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Grant helps black students make connections

When Becca Berman was growing up in the Rogue Valley, she didn’t see many students who looked like her. She and her siblings were among the few black students in the Central Point schools she attended.

“There was never a time when I wasn’t inherently aware that I was different,” she said. “It did feel really uncomfortable growing up to not see teachers that looked like me, or to have friends that had my same experiences.”

Berman grew up to teach in the valley she called home as a girl. Now, as an equity specialist in the Ashland School District, she and D.L. Richardson, her counterpart in Medford, oversee a $300,000 grant aimed at improving the educational outcomes and experiences of black students in Southern Oregon.

The two-year grant, jointly awarded to Medford and Ashland by the Oregon Department of Education, provides funding for activities throughout the year to reduce achievement gaps and improve students’ experiences. That money also covers Richardson’s and Berman’s salaries.

Marvin Woodard, who runs the Multicultural Center at Southern Oregon University, is one of the pair’s closest partners, looping in the resources of the higher education institution for greater depth and opportunity.

Boosted by the influx of funding, Berman, Richardson and Woodard are building on efforts that begun last year to create more supports for black students in Jackson and Josephine counties.

“For the first time,” Richardson said, “I finally feel like this is sustainable — that people are coming together ... that we can continue on.”

Last October, Richardson and her peers revived a community-building event called “Say Hey,” after a 13-year hiatus. The event allowed professionals and students of color to gather in SOU’s Stevenson Union for an evening of networking and mingling.

This summer, the organizers plan to host a new weeklong experience for black students.

Their responsibilities are multifaceted, including training teachers on implicit biases and meeting with each district’s small population of black students and their families for support.

Some of the biggest events involve pulling those students and families together so they can make friends and professional connections.

Last February, SOU hosted the Rogue Valley’s first Black Youth Leadership Summit, a daylong experience for black high school students to meet each other and participate in culturally centered activities. Participants expressed themselves through art and writing, and discussed the legacies of racist policies and practices in Oregon and the Rogue Valley.

This year, they’ll repeat the event, again at SOU, Feb. 22, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Woodard said that one of the most important gifts for students lies in being with other people who understand the unique experiences involved with being black.

Black students who have spoken to the Mail Tribune in Medford and Ashland, including those on SOU’s campus, have frequently described feelings of isolation. It’s hard to find people who know how to braid or twist your hair, or who know how to cook your family’s recipes, for example.

Beyond that, Berman said, “what being with a group of people that looks like you does for you is you can kind of let your armor down, and not have the weight of being the only representative of that group.”

Unlike the growing Latino community in the Rogue Valley, Woodard said, black people have few landmarks or neighborhoods where there’s a critical mass of people who share their racial or ethnic background.

“The black community here is a lot more fractured,” Woodard said. “You can’t say that there’s an area where the black families live. It’s fractured. So this program hopefully is really going to do something for building that community.”

State data show that the black student populations in Medford and Ashland have hovered around 1% — and that’s the highest enrollment rate among all school districts in Jackson and Josephine counties. Phoenix-Talent and Central Point also had a 1% enrollment rate; all other districts had less than that.

That lack of community can dissuade black people from relocating to the valley, Berman said, further ingraining the disparities.

She said she sees that in her efforts to help Ashland School District recruit and retain more faculty of color.

“When you go to recruit, and they start asking you questions about the community and where can they get their hair done and where can they eat food, where’s the church and all of those questions, and we don’t have any of that information to give them, how can we recruit and retain people?” she said. “While it’s going to take years, we’re doing the groundwork right now to get that community started.”

While the Black and African American Student Success grant has a target population, building community among adults and students are two sides of the same coin, organizers say.

With the help of additional funding from the Oregon Community Foundation, Berman, Woodard and Richardson are planning a new event.

The Black Youth Summer Institute, a five-day experience July 6-10, will house high school students in a dorm as they participate in a variety of activities promoting cultural identity, college or other post-secondary pursuits and leadership.

Interested parents or students can email Woodard at woodardm@sou.edu for more information.

“We’re constantly talking about other ways of doing things so that we can draw more people into the Southern Oregon existence,” he said. “The foundations are being laid.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

D.L. Richardson, left, Becca Berman and Marvin Woodard at the Medford School District offices.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune