#ReWhiting is a hashtag invented by Marquita Prinzing, Director of Seattle Education Association’s Center for Racial Equity. She uses it to name the ways in which Whiteness reclaims institutions in which leaders of Color have successfully pushed the boundaries of racial justice. We are currently experiencing #ReWhiting in Seattle Public Schools. This blog post tells the story of the Ethnic Studies Movement in Seattle and how leadership in Seattle Public Schools is #ReWhiting our efforts.
In The Beginning
First, I want to acknowledge that the fight for ethnic studies goes back to violent clashes between students of Color demanding their right to a culturally inclusive, socially just education and education institutions during the Civil Rights era, and this piece focuses on the here and now.
In the fall of 2016, I was working with the Center for Racial Equity on building its mission and vision and coaching new racial equity teams in the district. On a different front, Jon Greenberg was working with a group of educators – Michael Peña from the Mukilteo School District, Tess Williams, who at the time was a grad student at Seattle University and now teaches at Cleveland High School, and Abraham Rodríguez from what was once called the Department of Equity and Race Relations (DERR), now called Department of Racial Equity Advancement (DREA). These educators joined forces with the then King County NAACP Education Chair, Rita Green, to write and present a resolution demanding ethnic studies in Seattle Public Schools. This effort was started by Jon after Superintendent Larry Nyland’s Equity and Race Advisory Committee (ERAC) submitted a proposal to Superintendent Nyland about an ethnic studies program that he ignored.
One voice the team was missing was representation of grades K-6, so Jon went to Marquita to ask for suggestions. She gave him my name. He approached me one evening at an SEA representative assembly and I was all in. It was exactly the work and advocacy I was wanting to jump in to. The resolution was mostly written by the time I joined the team, so I just added a few things here and there about teaching to younger students. We presented the resolution at the 2017 MLK Day Celebration at Garfield High School to a packed room.
A few weeks later, Rita was approached by school board director, Rick Burke, who expressed interest in writing a resolution to bring ethnic studies into Seattle Public Schools. We met with Rick a few times and he led the work of the Seattle Public Schools resolution for ethnic studies, which was unanimously approved in July of 2017. The first task the school board set was to form a community task force to get input on how the program should look.
The Struggle Against #ReWhiting Was Immediate
From the start of this work in the district, it has been a struggle to hold leadership accountable for not co opting, white washing, or erasing the work of community, students, and educators. When the School Board adopted their resolution for ethnic studies, Director Leslie Harris, currently the School Board president, made it very clear there was no money in the budget to support the work and we would have to create this program from nothing. We were just happy to have support – or what we thought was support – from the board and we were ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The district then paid approximately $85,000 to a professional facilitator based out of California to lead the task force. We were fuming. They told us they had no money and then paid a consulting company to lead work it knew nothing about. The first task force meeting was a disaster. It was completely white-normed and parents and community members voicing their frustration with the district were shut down left and right. Voices of Color were not centered and microaggressions were rampant. Rita and I came up with a plan to commandeer the following meeting. We created an outline and a protocol to collect and mine recommendations and literally took over the following meeting. This is when I was getting to know Dr. Kyle Kinoshita, then Chief of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction (CAI). It was his first year on the job. I remember Rita saying something along the lines of, “You are all racist and we’re taking over, now.” Kyle didn’t bat an eye and took a step back. That’s when I started to see he was one of us.
The facilitation firm that was paid $85,000 for the labor Rita and I performed did write up fancy-ish drafts of the task force recommendations, but I can tell you, from leading the facilitation myself, they boil down to these three demands:
- Ethnic Studies must be co-created with the community
- No textbooks should be used for the Ethnic Studies program because of their inherent racism and Eurocentric perspectives
- Ethnic Studies must be an interdisciplinary, preK-12 program
This is also when I should have seen how the district has no qualms with exploiting the labor of womxn of Color, but I was on a mission.
Centering Educators of Color
Rita, Jon, Tess, and I were invited to district meetings to work out how the program would get off the ground. The task force had suggested we push the work through the racial equity teams, but Dr. Keisha Scarlett insisted that DREA does not do curriculum. This makes sense, and I respect Keisha’s vision. The racial equity teams seemed like a good idea considering we didn’t have a budget, but in hindsight, I can see how this would have been a disastrous plan. There is no systemic oversight of the racial equity teams, and the ethnic studies work would have been lost.
The thing is, nobody at the district level had any idea how to do this. I remember one meeting in which some district administrator – I forget whom – asked what the next steps were and everyone in the room turned to Jon and I. Jon said, “I don’t know. I’m just a classroom teacher.” What he meant by this statement is he didn’t have access to district systems and this should be the work of district administrators. While I agree with Jon in principle, I saw this as an opportunity to push in a genuine ethnic studies program, and not some watered-down multicultural education bullshit. That’s when I began to assemble the Ethnic Studies Work Group, now called the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group.
Because of my work with the Center for Racial Equity, I was able to very intentionally recruit critical educators of Color to this group. I made sure the ratio of educators of Color to white educators was 2 to 1. It has remained that or higher, with the majority of the educators in the group being womxn of Color.
In the meantime, Kyle was able to eek out funds for us of about $90,000 from the CAI budget, which was enough to pay for substitutes so these educators could leave their classrooms once or twice a month to start building the program. Unfortunately, some principals tried to #ReWhite this plan by writing letters to the superintendent complaining about the educators leaving their classrooms. Talking about fostering the leadership of educators of Color and then complaining about them taking advantage of opportunities for leadership is #ReWhiting.
This is another term I’m using that I’ve borrowed from Marquita. It’s a form of #ReWhiting, but takes place in less obvious ways.
Sometime at the end of the summer of 2017, a Black principal, who had been pushed out of her post at an elementary school and assigned to a post at the district office, was named Ethnic Studies Program Manager. This position was created solely as a place keeper for this principal who had several harassment, intimidation, and bullying claims lodged against her by staff of Color. The education association made an agreement with the district and the principal’s association to remove her from any supervisory duty. Here we come back to the exploitation of womxn of Color. This principal had no background in ethnic studies and frequently admitted she was not prepared to do this job, but the district saw a Black woman and thought that was good enough. They set her up for failure.
Looking back, I can give her grace and recognize district leadership is to blame for what happened next, but in the moment I was enraged. First, I had been leading this work all along and one day, I received an email announcing this appointment. No explanation. No warning. While I was a bit perturbed, I was also somewhat relieved because I was still teaching full time and all of this extracurricular work was taking a toll on my family. But then…
While we were writing the BLM@School lessons, the Ethnic Studies Program Manager was going from group to group asking, “Do you really think we should be working on this? All lives matter.” During professional development sessions in which we were introducing ethnic studies, the program manager would say things like, “Ethnic studies is all about learning about our friends.” I would have to come behind her and correct this multicultural nonsense. When the BLM@School week rolled around in February of 2018, the Ethnic Studies Program Manager was part of a group of faith leaders who rallied against the theme of Black trans and queer identity and encouraged parents to keep their kids home from school on that day.
The entire time she was the program manager, she was getting the pay and I was doing the work. I was still leading the work group and teaching full time. The only difference is that I had to clean up any misinformation she spread and push back against her bigotry. Again, in hindsight I see this was the institution exploiting both of us. When she was pushed out of the program manager position and it became a possibility that I could step into it, I began to see this exploitation and wonder if I really wanted to go deeper into it, but I was on a mission.
Kyle was able to put aside even more money for ethnic studies. This past school year I worked with a $300,000 budget. I could write loads about what I and the advisory group have accomplished this year, but instead I’ll include this timeline I recently created for the school board. I think I left a few things off, but even so, this is a lot of work to be done in just one year! If this is hard to see, click here for the full report.
Most of my work this past year has been curriculum development and professional development. We contracted a company called Cyborg Mobile, whose staff is 100% people of Color, to build a website to house the materials being created for our program. As I write this, I am currently defending this work from being #ReWhited by leaders in Seattle Public Schools who have blocked the release of what Cyborg Mobile created and have been having meetings about a plan to create a different site, all while not telling me about their meetings or their plan.
Not all things have been #ReWhited. The crown jewel in all of this was the Ethnic Studies Summer Institute – a two-week long, 60 hour, intensive anti-racist educator professional development attended by 100 educators from across Western Washington. The bulk of the sessions were led by the educators of Color from the Center for Racial Equity and the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group. We had nationally recognized scholars like Dr. Wayne Au and Dr. Django Paris leading sessions. This institute was entirely – and I can say this without shame – entirely – conceived, planned, and managed by me. Marquita helped in terms of emotional and logistical support, and has been my rock through this entire process. I make a point, however, to claim ownership here because the district continues to try to erase and minimize my impact.
Here are some graphs of the data I collected from the evaluation form. When was the last time you went to a professional development where people used words like “transformative” and “life changing”?
“This was a transformative experience. I was completely immersed in thinking critically about race, structures & systems, and teaching pedagogy. I thought about it all evening each day as I left, talked about what I was doing with family & friends, and even dreamed about how it would impact my practice these past two weeks.”
“Very informative. I am not new to any of the concepts and I did not need convincing that Ethnic Studies is a necessary thing. That being said, the amount that I learned, talked with others, and reflected was profound. I am telling everyone I know that they have to do it next year.”
“This has simply changed the way I look at teaching. I used to have this type of attitude about teaching, and working in SPS and the PS system made me feel like a robot who shot out equations and practice problems for my students. This institute reminded me that I can make my lessons through the ES lens and create way BETTER lessons and my students will actually RETAIN the mathematical skills.”
“We will not ask for permission. We will move and do and figure out as we do. This was the best PD I have ever attended hands down.”
For the entire summary of data, click here.
All of these things I have accomplished were done using only about ⅓ of the budget Kyle allocated for me. For this reason, Kyle and I agreed the remainder of the budget should be spent on staff. We began to advocate for this in March of 2019. It’s September of 2019 now. School starts in three days. Kyle has retired, and I am being told the additional $300,000 he allocated for the coming school year may be used for other purposes since he’s gone. Ethnic Studies remains a program of one. My task is to build an interdisciplinary, preK-12 program for the largest district in the State of Washington; a district with approximately 54,000 students and 5,000 educators. In addition to building the program and creating curriculum, I’m tasked with training and supporting those 5,000 educators to teach Ethnic Studies. Why can’t I have a staff? I’ve heard two stories and one rumor:
- Story one: The superintendent and chief of human resources can’t justify spending money on a program that is neither complete nor officially recognized/adopted by the board.
- Story two: There are many requests for new positions in CAI and they all need to be weighed against each other because of scarcity of resources (remember, I have >$500,000 currently sitting in an account dedicated to ethnic studies).
- Rumor: District leadership doesn’t trust me to manage a staff. This rumor comes from a racist blogger, but it’s not totally unbelievable. I know I’m seen as a threat. It’s not that they don’t think I’ll be successful. They’re afraid I’ll be successful.
Despite the gains and the very real and tangible affect the dedicated group of educators from both the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group and the Center for Racial Equity, we still have no mandate from leadership. Despite the effective leadership of Marquita and I, our work is continually dismissed and we are gatekept from decision making at the district level. Every space we exist in, we’ve had to fight for. I truly believe that our affect is why the current #ReWhiting is so intense. All of our gains have been in spite of district efforts, not because of them.
I can’t tell you what will happen next. I have committed to making this year about me and creating boundaries that prevent me from being exploited. One way I plan to accomplish this is to make all of the exploitation public, which is one of the reasons for this month’s topic. When I took this job, I took it accepting that I will be fired. This has given me the freedom to push as hard as I can, and I plan to push harder. Right now the Ethnic Studies Program needs community support more than ever to prevent its #ReWhiting.
Help me push:
Denise Juneau, Superintendent – Denise.Juneau@seattleschools.org
Dr. Diane DeBacker, CAO – firstname.lastname@example.org
Board of Directors – SPSDirectors@seattleschools.org
Clover Codd, Chief of HR – email@example.com