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Medium: The Only Thing that Matters

Yesterday I attended the Black Voices United Candidate Forum. Maranatha Church hosted this black-led space for candidates for Portland Public Schools Board to answer questions of concern from the black community. This event was organized by Nichole Watson and moderated by Sam Thompson.

Michelle DePass and Shanice Clarke — you are both my sheros. I wish both of you could be on our board as we so desperately need all of what you both bring. Thank you for the gift that you both are! I am grateful.

As a white person, this is my letter to the white candidates.

Roll call: Andrew Scott, Deb Mayer, and Robert Schultz — Present

I’m glad to be able to see you in person. Hear your voices. Thank you for being present. From my perspective, you took a very important step of submitting to black leadership, questions, and accountability — and I applaud you for that. This is only the beginning.

Roll call: Amy Kohnstamm (sitting board member), Jeff Sosne, Wes Soderback, and Eilidh Lowery — Absent

Your choice to not be present and accountable to black voices is offensive. A recent audit shows that Portland Public Schools (PPS) are failing its black students and yet, you are not here. We are living in a time when all white people seeking power will be expected to be explicit about how to address racial inequity. Any candidate which fails to address race ultimately centers white dominance.

We’ve been here before

In the last school board election we had two white people who looked and sounded like you. Rita Moore and Scott Bailey campaigned passionately. Both said they were driven to tell a different story in PPS for black and brown students and promised positive change. These two individuals had participated in activism and had some relational ties to black and brown communities. Both said they would be Portland’s equity candidates, but they haven’t been.

Since being elected, both Rita and Scott have failed to:

Stand against the displacement of Kairos — a culturally specific, black charter schoolGive specific commitment about repairing the failures revealed in the auditStand against changing the Rosa Parks schedule, especially when the black and brown people this would most impact were not at the table

Fast forward to today. Each of you sound like Rita and Scott did during their campaign and

we are living the evidence that rhetoric doesn’t matter.

The very nature of a campaign means that you will be trying to prove yourself. A common mistake white people make here is to talk about ourselves with words like first, best, or [insert any positive adjective]. Best or first by who’s definition? We need you to tell us about when you failed and what that taught you. You will prove most qualified to lead PPS when you can connect your failures to ways PPS is failing and how your experience means you have something to offer. White people talking about how amazing they are is exhausting and it entrenches the lie that white people are superior. If white people had the expertise, PPS wouldn’t be the dumpster fire that it is.

Have you ever walked into a black educator’s classroom? I bet Nichole Watson would let you come see how masterfully she sees her students in all of their multiple intelligences. She does this while also rallying her school community to fight a sneaky PPS board vote to change their school calendar, while also getting her doctorate in education, while also leading for black and brown liberation all across our city. Educators like her are a gift to our entire community and PPS would do well to recognize them.

When Sam asked the question “how will you support black students” every one of you said you would listen. This response tells me that you see your role as a white person to somehow help black and brown people. This is white saviorism. There is nothing that white people can do to help black and brown people without first embodying an undying commitment to “do no harm”. If the white community was as committed to getting our boots off of the necks of black and brown people as we were to looking good, we wouldn’t be here. Pointing the finger at ourselves is much harder work than listening and trying to be an ally to black and brown people. You will need to learn more about who you are as a white person. You will need to learn to identify the oppressive norms of white culture and get good at interruptions that expose how it’s functioning without weaponizing your power to do so.

Towards the end of the forum, moderator Sam Thompson gave a personally passionate plea on behalf of his 2-year old black boy who will enter preschool next year when he asked “how will you stop the preschool to prison pipeline”. The first answer was, in short, that there was a reason why black and brown students come to school unprepared to learn and that we needed to address those deficits. The black woman beside me said “oh god, here we go again!”

You see, many white people believe that black and brown students are victims of a home and community that keeps them from being successful students. This reveals our complete lack of understanding and willingness to continue to vilify black and brown people. If we were really listening, as you all suggested you were, then we would have heard stories of how their school environment in Portland breaks their children and families down. Home and community is where they get put back together.

The utter failure admitted in the audit reveals the impact of white violence in schools. When the white people holding power believe that the students we have failed are the problem — we are not only educational terrorists, but we make it worse by blaming our victims. These same youth, safely nestled in their communities: at the park, in church, or at the barber shop — are bright, intelligent, curious, active, vibrant, respectful, funny, playful, joyous, and engaged. White people must be committed to identifying and repairing the harm that’s been caused by our community. We need to hear you say that you won’t stand for any more comments that blame or even sniff at blaming these students, their families or the communities in which they live. I must hear you acknowledge that all students need to feel safe and connected to their educators in order for their brains to learn.

We need to hear each of you say that you will put everything you’ve got into abolishing the white power structures that creates a hostile and life-threatening environment for black and brown students.

As Sam Thompson shared, there are jails being built right now for the future incarceration of the very black and brown 3rd graders we are failing. Are you ok with that? I need you to decide whether you are in or out of this fight. This election will not prove your commitment to black people. As white people in 2019, we are late to this conversation and they need to know that our commitment goes beyond holding a seat of power. Together, we must fight to dismantle the white oppression within our schools and our city. The only apology to the guilt that comes within emerging awareness is changed behavior.

Nothing else matters.

Endnote: When white people enter into the public sphere, we open ourselves up for public feedback. Depending upon the level of discomfort you are used to, this letter might feel critical. It’s common with us white people to think we hold one belief and act as if we believe the opposite. The fact that we operate from such dysconsciousness tells a story of unearned advantage and it dehumanizes ourselves and others. I often say the phrase “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?” and it’s from that posture that I write to you. The statements that were shared publicly yesterday reveal and entrench a white dominant set of beliefs. If we don’t learn how to examine ourselves and each other in a deeper way, we are bound to repeat our mistakes. I’m hoping that after you read this, you’ll reach out. I’d love to have lunch. You may disagree with me. You may have a lot of questions. We need everyone in this fight to reclaim our collective humanity. I love you and I won’t let you or me or our white community stay stuck here. I’m holding us capable and able to do better.

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