Saturday, March 21, 2009

Diversity: "We Don't Even Know What We Don't Know"

"We Don't Even Know What We Don't Know"...that basically sums up Thursday night's special school board work/study session on diversity issues.

But let's also note for the record that those of you who missed Thursday night's session missed what attendees virtually unanimously believe was the best meeting of the Sun Prairie school board ever to be convened. It's really unfortunate that the STAR couldn't be there to capture the session.

So...why do we feel that this was the most successful meeting ever by the Sun Prairie school board? Because--for once-- it was not about the board members. Instead of prattling on about what amazes them about this and that, instead they were a captive audience. And they LISTENED TO instead of talking at the community. Let's have a round of applause for something long lacking from our school board!

The discussion of diversity issues had a rather inauspicious beginning as Dr. Culver noted (and took responsibility for) that the seating arrangements had select community members (mostly district employees) that live and breathe cultural diversity sitting on opposite sides of the table from the decidedly white, upper middle class, school board and district administration. What a way to frame an issue and foreshadow the discussion to come.

Perceptions: the Sun Prairie school district community (collectively) is obliviously racist.
OK...that sounds harsh...and we don't mean to raise hackles....but if that is the perception out there, then we DO have a problem. And you should know by now that SP-EYE is not inclined to sugar-coat things. We give it to you straight between the eyes.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but despite being viewed as a harsh word, people use "racist" to mean a variety of things. To some people the term racist only applies to people who knowingly advocate that another race is inferior. To others, everyone is racist to some degree because no one is capable of eliminating all bias. And it's not always bias that is at the root...sometimes it's fear of the unknown or simply being ill at ease with others that are "different" than what looks back at you from the other side of the mirror.

We added the modifier "obliviously" because most people will tend to argue that they themselves "haven't a racist bone in their body". We've all met an individual or two who is quick to point out that their "good friend/colleague/neighbor/co-worker is [Black/African American/Latino/Asian]. If that's all it takes to be a card-carrying demagogue of diversity, then we wouldn't even need to talk about this issue.

But we digress. We wanted to put that out there because that's the perception out there. And when 1 out of 4 district residents is non-white...then we need to get serious about coming to grips with diversity.

Unintentional Segregation
One of the community members who "schooled" the board on diversity issues Thursday night bravely talked about how some people have such inner fear for their own safety and security that they tend to stay within their own (sub) community. This essentially becomes self-imposed segregation.

Ask yourselves, people...and be honest--at least with yourself--if YOU were suddenly thrust into a community where YOUR ethinicty was the would you feel? A little afraid, perhaps? Ill at ease? It's a little Pollyannaish to sit back , cross your arms and say that Sun Prairie is this wonderful, welcoming, open arms community. The reality is that it is not--not as a whole anyway. And until we understand that reality, we are not going to begin making strides to make the changes needed to tear down barriers and take the fear away. Certainly there ARE those individuals and groups that truly embrace diversity and are "color-blind". But that is generally the exception, not the rule.

Another brave parent talked about the mis-perception that all "people of color" are globally impoverished, under-educated , and their kids are "problems". This woman went on to explain that she and her husband are both engineers with Master's degrees and their kids are very intelligent. They may struggle with our language, but "We give you good kids", she proclaimed. And she's right. We cannot allow ourselves to stereotype.

It would take far too much space to cover everything we learned Thursday night, but some of the most critical insights and observations shared are presented below:
  • Staff and administration need to become culturally competent.
  • Compassion is critical.
  • We don't know what we don't know.
  • Until you hire teachers that truly understand cultural diversity, the problems associated with diversity in schools won't go away.
  • We need to create an atmosphere of hope in our schools.
  • How many decades are you from having minority coaches if you hire coaches from your [existing] teaching staff?
  • We know kids don't feel safe at the high school...but we need a gauge of why that is.
  • Consider hiring African American or Hispanic security personnel for the high school.
  • [We] keep saying "Latino/Black/Asian" but we need to understand that there is diversity even within these generic classifications. For example, Hmong culture is very different than Chinese culture.
  • You not only need to recruit minority teachers but you also need to talk to and deal with existing teachers.
  • We have teachers that don't understand the need for diversity.
  • You need to get out into the community. Until you see the culture, you won't begin to understand why someone driving an Escalade has kids on free/reduced lunch.
  • We don't have cross-cultural training in the district.
  • We are all adults here...what we need is to hear from the children...hear what they think/feel.
  • Suggest we embrace the diversity that exists within our district.
  • Take the school to the community...have a community lunch or night with the school board.
  • I keep hearing students express feelings of a lack of respect..."No one listens to me".
  • Teachers--go to your students if you see them [while out in the community, e.g, shopping]. They would love to introduce you to their parents.
  • We hear from students that the perception is that Sun Prairie is racist...that the district is racist.
  • Some feel that we need to hire the most qualified candidate...not just to get diversity on staff. But this [approach] just keeps the flames fueled.
SP-EYE wants to express sincere gratitude to the following community members for their willingness to sit at the table, share their insights, and help guide us to embrace diversity rather than shrinking back from it.

Amy Immeckus - Bird Elementary, English as a 2nd language (ESL) teacher
Katrina Krych - Westside Elementary, Social worker and Special Ed. Program manager
Harold Rayford - Pastor, Faith Hope and Love Family Church
Pa Thao - SPHS, Bilingual Assistant
Rainey Briggs - PVMS teacher and parent of Horizon student
Xue Vang - Northside Elementary, Bilingual Assistant
Patricia Ruiz - Creekside Elementary, Welcome Center and parent of SPHS student
Donna Mackey - Long time community member, leader of "Circle of Voices" program in 4 schools
Maria Balacarcel-Lopez - Westside Elementary, Bilingual Assistant and parent of PVMS student
Bethany Lopez - Westside Elementary, English as a 2nd language (ESL) teacher