BAR HARBOR — Last year, protests led by high school students in response to the death of a Black man in police custody inspired educators here to take a look at racism and initiate work focused on anti-racism.
“After this summer, no educator can deny harm has been done to our Black and brown children,” said Annah Houston, an eighth-grade English teacher at Conners Emerson School, “because we’ve heard from them.”
Nearly a third of the staff at the Bar Harbor elementary and middle school is participating in the Educators Against Racism group that has met weekly since June 2020. Houston and first-grade teacher Rachel Singh facilitate the meetings.
“None of us know what it’s like to be a Black person in Bar Harbor,” Singh said in a conversation with the Islander last week. “None of us know what it’s like to be a parent of a Black child… It feels really important and powerful, to me, to have a community to do this work with.”
Since the beginning of February, which is Black History Month, there have been presentations made by the Conners Emerson group, the high school’s Anti-Racism Task Force and District Director of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction Julie Meltzer to their respective boards regarding anti-racism work being done throughout AOS 91.
According to the presentation Meltzer gave to the district board, at least 80 of the schools’ staff members have attended the eight district-sponsored anti-racism courses/classes/workshops that have been offered since last July. A goal for the district is to continue offering learning opportunities on the subject of anti-racism and have more than 50 percent of the district’s school staff participate during the 2020-21 school year.
There are three main focus areas in becoming an anti-racist educator, Meltzer pointed out in a conversation with the Islander this week. They include interpersonal work, what we teach and learn in schools and systemic racism. It is difficult to keep those concepts separate when delving into this work, as many of those doing it have found.
“My biggest goal is for folks to be learning as much as possible. We are all at different stages,” said Althea Turner, who facilitates the Trenton Elementary School’s Anti-Racism Coalition, which has 10 participants. “It’s my feeling there’s a lot of learning work to be done before we can spring into action… Our biggest goal is to broaden our understanding of the ways we can be anti-racist in our personal lives and in teaching.”
One of the toughest components of doing the work is the place from which most of the district’s participants begin and recognizing how that affects the process.
“We’re really focusing on whiteness a lot,” said Turner. “Here at Trenton – at our school – we’re all white.”
Maine often competes with Vermont for first place as the whitest state in the country. Within the high school, which could be considered a fair representation of the district, the percentage of non-white students is around 8 percent. With such a small percentage of difference from the majority, awareness can be the most difficult and most important part of the process.
“We came from a place of not knowing what we didn’t know,” said Caroline Fournier, who teaches second grade at Tremont Consolidated School and is one of the eight members of the Social Justice Team there. “You do have implicit biases… So much of this work is owning that we have done things wrong and will continue to.”
But, once the proverbial blinders have been taken off, for many of the educators the next step is using that new awareness to guide how they educate their students, whether white or non-white.
“The anti-racist lens is there all the time,” said Abbie Plaskov, who teaches fourth grade for the Virtual Academy this year. “I’m thinking of it with every decision I’m making,” which includes creating lessons, collaborating with colleagues, developing projects and her interactions with students. All are driven by an approach of considering people/families of color more.
“For me it’s a bigger shift in how I’m viewing everything,” added Plaskov, who taught in a third-grade classroom last school year. “I’m creating from scratch. I feel very lucky to be able to do that this year.”
While not every school has its own group of staff working on anti-racism education, there are opportunities and support at the district level for employees of every school.
“The groups are working very independently of each other,” said Houston. “How the groups are going about it is entirely unique to each school/group.”
And, that is the reality of the process of learning how to be present with anti-racism to make changes that are effective.
“My perspective is, we have to keep inviting people to this conversation,” said Meltzer. “People are in really different places… It’s not about converting or persuading, it’s about getting people to engage in their own ways of learning.”
Although there is a greater sense of awareness with anti-racism when teaching among those who are participating in the work, to the outside it may not seem like enough.
“A lot of people are chomping at the bit for action,” said Turner. “Before we can take meaningful action, we need to be on the same page.”
That page can be as simple as the words used in conversations regarding this topic and the definitions people have attached to them from their own experiences. Ultimately, having a common language of words that hold a shared meaning for people, no matter what color they are, would be a solid place from which to start.
“We are way far from there as a society,” said Meltzer, noting that work needs to be done across all areas where biases exist.
For those wanting actual change, there have been some shifts in how subjects are taught throughout the district. In her presentation, Melter highlighted how the high school has revamped social studies classes through topics, resources used and emphasis, American and Maine history classes are being taught through a decolonized lens with an emphasis on looking at the impact of history/government/economics/geography on multiple groups of people, an integration of greater representation in English and literature lessons, and this spring the high school is offering a new elective called Human Diversity.
“It’s really hard to teach adults new ways of being and thinking,” said Liz Rabasca, who teaches English in Tremont. She points out that teaching children about anti-racism when they are young enough to integrate that thought as a standard way of being, that is when there is lasting change. “We may be talking about 15 years (of work). If we want it to be lasting change, we have to be ready for it to take a long time.”
All of those who spoke with the Islander said they felt supported by their principals and administrators with the work they are doing.
“We ultimately do have a responsibility to do this work,” said Fournier. “We’re modeling for them that we’re learning too… We’re really thinking about how we instill in kids now how to stand up for things.”
Superintendent Marc Gousse said he was proud of the work being done in the district and that any changes presented would go before the district’s policy committee for review first. Ideally, any policy changes would be implemented throughout the district.
“It’s Black History Month; it’s not just about thinking of famous people,” said Chandra Raymond, who is teaching kindergarten and first grade this year in Tremont. “It’s not just about this one time but throughout the year and a lifetime.”