Evanston School District 65 board members listened to two dozen speakers describe the emotional pain caused by racist speech and actions and reviewed plans to address the issue at its meeting Monday night.
In response to recent racist language used by some students, Superintendent Paul Goren sent a letter to parents last week.
Anya Tanyavutti, vice president of the board, encouraged a listening session so the board and administration could hear first hand the “effects of the reality and experience of racism” so that children today would not experience the racial disparagement she endured as a child.
“Having this conversation is giving people the opportunity to tell their story and feel empowered to demand change,” she said. “As a black woman who was once a black child who was not protected or validated or heard, I am grateful our institution is becoming brave or bold enough” to address racism.
The meeting room was crowded with parents, teachers, school principals and other community members.
Several parents described incidents in which children used racist slurs against other children and teachers did not address the situation.
Jocelyn Davis said that in an art class at Orrington School, two boys who are Asian and white called her black daughter a chimpanzee and stupid and made fun of the texture of her hair. She said she heard about the incident from her daughter’s classmate, not from the teacher.
Tracy Olasimbo, whose son is a first grader at Dewey School and the only black boy in the TWI program, recounted two incidents. In one case a white student told her son that all black people are monkeys. She didn’t learn of that incident until weeks later. Another time a white student said he didn’t want to play with him because he disliked the color of his skin.
“How do we know that what is taught in training [for teachers] translates to practice?” she asked. As the only black boy in TWI he is “easy to target and is now in an exclusively white and Latino space.”
At times the comments were confrontational, with parents, teachers and community members expressing outrage at racist behavior and the district’s response.
“You can’t be a little bit anti-racist,” said Tania Richards. “It’s all or nothing. I sense a lack of urgency. I observe a delayed or lethargic response, as if it’s OK to have these problems as long as you feel bad about them.”
“A nine-year old white child asked my Asian son if he could even speak English and how he could see through those slanted eyes so tiny,” said Donna Wang Su in a statement read by Fuschia Winston-Rodriguez. “Well done is better than well said. Let’s do something now.”
Amanda Richardson said she left Evanston in 2004 because a white teacher told her that whites were in charge and blacks would take orders. She returned in 2018 with two children at King Arts and encountered similar insensitivities. “I feel like I have PTSD. Where are the stories of where it changes or how it stops? Evanston is just Black Lives Matter signs. There’s no Black Lives Matter mentality.”
Olivia Ohlsun, a biracial sixth grader, said students are segregated at lunch at Haven Middle School. “I see the adults in this room talking about students. We should have more students talking about this,” she said.
Meg Krulee, president of the District 65 Educators’ Council, said she was born in Evanston and raised biracial children. “We are dedicated and committed” to reducing racism. “DEC is all in.”
“Racist comments are symptoms of white supremacy,” said Roger Williams, president of Organization for Positive Action and Leadership. He suggested several ways to counter it in the district, including:
- Teach the AfricanCentered Curriculum in more schools, since we already have a European-centered curriculum.
- Hire more black teachers.
- Stop blaming the victim. The achievement or opportunity gap is a systemic issue. It is not the fault of black parents.
Joaquin Stephenson, director of equity and family/community engagement, outlined ongoing district efforts toward developing an anti-racist culture, including culturally responsive pedagogy and curriculum review, restorative justice practices, new discipline and dress code policies and equity professional development for educators.
“We are building capacity for every adult to have conversations about race,” he said, and over 1,000 people have received race-based professional development in Beyond Diversity training, with about 500 remaining.
“Two community-based restorative justice peace circles will be held in February to discuss what the district and communities of Evanston and Skokie can to to prevent racialized events,” he said.
Equity professional development for parents is also occurring. “White kids learn about race through their own experiences,” he said. “Parents’ actions speak louder than words.”
“Developing an anti-racist, anti-hatred school district is a noble goal and affects the schools, community, houses of worship, elected officials, business owners and employers,” said Rev. Michael Nabors, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church. “It falls upon the community to teach an alternative to racism.”
From a discipline perspective, “racial slurs are just as serious as a fight,” said Rebeca Mendoza, board member, urging that racial slurs be recorded and reported. “That will equip us to see the gaps at the schools and provide supports to educators. We’ll know that every school is responding in the same way.”
“How do we know that the training is translating into change in the classroom?” asked board member Candance Chow. “How will we know if things are changing?”
Goren responded that his senior team would meet right after the holidays and confirm plans for moving forward.
“This is an extremely ambitious goal and we will not achieve it all of a sudden,” said Sunith Kartha, president of the school board. “We should put in place more short-term solutions, including a discipline policy that all acts of racial aggression should be addressed.”
“There must be an expectation that these events will be responded to promptly and with empathy,” said Tanyavutti.
“I hope that in 20 years we’re not still talking about it,” said Mendoza. ‘The people of color in Evanston are exhausted.”