by Ari Robin McKenna
The “Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) 3rd Annual Assembly on Organizing for Ethnic Studies” will be held virtually on Saturday, April 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It features keynote speaker Dr. Verónica (Vero) Vélez, an organizer, activist, and award-winning professor at University of Western Washington, as well as keynote panelists Brent Jones Jr., the incoming interim Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools (SPS), Brandon Hersey, the SPS South End board director of District 7, and more than 20 other speakers.
In recent conversation with the Emerald, Tracy Castro-Gill, the executive director of WAESN, says the goal of the assembly is “to build collective capacity, and let people know where they can plug into existing efforts, or how they can start their own efforts.” She stressed how this assembly differs from standard professional development workshops for teachers, saying, “There’s people who are individually trying to do this in their classroom, but we know that to teach ethnic studies well, you need a community behind you. It’s not a traditional education conference, it’s about organizing and networking and building community. It’s a lot of how to do those things on different levels.”
WAESN’s list of conference presenters reflect these different levels Castro-Gill refers to, including students, parents, district equity leaders, an equity consultant, and many practicing ethnic studies educators. Here is a sample of some of the scheduled breakout room presentations:
- Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council will be running a breakout session for students called “Student Organizing for Ethnic Studies.”
- The past two Seattle Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) presidents, Sabrena Burr and Manuela Slye, will teach a session called “Organizing Families for Ethnic Studies.”
- A variety of ethnic studies educators have breakout titles such as, “How to Start an Ethnic Studies PLC [Professional Learning Community],” “White Supremacy and Union Organizing,” or “Organizing for Ethnic Studies as a White Educator.”
- Dr. Tanisha Brandon-Felder, the director of Equity and Family Engagement in the Shoreline Public School District, addresses systemic change in her session, entitled “So, You Have an Ethnic Studies Resolution. Now What?”
- Castro-Gill will lead a breakout room along with Kyle Kinoshita, who was the former Chief of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction for SPS, called “Entering Ethnic Studies Leadership; Opportunities and Pitfalls.”
Before founding WAESN, Castro-Gill was the ethnic studies program manager for SPS, but her relationship with members of district leadership deteriorated despite the impressive work she produced, and Castro-Gill was first put on administrative leave and then pushed to resign. Despite a 2017 SPS Board of Directors Resolution (0030) in support of K–12 ethnic studies, since the beginning of Castro-Gill’s leave, SPS has been without an ethnic studies program manager for a little over a year and three months, and has moved its ethnic studies program out of the Curriculum Department and into the Department of Racial Equity and Advancement (DREA). Yet with current Superintendent Denise Juneau resigning two months early, interim Superintendent Brent Jones Jr. — who will speak on the WAESN Assembly keynote panel about “Organizing for Ethnic Studies in K–12 Institutions” — will be taking over running the district on May 1. The future of ethnic studies in SPS looks likely to be buoyed by his arrival.
In a recent email to the Emerald, incoming Jones said this about the importance of ethnic studies: “At Seattle Public Schools, we are striving for unity of vision around the importance of ethnic studies. We know embedded in ethnic studies are the concepts of social justice, social responsibility, and social change, that are certainly needed in 2021. Ethnic studies fosters an intellectually ambitious curriculum. By nature of the content, it is culturally relevant to many of our students — creating a context where they can see themselves reflected. Ethnic studies centers students and educators of color and supports identity development. These classes make a person more aware and encourage students to think critically about the experiences of those around them. Moreover, students can develop fundamental skills in critical and global thinking.”
Vélez, who is giving the keynote on “Ethnic Studies as Movement-Building: Centering a Community-Driven Praxis” has been involved in organizing to develop ethnic studies in Bellingham Public Schools. She is also on the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee (ESAC), which is preparing ethnic studies educational materials and resources to be reviewed by the state Legislature this summer.
Vélez opened the March 21, 2021, ESAC meeting by proposing a partnership between ESAC and WAESN, reading the following from a prepared statement: “We have right here in Washington one of the leading organizations in K–12 Ethnic Studies, WAESN, whose frameworks and approach are vetted by ES [Ethnic Studies] experts, reflect a rigorous development rooted in community building principles that align with Ethnic Studies methodologies, and support the aims of the legislative bill and its directive for Ethnic Studies in Washington state public schools. Moreover, they have already been contracted by numerous districts here in Washington and beyond, as well as state organizations, to help develop Ethnic Studies and support teachers as they build ES literacies and pedagogies. This clearly signals the extensive reach of WAESN and the respect it has garnered in visioning and supporting the development of Ethnic Studies both locally and elsewhere.”
Speaking with the Emerald, Vélez was critical of how racial equity has become a sort of currency in education and higher education. She said, “It’s almost comical to have conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion, because I have to ask: I don’t know what you mean by those terms anymore! They have become so bankrupt in our current dialogue in education. They can mean a myriad of things.” She sees this commodification of equity work play out at standard teacher professional development workshops.“You go to one workshop, you get a sticker, you can put a sign on your door, and you can say that you’re culturally competent. That’s a problem. The reality is that these things need to be investments over time to build learning communities that can continue to support teachers’ consciousness around this work. Yes, it’s a process. We’re not going to launch you off the deep end, but we also can’t water down ethnic studies to simply appease a white audience.”
Vélez, who considers herself “an academic by accident” because she initially didn’t take to school, has personally struggled with the contradictions of being an activist and an academic and sees that conflict at play within ethnic studies work as well. “We need to need to resist the academizing of ethnic studies, while at the same time recognizing the expertise and rigor of the field.” Vélez says that, “aligning with WAESN has been so refreshing, so necessary in my life to remind me why I became an academic in the first place. So I’m grateful to Tracy [Castro-Gill] and to WAESN for that. They gave me this opportunity to connect with them and to build with them. I couldn’t ask for anything more, really. Academics make the worst activists, and I struggle with living at the hyphen of this. Having this opportunity allows me to reclaim parts of myself that I feel got lost a bit as I went through the academy.”
Vélez says this about what she plans to speak about in her keynote at the “WAESN 3rd Annual Assembly on Organizing for Ethnic Studies”: “I want to center a different community-driven praxis, and the way we think about why we need to be listening and thinking about our youth, our families, our organizers, as the organic intellectuals that should be driving this. In the context of the future of ethnic studies for K–12 schools that also includes our teachers, and the folks on the ground who are every day trying to create that humanizing classroom for our students.”
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). He writes about education for the South Seattle Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
📸 Featured image courtesy of Washington Ethnic Studies Now.
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