SCHENECTADY — A group of four black Schenectady City School District leaders opened a window into the kinds of challenges and slights they face on a regular basis while demonstrating new groups formed to discuss those issues.
The demonstration, which came during the district’s annual teacher training conference in Albany on Tuesday, was pulled from real issues faced by Schenectady teachers and staff. “These are all things that have really happened,” said Alicia Holt, the district’s equity and culturally-responsive education supervisor.
Al Tompkins, who works as a community specialist in the district, said during a school visit he met with a black teacher who had recently blown out her hair into an afro, a style the teacher said she didn’t usually wear at work.
“It was a big fro,” Tompkins said. “It was really nice.”
But Tompkins said the teacher seemed down and explained to him how her colleagues reacted to the style change: One white teacher came up and touched her hair without asking. Holt said something similar happened to her but with an administrator looking to touch her hair; she said a third person raised the same issue during one of their groups, called “affinity groups.”
“As much as I would like to think this is not a thing, this does not happen …,” Holt said of the invasive hair touching. “How is this happening in 2019 so commonly and so frequently?”
From there the conversation moved into the language people use to convey the racial slights black people and other people of color experience on a regular basis, so-called “micro-aggressions” that can seriously hurt someone’s social and emotions well being.
Like an awkward request to touch a new hairstyle, a lot of unwanted behavior is chalked up to a micro-aggression. Another breakout session at Tuesday’s conference centered on how to respond to micro-aggressions in class.
“I hate that term micro-aggression,” said Damonni Farley, who also works as a community specialist in Schenectady schools. “You say that and it makes it sound small … but the impact is anything but micro.”
The group of educators were demonstrating how the district’s new affinity groups are meant to serve as an outlet for racial and other marginalized groups of staff to gather from across the district to share common experiences and voice those issues to district leaders.
One teacher at the demonstration asked if it was more about providing support for individual staff or for initiating broader organizational change. It’s about making big organizational change, Tompkins answered.
“Us forming [this group] is to bring voice for systemic change; we look to speak into the system,” Tompkins said. “Is this an issue that keeps coming up and keeps coming up?”
The affinity groups are organized by a facilitator. One teacher in the crowd raised concerns about how anonymous a grievance can stay given the still small percentage of teachers of color in the district.
Continuing their demonstration, the district leaders, who participate in one of the first affinity groups formed in the district for black employees, discussed common refrains they hear about the difficulty in hiring more people of color for teaching and leadership positions.
“People always tell me I can’t find qualified black people, they aren’t applying,” said Patrick Jean-Pierre, the district’s assistant director for recruitment, retention and diversity. “I’m right here. It always sounds like it’s an excuse not to hire black people.”
He said he is sometimes asked whether the district should be looking to hire teachers of color or teachers to educate children. Hiring teachers of color is hiring teachers to educate children, he said.
“What I say are my opinions, what white people say are facts,” he said. He pointed out the mounting academic research showing the importance of students of color having a teacher of color whom they can relate to; if a black student has a black teacher by third grade, he or she is more likely to read at proficiency, graduate high school and go on to college, according to research.
“I didn’t say, the research says,” he added.
They also described feeling as though their perspective as black people can be dismissed up until the point when it is desperately needed to meet with families or engage a student.
“It’s a valued commodity when there’s a situation that I need to help fix a problem,” Farley said. “It’s only valued when it’s needed in that moment. We don’t value it enough.”
Farley said if he, someone who works closely with school leaders and staff, feels that way sometimes, how must the students and families of color feel about how they are treated, he asked.
“If I feel that, how do students and families feel?” Farley said during the demonstration. “That black tax is a very real thing.”