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Community members are asked to reflect: 'What biases hold us back from creating an inclusive community for all?'

Understanding our own biases and leaving our comfort zones can help connect us, according to Bill de la Cruz.

"It's very comfortable to be with people who look like me from my own racial, ethnic, gender, age background — when I'm in a group of people who are different from me, I have to really push myself out of my comfort zone versus asking them to push themselves out of their comfort zone," he said.

De la Cruz, who is well-versed in works with the district as an equity consultant, was the keynote speaker during the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's third annual Equity Summit Monday, Jan. 24. About 150 community members met over Zoom for the virtual event, with appearances from community organizations, chamber members, Wilsonville Mayor Julie Fitzgerald and West Linn mayor Jules Walters.

Superintendent Kathy Ludwig said the summit's theme, "Leading for Equity," aligned with its equity action plan — a four-pillar plan prioritizing actions that create an educational community for students.

"It reminds us that to be a culturally-responsive leader, we really have to engage within a community sense. We can't isolate ourselves as schools or other organizations … When we leverage community engagement, that's when we're the most successful, especially in reaching our minoritized students and families," said Ludwig.

The district invited Colt Gill, a director at the Oregon Department of Education, to share the steps the state has taken to advance equity and anti-racism in schools. Gill cited ethnic studies standards that are offered in every school district as well as protocols that ensure every student sees themselves represented in their classroom's curriculum.

"These equity and anti-racist policies benefit every single student in Oregon; they aren't focused on supporting some students and oppressing others. These are all about serving every student and making sure that every student has an equitable access to their education," he said.

De la Cruz carried the summit home by engaging in conversation with community members about how to be equitable neighbors to one another.

"I have to know what my neighbor's needs are. I have to be able to adapt and address those based on what they need — not based on what I think they need," he said.

In his presentation, de la Cruz explained how everyone has a role in creating a sense of belonging for others. In a school setting, de la Cruz invited community members to reflect on the social groups they are a part of and ask themselves, "Who isn't here and why aren't they here?"

"The idea here is to really think about what we each have to do to be more inclusive of other people because, even for me, belonging is the idea that I can be a part of a group, an organization, a school, a community … without having to give up a part of myself to do so," de la Cruz said.

During an interactive portion of the presentation, de la Cruz asked attendees to think of a time when they felt a sense of belonging. He then asked participants to raise their hand if they could think of a time where they felt like they belonged.

A majority of the participants raised their hands.

"My presumption based on that is that we all know what it takes to create a sense of belonging for ourselves and for other people. So the question I asked myself, many times, is: 'If I know how to do it, why don't I?', de la Cruz said.

In closing, West Linn-Wilsonville School Board Chair Chelsea King mirrored a point de la Cruz made during his presentation, that existing systems and relationships have been incredibly challenged during the pandemic. But we are in our "rebuilding" period.

She asked participants to reflect on one thing they would change to foster a system in which everyone is included.

"I think we each have an opportunity in front of us tonight to ask, 'What is one thing we can change in a system in which we belong?' And 'What is one thing we can do differently in relationships?' If we each take that out into our respective organizations and families and communities, then we will make the change that we know we need to make," King said.


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