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School board members of color have the floor
Parkrose School Board Chair Sonja Mckenzie facilitated a 2019 OSBA Annual Convention workshop on racial incidents at sporting events the same day she learned her daughter had faced racist taunts at a football game. “We have to start with being really honest with where we are and where we need to be,” Mckenzie said recently. (Photo courtesy of Sonja Mckenzie)
Parkrose High School’s Black athletes and cheerleaders often face a gauntlet of hateful muttering and suspicious eyes when they travel to other schools.
They brushed it off at a football game in southern Oregon last year as they often do, said Mariah Mckenzie, who will be a senior this year. When the Portland-area students boarded the bus after the game, though, Mariah said they found the driver in tears, upset over “disgusting” things she had heard in the concession line directed toward Parkrose students.
The next morning, Mariah told her mother: “I’m so tired of this. When is it going to stop, Mom? When are you going to get this to stop?”
Her mother, Parkrose School Board Chair Sonja Mckenzie, says current events have offered an opportunity.
“It just seems like now I have the floor,” said Sonja Mckenzie, who is Black.
The Black Lives Matter protests have raised awareness of racism’s rot in public institutions, including schools. School board members of color see new openings and awakened allies in the fight for equity.
School boards need to take this opportunity to clearly state their purpose of dismantling systemic racism in schools, said Mckenzie, who is also an OSBA Board member. Training on equity and racial bias are essential, she said.
“We have to take a stand,” Mckenzie said. “We have to bring people onto school boards who believe that all children, that Black children, deserve to have equity.”
The protests sometimes get lumped together under a general anti-racism movement, but Black Lives Matter calls attention to the unique history of violence, discrimination and marginalization against Black people. In schools, studies show Black students disproportionately face discipline and have lower academic outcomes.
Mckenzie said many parents, especially mothers, reached out to her after George Floyd died at police hands. Parents suddenly felt the extra terror Black parents live with every time their children leave the house.
School board members of color can share those types of personal stories of lived experiences that open hearts to the struggles of students of color, Mckenzie said, but it comes with a price.
“That’s part of your soul you are sharing, and there is relived trauma,” she said.
People of color need space to heal after such difficult conversations and they can’t be asked to do that at every meeting, Mckenzie said.
Mckenzie is quick to point out that she cannot represent all people of color in Parkrose’s diverse community. But she can advocate for diversity and equity and she can help start conversations and build bridges between communities of color and White leaders, she said.
People of color in leadership have a responsibility to help create a path and support the rise of other people of color, Mckenzie said. She is a director in the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus, which supports the development of new leaders.
“As an elected person of color on my board, the only person of color, I can’t do everything,” she said. “I would love to see someone else continue that work when I leave.”
Caucus President Bill Graupp, a North Marion School Board member, said people of color often must shoulder the extra burden of not just looking at how every policy or decision might affect students of color but also helping the community and White school board members see the potential racism.
“We have to call it out and at some points argue it – why didn’t you see this?” said Graupp, an OSBA Board member.
School board members of color tread a fine line so they are not perceived as carrying a message of hate or seeking special treatment, he said.
“We are here for equity,” Graupp said. “We are not fighting for revenge.”
North Clackamas School Board Chair Libra Forde recalls talking to a Black student who had given a presentation to the school board. After the presentation, she told Forde she had been warned not to speak her entire truth because the board might perceive her as angry.
“We teach you that you don’t get to be who you are,” Forde said.
She sees students of color walking around with the extra weight of representing more than themselves and being judged. Forde, who is Black, says she feels it as a board member too.
“We are always expected to do wrong or not be worthy of the seat,” she said.
Forde said her board experience has been mostly positive, with lots of growth opportunity. She has a seat where decisions are made, and she wants to bring others to the table.
“I feel like I stand on the shoulders of some pretty prominent ancestors,” she said, “and so I feel like there is an absolute responsibility to continue to move the group forward.”
She has also seen the inequitable foundations of some school policies and practices.
“My fears have been confirmed in a lot of places,” she said.
Hillsboro School Board Chair Erika Lopez said school board members have to maintain the pressure to move the needle toward equity because the default is institutional racism.
“We have historically survived our education institutions as people of color,” Lopez said. “We want our students not to survive, but to thrive. We want it to be different.”
Lopez, an OSBA Board member, said school boards can’t wait until they have a member of color to address racism. She said school boards need to go into the community and find those who can do the work, not wait for them to come to the school.
The Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus can be a resource for boards that are not diverse, said Lopez, a caucus director.
Hillsboro is setting up meetings with parents and families to hear their experiences. School board members have to ensure students feel safe and protected when they tell their stories so they are not retraumatized, Lopez said.
Mariah Mckenzie of Parkrose says the pain is intensified when White teachers or administrators don’t fully recognize the hurts students of color are feeling, when they diminish or don’t acknowledge racist actions.
But she also said it feels important when White adults stand up for students of color. She said it feels like something can get done.
The bus driver didn’t file a report and no official action was taken after the football game incident, Sonja Mckenzie said.
Mariah isn’t sure exactly what she expected school leaders to do.
“I think I just really wanted them to talk to the (other) school … to have justice, just not let them walk away like that and believe it is OK,” she said. “Just for people to understand how wrong it was and to have some sort of consequence.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
North Clackamas School Board Chair Libra Forde said it is important for students to see leaders of color. “The first step is showing it can be done,” Forde said. (Photo courtesy of Libra Forde)