The Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards: Honoring a Handful of 2017's Local Heroes

The Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards: Honoring a Handful of 2017's Local Heroes

Welcome one and all to the first semi-annual, fully manual Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards. Thank you for being here, wherever that may be.

These awards were created by me as a way to recognize a handful of Washingtonians who deserve a few extra hand-claps for the way their work and their way of life contributed to positive change in 2017.

The judging process was stringent and unscientific. I created the categories to suit my fancies, and I’ve awarded fake awards to whatever number of people I please. By the end, I’ll have failed to mention just about everyone, so if you find you've been omitted, don’t despair. The pool of nominees was limited to people I know about and managed to think of while writing this, and as a periodic shut-in, that’s not as long a list of names as you might think. For instance, I only finally discovered a few months ago that Chance the Rapper is amazing, if that gives you some idea. So, if you or someone you know has been egregiously overlooked, please get in touch with me and I’m sure I’d be happy to make up some new awards in the near future.

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8 Key Insights from 'The Only Black Man on the Seattle School Board'

Stephan Blanford is the outgoing school board rep for District 5, and as he leaves the post, we bid farewell to our strongest, most consistent voice for equity on the otherwise disastrous Seattle School Board.

Stephan talked with KUOW's Ann Dornfeld for about half an hour recently: "On being the only black man on the Seattle school board." They touched on race and equity in Seattle's schools from just about every angle. The entire conversation is absolutely worth listening to. I can't possibly share every detail here, as much as I wish I could. Still, here are eight key insights from their chat (I originally planned to do five, but I couldn't contain myself):

 

1. The dysfunction of our school board continues to drive good people away from Seattle Public Schools.

Stephan Blanford: “I’ve come to realize that you get the opportunity to put a brick in the wall. You don’t get the opportunity to just totally transform systems. That said, I’ve struggled with the fact that I’ve been on the losing end of way too many votes on issues that affect our achievement and opportunity gaps, and that’s part of the reason that I chose not to run again.”

 

2. Seattle’s “unconscionable” opportunity gaps are not closing yet.

SB: "It’s hard to know what the baseline was, but I do know the study that came out last year from Stanford that said that we are the fifth-worst large urban school district in the nation in terms of our achievement and opportunity gaps between our white students and our African-American students. And I believe the numbers are similar for the other subgroups of students. I believe really strongly that in this community, that is as wealthy as it is, and as committed to public education as it is, and as educated as it is, that is a pretty unconscionable metric, that we would have such large opportunity gaps for a school system that serves all of the city."

Ann Dornfeld: "And, of course, it’s hard to know what the current status is, right? Because the Stanford data was looking back only to 2012 and earlier."

SB: "Right. But I would believe that number hasn’t changed significantly because, again, it’s difficult to all-of-a-sudden make huge change happen."

 

3. Some teachers are on a mission for equity, while others aren’t. The district’s cultural pendulum needs to swing toward the teachers focused on closing the opportunity gap.

SB: "In my three-and-a-half years on the board I have seen very excellent teachers who care very deeply about the achievement and opportunity gaps, many of them were inspired to go into the classroom because they saw the disparities. We also have teachers that that’s not their primary concern, so trying to figure out ways to make it part of the culture of the entire school is the work of those racial equity teams inside of schools. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of them, and I see them as catalysts for moving that conversation forward and then making sure that it changes the culture of the school. I would argue that we’re not moving fast enough on that issue, but I also recognize that it takes time."

 

4. Seattle is home to the same latent white fear as all other U.S. cities. We need to air this out.

AD: "Of course, it could be argued that part of the quality of the school is, in fact, how diverse it is. It’s not just who’s teaching and what’s being taught."

SB: “I would agree wholeheartedly to that notion. I wonder sometimes, though, if our community as a whole doesn’t recognize how important that is. That part of education, particularly in the 21st century, is going to be the ability to work across culture, work with people who are not like you. Many of our schools are not very diverse, and many of our constituents are pushing toward efforts to ensure that that is happening. When we try to promote the idea that a diverse school and classroom is beneficial, we actually get pushback from folks and communities.”

 

5. Our own individual decisions must reflect our principles. White parents in Seattle in particular are making decisions that perpetuate segregation and opportunity gaps.

SB: “I hope i don’t get myself into trouble, but I believe that in many ways, for our parents — many of our white parents — there is a disconnect between what they believe in their heart of hearts and how they act. And, you know, as  parent myself, I know that my first and primary responsibility is to advocate for the best possible situations for my child, and I believe that is what all parents do all of the time. There is a fundamental dissonance between if you have a preconceived notion that black and brown kids can’t learn at the same rate as white and Asian kids, then I think there is automatic default to wanting your child to be in a diverse class, but not too diverse.

 

6. Segregation and discrimination aren’t always easy to spot from the outside looking in.

AD: “Do you see issues of segregation within school buildings that on paper would appear to be diverse schools?”

SB: "Yes. There are three schools in the district that I represent, and I would believe that probably in every district in Seattle, there are a number of schools where the teachers have come to me and said, ‘There is rampant segregation in our building. When we line up all of our kids and we send the highly capable kids in one direction and we send the general ed kids in a different direction, you can see the racial segregation play out just by kids lining up.' That has played out in several of the schools in my district, and so again, I believe that probably plays out in most districts. Where it’s profound, and it’s right in your face, where you see all the black and brown kids on one side, and all the white and Asian kids on the other side."

 

7. We have to look at every issue through an equity lens.

SB: "In school board meetings, in the email campaigns that go on, and in lots of other ways, parents articulate and advocate for their individual school, but sometimes at the detriment of other schools. And I try to figure out ways to get folks to see the big picture, and that if we pit one school versus another, eventually those who lose are those parents who are not organized.

"There are winners and losers with every decision that we make, and if you are truly an advocate for educational equity, you have to factor that into your advocacy."

 

8. Our only African-American school board member experienced a long line of racial microaggressions during his tenure. We all have to do the personal work if we want our community and our country to change.

SB: "There have been racial microaggressions manifested by board members on other board members and on staff and on community members who’ve come to testify. Those have been well-documented. It’s not very hard to find. But I think they highlight the fact that there’s a need for the board — and I think for the boards of most communities, so not singling out Seattle specifically — but there’s a need for us to do lots of personal work in order to fulfill our role on the top of the org chart of a billion-dollar organization that impacts the lives of 54,000 students. And because we are a district that has more students of color than we do white students, there is some sense of urgency around that. It’s not something that we should do at some point in the future. There is, in my mind, because of the huge disparities that we have, there’s a requirement that we do that soon."


I just want to reiterate that if you have even a passing interest in Seattle’s schools, it’s important that you listen to this entire interview. We need more and more conversations like this, and we need our actions to start reflecting our words and our thoughts.

Thanks, Stephan, for your time and energy on behalf of all kids over the past four years. You must be exhausted.

Seattle School Board VP Harris delivered the definition of a microagression to a student guest

During the Seattle School Board meeting on Jan. 18 of this year, Board VP Leslie Harris thanked a student guest and said she was "extremely articulate."

Let's take this opportunity to understand why this is a microaggression and not a compliment.

First, watch here:

 

The student in question was a young woman of color who attends West Seattle High School. She updated the board on the MLK Day assembly, then discussed her school's lack of diversity among staff and teachers, shortages in science funding, and ways to help students of color not only find success, but find pathways to the becoming teachers as well.

 

She was certainly articulate. So, what's the problem?

Let's start by turning to an excellent article from KUOW producer Jeannie Yandel, "'You're So Articulate': Why Microaggressions Wear People Down."

According to Yandel's article, a microaggression is "an everyday slight, putdown or insult toward marginalized groups. Often, these come from well-intentioned individuals who are unaware they are saying anything offensive. Such seemingly small comments are the morphing of overt racism in America into a much more subtle form of bias."

Microaggressions are a nuanced form of prejudice, which can make them easy to miss -- and to dismiss. But they take a huge toll over time, in no small part because they are so difficult to combat that they are often just absorbed silently.

More from Yandel:

If the recipient, like Sue, takes offense, he could be perceived as misreading the intent of the comment or being too sensitive. “It is very difficult for them to understand the hidden meaning of their microaggression," he said.
Microaggressions aren’t just in offhand comments – they can be nonverbal too.
An example: a white woman clutching her purse a little tighter near a black male. Sue said assumptions of dangerousness and criminality are characteristic of the microaggressions black people receive.
Each small gesture might seem trivial, but for the person who receives them, they can accumulate over years – especially if the recipient has been subjected to different microaggressions several times a day.
“All our research on microaggressions reveal that microaggressions take a tremendous psychological and physical toll on the marginalized group member,” which can take the form of loss of productivity at school and work or a decrease in subjective well-being, Sue said.
Combating microaggressions can be tricky. Sue said recipients of microaggressions find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
“We found that the majority of people of color did not do anything, were told not to do anything, but by that decision what happened was that it took a psychological toll on them," Sue said. "They sat there and seethed away with anger and frustration. But they were also very hard on themselves by saying, ‘I’m a coward. Why didn’t I at least do something about it?"

 

Of course, as the article goes on to discuss, it's usually easier said than done to "do something" about a microaggression. Imagine this young woman interrupting a well-intentioned-but-ignorant school board member to try to explain why the intended compliment was actually an insult and a projection of implicit bias.

And the thing is, she shouldn't have to. She shouldn't have to hear it in the first place, and she definitely shouldn't be the one stuck defending herself and educating her oppressors.

So, Director Harris, take it from me instead: choosing to describe this student as "extremely articulate" -- and nothing else -- is problematic. It's a microaggression. A slight. And it's yet another reflection of our school board's sad lack of racial awareness.

(See also: Let's unpack SPS Board Director Rick Burke's understanding of integrationPlease help our kids get the school board leadership they deserveSeattle School Board VP Harris should resign after using term 'ghetto school', and A grassroots coalition just stopped the Seattle School Board from adding $11 million to the deficit.)

All of our students deserve better.

I am officially raising my hand and requesting that the Seattle School Board undergo some intensive DEI (short for diversity, equity and inclusion) work. This board does not constitute safe, productive leadership for our kids.

We should also, as a so-called sanctuary city, consider taking protective measures for the kids who already live here as well as those who don't. Let's make implicit bias testing mandatory for anyone working in our public school system. Now.

Please help our kids get the school board leadership they deserve

I'd like to point your attention toward the dysfunction of the Seattle School Board. Many of the directors on the board have consistently shown a troubling lack of racial awareness, and it's been having a seriously negative impact on the kids in our district for many years.

Dir. Leslie Harris described a Cedar Park school full of low-income students of color as "a ghetto school."

It's time for things to change.

I wrote a blog post Sunday about Dir. Leslie Harris, the recently appointed board vice president who used the term "ghetto school" during a board meeting last November. It sparked a particularly inspiring response from one former principal.

This earlier post also gives some more background on the problematic dynamics on the board:

 

A grassroots coalition just stopped the Seattle School Board from adding $11 million to the deficit

 

These are just a couple examples, of course. I'll also be writing this week about Dir. Rick Burke's troubling take on integration and about more racially sleepy comments from Dir. Harris.

Seattle Public Schools has documented problems with disproportionate discipline of Black students, and the district is home to the fifth-worst opportunity gap in the nation. These are more than just politically incorrect slips of the tongue from a well-intentioned board of directors. Each microagression and each offensive phrase represents the pattern of thinking that still guides our schools. 

The West Coast is leading the resistance against the Trump-led Republicans, and Washington State has been at the forefront of that movement in a very real way. On a local level, however, we still have elected officials making oppressive decisions -- especially when it comes to education. It's time that our local politics better reflect our bold commitment to equity.

If you have more stories illustrating our problematic school board in Seattle -- and I'm sure you do -- please share them with me. We need the voters in our city to know who is representing their kids and their schools.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for everything you're doing to create better schools and a better world for our kids. They need us to rise up now more than ever.