Two portrait photos of Brandon Hersey.

‘Playtime Is Over’ — Brandon Hersey Is Serious About Educational Equity

by M. Anthony Davis

Brandon Hersey was appointed to the Seattle Public Schools Board to represent District 7 after Betty Patu resigned in 2019. Hersey, who was raised in a home of Black educators, currently lives in Rainier Beach and teaches second grade at Rainier View Elementary in Federal Way. Before becoming a teacher, Hersey’s experience in education policy included working for the Obama Administration as a policy analyst focusing on children and family issues. 

The Emerald caught up with Hersey back in March to discuss how he managed life as a teacher in a virtual classroom while maintaining his role on the SPS Board. Hersey was doing a great job juggling his responsibilities and laid out many achievements in his virtual classroom as well as victories on the board that included identifying a discretionary budget and engaging students, families, and community-members to create a participatory budgeting process to allocate the funds. 

Now, Hersey is preparing to campaign to be elected to the District 7 seat that he was appointed to back in 2019. In a recent conversation with the Emerald, Hersey laid out his optimistic plans for the future of District 7 and how he aims to build trust and foster collaboration between Seattle Public Schools and the community they serve. 

Hersey’s plans for success include bold steps to build community trust through programs like community work agreements. When building and remodeling schools, these agreements prioritize students and their families for skill building, apprenticeships, and union jobs that pay living wages. Fresh and innovative ideas like this form the basis of Hersey’s plan to uplift entire communities in District 7.

Interview edited for clarity and length.

South Seattle Emerald: This is an unpaid position that requires a lot of time. What compels you to want to take this on?

Brandon Hersey: I’m running because I believe that every student, especially Black students and other students of color, should be able to receive a great education in a school where they feel safe and respected, with a curriculum that celebrates their culture and tells the truth about our shared history in this country. I know from my perspective, being directly in the classroom, the impact that having a solid teacher that looks like you [and] has cultural competencies for your curriculum — what that can do for a child, especially a Black kid. So, for me, having that focus and having that frame, I’m running to retain this seat, because I believe strongly that with good leadership, especially in a place like Seattle, we’ll be able to deliver on all those goals.

SSE: You have history as an educator and as a policy maker on the national level. Do you feel that you have the power to create change and build trust within the Black community in South Seattle?

BH: Absolutely. I think we have the power. I think the question is, does the board and the district as a whole have the political will to do it? I think that what that looks like is being able to empathize with the trauma that many folks have gone through in this city. I’m not originally from here. I’m from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My trauma in the experience of being a Black male growing up in the deep south is very different from what it’s like growing up here in Seattle. It’s a completely different landscape. So sitting in the seat where I do on the board, a high priority for me has been to sit in community, to listen to folks’ concerns, and then to also follow up and take action. I think that another piece of that is the duality of what this role is. I really feel strongly that as a board director, we have the responsibility to listen and hold all of the anger and the trauma and the dissatisfaction that comes from being a Black person in Seattle Public Schools and at the same time, not taking all of that criticism personally and seeing it as an opportunity to listen and learn what exactly needs to change in order to get these things done. 

I think that especially when we share space with the youth, for example, the NAACP Youth Council, the Youth Action Team, Black and Brown Lives Matter, WA-BLOC, who were critical in us removing police from schools, one of the first actions that happened after the one-year ban was announced was that is that WA-BLOC, Black and Brown Lives Matter, and a bunch of other students came together and said, “No, this ban needs to be indefinite.” And I think that that helped us avoid an equity detour. And the only way that we’re going to be able to do that, for policy on a system scale, is to continue to engage directly to with the youth, especially with Black and Brown youth, but more specifically to really take seriously our tenets of community engagement and ask ourselves, “What do we have the will — and what are we prepared — to do?” I believe that if we can get folks on the same page with that, then we’ll be in a position where we can take some serious steps forward. And we’re already doing that a number of ways. 

SSE: Are there any other items that you are hearing from students, parents, or communities that you plan on addressing if elected? 

BH: Yeah. There are a couple things. There’s the opportunity gap, which we’ll talk about because that’s going to take an in- and out-of-classroom approach to have any significant effect on. But the big thing that I think is pressing right now is mental health. Yes, we need counselors, and we need to recognize that we can’t just put a number on student mental health. The time it takes to build a relationship with a student and see the results of that is a multi-year process. We need an intentional system-wide focus on mental health, starting in kindergarten and progressing all the way through high school because often health conditions, especially in the Black community, go undiagnosed, unnoticed, and ultimately unaddressed for years until it becomes a problem in a student’s life. So, what we need is a dedicated curriculum and true partnerships within our city with health care providers, because what we really need to do is to make talking with our children about their mental health as regular as our conversations about math and reading in school. We are taught to take care of our bodies, we’re taught to eat healthy, we’re taught to exercise, we’re taught to read, we’re taught to do all these other things, but you also have to be taught to be mentally healthy. Because if you leave a person to their own devices, without an adequate check, or someone to talk to, or someone to have as a frame of reference, then there is no telling what a person who’s suffering from any type of mental difference could be experiencing. And we in our school system need to take an active and dedicated approach to having an impact in a positive way on that.

SSE: Can you address the opportunity gap? That’s a major concern in our community.

BH: I think it really, again, it goes back to do we have the political will and the creativity to be able to [fix] that? Because I know as a teacher … the only way that we are going to address the opportunity gap is that if we take an in- and out-of-classroom approach, and that out-of-classroom approach is critical. If you think about what the opportunity gap is, it’s capitalism. Our entire society is an opportunity gap. We are taught from a young age that if you work hard enough and you slave and you toil, that eventually you will earn enough money to lead a happy life. And that’s just not the case. That’s a pipe dream that they’ve been selling us ever since we came here. So, when it comes to the in-classroom approach, we have to make sure that we have teachers that look like our students. We have to make sure that those teachers have the curriculum and the tools necessary to be able to educate our students on the actual history of this country. 

I think we need to come together and become a district that is squarely focused on student outcomes. Oftentimes, we’re reactionary. When we learn about something as board directors, it’s oftentimes in the news. We don’t get as much information as we would need to be able to support and be proactive in solving problems. And when we have a system that is structured and set up that way, it makes it incredibly difficult to make the monumental shift from being reactive to proactive because you still got to be reactive to all the things that’s going on, while you’re rebuilding the system to be proactive. … I think we’re taking steps toward that. We’re doing a lot of work with [interim Schools Superintendent] Dr. [Brent] Jones on what is going to be necessary for us to be focused on student outcomes. But I think when we really talk about “We can have those impacts inside of the classroom,” on the flip side of that, it has to be outside of the classroom as well. And a couple of things we’ve done, I believe, are pointing toward that. 

First, the participatory budgeting initiative that Director [Chandra] Hampson and I led this past semester. We went to several youth groups, and families, and community groups and got their feedback on what they wanted to be funded. There was a set of discretionary funds that we were able to set aside to give community control to, and they landed on restorative justice. So, when we’re thinking about all of these problems at the school district that folks are trying to figure out, community has all the answers. Folks have been talking about restorative justice forever. When we’re listening to community, you can’t just sit and listen, you have to be actionable. Where are the dollars? Where are the funds? Where are the resources? 

Another piece of that is the student community workforce agreement. This is a little less known. We just passed the student community workforce agreement probably about six to eight months ago. And what that does is this: Say you have a school that’s been built. We have three in the South End that I know of that are being built very soon. Rainier Beach, Kimball, Mercer, and there’s more to come. With the student community workforce agreements, it prioritizes folks who are in that community, People of Color and women especially, who are seeking the opportunity to gain skills and to become apprentices and to get good union jobs with solid pay at a living wage. It’s ensuring that that money that is coming from everybody’s taxes is staying in that community. That’s where I think our vision as a school board needs to be. 

SSE: What can be done to hire more teachers of diverse backgrounds?

BH: When you ask me that question, I instantly thought of a story that I had from my first year teaching in Federal Way. There was a boy at my school, and he and I had this handshake. They just recently released this new series of Dragon Ball Z and the kids were super into it. So whenever we would meet, we would go Super Saiyan [a movement from the Dragon Ball Z cartoon]. That was our thing that we did. One day, I was going to pick up the kids from health and fitness. I saw the little boy coming out of the bathroom, and we did our hand shake. A teacher came up and said, “Why are you doing that? Do you want people to think you are aggressive? Do you want people to think that you’re mean? Why would you do that? Are you trying to fight somebody?” And he never did the handshake with me again. And so this white lady came up and took our handshake. Keep in mind that I’m the only Black teacher in the building. She had a profound impact on the relationship I had with my student because she did not have the cultural competency to know that it was a handshake from a cartoon. 

From my perspective, when we’re talking about representation in the classroom, there’s a couple of things that need to be known. First, we have to make it affordable for folks to live here. We have to take a look at workload because we know that educators of color burnout

in the first three to five years, as opposed to the first eight to 10 for their white counterparts. We need to hold that. And we need to make sure that we are actually equitably distributing workload and expectations of folks. I think that another piece of that is we’ve got to figure out what are we going to do about this housing crisis. There’s a company that supports educators with down payment assistance that I took advantage of to buy my home here in Rainier Beach. We are currently in conversations to think about how we can make this accessible to everybody in Seattle. Whether you were interested in education, mental health, economic development, or social justice and liberation, all of that begins with having a place to lay your head that you own. So one of the biggest pieces of that is understanding that in order to create schools and to maintain schools that have those deep cultures, you have to be able to provide a pathway for teachers to make the choice to live and work in that community. 

One more thing for representation is that we know that we are not going to have an educator of color in every single classroom. It’s just not going to be possible. Statistically, it’s impossible. But we need to make sure that we are offering the best training possible for folks who are interested in being allies and who are interested in helping students find that representation in their building. And we are also holding folks who are not oriented to the mission of this district, to uplift Black boys, accountable to the point where we need to make sure that our entire workforce is 100% behind our strategic plan. And if that is not the case, then we need to make changes. Because playtime is over. I am really trying to be a leader that is going to continue to hold our district accountable to actually delivering on our strategic plan. We can’t just have this really progressive document and not have actionable steps and measures to ensure that we are actually moving the needle.

M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.

📸 Featured image courtesy of Brandon Hersey.

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