Kathy Sellitti, the Kingston City School District’s new director of diversity, equity and inclusion, gave a presentation to the Board of Education last week, indicating that there is much work to be done.
“I can’t really say who came up with this metaphor, but we think about a party or a dance,” Sellitti said. “Diversity is being asked to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance when you’re at the party; belonging is the next step where you feel like you’re comfortable asking other people to dance at the party; and then equity, which is ultimately where we want to get, is you’re involved in choosing the music…The Kingston city district is really, really good with diversity; we have a very diverse population. We are getting better with inclusion. And we want to get even further into belonging and equity.”
Sellitti, formerly an assistant principal at Kingston High, is no stranger to the district. In the roughly two months since taking on the role of director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Sellitti has been getting to know the students across the district.
“I’ve been visiting with the elementary and the middle schools,” Sellitti said. “I’ve been in the high school for the last five years, I see them every day. But visiting with the elementary and middle school principals, just to get a feel for each of the different buildings, what it is they are already doing, what it is they would like to continue to do…We’re still all in the process of figuring that out.”
Sellitti said much of the building-level staff is focused on wrapping up the 2021-22 school year, so the idea is to head into the fall with the idea of shifting policies, practices and procedures to make them truly equitable.
Some of the district’s path has been forged by the work of Dr. Luvelle Brown, superintendent of the Ithaca City School District, and author of Culture of Love: Cultivating a Positive and Transformational Organizational Culture.
“As I learned from Dr. Brown, policy drives the culture of a school district, so we need to look into curriculum and the delivery of that curriculum to make sure that it is inclusive, that it fosters belonging for all of our students,” Sellitti said. “Curriculum in and of itself is just a static thing without professional development, and the delivery of that curriculum could be harmful to some of our students. So we’re going to continue to look at all that stuff just to continue to make Kingston a better place for all of our students.”
Sellitti said one way of ensuring the district is successful is to study the patterns of participation in everything from athletics to music and performing arts, from academics to discipline and attendance.
“I want to look at that over the summer so we can see who is participating in what sports, who’s participating in our great music programs, who is participating in our great performing arts programs, who is not participating in those programs,” Sellitti said. “And our academic programs, who gets access to what classes, who gets access to what programs, why does that happen? We’ve been looking at some of these things for a long time. Not a lot has changed yet, so we have to get together, figure out what do we need to do to change it.”
Additionally, Sellitti said, students need to be heard, pointing to a mid-March presentation put together by 10 Black students discussing their experiences in the Kingston City School District, which they presented to the roughly 900 students in all freshman and sophomore English classes, as well as the entire Kingston High School faculty.
“Our purpose today is to share our individual experiences and concerns within our school district on microaggressions, unnecessary privilege, and the lack of representation of African American culture in the classroom,” read the presentation’s purpose statement. “In society it can be extremely difficult for people of color to have a voice and feel heard as well. Our intention is not to offend, but to raise awareness of Black culture, experiences, and history. We are speaking to you as human beings with unique perspectives. We ask that you keep an open mind while listening. After hearing our statements, we strongly believe you will have a better understanding of our everyday lives.”
Included in Sellitti’s report were quotes from some of the students who saw the presentation:
“Thank you for making a space where I felt heard as a person of color. I think a lot of my white peers needed this, and will get them thinking.”
“I am not Black but I am also a minority and I appreciate you guys doing this. Even though it’s not the same I feel like I am being heard.”
“I just think what you’re doing is great, please keep doing so…We need to have ‘uncomfy’ conversations to bring awareness. Thank you!”
Sellitti said the student presentations showed how much further the district has to go.
“There’s been a lot of talk, there’s been a lot of progress, there’s a lot more going on here in terms of increasing equity than there are in a lot of other places, but we still have a lot more to do,” Sellitti said. “And these student presentations really drove it home.”
Trustee Suzanne Jordan said she was moved by the students’ presentation, as well as the words of Jillian Hanesworth, poet laureate of Buffalo, who in the wake of the mass shooting earlier in the month where a white shooter drove hundreds of miles to target a Black community, took umbrage with the #BuffaloStrong hashtag.
“We don’t need right now to be told that we’re strong. We need to be told that we’re right,” said Hanesworth in a May 17 interview with NPR. “Black people in this country have lived through so much. So many people hate us just because we exist and we experience that at different levels on a daily basis. So we’re strong. We know that…My main objective right now is to validate emotions. This is real. We can’t let society gaslight us into thinking that there’s no racism. People need that right now.”
Trustee Suzanne Collins said Hanesworth’s words resonated with her as a member of a Board of Education that is trying to make positive changes but still has a long way to go.
“This is the time that we have to, as board members, as community members, as teachers, be honest,” Collins said. “I kind of feel like the board has really attempted to be more sensitive and be more aware of racism and try to…dig it out of our policies and those kinds of things. But I kind of feel like we’ve been so insular that we really haven’t made the changes that we should be making in the community, the school community, but the community at large. And I kind of feel like we could be more honest and we could try to include that community.”
Sellitti said the student presentation in March illustrated that need. “It was tough work for them,” Sellitti said. “We owe it to them to go beyond the discussions. Discussions have to happen; the honesty has to happen. But we have to make changes.”