Podcast | Meet the students pushing for more equity in public schools
In the midst of the pandemic and in the wake of 2020 protests against racism, one group of students in Washington state pressed for real change … and achieved it.
When the protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police spilled into the streets of American cities, the initial focus was on policing. But in the weeks and months that followed, a reckoning with racist practices took hold in almost all aspects of American culture. Education was on the list.
In Washington state, a number of teachers had already been committing a portion of their careers toward equity in education. But the protests, combined with the inequities highlighted by the pandemic, inspired a new generation of students to get involved and to push for change.
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With the guidance of educators, these Washington students formed a youth-led group called The Root of Our Youth. They created a support network for students of color, organized teach-ins where their teachers became the students and lobbied for legislation to improve their education.
For this episode of This Changes Everything, host Sara Bernard talks with the students and the adults who have helped them about the ways the pandemic changed them, the aims of their new movement and why they feel young people need to be at the table for decisions about education.
Episode 1: How 'grace' became the word for some WA educators
Episode 2: The mental health crisis afflicting students and their teachers
Episode 3: Where online learning is actually working
Episode 4: The toll that 'normal' school takes on students of color
Episode 6: What the shutdowns taught some WA parents about special education
Host/Producer: Sara Bernard
Reporters: Venice Buhain, Claudia Rowe
Editorial assistant: Brooklyn Jamerson-Flowers
Consulting editor: Donna Blankinship
Executive producer/Story editor: Mark Baumgarten
Audio support: Jonah Cohen
Transcripts for This Changes Everything are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.
[00:00:00] Anonymous speaker: This episode of This Changes Everything is presented by WGU Washington.
[00:00:07] Tara Duong: So basically it started right before school ended my sophomore year. That was when the George Floyd murder happened. And there was a lot of..
[00:00:17] Sara Bernard: This is Tara Duong. She's a senior at Bothell High School now. In late spring 2020, as students we're hobbling through those first weird months of online school, and as the country erupted and protests over police brutality and systemic racism, Tara, like everyone else, was watching.
[00:00:34] Tara Duong: I remember there was a petition that was going around that someone in our district made about our school district, addressing a lot of the racist curriculum and like how they don't have any guidelines for when, like, people are called slurs and like racism in the schools.
There's no protocol. So there was a call for that and it gained like 700 signatures, I think. It just like circulated so fast.
[00:01:01] Sara Bernard: I don't have a copy of the petition itself, but I do have an email sent to district and state leaders from one of the students behind it. It's long, but here's a tiny part of it: "It is detrimental to only gloss over certain parts of our history and only display one side of the story, which is overwhelmingly a Eurocentric perspective. Begin adding Black voices and a Black lens.
"Many of your Black students have admitted to feeling underrepresented and as if their history means less. It does not."
[00:01:28] Diya Kumar: There was a petition going around about demanding ethnic studies in our district.
[00:01:34] Sara Bernard: This again is Diya Kumar, also a high school senior, who you met at the beginning of the last episode.
[00:01:39] Diya Kumar: And it was being mass shared across multiple different students across our district, and I also signed it as well. Cause I was like, "Hey, this is exactly what I was disappointed about with my world history class." Okay. And I emailed that petition to all of my teachers and I was like, "There's a thing happening. And I think as teachers in our district, you should know what's going on and you should support our cause because you're supposed to be are our role models."
And one of my teachers email me back and she was like, "Oh my gosh, you need to become part of this organization called The Root of Us, because this is exactly what I think you're doing right now, which is like racial justice," which I didn't know I was doing that at the time. So I got into contact with Fernell Miller, who was the founder of The Root of Us.
[00:02:26] Fernell Miller: I've been holding space for Black and brown youth for decades.
[00:02:31] Sara Bernard: And this, again. Is Fernell Miller. You met her in the last episode too. She's a teacher in the same district where Diya and Tara are students.
[00:02:37] Fernell Miller: Yeah, at whatever school or community club, I coach everything, I'm around kids, I'm in their lives, in their homes. I have known generations of families from kindergarten to college. The kids who have graduated come back and find me in spaces. So, I like, I don't know. I wish I didn't know everybody, but I do. And so, from those 30 year relationships, that has been The Root of Us. That's been the root of me.
[00:03:09] Sara Bernard: So, because Fernell has been doing this kind of mentoring and justice work for decades, in some ways 2020 changed nothing, but in other ways it did something pretty powerful. It gave her the time and space and mental clarity to give that work a name.
[00:03:23] Fernell Miller: I didn't have a, you know, a name on it or an LLC around it or whatnot, but it came when we didn't go back to school and I was able to have time at home and my son, who's my family, all my kids who've watched me do this for 30 years, including, you know, them and their friends, said, "Mom, how about you just share this with the rest of the world, instead of just this little community we're in," and my son built me this beautiful website and sat me down in front of the computer. And I just poured everything into that as I did, you know, as I was at home and had time to actually sit and have my own mind, my own thoughts, my own time.
So all of that came together in 2020 as I poured that into the website and then made the LLC. My son made me get on Facebook and some social media and just start talking about it and doing it, and that's how that started. And that was the beginning of what's known as The Root of Us.
[00:04:27] Sara Bernard (in the field): Then that petition we've been talking about, it showed up on Fernell's radar too.
[00:04:31] Fernell Miller: And then I had a student, not even my student, another student from a high school in my area, started a petition that was begging the superintendent for education that included ethnic studies, Black studies, history about everybody else. Why can't we have that? And it's circulated around. And it got circulated through me and I reached out to her and some of the group and I said, "Hey, I've been doing this for a while. Wanna come over and talk and let me help support what you want to do and go forward with that.
[00:05:06] Tara Duong: And at the time it was all adults and it was very scary. I was like attending Zoom meetings with a bunch of adults I didn't know. And I pulled in some of my friends and I was like, "Can you like do this with me? Cause it's kind of scary. It's a lot of adults." And we were talking and we were like, We need a space just for youth. Because when we're in a meeting with only adults, we don't get to talk. And like, we're just kind of there, like, observing, but we have things to say, especially when they're talking about school, and we're the ones going to school.
[00:05:34] Fernell Miller: So, you know, they started coming in and I just opened up my Zoom line and they just started showing up and I just opened the space to talk, to be, to create, to advocate, be empowered. We connected with other kids all around the state. Oh it was just so great to discover each other. And so that was like, oh, okay, what do you want to call ourselves? And so that turned into The Root of Our Youth.
[00:06:01] Tara Duong: So we formed The Root of Our Youth and we just had meetings run by students to talk about student issues and things like that. We all kind of made it our own therapy session most of the time, where we talk about like, what was going on with online school, mental health, like how can things be better? Like, our teachers are doing these things that they shouldn't be doing. I need support, like, things like that. So that was definitely a lifesaver.
[00:06:44] Sara Bernard: I'm Sara Bernard. And this is This Changes Everything, a podcast from Crosscut about the new normal. This is our second episode about the way that racism in school was seen and felt in a whole new way after the shutdowns and after the murder of George Floyd. As you've already heard, some people wanted to leave public schools for good; others like Tara and Fernell and Diya wanted to change them.
So, this is a story of one group of students in Washington state who took this moment and, because of the school shutdowns, because of the racial awakening of 2020, and because of some very dedicated teachers who've been working on improving equity in schools for most of their careers, in a few hearts and minds anyway, the past couple of years have meant a whole new infusion of empowerment, determination and hope.
Stay with us.
[00:07:35] Phia Endicott: I think it was Tara. She, I think was the one who made this big group chat of just a bunch of students of color at our school because our school was really predominantly white. And so a lot of us were really struggling.
[00:07:50] Sara Bernard: This is Phia Endicott.
[00:07:51] Phia Endicott: My pronouns are they/he. I Identify as queer and neurodivergent and I'm Native Hawaiian as well. So, like, a person of color.
[00:07:59] Sara Bernard: And Phia, too, felt outnumbered and othered growing up and going to school in mostly white spaces.
[00:08:04] Phia Endicott: In my elementary school, the only Hawaiian kids were like me and my siblings. And so we would face like microaggressions and just outright racism, like constantly. And I didn't really have anyone else to talk to. And then, even in middle school and high school, there was like a very small group of us. There was no one to really, there was no one who really understood.
[00:08:24] Sara Bernard: Phia is in college now, but in June 2020 they went to high school with Tara and Diya. Tara reached out to them individually and encouraged them to join this new group that was forming over Zoom, The Root of Our Youth.
[00:08:37] Phia Endicott: I was really nervous. Like, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And I got on the Zoom call and it was, like, incredible. It was, like, it was just like Fernell and a bunch of students and there was so much conversation that I had never thought could exist or had never experienced before.
Like, I had never seen space held like that. Yeah. It was great. And I was like, I need to keep coming back. And so, yeah, that was the meeting that we named ourselves and we like opened up all of our, like social media accounts. And then we just kind of started talking and planning.
[00:09:13] Sara Bernard: First up. there was the Northshore March for our Lives, an in-person rally held in Bothell in June 2020, co-organized by students in several school districts in the regions.
[00:09:25] Student 1: And then
[00:09:36] Sara Bernard: Root of Our Youth students decided to host another giant rally online. But first, to drum up support and get people energized and involved, the group asked their friends and connections to submit videos of themselves for a final compilation. The idea was to answer the prompt, "I can return to school when."
[00:10:02] Student 1: I can return to school when more teachers of color are hired.
[00:10:05] Sara Bernard: At the time, of course, all school buildings were still closed down and no one knew for how long. And as far as I can tell, no one who answered that prompt wanted to return to the kind of school that was considered normal.
[00:10:16] Student 2: I can return to schools when police officers are taken off our campuses.
[00:10:20] Student 3: I can't return to school until I feel safe and others feel safe for being themselves.
[00:10:26] Student 4: And I can learn about people like me from people like me.
[00:10:30] Sara Bernard: One of the voices you heard briefly in the last episode, of a young woman who said she heard racial slurs at school and the administration didn't protect her, that was from this video.
[00:10:41] Student 5: When our institutions are ready to listen to the minority students and take action to combat not only blatant racism, but also daily microaggression.
[00:10:49] Phia Endicott: And then soon after that, we had our first virtual rally, which was a huge deal. There was, I think like 700 people who got on and it was, it was amazing. It was so cool.
[00:11:04] Sara Bernard: So, I've heard other estimates, maybe it's closer to 400 or 500, but point is, hundreds of people. Fernell was there helping to facilitate. Erin Jones was there along with hundreds of teachers and parents and especially students. This was July 2020.
[00:11:18] Diya Kumar: And I was like, okay, these are kids that I know, and I know what they believe in. And they are talking about things that even I was disappointed about, but thought there was nothing I could do. So I'm just gonna take a chance and show up and see what they say and who knows, maybe I might get something out of it and learn how to deal with this. And I ended up getting so much
[00:11:40] Phia Endicott: It had breakout rooms and we talked about different stuff. I was at the mental health room talking about mental health before and after the pandemic, like my struggle with mental illness and, um, lacking resources and like what we need as students.
[00:11:52] Sara Bernard: For Phia, for Diya, it was like finding their people, at last.
[00:11:55] Diya Kumar: I mostly went to like pan ethnic studies breakout rooms, and kind of like hearing what different people have to say about just how wrong it is that we weren't like people of color and queer people that are just not represented in our histories at all. You know, it kinda just makes somebody said something like how it just makes it feel like we're not enough. That we're not worth knowing. And it was like, yeah, that's kinda messed up. You know, we are definitely enough and we're worth knowing about.
[00:12:30] Sara Bernard: All of this was such a big hit, such a breath of fresh air and such an energy boost, they decided to hold another rally.
And so, after the two big rallies in summer 2020, they kept it up. Zoom meetings all the time, easily four times a week, constant conversations and moral support, regular online teachings made up of both youth and adults. And there, the Root of Our Youth students, instead of listening to their teachers, as they always had, became the teachers. They taught their teachers what they knew.
[00:13:21] Diya Kumar: It was really impactful for me because I started seeing teachers showing up, especially teachers that I've had, like that have taught me before. And it was in a way, because since we, as students were leading these different breakout rooms, I was teaching my teachers for once. And it was really weird to me cause it was like, can I do this? You have a higher authority over me. You controlled my grades at some point. Like, is this okay? But they kind of just really reiterated like, "Hey, just because teachers are seen as like these grownup authority figures, doesn't actually mean that they have this power over you right now. You are the teachers and you get to tell them about how you're feeling and the different experiences you've gone through and tell them how important it is to change."
So, I think I led a few rallies about like bringing diversity in staff and teachers, because so I've had like one teacher of color my whole entire life. And that was not great because you can't really talk to white teachers much much about racism and microaggressions you might've faced, 'cause they wouldn't be able to understand.
So, being able to just kind of teach teachers that and like having them listen and taking notes and asking questions and everything, it was just really, really cool to me. 'Cause it's like, "Oh my God, you actually do care about us."
[00:14:51] Sara Bernard: And all this, it would likely, never have happened without the confluence of George Floyd and the pandemic. The upside down nature of 2020, the eyeopening it catalyzed, it really made this kind of thing possible.
[00:15:03] Phia Endicott: It was an incredible time. That summer of 2020 was really hard in a lot of ways because I couldn't go anywhere. I was in my house all the time. Like my dad is immunocompromised, so I did not see my friends. I was just in my house, in my room. And so being able to have that outlet of like meeting so many new people, I don't know how I did it, but I've made more friends in the pandemic than I did before the pandemic, like throughout all of high school.
And yeah, it was just, every student in the Root of Our Youth is amazing. And so we just were planning and mobilizing and humanizing, holding space together and just healing.
[00:15:45] Sara Bernard: But at some point, this moment would end, right? This complex brew of global pandemic, school shutdowns and racial reckoning, it would move on, it would shift. And what then.
[00:15:56] Tara Duong: I remember over that summer, a bunch of times saying like, man, like we have all this momentum and it would be a really, it would be a damn shame if the district just kind of continued with what we were doing before, because we were trying really, really hard to use the momentum of the pandemic and also like the events happening in the world, especially in the United States with like police brutality and racism and using the momentum of that to make things better for students, especially students of color, especially Black students.
[00:16:31] Sara Bernard: And so, to that end, in summer 2020, in partnership with Fernell Miller and Erin Jones and other students and educators from around the state, the Root of Our Youth students helped craft lists of recommendations for school leaders as they navigated the pandemic and any potential return to school buildings. Among them, prioritize relationships over academic standards or concerns about learning loss, consider representation and hiring practices, reimagine school discipline so it doesn't disproportionately harm students of color.
The Root of Our Youth also came up with a list of demands for their district, which included, wanting better systems for addressing racism and microaggressions at school, as well as changes to the curriculum.
[00:17:10] Tara Duong: Mandatory reporting for discriminatory acts, which we don't have, which is kind of weird. We have looked through our handbook and like the penalties for like racist actions are very low. And so we were talking about that, how that's a big problem, how people just get let off the hook all the time and how we don't really have a consistent reporting system for incidents like that. And so a lot of times students, like we'll just let it go because they don't even know where to go.
And then another one was ethnic studies curriculum, because our curriculum was also very not diverse and very racially insensitive at times. And then, having more mental health professionals in school. We had our school counselors, which are not licensed therapists at all. We have so many students struggling with their mental health, but unable to access resources, myself included. Like what they kind of do is they just kind of push the hotlines and say like, "Oh, we have like these two people that you can maybe talk to and do some self-care and go for a walk. And like, have you tried essential oils?"
[00:18:16] Sara Bernard: But there worked didn't end there. They also participated in ongoing lunch and learns with the league of education voters and in late summer 2020, they launched their own podcast. It's called The Lunch Table: a Podcast from the Root of Our Youth. And you can find it on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
Based on what I can tell from the conversations I had with some of these students, the podcast is a pretty direct reflection of all the discussions they were having off mic.
[00:18:51] Student 6: Our district's policy has a bigger penalty for plagiarism and cheating than it does for any type of racial slurs or hate speech.
[00:19:00] Student 7: I was talking about the N-word and he said that he was allowed to say it because he was the teacher.
[00:19:07] Sara Bernard: Each episode features a round table of students on Zoom, dishing on everything from their dissatisfaction with Eurocentric curriculum, a lack of diversity among the teaching staff...
[00:19:16] Student 8: Students of color do not have those people outside of their house to look up to, or to relate to.
[00:19:22] Sara Bernard: ... a lack of mental health support at school ...
[00:19:24] Student 9: can't walk into the counselors because, you know, they're always booked
[00:19:27] Sara Bernard: ... discrimination against LGBTQ students and the disproportionate disciplining of Black and brown youth.
[00:19:33] Student 10: Certain behaviors from certain kids stem from things that are going on in their personal life.
[00:19:37] Student 11: And there's a real shortage in the media of hearing youth have important discussions.
[00:19:43] Student 12: I want to do this work so that other people come along and don't have to do it.
[00:19:55] Sara Bernard: The Root of Our Youth kept at it for the next year. And in 2021, you might say that's when they really started to make some headway. In the spring, the group co-wrote an op-ed about what they saw as a need for schools to provide much better mental health support to students, especially students of color. And around the same time, along with another like-minded group of educators called the Equity Institute, they met virtually for six consecutive weeks with members of the Washington State Board of Education, a rare opportunity to share their thoughts and recommendations with state leaders.
The focus for that was specifically on what graduation requirements and state standards should look like with a big push for an ethnic studies requirement. But there are other recommendations that got through too, such as a call for better representation of people of color among teachers and counselors at school.
[00:20:47] Fernell Miller: Like, I saw mountains move in front of me because of these youth and what they were doing together. And I get these midnight texts from them that says, "This is all I've ever wanted. This is all we've ever wanted to do is say what we need and have somebody believe us and go do it." And they'll show up for that any day of the week. Matter of fact, they were showing up Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, four days a week showing up, all week. I'm not even their teacher. I'm just opening the line and here they come.
[00:21:24] Sara Bernard: So more and more students kept joining. And not only students of color, also those who wanted to be allies.
[00:21:31] Molly Reagan: I heard about the first rally and then the second rally Phia texted me and was like, Dude ...
[00:21:37] Sara Bernard: This is Molly Reagan. She's a first-year college student now, but she was a high school junior in 2020. And she's still close friends with Phia.
... we did this online rally, there were like 400 people there. NPR is probably gonna write an article on us. And I was like, "Oh my God, I love you. You're the best. And I love that for you." And then they were like, "Okay, yeah, but you need to, you get in here now. Now. Right now."
Unlike most members of The Root of Our Youth, Molly is white, but she's someone for whom George Floyd's murder and the protests following it took a toll.
[00:22:10] Molly Reagan: I was up till like 5 a.m. looking stuff up about it. And I literally just couldn't stop thinking about it. And I was like, Okay, well, I need to like do something with this energy. And also I need to sleep. Cause I can't do anything if I don't sleep.
[00:22:22] Sara Bernard: And crucially, she's also someone for whom normal never seemed to quite make sense.
[00:22:27] Molly Reagan: While I do not know, and I will never know or know anything close to, what it's like to be a student of color and especially in a predominant white institution, like the schools that I went to, knowing my experience as a white autistic kid growing up and how I saw people treat me and how I saw people treat others and seeing that and feeling like I was crazy, meeting other people who were like, "No, there are big things at play here. You're right. But also learn more." It felt so validating.
[00:23:06] Sara Bernard: That's one of the things I heard over and over from Root of Our Youth students; it's just been so validating to have found each other and to have those in power listening for once.
[00:23:16] Molly Reagan: To have been able to speak directly to the state Board of Education, after what I described briefly as my school experience, it was like an amount of cathartic that I can't put into words that are appropriate. It was just like, so empowering and invigorating. I finished that and I was like, I'm ready. What are we doing next?
[00:23:52] Sara Bernard: We'll be right back.
[00:23:55] Anonymous speaker: Good teachers need good teachers and class is in session at Western Governors University. Online and competency-based, WGU-Washington offers respected bachelor's and master's degree programs in teaching, for aspiring and veteran teachers who want a high quality affordable education on their schedule and at their pace. Learn more at wgu.edu.
[00:24:31] Sara Bernard: So, actually, when it comes to the conversation about improving equity in schools, a lot has happened in the past couple of years, at least in Washington. In May 2021, Governor Inslee signed three bills designed to put a deeper focus on diversity, equity and inclusion training in schools. SB 5044, for instance, requires that districts prioritize one of three staff professional development days to focus specifically on DEI and anti-racism training in schools.
[00:25:00] Newscaster: It gives local schools autonomy over what kind of diversity and inclusion training they provide to their staff.
[00:25:05] Sara Bernard: It also requires the Washington State School Directors Association to develop cultural competency standards for school districts. Not surprisingly, if you Google SB 5044 you will find a lot out there about how Washington state is now requiring critical race theory training in schools.
Washington state education leaders say critical race theory has nothing to do with this. And there's no mention of critical race theory in the legislation. The bill is defined, officially, as "an act relating to equity, cultural competency and dismantling institutional racism in a public school system." It therefore acknowledges that institutional racism exists, which is something that opponents of the bill, according to the official summary of public testimony at its hearings, don't seem to believe. "There is no systemic racism in this state," the summary reads, "except for the identity programs in schools."
It's worth noting that even slightly before the pandemic hit and before the ferocious controversy over critical race theory, the state legislature was already promoting ethnic studies in schools.
In 2019 and 2020, the legislature passed two bills that require the state office of the superintendent of public instruction, or OSPI, to identify and make available ethnic studies materials for K-12 schools in the state. And in spring 2020, the legislature asked OSPI to create an African-American studies work group. So far, these laws are mostly an encouragement for schools, not a mandate.
Similarly, in spring 2021, the Washington State Board of Education, around the time its members were meeting with the Root of Our Youth, adopted an ethnic studies resolution. Again, a statement of intention, not a prescriptive or a mandated policy. But the text does say explicitly that it is a resolution of intent to establish an ethnic studies a graduation requirement.
Here's Phia, Molly and Diya again.
[00:27:25] Phia Endicott: We did get a lot of attention. I think from the state Board of Education, we presented to the state board a few times, and then we worked directly with the state board last spring, um, about graduation requirements and restructuring graduation requirements, but really, really cool.
[00:27:38] Molly Reagan: The person who worked with us from the state board, who sat with us weekly for, I think, multiple months, he was excellent. He would just be like, "Thank you guys for talking to me." And he would take notes. Other people took notes and you could always tell he was attentively listening. He wasn't like camera off muted or anything. You know, he's like sitting there reacting to what we're saying and like genuinely there with us in the moment.
[00:28:03] Diya Kumar: And then, with ethnic studies, we got attention from, like, the University of Washington at Bothell, talking about developing curriculum and working on implementing curriculum. And so, I think we got attention from the people who actually cared, helping us do work. It's just a lot, it's a really slow process.
The fact that we did get the opportunity and they were like, "Okay, let's listen to some students," it was great. It was a step. I don't know. I still don't know if it's really going to amount to anything. If we're going to see ethnic studies become a graduation requirement. But the fact that they took that step was, you know, it was, it was big.
[00:28:46] Sara Bernard: And I don't know what happens next either. But the impact of student voices in all this is no small thing. It's one of the ideas that Erin Jones pointed to the very first time we connected on a phone call back in September. She's been talking with teachers and administrators and students all over the state on equity issues, pretty much nonstop since March 2020. And she says, it's a trend.
[00:29:07] Erin Jones: The thing that we realized in this last year and a half is that decision makers need to be listening to students more. And with our access to technology, there's no excuse not to. There are ways to listen to students and we need to be listening to students.
[00:29:23] Sara Bernard: And there seem to be more and more examples of this out there. In late November, for instance, the Washington State School Directors Association held their annual conference and they started it for the first time with students ...
[00:29:35] Erin Jones: Thursday is an all day students session before the school director's conference and its intentionally to listen to student voice. And this is the first time it's ever happened in our state. It's an all day event that students come to and they're going to be listened to, they're going to get to hear from school directors, but then school directors are going to get to listen to them.
Those students will get to determine what their priorities are, and they'll get to drive some of the priorities of the school directors at the state level.
[00:30:04] Sara Bernard: In early December 2021, the 16 member state Board of Education released a pretty powerful statement requesting statewide legislation in 2022. Their proposal would give the boards two student members equal voting power.
Historically student input has been advisory only. According to the board, "This proposal responds to students advocating 'not about us without us.' The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism have exposed and amplified the need for state agencies to reconsider how practices have been done in the past. We need to value student voice now more than ever."
And the bill passed. As of mid March, it's just waiting for the governor's signature.
So to the Root of Our Youth students, all of this feels promising, but they're also getting a taste of just how painfully slowly things can move in public education, even if there are a lot of good intentions. Tara, for instance, told me about a student advisory board she was on last year for her district.
[00:31:05] Tara Duong: And we talked a lot about things, about issues in our districts. And I realized like about three or four meetings in that I don't think anyone was taking notes and they weren't being recorded. And one of the things we talked about, it was about SROs in schools, policing in schools.
And we had like a very strong consensus that like police don't belong to schools. And then the person who was running the meetings, someone who's very high in our district said, "Okay, great. I'll make a task force about it, of students." And we're like, "Okay, so what are we?" And then I got an email, like months later saying, "Would you like to join this task force?" And I was like, "No, I would not like to join this task force."
So, yeah, a lot of just like saying students are involved and then not actually listening to the students. Like, you can get our opinion, as long as you value it. Like, if you're just going to ask for our opinion, we're going to stop giving it at some point.
[00:32:12] Sara Bernard: So maybe it depends on which student you ask and which committee or team or taskforce you ask about. Ultimately, I think the Root of Our Youth students try to be realistic too. They've had a little statewide impact, they've seen a little district impact and they believe there's been some individual impact too.
[00:32:29] Tara Duong: I wouldn't say that every single demand that we've wanted to have fulfilled was fulfilled or will be fulfilled soon. But I will say that like we did a lot of planting seeds and we also did a lot of like small scale change that made a big difference in specific people's lives or even a small difference that was really still meaningful. There's just still so much more to be done. In the meantime, though, we're just doing our best, I think, to love each other.
[00:33:02] Sara Bernard: So the Root of Our Youth is student led, but like so many of the student committees and councils out there, it's adult facilitated. Fernell Miller talks about it in metaphors. For her, it's not performative or perfunctory. It's really about laying out a path for them, opening doors for them. She and the other educators she's brought into the fold here are explicitly not trying to tokenize or patronize these students. They're just trying to get out of the way.
[00:33:27] Fernell Miller: These adults bust open doors for them, open all the windows, turned on all the lights, gave them access to everything that they needed to make a difference and move the needle.
[00:33:37] Sara Bernard: And this is a needle that has, according to Fernell, barely budged since she was a kid, growing up and going to school Northeast of Seattle in the late 1960s and '70s.
[00:33:46] Fernell Miller: I grew up around Black and brown people, educators, doctors, lawyers, brick masons, from all walks of life, doing everything. So I just knew something was wrong. Like nobody talked about anybody but whiteness and white people and what they did and they knew and what was important to them and nothing else was ever discuss, acknowledged, or even tried to make understanding of it. And so I knew that was intentional by the time I hit middle school.
And so I could assimilate and show up in a way big, because I had confidence and I knew about the world around me. So I wasn't really fearful or in myself, but I knew how vulnerable I was being in the one Black student in the entire school, entire class, you know, four in the district, that was a very vulnerable and dangerous and racially isolating time for me. The racial attacks were constant.
And I had lots of skills I could show up and be useful. I was an athlete. I was good in school. I could, I could show up and present in a way that staved off a little bit of that attack. As long as I was being, you know, making people comfortable and being useful, I could stick around. I could, I could walk amongst you. But let anybody, you know, question me, trip me, I couldn't report any of that. Nobody believed me for any reason at all, ever.
Nothing has changed since I was a fifth grader. All the parents that I speak to are saying and talking about the same issues that my parents were raising and speaking to back when I was a fifth grader and I just turned 60, this year. So, the progress that we think we've made hasn't changed a bit of the experience in the classroom for the students sitting there today.
[00:35:52] Sara Bernard: Fernell now hosts an in-person afterschool program. It's a program that welcomes both older students, like Tara, who you heard from earlier, to younger students. Like for example, a fourth grader I met last fall named Reddit.
[00:36:20] Reddit: I don't like going masks cause like I can barely breathe in them. The only time I can take off my mask is when I eat, drink, when I'm having a little break for myself.
[00:36:31] Sara Bernard: No one likes wearing masks, but being back in the classroom, for some kids, it means being right back in a situation that doesn't feel safe. And it's not because of the virus.
Because the awareness of being out of that trauma for a year and getting to breathe and then as soon as we get back into the school, the restriction and the tightness is so that they're not breathing. They're not healing. They're not talking.
[00:37:01] Fernell Miller: You came and met with us in circle on Monday and you saw how we start in a circle and it took, you know, it takes a long time to just to get them to go, to just stop holding their breath and then to take a breath in, to actually talk about, "How did your day go? What happened today? How did you hold it today? What do you need help with today?" And then, you know, I'm there for a few hours, but they could talk on and on and on into the ... "Oh, it happened to you too. Oh, it still happened. Oh, it happened again. It happened, it happened two weeks ago. And you didn't say anything."
I mean, that's what I'm hearing every Monday after school.
[00:37:42] Sara Bernard: For example, and this is just one example, there was one Black student who Fernell says recently experienced that kind of trauma in the lunchroom.
[00:37:50] Fernell Miller: Just a student trying to eat lunch. Brought lunch from home, chicken from home, and eating that. White students poured syrup and salt or whatever all over his food at lunch and laughing and making those racialized, stereotypical jokes about chicken and Black people and adults are in the cafeteria and nobody thinks anything of that. He tries to point out to adults and go to the office to say what happened. And he's not believed. His parent tries to call and communicate with the school about what happened and there's no communication back. And so two weeks later I'm hearing about this story. You know, it's two weeks later, what, what was the conclusion? What happened? So, he was told to maybe join the Black student union. And, you know, that's how it's dealt with. So now he hasn't been eatin' lunch for two weeks. What was he supposed to do? Because if I can't even trust my environment not to attack my food, not to attack me, attack my mind, attack my body, attack my existence, what am I even doing at school? Why? Why do we need to go and be in that? How is that serving each student?
[00:39:25] Sara Bernard: Racism and bullying at school doesn't just end because people want it to. It doesn't end because of one teacher or one support group or one big cultural moment when the whole world seemed outraged over the murder of George Floyd and all that it represents. It doesn't change with resolutions and taskforces and promises even.
But here's what does change? Here's what can change. I asked Tara whether there was anything she'd recognized about her experience in school after she'd been through the upheavals of the past couple of years, specifically when it comes to racism in all its forms.
[00:39:59] Tara Duong: Before and during and after the pandemic, like it didn't really change. Same thing. But I think the only thing that changed is that I feel better about calling it out.
[00:40:10] Sara Bernard: The change, in other words, is in her.
[00:40:13] Tara Duong: A lot of kids, they kind of gaslight themselves into thinking that like some things aren't actually issues, that having this like support system and like being able to send screenshots of like what we were learning in class and being like, "Hey, is this weird to anyone else? Like, should I be feeling like this" and them saying, like, you're not crazy, like, that should not be taught in school. That's not okay. Like, if you need someone to back you up, I'll back you up." Like, things like that made it a lot easier to call things out.
For a lot of these students, no matter what happens next, being a part of the Root of Our Youth at all was transformative. It changed everything. And that counts for a lot.
[00:40:57] Phia Endicott: The Root of Our Youth has kind of changed like my whole life.
[00:41:00] Tara Duong: I would not have gone through the year without Root of Our Youth. Oh my gosh.
[00:41:04] Molly Reagan: Like hiking in a desert for like most of your childhood and then, oh my God, the water exists.
[00:41:11] Diya Kumar: All of these different chain of events, even though that we now see as like really, really bad, it was a blessing in a way, because then I found this new space.
[00:41:21] Tara Duong: No matter how adults in power are reacting to the work that we're doing, we're not going to stop doing the work.
Thanks for listening to This Changes everything. This episode was reported and produced by me, Sara Bernard, with editorial assistance from Venice Buhain. Additional editorial help from Claudia Rowe and Brooklyn Jamerson-Flowers. Donna Blankenship is our consulting editor and our story editor and executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Audio support from Jonah Cohen.
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I'm Sara Barnard. And for the next and final episode, we're looking at how the pandemic opened some parents' eyes and help them to see things they might not have seen about the way their kids learn. That's next time on This Changes Everything.