

Jeff Treistman

Jeff: Very carefully. Antisemitism is a mine field. Not even Jews are immune to accusations of self-hatred and antisemitism from other Jews. Witness the mainstream Jewish organizations that give Bernie Sanders grief over his assertion that Palestinians have rights. I’m sure I will get grief from some quarter just for discussing this openly with you. There is a brutal dialectic that exists between Jewishness and antisemitism. In his Man Booker award winning novel The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson posits the idea that Jews and antisemitism are co-dependent. Many Jews like to say that God, Torah, and Israel unite all Jews but the reality is that those three topics spur endless debates and rare unity among Jews. But antisemitism does bring unity to Jews.

Anyone critiquing Jews for any reason at all should demonstrate an awareness and understanding of Jewish history. That is why I think you are taking a much needed step. Most people are ignorant of Jewish history because it is not taught in public schools and that is why Jewish Studies is such an important topic on the university level. Many Jews try to give their children some Jewish education both in religious and secular schools and don’t rely on public school for that part of their education. Even so, many Jews have only limited knowledge of their own cultural history.

Most American Jews are unaffiliated and this is something that undermines much of the propaganda that comes from the Jewish mainstream. According to the most recent Pew research reports on religion in America, the trend toward secularism is only growing more significant, this in spite of the rise of Evangelical Christianity. Jews constitute the most secular religious group in America. Younger Jews of today are challenging many of the assumptions about Israel/Palestine and other topics that have been pumped out by the older, established Jewish organizations while at the same time forming new groups.

I have been teaching in a non-theistic, secular Jewish Sunday school for ten years, so I have experience with Jewish education. I do teach about antisemitism and the Holocaust but that is no where near all there is to learn about in Jewish Studies. I think we can start finding some answers to your questions within Jewish Studies.
First off, Jews are no strangers to Socialism, Communism and Anarchism. Those of us, like myself, who identify with leftist ideologies, criticize the conservative elements that come along with white privilege. So I think a class analysis is very appropriate. Secondly, most Jews subscribe to the value of Tikkun Olam, which is the idea that the world is not perfect, in many places it is broken and needs repair. If you are not using your privilege to try to accomplish repair, you are not fulfilling your obligations of Jewishness, so there is a moral core that can be activated. Thirdly, most Jews take a yearly reckoning of their actions during the high holidays and should be encouraged to include the costs of Whiteness in their personal reckoning. I would also suggest that the Talmudic debate between Hillel and Shammai is relevant because even though the more liberal Hillel is acknowledged as having the correct opinion, Shammai was not erased. It is said that Hillel was correct in the world we live in but Shammai would be correct in Paradise.



Reflection

What does it mean to be white in the U.S. and how may centering Jewishness in ethnic studies detract from the stories of people and communities of color that created ethnic studies?

How would de-centering Whiteness in public education allow for a richer understanding of Jewishness?

In what ways can people be simultaneously the target of oppression and the perpetrator of oppression?

What is the importance of considering intersectionality, a tenet of Critical Race Theory, in discussions of identity?

Petition: Support RRHS BSU Students and Educators

What follows is a letter drafted by the River Ridge High School (RRHS) BSU outlining their current experiences and demands. It was sent to Superintendent Reykdal who has yet to respond as of March 3, 2022, the date of this publication.

You can support the BSU by signing this petition, which will send a letter in support of their below demands to Superintendent Reykdal and the administrators of NTPS and RRHS, and by donating to their legal fund.

Support the River Ridge High School BSU

Superintendent Reykdal, NTPS Administrators, and RRHS Administrators,

I am signing this petition in support of the River Ridge High School BSU And Educators. I support their demands outlined below and ask that you meet each one without delay or retaliation against the members and educators of the BSU.

Students participating in the strike must receive accommodations and/or modifications to make-up work missed in their classes With the understanding now that the district was in direct violation of their own policies, all participants in the student strike should receive full credit for engaging in their civic duty to exercise their 1st amendment rights in protest of violations by district officials, school administrators, and staff that disproportionately harmed students from BIPOC and other marginalized communities. These students should not only receive credit for civics and other social studies courses, they should be awarded credits towards graduation for other social studies credits, leadership, CTE, art, ELA, etc.

Students and staff participating in the strike will not be retaliated against.

Any teacher, staff, and/or student peer that is proven to have acted in retaliation towards students on strike will be disciplined, provided with equity training, and/or suspended or terminated from the district.

An agreement to negotiation/planning with BSU students and students who have experienced sexual trauma at schools and stakeholders to plan stop “business as usual” schooling for students involved in the strike for the duration of the year 1-2 weeks during the month of February to address major student concerns at our schools and to plan school-wide/district-wide trainings. Students are not just learning Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetics. There is a 4th R and a 5th R that are silent. NTPS needs to make a commitment to end Racism and Rape culture in schooling. We demand that a commitment is made to dedicate space, money, time, and effort so that all students, staff, and stakeholders can address these community issues so that we can collaborate on community solutions. Outside professional organizations specializing in these issues should be hired with the consent of students. Stakeholders engaging in the process should be compensated (school credit, volunteer hours, a stipend, etc.) if this is not part of curriculum and made to be extracurricular.

Students involved in the strike will be provided with the theater commons area or the auxiliary gym at RRHS for the remainder of the school year as their safe place.

They will also be reporting to this safe place for every Advisory/Study Hall between 2nd and 3rd period to meet, build community, disseminate information, organize, plan, receive mental health support, etc.

Students from North Thurston High School and Timberline High School who were involved in their school walk-out and have allied with RRHS BSU will also receive the same opportunities and be transported/allowed to be transported to RRHS to collaborate on community solutions.

Policies are updated in the students' rights and responsibilities handbook to reflect district policies.

Long-term Goals we are still pursuing:

A full investigation conducted by the Washington State Department of Justice, The Office of Civil Rights, and/or The Human Rights Commission, of the current and historical issues and management of incidents of racism and sexual harassment at NTPS with the understanding that the failures of this district are failures that are state-wide.

Accountability measures for racial equity, LGBTQIA+, and social justice training for all staff in every NTPS Position.

%%your signature%%

248 signatures

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To Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, and members of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction,

We are the Black Student Union (BSU) of North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS). Our BSU advocates for the collective interest and rights of Black students, and by extension the rights of all students participating in the institution of public education. We are writing to you not only on behalf of our BSU members, but also in an effort to protect the rights of students who have been targets of sexual violence in our schools, including female-identifying, transgender, and non-binary students. We are uniting in a collective effort to ensure that students’ rights are protected, regardless of sex, gender presentation, or sexuality, and that all students have access to a safe and inclusive school environment free from sexual violence, racism, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. 

Students from a variety of backgrounds and identities reported multiple experiences of discrimination and injustice when filing incidents of racism and sexual harassment to administrators and/or district level officials. This is not acceptable. We must act in our own best interests to secure our rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in public schools because of race, color, or national origin. Public schools include elementary schools, secondary schools, public colleges, and universities. We must act to hold institutions of public education accountable to the Title IX Constitutional Amendment of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity) in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. 

Our previous and ongoing attempts to work “within the system” have resulted in re-traumatization, gaslighting, and repeated instances of our concerns being dismissed and/or minimized further compounding our trauma. Despite attempts to follow outlined procedures in our student handbook and make reports to the powers that be, we have not been protected from racial abuse, sexual trauma, and retaliation inflicted on us by peers and even staff. Administrators and district officials have proven unable to provide us with a safe learning environment and, conversely, have created a hostile environment for students who were involved in our strike against racism and rape culture in schools.  

Because of these shortcomings, it is now our responsibility to cultivate change and secure justice for ourselves.

We spent over 5 months from September 2021 into March 2022 meeting with supportive teachers, in small groups, and eventually formed alliances with larger groups of students to analyze our circumstances and how the systems in our schools have failed to protect us. We met with caregivers/parents in December of 2021 to raise awareness of our lived experiences as students in NTPS.  As a result of these meetings, we created a list of short-term goals and long-term goals that would serve to improve the educational experiences of BIPOC and other marginalized students. We began to implement changes on our own but were denied the opportunity to even have a student advocate in our meetings with administrators.

Our circumstances progressively became worse with mounting incidents of racism and sexual violence and as we continued to advocate for ourselves. It was necessary to take more drastic measures. We held a second meeting with students experiencing sexual violence on campus. On Saturday, January 29th, BSU leaders and our advisors, student representatives for those experiencing sexual violence, caregivers/parents of the Black Student Union from the 3 high schools in NTPS, and concerned community leaders gathered for a presentation by the BSU Coalition.  All high school level administrators were invited but only Angela Lee-Pope, the Vice Principal from River Ridge, attended with the District’s Director of Equity, Dr. Antonio Sandifer.  At this meeting, we established a foundational understanding of the harm that we have had to endure from administrators and district officials who have treated students from BIPOC and marginalized communities inequitably.  We announced our strike and that the timeline would be for as long as is necessary to get our demand met from school leadership.  We received overwhelming caregiver and community support. 

At this point, however, we did not know that the demands we created were already written into the district’s governance policies on Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying in some form years before.  These were not detailed on page 17 of the HIB section of the Student’s Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.  We only discovered this after we met with the Nisqually Tribal Council who recommended creating a fact sheet in which NTPS policies and state RCWs were reviewed for violations.  Upon researching these policies during the last full week of February, we were astonished to find out that not only were our demands already in district policies, but that district officials, administrators, and staff operated while uninformed of these policies and that they repeatedly acted in violation to those policies over the course of this school year and countless others serving to harm generations of students.

We are acting as a collective body to ensure that our most vulnerable populations and future generations are safe from harm at schools by holding NTPS accountable. The dehumanization of students will continue to occur, as well as systemic racism and rape culture, if we do not unite for change. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, we believe, is ultimately responsible for ensuring the rights of faculty members as well as students in reporting government abuse.  We are aware that OSPI and NTPS have been in contact regarding these matters.  You must act to support students and staff as we continue to fight for our rights. We want our schools and this district to do better so that we don’t have to endure suffering just to receive an education. We ask that you:  

bear witness to our stories; 

use your resources and connections to raise awareness about the abuses and exploitation of BIPOC labor while on strike and in negotiation meetings in which we are doing the work to ensure the district’s compliance with Title VI and Title IX statutes without proper compensation, credits towards graduation, or even positive acknowledgment of the work we are doing while having to be burdened with making up any in-class work missed;

protect us from further harm and retaliation by asserting pressure on agencies/those with the power and authority to terminating the employment and revoking the certification of district level officials as well as administrators at NTPS that are criminally negligent in being uninformed of their own policies and violating policies to the detriment of students;

protect us from further harm and retaliation by asserting pressure on agencies/those with the power and authority to remove from office the school board members who have demonstrated complicity over multiple years in criminal negligence in being uninformed of their own district policies and not holding the superintendent, her cabinet, other district officials, and school administrators accountable; and

donate to our legal defense fund as we pursue a class-action and individual lawsuits https://waethnicstudies.com/donations/rrhs-bsu-legal-fund/   

We have been intimidated, coerced, and forced to abide by demands dictated to us by administrators against our own self-interest. There is an imbalance of power corrupting our public schools particularly when it comes to reporting traumatic experiences that needs to be amended. When we are forced to be silent and to bear the burden of being harmed through race-based and gender-based violence, we internalize feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion. This negatively impacts our attendance, motivation, academic outcomes, mental health, and more. When students come to school, they need to feel safe and secure enough to communicate with our mandated reporters about the traumatic experiences students go through. So, consider this trauma as causing students in the strike to be “further impacted by significant disruption to their education,” a circumstance that allows for credits to be waived for graduating seniors, in addition to the strain put on us from the COVID pandemic with buses that don’t show up, substitutes in multiple classes, and our own absences due to quarantine and/or mental health circumstances. 

The student strike (long-term, disruption of schooling) was not a one-day walk out. It was 8 days of protesting where we were repeatedly dehumanized by district officials.  The following is a short and incomplete list of what we experienced.  We were:  

refused the use of restrooms;

left unsheltered in rain and below 40 degree temperatures for hours even when shelter was requested due to inclement weather;

threatened with suspension and the ability to walk during graduation;

unprotected from a hostile parent that made threats as well as racist and lewd comments to strike participants while the SRO and district officials failed to intervene (videos available on social media);

continuously mischaracterized as an unruly, aggressive, disruptive “mob” without apologies or corrections to misleading emails sent to the public;

obstructed in our progress with negotiated demands as district officials continuously failed to communicate with counselors and ALL other staff the terms of negotiations causing confusion and frustration among staff and students;  

treated with malicious retaliation before and during the strike;

treated with discrimination even after returning to classes;

told our signs that we put up during Black Lives Matter in Schools Week/Black History Month that quoted Dr. King and represented the legacy of resistance against Black-oppression were unauthorized and were ordered by the Vice Principal to be taken down.  The custodian who took down the signs also crumpled up the signs, tore the only sign that said Black Lives Matter, and threw them in the trash.  We were not allowed to see footage in its entirety from surveillance cameras;

denied our 1st amendment rights when NTPS officials manipulated the public into believing that our strike particularly impacted students served in the Life Skills program at River Ridge.  The district has yet to retract any of their deleterious emails regarding the students on strike nor have they released the email from all 3 Life Skills teachers defending the BSU students on strike and decrying the use of students in the Life Skills program as an excuse to violate the rights of the student on strike;

subjected to negotiations with district officials that were combative in nature and demoralizing to students.  Abusive administrators continually denied, questioned, minimized, and, in one unfortunate event, the RRHS Vice Principal/Interim Principal Lee-Pope laughed at a student’s claims causing that student severe emotional distress; and

endangered by school and district officials who failed to communicate to the public and to the school community that a threat was made to protestors by a peer that filmed the strike and imported the footage into a first person shooter video encouraging other students to “get a couple m82s and shoot up the protesters like that one part in cod.” The following day at the strike, students saw and reported the same threatening video to adult supporters, unaware that administrators knew of and “addressed” the incident the afternoon before. Adults at the strike took the necessary safety precautions to protect students while a report was being made to authorities. Ultimately, due to lack of communication by administrators and district officials, chaos and harm towards students ensued. Two students had anxiety attacks and were treated by medical staff.  Others were crying and afraid.  The entire group of students and caregivers were traumatized.  The evidence collected from the lockdown supports the above claims.

Here is a breakdown of the District’s response to strike demands with edits, updates, and descriptions in red of other treatment we’ve had to endure:  https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JQhmIWVo292ZrG2ZdVSqbvbW7fEpmwI6Vgc8KO-vmOo/edit   

We demanded that our schools agree to the following Short-Term Achievable Goals that can begin to build trust and healing before we return to schooling. However, with the recent discovery that our Short-Term Achievable Goals are already written into district policies in some form, our demands evolved.  The district and their representatives have been criminally negligent in abiding by their own governance policies and Washington State RCWs and have been harming students for generations.  Currently, we demand:   

Students participating in the strike must receive accommodations and/or modifications to make-up work missed in their classes With the understanding now that the district was in direct violation of their own policies, all participants in the student strike should receive full credit for engaging in their civic duty to exercise their 1st amendment rights in protest of violations by district officials, school administrators, and staff that disproportionately harmed students from BIPOC and other marginalized communities.  These students should not only receive credit for civics and other social studies courses, they should be awarded credits towards graduation for other social studies credits, leadership, CTE, art, ELA, etc. ;

students and staff participating in the strike will not be retaliated against;  

any teacher, staff, and/or student peer that is proven to have acted in retaliation towards students on strike will be disciplined, provided with equity training, and/or suspended or terminated from the district; 

an agreement to negotiation/planning with BSU students and students who have experienced sexual trauma at schools and stakeholders to plan stop “business as usual” schooling for students involved in the strike for the duration of the year  1-2 weeks during the month of February to address major student concerns at our schools and to plan school-wide/district-wide trainings. Students are not just learning Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetics. There is a 4th R and a 5th R that are silent. NTPS needs to make a commitment to end Racism and Rape culture in schooling. We demand that a commitment is made to dedicate space, money, time, and effort so that all students, staff, and stakeholders can address these community issues so that we can collaborate on community solutions. Outside professional organizations specializing in these issues should be hired with the consent of students. Stakeholders engaging in the process should be compensated (school credit, volunteer hours, a stipend, etc.) if this is not part of curriculum and made to be extracurricular;

students involved in the strike will be provided with the theater commons area or the auxiliary gym at RRHS for the remainder of the school year as their safe place;

they will also be reporting to this safe place for every Advisory/Study Hall between 2nd and 3rd period to meet, build community, disseminate information, organize, plan, receive mental health support, etc.;

students from North Thurston High School and Timberline High School who were involved in their school walk-out and have allied with RRHS BSU will also receive the same opportunities and be transported/allowed to be transported to RRHS  to collaborate on community solutions; and

policies are updated in the students’ rights and responsibilities handbook to reflect district policies.

Long-term Goals we are still pursuing:

A full investigation conducted by the Washington State Department of Justice, The Office of Civil Rights, and/or The Human Rights Commission, of the current and historical issues and management of incidents of racism and sexual harassment at NTPS with the understanding that the failures of this district are failures that are state-wide; and

accountability measures for racial equity, LGBTQIA+, and social justice training for all staff in every NTPS Position. 

Please contact us with your questions, comments, and concerns.   

In Solidarity,     

NTPS BSU members/students impacted by race-based trauma and sexual violence

Support the River Ridge High School BSU

Superintendent Reykdal, NTPS Administrators, and RRHS Administrators,

I am signing this petition in support of the River Ridge High School BSU And Educators. I support their demands outlined below and ask that you meet each one without delay or retaliation against the members and educators of the BSU.

Students participating in the strike must receive accommodations and/or modifications to make-up work missed in their classes With the understanding now that the district was in direct violation of their own policies, all participants in the student strike should receive full credit for engaging in their civic duty to exercise their 1st amendment rights in protest of violations by district officials, school administrators, and staff that disproportionately harmed students from BIPOC and other marginalized communities. These students should not only receive credit for civics and other social studies courses, they should be awarded credits towards graduation for other social studies credits, leadership, CTE, art, ELA, etc.

Students and staff participating in the strike will not be retaliated against.

Any teacher, staff, and/or student peer that is proven to have acted in retaliation towards students on strike will be disciplined, provided with equity training, and/or suspended or terminated from the district.

An agreement to negotiation/planning with BSU students and students who have experienced sexual trauma at schools and stakeholders to plan stop “business as usual” schooling for students involved in the strike for the duration of the year 1-2 weeks during the month of February to address major student concerns at our schools and to plan school-wide/district-wide trainings. Students are not just learning Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetics. There is a 4th R and a 5th R that are silent. NTPS needs to make a commitment to end Racism and Rape culture in schooling. We demand that a commitment is made to dedicate space, money, time, and effort so that all students, staff, and stakeholders can address these community issues so that we can collaborate on community solutions. Outside professional organizations specializing in these issues should be hired with the consent of students. Stakeholders engaging in the process should be compensated (school credit, volunteer hours, a stipend, etc.) if this is not part of curriculum and made to be extracurricular.

Students involved in the strike will be provided with the theater commons area or the auxiliary gym at RRHS for the remainder of the school year as their safe place.

They will also be reporting to this safe place for every Advisory/Study Hall between 2nd and 3rd period to meet, build community, disseminate information, organize, plan, receive mental health support, etc.

Students from North Thurston High School and Timberline High School who were involved in their school walk-out and have allied with RRHS BSU will also receive the same opportunities and be transported/allowed to be transported to RRHS to collaborate on community solutions.

Policies are updated in the students' rights and responsibilities handbook to reflect district policies.

Long-term Goals we are still pursuing:

A full investigation conducted by the Washington State Department of Justice, The Office of Civil Rights, and/or The Human Rights Commission, of the current and historical issues and management of incidents of racism and sexual harassment at NTPS with the understanding that the failures of this district are failures that are state-wide.

Accountability measures for racial equity, LGBTQIA+, and social justice training for all staff in every NTPS Position.

%%your signature%%

248 signatures

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Who Controls Education in Washington State? Part 2; This is not a “Culture War.”

Liberals and progressives who tell you this is a Culture War are co-opting and virtue signaling for their own personal gain.

In part 2 of the series we’ll be looking at who controls education by controlling the narrative around anti-CRT movements. Some have tried to change the narrative by calling it a “Republican war on teachers,” but Republicans aren’t the only antagonists. In a blue state, passive progressive liberals reign supreme.

Culture War” has been used as a rhetorical weapon in American political discourse since the 1920s. Its emergence in the heightened inequality following the Gilded Age is no coincidence, as liberals and conservatives had to respond to the growing momentum of multiracial working class communities calling for racial and economic liberation. In a 21st Century America riddled with under-funded schools, unsupported educators, and austerity budgets closing schools in cities like in Oakland, you might wonder, “Why we are still using a term like ‘culture wars’?”

Diving deeper into the CRT “Culture War” debate, we are able to see how the duopoly of our political discourse between liberals and conservatives limits and shapes what we think of as possible changes to our education system. Conservatives, on the one hand, scream “Communists!” while liberals repeat, “Nothing to see here. We don’t teach CRT.” Each reaction to CRT is a side on the same coin. That is why we are here to unpack how the liberal and conservative framing of CRT as a “Culture War” about curriculum is a distraction from revolutionizing our unjust school system beginning with fully funding our schools, supporting our teachers, and centering the needs and cultures of our most marginalized communities. 



Who’s fighting this so-called “Culture War”?

The reality for many activists and scholars is that Republicans are only one barrier to racial justice; progressive liberals, in trying to appease conservatives, have watered down the intent of CRT, and therefore, ethnic studies. When reading the liberal and progressive headlines, one can easily be convinced CRT is either for white folks to learn how to talk about race or for Black folks to see themselves in the books they read. While these are essential components of CRT, they barely scrape the surface of the changes we at WAESN know our schools need. Liberals and progressives who tell you this is a culture war co-opt our material and historical struggle for liberation

Instead of defending the framework of CRT, liberals want you to think this war is one of promoting multicultural “diversity” or fighting individual acts of bigotry and racism. These corporate-sponsored liberal headlines framing our education crisis as a CRT “Culture War” erase, abstract, and appropriate the demands of families, youth, and educator organizers. They silence us and our ancestors in the generations-long fight for liberation. For racial justice and economic liberation, we must make radical changes to our school funding programs, implement restorative justice, and collaborate for cultural restoration. But before we get into our solutions, we first must disrupt the looping rhetoric of the ruling elite and their control over the two parties. 

Origins of the Anti-CRT Movement in Washington State

Washington State plays a unique role in this national and generational crisis. The New Yorker claims Gig Harbor resident and conservative journalist, Christopher Rufo, is responsible for inventing the CRT “Culture War” in 2019, arguably starting with attacks against WAESN Executive Director, Tracy Castro-Gill. After leaking a City of Seattle “anti-racism” training and making his way onto Tucker Carlson in 2020, CRT made its way to Trump’s attention. For Rufo, CRT was the perfect term to attack because its foundations were rooted in the Marxist tradition of the 1960s. Rufo, unfortunately, was right that red-baiting and pandering to white fragility would work to spread anti-CRT sentiment and outrage. In response to the conservative weaponization of CRT, liberals have fallen prey to playing defense for something they fundamentally are at odds with, but this is not new. CRT is not a culture war, but a revolutionary framework that we at WAESN reclaim as a part of our project of Ethnic Studies. 

Rufo tweets admission of Southern Strategy tactics in attacking CRT

CRT is a framework to critique inequitable funding systems, misrepresentative and white-washed colonizer histories, individualistic capitalist values, and the disciplinary systems that disproportionately punish our students of color. Talking white male heads, including Luke Rosiak, Ben Shapiro, and other, local pundits have turned their strategies from broad attacks on scholarship to baseless personal attacks on leading education advocates in the state, including Tracy Castro Gill, the Executive Director of Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN). 

Unfortunately, for activists and organizers like Tracy, personal attacks, like those launched by Luke Rosiak and Ben Shapiro, have become a rite of passage, a necessary evil to being a political agitator. It comes at a deep emotional and psychological cost for activists, including death threats. Luke Rosiak tried to discredit Tracy by attacking their dead husband and accusing them of child abuse for supporting their trans child. Tracy’s response to these attacks can be read here. Tracy isn’t the only CRT advocate receiving threats and attacks here in Washington State. Jesse Hagopian, member of Black Lives Matter at School and a national advocate for education reform and racial equity, has been subjected to countless attacks and death threats. These attacks are aimed to sabotage the stability and momentum of the work to bring justice to our schools and our society.

While liberals play the role of political pundits in this “Culture War” from the comfort of their armchairs, educators doing the work are waging what can often feel like an actual war with violence ranging from the threat of losing jobs to physical and emotional violence or death. Counter-narrative is a crucial tenant of CRT and ethnic studies, so WAESN is here to set the story straight and shift the narrative from the “Culture Wars” to the ongoing struggle against political systemic racial and economic oppression.

Local Media’s Liberal and Progressive Co-optation

Today’s mainstream journalists stand in the long tradition of liberal Americans who, as James Baldwin warned us, “have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.” The liberal outrage at banning To Kill a Mockingbird is the best encapsulation of white liberals turning their political discourse into a self-serving woke-badge of honor. James Baldwin’s writings, too often co-opted by liberals, warned us of the complacency of these liberals who argue that “as long as such books are being published…everything will be alright” in America. The current incarnation of Baldwin’s liberal is, “So long as we have POC representation, everything will seem alright.”

Despite countless local leaders making huge waves in the national struggle for liberation in our school systems, the Seattle Times continues to engage in this ideologically obstructionist discourse. Naomi Ishisaka’s Seattle Times article from August 2021 frames the struggle for CRT within the #TeachTruth action that took place at Yesler Terrace park to oppose anti-CRT bills as a part of a national day of action organized by the Zinn Education Project. Ishisaka’s detailing of the action highlights messages only favorable to the liberal framing of CRT. For example, several radical Black femmes, including WAESN’s Alexis Mburu, organized and spoke at this event, but were ignored in Ishisaka’s article. Her quotes of Jesse Hagopian were cherry-picked and among the more palatable quotes, thus erasing other radical organizers of the event from WAESN, Democratic Socialists of America, and the WA NAACP Youth Council. We believe watering down this story is the product of The Seattle Times’ conservative bent, but Ishisaka’s summary of the demands on the street were: curriculum reform. Our response: Um, no. If we are truly using CRT as a framework for rebuilding our education system, there needs to be a revolution of our school funding system, our punitive justice system, our tax code, and the fundamental values of our society. If we continue to allow liberals and conservatives to frame the political discourse as a “Cultural War,” we will continue to allow the ruling class to abstract our material conditions from the conversation. 

In stark contrast to the Seattle Times, the South Seattle Emerald does important work by amplifying often overlooked stories, not unlike this one. For example, the South Seattle Emerald (SSE) recently published an article by the National Liberated Ethnic Studies Coalition that declared that the time for ethnic studies organizing is now. SSE is the most pro-ethnic studies, pro-communities of color news outlet in the state and has published over a dozen articles on the positive work and impact of ethnic studies.

WAESN is in full support of SSE and its founder, Marcus Harrison Green, and his February 8th article published in the Seattle Times deserves what Dr. Django Paris calls a loving critique. In the piece, Green begins to ask an important question that progressives have been asking since the CRT “Culture War” exploded in the wake of 2020’s uprisings: “Do you know what critical race theory Is?” Green’s article does not answer this question, but it does answer what CRT is not. We agree with Green that CRT is not just a culturally inclusive and responsive curriculum. This is where our focus on the definition of CRT and that of Green differs. Green focuses on conservative attacks on “truth” like HB1807 which, as he highlights, “specifically names The 1619 Project and How to be an Antiracist as books that could effectively only be taught alongside ‘opposing’ literature.”

Green’s progressive framing of CRT as “teaching truth” also wrongly names Representative Tomiko Santos as the legislator challenging Conservative bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen). It was Representative Monica Stonier who actually served him the tea during the House Education Committee hearing on the bill. Representative Tomiko Santos is quite possibly the most passive progressive liberal in the Washington State legislature. She is well-known in grassroots organizing as a gatekeeper to transformational change, insisting on “bipartisan wins.” Suggesting that she is somehow radical – or even supports radical change – causes harm to radical movements. 

Representative Stonier questions Representative Walsh’s sources at a House Education Committee hearing on SB 1807

Journalists asking questions in mainstream media outlets trying to define the “real CRT” should not spotlight progressives who dunk on Washington State conservatives. Instead, we should be asking why our systems, including education, continue to not only perpetuate racial injustice, but also reproduce class disparities. Green, however, does point in the right direction for who we should be listening to when it comes to defining CRT: local youth organizers, families, and community organizations. If we listen to the voices of those fighting for CRT, we learn that these grassroots efforts are being attacked from all sides. 

WAESN Under Attack

Educator organizers in Washington State like Tracy Castro-Gill, Michale Peña, Rita Green, Bruce Jackson, Fernell Miller, Nikkita Oliver, Wayne Au, Jesse Hagopian, Darrin Hoop, Sebrena and RenaMateja Burr, Marquita Prinzing, Jon Greenberg, Alexis Mburu, and countless youth organizers from WA NAACP Youth Council, The Root of our Youth, and WAESN have been fighting on multiple fronts to bring racial justice and ethnic studies to our schools. In 2019, many ethnic studies advocates’ work came to fruition after building the movement behind SB5023, which entrusted the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to “identify and make available” ethnic studies materials and resources to 7-12 educators. It was later extended to grades K-6 with SB6066. WAESN has played a fundamental role in creating the materials and resources provided by OSPI. However, WAESN’s advocacy efforts agitated the progressive and liberal policy makers attempting to win woke points with legislation that has little accountability, zero funding, and superficial community support. This agitation has fueled the liberals’ attacks on WAESN and made it easier to erase our work from the narrative. 

WAESN recently acquired emails between Jerry Price, OSPI social studies lead charged with developing the ethnic studies framework, and several, white, Zionist educators working to undermine the progress made by femmes of color. David Witus admits to filing a complaint because WAESN condemns Israel’s ongoing attacks on Palestine and because WAESN’s executive director frequently reminds white Jewish people they are, in fact, white no matter how much they tan. It worked, because OSPI removed WAESN from a list of PD providers in the ethnic studies framework, proving once again that our greatest detractors from liberation are passive progressive liberals, this time those liberals in OSPI who favored the feelings of white men over the work of femme educators of color.

WAESN was only re-listed as a PD provider after involving lawyers and sending daily emails to Superintendent Reykdal. Instead of building our coalition, connecting with educators and families, WAESN is forced to be on the defense from both sides of the political spectrum. This is why WAESN is fighting on multiple fronts; both conservatives and liberals want to reframe the education reform discussion to focus on the “cultural” aspects of CRT, when in reality they all fear the growing dissatisfaction with the racial and economic realities of our school system, one limited by the state of austerity and scarcity fabricated by the ruling elite. 

The everyday violence of underfunded, over-policed, and racist schools gets scapegoated as a red-state Republican “Culture War” issue while in reality, Washington schools face a continued crisis fueled by a defunct, do-nothing Democratic controlled state legislature. In a state with a Democratic controlled legislature, we have no excuses, no Trumps to blame, so we must face the fact that perhaps it’s time for us to rethink our allegiance to the Democratic Party. Democrats and “progressives” will not save us. We will save us.

Columbo and Me…oh, and Just One More Thing!

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo on the left, me in my thrift-sourced Columbo outfit on the right.

By Alex Ng

An Elder Millennial’s Journey to Ethnic Studies & Visual Arts, Part 3

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

Part 3 gives up on any notion of this journal being sequential in nature and instead is hyper-focused on a single aspect of my pedagogy: my obsession with Columbo and its impact on my teaching.

A thorough look at how America’s favorite rumpled TV detective has influenced my teaching

My memory is very shaky on when I first started watching Columbo. Oh, I’m sure I caught a peek or two at some point in my childhood with reruns on some retro TV Land channel, and I may have even watched a scene on ABC during the show’s 1990’s revival and decided it wasn’t worth my time. But I didn’t actually watch Columbo until some time in the mid-2010’s. I believe it was roughly 2015 or so when I decided to give this quirky murder mystery show from America’s television past a shot, back when the entire original 1970’s run was still on Netflix. At the time, I was interested in all manner of mystery shows including the recent BBC Sherlock, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and the like. I don’t recall doing any research into Columbo; I think the show must have appeared in the “more like this” tab on Netflix. 

Little did I know then how swift and utterly complete the show’s takeover of my life would be. I was initially hooked by the novel format, something that has since been used in many other programs: we watch the murderer commit the murder first, then spend the rest of the show watching Lieutenant Columbo play a skillful game of cat and mouse until a final scene where the murderer is exposed. So, Columbo isn’t your run-of-the-mill whodunit, instead it’s a howcatchem. What’s great fun about everything that unfolds between the murder and finale is how the murderer so often underestimates the bumbling, shabbily dressed Columbo, and think they themselves are the cat, stringing along the mouse-detective only to find out at the last moment that they were the mouse all along. 

To say I am a Columbo fan would be an understatement. I own a Columbo mug, a Columbo t-shirt, and numerous Columbo books. I have watched and rewatched episodes, analyzed them, proselytized them to friends, colleagues, students, strangers on a train, and all across the world wide web (as I am doing at this very moment). I watch Columbo retrospectives on Youtube, seek out Columbo podcasts, and read every Columbo article written during the ongoing COVID pandemic. You might be surprised to learn that Columbo was a bonafide quarantine hit. The same lovable qualities of the character that captured my attention in 2015 fascinated bored binge-watchers in 2020.

My growing Columbo book collection

One such quality that sets Lieutenant Columbo apart from his TV detective peers is his unfailing politeness towards suspects and murderers. Through his unfailing politeness he gives murderers endless opportunities to dig their own graves. In the classroom, through my (mostly) unfailing politeness, I give students endless opportunities to dig their own graves. Just joking! Through my politeness, I hope to give students endless opportunities to be successful in class, to make better choices, to develop a positive relationship to learning. 

Politeness, though, doesn’t capture the full extent of Columbo’s nature. At his core, he is humble, and his humility creates opportunities for him to learn about and from suspects and murderers. Through his humility Columbo learns all about wine in the episode Any Old Port in a Storm, the sport and culture of bullfighting in A Matter of Honor, and stage magic in Now You See Him. Because of his genuine humility, Columbo is open and eager to learn from those he meets in the course of his work. Much in the same way, I believe an ethnic studies educator must approach the work of teaching with great humility and an openness and eagerness to learn from those around them, especially their students. In my classroom, I work to create a consistent feedback loop where students help me grow as an educator and bring knowledge into the classroom that I do not possess. I acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers and hope students will learn as much from each other as they do from me… if not more. As Columbo learns from the people he crosses paths with in his work, I strive to learn from my students and colleagues. 

I believe it is the responsibility of an ethnic studies educator to effectively disperse power and authority throughout the classroom, to let go of outdated notions of the authoritarian teacher, and to welcome into the classroom students’ personal agency while guiding them towards learning. Watching Columbo, I see how the Lieutenant effectively masks his own authority in deference to the will and personality of the murderer. While pursuing very different aims, I have consciously and unconsciously borrowed many of Columbo’s techniques to shift power dynamics and notions of authority in my classroom in a way that invites students to let their guard down and allow more of themselves to enter the classroom space.

Some of my Columbo sketches

There is great debate in the Columbo fandom about how much of the good Lieutenant’s persona is a guise, a well-honed performance to achieve his aim of catching murderers. Much in the same way, I will acknowledge that a healthy dose of my teaching is performance. I have developed routines, language, and mannerisms that are a part of my teaching, honed to achieve my aim of building positive relationships with students and making them feel seen and valued. At times, I have questioned the authenticity of my own performance just as Columbo fans question the authenticity of his. One day, while pondering Columbo’s persona (which happens most days if I’m being honest), I realized something important: although the Lieutenant is undeniably putting on a performance, the performance is absolutely an extension of his real personality. Put another way, Columbo’s Lieutenant persona is an honest reflection of his authentic self. Reflecting on my own teaching, I find the same to be true. Although years of applying my craft has resulted in a certain predictability in my routines, turns of phrase, and mannerisms, they are honest reflections of who I am as a person. In fact, I have worked hard to make sure this is true. I believe the more closely aligned my teaching and identity are, the more sustainable my career in teaching will be. Not having to put up a facade to step in front of students and teach makes doing my job much more satisfying. Although I take comfort in this realization, what I did not expect were the ways in which Columbo’s performance would influence my own.

Columbo raises his hand during a publicity shoot for the show

Take for example Columbo’s classic gesture of raising his hand above his head when he wants to ask someone a question. Columbo will raise his hand up and keep it there while he walks over to the person he wants to talk to. It’s an unusual gesture and something of a trademark for the character. I didn’t realize until earlier this school year that I use the very same gesture. With no conscious thought and no intention of mimicking Columbo, I noticed that when students raised their hands for my attention, I had a habit of raising my own hand in response and keeping it up while I walked over to their table to assist them. Realizing this, I decided to add a new component to this habit: now, when a student raises their hand for my attention, and I raise my hand in return while walking over to them, I complete the routine with a high five, pushing my raised hand into their raised hand before turning my attention to whatever the student called me over for.

Columbo approaches his work with absolute dedication to curiosity, a need to find answers to all the questions that bother him. The Lieutenant carries around a small notebook, writes down details and questions that bother him, and will pursue them until he can connect the dots and find answers. When I encounter a problem in teaching, I write them down on sticky notes, on a small notepad I keep on my desk, and in a note taking app on my phone. I will revisit my notes again and again until I can cross them off, marking each curiosity as resolved. With all of his paraphernalia, Columbo inevitably forgets where he put what: in which pocket is his pencil, his notepad, his cigar? On a daily basis I carry with me a pen, pencil, clicker, and my phone while teaching. And it’s anyone’s guess which pocket each item is in. Just as Columbo often fumbles through his pockets looking for the item he needs, I will often stand in the front of class, fumbling through my pockets to find my clicker to advance the lesson or my phone to pause the music. I become a Columbo parody without even meaning to!

Columbo’s curiosity extends well beyond the details of each individual case; he’s also deeply curious about the people he meets in the course of his investigations. He wants to see the good in people, even in the people he has to put away. Being a homicide detective brings him into contact with people from all walks of life, and he is curious about all of them. As a teacher, I adopt a similar approach. I am curious about my students. I make time to get to know them and for them to get to know each other. I try to center my own and my students’ humanity in class: to see the good in them, especially in those I struggle with.

“There’s niceness in everyone, a little bit anyhow.” – Lieutenant Columbo

These similarities are fun to muse over, but the deepest affinity I feel with Columbo is with his work ethic: Columbo is dogged. He never gives up. His bag of tricks is deep and when he exhausts those, he will come up with new ones. I admire his unending dedication to his work. And even more than that, I love that he loves what he does. Strange as it may sound for a homicide detective, Columbo loves his work.

“All my life I kept running into smart people…In school there were lots of smarter kids…but I figured, if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did…and I really love my work, sir.”

– Lieutenant Columbo

Many times I have exhausted my own bag of tricks and will sit in my classroom or on the train thinking up new approaches to the problems I face. And as exhausting and frustrating as the work can be from time to time, I never stop loving teaching. If you love what you do, then the burden you live with is the drive to always do better. When I watch Columbo contemplate the sticking points of a case while hunched over a bowl of chili, I see a reflection of myself and my relationship to teaching.

Student artwork of Columbo for my study hall pass

Just One More Thing!

In venerating the character of Lieutenant Columbo, I would be remiss to not discuss the real-life person who played him. A core belief in ethnic studies is centering humanity in teaching and learning: to recognize the people we learn from and with. Peter Falk was not the first actor to play Columbo. That honor belongs to American actor Bert Freed who debuted the character on Enough Rope: a live TV movie on an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show in 1960. Two years later, a stage adaptation of Enough Rope was performed across the country under the new title Prescription Murder with veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell in the Lieutenant Columbo role. But Peter Falk was the actor who made the character a television icon that has endured in the public consciousness to this day. Having seen Bert Freed’s performance on Youtube and watched and read many interviews with the original creators of the character and show, William Link and Richard Levinson, I can confidently say that Falk brought so much to the character that wasn’t written on the page. He improvised many of Columbo’s numerous stories of cousins and nephews (most of whom are surely invented), Mrs. Columbo’s wide variety of interests that somehow always seem to relate to the profession of the murderer (most of them surely exaggerated, if not completely invented), and his bumbling behavior (surely an act to encourage the murderer to dismiss his immense intellect). Falk breathed life into the character of Columbo, gave him his quirks, his richness, and his glass eye. What was that about a glass eye, you ask? Well, Peter Falk’s right eye was surgically removed when he was just three years old due to a rare form of cancer that grows in the retina. From then on, he used a glass eye. Once again, there has been much debate in the niche Columbo fandom about the Lieutenant’s right eye. Yes, Peter Falk has a glass eye, but does Columbo? This question has been much debated but truly keen fans would know the answer. In season 10, episode 11 (according to the Peacock designation) A Trace of Murder, Columbo says to an LAPD forensics specialist “three eyes are better than one” referring to the forensic specialist’s two eyes and Columbo’s own one good eye.

A drawing of Columbo by Peter Falk who was also a very talented visual artist.

I have learned much from Peter Falk through his portrayal of Columbo, but I would not be writing these words, would not consider myself an ethnic studies educator, would not have the courage nor desire to share my thoughts and learning with others, were it not for another teacher of mine: WAESN executive director, Tracy Castro-Gill. I would know nothing of ethnic studies were it not for Tracy. Their unyielding passion and determination to make ethnic studies a reality in Washington has impacted my life, my teaching, and my teaching life in ways I cannot begin to measure. To this day, I continue to learn from Tracy and the beautiful WAESN community they have fostered. Tracy’s teaching of ethnic studies has given me the lens I needed to reflect critically on my own teaching, to more closely wed my identity and my work, and to pursue this admittedly silly endeavor of tracing the connections between my teaching and my love of Columbo. For this and much more, I am eternally grateful.

With all this said, I suppose I should go back and correct the subhead of this journal entry. Columbo hasn’t just “influenced my teaching”, he continues to and likely forever will influence my teaching, even in ways I have not yet realized.

Columbo embroidery stitched by a parent of a former student based on a sketch I drew. Gifted to me for teacher appreciation week 2021.

A Statement from WAESN Executive Director

In response to the hit piece written by Luke Rosiak in the Daily Wire:

I am unsurprised that my work and my personal life have come under attack by the likes of Luke Rosiak and Ben Shapiro. It is only evidence that the work I do and the life I live are important and full of good deeds. I thank them for the affirmation. In regards to the content of the piece, almost all of it, unsurprisingly, is false.

First, my ex husband, Ron Hammond, is an abusive narcissist who is angry that he can’t persuade me to go back to him after 14 years of divorce. He lost custody of our youngest child due to severely neglecting their educational and social-emotional needs. Contributing to this hit piece is simply a continuation of his decades-long emotional and psychological abuse. His claims would be laughable if they did not cause emotional harm to our child for several years prior to this piece.

My father, Richard Castro, is a deeply troubled, ultra conservative, conspiracy theorist and doomsday prepper. He is driven by his need to assimilate into the dominant culture and is convinced that the government and “liberals,” most notably Black Americans, are out to get him. He equates poverty with being a bad father, and is angry that I told the world we were poor growing up. Through no fault of his own, my Mexican-American father was not able to provide a steady income for our family until he took advantage of affirmative action laws in California in the late 80’s. He’s nothing if he’s not a hard worker. The six figure income stated in the piece, however, didn’t manifest until I was an adult with a family of my own.

I left my ex-husband in 2008. I left California in 2010 because there was nothing there for me but abuse and psychological instability from those around me. I married my late husband in 2012 and lost him to heart disease in 2018.

As for my late husband, Brian Gill, the claims of his past are true. He committed a horrific, inexcusable crime in 1982. It was his first and last crime of any type in his life. He did prison time and was rehabilitated. After being released from prison, he learned a trade, bought a home, and cared for his late partner, her two children, and two grandchildren, the latter of whom vouched for him in the custody case between myself and my ex-husband. The court ruled that my child was better off in our custody than with their biological father even with Brian’s past conviction. That says more about my ex-husband than my late husband. I am a better person for knowing and loving Brian Gill.

This most recent attack relies on the thoughts and perspectives of individuals that do not and have not been in relationship with me for years, exposing the desperation of conservative pundits to undermine my anti-racist work. I am currently exploring legal remedies to this personal attack full of lies and misinformation. I’m working closely with my professional partners who fully support me. I appreciate those of you who have reached out publicly and privately to offer your support.

Onward.