Community Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

Letter: Community Coalition on Race Addresses Racist Incidents in SOMA

From the Community Coalition on Race:

We would like to address the address multiple incidents of racist graffiti in the South Orange Maplewood School District middle school bathrooms and the controversy over the slave auction posters that were produced by 5th graders as part of an assignment on Colonial American history. We believe that we must acknowledge and name the racism expressed and look at whether certain elements of the curriculum serve all children well and equitably.  Otherwise, we cannot come to terms with how to handle these issues in the schools, at home, or in our community or governmental organizations.  We are especially concerned with the impact that these things have on our children’s sense of safety and security.

Our diversity and verbal commitment to integration and inclusion here in South Orange/Maplewood in no way makes us immune to either overt racism or implicit biases. For well over 20 years the Coalition on Race has been dedicated to achieving racial inclusion and equity in our policies and practices, but we still encounter both institutional and individual racism. Although most people who move here do so because they intend to be part of a community with inclusive values, we still have much work to do in order to reach everyone with the message that hate speech, and racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, anti-LGBT words, xenophobic symbols, and behavior are not tolerated here.

We acknowledge that there have been ongoing lessons about hate speech and bigotry in the schools, student assemblies, and collaboration with groups like the Anti-defamation, local clergy, and our own Schools Committee.  With the support of faculty, parents, and clergy, our students themselves are working for justice through groups like Students for Social Change and Diversity Rocks. It is important that we support their learning and their peer-to-peer advocacy for change, and that we help families address these issues at home as these experiences can adversely impact a student’s sense of well-being. Our sincere hope is that the school district will take decisive corrective actions for those who violate hate and bias codes of conduct.

Regarding the issue of the slave auction posters produced as part of a 5th-grade Colonial history unit, we recognize the need to teach these difficult and painful parts of our history; indeed we know that there is a dire need for a more racially inclusive curriculum at all levels and in all subjects.  But we also ask that historical racial realities be taught in developmentally appropriate ways that are sensitive to the importance of children’s self-esteem and feeling safe in school and that curriculum is reviewed regularly. A failure to do so not only evidences a lack of sensitivity to the plight of African-Americans in this nation but will also result in negative consequences for students, their families and our community at large. The ensuing slave auction video—while we understand was not an assignment and was made by students while the teacher was away and a substitute was present—is a case in point that students need guidance on how role-playing can be traumatic.

Finally, we must focus on real and immediate solutions that will result in constructive and sustainable positive outcomes.  Over our twenty year history, the Coalition on Race has encountered individual and institutional racism on many fronts.  We support the community by educating on critical topics like bias, privilege, stereotyping, the racial academic achievement gap, anti-bias educational practices, talking about race at home and at school with children; by advocating for change in areas like de-leveling in the schools, district-wide integration, diversity in hiring, cultural competency training for all staff; and by bringing people together to build authentic relationships across racial barriers. We must work collaboratively as one community in order to reach people and the institutions that still struggle with systemic racism by calling racism out where we see it and by changing the practices that obstruct the true inclusion we seek. In doing so, we will achieve the creation of a community where true equality will be beneficial for all who live and work in SOMa. We look forward to participating in the hard work ahead to reach this much desired goal.

Signed by the Executive Committee and the Director of the Community Coalition on Race

Robert A. Marchman, Chair

Nancy Gagnier, Director

Leila Gonzalez Sullivan

Len Grossman

David Harris

Indira Singh

Meredith Sue Willis

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