One of the first steps in addressing institutional racism is to acknowledge that it exists, according to a panel of five youth activists who appeared before 1,000-plus educators on Friday at the National Education Association’s Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women.
“You can’t fix a problem by pretending it’s not there,” said Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, 17, an American Indian who describes himself as a “proud Miwok.”
When fellow-panelist Alfred Dudley of Prince George’s County, Md., moved to New York City to attend art school, he says he left an area where supportive teachers and police officers lived in the neighborhood and knew residents by name, to one that operates based on racist stereotypes.
“In New York, I was a suspect in the streets and the classroom,” said Dudley, who is Black. “It’s really annoying and exhausting to be viewed as an outsider. You treat me as a “lesser,” and I’m going to be out here in your face (as part of Black Lives Matter events).”
Institutional racism occurs throughout society and our schools, said panel moderator Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano, publisher and executive director of Justice Matters Press. And it can happen at the classroom, administrative and school district levels, he added.
When Esbeydy Villegas was attending a Florida high school, she sought the advice of her guidance counselor on how to apply for admittance to Michigan State University (MSU).
“She laughed in my face,” said Villegas, who, like the counselor, is Hispanic. “I thought to myself, ‘You’re Latina and I’m Latina and we’re suppose to be helping each other.’”
Villegas has worked as a migrant farm worker since age 10 along with her family. After bypassing her school counselor and getting help through a migrant family program, Villegas applied to MSU where she is a current student.
This year’s conference theme is Unite. Inspire. Lead: Harnessing the Power of Our Diversity. Workshops organized by NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department (HCR) addressed attacks on LGBT students, developing a cultural identity, social justice teaching, demographic shifts affecting school and community cultures, and other topics.
Panelists explored the historical and current impact of institutional racism on the education of students, including the rights of transgender students.
Blossom Brown of Jackson, Miss., was forced to live in the male hall of a coed dorm while attending college. Brown was born male but identifies as female.
“It was very traumatizing,” Brown said. “But in that trauma, I have to be grateful to the educators who helped me.”
Brown urged conferees to reach out to transgender and gender non-conforming students “even before they reach out to you.”
Yves Gomes, who is Indian, said when he was an undocumented resident of the U.S., a counselor referred to him as an “illegal.”
“I felt dehumanized,” he said. “I think we should take that term out of our vocabulary.”
Like other panelists, Gomes credits educators with understanding his plight and being non-judgmental.
“I know you are going to be standing out there for my rights as a student,” he told the audience. “As people, we must work together.”
In one of the social areas of the conference, attendees were invited to contribute their drawing and writing skills to a “chalk board art” exhibit which had started Thursday morning on day one of the two-day conference. Attendees used multi-colored chalk markers to write impressions and draw renderings of social justice issues in action.
“It’s a space to be reflective,” says Tamara Wilkerson, who designed the exhibit. “We want educators to think about their work with students and each other in a different way.”
The exhibit is part HCR’s launch of NEA Edjustice.org, which also encourages visitors to share their stories about social justice activism. During his Thursday presentation, NEA Executive Director John Stocks urged attendees to sign up for the site.
“It’s vitally important that you share your stories with us,” Stocks said. “Whether it is a personal story or story advocating for others. Talk to us!”
During his keynote address, Dr. Ivory Toldson surprised audience members with news that he was no longer executive director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“Next week I start as CEO of Quality Education for Minorities Network,” he said. The organization based in Washington, D.C., works to improve the education of Blacks, Alaska Natives, American Indians, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans.
“The biases we have in our schools is deeply troubling,” said Toldson, a widely-published researcher and writer most known for debunking myths about the Black community. “The most important thing a teacher can do for a student is to help him or her discover the things they are good at.”
On Thursday at the conference, the 2016 Social Justice Activist of the Year Award was presented to the California-based Union City Educators, which were represented by Ivan Viray Santos, Joe Ku’e Angeles, and Tina Bobadilla. Inspired by Filipino culture and traditions, the group was acknowledged for their community activism, particularly involving a decade-long struggle to rename a middle school after two Filipino farm labor union leaders, Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the merger of NEA and the American Teacher’s Association (ATA). A Merger Exhibit was on display featuring a 30-minute documentary on the struggle for civil rights, a model of a one-room schoolhouse, and eight photographic exhibit panels.
The exhibit will move to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the 154th Annual Meeting and 95th Representative Assembly taking place through July 7. More than 7,500 educators representing state NEA affiliates (as delegates) will address issues facing schools, students, and the teaching profession. The RA is the top decision-making body for the nearly 3 million NEA members.