Justice for ALL
October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020
By Tom Allen
In the quest for understanding and change in human and civil rights, education is a singularly powerful force. So, it’s only natural that educators would find themselves drawn to leadership roles in the fight for racial and social justice at this moment.
Around Virginia, VEA members are, indeed, leading change during this very critical time in our history. Here are just a few of their stories.
When historians look back on the movement for racial and social justice, Monique Williams of Charlotte County wants it to be very clear that she and her fellow educators were on the right side.
“In our community we have significant levels of inequity and an imbalance of wealth and power,” says Williams, interim president of the Charlotte County Education Association and a high school special education teacher. “We have significant underrepresentation of leaders of color in many areas of decision-making, from our Board of Supervisors to our School Board, and even within our education workforce, which is the largest employer in our county.”
Eager to play a part in creating change, Williams joined with other educators and community activists in a movement that culminated in the Charlotte County Community Day of Action. It began for her when she saw two fellow educators, Emily Preuss-Anderson and Chelsea Nash, lead a peaceful protest for racial justice at the county’s courthouse. “I saw these two courageous women, who are not of color, standing firmly on beliefs and values that I hold dearly,” she says. “I immediately jumped in.”
That led to peaceful demonstrations and events with a coalition of Charlotte County community members, leaders, students, young adults, and educators, including The Fresh Boys Club, a Farmville mentoring program bringing together a diverse group of boys from Charlotte, Prince Edward, Buckingham, and Cumberland counties. Some members of our school board and board of supervisors have also attended each event, as well as Sheriff Royal Freeman (the first elected African American sheriff in our county) and Major J. R. Grissom, also of the sheriff’s office.
“In many ways, we are becoming new leaders for our community because we united for change and are actively expanding our work,” says Williams.
When it comes to the fight for justice, she suggests a change of mindset. “I encourage each of us to reframe our thinking from ‘What can I do?’ to ‘What can I give?’” she says. “If we begin by giving a moment of our time to listen, to educate, to be kind, or to be brave in the face of hate, we can really bring about the change we need in our community and our country.”
Good teachers never stop guiding their students. So it was no surprise that the day after a racial justice protest in Bristol, the organizers of the event contacted Brad Hutchinson and Noah Ashbrook, high school teachers and co-presidents of the Bristol Virginia Education Association. The protest had been put together by some of their former students, now 20-somethings living and working in the area.
“They wanted some guidance on how to navigate the school system,” Hutchinson says. “They needed to know how they could speak with our superintendent and other school division leaders.”
The former students, who’ve launched a group called the Future Black Leaders Coalition, want to work with educators to foster a more inclusive curriculum in Bristol’s schools. In response, Hutchinson, Ashbrook, and the BVEA have helped coordinate the students’ communications with school leaders. FBLC invited Bristol teachers to a meeting in a local park. Many teachers turned out and, as a result of the discussions there, BVEA has partnered with FBLC to build a committee focused on revising local curriculum.
“These young activists are amazing,” says Hutchinson, noting that on its Facebook page, FBLC says the organization was formed to “support our community and to ensure equality and justice is received in our Black community—but most importantly, equality for all.”
FBLC and BVEA are hoping to see initial curriculum changes next semester, though that time frame may be pushed back because of COVID-related obstacles.
Albemarle Education Association member Zoe Padron, a talent development resource teacher at Western Albemarle High School, talks about how she and colleagues are developing a more accurate way to teach history.
If our teachers felt empowered to teach real history, if they knew more of the non-dominant narratives, I know we could equip our students to prevent, or at least better process the events of the Unite the Right Rally that happened in our community three years ago.
We needed to give our teachers the kind of pedagogy that could help make that happen and, along with several colleagues in Albemarle, we began planning a new history teaching initiative. We called it “Reframing the Narrative” and it’s now in its third year at ACPS, in partnership with James Madison’s Montpelier, backed with a nearly $300,000 grant from the Charlottesville Albemarle Community Foundation. We’re writing anti-racist curriculum, providing professional development, and using the lens of culturally responsive teaching, all to make sure our students are learning more than what they learned in the past.
History is not an array of set facts. It’s an interpretation of and argument made about facts those. Generally, the story we tell is the dominant narrative: white, male, cisgender, which generally serves the purpose of the people in power.
By reframing that narrative, we quiet that dominant voice in our social studies classrooms. Suddenly there are new perspectives, new stories, and new truths (or, actually, very old ones). Telling the story of the period from 1865-1900 from the perspective of African Americans is one of incredible self-determination, resilience, resistance, and community. Yes, we can teach Reconstruction by focusing on white supremacy and the amendments of that era and just cast African Americans as victims. Or we can talk about Black townships like Mound Bayou and thriving Black communities. We can talk about the rise of African American educational institutions, places in Virginia like Jackson Ward in Richmond, home of the Richmond Planet, a prominent African American newspaper. What are we teaching kids when we show them someone who literally went from being enslaved to becoming an abolitionist to leading a movement like Benjamin “Pap” Singleton did? How do our students see themselves when they learn about the accomplishments, resilience, and achievements of their forefathers, rather than their chronic victimization?
Last summer, we partnered with Virginia Beach, Fairfax , and Charlottesville schools to write a series of Inquiry Design Modules. I served as an editor and worked on editing an inquiry about the Declaration of Independence. The voices of those who had not traditionally been a part of the dominant narrative were used as sources: African Americans, Chicanos, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans. It’s our plan for these to be published for others to use.
Our schools are full of students from everywhere and so are we. You can’t be non-racist. Non-racist is simply allowing racism to flourish on your watch. If we want to educate students today, we must choose to be anti-racist. We must choose all of our students.
To Stafford Education Association members, advocating for a non-discrimination policy in county schools wasn’t something they thought was just a good idea—it was a matter of life and death. The 2018-19 school year was barely a month old and already three county students who identified as LGBTQ had harmed themselves. Such young people seriously consider suicide at a rate almost three times higher than heterosexual youth, according to The Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth.
And it wasn’t just students who were struggling: School employees who identified as LGBTQ were also feeling unwanted and unwelcome.
Confronted with that, SEA members knew they couldn’t remain silent. Joining forces with fellow advocates from Equality Stafford, SEA set out to get a life-changing policy, for both students and staff, in place in county schools.
“We knew our membership had never been openly asked about this issue,” says SEA President Christian Peabody, “and that if we were going to be successful, we’d need hard numbers on where county educators stood on non-discrimination policies.”
SEA’s survey quickly made it abundantly clear where they stood: an overwhelming 92 percent of employees supported such a policy, giving SEA and Equality Stafford a very strong foundation from which to advocate.
There was, however, significant opposition, both from some members of the county’s school board and from some in the public. To marshal support, says Peabody, the results of the survey were shared with the entire school division and the School Board, as well as made publicly available. “The comments ranged from fully supportive to extremely bigoted, sometimes hateful, and everything in between,” Peabody says, “but the entire community now knew that SCPS employees stood for non-discrimination.”
The school board scheduled a vote on the policies in July 2019, then delayed it for two months to seek additional legal counsel. SEA spent those two months garnering more support and encouraging educators to speak out. At a school board meeting held during the two-month delay, SEA member Allen Watkins stood and asked the board to think about what they’d done during the delay to protect students and staff. He then used the rest of his three minutes of allotted time to stand silently, adding at the close, “Nothing. You’ve done nothing.”
The night of the final vote arrived, and the public comment period went on for hours, both for and against. Jim Livingston, then VEA’s president, and James Fedderman, then vice president, both spoke in support of the policy, along with local Delegate Joshua Cole and educators from other localities and states. “It was electrifying and galvanizing to see our educators and allies put it all on the line like never before,” says Peabody.
In the end, the board voted 4-3 in favor of a non-discrimination policy in Stafford County Public Schools, a moment Peabody calls “one of the proudest in our Association’s history.”
One board member, who voted in support of the new policy, noted, “If I’m ever asked if I protected students as a School Board member, I want to be able to say yes. And if this policy will protect a single student or employee, then my answer is yes, and will always be yes, yes, yes.”
Shenandoah County Education Association members created a statement, which was presented at a school board meeting by SCEA President Jeff Rudy, an English teacher at Strasburg High School. Here are excerpts:
The SCEA asks that Shenandoah County Public Schools provide diversity training for all teachers, staff, and student bodies; hire qualified minority candidates for employment; review the demographics of the school board office; develop a diverse K-12 curriculum aligned with VDoE standards; protect marginalized students from attacks in school and online; re-examine the student code of conduct; and provide a safe outlet for minority students to voice their opinions.
We call on SCPS to utilize community institutions and the SCEA to work, collaboratively and with intentionality, for the elimination of racism and bigotry in our schools and community. SCEA now has a Leader of Equity & Justice (LEJ) Chair trained to recognize disparities and injustice and to fight for equity for students and educators. We hope that our Leader of Equity & Justice Chairperson will be a part of future conversations of growth in our school system.
Furthermore, the SCEA calls on all people of moral character in our community to stand with our brothers and sisters of color in demanding an end to the hate and oppression created by racism. We applaud the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors for the adoption of their anti-racism resolution!
Freedom School was created in 1960s Mississippi, where the education of Black children hadn’t been deemed a very high priority, and it was meant to fill educational gaps during summers and give children of color a new vision for their future. Today, Freedom School has been adapted by the Children’s Defense Fund and is offered, in various forms, around the country, including in Charlottesville last summer.
“I love everything it stands for,” says Charlottesville Education Association member Christen Edwards, who was a site coordinator in the program. “It gives kids a voice and instills in them a sense of social justice and that they can have an impact in their family, in their community, and in their country.”
Charlottesville and Albemarle County students of various races in grades 3, 4, and 5 spent five weeks focusing on literacy and oral history, reading books featuring characters of color and interviewing community members about the impact of COVID-19 or the Black Lives Matter movement on their lives. They also spent time discussing the importance of voting with interns from the Youth Action Lab at UVA’s Curry School of Education.
“Freedom School provided an environment for children to learn about discrimination and hard history and to be able to discuss it and learn from it with one another,” says Edwards, who will teach fifth grade this year.
She hopes the program, funded by UVA and the city school system, will continue. “Charlottesville needs something like this,” she says.
Graduate school was eye-opening for Rosa Derricott. It was in a graduate course some 15 years ago that she heard, for the first time, the term “school-to-prison pipeline.” She also learned that a child’s life outcome can often be already determined by third grade, and that those outcomes for students of color were frequently not positive.
Years later, as a behavior coach in Lynchburg, she was stunned to discover that the elementary school where she was interviewing used in-school suspension as a disciplinary measure. Derricott, a Lynchburg Education Association member, was coming from a school with a student population she described as “relatively easy to work with.”
Her new situation was different. “I could have stayed, but it wasn’t where I was needed,” she says. “I knew I needed to be at this school and help these students, teachers, and families. My goal was simple: eliminate in-school suspensions.”
Her method was also simple: Build relationships.
Derricott pulled together some data and discovered that just five students were accounting for a full one-third of the school’s referrals, so she set out to cut their referrals in half. “I hoped that by reducing their referrals, it would also impact the behavior of other students,” she says.
At the end of that school year, 4 of the 5 students had reduced their referrals by 80 percent and the other student had cut his by 90 percent. And she was right about the effect such changes would have on the rest of the students: the school’s overall referral rate went down 50 percent.
Many wondered what her secret was. “The most significant thing I did was work with teachers and build relationships throughout the building,” Derricott says. “In a healthy, trusting relationship, people don’t disrespect people they like, they don’t shout at them, they don’t misbehave, and they use words to advocate for themselves. Students are looking for equity in the classroom and for a voice.”
Derricott is now an assistant principal and continues to stand up for students and for equity. “Racial and social justice issues are resolved when people are educated and have the tools to do something different,” she says. She has no plans to change her approach: She’s a NEA Foundation Global Fellow and is currently pursuing a doctorate, for which her dissertation focus will be global education in the classroom and its impact on race and social justice.
Declaring “It’s not enough for us to not be racist; we must be actively anti-racist,” the Fairfax Education Association organized an online “Educators for Black Lives Matter” Rally in June. The event, which developed after a suggestion from FEA member Christine Connor, wasn’t officially tied to the Black Lives Matter organization; instead it was built around the idea that “Black students, educators, and parents matter.”
“In the middle of a global pandemic and a racial crisis in America, we needed to think creatively to provide a safe space for educators who were unable to be in the streets to show their solidarity in this social justice movement,” says Carla Okouchi, FEA’s vice president.
It was also a chance for FEA, as an education organization, to take a definitive and public stance for justice. “We wanted our members and everyone else to know that we’re absolutely doing this,” says FEA President Kimberly Adams. “We are committed to this work and want our members to be engaged in it.”
The rally featured a lineup of guest speakers, including Virginia’s Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni; last year’s National Teacher of the Year, Rodney Robinson; Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; Janice Underwood, Virginia’s Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer; NEA Vice President Princess Moss; VEA’s then-President Jim Livingston; VEA President-Elect James Fedderman; Okouchi; and students.
“We started a conversation,” Adams says, noting that Fairfax needs more educators that reflect the student population (some county schools have no teachers of color) and that FEA is pushing for a more racially and ethnically balanced curriculum.
As its pre-rally statement says, “FEA stands with our sisters and brothers all across the country who are taking on institutional racism…Our children and our community are depending on us.”
VEA is committed to fighting for equity for all students and educators, and our members know that disparities and injustice plague many of our communities. Through the Association’s Human and Civil Rights department, we’ve established a group that’s equally committed to taking action by calling out problems and working for solutions. The group is called Leaders for Equity and Justice (LEJ), and it’s open to any member who wants to be involved in this cause.
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