A planned session on racial equity scheduled for the January 24 meeting of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education didn’t go entirely as organizers may have intended, but community members organized around this issue appear to have gotten closer to achieving one of their goals, the establishment of a board committee that would oversee such issues in the district.
The planned agenda was relatively simple: after a 15-minute meeting to conduct official business, the floor was to be given to Dr. Luvell Brown, superintendent of the school district in Ithaca; he would facilitate a session on communication and expectations over the next hour, and trustees would then study the data gathered while determining next steps. While Brown has been working on similarly challenging issues for nearly a decade and came prepared to start a conversation particular to the New Paltz district, community members who have been part of an ongoing conversation for sometimes 30 or 40 years felt he was misinformed as to what’s needed here and now.
During public comment, Jacqueline Reed read a letter prepared by a “broad coalition of community groups, individual community members and parents” about the state of racial equity in the district; she read the same page at the beginning of Brown’s time and despite his gentle attempts to dissuade her. When he suggested Reed instead share the information with those at her own table during the breakout sessions, she invited those in the room who wished to hear it again to rise, and a sizable minority of the roughly 100 people in attendance did stand in support. At that point, Brown allowed her to continue.
“While we recognize the importance of identifying indicators and benchmarks for a district-wide racial equity report card, we firmly believe that we are not ready to begin this process… There is an urgent need for protocols that will ensure a safe avenue of marginalized students to seek support, assistance and affirmation as well as protocols that include practices and supports that are sensitive to the realities experienced by students of color,” the letter read in part. It was concluded with a demand that an ad-hoc committee charged with making decisions around these issues, and that includes both students and representation from the community of color, be created at the February school board meeting.
The hour-long process guided by Brown entailed breaking those assembled into seven groups that were each facilitated by a board member and an administrator. Brown acknowledged that the number of those in attendance made those groups unwieldy; it was difficult to hear what was being shared. While the large participation may have surprised him, he gave careful thought to the process: people were mixed up to ensure they heard from strangers, and the conversations more closely modeled the collectivism familiar to “black kids” in their homes — in which conversation can be chaotic and simultaneous — rather than using the one-at-a-time individualism often favored by white, middle-class teachers.
A comment made by Superintendent Maria Rice at a previous board meeting about the lack of diversity among teachers and administrators was criticized in a letter to the editor of this paper. Rice had remarked that Brown, himself a person of color, acknowledged that it can be difficult to diversify in schools due to a dearth of qualified applicants. Reached after his visit, Brown did confirm that there is a deficiency in the pipeline, in particular in regards to leadership positions. He chairs a statewide committee of superintendents which was formed specifically to address the lack of diversity in leadership; a detailed report of findings can be found at seeourtruth.org.
“Lack of people in the pipeline is the primary issue,” Brown said, and “we are trying to uncover the reasons why. It could be implicit bias, or structures; it’s not just about recruiting, it’s much bigger than that.”
At the end of the table sessions, Brown touched upon what the racial equity report card in Ithaca looks like after many years of work. He described it as a joint effort among community members and district officials which tracks various metrics that those involved agreed were relevant in that district, such as attendance, higher-level class enrollment, and out-of-school suspension rates. There is ample evidence that removing students from the school environment entirely is not only unhelpful but disproportionately so to students of color, yet the practice is still followed in New Paltz schools.
Board members were ready to adjourn once Brown invited brief reflections, but those in attendance were not. “I wanted to listen to voices of color,” said former board member Edgar Rodriguez, and during an impromptu second public comment period, that’s exactly what happened.
Growing up white in New Paltz it may be easy to believe that there is no racism in the community, but that sentiment does not always reflect what students of color experience. Tanya Marquette, a white resident of the district who reared two African-American children here, said afterward, “There is a difference between being racist, and people who do so without being aware,” but that “white people are very uncomfortable being told that what they’re doing is racist.”
Not all racism is unconscious, or subtle. One woman talked about how her cousins, who have sworn they will never return to this community, were told that “they looked like poop,” presumably because of their skin color. Several of those who shared what were called “stories of grief” had tears in their eyes as they articulated a simple truth: people of color do not feel safe.
There’s also messaging in the curriculum itself: Marquette recalled that the only black people her son saw in textbooks in his social studies class were either naked and on a slave auction block, or “Little Black Sambo, eating watermelon.” Even learning To Kill a Mockingbird can be a traumatic experience if it’s not handled sensitively, she said, and it often is not in the New Paltz district.
It’s a message that board members seem to have heard. Brian Cournoyer, in making a motion to discuss creating a racial-equity committee on the agenda for the next meeting, said, “The board needs to own this process, but we shouldn’t be directing it.” This is because it’s an “overwhelmingly white board,” and it’s difficult for white people to understand the experience of people of color if they do not first listen to those stories.
Cournoyer’s motion met with unanimous approval and a standing ovation. The conversation on race in New Paltz schools may be decades old, but there’s now some hope that new voices will be heard, and some meaningful progress toward changing what’s said will at last begin.