This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Some 200 teachers and other members of the Caucus of Working Educators chose to spend a pleasant fall Saturday in a 200- year-old building confronting an issue that most people tend to run away from: white privilege and white supremacy.
The fourth annual WE conference was held at the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ at 4th and Arch streets, which dates back to the 18th century.
“We think it’s a fundamental problem in our country that causes a lot of other problems,” said Amy Roat, one of the caucus founders and a member of the steering committee. “We all live in the system of white supremacy, whoever you are, and it is unseen by most white people and it isn’t talked about and we’re not connecting white supremacy to our life experience in the classroom or in the community. So we need to explicitly do that in order to learn and grow.”
Attendees focused on how the teacher unions can orient themselves toward social justice instead of just “bread and butter” union issues such as wages and benefits. One of their main speakers was Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
“I decided to talk about what it’s like to be a white woman labor leader of a primarily white membership in a very white state that has a long history of racism, racist violence and white supremacy,” Madeloni said a the end of the day. ” I want to share with you both my personal reckoning with that, and what that means for me as a labor leader.”
Madeloni, a former English teacher, is a progressive who upset more traditional candidates to take the helm of the 110,000-member Massachusetts union in 2014. She was re-elected in 2016.
“When I think about dismantling white supremacy…it’s so important to ask ourselves the hard questions, ” she said, “particularly white people asking the right questions.”
Capitalism and white supremacy “shape how we understand who we are, no matter what our skin color or racial identity…This is just work I’m trying to do. I don’t have answers about this work. I can offer experiences to expand upon.”
But the first task is “naming it” and understanding how pervasive it is in education. Standardized tests are based on a “white norm,” she said. The way schools are funded is inherently racist. “In Massachusetts, we have schools where toilets are not working, and when you go into those schools, you see black and brown faces, not white children,” she said.
On charter schools, Madeloni said, “We have to be willing to have a conversation as to why parents make that choice and listen to them, and ask who we are as educators and what we are going to do to make schools places actively working to dismantle white supremacy.”
For Keziah Ridgeway, who teaches at Northeast High School and went through Philadelphia public schools herself, teaching and activism can’t be separated.
“Since I was in high school and protested the Iraq war, I was always committed to using my voice to advocate for the voiceless,” she said. “It’s why I became a teacher. I feel like teaching and being an advocate go hand in hand.”
In the morning, Ridgeway, who grew up in a public housing project in North Philadelphia and went to Girls High, was one of two teachers who led a session on “critically examining race inside the classroom and beyond,” to explore “the multiple manifestations of racism within our society.” A concurrent session meant for white teachers talked about “decentering whiteness in our classes and schools,” which explored how white values and norms permeate everything – including how tests are constructed and how students are evaluated.
Lunchtime included sessions on abolishing the SRC, a Black Lives Matter week of action (planned for February), healthy schools, LGBTQ organizing, nurses, personalized learning, and other topics.
In an afternoon session called “organizing to save our schools,” those present discussed how to stave off the District’s various schemes for school turnaround, from closure to charter conversion to forcing out at least half the teachers and rebuilding the faculty. The criteria used to make such decisions – mostly test scores – often don’t take into account the importance of consistency in relationships and a school’s sense of community, people at the session agreed.
Presenting a united front to the powers-that-be for the purposes of organizing, however, doesn’t lessen the need for schools to deal with their internal dynamics, which can often involve faculties that are divided by race and racial attitudes, commitment and attitudes towards children of color.
In Philadelphia, most teachers are white, while most students are black and Latino. While at one time teachers were required to live in the city, that is no longer the case.
“When you look at teachers in our schools, who actually lives in Philadelphia,” asked one African American teacher in the “save our schools” session. She said 75 percent of city teachers live outside the city, mostly in comfortable suburbs, a reality that is not lost of their students. “That’s an issue,” she said.
Later, Ridgeway said that her students “are aware. They tell me they hate that they haven’t had a black teacher until me.”
Ryan Warwick, who is an African American female, grew up in Maryland and now teaches special education at Mastery Charter-Gratz. Among educators, “there are so many places people are entering the conversation from,” she said. “Some educators never want to mention race, at least not in the professional realm.” For many, it’s not that they don’t want to talk about it, but that they don’t know how, and they are busy; “they just go and do their lesson plans.”
What she said she got out of the conference was “empowerment, a sense of belonging.”
The WE caucus now has about 350 dues-paying members among the 8,000 teachers in District schools and have organized in almost every building, said Ismael Jimenez, a co-chair of the group and a teacher at Kensington CAPA. Last year, it ran a slate in the PFT election of officers and garnered about 25 percent of the vote.
“Folks are beginning to realize that we’re not going to have a winning strategy if we don’t start confronting white supremacy at the center of our work,” Jimenez said. “We can’t just be another reform organization tweaking at the structures, we need transformational change.”