ON Mar. 8, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent José Banda alerted the community that the Center School controversy about race and gender curricula, sparked by one white family’s complaint, was resolved.
The suspended race and gender curricula could resume but with one particularly suspect stipulation: Activities “intended as training for adults” that came from the Courageous Conversations initiative would be removed. Courageous Conversations came from districtwide professional development to increase cultural competency for its 5,000-member staff.
But what is the evidence that 17- to19-year-olds can’t handle these banned lessons? That is the question the district must adequately answer before the Center School community willingly accepts this decision.
In 2002, after extensive district-funded training, I guided staff in Courageous Conversation activities that asked participants to examine racial privilege in our schools and community. Without a doubt, my students over the past 10 years have proved they can handle these activities far better than the district personnel I observed. Youth generally have a far more open mind than aging teachers, for example, who have yet to confront their own race-based biases.
Why wait until students let their learned, unexamined prejudices — passed down from family, friends and the distorted lens of the media — set and harden in the coming years? Why not let education intercede and break the cycle?
These same adult activities, Banda asserts, are not “age appropriate” for senior year in a college-prep high school.
Yet 17 is the age we let students see R-rated movies. Students can elect to witness the bloody carnage of war in “Saving Private Ryan” and the murderous horrors of the Middle Passage in “Amistad,” mainstays in many history classes, but they can’t handle a survey of racial privilege? Show me the evidence.
Eighteen is the age we let students vote, considered a citizen’s most sacred responsibility and earned for many through some of the most hard-fought battles in this country’s history, but they can’t handle exploring the cultural elements that make up one’s ethnicity? Show me the evidence.
Eighteen is the age we let students join the military, through which young adults may take the lives of others or make the ultimate sacrifice themselves in the name of their country, but they can’t handle examining whiteness in America? Show me the evidence.
The evidence can’t be one family’s complaint because it wasn’t specific Courageous Conversation activities, for the most part, that the one family targeted. This family objected to racial dialogue of any kind.
This is what the family said in its complaint letter: “We refer the district to GenocideWatch.org, a global human rights NGO, which has described an 8-step process by which racial hatreds metastasize in society.
“The events we have described in this complaint describe several of those steps being put into practice in an SPS classroom.”
This family wants to limit far more than Courageous Conversations.
My compromise: If the Courageous Conversations curriculum can cause “a high degree of emotion” or “potential distress” for some students, then let them complete alternative assignments, one of Banda’s stipulations for the class in general. In this way, the vast majority of students will not be denied these important lessons.
It is true the Courageous Conversations were not meant to be used as lesson plans in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be. Educators are not the only ones who need to be culturally competent.
Whether students move on to become cashiers or CEOs, they will inevitably fill, in varying degrees, positions of influence. Everyone benefits from analyzing the role race and racism play in our experiences — past, present or future. My students have provided 10 years’ worth of evidence of that.
High-school teacher Jon Greenberg teaches poetry and the 12th-grade course Citizenship & Social Justice at the Center School in Seattle. He is one of the school’s founding staff members.