Essex Talks About Race & Equity in Schools

by Irene Wrenner

June 1, 2021

5/28/21 Meetings in Essex Center

On Friday, May 28th, two separate conversations about teaching racial equity took place on opposite sides of Center Road.

Anti-Racism Conversation – Grange

The Essex Grange’s main hall was filled to capacity with a mostly maskless crowd.

The evening officially opened with the pledge of allegiance and a verse of "America" ("My Country ‘Tis of Thee").

 

The Public Forum on Schools’ Curriculum featured these speakers: Northeast Kingdom Senator Russ Ingalls, Essex Westford School District board member Liz Cady, and Essex High School Senior Alex Katsnelson.

 

Topics of conversation ranged from First Amendment Rights, such as freedom of speech and the press, to the content of recent education around racism in Essex schools.  

 

Cady, speaking as a parent and not a school board member, said she defines Critical Race Theory (CRT) as an ideology being taught to children as young as five that “says the most important thing about you is your race”. 

 

She believes CRT teaches “shame for the color of their skin” and “shame for our country because our country is systemically racist.” “CRT teaches racial discrimination in the name of ending racial discrimination.”

 

Katsnelson said he’s never seen “a political message being forced on the students to the extent it is now.” Students were asked, he said, to quietly reflect upon how their whiteness contributed to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and other victims of police brutality.

 

He, Cady and others in attendance took umbrage with some statements made in a recent video by Xusana Davis, Vermont’s first Executive Director of Racial Equity. A few examples:

 

“Some people SHOULD feel bad about themselves, but that’s not what we’re gonna do here today.” (4:17)

 

“Are you depressed yet? It’s usually my goal to depress people within the first five minutes of talking. And I hope I’ve succeeded.” (5:41)

 

“Start a riot and make them teach you about [redlining]. Sorry to the history teachers on the call.” (6:35)

A video of this grange meeting may be found here.

Anti-Racism Conversation – Church

Across the street, on the ground floor of the Essex United Methodist Church, a panel discussion, Anti-Racism in our Community, had begun a half hour earlier.

 

A masked and socially-distanced audience heard six female students speak about the approach to anti-racism at Essex High School called Courageous Conversations.

Conversation at the Essex Grange

The subjects of equity and equality are meant to be discussed during students’ Advisory period ― time that is normally used for homework, mentoring, or counseling.

 

Among the comments these students offered:

 

  • Easier not to talk about racism, when you don’t see it right in front of you.

 

  • School is a safe space to have these conversations, but it’s hard when the teachers look to us [racial minorities] to help them.

 

  • Some Teachers are against doing anti-racism training.  Teachers seem to feel it’s an inconvenience / impeding progress on the academic subject they were trained and hired to teach.

 

  • Some students were permitted to use their phones as the training video played.

 

  • [From a student of color:] Having these conversations is part of them understanding who I am!

 

  • BIPOC students were allowed to leave Advisory, it was announced, during this training.

 

A video of this church meeting may be found here.

 

According to promotional materials, this work on equity is not only important to our schools but also “to our community, state and nation.” Organizer Tanya Vyhovsky said she had planned the event in just 48 hours, after learning about the grange gathering, which may explain the relatively small size of the crowd.

 

Attendees generally acknowledged that there was more work to be done but, for the majority of the student speakers, the conversations thus far were ineffective.

In fact, students present at both the church and grange events seemed to agree ― for very different reasons ― that the schools' approach, called Courageous Conversations, isn’t working well.

 

Because the two conversations that night were separate, those with opposing views about the value and methods of educating against racism were unable to hear each other’s messages. Therefore, neither side could make progress toward understanding the other.

 

The school district might want to consider the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you want peace, don’t talk to your friends, talk to your enemies.”

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Conversation at the Essex United Methodist Church