Our Voices

A Powerful Voice for Education Equity

Sieara Washington is a member of the Voices for Racial Justice Education Equity Parent Fellowship. On January 15, she shared this statement at the Minnesota Legislature during Educators of Color Lobby Day. Sieara and others in the Fellowship are learning about organizing for education equity and telling their powerful stories to influence change. In addition to being a parent, she is an Education Learning Specialist at North View Middle School in the Osseo School District. Here is what Sieara shared with the committee:

The people at the table making the decisions in education DO NOT reflect the majority of the population they are making the decisions for, which has made it ACCEPTABLE to ignore the NEEDS and WANTS of people of color.

As a Black American woman I have been in many positions in the Minnesota school system: a student, an educator, and now a parent. And within this time, I find it frustrating that some of the same issues I had as a student have become even worse. I see legislation that is even more negligent and that affects the students I come into contact with and even my own child.

As a student, I always wondered where are the TEACHERS that looked like me? Where are the POSITIVE stories about my people other then the go-to people (MLK, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks)? Why is it that the only people that looked like me that I saw were janitors, lunch ladies, or the person I saw if I got in trouble? As a student I wondered why the existence of my people started with slavery? Why are the same people that I saw in pictures causing harm to my people the same people I was forced to respect? Why were my parents forced to tell me the TRUE story of AMERICAN history in the comfort of or home, while white children were left to believe HISstory in the classroom? For example, Christopher Columbus.

As an educator, I now see the bigger picture. I see that itʼs a system that is created by a few to educate the many. I see itʼs a system created with little to no understanding of the people they are in fact teaching. And because of this, many students of color are put on IEPs (Individual Education Programs), in special education, or disciplined. Often this happens because the people who are supposed to be teaching these students do not understand them. I see that after-school funding is cut to bare minimum activities. And that the schools are faster to discipline a student before they are congratulated. I see many retention speeches for educators of color but do not see lateral movement within the system for us to better ourselves. I see a pay scale that only looks at me as an ESP (Education Support Professional), as help, as an assistant when in some cases I may do more than the actual teacher. But because of licensing/position my input is ignored or just unwarranted.

As a parent I see the criminalization of our black boys. I see other students getting excuses like “he didnʼt mean to do that, or that was just a mistake, or maybe your son took it wrong.” But my son as a kindergartener is always the problem regardless the age of another student. I see the urgency of trying to put my son on a program for funding for a school, thinking I will welcome a social security check. But my son is not a paycheck for the system, the school, or myself. I see the deep analysis of my son’s living situation to try and figure out why he has sporadic minor issues but the praise they give the teachers for his growth.

Overall I feel that legislation needs to really take a look at what children of all races are/arenʼt learning and how itʼs impacting them. Understanding that the disciplinary actions that are being taken need to be looked at to be uniform regardless of race across the board. Understand that after school programs and achievement programs need to be brought back to school on a much larger scale to implement success rather than failure. Understanding that all educators’ pay should be able to be a living wage for their families to sustain life. And the voices of all should be considered in making the decisions.

Thank you for your time,

Sieara Washington

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One Minnesota Cannot Be Colorblind

Brett Grant, Research & Policy Director

On January 9, 2019, Governor Walz signed Executive Order 19-01 into law. Executive Order 19-01 establishes the “One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.” With Executive Order 19-01, Gov. Walz affirms his commitment to create a state that works for all Minnesotans.

Executive Order 19-01 begins with the following statement: “Our State must be a leader in ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to thrive. Disparities in Minnesota, including those based on race, geography, and economic status, keep our entire state from reaching its full potential. As long as inequities impact Minnesotans’ ability to be successful, we have work to do. Our state will recognize its full potential when all Minnesotans are provided the opportunity to lead healthy, fulfilled lives. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are therefore essential core values and top priorities to achieve One Minnesota.”

Executive Order 19-01 comes at a crucial moment in history, as Minnesota still has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. WalletHub, a personal finance website based in Washington, D.C., released a recent study entitled “2019’s States with the Most Racial Progress.” In the study, “WalletHub measured the gaps between blacks and whites across 22 key indicators of equality and integration in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” The racial integration ranking measures the current integration levels of whites and blacks in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. At number 1, New Mexico was the state with the most racial integration. At number 50, Wisconsin was the state with the least racial integration. Minnesota was number 47.

Another ranking is the racial progress ranking which measures the levels of racial progress achieved over time. At number 1, Wyoming was the state with the most racial progress. Iowa was the state with the least racial progress at number 50. Minnesota was number 44. Racial progress rankings considered indicators such as “Highest and Lowest Change in Median Annual Income Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Labor-Force Participation Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Unemployment Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Homeownership Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Poverty Rate Gap,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Gap in % of Adults with at least a High School Diploma,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Gap in % of Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree,” “Highest and Lowest Change in Standardized-Test Scores Gap,” “Best and Worst Change in Voter Turnout Gap (2016 Presidential Election),” and “Highest and Lowest Change in Infant-Mortality Rate Gap.”

“We’re screwing up all over the place,” writes City Pages journalist, Hannah Jones, in response to the WalletHub studies’ findings. “Sure, you may be thinking, Minnesota is struggling to address inequality. But surely we’re putting in the work to make it better, right? Unfortunately, no. There’s a ranked list for that, too – how much these gaps have narrowed over the years – and Minnesota comes in at No. 44.” Jones acknowledges, “It’s not the first time we’ve asked ourselves why we’re like this – why we can succeed by most other progressive measures and still end up letting our black residents down, one metric after another.”

Jones is right. With Executive Order 19-01, Governor Walz is asking the same question. Executive Order 19-01 uses the language of “One Minnesota” to imagine a Minnesota where “…all Minnesotans are provided the opportunity to lead healthy, fulfilled lives.” While I understand the intent of such language, it is important to remember that Minnesota in reality is made up of many different identities: racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, and sexual. It is important that Executive Order 19-01 does not attempt to make our differences invisible, or force us to assimilate our differences into a notion of “One Minnesota” that does not reflect who we truly are.

In other words, Executive Order 19-01 cannot be color blind in the effort to advance racial equity in Minnesota. On the contrary, it must embrace the fullness of who we are as human beings, and must try to find ways through public policy to place our differences at the center of all decision-making. At every step, the One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity must ask the following questions:

  • Who is most impacted and how will those specific communities be engaged in the analysis?
  • What disparity is being addressed and name the racial equity purpose of the policy, if any?
  • How would the proposed policy change the situation and explain what the proposal seeks to accomplish and assess whether the policy can achieve any identified equity goals?
  • Are there potential negative impacts and if so, how will the policy be adjusted to achieve a more equitable outcome?
  • How can the policy be sustainably successful and ensure that adequate funding, implementation strategies, and accountability mechanisms are in place?

These questions are core to a racial equity impact assessment — a tool that has been available and that only comes to life through our policy leaders applying it in their decision-making process.

Governor Walz sent a bold message to all of Minnesota that racial equity is a key priority of his administration by making his first Executive Order the creation of a One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. Minnesota has been at the bottom of racial equity for too long. It is time that Minnesota moves from thinking of itself as a “thriving progressive oasis in the middle of the Midwest,” as Hannah Jones writes, to acting like one. With authentic community engagement principles and racial equity at the core of the Governor’s One Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, Minnesota might be on the path to do so.

 

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ON CULTURE SHIFT, SHARED LEARNING & OUR EVOLUTION

Fayise Abrahim, Organizing & Training Director

HISTORY OF OUR EVOLUTION

At Voices for Racial Justice we have experienced three major evolutions of our longstanding community organizing training. In 1993 we started as the Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) responding to the need for locally based community organizing training in our state, given that many of our community members felt they had to travel nationally to grow their skills as organizers. Organizers worked with mentors throughout the training in an apprenticeship model. Overtime, the OAP model was successful at growing our local networks of grassroots organizers until training cohorts were made up of mostly people of color and Indigenous people. Despite the success, it was not enough. Our organizers of color were hitting walls naming the limitations of diversity and inclusion, and a need for real racial justice oriented movement work in the field of organizing.

In 2006, we began to shift our training modules towards racial justice, and in 2014 we became racial justice centered from the inside out by centering leadership of color on our board and staff. We renamed our organization to Voices for Racial Justice and made an intentional commitment to getting organizing tools into the hands of Indigenous folks and folks of color. Despite the intentional centering of racial justice internally and externally, we started to notice how much mainstream or common organizing approaches and strategies even amongst our communities of color were steeped in and influenced by a culture of colonization and Whiteness.

In an exchange with organizers in Hawaii, our partners in Kalihi Valley raised the question of how militaristic common organizing approaches and language are, for example “base build, target, opponent, comrade, ally, frontlines, agitate” and so on. Our partners shared with us ways of organizing within Indigenous communities in Hawaii before U.S Occupation, such as the role of women’s work in peacekeeping as essential.  We know our ancestors have resisted in many ways, some of us come from both warrior traditions and peacekeeping traditions and many more. At home in Minnesota, our organizers named both the pressure and pain of assimilation and burn out in the field of organizing, and as a remedy need to honor the various traditions we come from. In response, we began to reject the professionalization of organizing as a “field” in itself and began to embrace a village model of organizing, that many members of our community are a part of, where resistance is a way of life informed by many differing ancestral traditions and life experiences.

There is no one way to organize, and there is not one model organizer, but many ways, many peoples, many traditions and histories. This led to our third major combustion, and strategic shift integrating cultural strategy and healing justice throughout all of our work and training. Organizing, power, and healing, look and mean different things to our communities that are multicultural, multilingual and intergenerational. We do not assume one model fits all. We have now been building our organizing training from the ground up, in partnership with  elders, youth, artists, incarcerated loved ones, parents, immigrant communities and so on.

WHY SHARED LEARNING?  

We believe we are all experts in our own experiences, and there is no one expert as we shift to a collectively influenced training toolkit inspired by many folks of color and Indigenous folks across our state. We have found creating spaces for shared learning has been key in our work for racial justice and the development of our upcoming toolkit. At Voices, shared learning looks like breaking hierarchies, collectively defining what things mean to us, and sharing the wisdom in the room. It is interactive, hands on and  reflective. It is practicing what we are learning from one another.

In our office we have a physical wall that has been converted to a movement garden. We’ve invited members of our community to add their contributions in response to what prompted our new strategic vision. Our partner and fellow community artist Ricardo Levins Morales says “The soil is more important than the seeds. Almost anything will grow in rich, nutritious soil, whereas it’s hard to get anything to grow if the soil is barren and toxic and won’t hold moisture. So the seeds are our projects, our initiatives, our institutions, that we want to build and the soil is the compost of beliefs, ideas, values, narratives that create the environment within which we are working.”

At Voices we are centering our work around tending to the soil, meaning tending to the beliefs, values, narratives and ideas that make up the culture we are in. Part of how colonization works is when one group, culture, or way of being must dominate over others. Our remedy to colonization is biodiversity, to value the diversity in knowledge, culture, language, worldviews, medicines, plants and perspectives. This is not just metaphoric. In Minnesota we have massive mono-cropping where one crop is reproduced on a mass scale to the detriment of the soil, loss of Indigenous crops and cultures. The conditions of our physical soil often reflects the toxicity of dominant worldviews, values and beliefs. And we can replicate this toxicity amongst ourselves, by policing each other due to our differences rather than honoring how that makes us stronger. As we tend to our soil, we must also tend to our worldviews, values, and narratives that make up the culture that we live in.  

MAKING CULTURE SHIFT

Tending to the soil is an invitation to take responsibility for the culture we live in and create. It is an invitation to shift practices that are not in alignment with a healthy ecosystem.  Culture exists on many levels: personal, interpersonal, familial, collective, and institutional. There is culture we create, inherit and reject. What culture dominates is a reflection of power and who holds power. Culture shift happens when we take personal and collective responsibility for the culture we nurture. At the heart of our many cultures and worldviews we find our values.

As a multicultural team that serves a multi-cultural and intergenerational community we find our values are an interconnected web between us. In a conversation with longtime community organizers, Anishinaabe elders, and advocates Ricky DeFoe and Skip Sandman in Duluth, we are asked “what is your culture if you don’t know your values? Organizations want to talk about culture without talking about values, there is no culture without values.” Our culture and values are interlinked.

At Voices for Racial Justice we value our elders, cultural workers, and experts who carry the wisdom that influence us in how we tend to the soil of our movements. We were blessed to have Ricky DeFoe  join us at the beginning of our Duluth organizing training kick off, grounding our circle in an exchange of what values we know are sacred to us and that have been informed by the worldviews of our loving and wise ancestors.

What we value gets our attention, time and resources and what we do not value gets forgotten and eventually left behind, and what is devalued gets destroyed. At Voices for Racial Justice we are aware of how power shapes what gets valued and the culture of how things are done within institutions, from schools to government departments, from the curriculum taught to the policies passed. We are aware of how toxic worldviews create toxic cultures that lead to toxic practices and norms.

We recognize that solutions to injustices and disparities will not come from the very toxic cultures and systems that created them. Nor will mainstream models and approaches to working with communities of color and Indigenous communities that focus on deficit, what is lacking, where there is harm, and what needs “fixing” — as if the people themselves are broken. Although it is true that our communities are facing many forms of injustice and disparities we know programming that focuses on “assimilating” folks of color and Indigenous people devalues the cultures, medicines, resources, and strengths our communities already have. We draw on the strengths, culture, traditions, within our communities as sources of knowledge, creative inspiration, healing and power.

At Voices for Racial Justice we value, honor and respect the diverse worldviews, cultures, and values of people of color and Indigenous people which requires we take a proactive stance against pressures that assimilate, erase and devalue our traditions, ways of being, cultures, history, and languages. Cultural strategy and shared learning requires expansiveness to value other ways of being that are different from our own. We welcome cultural differences while leaning into sharing our collective values informing the culture of racial justice we create together.

 

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