by Kelsey Hamlin
Next Wednesday, Oct. 19, teachers, counselors, and other Seattle Public School District staff across the city plan on simultaneously wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to work, centering the day’s curriculum around race, civil rights history, and contextualizing current events. They will also hold a rally later that day.
The act of solidarity was conceptualized by Sarah Arvey of Hamilton International Middle School, and unanimously agreed upon and endorsed by the Seattle Education Association (SEA) Representative Assembly.
Next Wednesday’s action is partially a response to events that transpired at John Muir Elementary in September, when the school canceled an event put on by Black Men Uniting To Change The Narrative who wanted to greet students as they entered school and encourage academic drive. Threats were made, and so John Muir in conversation with the Seattle Police Department decided to officially disband the event, though some parents carried through with it.
“You can’t intimidate us like that,” said Jesse Hagopian at a press conference held on Wednesday to announce next week’s action. “Educators know the school to prison pipeline is real.”
Hagopian and other lead organizers have provided teachers with online links (like a BLM syllabus, ways to discuss tolerance, and a list of relevant articles) to reference next Wednesday, as well as recommended books for classroom usage.
Some of the BLM shirts will have #SayHerName on them, to acknowledge how Black women are also disproportionately impacted by police brutality but are not highlighted in the media. Hagopian also noted during the press conference that trans-people have this same issue, experiencing hate crimes in great numbers, and should also be better recognized.
Sebrena Burr wanted to point out that the Black Lives Matter movement and this display of solidarity isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s pretty consistent throughout American history, just with different names.
“We need to get that clear: that’s how our country started, and people of color were never meant to have full rights,” Burr said. “And until we get to the truth of what it is, then we will never get to racial healing. And that’s what we need for our youth. Because our youth do not see race in one color, nor do they see gender in two boxes. We are building this for our youth, for tomorrow, for the leaders of our children.”
Jon Greenberg stated that the Civil Rights movement isn’t viewed as controversial. In fact, it’s a very prominent and often-discussed part of high school History classes — though the depth of it might be a different matter. But what Greenberg contended was this: During any current moment of change, backlash will always be present.
“There will be backlash…simply because educators want to support their Black students,” he said. “Consider that. The district will face pushback — often violent-filled backlash — because educators openly care about Black students. What does that say about us as a country?”
Greenberg said he’s fearful of how Seattle Public Schools will respond to the backlash once it starts rolling in. And he has reason to worry.
Back in 2012, Greenberg was teaching a Citizenship and Social Justice class at The Center School when a White family complained that he was allowing “racial prejudice” and “racial hatred” in the classroom. He has since left but underwent an arbitration process with the school.
Whether highlighted or not, disparities in the city’s school system continue to persist. White students in the Seattle School District perform above the national average on standardized tests, while Black students are behind their peers by three and half grade levels. That’s the highest gap in Washington for schools of its size. Plus, Seattle ranks number five in the entire U.S. for its disparity gap between White students and students of color.
“I take a lot of AP and honors classes,” 17-year-old Bailey Adams of Garfield High said. “It’s just a lot of White students. I don’t know if my teachers are always behind me and my education — you know, since, like, elementary school.”
Not only are students of color falling behind because they’re not getting the same treatment, attention, or value by teachers, but those same groups of kids are also punished harsher for the same behavior as their White peers.
And when it comes to students, the district-wide solidarity event for BLM remains under the radar, according to Adams, who says she only knew about it because she’s part of Garfield’s Black Student Union.
“This is about my people,” said 16-year-old Aman Weldertiel, also of Garfield High School.
“These are small steps to making a change. I thought it was just Garfield. When I realized it was all the teachers…it’s amazing. This is something big.”
Burr’s 12-year-old daughter, Rena Mateja Walker Burr, who goes to South Shore School and attended the press conference, spoke about the need for adopting an enhanced education around race.
“Sometimes I feel like they basically just teach us ‘there were Black people, Columbus came,’” Rena Mateja said of her history, language, and arts classes. “We were kings and queens, and making empires and palaces, too. They just teach the same thing. We know there’s more.”
She said that a walk-out took place at her school because of a history class that students felt shortchanged the non-European centered parts of human history.
Rena Mateja said she doesn’t currently know of any student organizing happening in conjunction with the educators’ organizing.
“We know from decades of research that effective instruction hinges upon having a curriculum that connects to student’s lives and experiences, that engages their cultures and their histories,” said Wayne Au, a professor at UW Bothell. He also has a first grader at John Muir elementary. “If the district is serious about making Black students’ lives matter in classrooms, then they have to be serious about making sure that Black students’ lives are present in the curriculum.”
Burr mentioned that she has elementary school teachers talking with her about students — as early as kindergarten — who have started calling others the N-word. These teachers, she said, are often White women who can’t fully grasp the situation.
It’s not that they don’t know how, but, rather, they were never given the tools or background by their school or their degree on race and equity.
“We have these situations that go in classrooms every day,” Burr said. “That is repeated in classrooms throughout Seattle public schools and our teachers don’t have the tools for the situations that are coming into the classroom on a daily basis. And these are our children. They should not be confused. They should be embraced for the goodness that’s in each and every one of them, regardless to how they learn, regardless to how they look, and regardless to what family or zip code they come from.”
Greenberg asked for Seattle, and White Seattleites especially, to let district leadership know that Black Lives Matter. He felt that hate is often so much louder than love, and in times like this, communities need to come together and “overwhelm the hate mail with love mail.”
“We cannot be disengaged,” Greenberg said. “We cannot be satisfied with the status quo.”
Kelsey Hamlin is a reporter with South Seattle Emerald, and interned with the publication this summer. She has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is a University of Washington student, and the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists. She had a second internship with KCTS 9 this summer, and finished an internship with The Seattle Times in March as an Olympia legislative reporter. Hamlin is a journalism major at the University of Washington with interdisciplinary Honors, and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice. See her other work on her website, or find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.