Workshop on race builds trust at THS

05/09/2019

A group of staff, parents, students and community members convened at Tomales High School last Tuesday to talk about race.

The evening, funded by the Marin County Office of Education, was hosted by Dr. Lori Watson, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership for social justice. Dr. Watson has collaborated with the county for the past two years to host trainings for teachers and parents, including in the form of the “Courageous Conversation” she led in Tomales.

It was not the first time that Shoreline has addressed the subject of race. The district recently dedicated some of the annual grant money it receives from the Marin Community Foundation to researching the achievement gap and providing scholarships, among other initiatives. This year it also formed a working group on equity and provided trainings for staff on topics such as compassionate dialogue and implicit bias.

But the subject still reveals strong tensions. Last spring, feelings about race erupted after a white high schooler was found with hunting rifles in his truck during the school day. The district’s decision not to expel him struck many as inconsistent with punishments handed down to his Latino peers for similar or even less serious offenses.

The race conversation was punctuated by a letter published in this newspaper last November by a graduate from the district, Adrian Vega, who declared that the school has a “race problem.” In response, superintendent Bob Raines, board member Jill Manning-Sartori and Adam Jennings, the principal of Tomales High, responded in a letter that described the actions they’ve taken to bring equity to their practices, policies and discipline; they also committed to hosting a community forum.

On Tuesday, that forum materialized: around 30 members of the school community attended Dr. Watson’s conversation, which included a Spanish translator. Dr. Watson kicked the night off with a presentation on systemic racism, running through slides on how she sees it playing out for students in today’s world.

“Race is a topic that a lot of people would rather not talk about, would want to avoid,” she said. “But when we don’t talk about race, we’re allowing the status quo to persist, and that’s a status quo that perpetuates racism. If we aren’t conscious, we aren’t deliberately interrupting racism, we become complicit, we become part of the problem. The work that we bring is how to gain the skills and the consciousness we need to interrupt racism whenever it shows up. First, we just have to get comfortable with learning to talk about race.”

Dr. Watson asked a few questions for breakout groups to consider. The first was, “In my lifetime, have race relations in the United States improved, stayed the same, or gotten worse?”

One woman, Beatriz Gomez Lopez, who spoke through the translator, said: “Five of us, we discussed this in Spanish. We thought that actually, it hasn’t gotten worse or stayed the same, it was something different. Racism was always a silent issue. When Obama was president, that was one thing. But since Trump was elected, the people who were silent, now they feel free to speak their minds.”

The woman’s son, Santi Gomez Lopez, a senior at the high school, also spoke. “We thought, over here, that things have stayed the same,” he said, referencing his breakout group. “One thing improves, and another gets worse, and the outcome has been the same.”

Socorro Romo, a longtime community member who directs West Marin Community Services, said she sees her grandchildren facing the same discrimination that her children experienced when they were in school. 

The majority of the room thought that racism had worsened.

Dr. Watson then probed everyone to think about how they had approached her question. She presented a circle with quadrants: thinking, acting, feeling and believing. That circle could be thought of like a compass, she said, and the goal for every individual when talking about race was to be centered in the middle. Pairs broke out to discuss which camp they had fallen into.

Several students said they had thought about the state of race in the United States from a place of feeling—specifically, feeling disappointed, sad and powerless.

Mr. Raines said he had been thinking. “When you posed that question, I got analytical,” he said. “Though listening to the kids just now, I went way over to the feeling side. I believe that I take the thinking, analytical side on because I want to get to the acting—to take this on.”

Dr. Watson had a response. “Your work will be to find ways into these feeling and believing sides,” she said. By leaning into the experiences of the students who are having these feelings, she said, Mr. Raines might find the “passion that will motivate you.” She added, “Honestly, where do I find most of my white males? Thinking.”

Dr. Watson next presented four “agreements” that she said support conversations about race: stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept non-closure.

Many spoke about the difficulties of staying engaged in discussions about race in the district: it was easy to feel energized in an event, but hard to know what to do afterward. Others spoke about the challenge of speaking up, naming inequities and sharing painful experiences.

Mr. Jennings said he often finds himself in a position of listening, and not necessarily sharing personal experiences or speaking his truth. Dr. Watson suggested that, in fact, listening might be a good role for him to have in these conversations.

“How do I have conversations about race with my friends at school? I wonder that,” Mr. Lopez said. “A few of my friends are directly impacted. But with others it feels like this huge undertaking. What about the few folks that I can influence? What can I change?”

Despite the weight of the topic, the mood in the room was light. Madeline Hope, a longtime resident who helped organize the event, had provided snacks and everyone was munching; younger kids, children of the attendees, were playing in a corner throughout the meeting. Everyone was engaged and open: Dr. Watson had established a sense of trust. 

At the end of the meeting, many attendees asked about a follow-up. Mr. Raines said that Dr. Watson will return sometime next school year for a one-day intensive offered to parents.

As far as another meeting designed for the larger West Marin community, however, Ms. Romo said that West Marin Community Services had received funds for such a conversation; four are being planned for later this year.