by Josie Jensen, Alexis Mburu, Angelina Riley, Gian Rosario, and Eric Anthony Souza-Ponce
In October, when we, the NAACP Youth Council (N-YC), publicly launched our demands for racial justice in public education, we demanded that Seattle Public Schools (SPS) terminate its contract with Superintendent Denise Juneau, currently serving her third year of a three-year contract.
We knew that we, a coalition of anti-racist youth in Washington, were asking for a lot.
We knew from personal experiences as students in SPS that our voices would likely be ignored, but we had to be bold. Sometimes that means daring to say the things we feel and holding ourselves to a level of integrity, regardless of people’s perceptions.
First, we would like to state and reassure that this demand for new leadership is not a personal attack on the superintendent. Instead, we seek to hold our district leaders accountable for their actions, or lack thereof.
In 2018, we were hopeful to work with Superintendent Juneau because she promised to center Black and Brown students in her new Strategic Plan. We gave feedback on it while it was in draft form, and we appreciated her meeting with us at a coffee shop to learn more about our demands, especially our call for mandatory ethnic studies. Members of N-YC jumped at the chance to serve on her newly formed Student Advisory Board (SAB).
Despite the diverse identities that made up the SAB — students of different races, LGBTQ+ students, students experiencing mental health issues — we all understood one thing: Superintendent Juneau wasn’t doing enough to challenge the white supremacy in SPS.
When the Strategic Plan was passed in March of Superintendent Juneau’s first year, to our dismay, “ethnic studies” was nowhere to be found in the final document. We felt ignored. In our meeting with the superintendent and in now several years of testimonies to the Seattle School Board, we repeated the facts and studies that show ethnic studies in schools significantly and positively impacts an institution’s overall culture and academics, especially for the Black and Brown students Juneau’s Strategic Plan was supposed to center.
And yet here we are in 2020, back at square one hiring a new Ethnic Studies Program Manager — the third Ethnic Studies Program Manager in four years — after the contentious removal of Tracy Castro-Gill, with whom we partnered extensively.
Though the Department of Racial Equity Advancement is including Youth of Color in the process of getting a new program manager, many members of N-YC have now graduated from Seattle Public Schools or will soon graduate, having never gotten to directly benefit from our years of advocacy for ethnic studies.
However, the reasons behind our demand for new leadership extend beyond Seattle Public Schools failing to implement ethnic studies. Following are some stories that show how SPS, under Superintendent Juneau, has consistently failed Black and Brown students:
In November of 2019, Rainier Beach High School experienced a traumatic event that did not receive the district support that students so desperately needed. A student from Beach, who asked to remain anonymous, shared their experience with us:
“A student was shot in a drive-by less than two minutes away from the school. Politicians and district leaders need to understand that students, myself included, saw our peer bleed in front of us. The day after the shooting, we, Beach students, were asked to come in early to discuss how we can address the traumatic events. We (the students), despite not having time to process the trauma ourselves, were setting up healing spaces early in the morning.
In order to effectively address the mood of the student body, we designated specific classrooms to set up activities geared towards collective healing. An art space was created to write letters for the student who was shot. We asked our administrators to provide food for students because dining was a way to bring people together. Students moderated their own healing circles, sitting to discuss the traumatic events that occurred the day before.
We were taking care of people, but no one was taking care of us.
This is what Seattle needs to understand: Teenagers created safe spaces the following days, not district administrators, not Superintendent Juneau.
Seattle and especially the Seattle School Board, the body that will vote on Juneau’s contract, has to understand that adults relied on 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds to gather together, start conversations around mental health and safety in our quickly gentrifying, though still predominantly BIPOC, impoverished neighborhood.
Seattle needs to understand how district leadership failed us that day by sending in two therapists who did not look like the community they were supposed to be serving and were ill-equipped to deal with our racial trauma. Students going through trauma were asked, ‘How do we solve this?,’ shoving the burden of problem-solving onto under-resourced students. These therapists were ill-equipped to discuss over-policing, ill-equipped to help us navigate the school-to-prison pipeline, and ill-equipped to understand the Black experience.”
Our peers in North Seattle are also exhausted from traumatic experiences with little to no district support. In North Seattle’s predominately white schools, racism runs rampant. There, Black and Brown students endure incidents of blackface (by both students and staff), slurs targeting BIPOC students, teachers having sexual relations with vulnerable students, and physical assault from teachers on students.
Such racist incidents, combined with Eurocentric curriculum and high turnover rates for BIPOC staff, create very hostile environments for Black and Brown students. Juneau’s Strategic Plan says the district is supposed to center us. Instead, we feel targeted by teachers. We are constantly monitored and followed. BIPOC students are assaulted and, instead of receiving support, are told, “Well, this is what happens when you wear those type of clothes.”
Instead of being centered, we are silenced, and our concerns are swept under the rug.
By the end of Superintendent Junea’s second year, members of the NAACP Youth Council were so fed up with racism and mistreatment that we voted to add firing Superintendent Juneau’s to our list of demands to improve public education.
We did this not because the Superintendent is a bad person, but instead because her actions have upheld the white supremacist institutions harming our students.
We have to be courageous, especially during a pandemic, a pivotal election, and a movement for Black lives.
We’ve used our voices in this election to elect new people that we will continue to pressure to do right by us, their constituents. As youth, we have a right and duty to hold folks in charge of our education accountable, regardless of who they are. We have to ensure our education best suits us and adapts to every student’s academic and personal needs, especially those who are historically and presently underserved.
That is why we call out those who do wrong by us.
When we joined forces with the Seattle King County NAACP and Washington Oregon Alaska NAACP for a press conference on Oct. 20 outside the John Stanford Center to call for a new superintendent, for a moment we felt powerful and that we were being heard.
But then came the hate through social media comments. To make matters worse, just days later, we received a district email from Superintendent Juneau that she had “reached out” to those who raised concern about her leadership. Yet she never reached out to us. We weren’t just being ignored, we were being lied to.
Then came a letter of support for Superintendent Juneau published in the South Seattle Emerald and the Seattle Times, arguing that “now isn’t the right time,” “there’s a pandemic,” and nobody is “perfect.” To us, it felt like it was written by adults who are, for the most part, far removed from the student classroom experience. Our experience.
How long will we have to wait?
How long will our school district choose to ignore Black and Brown students and uphold white supremacy?
We aren’t asking for perfection. We’re asking for an anti-racist leader to lead our school district who centers students’ voices and experiences, especially when Black and Brown students are the ones sitting at these desks, receiving the short end of the stick.
This is bigger than terminating the superintendent’s contract. This is bigger than the adults sitting on the dais or at the decision-making table that students are not a part of.
Our demands seek to change institutions that uphold white supremacy. We seek change for ourselves and our Black and Brown peers so that we won’t have to face the oppression we have faced in Seattle Public Schools.
Please sign this petition and contact the Seattle School Board before their vote to terminate or renew the superintendent’s contract on Dec. 16. Tell them it’s time for new leadership in Seattle Public Schools:
Chandra N. Hampson
School Board Vice President
School Board President
School Board Member-at-Large
Brandon K. Hersey
The NAACP Youth Council seeks to advance racial justice in our educational system, which will benefit both current and future students. There are many ways you can help us achieve our demands. First and foremost, you can sign this petition. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Contact Youth Coordinator Jon Greenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org to book speaking engagements or to be added to our mailing list. We encourage you to join the movement in amplifying the youth voices in Washington by engaging and supporting the NAACP Youth Council.
Featured image: The NAACP Youth Council joins a mobilization in support of ethnic studies at a Seattle School Board meeting in February of 2020. (Photo: Makena Gadient)