Petition urges Wellesley schools to address diversity issues

Wellesley High School’s Young Ethnic Scholars (YES) group has been doing work centered around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) in the schools and the town for almost two years. Last spring during a walk-out from Wellesley High School, YES spoke loud and clear on the WHS football field and outlined a list of of changes they wanted to see enacted in the schools. The walk-out was organized in response to racist occurrences in the schools that the school administration agreed had gone far beyond what could be termed “isolated incidents.”

Young Ethnic Scholars, Wellesley
A group of Wellesley High School students participated in a sit-in inside the school and then walked out of class and onto the athletic field. 2019 The Swellesley Report file photo.

Since the walk-out, the group and other student leaders have been meeting with Principal Jamie Chisum on a regular basis to hold conversations and discuss next steps toward a school environment that is more inclusive and welcoming to all.

As a reminder, YES in 2019 demanded the following:

  • That students of color be included in any decisions about police presence in the schools.
  • That students of color be given full access to a safe space during lunch.
  • That more teachers of color be hired.
  • For mandatory professional development with students of color to discuss school structures that perpetuate ingrained biases.
  • For professional development for staff around race, privilege, and bias.
  • For an action plan on how racists incidents would be dealt with going forward.

Now a new petition is circulating, and it touches on the same themes Young Ethnic Scholars have built their club and their activist work around.

Recent WHS graduate and co-founder of YES Yasmine Jaffier noted that the new “petition is exactly what we have been asking for. I signed that petition. I hope YES and the leaders of the petition can work together because it is better that way to get change.”

We’re wondering if this new petition is necessary. Not that calls to action do not bear repeating but did YES, a group that has been laying groundwork and fighting the fight for almost two years, ask for this kind of help? Might this new petition read as a well-intentioned attempt to do something big, right now, without first doing collaborative work and building partnerships?

The school administration has been answering emails all day, one of the intended results of the petition, which called for sending a separate email to almost 50 WPS administrators, candidates up for election, and DE&I Leadership Council members.

According to Lussier, “A number of current and former students have been reaching out to me and members of our team since yesterday to express their strong desire for WPS to be actively engaged in combating systemic racism and discrimination.  I think I speak for all of our educators when I say that we applaud these efforts, which represent the type of active engagement we are striving to engender in all students.”

He pointed out that Wellesley has been working on targeted recruitment efforts to help diversify the staff; curricula changes that include diversifying reading lists; addressing opportunity gaps between and among students, and more. “We clearly have much work still to do.”

Last year Town Meeting approved a request for funding to create the position of Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, now filled by Dr. Charmie Curry. Part of Curry’s work is to help the schools deepen existing efforts and take those efforts in new directions.

Curry was also aware of the petition. Like us, she says she is not sure where it originated, but that she is grateful to have the opportunity to listen to the experiences of the young adults who have gone through the WPS. “In my first months in my new role,” she said, “I have made a commitment to listen to as many voices as possible, and use what I am hearing and observing to help craft our district’s DE&I strategy. I am in the middle of that work now as I conclude my entry, and thus appreciate the suggestions that have been put forth. I look forward to authentically engaging the wider WPS community on our efforts to become a culturally-sustaining, anti-racist institution.” 

Heard the word “exhausting” much lately? Could you be “exhausting”?

In a post on Medium.com by Wellesley College graduate Meera Mohan-Graham, titled “Anti-racism is about humility: a message to the newly awakened,” she asked white people to “HOLD. PAUSE. BREATHE. PAUSE AGAIN. If you barrel forward right now, you are about to create a bunch of work and distractions for people that are already engaged in this stuff.”

Mohan-Graham suggests that white people follow the lead of people of color when it comes to calls for action in the current movement. “Whether calling, signing a petition, donating, etc. DO NOT OVERSTEP…Do not try to contribute or lead beyond doing exactly what has been asked of you.”

The idea is to avoid detracting from existing momentum through misguided efforts. “We still have a long journey ahead. Welcome aboard; now please have a seat and start reading the manuals,” she says.

This can be hard to hear and absorb for a population that has been brought up to believe that going above and beyond the call of duty is a positive attribute. That taking the bull by the horns is to be applauded. That rolling up your sleeves and getting down to work is the only way to get things done. That when others are hurting, to do anything less that dive right in and help is engaging in bystander behavior. Right?

But the cliches don’t tell the whole story about how to get a job done. Unlike people, all situations, all struggles, are not created equal.

At an Interfaith Demonstration at Wellesley Village Church in Wellesley Square last weekend, church member Gary Arthur spoke on the marble steps and told us why this is so hard. It has to do with what he called the big and loud story. Arthur said, “This story is bigger than me and you. It tells the tale of hatred, mental abuse, violence, spite, disregard, segregation, rape, unemployment, incarceration, and so many more horrid things. I pray it is the story which will give you the breath to utter three words: BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

HOLD. PAUSE. BREATHE. PAUSE AGAIN.

Wellesley Village Church, BLM demonstration
Wellesley Village Church member Gary Arthur spoke of the need for justice and hope that the bigger story of Black people in America will be told “from the end of slavery to why we are all here today.”

The story Arthur is talking about is long. As a society we haven’t even made it through chapter one. That just may be the good news. I’m not sure where we are in the story arc of our country, of  our world, but I can tell this much. Right now we’re moving somewhere along the line of the rising action. It’s up to us to determine what the climax and resolution look like.

Supt. Lussier’s response to those who have reached out via the petition:

Thank you for taking the time to reach out.  WPS is hearing from many current and former students with the same message of frustration and a desire for action.  The fundamental racism and discrimination that our black community has long-faced cannot be ignored and WPS stands with you in wanting our schools to play a prominent role in deconstructing the beliefs and practices that have perpetuated systemic racism and inequality in our community and nation.

 Many of us chose education as our profession because of our deeply held beliefs in addressing these subjects in particular.

 There are a number of steps that our district has and is taking to maintain a focus on equity, to improve our practice, and to ensure that we are providing a learning environment where all students, staff, and families feel safe and supported.  I encourage you to visit the Equity page on our website to learn more about this work.

 I believe what’s most important right now is for us to be listening.  Listening to the experiences of our students and alumni, listening to our families, and listening to our staff of color.  We often say that in order to make progress on issues of race, we have to be willing to lean into moments of discomfort.  This is one of those times.

 While this very challenging school year is ending early next week, we are actively working on ways that we can facilitate these conversations in the coming months.  We are also committed to ensuring that these topics are a prominent focus in our planning for the coming school year.

I’m so proud of the way our students and alumni are engaging in these critical topics for our community and country.  One of our goals as a school system is for graduates to not only respect human differences, but to challenge inequities.  Thank you for challenging us to be better as a school system and, with your help, we will be.