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The Weaponization of Leaders of Color

image source: https://atlantadailyworld.com/2015/09/29/education-experts-discuss-diversity-leadership-at-clayton-state-university/

District: We are committed to equity! Look! We hired a (fill in a non-white identity here) to be our new Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term! We also created this handy dandy policy that includes “woke” words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “welcoming environments.”

Community members: Great! We want to participate in the national Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action! Our kids need to know we’re supporting and seeing them.

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Um, yeah… about that. We can definitely teach about Black people, but we can’t call it that. We should just focus on closing the achievement gap. If we teach kids skills, they’ll do better!

Community members: Can we call it Ethnic Studies?

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Yes! Great! We can teach about ethnicities! We’re all about diversity, equity, and other colorblind terms! Can we do Ethnic Studies at the next Multicultural Potluck Night?

Educators: No… that’s not what Ethnic Studies is. Ethnic Studies challenges the Master Narrative.

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Yeah, we’re totally doing that in classrooms right now! Look at XYZ Elementary School! They have a ton of teachers that are different ethnicities and they’re all teaching about narratives.

Educators: Yeah.. that’s not how it works, either. Ethnic Studies teaches about systems of power and oppression and encourages civic activism for racial justice.

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Oh, then no. That’s too confrontational. Students aren’t ready to learn about those types of things. Let’s bring police officers into classrooms to show students how nice they are, instead.

 

Sound familiar? The above arguments are all arguments I’ve heard from Black and Brown administrators about doing racial justice work. These arguments come from several districts, not just mine, but many of them are from my urban, “progressive” district. One might expect these kinds of arguments from white administrators, but when they come from POC administrators my blood boils! I feel like I’ve been betrayed, but it’s something more than that. I call it the weaponization of leaders of color.

We know that racism has never gone away. It’s shifted to meet the new culture and paradigms. We are talking more openly about race and challenging old colorblind ideologies, so white supremacy needs to adapt to survive. One way I see it happening is through this weaponization of POC (people of color for those just joining us). Organizations manipulate POC in leadership positions to shield the organization from actual change. There are many ways they do this, let’s examine three and talk about how to respond.

 

THE ILLUSION OF “DIVERSITY”

 

All organizations, but especially school districts who want to appear to be progressive and woke, have learned the art of diversity illusion. In my district, they can go to a school and say, “Look at how diverse our staff here is,” without telling you that most of the POC in the building are janitors, food service workers, clerical staff, and instructional assistants. I am not disparaging any of those positions. As a former classroom teacher, I have a deep understanding of the important role each of them plays in a properly functioning school. When this is used as proof of “diversity,” though, it reinforce stereotypes about the types of jobs POC are valued for. It also ignores all of the data about how important it is to have POC, especially Black, classroom teachers.

The illusion comes in several other forms, but is most harmful when it’s in the form of school and district administrative positions. You know that Black principal that’s put in a white school so everyone can see them? That Black principal is also under so much scrutiny by the white parents they can’t act on any kind of racial justice, or even look like they might.

You know the Latinx administrator who leads a dual language immersion school? They’re the same one that blocks access to Ethnic Studies because they’re afraid it will take time away from the Spanish speaking kids working on literacy skills to pass the standardized test that’s only given in English. This administrator may or may not believe that it’s also in the students’ best interest to assimilate and be as white as possible. They will never share their belief, though, because if they do think that they will get chewed up by the community they serve, and if they don’t, they may face consequences from their supervisor. It’s much easier to go with the colorblind “just teach skills” argument.

 

WE VALUE ALL WHO VALUE WHITE SUPREMACY

 

I get it. Being a POC in a leadership position inside of a racist organization is no cake walk. In fact, it’s not easy regardless of your position, but being in a leadership position pulls you in more directions. You can’t make everyone happy, and you are constantly in fear of losing your job and/or status. Guess why? Because it happens all of the time for POC! It’s a legitimate fear.

I understand that on many levels, maintaining the status quo is a survival technique. One, if you’re a POC you’re already being watched more carefully than others. Two, you have to work twice as hard and keep your nose twice as clean as your white colleagues to survive. And three, you’re probably given a job or problem that nobody else wants to do. Status quo is easy and safe.

But! Even if you want to challenge the status quo there’s another layer. You earn rewards and accolades for maintaining it. Challenging it gets you targeted and isolated. You know that great POC administrator everybody loved because they were actually doing great work, but disappeared one year never to be heard from again? There’s also the POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term who was probably promoted because they demonstrated in a previous role that they’re really good at status quoing and diffusing attempts to create real change. Oh – then there are the awards for administrators who “close gaps,” even though all of the research tells us the tests are racist. See my previous post on how “closing gaps” is code for denying students of color a real education.

They’ve all been weaponized.

 

YOU DON’T GET A PASS

 

I have been in rooms and seen how this issue plays out. There’s a suggestion on how to tackle racism in schools or how to achieve racial justice. Now remember, most educators are white, so there are mostly white people in the room. There’s some debate, but the majority of people agree it’s a good idea. One POC stands up and says they’re against it. They don’t even have to give a reason why. Next thing you know, the debate is shifting. Other POC stand up and say, “No. We still think it’s a good idea.” But the white folx in the room don’t know what to do. They know they’re supposed to listen to POC, but now their brains are on tilt. Who do they listen to?

They listen to the POC whose opinion makes them the most comfortable!! Duh. If you didn’t see that coming, maybe you shouldn’t be reading this post! Now, if there are legitimate reasons for the one person who is opposed, generally, the other POC in the room will back them on it, but all it takes to shift the power dynamics in a room of mostly white people is the opinion of one POC. I see it happen ALL THE DAMN TIME! I can deal with this when white people do it, but when POC do it, it causes twice as much harm because the white people will be harder to convince after hearing the safer option from a POC.

Who knows why they do it? It could be because of all the things mentioned in the sections above: the increased pressure; the intersections of identity, positionality, and personal safety; maybe they’re counter revolutionaries, as Freire calls them – people disillusioned with the fight. I don’t really care why they do it. I’m here to say they don’t get a pass.

“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” Angela Davis

If you are a POC in a leadership position doing this shit YOU DON’T GET A PASS. If you want to maintain the status quo, great. Do it and be quiet about it. Get out of the way for those of us who are willing to take the risks. And to my other POC colleagues who agree what what I just said, you don’t get a pass either. We all need to be calling this shit out. White people aren’t going to do it, and shouldn’t do it. We need to stop supporting POC leaders just because they are POC “leaders.”

Schools of Distinction Awards Ceremony Keynote

That picture tricked you into thinking this was going to be a fun post. Ha!

As Teacher of the Year, I was invited to speak at an awards ceremony called Schools of Distinction for my educational service district. The schools were chosen according to how well they have improved their standardized test scores on the Smarter Balance Test (SBA) over a period of the past five years for math and English language arts (ELA). Before I accepted this opportunity I made sure that I could use my time to speak on any topic.

In case you are just now joining me on this blog, I am wholly opposed to standardized tests in any form.

I started by opening my keynote reading the entire text of Ibram X. Kendi’s article, Why the Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea. You can read it here. Below is the rest of my speech I put together based on data about the schools being honored at the event.


I start with that [article] because I realize that we’re here to honor schools who have improved testing scores, and in my district when I go to professional development about this topic they say, “Where do you find that in the data?” That question is mostly directed toward people who try to challenge standardized testing. So, I’m going to show you where I find [how the achievement gap is a racist idea] in the data.

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The top bar shows the overall racial demographics of students in the State of Washington. If we look at the schools that have been selected, we can see which racial category was the dominant category in schools chosen as Schools of Distinction. We can see that the majority of schools chosen are predominantly white schools. I want to quote Ibram X. Kendi, “Standardized tests have become the most racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.” This is shown in the data. The only place we see that has a predominantly Black population is high schools. No other schools that have predominantly Black populations have been selected, or the percentage was lower than 1% so it doesn’t show up on the graph.

I went through all the schools selected [there were 91 across the State] and I found out which schools have majority student of color populations, because in those schools we should see that those students of color have improved or are doing really great. I’m going to focus on elementary schools because they have the most complete data. In high school lots of kids opt out of testing, thank goodness.

Here are schools that are majority Latinx schools; their ELA and math SBA scores.

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This is the only school being recognized tonight across the state where the students of color are performing at the same level or higher than their white and Asian peers on their SBA test scores. The only one! And that’s for any racial group. That caught my interest of course, so I went on Google and Googled up Chester H. Thompson Elementary. I discovered that they have a dual language immersion program! These kids are learning their culture. Their culture and language are being valued in their school. That’s why they’re doing better!

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Now, remember. These are the schools where the Latinx kids are the majority.

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This one looks promising until you look at the measurement. That top bar is only 50%, so even though at this school the Latinx kids are doing better than the white kids, they’re still underperforming compared to their white and Asian peers across the State.

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Then I went and found the two majority Black elementary schools, both in Seattle Public Schools.

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I focused on Black and Latinx kids because once you start looking at data for individual schools, some schools don’t have students of color and some literally only have 1 or 2. The test results aren’t displayed in those cases for fear of being able to identify those kids. I looked at the State scores. Latinx kids are scoring in the 40% range statewide for math and about 30% for ELA. Black kids score about 30% for math and ELA. Asian Pacific Islander kids – about 30% for math and ELA. Native American kids – about 30% for math and 20% for ELA.

Slide16

These are the demographics for the state for ethnic and racial categories on the left. On the right are the demographics for our region. I wanted to put this up here to show that in our region, we have the most diverse student population in the State. This issue is an imperative in the State, but this data shows it’s even more of an imperative for us in Puget Sound Educational Service District.

I know this is a celebration and I thought long and hard about what I was going to talk about when I came here, but my responsibility is to the babies. When we’re failing them we can’t celebrate.

As a Mexican-American woman, when I hear “standardization,” I hear “assimilation.” Standardized testing upholds Whiteness as the ideal. We are forcing our kids of color into white holes they don’t fit in. They are shoved into these holes kicking and screaming. This is why discipline rates are off the charts for kids of color; because they’re not being valued in the classroom.

“The beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people.” That doesn’t just apply to skin color, or religion, or gender. This applies to ways of knowing, learning, and being in the world. Standardized testing doesn’t allow for that. Until we stop toxic testing, our kids of color will never succeed.

Thank you.

When the Devil IS the Data

Image source: http://www.edtpatips.com/edtpa-analyze-your-students-performance-with-an-item-analysis/ (it will be ironic after reading)

If you’re like me, you hate talking about your kids in terms of data and numbers. There’s something very dehumanizing about it, but other than that, it never quite sat right with me. The more I learn about racial justice in education, and the more I work as an administrator, the more clarity I have about that uneasy feeling that comes with the Data Talk. As a social scientist, I was taught how to have a healthy skepticism of Data. The thing is, while many educators are social scientists in practice, most of us have not been trained to be social scientists or how to critically assess Data. Administrators understand this, and can use Data as a tool of social control in three easy steps!

 

STEP ONE: DETERMINE THE PARAMETERS OF THE DATA

How often do you, as an educator, have the opportunity and ability to determine the Data you are using to guide your practice outside of your classroom? Do you and/or your colleagues determine the Data used to set building-wide or district-wide goals for your students? Or is goal setting driven by Data provided by administrators? Conversely, how often are you provided Data by administrators meant to guide your practice within your classroom walls? If you have more than cursory input to the Data used to guide your practice within or outside of your classroom, you are one of the lucky few.

The criteria, assessments, and surveys used to collect Data are almost always created by administrators or corporate education entities. Generally, the Data these tools were created to measure are Data that will help the creator, not the child. For example, standardized testing data. Test results are generally not available to educators until the following school year after students have left their classrooms, or at the end of the school year, in the case of computerized testing. This makes it easier for corporate education publishers to create materials that are “Common Core Aligned” or “Easy Test Prep” for the next school year. Entire curricula costing thousands of dollars are marketed and sold as a way to increase test scores. They’re bought in the summer and aren’t measured for efficacy until April or May when it’s too late to get a refund…

These same corporations lobby our elected officials who pass laws requiring tests and then pass more laws about how administrators are to be evaluated on their job performance according to test scores. Teaching and Learning are then informed by the Data parameters set by these groups, not by educators or students. And when students fail the tests because they’re experiencing trauma, food insecurity, racism, homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, ineffective teachers, or any other thousands of reasons, we create more Data to further dehumanize children to explain why they aren’t passing the tests. Are they truant and how often? Are they bad kids who get suspended? And when someone says, “Hey, wait. What about the whole child?” questions are added to assess how “safe” kids feel at school. But come on, we know that the only reason we look at “Whole Child Data” is in service of the first set of Data parameters.

 

STEP TWO: DETERMINE THE PURPOSE OF THE DATA

When’s the last time you were asked to analyze Data in order to help a student become a good human being? I would really like to have some Data to help me understand how to actualize critically conscious, self aware human beings. That would be amazeballs. Oooh… I know… why don’t “Failing Schools” look at Data collected about educators, like the racial demographic of educators in the building. I mean, I know that data is collected in most places, but when determining why students aren’t “achieving,” is that ever something anyone looks at? Or how about Data on how well educators are using culturally responsive teaching practices? I think it would be great if we collected and analyzed data on the content used in classrooms and ask, “How well does the content challenge the Master Narrative?”

No, we stick with Data on the child and what they can and can’t do and why they can or can’t do it. We don’t look at Data about the barriers students face at home, in the school, in the classroom, city, district, country, etc. Looking at The Whole Child feels an awful lot like Blaming The Whole Child. Sometimes we do notice when there are high rates of poverty and bring in supports like weekend food programs, more counselors, after school programming, and even free healthcare. That’s awesome, and I’m so happy kids have access to that in some places. Ask yourself, though, “What is the purpose of these services that come from analyzing Data?” The ultimate goal is always to increase test scores. “If kids have food they score better!” administrators say, as if they had just discovered some new chemical element. Rarely do we hear them exclaim, “If we provide food for all of our students, we are a better society!”

If you are a teacher activist who actively challenges this purpose of Data, you have probably heard something like, “We must do what’s in the best interest of the kids,” as if doing things for the purpose of being good and just people striving toward a good and just world is not in the best interest of kids. Administrators will do almost anything to convince educators that high stakes tests are what’s best for kids. “They won’t be successful later in life,” “Knowing how to test well will help them in college,” “We will know how to better educate our students with the Data that is produced by the tests.” All of those claims have been debunked here, here, and here, and that’s just a start.

 

STEP THREE: HIDE BEHIND THE DATA

“Show me where you see that in the Data.” This is how a professional development session began on how to analyze Data through a racial equity lens.

*Insert screeching brakes sound here*

Let me inhale deeply for a moment…

Yes, we were asked to analyze Data whose parameters had been set and purpose determined BEFORE a “racial equity lens” had been applied, and then we were told to use the Data to respond to people who might challenge the Data by telling them, “Show me where you see that in the Data.”

“Ms. Castro-Gill,” a school counselor might say, “this Data is confusing to me, because this student, Amelia, who by all other accounts is an exceptional reader, failed her reading test. Her father passed away over the summer. Maybe that’s her difficulty.”

“Show me where you see that in the Data,” I’m to reply.

“Ms. Castro-Gill,” a concerned paraprofessional might say, “many of the students I work with confide in me their teachers are racist and frequently send them out of the class for being ‘disrespectful.’”

“Concerned paraprofessional whom the students trust and love, please show me where you see that in the Data,” I should respond.

Sit with that for a moment. Sit with it and then take a minute to look at kittens, then come back to the conversation.

cute kitties

There we were looking at predetermined and pre-defined Data trying to figure out how to use it to “close opportunity gaps” that are created by the parameters and purpose of the very same Data. Oh, the circular logic is hurting my brain. Then, if anyone points out this circular logic, we are told if the Data doesn’t support our claim, then our claim is logically false. Now I feel like I’m typing in circles.

Data is not inherently neutral. Data can alert us to trends, but it’s up to us to look past the Data to see what its parameters and purpose are and who set each. If we know our Data comes from biased, and almost always racist, creators, it’s ok for us to look at other Data or create our own Data. Wait, I’m gonna go a step further and say it’s not only ok – it’s our responsibility. When I tell people Data exists that can point us to solutions for biased Data I am sometimes asked where to find it in the school district’s database.

“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” Assata Shakur

The Devil isn’t IN the Data. The Devil IS the Data. Challenge the Data. Push back on it. Ask for better Data. Create your own tools of liberation for you and your students.

Reflections on the Week

WORK IN THE COMMUNITY

This past week has been a roller coaster of emotions, as usual. That’s pretty much expected for anyone involved in racial justice work. Part of my job this year as Ethnic Studies Program Manager is to go out and make connections with school leaders and community groups. My week got off to a good start when I met the leaders of the Densho Project. Densho is an organization dedicated to the oral histories of Japanese Americans. I learned they have free online resources for educators, including a training with clock hours! Why didn’t I know about this before? Because our systems are set up to exclude the work of our community, that’s why.

I also met with leaders from El Centro de la Raza where I got a quick history lesson of the resistance and liberation of Chicanx and Latinx Seattellites. Why don’t our students know the history of the occupation of the abandoned Beacon Hill School that is now El Centro de la Raza? Because our systems are set up to exclude the histories of people of color. I visited with the new executive vice president of Sea Mar, who told me they are so much more than a community health organization. Sea Mar has four low income housing projects across the state, a radio station, day care centers, and assisted living homes, and they serve a majority white, low income population while hiring a majority Latinx/Chicanx staff. Why don’t we know about their good work? Because our systems are set up to exclude the current action and resilience of communities of color.

I love my job because I have the opportunity to get out of my cubicle and meet with these amazing leaders, most of whom are people of color. I get to learn about the good work they are doing in the community, and I am beginning to get a good grasp on how our work can partner to serve our students and families. It’s exhilarating and depressing at the same time. Surely I can’t be the first person from Seattle Public Schools to have this idea, but when I meet with these leaders, most of them are excited to have someone come to them to talk about partnerships instead of the other way around. Some are frustrated their attempts to partner with the district have gone nowhere. This frustration drives me to continue this work. I can’t let our community down.

AM I DOING ENOUGH?

I am always plagued with this question. I was talking with a good friend, Alma Alonzo, about how she pays “Real Rent” to the Duwamish tribe. We talk a lot about “decolonizing” education. That’s a complicated subject with a lot of implications. Some argue that true decolonization requires land repatriation. We agree. I believe the first step in this is to decolonize our minds and the way we are taught. In the meantime, what can we do to right this wrong? Real Rent is one way, and I already financially commit to the ACLU, NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, and I have recently committed to funding a project every month on Donors Choose. Where do I draw a line? On top of my financial contributions, my entire career is dedicated to racial and social justice. BUT! I still feel like I’m not doing enough. I will probably begin paying Real Rent, too.

This is a question I ask myself as I go to visit principals in their buildings to try to convince them to start the work of Ethnic Studies. Most principals say they are very interested. Some have used excuses about why they can’t. Am I doing enough to convince them of the urgency? Am I doing enough to protect the students in their schools? The principals who say they can’t or won’t generally use tests as the reason why they can’t commit to Ethnic Studies. We all know how I feel about that.

Many educators are willing and want to commit to Ethnic Studies, but don’t trust the district to support them. Most educators are familiar with the case of Center School educator, Jon Greenberg, who was put on leave when a single white family complained about his curriculum on race. Many educators also are aware of the closing of a Middle College High School where a predominantly POC staff that was teaching Ethnic Studies was displaced, and in some cases disciplined. And most recently, an Ethnic Studies POC educator at Nova High School was displaced despite outcries from students and communities. Nova is the only high school that has implemented Ethnic Studies in all content areas and made it a graduation requirement. This is significant as it is a majority white student population, and the demand for Ethnic Studies came from their POC students. Am I doing enough to convince district leaders to support schools like Nova and educators like those from Middle College who have rightfully developed a distrust of these leaders?

NWTSJ 2018

Fortunately, I ended my week on a high at the 2018 Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference in Portland, Oregon. Alma Alonzo, Jon Greenberg, Rogelio Rigor, and I facilitated a session on how to create a decolonized curriculum. The photo at the top of this blog post shows that we had standing room only. We had over 50 participants crammed into that room. We ran out of handouts! There were also two other sessions later in the day on Ethnic Studies that were well attended.

I had the opportunity to attend a great session facilitated by Alma and Jennifer Charlton, two friends and colleagues of mine, called “Breaking Bad Allies; allies, gaslighters, and saboteurs.” It was just as awesome as the name and Alma and Jennifer killed it! I’m so privileged to have such dedicated, brilliant, and passionate friends!

alma and jennifer

Another facet of my job is developing, offering, and facilitating professional development for schools and educators interested in Ethnic Studies. Our first professional development, facilitated by Marquita Prinzing, Director of the Center for Race and Equity, was packed with 50+ participants from across the district. Most of the attendees were from K-5 schools and many had a role other than classroom teacher; para-educators, counselors, district technology positions, and more.

racial equity literacy

We have received many requests for this from educators in other districts. These events are evidence that our leaders aren’t doing enough to support the people who are ready and willing to do the work. Am I doing enough to engage those who are so we don’t lose momentum? I want to move from, “Am I doing enough?” to “What is my next move?”

¡La Lucha Continua! ¡No terminara facilmente!

Taking the Spotlight

I am a reluctant Teacher Activist. I’m reluctant because, as you can read on my home page, I have severe anxiety. My anxiety both pushes me to act and recoils from the spotlight. This is a dilemma I’m frequently faced with. I’ve come to learn, however, that systemic change requires leaders to embrace the spotlight. I’ve become more comfortable with it. There’s still a part of me that feels like a braggart, but the more I take leadership positions, and the more people join me in my campaigns, the more I realize my spotlight will be transferred to them. And what is the purpose of leadership if not to lift up the work of others?

To embrace my spotlight, this week I am reblogging from one of my Alma Maters, Western Governors University, who spotlighted me for my Teacher of the Year recognition. It was originally posted here. The full text is below.

WGU Washington Grad Making Big Impact in Seattle Public Schools

Tracy Castro-Gill’s workspace at the headquarters of Seattle Public Schools is decorated exactly as you’d expect. An award-winning educator and champion for racial equity, she’s draped her desk and surrounding walls with imagery symbolic of the values she works so hard to impart to young learners: justice, empowerment, and inclusion. Where she works as the district’s Ethnic Studies Program Manager is a nexus of the rich, wonderful diversity that shapes the city and the region.

Tracy only started working in education less than a decade ago, but – after earning her master’s degree from WGU Washington — she quickly made a name for herself in her field. The state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction recently named her the Puget Sound ESD 121 Regional Teacher of the Year. Tracy was one of nine teachers honored for, among other considerations, strengthening their respective communities and fostering better lives through education. That recognition came less than a year after Tracy received the Golden Apple award from the NAACP.

Among the many factors contributing to her professional success, Tracy acknowledges the value of her experience as a WGU Washington Night Owl.

“WGU provided the freedom for me to learn pedagogy from a racial justice perspective, because there were no professors trying to convince me that I shouldn’t,” said Tracy. “I am grateful WGU uses a model to create a foundation for teaching and learning without an expectation to check your personal experiences at the door.”

Before moving to the district office, Tracy taught social studies at Denny International Middle School in West Seattle — one of the most diverse middle schools in the state. She earned an outstanding reputation teaching an ethnic studies world history course, as well as leading racial equity professional development programs for her colleagues. From there, she says she accepted her new position to have a greater, more lasting impact.

“My goal is to make systemic change and doing that from my classroom proved too challenging.”

Not that Tracy is afraid of a challenge; she just wants to be in the best place to succeed. She says WGU Washington fit that bill, with the flexibility and affordability she needed as a working, adult learner. And the same can be said for her new role in Seattle Public Schools, where the décor surrounding her provides hints of a brighter, more accepting future. And tucked humbly in the corner of her desk: her Teacher of the Year award and Golden Apple, symbols of her hard work and the important difference she’s already making.