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Ashland and Medford schools are working toward equity

Equity and inclusion administrators in the Ashland and Medford school districts are planning to pick up where they left off last year.

Their primary focus last year — their first on the job — was to create a safe space where black students could come together and they could offer support and mentorship to the students.

D.L. Richardson and Becca Berman, equity and inclusion administrators for both Medford and Ashland schools, worked closely with Southern Oregon University Multicultural Resource Center coordinator Marvin Woodard throughout the year.

SOU hosted the first Black Youth Leadership Summit in February for high school students in the two districts.

“The Black Youth Leadership Summit was an opportunity to bring black and African-American students to campus to see other black students from the community and enjoy some workshops built around cultural awareness and pride, academic preparation and leadership development,” Woodard said. “I think the bigger piece was to have those students come together and motivate them together and feeling pride that comes from being a part of the black/African American community.

“I can honestly say I’ve seen many of those students before, but I’ve never seen them all in one space,” Woodard said.

The Black Youth Leadership Summit is expected to be an annual event every February.

“My own daughter came home emotionally charged up talking about how she’s never been in a space with so many other black girls in one room ‘who said the same things I said,’ or the young men who talked about the same frustrations about the future and opportunity and who shared the same fears,” Woodard said. “This was really the first chance they’ve ever had, for many of them, that all the voices shared the same experiences.”

Out of 350 black students in the Medford School District and 175 in the Ashland School District, about 80 came to the summit.

The event sparked recognition among the students, administrators said. From there the high school students helped Ashland Middle School form its first black student union, andthen Walker Elementary was inspired to create its first black student union.

“That’s the community aspect that I love about it — everyone is helping each other in getting this going,” said Richardson, adding that the specialists visited the black students at their high schools.

“You could just see the look on their faces when they walked into the room,” Richardson said. “‘I didn’t know you were here; I didn’t know you exist.’

“Marvin always starts by asking, ‘If you know everyone in this room raise your hand,’ and not one kid could raise their hand.”

“We’re such a small community in Southern Oregon, and we don’t even know who’s in our community,” Richardson said. “Our goal from day one was to build community and then move from there.”

Gilda Montenegro-Fix, a diversity specialist in the Rogue Valley, helped to start these dialogs with microaggression behavior training with students at the middle school, Richardson said.

Parents of black student union members became very involved, which is a big step in addressing issues in the school system when it comes to bias, Berman said.

She said white teachers are often biased toward students of color without realizing it. They treat students of color differently, and it makes the students feel as though they can’t speak out against the injustice, but they often speak to their parents about it.

Richardson said this bias is often seen in policies and processes. For example, a student of color might be suspended for something that a white student might not get in trouble for. It can create a trust issue with administrators and teachers, because there is a fear of backlash, Richardson said.

“Students can’t go to administrators and say, ‘You’re not treating me fairly,’” Richardson said.

So, the job of equity and inclusion administrators is to be a person in the school who students can talk to about things, giving students and parents a voice by working to address these issues.

“Teachers come down harder on people of color than white kids,” Richardson said. “There may be things you might be doing to a kid you might not realize that makes them feel unprotected.”

The equity and inclusion administrators also offer training to teachers in the two districts about bias. Richardson said bias can be something as small as a literature teacher only calling on African American students while studying an African American writer, but not a white writer. It may go unnoticed by the white teacher doing it, but the students notice it.

Richardson said their roles are important for the children, but it is also important for the state to see what’s happening in Southern Oregon.

Woodard said there’s a new funding model from the state geared toward students of color that provides more incentive for schools, which is one of the reasons these new specialist positions were created in the last year.

Plans for the new school year are still in the works, but the three are hopeful that they’ll establish a program in partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“The new artistic director is an African American woman (Nataki Garrett), and we’re setting up now a program to bring students to see her first play, which is a primarily all-African American cast and use that as a starting-off point for the Black Youth Leadership Summit in February,” Richardson said.

The goal is to teach kids that this is a rich field available to them in their backyard, Richardson said.

“More African Americans are probably hired at OSF than anywhere else in Southern Oregon,” Richardson said.

The three are also working to create a “Say Hey” event for Oct. Monday, 21. It is an event that exposes students to job opportunities. Woodard said he’s planning to invite large employers in the region, such as Asante, Oregon Health and Science University, Harry & David and both the Ashland and Medford Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s just something powerful with them being able to be with a group of people who share that same lived experience and that there’s no judgment there and that they can be true to themselves,” Berman said. “It’s a really beautiful thing to see.”

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

(Sept. 3: Story updated to reflect that Walker Elementary School created its black student union without outside influence.)

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMathew Reynolds who is the drama and dance instructor at Crater Renaissance Academy was the keynote speaker at the Black Youth Leadership Summit on the SOU campus.