Math is Ethnic Studies

Featured image is of a mancala game table. Mancala is an ancient math game originating in Ethiopia.

Recently, the work of the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Advisory Board has come under fire by conservative talk show hosts and Seattle’s own preeminent racist blogger, Melissa Westbrook. Critics accuse us of “dumbing down math.” Sitting school board director, Rick Burke’s wife, Lihn-Co Nguyen, has even hopped on the ethnic studies bashing.



Let’s take a minute to understand why these attacks are baseless and racist, shall we?

STEM so White

The teachers being considered for the 2019 STEM teacher awards in Washington State are 100% white. That’s not by accident. Several studies indicate that math and science tend to be white dominated spaces and research has linked this fact to the ways in which STEM fields devalue Black and Brown identities. While there are disparate outcomes by race for all standardized tests, math scores for students of color consistently remain far lower than other tested subjects.

Study after study tell us that how young people of color view themselves as mathematicians is key to their success in math courses. This applies to all subjects. That’s why you’ll often hear history teachers say things like, “Let’s think like historians!” Students of music who consider themselves musicians probably do better than those who don’t. Even in science, students have fun when they put on the white lab coat and do experiments. In that case, they can literally see themselves as scientists. Why would it be different for math?

Math is “Objective”

Part of the reason people don’t think identity is important in math is because it’s seen as the most objective subject in school. Math is math. There’s one right answer. Math is the “universal language.” I’m not arguing with any of those statements, but math is most certainly NOT objective, especially when it’s operationalized. And guess what? Teaching math is operationalizing math. When teachers choose not to include how identities matter in math, they are teaching a biased, politicized form of math. When we give the impression (or overtly state) that math originates from European sources (even the word “mathematics” comes from a Greek word), we are stealing the rich mathematical histories of students of color from them and we are lying to white students.

When we teach math using pedagogy and instructional strategies that focus on individual learning and achievement, we are ignoring the ways in which most students of color learn – collaboratively and collectively. We use word problems that are completely disconnected from the lived experiences of students of color. We don’t teach them how math can inform and transform their lives and their communities. Black and Brown people are completely erased from math and math is irrelevant to their lives in our current math practices.

And while math may be a universal language, there are different ways to learn about, conceptualize, and solve equations that are based on culture. There’s an entire sub-field of study called ethnomathematics. Not only does ethnomathematics center math learning in cultural traditions and knowledge, it teaches us that math looks and operates differently in different cultures. Consider the Aztec base 20 system of math. Instead of doing calculations and writing out numbers in units of 10, or decimals, Aztecs (Nahuatl) used 20 as a base unit. If we teach students there are many ways to get to the “right answer,” not only will they learn their cultural roots as mathematicians, they will also understand number sense better because they will be able to define it from multiple perspectives, or approaches.

a visualization of the Aztec base 20 system

Oppression in Math

“Western” math – the base 10 system (which actually comes from ancient India)- is not the only math. The fact that so few people understand there are other ways of “doing” math means that math has been used to erase the histories of communities, people, and empires of color. That is oppression. The fact that kids of Latinx descent don’t know their ancestors invented zero is oppression. Causing people to believe that only people of European descent had anything important to say or teach about math is racism.

Science, and by extension math, have most certainly been used in more overt, nefarious forms of racism. Consider the Tuskegee Experiment, the story of Henrietta Lacks, and the debunked “science” of eugenics. Math was used to disenfranchise Black voters as late as the 1960s. Math is used in the War on Drugs in which the weight and type of drug is used in sentencing guidelines that disproportionately imprison Black and Brown offenders for longer sentences.

When Black and Brown students learn math through an ethnic studies pedagogy, it is an act of liberation. Undoing the colonization of math as a “Western” concept is resistance. Becoming a mathematician as a person of color is taking action against a system that heavily privileges white people, especially white men. Ethnic studies belongs in math just as much, if not more so, as it does in history.

#ReWhiting – Ethnic Studies in Seattle Public Schools

#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.

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packed classroom at Garfield High School’s MLK Day Celebration, 2017

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.

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school board mobilization in support of ethnic studies, 2017

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.

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some members of the advisory group working on scope and sequence, 2019

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.

Institutional Creep

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.

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The NAACP Youth Coalition developed and facilitated a student panel at the Ethnic Studies Summer Institute, 2019.

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 –

Dr. Diane DeBacker, CAO –

Board of Directors –

Clover Codd, Chief of HR –

My Week in Montgomery

The featured image is from the EJI Memorial. These jars are full of soil from lynching sites in the State of Alabama.

I have the great privilege to be on the current Advisory Board for Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance. Our first convening of the new board was last month and it took place at the Embassy Suites in Montgomery, Alabama. It was my first time to The South since I was 16. When I was a teenager, I traveled with my family to Missouri and Indiana to visit with my mom’s side of the family. Yes, I know that’s not technically The South, but I remember going to my grandfather’s birthplace, standing on the bank of the Ohio river, and looking across to Kentucky on the other side. That’s close enough to The South for me.

My dad, brothers, and I stood out as Mexican and mixed-race people. Our darker skin seemed to make many people uncomfortable, all of whom were blood relatives. After that visit, I vowed to never go back to The South and was apprehensive about what I might experience in Montgomery, especially considering the most recent stories of misogyny and racism in the era of Trumpism.

My passion for racial justice won out and I went to Montgomery, Alabama excited to meet and work with social justice educators from across the country. I was not disappointed by the talent and passion I met in that conference room. I met Dr. Stephanie Jones who is mapping out racial trauma in schools, particularly racial trauma caused by curriculum. I was so excited to learn about her work because it’s directly related to what I’m working on for my dissertation. I got to know Matilda Morrison who is working on LGBTQ topics for kinders in Ventura, California. I spent some time listening to stories told by Kevin Cordi who has a PhD in storytelling. How cool is that? I learned all about the coolest places to visit when I go to New York this winter from Geneviève DeBose Akinnagbe who teaches in Los Angeles. There are so many other people who are doing important work, and if you want to learn more about them, you can here.

Though I am going to be critical here, I want to start by saying Teaching Tolerance is a rich resource for anti-racist educators. I look forward to learning more about what they have to offer and how they are staying current with these problematic times. We need them, and I am committed to doing what I can to help them continue to be at the forefront on a national level in the fight against hate. Please take a moment to dig into their resources for educators.


The heat and humidity aren’t the only oppressive things in Montgomery. The history is oppressive. I don’t know if it was the eerily empty streets or the spirits of the past that hit a melancholy nerve as I walked the streets of Montgomery. I’m going to jump ahead in this story a bit to the Friday I spent in Montgomery. We had gone through all of our work as an advisory board and had Friday to explore on our own. Part of our experience with Teaching Tolerance included tickets to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

I had an idea of what I was in for at the museum and memorial, but I was not prepared for simply walking down the street. I started out walking down a street called Tallapaloosa and came to the first intersection where Commerce St. and Tallapaloosa met. To my left was this statue of Hank Williams, so I went to check it out and noticed the street led down to a river, so I headed that direction.

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I learned from the placards that this is where enslaved Africans were brought to and from market and then later forced to load cotton bales onto boats for transport. I was expecting something along those lines, so at this point I was feeling adequately prepared to face history.

I walked back up Commerce Street and ended up in a place called The Alley where I was excited to find a Mexican Restaurant! I have this thing where I try to find Mexican food in each new place I visit. I had my lunch then headed back out onto Commerce to just go explore. Not even 100 yards in, I found this placard explaining how the buildings along Commerce St. served as warehouses for enslaved Africans waiting to be bought and sold.

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Had I just had lunch in a building that was used to torture human beings? The idea was sickening. Nearly all of those buildings currently house various restaurants except for the space occupied by the EJI. Did the other patrons know what they were doing?

I kept walking toward the Rosa Parks museum. I didn’t go inside, but there was something surreal about standing in the spot she was arrested for unapologetically taking up space that was reserved for whiteness. At just about that moment, a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere, and giant water drops quickly drenched me. I wasn’t mad, though. It was hot before that!

I started back toward the EJI, and while I waited for a crossing light, a big, black pickup truck entered the intersection with a Stars and Bars license plate. I’m not used to seeing that in Seattle, and was startled, though I know I shouldn’t have been. On the way back I also passed a beautiful fountain that I later learned was where slave auctions were held.

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By the time I made it back to the EJI, which was only a few blocks away, I was dripping wet and glad to be in out of the rain. I thought I was prepared for what I was going to experience. I wasn’t.

I don’t have pictures from inside the EJI because cameras are forbidden. I understand why. The emotional weight of that museum is overwhelming. People were openly sobbing, holding their children a little tighter. It was an interesting contrast sometimes; mothers and fathers with tears in their eyes as their toddlers ran around laughing and playing. If you’re hoping for a feel good, Civil Rights museum, EJI is not the place you’re looking for. You are confronted full force with the evils of whiteness. Images of torture, incarceration, murder, and the commodification of human beings are on full display. I couldn’t help but cry. Only people who have lost their humanity wouldn’t. I tried to hold myself together as much as possible because I felt selfish as a non-Black person taking op that space when there were far more Black families there grieving. I’m not surprised there weren’t many white people, but it’s still disheartening.

The EJI provides a shuttle to the monument about a mile away. I cannot even begin to describe how I felt walking through that monument.

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Again, I tried to take up as little space as possible for the same reason. The monument consists of smaller monuments to the lynching victims of each county in The South. Some are marked “unknown.” When you first start out in the space, the individual monuments are at eye level, then, as you go around the square, the individual monuments begin to rise above you. When they are fully above your head it becomes a daunting, haunted space.

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At eye level you are confronted with the “reasons” for lynchings, most of which are related to the innocence of white women.

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As I turned the next corner and saw the monument to all of the undiscovered victims, I literally could not go on. I sat there for a long time quietly crying.

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How can humans do this to other humans? It’s hard to even recount this here. In the center of this space, with the lynching monuments still above my head, was a glass container with layers of soil from various lynching sites in The South. All I could think about was how we have covered up this gruesome part of our past and it’s making a comeback because of our willful ignorance. There are reminders, but they’re too unsettling for many to look at. How do we make people look at this and truly see it for what it is – past and present?

Toward the end of the memorial are duplicate monuments. The curators of the museum have invited each of the counties to pick their respective monument up and display in remembrance of those who were lynched on their soil. So far, not one has been picked up. I went back to my hotel feeling  – I don’t even know. Right now I vacillate between rage, despair, renewed energy to fight, and disgust. I’m sorry it took me so long to go back to The South and look this history in the eye. I return to Montgomery next summer for another advisory board summit, and I am ready to learn and see more.


Here, I’m going to backtrack to my experiences during the advisory board work. While there are many educators doing amazing things, there were some things that happened I didn’t expect. I should know better. I’ve been in enough social and racial justice spaces to see people who probably shouldn’t be there put their feet in their mouths. I probably said or did something that offended others in attendance, too. Sometimes I get excited and words just fall out of my mouth! We all need to do reflective work and own our mistakes. I have work to do.

There were several times, however, when I felt like it was more than the typical reflective work. I had a couple of moments where I felt like my identity was being challenged. That seemed like such an obvious microaggression that I wasn’t expecting it. Fortunately, I was able to confront the person who committed it and they were receptive. We worked through it and I’m confident we can become good friends and colleagues.

I was surprised at the number of white participants. While I firmly believe white people should be part of this work, I also believe people of color, particularly womxn of color, should have the largest share of leadership. While there are strong people of color on the advisory, particularly Black womxn, there were only one or two who seemed to be in leadership positions with Teaching Tolerance.

I was struck at how delineated the terms “social justice” and “racial justice” felt. I recognize this is because of my own paradigm around those terms. For me, if we say “racial justice” we are including every single social justice issue because people of color experience them all. I’m wondering how I can advocate for more leaders of color and for shifting the language or perception that racial justice is only about race. We have work to do. We can’t go back to the past that haunts the streets in Montgomery. We can’t.

13 Things Not to Do When You’re Called the “R” Word; And two things you should

Yes, thirteen things. I know that seems like a lot. Usually these types of pieces stick to a nice, neat number like 3, 5, or 10, but 13 is the number of things not to do that I counted in a single response written by a white woman whom I called the “R” word (R = racist), and it’s only 13 because I combined some of them!

I am an educator of color in Seattle whose job is anti-racist work within the school district. Seattle is very white – nearly 70%. It’s also one of the most liberal cities in the US, and these liberal, white Seattleites hate being called racist, but the thing is – a lot of them are. The reason they hate it so much is because of this idea that a racist is a bad person. Robin DiAngelo calls it the “good/bad binary.”

There’s been a phrase created in the past couple of years by a white Seattle educator to describe the type of racism that exists in Seattle: Passive Progressive. A Passive Progressive is a white person who espouses progressive ideals, especially racial justice, but only to the degree it earns them points for being progressive enough to be a Seattlelite. A Black professor I work with put it best, “White people love to put ‘Black Lives Matter’ yard signs on the lawns of the neighborhoods they’re gentrifying.”

I’ve been calling out a white woman, who considers herself an “education advocate,” as a racist very publicly on my social media. We’ll call this woman Becky. I decided to do this intentional calling out when I became witness to how Becky’s Passive Progressive racism was derailing a curriculum adoption process that was widely supported by families and science educators of color. I wanted people to know that most of the opposition was coming from a racist. Becky writes for and moderates a kind of “watch dog” community forum where she “reports” on various school district goings on. I could give you a “All the Ways Becky is Racist” list that would be so much longer than this post, but just know she thought a joke about fried chicken in a discussion about racism on her forum was “much needed levity.” But Becky is one of those people who believes she is inherently not racist because she is progressive. She wrote a public response to my call outs that I am using to generate this list. The quotes below come directly from her response.

It’s important to note that Becky self identifies as white. It’s also important to note that I use the definition, “prejudice + power = racism,” which means people of color can’t be racist because we’ve never held systemic power, so this list of “things not to do” only applies to white folks!

Ready? Here we go!

Number 1: Don’t expect the person of color who called you a racist to meet you on your terms.

In her response to me calling her a racist, Becky writes:

“When you are dealing with zealots who believe they are the ones who speak with purity about all things race, ethnicity, and the intersection of those for all of us, there’s nothing you can say that will satisfy them if you can’t pass their purity means testing.  You will always be shouted down.”

We’ll get to the “zealot” and “shouted down” parts later, but here I want you to note how Becky expects me to listen to and understand her definitions of the intersections of race and ethnicity and have a discussion with her instead of “shouting” her down. I never yelled. In fact, I’ve never talked to Becky in person. I’ve only ever called her a racist on social media.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 2: Don’t try to prove the person of color who called you a racist is, in fact, a racist themselves.

I’m a PhD student and I post some of my papers on my blog because my doctorate of philosophy is in education, and I write an education blog, so it’s relevant. In one paper I was writing about how to create an anti-racist data culture. Becky didn’t like my ideas and thought they were reverse racist and she, a white woman, knows better who should do the job:

“Below is what she wrote at her blog about Dr. [Xxxx Xxxxxxxx], head of Research and Evaluation, who admittedly is a white male, but also someone who I have found to be smart and well-qualified.

An additional factor to consider is that the research and evaluation team in Seattle Public Schools consists primarily of white people, with the director being a white male (Seattle Public Schools, n.d.b). When the goals of the district, including the Strategic Plan, specifically call out racial disparities, it would make sense that the data culture be led by a person who identifies with impacted groups. A racial equity literate (Gorski, 2015) person of color would be better suited to set the parameters and purpose of data collected than a white male who cannot fully understand the needs of students of color.

Emphasis added by Becky.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 3: Don’t denigrate and belittle the person of color who called you a racist.

“Castro-Gill seemingly flails around, ‘Look at me! Why aren’t you looking at me?’ about her work. And that points to a sad, pathetic person.”

My work speaks for itself. I don’t need people to look at me, but if they did, they’d see I’m a successful, professional, grown-ass 44-year-old woman of color with three children, one grandchild, three college degrees under my belt and a fourth on the way. I’ve lived through drug dependency, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, divorce, homelessness, and being widowed. I want people to look at Becky and how she thinks I’m “unsophisticated” and “pathetic.” That tells you more about Becky than me.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 4: Don’t contact the person of color’s employer to try to have them fired.

Yes, Becky really did this; not once, but thrice. Oh, Becky. Becky took a comment from her forum and sent it to my superiors claiming it was from me. The comment clearly did not come from me and was against everything I stand for as an educator. Here’s what Becky had to say about sending the comment to my bosses:

“My spidey sense (and common sense) tells me it was her.  She denies it was her and has threatened to sue me for saying so.  Yes, I should have been more circumspect and said something like, ‘It sounds like her’.”

Emphasis from Becky.

Here, Becky admits to knowing she wasn’t positive it was me, and she admits she reported it as if she was positive. If she wasn’t a racist, she would understand how challenging it is to be a woman of color working inside a racist institution doing racial justice work and not add fuel to the fire. But, I digress.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 5: Don’t engage in respectability politics AND Don’t tone police. defines “respectability politics” as “the set of beliefs holding that conformity to socially acceptable or mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect a member of a marginalized or minority group from prejudices and systemic injustices.” defines “tone policing” as “a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or otherwise emotionally charged manner.”

Becky says:

“She’s so righteous about her positions, she believes she’s entitled to run amok anywhere she pleases.  I’m not sure that’s the mark of someone who listens.”

Run amok? Besides Donald Trump and his crew, I’ve literally only ever called out this woman publicly as a racist.

Oh, then there’s the whole “zealot” thing:

“And please take note; this won’t be just me.  Racial equity is going to be used as a club in this district and the zealots are going to happily wield it.”

“I find it hard to believe this kind of attitude and willingness to go after people viciously and with glee is really going to move the needle on ethnic studies in this district.”

Emphasis by Becky, again.

Here we see Becky dictating how racial justice advocates should properly conduct business. We aren’t supposed to be angry or hold steadfastly to our ideals. We should meet white people where they are. See #1 above.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 6: Don’t use dog whistles.

Becky is a sly one using two examples of what not to do in one statement:

“Racial equity is going to be used as a club in this district and the zealots are going to happily wield it.”

This is both respectability politics and dog whistling. defines “dog whistling” as “a political strategy, statement, slogan, etc., that conveys a controversial, secondary message understood only by those who support the message.” Becky’s warning white folks that Black and Brown folks are gonna be coming for them. Zealots = angry Black and Brown folks!

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 7: Don’t speak for people of color you think would vouch for you AND Don’t tokenize people of color as proof you’re not a racist.

Here we get two in one, again! Becky says:

“I know that [Xxxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx], head of [XXXX], has spoken up for me and even to Ms. Castro-Gill, who seems mightily annoyed that [Xxxxx Xxxxxx] just doesn’t seem to get it.

I know [Xxxxx Xxxxx], who is the head of [XXX], and is a colleague friend would not agree that I’m a racist.  (And boy, would I love to see Castro-Gill take her on; [Xxxxx] does not suffer fools gladly.)”

Even if these people agree that Becky isn’t a racist, speaking for them is racist, not to mention the fact that many people of color have internalized oppression and engage in whiteness themselves. I’m not saying these particular people do either, but using people who do is tokenizing. Think: Ben Carson.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 8: Don’t use white people’s opinions of you to prove you’re not a racist.

Becky spoke for three people who she thinks would vouch for her not being a racist. Two were in the above example of what not to do. The third is a white person.

“I know Dr. [Xxxxx Xxxxxxx], a lifelong educator and support of lifting up students of color in our district, would not agree.”

White people don’t get to decide what is and who is racist. Hard stop.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 9: Don’t use your volunteer experience in impoverished communities as evidence that you’re not a racist AND Don’t use your volunteer experience in communities of color as evidence that you’re not a racist.

I’m combining these two because they are similar and I am making a distinction between them because here we can see Becky conflating poverty with race:

“This librarian has seen me come into her Title One elementary school, week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out…for three straight years.”

In the above quote Becky is referring to a librarian who agrees with me that Becky is a racist. Becky is dumbfounded the librarian would agree that she’s a racist when the librarian is witness to her volunteer work with Title 1 (low income) kids. Not all Black and Brown people are poor! And using this as evidence you’re not racist IS racist.

Becky goes on to say:

“If I’m a racist, it’s odd how I’m working mighty hard for kids of color.  Putting in time and money and sweat into helping kids of color in public education, that’s how I hide my racism.”

Think: “voluntourism,” the phenomenon in which white people go to far off countries full of Brown and Black people to bring culture and knowledge into spaces otherwise devoid of such. This type of thinking is deficit minded. We’ve already seen how she conflates poverty and race. This is just further evidence she should be nowhere near kids of color.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 10: Don’t use proximity to people of color or where you grew up as evidence you’re not a racist.

“That growing up – right on the border with Mexico – in a small, rural town that was majority Mexican, that means nothing. My Mexican-American friends from high school would laugh right in their faces to learn that anyone would think I’m a racist.”

In this prime specimen, Becky uses where she grew up, proximity to people of color, AND speaking for people of color she thinks would vouch for her. It’s like she was reading DiAngelo’s White Fragility as a guide for how to be a racist!

In another statement about her volunteer work she says:

“I’m in a diverse classroom and my teacher is black.”

Never once in her defense does Becky talk about what she learns from the people of color she’s in proximity to. She only uses them as props and shields. This is a form of tokenizing and, guess what Becky? It’s racist.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 11: Don’t use blood quantum to prove you can’t be a racist.

It’s important to know that Becky identifies as a white woman. She has never claimed to be a woman of color, but whenever Becky is called a racist, she resurrects her abuela as a shield:

“I’m a quarter but apparently, my quarter doesn’t count.  My abuela would be spinning in her grave if she heard that one.”

Ok, but then Becky admits that she doesn’t identify as a woman of color:

“That I don’t identify as Mexican-American does NOT mean that it is not part of who I am and that I am not proud of it.”

What’s most racist about this is the racist history of blood quantum ideology and, again, she’s not telling us what she learned from her abuela or how that impacted her identity development, just that she has one and that makes her ¼ Mexican – oh, and she’s proud of it while she doesn’t claim it.

Also, you don’t get to identify as, live as, and benefit from being white and then call up your abuela when you do racist shit.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 12: Don’t be a “non-racist.”

Becky frequently allows comments on her forum that are blatantly racist. One commenter blamed an educator of color for white students engaging in racist vandalism, including writing the words “KKK” and “white power” outside their classrom, because the educator of color was teaching ethnic studies and the white kids were just “sophomorically rebelling” (Becky agreed with the commenter, btw).

Becky claims she leaves these racist comments up for reasons:

“And when I read a comment that is racist or completely bizarre, I do sometimes let it stand. You know why? Because sometimes it’s better to say nothing and let that person’s shameful words speak for themselves. Because sometimes my readers are much better at letting someone know how very wrong they are than I am.”

Ok, Becky… Here, it’s important to note she frequently deletes comments she doesn’t like. Often in the comments section you’ll find the notice, “Comment removed by moderator,” but the racist ones? Naw.. those can fly. Becky, you’re either anti-racist, non-racist, or racist, and many people believe if you’re not the first, you’re the last. An anti-racist person would call that shit out. There’s no such thing as neutrality when systems of oppression exist.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Number 13: Don’t be a self-proclaimed ally.

“I’m a natural ally and yet because I don’t pass their litmus test, then I’m out.”

That’s right, Becky! You don’t get to decide. We do.

What Becky should have done when a person of color called her racist: Listen and reflect.

Listen and reflect. You were probably thinking, “I get it… ‘listen and reflect’,” but it’s been my experience that white people don’t like to hear that’s the answer to how to respond to the anger and pain of people of color. Notice I’m not saying, “Take Tracy’s word as gospel.” If I were the only person calling Becky a racist, Becky may not be a racist, but a lot of people of color – and white people – call Becky a racist. Instead of listening and reflecting, Becky deletes their comments when they call her out and she deflects, using racist tactics to “prove” she’s not a racist.

I hope Becky’s racist Beckfoolery can be used for good and this piece will help people identify how they are being racist when responding to being called a racist. Don’t be like Becky; instead, listen and reflect.

Positive Social Change Special PhD Edition: Philosophy of Leadership

A new quarter brings a new PhD special series (or two). One of the courses I’m currently enrolled in is called “Evaluating Curriculum to Promote Positive Social Change.” Like last time, the instructor has us breaking down a rather lengthy paper into chunks. I present to you here one of the chunks!

I was asked to write about my philosophy of leadership. I know I’ve done this before on the blog, but it’s good to document how my thinking has evolved – if at all – thanks to new learning and insights. (spoiler: I don’t think it has, much. Maybe it’s more polished…)


In an education setting, there are many layers of leadership. Students, family members, community members, support staff, teachers, and administrators all play leadership roles in some form. Over the decades, the definition of leadership has shifted from one of authoritarianism to one of coach or “influencer” (Northouse, 2016). In systems with changing demographics, in which students, teachers, and communities of color come from more collectivist cultures, leadership needs to take a more collectivist approach to meet the needs of everyone in the system (Yi, 2018).

In Seattle Public Schools there is a movement to shift pedagogies from what Paolo Friere (1968) called “banking” education to culturally responsive teaching. In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain; Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, Zaretta Hammond outlines how shifting from the “sage on the stage” to a facilitator of learning centers the skills, learning and cultural wealth of students, making learning more student centered and encouraging learner leadership, or what Hammond calls “independent learners” (2016). To achieve this goal, adult learners need to practice and model the same leadership style of collectivism and collaboration.

Types of Leadership in Seattle Public Schools

The leadership in Seattle Public Schools is hierarchical. Staff in different levels of the organization chart are actively discouraged, and sometimes forbidden, from interacting or collaborating with people higher than their position in the chart. Most of the leaders in Seattle Public Schools fall under the label “assigned leadership” because they have been promoted through the ranks instead of being identified and named as effective, inspirational leaders (Northouse, 2016). This is the systemic climate, but there are some leaders who buck the system.

Seattle Public Schools uses a “site-based” model of leadership. This creates different sets of hierarchies. There is a hierarchy among the central office staff and hierarchies in each school site. The central office consists of various departments, including teaching and learning, human resources, students support services, communications, etc. Each of these departments have chiefs who lead them, and these chiefs are part of the “small cabinet” that reports to the superintendent and the superintendent reports to the board of directors. Below the chiefs are executive directors, directors, and managers in that hierarchical order.

The author of this paper serves in a manager role and has been told they are not allowed to contact the superintendent or the board of directors. There is a chain of command one must go through to resolve issues and make decisions. Professional development is given to people lower on the organization chart by those higher on the organization chart or sometimes laterally. Those with more power in the hierarchy rarely collaborate with their subordinates, but instead instruct them on what to do.

At the school site, principals are seen as the leaders, and despite efforts by the education association to foster educator leadership, principals frequently interfere with these efforts. This is evidenced by the need for, and current implementation of, each building leadership team attending trainings on how these teams should be collaborative and not led by principals.

There are a few leaders at both the district and school sites who have chosen to be more transformational and collaborative in their practice. These leaders are the exception, however. They tend to be people of color or white leaders who have chosen to be anti-racist or social justice leaders. These are the leaders who collaborate with the educators and students in their building, provide leadership opportunities for both, and remove as many barriers as possible for their subordinates, often by managing up.

Opportunities and Challenges

There are many emergent educator leaders in Seattle Public Schools. There are many examples of educators taking the lead on racial justice, specifically. For example, when a family support worker planned to host an event in which Black leaders in the community lined the walkway to school to give students hi-fives, conservative media stoked fear and hate to the point the school received bomb threats. This family support worker, DeShawn Jackson, refused to back down and held the event anyway. After he went to other educator leaders for support, including Jesse Hagopian and an educator activist group, Social Equity Educators, thousands of educators in Seattle organized in support of the event and wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school and taught lessons about systemic racism. That was in 2016 and since then, educators across the country have joined in and established a national network of educator leaders. The day of action has become the “National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.”

Within the education association in Seattle is a program called the Center for Racial Equity. This program was founded the same year as the first Black Lives Matter day of action. This program fosters educator leadership specific to racial justice in Seattle Public Schools. The program has been instrumental in supporting the work of the national network, in the district’s racial equity team program, and in the emerging ethnic studies program. The district is beginning to partner with the Center on critical racial equity work, which is strengthening both organizations’ efforts and improving outcomes for all students.

With the site-based model of leadership, one challenge is the barrier principals frequently create to leadership opportunities for educators. If educators do not take the traditional path of teacher, building administrator, district administrator, they have little chance of obtaining a leadership role within the district. Most leadership roles are through union work. The fact educators are discouraged or prevented from collaborating with their supervisors or their supervisors’ supervisors also limits opportunities.

Proposed Changes

The first step to create greater opportunities for transformational and shared leadership is to dismantle the site-based decision-making model. This model galvanizes the hierarchy that prevents authentic collaboration and stifles emergent leaders. If there is a more fluid exchange between educators, building leaders, and district leaders, collaborative and shared leadership could be engaged in. This model would create space for leaders to learn from each other and from their subordinates. Additionally, removing barriers to collective leadership can lead to transformational leadership which inspires subordinates to have increased motivation and job satisfaction (Northouse, 2019).

Another change would be to give more weight in decision making to emergent leaders who have demonstrated successful transformational leadership. These emergent leaders should be recruited into district leadership positions instead of pulling from the principal pool for the sake of maintaining hierarchies. Emergent educator leaders should also be supported in moving into principalships if that is their goal. The district should work with the education association, especially the Center for Racial Equity to identify these leaders and offer scholarships, training, and coaching to move into building leadership roles.


Transformational, collaborative, and collectivist leadership is instrumental to creating a learner leadership style. Strict hierarchies in a system inhibit this style of leadership and should be dismantled as much as possible. Fostering emergent leaders is key to creating systemic change and creating pathways for emergent leaders will encourage more to step forward. This leadership style will improve the outcomes for all students and model the type of leadership educators want students to engage in.


Friere, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Hammond, Z. (2016). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain; Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Yi, J. (2018). Revisiting individualism-collectivism: A cross-cultural comparison among college students in four countries. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 47. Retrieved from

PRIDE in My Child

I am the mother of three, and it just so happens that my youngest child, Elysia, is queer. For the month of Pride, I would like to tell you a little bit about them; how wonderful, kind, funny, and smart they are. I learn so much from them and have fun watching them become the person they are.

My Only Daughter

I have a strained relationship with my mother. That may be an understatement. I’m a fairly radical atheist and consider myself a far left anarchist who fights for racial justice. My parents are both Trump supporting Republicans. I don’t think I have to explain why our relationship is strained, but it’s more so with my mom for some reason. I never felt like I’ve been good enough for her. She’s white and my dad is Xicano, and my mom has had this “inside joke” she shares often with others and with me. It goes like this: “I always wanted a blond-haired, blue-eyed child. I guess I married the wrong man,” followed by laughter.


To make matters worse, my cousins – her sister’s daughters – are both fair skinned, one with blond hair and green eyes, the other with gorgeous red hair. My mom has always been very public about how beautiful she thinks they are. I honestly can’t remember my mom ever telling me I was beautiful, or even pretty. She used to always remark about the bags under my eyes that reminded her of my Grandma Chavez, or chastise me for wearing tight fitting clothes because my hips, butt, or thighs were too big.

My two oldest children, both male, were born while I was a teenager, and the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to conceive after my second son because of serious hormone imbalances. I became pregnant with Elysia, or “E” as I call them, when my youngest son was 10. I was so ecstatic when I found out I’d be having a girl. I went out and bought fairies and frilly purple things for her room. It was more than just having a girl to complete our family; I wanted so badly to have a fulfilling mother-daughter relationship. I saw this as my chance.

People Change

From birth to around the time of the 4th grade, E was as girly as a person could be. Over time, though, things started to change. They started to hate wearing dresses. They wanted to cut their hair short. One day, while riding in the car, E said, “Mom, I think I’m transgender.”

short hair

“Oh?” I replied. “Why do you think that?”

We had a long conversation about a book they were reading about a transgender child and how they didn’t feel like they were really a girl. We talked about body dysmorphia, and E decided they were ok with their body, but not ok with gender stereotypes as they felt they didn’t fit into any of the assigned female roles. Luckily, my teaching partner also facilitated the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and had some reading materials for me to share with E. After learning together, E has settled on a non-binary, or gender fluid identity.

In the 5th grade, E had a really cute “relationship” with a boy at their school. They were boyfriend/girlfriend until E moved schools in the 7th grade. Around this time, E started saying they were bisexual. We talked about what that meant, too, and E started dating girls at their school. They went from bisexual to gay, and when their girlfriend came out as trans, E discovered they are pansexual, and now they just refer to themself as queer, which is all encompassing of their gender expression and sexuality.

My Child Is My Teacher

I would like to say this has been super easy for me and all of these discoveries E’s experienced have had no impact on me, but that’s not true. Of course I’ve been supportive and love my child as they are, but it has stretched my understanding of gender and sexuality and encouraged me to educate myself on each. I still suck at getting the pronouns correct. It’s not easy when you’ve gone 40 years in a binary world, but I try my hardest and apologize when I mess up.

I’ve also had to defend E from attacks from their father and brother and my side of the family. While on vacation in Europe, I sent E’s father a picture thinking he would like to see E enjoying our trip. He went on a tirade about how I let his daughter look like a “dike.” So, not only do I have to defend E, I have to build them up to prevent these attacks from tearing them down. It hurts to see their tears caused by a person who is supposed to love them unconditionally.


Watching E’s resilience and openness gives me so much pride in and respect for them. They are unapologetically who they are and they love everyone with their whole heart. I haven’t lost a daughter. I’ve gained a happy and fulfilled child who fearlessly expresses their authentic self. That’s better than what I expected from the mother/daughter relationship I craved. Their unconditional love makes me want to be a better person. I wish I could have grown up in a household where love was at the center of all decisions made; truly at the center in practice, and not just words. I want all children to be able to explore and discover who they are without judgment. I see in E what is possible when that exists – Love and Joy.

Happy Pride Month!


Action Plan

This is the final post in my special series, “Special Edition PhD Series: The Devil in Seattle Public Schools’ racial equity data.” This paper was written in response to the data analysis papers I’ve shared previously in this series. All of the papers are supposed to be read together as one, giant analysis and action plan.

I got some ideas on how we can align data, leadership, and implementation to prioritize critical pedagogy and ethnic studies, at least in the Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction department. There are some fairly big changes coming to leadership, so now would be the best time to do this alignment! Just remember, you read it here, first!

District-Wide Instructional Goal

As a result of Seattle Public Schools’ new Strategic Plan that calls for “…[eliminating] opportunity and achievement gaps…,” “… high-quality, world-class education,” for all students, and “educational justice” (Seattle Public Schools, 2019), it is the goal of the Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction Department to move beyond culturally responsive teaching practices and into critical pedagogy in the service of delivering ethnic studies content. Culturally responsive teaching strategies are integral to the end goal of critical pedagogy and ethnic studies, but culturally responsive teaching is not an end goal because it, alone, is not anti-racist (Castro-Gill, VanDerPloeg, Alonzo, Charlton, Au, Guzmán, 2018).

Ethnic studies and critical pedagogy have been proven to increase results in all the data measures the district has set forth as indicators of successful implementation of the Strategic Plan. Increases in engagement, literacy skills, higher-order thinking skills (critical thinking), multi-lingual and multi-cultural literacy, math skills, science literacy, identity affirmation and safety, leadership and civic engagement, graduation rates, college attendance, and standardized test scores have all been linked to ethnic studies programs (Sleeter, 2011).

Critical pedagogy is a necessary practice in the successful implementation of ethnic studies content (Sleeter, 2011). Critical pedagogy was championed by Brazilian educator and activist Paolo Freire. In teaching literacy to mostly illiterate, poor, laborers in Brazil, he combined the practice of andragogy with the concept he called critical pedagogy. He argues oppression is, in part, the result of “banking education,” in which students are objects, or passive learners, in whose brains knowledge is deposited by oppressors. His answer to this is inquiry-based education in which students learn skills through solving problems they relate to in their own communities, thus transforming them from passive objects to active subjects of their learning and lives (Freire, 1968).

Ethnic studies is the critical study of the histories of various groups of color. It centers the history of power, oppression, resistance, and liberation. Ethnic studies challenges students to explore their racial and ethnic identities and how those things position themselves in history and the present. Ethnic studies expects students to act on their world, much like Freire’s vision of critical pedagogy (Castro-Gill, et al, 2018).

In addition to the goals of the Strategic Plan, the district’s stated vision is, “Every Seattle Public Schools’ student receives a high-quality, world-class education and graduates prepared for college, career, and community” (Seattle Public Schools, 2019b). Critical pedagogy and ethnic studies are proven effective strategies to meet these goals (Sleeter, 2011). As the core of teaching and learning in the district, the Department of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction cannot delay on implementing an action plan to achieve these goals.

Benchmarks and Timeline

Several deficits in the current system have been identified that need to be categorized and prioritized to reach the goal of critical pedagogy and ethnic studies. These are outlined below along with acceptable timeframes for implementation.

Leadership changes.

In the current structure of Seattle Public Schools, the human resources department is leading goal setting and professional development on instructional practices. There is no shared understanding about why this task has been assigned to human resources when the district has a large curriculum, assessment, and instruction department. The ethnic studies program is housed in the CAI department, so in terms of alignment to meet the goal of critical pedagogy and ethnic studies, instructional goals and professional development should be housed together with ethnic studies.

Michael Fullan identifies what he calls, “Big Ideas for Whole System Reform.” Two of these ideas support the need for this shift in leadership on instruction: resolute leaders that stay on message, and strategies with precision (2010, p4). The ethnic studies program manager in CAI was selected to lead the work of creating a new, ethnic studies program because she is an activist that worked with the NAACP to push the Seattle School Board to adopt a resolution in support of ethnic studies in the district. She has been recognized for her work in the region on racial justice in education (Castro-Gill, n.d.). The executive director of CAI has an undergraduate degree in ethnic studies. Both leaders are educators of color committed to racial justice. The resolute leaders who have consistently stayed on message for critical pedagogy and ethnic studies exist in CAI, not in human resources. The alignment between the executive director and program manager will facilitate the development and implementation of precise strategies. This shift in leadership in instruction can and should happen immediately.

The next step in leadership change is to align the leadership within CAI so that critical pedagogy and ethnic studies are the focal point of all curriculum, assessment, and instruction. The department of curriculum, assessment, and instruction consists of the various core content programs and specialty programs like the arts and library services. If critical pedagogy and ethnic studies are to be universal, all decisions made about adoption of curricula, resources, instruction, and assessments needs to be filtered through an ethnic studies lens. Therefore, the ethnic studies program manager should be elevated to director status, just under the executive director in the organization chart.

Currently, the model is that the ethnic studies program manager is at the same level, institutionally, as the program managers of all other content areas. Other content area managers are under no obligation to follow the lead of the ethnic studies program manager. This does not facilitate the development and implementation of precise systemic strategies as outlined by Michael Fullan (2010). This shift in leadership also can and should happen immediately.

Lastly, to be sure alignment of goals, values, critical pedagogy, and ethnic studies reaches school buildings, and therefore, students, the practice of site-based decision making needs to be dismantled and replaced with a tighter version. Effective systems find the right balance between too tight of control and too loose of control (Fullan, 2010).

The current, site-based model is too loose because building administrations frequently choose to opt out of district adopted goals and curricula, or they implement goals and curricula in ways they were not intended. For example, the district recently adopted a new, K-5 literacy curriculum and even though the collective bargaining agreement between the district and educators’ union has an academic freedom clause that gives educators the right to use professional judgment in instruction (Seattle Education Association, 2015), principals have been reported to sit in on classrooms with a script from the curriculum to be sure teachers are teaching it with fidelity. Dr. Kinoshita, the Executive Director of CAI, has explicitly stated on several occasions that he is opposed to “fidelity” in implementation of curricula, and culturally responsive and differentiated instruction should be employed. Conversely, principals have refused to implement ethnic studies (Castro-Gill, 2019) even though it is a board goal (Seattle Public Schools, 2019a).

This inconsistency is a result of the too lose status of alignment between district goals and vision and site-based decision making. Fullan suggests a remedy to this is to have clear non-negotiable goals that must be met by each site while allowing freedom for each site to determine the best way to achieve the goal (2010). The fact that so many principals are opting out of doing any work on critical pedagogy and ethnic studies is dismissive of the fact that this is a prominent goal of the district that the community has repeatedly demanded (Dornfeld, 2019).

Data changes.

In response to the overwhelming evidence of the inherent racism in standardized testing (Au, 2008; Kendi, 2016), the first change to how data is collected and used to drive decision-making in Seattle Public Schools is to not use standardized test data in any decision-making. This change must happen right away. Outlined below is the process of eliminating and replacing standardized test outcomes in data-driven decision-making.

Begin with historical data and missing data.

To align with best practices in data analysis outlined by Dr. Bernhardt, a longitudinal analysis of data needs to be initiated as soon as possible (2016). Unfortunately, some historical data is missing or incomplete, particularly disaggregated student and family perceptions data, data on achievement for all subject areas, needs data from families and students, and racial equity literacy levels of educators. A gaps analysis needs to be conducted for the types of data that are missing that have not already been identified. To build collective capacity and intelligent accountability, this should be performed with various stakeholders, including, but not limited to, students, families, and educators (Bernhardt, 2016; Fullan, 2011).

Disaggregated student and family perceptions data will replace standardized test score data as the central focus of measuring success in data-driven decision-making. While testing mandates are beyond the control of district leadership, how the district operationalizes racial justice and equity is not. Research has concluded that focusing on racial justice initiatives like critical pedagogy and ethnic studies increases all measures of success, including standardized test achievement (Colgren & Sappington, 2015; Sleeter, 2011). The focus of the district moving forward will be on creating safe and just learning environments in which students and families measure how successful the district is at accomplishing its goals, instead of test scores, via disaggregated student and family perceptions data. The district has the capacity to begin this strategy immediately.

Align goals, data, practice, and accountability.

To create an alignment between the goal of achieving racial justice via critical pedagogy and ethnic studies, data needs to begin to be collected on the levels of racial equity literacy among educators. The measurement tools needed to collect this type of data will be created, again, with all stakeholders. The data will be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender of educators. The development of measurements can begin immediately and be concluded within the next 12 calendar months.

Professional development has already been developed by SEA’s Center for Racial Equity. The district will partner with and learn from CRE to build capacity for all educators in the district (Seattle Education Association, 2019). This can happen concurrently with the development of measurements. At the end of the 12-month period, a process will be created to add racial equity literacy as a component of evaluations for all educators, including administrators, teachers, and instructional assistants.

Systematize and sustain goals and data.

Currently, the district lacks a consistent and reliable data feedback loop. Protocols that require regular reflection on data and action based on reflection do not exist. Frequently, professional development and PLC work consists of “analyzing” data, but, because of the site-based decision-making model, there is no way to determine if action is taken and on what level or with what degree of fidelity. Part of the work of aligning goals, data, and implementation is to create a data feedback loop that includes district and building implementation of practices (Mandinach & Jackson, 2012).

A strategy to systematize the alignment of goals, data, and implementation at the building level is to require that schools remove testing data as a measure from success in their continuous improvement plan and replace it with student and family perceptions data and other measurements previously indicated. Currently, most school CSIPS do not include any perceptions data, which is in direct conflict of best practice (Bernhardt, 2016). This change in the systemic use of data can happen immediately.

Systemic changes.

The goal of the district is to achieve educational justice for students of color. It is counter-intuitive to start with data to achieve that goal when data did not create the injustice. Systems of power and oppression laden with racial bias created the disparate outcomes between white students and students of color. In order to correct the disparities, the focus should be on racial equity, not data or the measurement of data. Currently, professional development on “closing gaps” is heavily focused on analyzing data. This needs to immediately change to focus on racial equity literacy. Equity literacy is defined as putting equity at the center of all decision-making and systems (Gorski & Swalwell, 2015). It challenges the deficit model of starting with gaps (Bernhardt, 2016).

All professional development will start with racial equity literacy before educators are tasked with analyzing data and finding gaps in the types of data that are available. This will give educators a more critical lens to evaluate data for racial equity. This work needs to be on all levels of the system using systemic PLC models. A feasible goal to align racial equity PLC work between district, building, and educator level is no more than 12 calendar months. The work needs to start at the top, so leaders have a deep understanding of racial equity literacy before they create and facilitate racial equity professional development. Racial equity literacy frameworks need to be employed at each PLC level to ensure educators are recognizing bias and inequities, responding to immediate needs to correct them, redressing long term bias and inequities, and creating and sustaining policies and protocols that systematize racial equity in every aspect of their work, including data analysis (Gorski, 2017).

When racial equity literacy is embedded in every level of PLC work in the district, collaboration and collective capacity for racial justice will be effectively facilitated between district, buildings, and educators (DuFour & Reeves, 2013). The changes in district organization and leadership will streamline this collaboration. A focus on racial equity literacy instead of data and standardized testing outcomes will make the work of meeting the goals to implement critical pedagogy and ethnic studies a reality.

One immediate way to get closer to racial equity is to center the wisdom and leadership of educators and administrators of color who have high levels of racial equity literacy. There has been a recent shift in leadership in the district that included demoting leaders of color, particularly Black men. This trend needs to be reversed immediately. Those leaders of color who are still in the district need to be immediately restored to their previous positions. This includes the executive director of CAI, who previously held the title of Chief of CAI.

Leaders of color tend to be inherently more versed in racial equity literacy, since they personally understand the impacts of racial bias and discrimination. Educators of color tend to be inherently better equipped to lead on the creation and implementation of critical pedagogy and ethnic studies because they are the subjects of their own histories and experiences. This is not to say any educator or leader of color is preferred. Racial equity literacy is still a prerequisite, but people of color should be at the core of this work and decision-making.


While the goal of this plan is to implement critical pedagogy and ethnic studies, the result of working toward that goal will be a shift in the system that creates a space made with and for students and families of color with leaders and educators driving the work. The current structure of the district, its initiatives and structure are for white leaders, students, and families who are trying to save students of color. This is the essence of white paternalism and saviorhood. One of the themes of ethnic studies as defined by Seattle Public Schools is “history of resistance and liberation,” which highlights the work of people and communities of color fighting against oppressive systems (Castro-Gill, et. al, 2018). This is the route Seattle Public Schools needs to take. This is what critical pedagogy and ethnic studies can and should create in the goal to achieve educational justice for students of color.


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