Value Black Lives in the Washoe County School District
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On August 14th 2020, the group WCSD Students for Change had left a productive meeting from members of the district, in which students and leaders engaged in a discussion surrounding the implementation of anti-racist curriculum and objectives in order to make this district a better space for learning. However, it is with great disappointment that on the same day we came upon an article published in the Reno Gazette Journal titled “WCSD tells teachers not to publicly support Black Lives Matter at school.” This has demonstrated hypocrisy in the WCSD’s efforts to seemingly collaborative correspondence with our group and our objective to uplift the narratives of marginalized communities.
In the wake of civil rights demonstrations across the United States, it is important we acknowledge the role education plays in upholding and perpetuating racism and bias. To address this, we ask that the Washoe County School District make changes to curriculum to include a diverse narrative with anti-racist objectives and make an explicit statement in support of dismantling systemic racism and striving for anti-racist efforts, like that of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Reverse the withholding of teachers from supporting Black Lives Matter on school campuses
Commit to the implementation of anti-racist education, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ history in both worldly and American contexts
Implementation of focus groups and ambassadorships with student representatives focused on racial equity within schools
Climate survey questions and opportunities for students to highlight their experience with racial injustice or other forms of hate based harassment at their school
Increased effort to hire a teaching body that reflects the demographics of the student body.
To Superintendent McNeill and the Board of the Washoe County School District:
As the citizens of the United States takes to the streets to protest not just the police murder of George Floyd but also the inequity that people of color experience every day in our country, we ask you to join us in recognizing the systemic nature of racial inequity and the role WCSD could play in building a safer and better world for students of color. As the state’s second-largest school district, and the country’s fifty-ninth largest, Washoe County has great power and responsibility in today’s fight for racial justice. The district has an obligation to its 64,000 students to provide an anti-racist education. The first step in meeting this obligation is to update curriculum to address anti-racism and eliminate white supremacy from our teaching. We also urge the WCSD to ensure that its faculty looks like the students it serves.
People of color in the Washoe County School District deserve not only an education in history, or science, but an education in the truth of the institutional racism upon which our country was founded.
Such reform is necessary because of the systemic nature of racism against American people of color. Washoe County students of color will go on to become doctors in a medical system fraught with racial inequality; they will be lawyers in a legal system which routinely and systemically works against, instead of for, its Black citizens; they will be leaders in a political system designed by and for white people at the expense of Black voices and Black interest. Moreover, intelligence and achievement will not shield our students from the corruption intrinsic to these systems. We must also recognize that too many WCSD students will meet great adversity in every aspect of their lives, even with the exceptional academic tools provided them by the WCSD. Washoe County students of color will be patients to doctors who are statistically less likely to provide treatment to Black people; they will risk their lives when they speak to police officers on the street or in the courtroom; they will find it harder to vote and their votes will count less. It is imperative that we as students, teachers, and leaders understand that academic and scholastic success will not erase the impacts of systemic racism on our students. For this reason, WCSD has a responsibility to teach its students not just to become doctors, lawyers, and politicians, but to become racially aware thinkers.
Students must learn how to resist and dismantle the systems they step into when they leave the WCSD school system, and this requires more than a school system that is not racist: the WCSD must be expressly antiracist: 64,000 students who are not racist cannot close a wage gap or end police violence, but 64,000 anti-racists can. As one of the most consistent voices that students hear, it is crucial that the WCSD curriculum and teachers amplify the stories of people of color, the truth of their historical oppression, and the value of their lives and contributions to American society.
We understand that the WCSD is committed to diversity, and to the diverse student body it serves. Likewise, we know that district leadership values student voices. With those values in mind, we feel that our requests parallel the goals and priorities of our leadership.
We find it imperative that the district addresses the lack of representation in WCSD faculty. The district’s student body is comprised of 56% students of color[i], and that number is increasing. However, “the proportion of non-white teachers remains stable at 11 percent.” The WCSD claims to be working on diversity initiatives, but its actions will speak louder than its words. The overwhelmingly white faculty of our district demonstrates an egregious and discriminatory apathy among our leadership; this racism pervades the WCSD student’s experience.
We suggest a broad reform of WCSD curriculum to value the role that people of color have played and continue to play in all fields of American study. We currently observe an issue of compartmentalization of racial studies in WCSD, which leads to the “othering” of nonwhite history. For example, as WCSD students we learn about slavery during history lessons. However, we were taught that slavery was a thing of the past, and WCSD students recall white-centric narratives which framed Lincoln as a savior without any exploration of the complex and continual harm caused to Black communities by generations of white people. Our “colorblind” curriculum denies students of all cultures and ethnicities a necessary education in the continued racial inequality that resulted from the events briefly described in their history textbooks. More specifically, our few Black history lessons lacked insight into the modern impacts of systemic racism: the fact that Black people still struggle to receive economic, legal, and social equity due to the legacy of slavery.
We realize this material is complex, but there are simple steps that can be taken in our curriculum to reflect the legacy of white supremacy in our history. For example, WCSD currently does not address Juneteenth, a holiday which commemorates the emancipation of slaves. In fact, most WCSD students learn that slavery ended two years before Juneteenth, which is factually incorrect and sheds light on the lack of depth afforded to Black issues in our schools today. Likewise, we were never asked as students to question the modern-day impacts of economic and social race disparities on housing, school zoning, or policing. The more we learn about these issues as individuals, the more we are compelled to emphasize the need for their wider incorporation in the classroom.
We fully support the focus of the school system on Black history and Black issues where it is seen, but Black history must also be incorporated into other learning. All American history is Black history, and the curricular sidelining of Black achievement and hardship cannot be offset by a compartmentalized Black history during Black History Month or in a special lesson on slavery. The reform we recommend requires our curriculum to honor both the role of racism and the achievements of people of color in other subjects than history, such as science and English.
Similarly, students must be educated about the privilege white Americans inherit from their history. Especially in a district where only about 2% of students are Black, it is imperative that our curriculum reflects inequalities that the day-to-day lives of many students may not illuminate. We were not taught in school that people of color are disproportionately killed by the police, paid less, and denied jobs and promotions. We are fortunate to have found communities outside of the school system that educated us on classism, racism, and the privilege white people experience from the street to the workforce. However, the fact that students are not receiving education on privilege from their public education system is a failure of a race education curriculum whose reform is long overdue.
Similarly, we must recognize that Black history is incomplete without intersectional studies of racism and LGBTQ+ issues, racism and classism, racism and sexism, and racism and disability. We know that Black lives are more likely to be taken if they are Black trans lives, and sexual assault is less likely to be reported if the victim is Black. We know that LGBTQ+ rights were historically championed by Black activists like Marsha P. Johnson. These are only several examples from an endless body of similar history. We must see these other studies of oppression reflected in our curriculum and in classroom discussion.
We understand that reform is a process, and that ideological shifts take time. We recommend the following action items to begin the amelioration of the issues described:
1. The WCSD should update the texts and media studied within all subjects, and all levels of education, to honor the truth of racism, as well as the achievement and sacrifice of people of color.
a. For older students, we recommend the immediate implementation of the following non-exhaustive list of materials; we credit the composition of the list to the students of Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, New York, though we have made several additions.
Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, Diedre Cooper Owens
Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, Alondra Nelson
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans, Harriet Washington
Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
The Street, Ann Petry
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
George, Alex Gino
Gracefully Grayson, Ami Polonsky
The Education of Margot Sanchez, Lilliam Rivera
Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen, Arin Andrews
Juliet Takes a Breath, Gabby Rivera
“Translation for Mamá,” Richard Blanco
“Every Day We Get More Illegal,” Juan Felipe Herrera
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Ain't I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, Bell Hooks
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese
If I Ever Get Out of Here: A Novel with Paintings, Eric L. Gansworth
#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story, Elaine Brown
b. For younger students, we suggest the following non-exhaustive list of critically acclaimed anti-racist literature, as recommended by Jessica Grose of The New York Times (we have made our own additions):
Each Kindness, Jacqueline Woodson
The Youngest Marcher, Cynthia Levinson
First Laugh – Welcome, Baby!, Rose Ann Tahe
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, Traci Sorell
Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice, Veronica Chambers
Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, Anastasia Higginbotham
All American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
My Papi Has a Motorcycle, Isabel Quintero
Carmela Full of Wishes, Matt de la Peña
Turning Pages, Sonia Sotomayor
2. The WCSD should amend history/social studies curriculum to cover specific events and topics important to race history, including but not limited to Juneteenth, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the 1969 Stonewall Riots, slave revolts such as Nat Turner’s Revolt and the 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation, the Porvenir massacre of 1918, anti-Latino lynch mobs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, depression-era deportation of Mexican-American people, anti-Latino school segregation, Mendez v. Westminster School District, the founding and continual work of the NAACP, Marcus Garvey and the founding of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the murder of Emmett Till, the Birmingham church bombing, the Mississippi burning murders, the life and death of Malcolm X, the work of the Black Panther Party, Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign, affirmative action, the beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, the Cincinnati riots/race riots (and any other race riots deemed relevant throughout history), the Orangeburg Massacre, The Gnadenhutten Massacre, the Mankato Executions, the Jackson State Killings, modern hate crimes, and modern anti-immigration rhetoric.
3. The WCSD should publish a comprehensive plan for how it will value diversity in its hiring process going forward. The WCSD should publish this plan as soon as possible to allow for public accountability. The plan must include action items to allow a body of teachers and administrators which represents the 56% of our district that is made up of students of color.
We believe that the district is responsible not only for educating students in English, History, Science, and Math, but for teaching them skills to be effective citizens of the United States. A democratic education is incomplete without acknowledgment of it of who it does and does not serve. To ignore race in education is to promote a political and social system which continues to ignore the lives of 56% of our students. In order to not be a racist institution, the Washoe County School District must be actively anti-racist in its curriculum and its hiring process.
The undersigned students, teachers, and alumni
[i] According to to wcsddata.net
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