'I want them to talk about it': Kent group discusses need for racial equity in classrooms
Educators talked about the need for greater equity in their classroom and how to have tough conversations with students at a forum on education and race this week in Kent.
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The Kent InterFaith Alliance for Racial Justice and Reconciliation hosted the discussion, which took place Tuesday evening in Hobbs Hall behind the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent. The panel included two current teachers, Christie Bates, a fifth grade teacher at Holden Elementary School in Kent and Susan Louis, a fourth grade teacher at Holden; and Joseph Shaw, a retired middle school teacher in Kent. Curtis Black, a basketball coach at Theodore Roosevelt High School and graduate of the Kent school district, offered recorded comments.
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Nancy Warlop of the InterFaith Alliance said the forum, the second in a series, was put together because of "attacks" on education, locally and nationwide, with criticism of equity and inclusion and bans on lessons on racial equity that teachers had been offering for years.
Geraldine Hayes-Nelson, former president of the Portage County NAACP, served as moderator of the discussion.
Bates, whose sons are biracial, said her boys faced racism for the first time when, as middle school students, their friends said racist things to them. The boys, she said, had known these friends since first grade.
The incident inspired Bates to discuss racism with her fifth grade students.
"I want them to talk about it, and hopefully see them not make the shift my boys' friends did," she said.
Louis said she's noticed that Black students tend to be over-represented in special education programs, and under-represented in gifted programs.
"That to me feels wrong," she said.
Hayes Nelson said the NAACP sued the state of Ohio and won over Black students being over-represented in special education in large city school districts.
Shaw, who experienced Jim Crow laws during his childhood, said his upbringing helped inspire him to educate students about his own culture.
"In order for us to get to where we are going, we have to understand where we came from," he said, adding that he does not like to be called "African American."
"If you can tell me where in Africa your ancestors took my ancestors, I'll be African American," he said. "I'm a Black man."
Black said growing up in Kent, racism from his white peers was more subtle and came across in biases that most people weren't aware they had.
"At the end of the day, you get along with most kids, but you're also different," he said.
When asked about messages students were receiving, Bates said she is concerned about social media. Not only is it easier to say harmful things to people when you're not face to face, but information is tailored so people aren't seeing opposing viewpoints.
Louis said she is concerned that youth are getting the message that their lives aren't valued.
"The fact that this is even a debate, that is very troubling to me," she said.
Hayes Nelson said it is troublesome that youth are being told that their history is not valued "and it's Black history month."
"We have to think of the emotional impact of that," she said.
Shaw and Black both talked about knowing people who had connections to slavery. Black said he remembered his great grandmother, who lived to the age of 106 and was the descendant of slaves, and said slavery was "a few sets of grandparents away."
Shaw said a neighbor of his growing up was born into slavery in 1860.
Hayes Nelson said complaints about racism in Portage County are increasing, and parents who complain are concerned their children will experience retaliation as a result.
"The county declared racism a public health crisis, and then we never heard about it," she said. "Did it go away?"
Retired teacher Cindy Botzman of the InterFaith Alliance closed the forum by reading a quote from former First Lady Michelle Obama, who said it is everyone's responsibility to root out racism.
"Education is the key to rooting it out," she said.
Reporter Diane Smith can be reached at 330-298-1139 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Kent Interfaith group hosts discussion on race and education