The merciless killing of George Floyd launched protests affirming Black lives and prompted a public denunciation of racism across the globe. Due to the punitively unjust oppression of diverse populations, people of color and many of their white counterparts came together and took to the streets in protest. None of these actions would have happened if society had been more equitable toward people from diverse backgrounds.
As we all move forward, the Minnesota School Board Directors of Color (MNSBDOC) are committed to strengthening equity and inclusion in education, despite the hurdles that may threaten to prohibit that effort from moving forward.
By way of background on MNSBDOC, approximately one-third of the public-school pupils in Minnesota are students of color, according to a 2017 analysis by Minnesota Public Radio, while only 3% of directors are people of color. This large disparity led to the founding of MNSBDOC in 2016 by Helen Bassett and Abdi Sabrie, of Robbinsdale and Mankato, respectively.
Sabrie, the first person of color to serve on the Mankato school board, was looking for ways to connect with other board members of color who have had shared cultural experiences. Sabrie met with Bassett, a trailblazer on the Robbinsdale school board, who was elected in 2003. They formed an affinity group and joined with Latinx, Asian and Indigenous directors in 2017.
With the killing of George Floyd and the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with persistent divisiveness in America, angry discussions are firing up on social media. School districts have been feeling vilification from all sides of the political spectrum. Anger arises over many topics, both big and small.
Even those who side with us on issues of equity and inclusion have used social media to rail against districts’ inability to make change at the speed of light. MNSBDOC acknowledges that people are hurting, that change is needed. Many MNSBDOC members have been working for years advocating for and influencing change.
There is nothing wrong with pushing a school board to do the right thing or to speed up its timetable. But this should be done via e-mails, phone calls and/or at board meetings, not through an airing of grievances in the social media echo chamber.
To continue with this inflammatory language from afar creates a toxicity that will prevent other people of color from wanting to take teaching or leadership positions, at the risk of being called a “sellout” or “Uncle Tom,” and being perceived as merely placating those with power and privilege.
We need to stop the rhetoric and defamation to create what longtime activist Loretta Ross described in a commentary in the New York Times as a “call-in” culture — “a call-out done with love” — that will help everyone learn and change.
Learning begins at an early age. Therefore, it is necessary to instruct our children through an anti-racist perspective to make them better prepared to live, work and play. As we continue to grow our leaders of color, our education systems are still white-centered and are led by predominantly white educators.
Layla F. Saad explains in “Me and White Supremacy”: “White centering is the centering of white people, white values, white norms and white feelings over everything and everyone else.” It establishes a false norm that diminishes and disregards “others,” that blinds us from seeing oppression, inequality and suffering while giving us a false sense of intrinsic equality, even at the expense of marginalized white people.
This makes it even more critical to teach our youth from an anti-racist point of view.
As MNSBDOC moves forward, we will continue to foster excellence in good governance, support effective leadership, and prepare school board members from diverse communities to champion high-quality, public education for all students with a special focus on acknowledging the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of Minnesota students and families.
We all need to view everything through an anti-racist lens to change our policies and actions that continue to keep our students of color in the shadows. We must work together with the hope that our younger generation will learn from our mistakes and break the cycle of fear and negativity that permeates our society and transform it into one of love and respect.
Ben Phillip is a director of St. Anthony-New Brighton. Helen Bassett is board vice chair of Robbinsdale. Curtis Johnson is a director of Roseville. Tanya Khan is a director of Hopkins. Nelly Korman is board chair of Bloomington. Laura McClendon is a director of St. Louis Park. Monica Segura-Schwartz is a director of St. Cloud. MNSBDOC can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or mnschoolboarddirectorsofcolor.org