If we’ve talked recently, you know that I’ve spent a fair amount of time reaching out to the School District of Waukesha’s Board of Education regarding issues of equity. If we haven’t talked recently, which is much more likely, it’s because I’ve been busy (and overwhelmed) with the start of the school year and reaching out to the School District of Waukesha’s Board of Education regarding issues of equity. To be clear, I don’t know that any of my efforts have made a difference. I heard Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, on an episode of How I Built This with Guy Raz yesterday, and I’m heeding his advice of “not mistaking presence for power.” There is real work to be done. I do think it starts with conversations to create understanding and build empathy, but I’m not sure I’ve been successful in my efforts. I’m trying and I will continue.
At this point, it often feels like I’m yelling into a void. At the risk of continuing to do so, but with the hope that sharing here will encourage some crucial conversations, below are the messages I presented to the SDW Board of Education in the past three months.
Comments to the Board – July 7, 2021
Last fall, a student said, “Honestly, I’ve learned more about Black history from Instagram and Black-ish than I have from school.” Her peers agreed. I immediately grabbed a Post-It note and jotted that down. That note sat on my desk as a reminder of a few things…
One, that we can do better. Of course we can — and we need to. In our equity efforts at Waukesha West, we often remind each other of something Maya Angelou said. She said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” This student feedback puts us in the know. And we need to do better.
It also reminds us that students are learning all the time. (As we all should be!) What’s most disheartening about recent conversations regarding equity is how often and easily students are undermined in these discussions. Do we really think that if we don’t talk about racism or inequality in the classroom that students won’t hear about it or talk about it or experience it? Folks, we have intelligent, inquisitive, thoughtful, and compassionate kids. They are curious about what’s going on in the world and eager to try and understand it. They deserve the opportunity to do so. They have a right to ask questions and to grapple with complexities and they are more than capable of doing so.
This board, this district needs to support all efforts towards building a more equitable society. Failure to do so not only fails our students, but perpetuates the systemic racism that some claim does not even exist.
Comments to the Board – August 11, 2021*
I’m here to address issues of equity again. As a reminder, I’ve provided my contact information with all of you via email. I would love to continue and deepen these conversations with each of you. For now, I’d like to share some insight that may help provide additional context to understand the importance of this work.
I was in a room with 20 or more of our Black students while they talked about their experience at Waukesha West. At one point, they talked about hearing other students use the n-word in school and someone posed the question, “How many have heard the n-word used at West?” Every single student raised their hand.
I was shocked and saddened. I hope you have a similar reaction. I assume we are in agreement that this is a problem.
My question is: How do we address this problem without talking about race?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because we can’t. We can’t best serve our students if we’re not responding to their lived experience. Every student deserves to be seen, heard, and valued.
They deserve to know that equity is something we value in the School District of Waukesha. They deserve to feel the support of equitable policies and practices.
My guess is that many, perhaps most of you had no idea that this was part of the lived experience of many of our students — in our schools, nonetheless. This cannot be an excuse.
We need to consider whose voices are being heard in these discussions and whose are not. We need to ensure that all voices are heard. If folks are not coming to these meetings (and the vast majority of students and families are not attending these meetings), we need to seek them out, because every student deserves to be seen, heard, and valued.
I see those students. Now you’ve heard their experience. Use your power to show that they are valued.
Comments to the Board – September 15, 2021*
Good evening. Once again, I thank you for the time to address you, and remind you that I have emailed each of you previously and am more than happy to continue discussions at your convenience. Please reach out if you would like to discuss further. I hope you do.
Tonight I’d like to share a story with you. It starts as a story about me — 19-year-old me, who was a resident assistant at UW-Whitewater. I welcomed students on move-in day and was their designated go-to person when they locked themselves out, had a question, or just needed someone to talk to. As part of my training, we were provided safe space stickers to place on our dorm room doors, but I didn’t put them up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t a safe space for my residents — I was adamant that I was — but I figured that that was the default, right? We were resident assistants. It was our job to assist. Everyone. I didn’t see a need to display a safe space sticker, so I didn’t.
I’ve since learned that such signage does make a difference to those it’s intended to help. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, safe space stickers and posters help students “identify school staff who [are] supportive.” The research goes on to explain that “students who had supportive staff by their side reported higher perceptions of safety and overall academic performance.”
Nineteen-year-old me didn’t know this. I really did think that the world was a safe and welcoming place for all. And that’s the thing…we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. As a white, ciscender, heterosexual woman, the world is a relatively safe, welcoming place…for me.
I told you that this story starts with me, but it ends with us — all of us. We can learn from my mistake 20+ years ago. We can ensure that policies, procedures, and directives empower educators to support some of our students who need it the most. When you know better, you do better.
We need to do better for our students.
*I remember making a few edits prior to speaking. I think those edits have been reflected here.
A month or so ago, the rationale provided to support what I believe are misguided and inequitable practices and directives was that we, as a district, need to avoid messaging that may be deemed political. The rationale provided more recently is that we need to create neutral spaces for learning. All of this reminds me of the words and wisdom of Romanian-American writer, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I understand that some people are trying to politicize these issues. The reality is that people’s identities are not political. What is political are the policies, practices, and procedures that either support or deny individuals a safe, supportive environment in which to learn and grow.