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July 15, 2020

Kingston educators begin community-wide book group on race

Author: Liza Frenette
kingston reads

Amy Kapes (left) and Charlotte Adamis, Kingston Teachers Federation. Photos provided.

Sometimes a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single book.

In Kingston, that book is “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo. City residents are reading it as a group called Kingston Reads. A hundred readers attended the first virtual meeting on Zoom July 2. Sessions continue July 16 and July 30.

Social worker Amy Kapes and librarian Charlotte Adamis — members of the Kingston Teachers Federation  — joined Assistant Principal Kathy Sellitti to launch the group. In recent years they have worked with colleagues to study racism through programs offered by the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and from NYSUT through an NEA grant. Along with workshops and professional development programs, they have read “So You Want to Talk About Race,” “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, and “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom” by Bettina Love.

Kapes decided to bring in the community on this shared journey.

“The people in the community didn’t know we were doing this work and that we’re committed to it,” she said. “It needs to be a community effort.”

“This is the critical piece of doing the work. You can’t do it alone,” said Adamis.

“We emphasize that we want it to be a dialogue,” Kapes said.

The first discussion night, 70 people joined the Zoom call, and another 30 live streamed it on YouTube. More people have watched it since. Initial topics included police accountability and cultural appropriation.

An anonymous donor provided 300 books that can be picked up for free at the local bookstore and bar, Rough Draft, where co-owner Amanda Stromoski had offered space for the new group to meet prior to COVID-19. The YMCA also became a pick-up site for people who wanted to borrow the book; the copies came from teachers who had already read it.

When COVID-19 curtailed plans to gather as a group, the team set up Zoom meetings. In collaboration with Rough Draft and Radio Kingston they created an event page on Facebook with guiding questions to begin discussion. Questions about the book or the gatherings can be submitted online.

Despite the setbacks of the pandemic, Sellitti said, “We felt it was important to get it done... to do the work to try to dismantle systems that oppress people.”

She said the district’s students are about 50 percent white, and 50 percent black and brown. The faculty is not diverse, and the district has been working to change that.

“Books are an entry,” said Adamis. “Through reading we get to enter into other worlds. I get to see in a way I might not otherwise be privy to.”

Reading books allows people to privately wrestle with issues and reflect, and then to engage with others, Kapes said. “So You Want to Talk About Race” discusses the history and context of racism, and the guilt, fear and defensiveness that white people can harbor, she said.

Reading provides a foundation, Adamis said. “As activists, we have to go beyond. The decision has to be at this point to do something.”

The district offers studies of racial issues for faculty and staff. Before taking part, Adamis said, she was more isolated and ignorant of the issues.

“Once I got over my embarrassment, I began reading, asking questions, taking workshops,” she said. The NYSUT program for educators on racial equity, which Kingston has participated in for three years as part of an NEA grant, has been “another layer peeled back,” she said.

Adamis has led book studies for faculty and staff at the middle school. “When they talked about doing a city-wide program (Kingston Reads), I jumped at it,” she said.

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