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Creating an anti-racist, equity based education at North Thurston Public Schools

INTERVIEW

Christine Yorba is part of a coalition of educators from the North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS) working for meaningful teaching around equity and anti-racism. She recently talked to WIPster Matt Crichton about her experiences with the implementation of that goal at NTPS. This is a condensed and edited version of their interview.

WIP: How long have you been teaching?

CY: I have been a public school teacher for four years with NTPS, mostly at Mountain View Elementary. I teach all subjects through community minded, social justice based practices.

I’m currently on leave because NTPS perpetuates an environment that is racially hostile for educators who are Black and Indigenous and People of Color (BIPoC). This has negatively impacted my mental and physical health. I am open and honest about my experience teaching in North Thurston because I care about the communities I serve, my BIPoC and white ally colleagues, my students, their families and all the other communities I am a member of and represent.

WIP: What prepared you to be a teacher for social change?

CY: I grew up in Orange County, CA, a very white upper middle class environment. I did not learn about Cesar Chavez or United Farm Workers until I was an undergrad at The Evergreen State College. I knew racism and prejudice existed, but I wasn’t aware of how oppressive systemic racism is in different institutions—family, government, economy, education and religion.

Evergreen’s rigorous Master’s in Teaching program taught me how to critically analyze the history of schooling, critical race theory, community responsive practices and other pedagogies. Once you realize how oppression of BIPoC is “built in” to our institutions, then you can begin to prepare yourself to teach for liberation.

WIP: Tell us about Mountain View Elementary and the community it serves.

CY: Mountain View Elementary is a Title I school, which classifies it as a high poverty school, and therefore underserved. The majority of students—58.4%—are BIPoC. The teaching staff is 88% white.

This year at Mountain View, I served 17 students, predominantly Latinx English Language Learners (ELLs). Some of my students are experiencing the American school system for the first time, and learning English at the same time. Despite the many obvious achievement gaps due to COVID-19, structural inequities and lack of translated materials, I successfully advocated for my ELL families virtually.

I have the highest number of English Language Learners on the first grade team at my school. Although 53% of my students were students of color in the 20-21 school year, I was given a disproportionate number of ELL students. Of the nine students in my class who were BIPoC, eight were ELLs. I’ve always had a high number of ELLs, under the guise of my ability to serve them better, but it has always felt as if my high case load was to lessen the workload for my white colleagues. I have advocated for bilingual educators to be compensated for their translating, but instead we are expected and guilted into doing this work for free.

The disheartening truth is BIPoC educators don’t last as long as they should in the public school system because the system was not made with us in mind.

WIP: Talk about the importance of teaching for equity and liberation.

CY: Historically, the average K-12 learning experience doesn’t produce resilient adults ready to teach/talk about race to the next generation. Teaching is political. There’s no getting around that.

I am a member of the Minoritized Educator Roundtable (MER), started in 2017 by a Black assistant principal from Meadows Elementary. The MER decided we needed a document to hold NTPS accountable for their oppressive behaviors towards BIPoC staff and students. The MER created the “Equity Resolution,” during the 20-21 school year that NTPS eventually adopted. This resolution lays out specific steps NTPS needs to enact to create safer, more inclusive spaces, and to establish a commitment to equity in education.

This includes solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM) at school, engaging in truthful and safe discourse and retaining and hiring educators of color. Ultimately the document states that the School Board, all NTPS employees, students/families and future employees must display a strong commitment to anti-racism. However, in my experience, NTPS is purposefully non-compliant with the MER’s Equity Resolution.

NTPS’ excuse for not complying with the Equity Resolution is its workforce is not ready to teach about race and justice. Interestingly, educators aren’t ready for these changes because the training to implement social justice standards is not supported by NTPS. The training requires the educator to be reflective about their race and intersectionality within the community. It requires a new set of responsibilities that can cause discomfort up front.

Educators who are currently trying to teach these standards have been met with opposition from administration, colleagues and conservative families. They are told not to teach them, but to wait until others catch up. This is how white privilege and fragility operate in our communities.

WIP: Talk about trying to hold NTPS accountable to move forward on equity and anti-racism.

CY: In February 2021, we realized that if we wanted these issues properly addressed in our lifetime/careers by NTPS, we needed to take matters into our own hands.

We formed Concerned Educators for Racial Justice, a small group of trusted educators committed to working towards an anti–racist system. I wanted to control my narrative and support the narratives of others. Instead of being oppressed, I wanted us to liberate ourselves and each other. We had colleagues lined up to tell us their stories, but as soon as we asked them to share their traumatic experiences publicly, they told us they were afraid to lose their jobs or get demoted like they had witnessed happening to other BIPoC staff in the district.

Currently there are about nine staff in our group. We have teacher and para representation from elementary, middle, and high school. We consist of strong, authentic and capable educators of color and our co-conspirators (aka allies) who are white. We ask for a school environment that is safe and inclusive for all, led by anti-racist policies.

We started by talking to media and reaching out to other education organizations. I drafted a “Call To Action” letter and sent it to the Washington Education Association (WEA). The letter listed in detail our experiences working in NTPS and provided evidence of how NTPS leaders continue to uphold white supremacy culture. It was challenging to write because we had to relive the trauma of our experiences.

Our group aims to pass anti–racist policies and implement practices that protect our staff and students of color and our white allies. We believe that anti–racist training should be mandatory at all levels in education. There are observable patterns of staff calling out sick on equity and diversity training days or exempting themselves. Our communities deserve educators who are ready and willing to do the hard work of anti–racist teaching. If our community leaders and educators are not able to prove they are anti racist by their words and their deeds, then our communities have no need for them.

As Concerned Educators for Racial Justice, we reached out to state and national organizations that claim to fight for justice. The National Education Association (NEA) and the WEA, say they have no power to enforce anything. They suggested more equity teams and resolutions.

NTPS already has multiple equity teams, strategically separated into small factions that simply perpetuate suffering from racial trauma with no power to protect BIPoC and white allies. The people sitting in positions of power at NTPS effectively silence the equity groups and bar them from making necessary changes.

WIP: How do you approach the teaching of equity with students in your classroom?

CY: Before I start teaching curriculum, I focus on building community. Before we can engage in deep learning, together we establish a safe community with shared expectations.

We start each day with an intentional morning meeting. I have a prompt on the board, an emotional check-in, a quote to reflect on, or something based on current events that have affected members of our class emotionally. I do this with all the classes I have taught, and I have found it to be beneficial in developing voice equity. Everybody has a chance to speak, be heard, validated, and to connect with their peers in our meeting circle.

At the end of the day, I want every student to walk away as a valued member of our community, feeling a sense of belonging. Equity is an ongoing conversation and a theme we talk about throughout the year. Students ask, ‘Why do they get that kind of chair? How come they get to…?’ kids come to understand equity isn’t equality; equity is receiving what you need to be successful.

I share with students that I am not the only educator in the room. Students are active participants in learning and teaching. There is a very strong sense of community in my classroom, based on mutual understanding of co-created norms. My students are free to represent themselves authentically. Student voice is very important.

I reinforce the idea that we all have a voice in decisions that impact us and our education. I do my best to raise student voice and lower teacher voice as much as I can. I have found that co-facilitation among students is very important for them to explore and for me to model. I remind students that their voice is their superpower, and that they need to use their superpower. It is my job to ensure students feel safe and valued.

Before I took leave, our music specialist wrote me a note that said, “I could tell when your class came into music that they were loved and cared for. You treat them with the intellectual respect that is often not granted to our youngest students.” These words validate the intentional practices I implement with my students.

The fact that educators are not teaching holistic histories and diverse perspectives shows how difficult it is to acknowledge the truth.

WIP: How can the community begin to see the value in teaching for equity and antiracism?

CY: Acknowledge the truth, the facts, and the hard evidence. The fact that educators are not teaching holistic histories and diverse perspectives shows how difficult it is to acknowledge the truth. Teaching for equity and antiracism is not just teaching about oppression, but also teaching about liberation.

One way to identify white supremacy culture indoctrination in our education is to pay attention to perspectives, language, bias etc. For example, do you remember educators using the word ‘slaves’ or ‘enslaved peoples’ when teaching about slavery? Do you believe educators teach multiple perspectives and critical analysis when it comes to topics of manifest destiny, colonization, and genocide? Sadly, given my experience, the answer is overwhelmingly ‘No’.

Educate yourself, be curious, lean in. Once you recognize the reality of how encompassing the oppression of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color is, you cannot go back to being blissfully ignorant. At that point, white privilege/fragility cannot be an excuse to avoid meaningful and necessary conversations. You now have the moral obligation to disrupt and dismantle the oppression BIPoC experience daily.

In my coalition, we see the value in fighting for equity and antiracism. The solidarity that our group has formed is valuable to the communities we serve. We call out racism in our schools. We know that if we don’t say or do something, nobody else will. I am glad that collectively we still have energy to persist, but we need additional support from our neighboring communities and anti–racist leaders who have decision-making power. To quote Anti–racist Education Now, “the right time to take action against racism is, always.”

WIP: The petition asking that racism and white supremacy in the North Thurston school system be addressed called for termination of some administrators

CY: NTPS does a great job of convincing the community they are following the Equity Resolution, but they are not.

My principal, Heather McCarthy, claims to be an ally for social change, but her actions don’t support the claim. She controls the culture of a school where the implementation of social justice and equity moves at the pace of white privilege—a rate that is effectively zero. Heather McCarthy has bullied and tone-policed staff for our equity and social justice work. She had a hand in pushing me and other BIPoC staff out of Mountain View.

When a group of educators at my school wanted to create a safe space to collaborate around teaching BLM lessons, Heather told us that we couldn’t have a group centered on BLM. As a result, our communities lost opportunities to heal, grow and collaborate.

Recently, a mother was encouraging her daughter to incite hate speech during one of my remote lessons. This mother is always present for remote lessons; she has made it clear she doesn’t support teaching BLM material. After I reported the incident to Heather, I learned that she had comforted the white family. The parents were heard and validated, while I was not supported and was made to feel unsafe.

Others in leadership roles are also part of the problem. The Director of Equity, Kate Frazier is fully aware of how BIPoC staff are treated, but she has repeatedly told me, “I have no decision-making power.”

Staff are supposed to report instances of discrimination and incivility to Charles Burleigh, Executive Director of Human Resources and NTPS Civility Officer. However, Charles is known throughout the district, especially by BIPoC educators, not to be trusted. He treats BIPoc reports of incivility and discrimination with incompetence and cultural dissonance. Because of this, most BIPoC experiences of discrimination go unreported.

The NTPS School Board and NTPS are proud of the white supremacy culture they uphold. If NTPS School Superintendent Deb Clemens, and the District Cabinet remain in power, our BIPoC communities will continue to be oppressed. Kate Frazier agreed when I told her, “the wrong people (BIPoC) are leaving, and the wrong people are leading,” when I said the only solution for the problems facing BIPoC educators is the removal of key NTPS administrative staff. They consistently demonstrate an inability to recognize and repair the traumas they cause in our communities.

Our communities need new anti–racist leaders, who have gone through anti-bias training, who have shown that they are working for all students and not upholding white supremacy culture in our schools. We need to keep constant pressure on NTPS so they know the community is watching. I encourage readers to reach out to NTPS and ask for an update on our Call to Action [See the petition.]

WIP: What advice would you give to other educators who may face similar conditions of injustice, but are afraid to step out/speak up?

CY: Vet your allies with your gut. There were times I didn’t listen to my gut because I was invested in people who had been my mentors. Pay attention to the impact of someone’s actions: what they’re saying, the questions they are asking. Use a critical lens. Talk to people you trust. I reached out to nearly all of my professors from my undergrad and graduate programs. I asked them for resources that could help our community at large. Their advice got me here, talking with you. Creating, maintaining and collaborating with existing networks of support is crucial to being able to endure this work.

Sadly, my story/experience teaching in public schools is not unique. The disheartening truth is BIPoC educators don’t last as long as they should in the public school system because the system was not made with us in mind. Because of the adversity we face, our students suffer from not having the authentic representation they need in their classrooms.

Dismantling systems of oppression on your own is not sustainable. You need a network of trusted allies, working as a team, delegating responsibilities and modeling self-care. In the end, to create safer communities for all, together, we need to overwhelm oppressive systems with our superpower: our voice.

Groups helpful in the fight for racial justice and equity in schools

Other groups that try to fight for racial justice and equity are the JEDI Council (Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion) and the North Thurston Education Association (teachers’ union), but they also are trying to maintain relationships with District decision-makers who won’t budge. These groups work independently and sometimes collaboratively.

I have found a FB group, Anti–racist Education Now, led by a Latinx science educator who is focused on ending racism in all forms. I reached out to them to help our group gain visibility and exchange resources. They helped me network to get my letter seen by the President and Vice President of WEA, Larry Delaney and Janie White.

Another trustworthy organization is Washington Ethnic Studies Now. They are an amazing team of anti–racist educator-activists who formed a nonprofit in Washington to support the implementation of ethnic studies statewide. They provide professional development for teachers and also lobby on equity policies.

Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Justice are organizations that have credible tools, lesson plans and articles for all teachers to help you reflect and strengthen your practice. We, BIPoC teachers, shouldn’t have to carry the burden of dismantling systems of oppression by ourselves. If everybody who is ready to become more anti–racist, can do so, I think we will start to see changes in teaching and educational policy. Anti–racist teaching is not about explaining the existence of systems of oppression; it is about teaching students to identify its existence and to empower them to use their agency to dismantle systems of oppression.
—Christine Yorba

 

One Comment

  1. mar September 19, 2021

    My children attend that school. I’m Hispanic and never had any issues with any member of the staff. They had always been supportive and never had any bullying or racist issues towards me or my children that are not white. These article seems out of place with my experienced there with two children currently at the school.

    The principal has been supportive and i never or my children witness any “white supremacy” issues. Many community events that the school holds had always been multicultural and equal. Maybe a teacher with 4 years of experienced is not the best tk get advised from and get the perspective from more experienced teachers. I do believe that politics should stay out of public schools.

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