Love Over Hate
By Babatunde Ilori, Executive Director of Accountability and Communications
IN EARLY JUNE 2020, a week after George Floyd’s death, I received a text that changed the way I see my role as an employee of Madera Unified and what it means to be truly Anti-Racist. Two MUSD students, Mary Idowu and Jeremiah Goodman, asked for help to organize a peaceful protest in Madera. I had the pleasure of having already met them pre-COVID-19 pandemic. After the WestEd African American Student achievement report was presented in January 2020, the Superintendent requested to hold listening sessions with our Black Student Union. The Board and District leadership was invited to listen and hear the voices of our students’ struggles, pain, and hurt experienced in our schools. We held multiple preparation meetings to allow our students to formulate their thoughts and words for their time with leadership.
On Friday, March 13, schools closed across the state of California and, unfortunately, we did not end up holding the scheduled listening sessions. However, months later our students contacted us for support with organizing a protest in response to George Floyd’s May 25th death. I initially tried to convince them to do something else due to safety concerns. Some protest over George Floyd’s death had turned violent. As a staff member for Madera Unified, we always prioritize student safety, and this was no different. Our students were deeply passionate about doing this and reassured us it would be safe, and they already had plans to contact the Madera police department and city leadership for support with this peaceful demonstration.
Our students were able to bring together law enforcement, city leaders, and the school district to support the planning and event management of the peaceful protest called, Unify Madera, Love Over Hate. I was, and continue to be, impressed with the leadership our students exhibited while organizing the peaceful protest. The students led many planning meetings that went long into the night, talking through all the details to make the event safe and successful. The Madera Police Department was fully supportive of our students and developed a stronger community bond through the work. The students even invited Police Chief Lawson and Mayor Medellin to speak at the event, an invitation they both enthusiastically accepted. Over 600 community members came in support of our students, including city and county leaders. The event was truly a unifying, blessed experience for all in attendance. We are grateful that Mary and Jeremiah contacted us for support, and our district, along with the Madera police department and the City, made the right decision to fully back our students and stand in solidarity with them as they led. This is what it means for a community to become Anti-Racist: to speak out when you see racism in action, to unequivocally yield positions of power to those otherwise marginalized.
One of our district’s core values is Equity before Equality. Equity before Equality means ensuring every student has what they need to succeed in our district. This may mean that certain students do require significantly more resources to get educated at high levels, feel like they matter, and are seen and heard in our district.
One of the favorite aspects of my job is when I meet with our parents and students. Every year, we facilitate several community meetings, as a part of the LCAP development process. We always start the meeting by looking at data, presenting metrics from the California Dashboard, which include results based on student demographics, such as race / ethnicity, primary language spoken at home, sex and grade level. After the data review, we break community members into small groups to discuss ways we can make improvements to student engagement, school climate, and academic student achievement. I will never forget the day when one of our parents stated that they never see any black students on the Madera Minutes weekly videos. My initial thoughts were defensive: the mother may not realize that I am in charge of the development of the Madera Minutes and may not understand that we do not have many African America students in our district, so the absence of black students in the videos was not intentional. Luckily, I decided not to share my defensive thoughts with the parent, at that moment. When I got home that night, I decided to review the previous twelve Madera Minutes and, to my surprise, the process revealed that she was right: I did not find one single African American student in any of the videos. I decided to view 6 additional Madera Minutes and still did not see any black students. I finally concluded that we may not have ever featured any black students in the Madera Minutes. My job as district director, requires me to be intentional about featuring all types of students in our Madera Minutes, otherwise, the only way it can happen is by chance. Being a black leader in this district does not exempt me from the need to be intentional. This was a humbling aha moment.
Our community needs to see significantly more positive images of African Americans across the district. African Americans are portrayed through the media and other outlets as delinquent, criminal, and lazy. This makes it more difficult for black students to be given the benefit of the doubt. This becomes even more evident when looking at parallel processes that can be observed within the school-to-prison pipeline.
Zero-Tolerance policies have striking similarities to criminal justice “law and order” policies such as “3-strikes and you are out”. Students of color, specifically African American and Hispanic students, have been, and still are, disciplined at disproportionate rates: 20% of African American students in our district have been suspended one or more times, compared to the overall student population at 6%. Close to 50% of all suspensions are due to willful defiance. This datapoint parallels 33% of African American males serving prison sentences. 50% of people in prison are there for non-violent crimes.
Other striking parallels include the effectiveness of interventions such as school suspensions, expulsions, and prison sentences. According to research conducted by the “Everyone Graduates Center”, students are twice as likely to drop out of school if they have ever been suspended. Furthermore, a report conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative found that during 2008, formerly incarcerated people had a 27% unemployment rate compared to 5.6% unemployment rate for all United States residents.
These data points are quite revealing and require us to actively consider intentional moves to change the trajectory of educational outcomes for our African American students. A shift to becoming an Anti-Racist culture in Madera Unified is essential to meet this goal.
Beverly Daniel Tatum stated the following to describe what it means to be Antiracist. “I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt…Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around… But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt — unless they are actively antiracist — they will find themselves carried along with the others.”
What if we were able to create a culture in which all staff, students, and our community at large are not just saying they are not racist but are actively Anti-Racist?
We would move from a posture of the following:
- I deny racism is a problem
- I avoid hard questions
- I strive to be comfortable
- I talk to others who look & think like me
To a posture that looks like this:
- I speak out when I see racism in action
- I identify how I may unknowingly benefit from racism
- I yield positions of power to those otherwise marginalized
- I surround myself with others who think & look differently than me
- I educate my peers on how racism harms our profession
- I promote & advocate for policies & leaders that are anti-racist
- I do not let mistakes deter me from being better
It starts with us, as leaders and as a community, intentionally having conversations about how we can better honor, respect, and love each other as fellow human beings made in the image of God. Far too long we have been divided, based on things like race, ethnicity, income levels, primary language spoken at home, where we live, or if we have a disability. We Believe that we can become a district that embraces our differences as human beings, as amazing assets rather than deficits. This all starts with all of us continually having what Glenn Singleton would call, “Courageous Conversations”. I am proud to work for a district that is willing to take on challenging subjects such as racism head on. We are taking the road less traveled and, rather than trying to ignore the problem, we are pouring our hearts, energy, compassion, and love into this work. We Believe that one day we will be able to say with confidence that Madera Unified is a place where all students will experience an unparalleled educational journey that is intellectually, socially, and personally transformative.