On a hot July day many years ago, Philippe Abraham landed in New York City from Haiti at 17 years old. His brown skin set him apart, and his clipped accent, he said, gave most people the immediate assumption that he was hard to understand and didn’t know English.
“With each assumption there is judgment,” said Abraham, NYSUT secretary-treasurer and a former K-12 and college teacher. “It would’ve been easy to let that stop me from progressing. It can be paralyzing.”
Instead, he relied on perseverance — and allies — to keep moving ahead.
“I’m a Caribbean dish with spice. I’m a curry! My accent is part of that spice,” Abraham said, addressing a room full of 600 students who broke out clapping and laughing during an event in Rochester.
The students, from 36 schools throughout western New York, had gathered with educators for the annual Roc2Change summit on race.
Discussions brought out heated stories, spurred ideas for change and focused on frustrations centered on the lack of diversity among teachers. There was also talk of individual but not cultural acceptance, the school to prison pipeline, economic disparity, housing and related issues. One student presenter spoke of the fact that 40 percent of students expelled each year are black, and 68 percent of males in state and federal prisons do not have a high school education.
“We need to hear from students,” said Karen Lee Wilson, president of the School-Related Professionals for the Wheatfield-Chili Federation of Teachers, who brought 12 students to the summit.
While some schools in this region crisscross urban-suburban students to mix the student population, Wilson said her school has a naturally high population of families of color, yet “we do not have a diverse population of adults who work at our school.”
During the summit, African drummers played while students gathered at round tables. At the front of the room hung the flags of Pan Africa, Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America. In some groups, students wore suits. In many others, they wore matching T-shirts.
Roc2Change organizer Joe DiTucci, a Spencerport Teachers Association educator and a diversity club advisor, said it’s important for students to examine structural racism.
“This is all led by students,” he said.
Mike LaBue (pictured above at center), a Greece Teachers Association member, brought his English class. The teens started out as a club, and their interests eventually were turned into curriculum. Their group is called ‘Mosaics,’ because, as LaBue explained, sometimes “everything’s broken, and together it becomes beautiful.”
“Roc2Change is our curriculum,” he said, adding that students are given the green light to discuss topics deeply and freely.
The class is now focusing on how to leave their legacy at the school, and is already working on a building mural, mentoring younger students, and bringing in clothes for those in need.
A 21-year veteran teacher, LaBue said the Legacy Project was “born out of need. There’s a big need for hope” in the high-poverty, transient school, he said. “A lot of the kids don’t have the base we can take for granted.
“We talk about…the importance of unions in class,” LaBue said, “because the middle class is disappearing. Now they have words to connect to what they see.” Students, he said, also sign up to vote in class, because “that’s their voice!”
Race and diversity are part of faculty education in Fairport, where school psychologist Kelly Weishaar, and Kathryn O’Brien, an English special-ed teacher, work. They said their district offers teachers a professional development program called Seeking Education, Equity and Diversity.
O’Brien runs the high school club ‘Demonstrate Racial Equality for All Mankind,’ where she said students talk about the obstacles they face as well as their positive experiences.
Weishaar, meanwhile, said her role as a school psychologist has shifted so that three days a week she focuses on Title I mental-health school outreach to address poverty, diversity, equity and access. That charge includes meeting with groups of students, particularly English language learners. While still a low number, she said the school’s immigrant/refugee population has doubled.
The school also has brought what she calls “a culturally responsive lens” to other mental health development concerns. When contacting the family of a child with an atypical cultural background, for example, it is important to learn about that culture’s stand on mental health problems. They may feel shame, they may not subscribe to therapy – or, they may embrace it, free of the “stigma that Americans hold,” Weishaar said.
Diversity is often lost in sports and arts, and the school is examining data on who is participating, and what is holding back those who are not.
“Our next step, once we find patterns, is to look at what are the barriers, and how can we address them?” she said.