by Ari Robin McKenna
This is the sixth in a series of seven articles about ethnic studies. Find the first five here.
On January 30, 2020, during the whir of a work day, the Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Program Manager, Tracy Castro-Gill, was placed on paid administrative leave. She was told she needed to be out of the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence (JSCEE) effective immediately. As Castro-Gill was escorted out of the building with all of her belongings, she remembers that time seemed to go in reverse as she passed coworkers she’d called out for their actions or words supporting systemic racism — in a district office that has presided over a school system with decades of appalling racial disparities. The Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG) that Castro-Gill had assembled to develop K–12 ethnic studies content began a boycott of SPS the next day in protest. Mandated by a unanimous 2017 School Board of Directors order, the Advisory Group’s work has remained on a district hard drive somewhere inside the bunker-like JSCEE, despite the winds of change swirling outside. A white man Castro-Gill worked with later mocked her with casual finality: “How’s that call-out culture working out for you, Tracy?”
One thing is certain: during her roughly two years as Ethnic Studies Program Manager, Tracy Castro-Gill kicked up a lot of dust, first among liberals online, then Seattle “neutrals” in the district office, and then among right-leaning Seattle centrists. When ESAG’s Ethnic Studies Math Curriculum was leaked to FOX News, her dust spread farther afield — months of death threats followed.
Some of the publishable insults critics have lobbed at her — regardless of political affiliation — include: “zealot,” “fool,” “trouble maker,” “self-aggrandizing,” “pitbull,” “rude,” “toxic,” “Joseph Goebbels,” “divisive,” “Marxist,” “Jabba the Hutt,” “corporate goon,” “unprofessional,” “unhinged,” “pig,” “problematic,” “oversharer,” “unstable,” and “a flame.”
Yet during the past four months, I have spoken at length with many of the ESAG educators involved in the continuing work of generating an antiracist K–12 curricular framework. This set of Castro-Gill’s colleagues reveres her universally as the leader of their push to mainstream ethnic studies in Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Many of these colleagues also seem to believe that, eventually, others will join in their admiration.
While in some people’s view, Castro-Gill appears a dangerous demagogue, ESAG contends she’s a lightning rod for both parents who don’t believe in systemic racism and district bureaucrats who lack a tenable vision for systemic change in Seattle Public Schools.
The Emerald spoke with Castro-Gill from across a table recently under a covered picnic area at SeaTac Park, her teenager Alex cozied up next to her — Metallica in their earbuds drowning out our conversation. Castro-Gill addressed the varying opinions about her with a startling directness: “The reason why I’m so polarizing is because I’m unapologetic about sloughing off the people that I’m never going to reach. I’m going full steam ahead. If you’re not on board, I’m done with you, and I’ll make fun of you. I’ll ridicule you. I don’t care … I have zero fucks left to give. I’ve tried to be softer. I’ve tried to negotiate. I’ve tried to compromise. At the end of the day I just realized that’s not who I am, and that’s not the role I play. And so I’ve embraced that my role is to break barriers and make space for other people. And to put myself out there.”
Castro-Gill moved more than a dozen times around the Los Angeles area when she was growing up, but perhaps a more disruptive shift in her household came when her father went from owning his own janitorial business to becoming a corrections officer. Young Castro-Gill used to like to tag along while he cleaned restaurants late at night. But she watched her father’s worldview cloud over as he shifted from someone proud of his Mexican heritage and ethnicity to an increasingly angry U.S. nationalist. Her white mom followed along and their home became intolerable. When Castro-Gill reached high school, she began rolling with a group of Mexican American friends who began to gravitate towards what they saw as the only available avenue away from assimilation and towards self respect: gang culture. Castro-Gill became a gang member, a drug user, and twice a teenage mom (to sons Reuben and Lukas). With the threat of becoming a “statistic” looming over her, she somehow got her high school diploma from an alternative program — two months before the rest of her graduating class.
Years later Castro-Gill enrolled in Cal Poly Pomona, in part as an exit strategy from poverty and the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse she was suffering at the hands of Alex’s father. She had spells when she fled him and was unhoused and others where she lived outside her mother’s house in a trailer — yet somehow she kept her GPA hovering not far below 4.0. Though Castro-Gill knew she needed a change of scenery, she began to feel stuck. Then her “resident” in the virtual world Second Life made a connection. Once their avatars were ready, Castro-Gill and Brian began to date in real life. Then, when she was accepted to the University of Washington as a transfer student, Castro-Gill moved in with him here — Alex following her shortly after. Granted a brief period of stability, she finished her undergraduate degree, married Brian in 2012, then got her master’s in teaching from Western Governers University in 2013.
Because her first year of teaching was as a long term sub for someone on maternity leave, Castro-Gill taught toward her passion and was generally left alone by her administrator, Jerry Warren, as she worked antiracism everywhere into her curriculum. The next year, she found a job at Denny International Middle School, a West Seattle school boasting impressive diversity. She effectively co-planned with a colleague, Andrew Chase, an antiracist white male, and they taught the same sixth-grade curriculum and even gave the same assessments to their students. Yet every year, like clockwork, she received angry tirade emails from a few parents threatening her job for teaching about race — whereas her counterpart never heard a peep. Eventually, in spite of this predictable barrage, word of her teaching prowess and the relationships she’d built with her students travelled; she was nominated by about a dozen people for Regional Teacher of the Year, including NAACP’s Education Chair Rita Green and activist educator and editor Jesse Hagopian. Then, within the space of just a few months, her husband Brian had a sudden heart attack at work and died, Castro-Gill was awarded Regional Teacher of the Year, and she took over as the Ethnic Studies program manager.
Having endured what she had, the fact that Castro-Gill still went into SPS and kicked up hella dust speaks to her ceaseless verve. After all, other Women of Color before her have faced stark consequences for doing so. In 2008, Caprice Hollins saw her entire Office of Equity, Race and Learning Support shut down for taking a series of principled stances. Given a task as big as Castro-Gill’s was, within a school system so correct with its verbiage but so backwards with its actions — it was never going to be pretty.
After her predecessor as Ethnic Studies program manager failed to move the needle, Castro-Gill went into the JSCEE on a mission. Intent on developing a K–12 ethnic studies framework, she recruited a talented team of local educators to create hundreds of age-appropriate units and resources and developed heaps of professional development to support teachers in implementing both. She admits to having little time to dither or speak “Seattle polite” to people who either didn’t understand or recognize the issue: Children of Color had been drowning in educational “whiteness” for centuries and even learning to swim meant assimilating, meant subverting their identities. If you were too daft to understand the curricular overhaul necessary to stem this chronic tide of whiteness, after having a little fun at your expense, Castro-Gill was ready to get back to work.
As word spread beyond the JSCEE’s walls about the work Castro-Gill and ESAG were doing, the district higher-ups quickly became trepidatious and didn’t seem to know how to handle either ethnic studies or its ESAG program manager, who was quick to point out issues with the existing curriculum (for example, pointing out problematic texts used in the new literacy program). Meanwhile, Castro-Gill fought without reserve on social media, collecting enemies and admirers at a rapid pace. The majority of those who opposed her seemed to take issue with her brash Los Angelean, take-no-prisoners style — perhaps vaguely fearing they could be spurned next. Meanwhile, BIPOC youth were still treading water or drowning within the curricular units she sought to replace.
Eventually, Castro-Gill’s direct boss, the head of curriculum for Seattle Public Schools, Diane DeBacker, built a lengthy case against her but cited complaints that seem to have little validity. In one mentioned instance, Castro-Gill shared on social media the disturbing audio of a South Seattle teacher calling 911 on her own fifth grade student. The teacher — who had never met Castro-Gill — formally accused her of harassment. Castro-Gill was easily cleared of this official complaint, but was found to have “omitted facts” as she defended herself. By choosing to dock her for this, the district seemed intent on sending her a message. Clearly they didn’t see the irony of castigating their own Ethnic Studies program manager for pointing out a poignant example of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Eventually things appear to have come to a head. A parent named Linda Kadowaki (married to the controversial owner of the Central District’s Unce Ike’s, one of Washington’s top-grossing pot shops), after lodging multiple, formal complaints about Castro-Gill’s social media posts and how long her son’s ethnic studies history class spent discussing the concept of “identity” at the beginning of the year, emailed the Seattle Public Schools Human Resource Department. A record request shows that after accusing Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau of gaslighting and a lack of leadership involving a separate conflict, Kadowaki pivots sharply.
In a tone that seems to imply menace towards both Juneau and Castro-Gill, Kadowaki bluntly demands, “Now do Tracy Castro Gill. The woman is toxic and her curriculum is garbage.” Castro-Gill was put on leave two days later.
Juneau, perhaps beginning to feel upstaged by the tempest raging online in response to Castro-Gill or perhaps bowing to pressure from this particular parent — decided, in consultation with her Chief Academic Officer Diane DeBacker, that the wrong person was leading the district’s Ethnic Studies program, and Tracy Castro-Gill was forced to resign on May 5. Neither Juneau or DeBacker has responded to an Emerald request for comment.
Then, in a frightful move for the future of racial equity in the city of Seattle, Ethnic Studies was moved out of the curriculum department and was relegated to the Department of Racial Equity Advancement (DREA). This blatant decentering of the racial equity work most likely to enact truly systemic change in Seattle Public Schools — in 2020 of all years — seems to invalidate the district’s claim that Castro-Gill was ever even the problem. Although SPS seems to have plans to mitigate ethnic studies’ departure from the curriculum department, her position is still unfilled more than six months later.
To understand the district’s response to Castro-Gill, it’s important to look at how they’ve handled another notable educator’s attempts to teach race explicitly in Seattle Public Schools — one of the many things ethnic studies empowers teachers to do. Jon Greenberg was a founding teacher of The Center School and had been teaching a Humanities class to seniors that contained a unit on race for a decade. When a single student’s parents objected, the district wrote Jon a letter asking him to stop teaching this unit and to halt teaching an upcoming unit he had developed on gender identity.
But support for Jon poured in. His students — past and present — and their parents began to write letters on his behalf, and 49 articles were written about his struggle in 2013 alone. It became crystal clear that Jon was not out on any limb and that he had profound support not only from his school community but from a vast number of Seattlites who felt race should be unpacked in schools. After all, his class was seen as a rite of passage for Center School students in large part because of this unit on race.
During the flurry of supportive organizing that took place around Greenberg, some of his students circulated a petition in his classroom. The same parents filed a second complaint claiming intimidation and Jon was taken out of the school he helped found and transferred by the district to Hamilton Middle School. Once the teacher’s union helped him win an appeal against the district’s almost comically frail case — which contained not a single witness from his class — he was reinstated at The Center School and still teaches that class, albeit virtually in 2020-2021. Yet as if to spite him for defending himself and for the support he received, the district left a two-week suspension on his permanent record.
The Seattle Public Schools district office’s responses to Castro-Gill and Greenberg show a willingness to punish their employees at the behest of a single parent who is uncomfortable with change.
Whether or not they have heard of Jon Greenberg’s ordeal, those educators explicitly teaching race in Seattle Public Schools today understand at some level that they are engaging in risky behavior unsupported by the district. Siloed around this city and often sniped at or occasionally flat-out attacked by parents who obtusely believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist, these teachers have to walk a fine line quietly, content to plant seeds of change within the confines of their classes.
Marquita Prinzing, the director of the Seattle Education Association’s (SEA) Center for Racial Equity, describes the situation:
“There are educators doing amazing racial equity work, amazing ethnic studies work. They fear their colleagues — but they may have a couple of allies. Even if their admin is supportive they fear that their admin will be forced by the district to do something. They fear their parents because it just takes one crazy white person … So they know what’s right, they know what’s supportive to their students of color. They’re good educators of students of all races — including the white students that have to learn about racism. They would never want to harm any child. And so instead, they just duck and dive.”
So how do you empower teachers to upend systemic racism? How do you develop curricula that make Black and Brown children feel just as valued as white students? How do you create meaningful professional development that disrupts rampant bias? How do you teach students to think critically about this country’s troubled racial history? How can we encourage students to see their education as a tool for positive change? The answer to all of the above is ethnic studies.
While famously hard to define, ethnic studies is part grassroots movement and part education overhaul. Its framework encourages students to look at content through a variety of conceptual lenses, and it is built to be responsive to whatever mixture of ethnicities are present in the room. To use the words of ESAG practitioners, ethnic studies has the potential to take students beyond the “winner/loser binary” (Amanda Hubbard); to convince students that “every person in their own way is a mathematician” (Shraddha Shirude); to tell the “beautiful American story never told”(Bruce Jackson). Castro-Gill says that while it is flexible, the indispensable pedagogical pieces of ethnic studies are critical race theory, liberatory education, and centering anti-Blackness.
Reflecting on her own two years trying to take action within the district, years both productive and full of turmoil, Castro-Gill says, “You can’t plop ethnic studies into a racist department with racist curriculum and expect it to thrive. If you want to support ethnic studies and have a robust program, you need to completely transform and reorganize and restaff that whole [curriculum] department.”
In October, both the local and regional chapters of the NAACP — as well as the NAACP Youth Council — called on Superintendent Denise Juneau to resign, listing the district’s sidelining of ethnic studies as a principal reason. In their letter, they refer to ethnic studies as “the antidote.” Yet a group of respected community members have also signed on to a call for Juneau’s contract to be renewed. While the district’s inability to address systemic racism certainly predates Juneau, sidelining ethnic studies and addressing systemic racism are mutually exclusive.
The much-maligned Tracy Castro-Gill has this to offer about ESAG’s work, which continues with WAESN despite the district and despite those who wish her unwell — for reasons they may not even understand:
Reminiscent of every other epoch of her life, Castro-Gill is struggling, but she appears to also be in the process of rebounding beyond what some of her district colleagues thought possible. Just as she was being fired as the Ethnic Studies Program Director, she founded the nonprofit Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN). Though as of this moment her work with WAESN is unpaid and she is collecting unemployment, WAESN has grown at Castro-Gill speed even while she completes the dissertation for her Ph.D. at Walden University. She has already secured contracts to do ethnic studies professional development or curricular audits for twelve area schools and has also rolled out a series of online classes. At the recent Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice, 177 teachers crammed into the ethnic-studies-specific breakout Zoom led by WAESN. The demand for ethnic studies continues to be staggering; perhaps one day Seattle Public Schools will learn how to truly value it, fund it, and protect it.
“That’s how important this is to us. The average person would have quit a long time ago. I would have quit a long time ago if this wasn’t about saving lives. That’s what it’s about: saving lives.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). Currently, he writes about issues relating to the South End. You can contact him here.
Featured image: Tracy Castro-Gill (Photo: Chloe Collyer)
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