'A lot of it comes from ignorance'
Olivia Klugman, a 2015 Wilsonville High School graduate, said learning about the harsh realities of racism today would have gone a long way in squashing the racial ignorance and prejudice she carried in high school.
It wasn't until after high school, she said, that she learned her fascination with a Black friend's hair was in fact a racist microagression. This was just one example of the many lessons on race Klugman wished she had learned during her time in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District (WL-WV).
Klugman, who transferred to WHS following her freshman year at West Linn High School, recently created a petition to add anti-racist curriculum at WL-WV high schools.
Klugman posted the petition, which now has over 1,500 signatures, last month as conversations about systemic racism and policing sparked mass movements around the country following the police killings of George Floyd,Breonna Taylor and others.
The petition calls for coverage of the modern Black Lives Matter movement, redlining, Oregon's own racist history, the prison-industrial complex and reflection from students on their own experiences with race.
"Assign readings written by abolitionist authors like Angela Davis and Bell Hooks so students can better envision a world without police or prisons," the petition reads. "Train teachers to be cognizant of not tokenizing their black students in these conversations and centering change-based discussion instead of racial trauma-based discussion by limiting violent imagery against Black and brown bodies."
The petition laments the fact that, in most high school history courses, students learn about racism strictly as a piece of history.
"This is far from true, and students are often shielded from this reality in insular white communities like West Linn and Wilsonville," it states.
Wilsonville High School social studies teacher Dominick DeGiovanni said he is trying to fight this notion by teaching about the prison-industrial complex and the Black Panther Party in his Street Law (program of law and civics education for high school students) class and amplifying Black voices in his music history class.
DeGiovanni explained that in high school history courses, the fight for racial justice is taught within a frame of success.
The civil rights movement and Emancipation Proclamation are heralded as historic victories, when in reality they were largely failures, he said. These moments are taught as if they achieved racial justice, rather than framing the pursuit of racial equality as an ongoing struggle, Degiovanni explained. Textbooks also lend themselves to this pre-packaged framing of history, he added.
Degiovanni also said a strict set of curriculum doesn't lead to critical thinking, a problem exacerbated by focus on standardized tests like AP exams.
Test-focused classes lead to students memorizing material rather than critically engaging with it, he said.
Todd Jones, a WLHS social studies teacher who taught US History for the first time this past year, said he tries to frame his classes in a way that shows how history affects the world today.
"I don't know how someone could talk about civil rights in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and not apply it to what's going on today," Jones said.
Both social studies teachers commended the district for its efforts to diversify curricula in recent years.
Jones also pointed to Oregon Department of Education social studies standards, updated in 2018, which require many of the concepts Klugman's petition calls for.
"Analyze and explain persistent historical, social and political issues, conflicts and compromises in regards to power, inequality and justice and their connection to current events and movements," reads one state standard Jones called attention to.
WL-WV Superintendent Kathy Ludwig responded to the petition and other inquiries about the district's equity efforts in a letter to the West Linn-Wilsonville community sent June 19, or Juneteenth (the day when the last slaves in the United States learned they were free).
In the email, Ludwig explained that the district altered reading lists and expanded selections in classrooms and libraries to include more authors of color, and revised social studies units for a more comprehensive understanding of racial equity and social justice.
"Our District Equity Team and each school's Equity Team create goals to disrupt systems of racism and foster a culture of inclusivity and care across the district," according to the letter. "School Equity Teams have hosted workshops on microaggressions and implicit bias."
The district's 2019-2020 Equity Action Plan outlines proposals for district- and school-wide teams of teachers and administrators to examine and improve aspects of equity in schools.
Ludwig also mentioned book titles from authors of color added to school libraries, classrooms and class reading lists, an effort Klugman praised.
The books Ludwig mentioned would be much better lessons on race than the ones she read for class, Klugman said.
"I remember reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and while I think that's still an important book, it's from a white perspective and it does show this saviorism and it was also written about times way, way back in the day," Klugman explained. "It kind of gave this message that this happened a long time ago and wouldn't happen now."
Ludwig's letter also covers the district's support of students of color.
"As a district, we have hired more staff, teachers, principals, and district leaders of color than at any other time in the history of our district," the letter reads. "It is critical that our students see and experience a representation of themselves in the leaders, teachers, and staff in their schools."
District officials didn't provide data on diversity in hirings but pointed to Goal No. 3 of the District Equity Plan which says diversity in positions across the district is a priority.
Klugman felt the district has plenty of room for improvement on this matter.
She said she recently looked at the staff directories of WLHS and WHS and was hard pressed to find many teachers of color. Klugman said it makes sense for lessons on racism to come from teachers of color who have actually experienced racism.
Ludwig's letter also mentioned that classes are set up to invite respectful dialogue between students.
In primary schools, the letter continues, students are taught empathy, conflict resolution and emotional regulation to promote belonging and respect of multiple perspectives.
Ludwig's letter also mentions culture-based groups in high schools like the Indigenous Student Union, Black Student Union, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, Middle Eastern and Indian Sub-Continent Affinity Group, and Pacific Island and East Asian Affinity Group.
DeGiovanni said he hopes that recent events spur the district to double down on efforts to diversify learning and teach anti-racism.
Klugman said she appreciated Ludwig's letter and the district's efforts to diversify curriculum, and is hoping for the chance to speak with Ludwig on the matter soon.
"One thing that was missing from her statement was including the history of Oregon and how there is a lot of history of racial exclusion, even compared to the rest of the US and how that still happens today," she said, adding that it's important to learn about the specific types of racism prevalent in this community.
She believes education on these matters can help fight racism amongst the student body, especially as she thinks back to the racially insensitive comments she made in high school.
"While a lot of racism does come with malintent and the intent to be exclusionary and be outwardly harmful, a lot of it comes from ignorance of white people," she said. "Education can really help people who are ignorant and don't know any better because they were raised in such an insular white environment."
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