by Guy Oron
Azure Savage is an author, activist and senior at Garfield High School. Savage recently published You Failed Us: Students of Color Talk Seattle Schools, a memoir and oral history of his and 40 other students of color’s experiences with racism in the Seattle Public Schools district. The book confronts Seattle’s education system and shows how programs, such as the advanced learning program, harm students of color.
Guy Oron: How did you set about writing You Failed Us? When did the idea to write the book first come to you?
Azure Savage: In the winter of my sophomore year in high school, I was in kind of a dark place and a lot of that was impacting my performance in school. I was really upset about the lack of support I was getting. I had been watching racism at my school for years and years and years, experiencing it myself and also observing it. I guess just kinda hit a breaking point and felt like no one was doing anything about this—like people aren’t being held accountable to make this stop. So I decided to write a book.
Which is a big thing for a sixteen-year old to do, but it was something that I was passionate about. I started by interviewing people—hearing what other people thought and just started compiling it. From there it kinda started, and then over the summer I had an internship where they basically paid me. I had an allotted 20 hours a week at my internship where I would come in and just write. So that really helped me just actually get it done.
GO: In your book, you set about collecting stories of fellow students. What was your intention in doing that? Did anything you learn surprise you?
AS: I have always wanted to make it clear that I don’t know everyone’s experience unless I ask them what it is. I didn’t want to speak for students of color. I wanted to uplift that voice. Rather than make up what I thought it would be, just listened to it and saw what other people besides myself thought about this. I wanted to figure out what are the common experiences, what are the major issues, what are the things that most people in this system are experiencing that needs to be addressed.
It was less surprise and more disappointment with how negative all the interviews were. I tried not to make it a super serious “sit down” interview but we were talking about stuff that had a lot of negativity in it. Even though I wasn’t asking necessarily negative questions, the responses were usually negative. In some ways I kind of expected it, but I was hoping that at least someone would be like “oh, I actually had a good experience,” but there wasn’t one person of color I interviewed who was like “oh yeah, school has been great.” No one. Something is clearly wrong here.
GO: And when you get to see more people’s perspective, you get to see the broader picture?
AS: I have my own identity and I can speak for my experiences, and I can kind of do a little more guessing about people who look more like me and what they would experience. But people, who are also people of color, but have a completely different background than me and a completely different identity than me—I don’t know their experiences at all, unless I ask them.
At first, I wasn’t even gonna include myself in this book, this was not even gonna about me. I was just gonna interview people and showcase them. It really started from a place of it being about everyone but me, until I realized that I needed to include myself, or that I should because it makes it more personal and honestly more impactful, But these students just have been silenced for so long and I wanted them to have a platform to speak on.
GO: In 2019, Seattle public schools are still very racially segregated, with majority white schools receiving far more resources than majority BIPOC schools. How does this affect students? How has this enduring racism shaped your experience at school?
AS: A lot of what I talk about in my book is the racial segregation in the Honors/HCC (Highly Capable Cohort) program versus the general education program. I actually just saw a statistic from the advanced learning board yesterday that 1% of people in that program are Black students. I thought I knew how bad it was but this was like, bad.
White people make up 59% of the highly capable program but only 48% of the district. I think it impacts students of color horribly. I think white students and a lot of Asian students are getting the better end of the deal. They aren’t being necessarily harmed. Being in such a contained environment of only people like yourself, who are constantly being told you are the smartest people, can’t really be good for anyone either.
But again that’s nothing compared to Black and Brown students being told “you are less than” for your whole life. That “you are less intelligent,” “you are less capable,” “you aren’t in honors because you are less.”
That wasn’t my experience because I wasn’t in the general program—I was in honors. But for me being in honors, it was so hard to accept who I was in an all-white environment. Being the only Black person in the room from the age of seven to fourteen really warped my sense of how I needed to present myself, what was important about myself, what I needed to hide. It was really harmful for me to feel like my number one priority had to be being accepted by white people, and if I didn’t get accepted by them, I would be completely isolated from everyone.
That’s one of the issues I have with people who are like “let’s just diversify this program.” First of all, people have tried that, it’s never worked. Second of all, don’t you dare just throw these poor Black kids who, yes deserve opportunity, into a pool of white people who don’t actually care about them, who are going to see them as different and still less than. Throwing them into that environment at a young age is harmful. If you’re not doing anything to make sure it’s an environment where they’re going to feel their best, you are just putting them to show that you are diverse. You are not doing it because you want them to be there, you’re doing it to keep this program moving. The whole program, I think, just needs to go.
GO: It also has this big element of class, right?
AS: At most elementary schools they offer the HCC test. But parents can pay to have their kids privately tested over and over until they get in. That’s such as a clear inequity. People who have money can get tutors for their kids to make sure that they pass this test to be put in this program.
The opportunity you’re gonna get is just so based off your privilege before you enter it. If you come into it privileged, you’re going to get way more opportunities than if you come into it underprivileged. Education is supposed to give people more opportunities, it’s just making it worse.
GO: Currently, students have very little control over how their schools are run. Do you think Seattle Public Schools should give more power to the students?
AS: Hell yeah. When you’re a student, from ages five to eighteen, school is one of the places you’re spending the majority of your time. And if you have no control over the environment you’re in, then there’s no accountability there. If a teacher is treating you terribly, and you can’t do anything about it because they don’t believe you, that’s not fair. You should be able to have the same power as a teacher or the administration in that environment. I feel like people really underestimate the youth.
Am I saying that policy-making should be handed over to elementary students? No, they are in school to learn. But they should be able to speak up when something is going wrong, and should be listened to. Someone with power to implement new changes should make those changes based on student needs. Education is supposed to serve students and if students aren’t listened to, then how do we even know if they’re even being served the right way?
GO: What should the school district do to address its institutional racism and close the school to prison pipeline?
AS: Number one, the Honors/HCC program has got to go. It’s really ridiculous because they call it “tracking,” like you start and go on a certain track. To me that just feels so much like a pipeline. I think people who are put in a general program at a young age are tracked into the school to prison pipeline. You can do little changes in classrooms, such as more racial education, but none of that is really gonna matter as long as the entire structure of the system is catering towards the people with more privilege, mostly white people.
I feel like there’s a lot of problems going on [in the school district], especially in South-end schools. Students are getting fed up with this. People treat students of color like we can’t make a change, and don’t have a voice, but I think right now we’re showing people that we do and that we can. One of the major steps to making any sort of institutional, systematic change is to center the people who are being harmed in that conversation.
Guy Oron is a Seattle-based student, worker, activist, and journalist. Guy specializes in community-based storytelling and investigative reporting. His writing has been featured in the South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.