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Q&A: Advocate on tackling racism in Washington education system



Sharonne Navas is the co-founder and executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition in Washington state. 

Navas is the first American born child of immigrant parents from Guatemala and El Salvador. She said she understands and values the complexity of being multi-lingual and multi-cultural in America. A native of New York City, Navas moved to the Seattle area in 2009.

KING 5’s Joyce Taylor sat down with Navas to discuss how racism gets played out in the school system in Washington and what the school to prison pipeline looks like for Black and brown children.

WATCH: Full episodes of Facing Race

The following is a partial transcript of their conversation. Some of the questions and answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Joyce Taylor: We’re talking a lot about equity in schools right now. And so my first question to you would be, do we have equity in Washington schools?

Sharonne Navas: No, we don’t, but the good thing is that nobody does. There’s not a single school district in this country that has really tackled equity. For us as an organization, equity means looking for the programs that service the students the best, especially those students that are being left behind, the students that are arriving at school hungry, coming from an unsafe environment that have all these different needs, but also all of these different assets, and we haven’t achieved that yet. We haven’t really dug into what it will look like for us to be an equitable educational system.

Taylor: There’s also the issue of segregation. Why are Washington schools still so segregated?

Navas: I think there’s a variety of reasons. We have not yet as a state dealt with the racism that we have here in Washington, from things like redlining to gentrification. When we talk about segregation, most people don’t believe that we have segregation or that we ever did have segregation. Most people imagine the idea of the busing system. I think things like those kinds of solutions, like busing and ending Advanced Placement programs, instead of opening them up to more students, are solutions that make white folks comfortable, more so than tackling the real issue of racism.

Taylor: And what is the impact of this segregation on students? And schools?

Navas: I think it’s so multi-layered. We as organizations, as people of color, as women of color, when we are segregated, we often have to both learn how to navigate white spaces, but also how to be in spaces of our own communities in our own cultures. But white folks don’t have to do that, we’ve normalized whiteness as the status as how it’s supposed to be, when in reality, there are more people of color globally than there are white people. So there are assets to both cultures. And there are things that we can learn from each other. I don’t think we have really embraced the cross cultural navigation of being in this country, both as as white folks but also as communities of color.

Taylor: Can you go into more detail about what is lost, especially with students when they are in segregated schools?

Navas: Students of color lose out because segregated schools tend to be the low income schools, tend to be schools that are in low income areas of the city or the area, they tend to get the least amount of funding. Therefore, they tend to not have enhancement programs. They don’t have Advanced Placement programs. They don’t have International Baccalaureate programs. They don’t even have the best teachers educating our kids. For the most part, they do have the newest teachers, the teachers that are the least expensive on payroll. And morally what we are telling our children is that they don’t deserve the best, that they don’t get the best. They get what’s left over after we fund white schools and schools in high income areas. 

For areas that are high income, I think what we do that’s detrimental is we normalize segregation, we normalize them versus us, the idea that we’re better and they’re not, because they don’t get as much funding as we do. They don’t get as many good teachers as we do. You know, and then that disservice allows our students to go into the world not knowing that things like the Eurocentric curriculum is not what all of us know, like we know that there are things that happened in our communities, we know that the African American and Black community has such a huge, rich history. Above and beyond slavery, there’s more leadership in the Black and African American community than just Martin Luther King. And I think we do the biggest disservice to our white students by not teaching them the richness of different cultures and the richness and assets of being multilingual and multicultural.

Taylor: What are some concrete things that our state leaders could do or our schools could do to create more equity in education?

Navas: A year ago, I would have had a very different answer for you. COVID has given us an opportunity to revolutionize what education could look like, it has given us an opportunity to sort of New Deal what education could look like, it really is our FDR moment to look at education. Because it’s online, COVID has given us an opportunity to create a new educational system that is not limited by zip code, by property taxes, by segregation. We have the opportunity to offer excellent educational systems to all of our children in Washington state, because you don’t have to live in the school district that has the great teachers, that has those AP classes. 

The issue with that is that we have for years forgotten that our students don’t have access to laptops, that our students don’t have access to the internet, that our parents don’t have the digital literacy to get online and understand all the software platforms that they’re using.

I speak with parents who have such tremendous means, they’re in the upper high incomes and two parents that can work from home very easily, and they have a hard time navigating all the information that has come at them, the seven or eight different platforms that their students are using, and they have to work from home and teach from home and still make dinner. Now imagine if you are a single parent working two jobs as an essential worker and you still have to figure out how to get your student online. 

If COVID has taught us anything is that right now is the opportunity for us to revolutionize how we approach education, because there is no reason why in Washington state, every child is not connected to the internet.

Taylor: And that would be a starting point. But COVID also exposed great inequities and disparities in access. How do we change that if we’re going to change our model of education?

Navas: I think we have to be really clear about the inequities that COVID has exposed. These are not inequities created by COVID. These are inequities shown and exacerbated by COVID.

The lack of innovation when it comes to engaging our parents who don’t speak English, who are migrant workers, who are refugees or immigrants. This is not something that’s brand new, the school districts have not been innovative when it comes to engaging our parents. We have this idea that parents need to come to us as a school district as opposed to us going to them and and making our parents and our communities feel engaged, respected and valued in our educational buildings. There are principals and teachers that have done an amazing job, but they don’t get as supported as they should. And like we spoke earlier, we are putting the onus on our teachers to do so much, social services as well as educate. I think there is a clear opportunity and has always been an opportunity for school districts and community based organizations to work together towards the goal of ensuring that our students graduate their best selves.

Taylor: What are some concrete things that schools or leaders could be doing right now to make schools more equitable?

Navas: We could be having conversations about race, we could be embracing curriculum like ethnic studies. Time immemorial, we could be requiring our teachers to learn how to engage culturally anchored curriculum in every platform so that it’s not just the appreciation of the Black culture during February’s Black History Month, that we’re infusing leaders of color, assets of color and history throughout science, throughout English, math, all of the subjects, and that we do it from kindergarten to graduation. So that our children can see their history outside of a Eurocentric curriculum, but also so that white and/or affluent students can see other histories and the amazingness that all of our cultures bring to the table.

Taylor: Seattle schools are phasing out Advanced Placement (AP) classes to address equity in the classroom. What are your thoughts on that?

Navas: I think that is a huge disaster, and the the irony is we could work on equity without having to take away AP classes. The AP classes have historically, whether it’s Seattle Public Schools or any other public school, been available to white and Asian students. It is not a Seattle centric issue, it is a public school issue. Instead of tackling how we bring students into the AP classes, and getting more students of color into AP classes and offering them the support to stay in AP classes and succeed, Seattle Public Schools has decided to just get rid of AP classes, which sort of is the cutting of your nose to spite your face because it doesn’t end the racial injustice issues that are happening in schools. It exacerbates them, because now there is another reason to feel some kind of way about Black and brown students. 

Taylor: What do you think is going to be the impact of getting rid of Advanced Placement classes in the Seattle Public Schools?

Navas: I think we’re gonna see a lot of kids be angry and and upset. I think the decision was made to quiet the loudest voices as opposed to doing the hard work of infusing equity. And we taught our Black and brown kids that we would rather subdue the voices of angry racism than offer classes that would advance their educational careers.

Taylor: What is the school to prison pipeline and what does it look like in Washington state? 

Navas: The school to prison pipeline is the unintentional and sometimes intentional movement of Black and brown students through the school system into either juvenile justice or criminal justice or adult imprisonment.

What that looks like in Washington state is, there is a study that came out that shows pre-K teachers view their Black and brown students much more aggressively, they view them older, they view them more violent, their behavior is viewed as more problematic. So they are able to either suspend or expel kindergarteners, pre-kindergarteners, first and second graders for behavior that has been normalized in white society. I don’t know a single five-year-old as well behaved as they can be that doesn’t every once in a while throw a tantrum. 

And in the school to prison pipeline, a tantrum is sometimes seen as aggressive or violent. So we remove that child from the school classroom, sometimes we expel that child, sometimes we suspend that child, but what we are doing is creating a record of bad behavior. That’s not necessarily actually bad behavior. But sometimes that child could be hungry, or they witnessed something violent at home, so they’re tired and exhausted, or maybe they just came into this country and don’t know what’s going on. 

We have a systematized removing our Black and brown children from the classroom for the benefit of all the other children, whereas I believe that we should be creating a system in which we still respect our children and ask them something simple, like, are you okay? What’s going on?

In this state, the legislature tried to pass a bill a couple of years ago in which it would have put a stop to the suspension and expulsion of kindergarteners, first graders and second graders because of that behavior, right? Because we know that there’s just child development behavior that is normal for five, six, seven, and eight-year-olds. The feedback was, what if that child brings an AK-47? And we’re not talking about those kids, we’re talking about kids that are going to hit or scream or throw a tantrum, or like not want to go to naptime, or whatever happens in kindergarten. And we’re not talking about violent offenders, we’re talking about five-year-olds. And that’s how it starts is we don’t have conversations with our teachers about how their implicit bias against Black and brown students, especially Black girls and Black boys, how that comes out in the decisions that they make to either suspend or expel a student.

I’ve heard some teachers blatantly tell me that they are afraid of their really tall, big, Black students. And the reality is that there’s no reason to be afraid of people. For no reason, you know, they’re just students. And if you don’t have a rapport with your student in which you feel connected and they feel respected, then maybe you shouldn’t be a teacher.

Taylor: Do students of color, and Black boys in particular, have an equal shot at success in the classroom?

Navas: I think we can, I think we do. I think we should, to put it in a better way. I think we could, if we were to revolutionize how education gets serviced to our children. The educational system was never created for Black and brown people, right? The educational system was created for heteronormative white boys. Even white girls weren’t supposed to be educated. The idea of an educated white woman in this country was foreign, if not aggressively tried to put down. We know several stories if not hundreds of stories of indigenous people, immigrants and Black slaves, enslaved people that would have been violently hurt had they been seen studying or reading or learning. So education in this country was never created for Black and brown people. 

To really infuse equity in education, I think we have to revolutionize how we view education and who we view the recipient of education being. If we look at a Black student, a Black boy, and say we want this student to achieve the most excellent education that they can. What does that look like? I think we would have a very different educational system for our kids. I think we would aggressively go after infusing school buildings with anti-racist white teachers, with teachers of color that look like our students and sound like our students. We would also infuse a ton of money into community based organizations to help with some of the social service issues and some of the societal issues that our teachers just can’t and shouldn’t handle. I think our students can succeed. I don’t think our students can succeed in a racist educational system.

Taylor: What does the data show that you can share with us about?

Navas: The data shows that affluent Black and brown students do just as poorly as low-income Black and brown students. They do on par with low-income white students. So it’s not income, it never has been income. There are so many issues that happen in the educational system that have nothing to do with income.

I think income allows us to believe that if a Black and brown student really wants to do well, their affluent parents are just gonna bring in a tutor or they’re gonna have a team or they’re gonna offer all of these services. But the reality is, what you brought up earlier, is that our students know when their teachers are afraid of them. And our students will react to when teachers are afraid of them, when teachers don’t like them, when teachers are going to pick on them. And that is exhausting and it’s traumatic. We’re putting our students into a 12-year system of trauma and racism without any thought of how we are institutionalizing our students to believe that they’re less than and that they need to accept that. 

The data shows very clearly that Black girls are often kicked out and disciplined, more so than any other student. The data shows that our teachers have a negative feeling towards Black and brown students throughout even, like I said earlier, starting in pre-K. I think we often revere educators because of the hard work that they do that it feels gross to sometimes question if they love our kids.

Taylor: How does that impact somebody in a class every day, if they feel their teacher not only doesn’t care about them learning but dislikes them? And doesn’t really understand why and could think it’s because they’re Black or something is wrong with them? What is the impact of that?

Navas: We think about how we’ve changed some of the ways that we raise our children, right? So we right now raise our children to that competition is not all that great. Everybody gets an award for just showing up here. We’re all great. We’re all wonderful. And that’s a moment in time, that’s at the end of a soccer game, right? Like, that’s just nobody wants kids to feel bad. And then the next day, we drop off our children at a building where they are systemically, continuously daily put through an emotional grinder, where they’re told they’re not worth it. They’re not worth the investment. They’re not worth someone asking, are you okay today? 

There are some school districts that have as their motto that every child will feel seen, heard, and everyone will know their name, and that’s great. But if you know my name, because you’re always yelling at me, that’s not really helping me. 

We often talk about how the criminal system is supposed to rehabilitate, but the reality is that our educational system is detrimental in that it breaks our students down. We don’t have curriculum that embraces our assets. We don’t have, you know, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month. We’ve been delineated to one month, whereas white folks and white history has a lifetime for us to learn. And then we wonder why folks will say things like, well, slavery wasn’t that bad. Or, you know, it was only 50 years ago. Fifty years ago is a heartbeat. We’re saying goodbye to leaders who walked during the civil rights era. That’s not even a lifetime ago. It’s our grandparents. So I think one of the hardships about education and race is that we don’t consider the fact that we are on a daily basis, traumatizing our children. Because we, as adults, don’t want to have the really hard conversation about race. And it’s a conversation our kids are having every day.

Taylor: I want to share a statistic. During the 2018-19 school year Black and Native American students were suspended or expelled at more than twice the rate of white students. Why does this happen? And what is the impact of that?

Navas: It happens because we have criminalized our educational system for Black and brown students. For Black, indigenous and brown students, we the system, the educational system, is really the gateway to prison. 

In Washington state, we decriminalized marijuana, but we have not decriminalized possession, we have not decriminalized what that looks like. We still have police officers on our campuses that immediately claim jurisdiction over what’s going on. So what could be a teen on teen regular fight that would have been 10 years ago just two kids duking it out is now assault and battery.

The statistics show that Black, indigenous and brown students respectively, get pulled over more often, they get arrested more often, and they get disciplined more often for the same offenses as our white counterparts. And that really is part of the school to prison pipeline, when we’re talking about students that get criminalized for normal, everyday occurrences, not offenses, occurrences, like wearing their hair in dreadlocks, or wearing a specific color to schools, those things are criminalizing our very existence. 

One of the things about the Black Lives Matter movement has been that the very color of our skin should not be reason enough to fear that we might die by any connection to the police department. And when we allow for security officers and police officers to be on our educational campuses for no other reason than to mitigate what we think could be potentially bad behavior, we’re criminalizing our kids.

Taylor: We spoke to a young man, his name’s DeSean, who wound up facing criminal charges after a public school experience. He said it left him feeling that winding up in prison as a young man was going to be inevitable for him. What is your reaction to that?

Navas: It’s heartbreaking and It’s horrifying. We throw statistics out, like one in three black men will be in the legal system. And it sometimes feels like we’re actually proud of that. We’re actually like, ‘Yeah, that is what it is,’ when in reality, it doesn’t have to be at all. We as a society, we in this state make the conscious decisions of what we are going to criminalize and what behaviors we’re just going to forgive. And we often allow for our teachers, administrators and office staff and adults in the school system to criminalize normal behavior. But criminalize it because it’s coming from Black and brown students. 

Anecdotally, I had met with a student once who was telling me that he wanted mental help. He wanted someone to talk to, he was having feelings, he was having thoughts. And there’s no mental health therapist or school psychologist at his school. So he made some wrong choices and ended up going to the juvenile legal system where he got mental health, and for him the message was, we don’t want to help you beforehand. We’ll help you afterwards. And now he has a record, and he’s just like, if I had gotten the mental help earlier, I would be okay. I think the hardship is that for Black, indigenous and brown students, we’ve told them that they’re not worth the investment beforehand, but we’ll pay afterwards, and that’s really a shame.

Taylor: The most recent data we have, from 2018 to 2019, that school year, shows 87% of Washington state teachers were white. What’s the impact of that?

Navas: It’s detrimental to not ever see someone in your classroom at the front of your classroom that looks like you, that sounds like you, that will understand that you might live in an expanded family situation and that’s culturally okay. Someone that will understand if you’re exhausted or tired, because it’s Ramadan, someone who will know that Eid is coming up and you need the day off. There are implications to having people of color in the classroom that are educators. 

We have a huge number of people with classrooms that are paraeducators. And those end up being the social workers, the family resource folks, the interpreters of our families. And I think we do a huge disservice to our students of color, but also, we do a huge disservice to our white students as well, because again, they’re only seeing the deficit model of our history. They only know Black people as enslaved, they only know Latinos as immigrants and forever foreigners, they don’t know the richness of our history, they don’t know that we were kings and queens in our own cultures, before, you know, the genocide of this country. So you know, it still perpetuates the curriculum of white supremacy. 

And I think the hard part about getting more teachers of color in the classroom is that we want more teachers of color in the classroom. And I always advocate for more teachers of color in the classroom. But we also have to change the culture of the classroom. Because our teachers, like I said earlier, can’t just teach and be the family liaison and the interpreter and the person that has all the snacks and food and extra clothing in their classroom. That’s a lot for our teachers of color. And also, then they get put into the position of having to end racism in the classroom and racism in the school building. And they’re not empowered to do that. What we need our adults, office managers, receptionists, school nurses, nutritional services, administrators, teachers, paraeducators, we need the adults in the system to be anti-racist.

Taylor: Is there anything the state could do or our school leaders could do to increase diversity in terms of number of educators of color?

Navas: They could change the culture of the school building, they could acknowledge that the school system perpetuates whiteness as the norm. We are putting all the onus on teachers of color and people of color to change the system. And then we make it incredibly difficult for them to change the system. So we’re not only putting all of this on them, but then we’re not giving them any power to do it. The reality is that racism was created by white people for the benefit of white people. So white people have to be part of the process to end racism. People of color, we all have our own stuff that we need to take care of and there are issues we need to fight on, and we need to survive racism, but racism is not an issue that we can solve by ourselves. It has to come from the white community. And it has to come from our teachers and adults in the system. 

Our school leadership, our state leadership, have been very good about talking about equity. But they have not necessarily institutionalized equity. And you can see that in the state budget, you can see that in the budgets that are coming out from the school buildings, the school districts, at the state level. We need to put money into programs and policies that help our students, and we don’t often do that.

Taylor: What role does implicit bias play in the classroom?

Navas: It plays a huge role. I think we walk into a classroom, sometimes not having a great day, sometimes it’s Monday, coffee spills, it’s just one of those bad days, and sometimes our implicit bias allows us to take that out on our Black and brown students. 

We see our Black and brown students as more aggressive, we see them as louder, more violent, older, like they should have more control over themselves. Behavioral issues that are normalized for white students are seen as violence if performed by Black or brown or indigenous students. I don’t think we do enough at the state level to teach our educators what implicit bias is.

We teach a lot about social, emotional learning for our students. But we never ever think about how is the teacher coming into the classroom? We don’t often have our teachers take that introspective moment to think, how am I presenting? How am I coming into this classroom?

Taylor: Tell me what cultural competency training is and whether you think it should be mandated in our educational system?

Navas: Cultural competency training back in the day was sort of an hour long conversation about the different cultures that you’re going to see in your classroom, how you can expand Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month. I think we’re sort of walking away from cultural competency, because no one can ever be competent in any culture. I’m still learning about my own culture, and I’ve been in it for 45 years.

When it comes to culture, I would love for us to to infuse our educators with this sense of cultural humility and lifelong learning. Because there’s always going to be a culture they’ve never met before, there’s always going to be a culture they’ve never experienced before. 

I absolutely think it should be mandated. I absolutely think that every teacher whether you’re in a pre-education program, you’re in college, or you’ve been in the classroom for 30 years. I think everyone needs cultural competency or cultural awareness trainings. Because there’s always more to learn, there’s always more to understand, there’s always more to say, I didn’t know that. And for the educational system, where we are hoping our children will be lifelong learners, we need to expect that of our teachers as well.

Taylor: What can white teachers do to address the achievement gap in the classroom for their students of color?

Navas: They can become anti-racist. They can do the work. Don’t rely on your one Black friend to tell you when you’re racist. Read about racism in education, read about the genocide and violence that created this country. Read about the segregation and the negative impacts of busing. Learn how to become a culturally anchored educator. Bring in qualified educators of color to to expand and increase awareness in your classroom.

There really is no middle ground when it comes to racism; you can’t be non-racist. Stand up for your teachers of color that want to wear a Black Lives Matter mask or Black Lives Matter shirt and they’re being told not to because of the administration. Use the privilege that you have as a white person to expand the power of Black and brown people. It’s the same call that we would have for male teachers and gendered teachers to put themselves in, not positions of harm but positions of being heard as allies and advocates.

This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.

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