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Early start on being 'safe and seen'

Gilda Montenegro-Fix’s goal as a cultural agility consultant is simple: Every member of a community should be safe and seen, regardless of their background.

It means first acknowledging where the obstacles to that outcome lie.

“Bringing difficult topics to the table is the way to solve real profound change and real healing that will benefit all of us,” she said.

Three principles guide Montenegro-Fix’s work: equity, diversity and inclusion.

To some people, those concepts could be summed up simply as being kind. But Montenegro-Fix, a former educator and social worker who trains companies, school staff and students in equity, diversion and inclusion, digs deeper.

She and others work to identify systemic obstacles that keep people of color, LGBTQ students and other minority groups from experiencing the same welcoming environment as their peers.

“It’s about learning, how do I want to be if I want everyone in my school to feel welcome — what does that look like?” she said.

Montenegro-Fix’s equity work is multifaceted. She has worked with several local school districts, including training 1,000 staff members in the Grants Pass School District.

But this week, seventh- and eighth-graders at Ashland Middle School received some of the same training their teachers have been undergoing since March, on how to create a more inclusive school.

“I think Ashland considers itself to be a very ... open-minded, liberal, progressive community, and in many ways it is,” said Stephen Retzlaff, principal. “But I think the lack of diversity in our community lulls the community into a false sense of confidence around their awareness or sensitivity around cultural diversity or equity or inclusion.”

State report card data reveal a lopsided condition of racial and ethnic diversity in Jackson County school districts — teachers are primarily white while student populations are growing more diverse. That’s in line with the national trend, in which 51 percent of the country’s students are people of color, but they are taught by a force that’s 80 percent white, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Only Eagle Point and Phoenix-Talent school districts, each with 89 percent white teachers, dropped below the 90 percent mark in 2017-18. Their student populations are 44 and 54 percent students of color, respectively. Prospect, Pinehurst and Butte Falls school districts all reported 100 percent of their teachers were white.

At Ashland Middle School, 72 percent of students in 2017-18 were white, while 95 percent of teachers were white.

“Certainly at our school we’ve seen an increase in hate speech,” Retzlaff said. “We’ve had times where teachers have sometimes inadvertently said or done things that were culturally insensitive, and that made our students feel uncomfortable, unsafe, not seen, not valued, not respected.”

Ashland School District is currently embroiled in two lawsuits filed in the wake of an April 2017 fight at Ashland High School. The fight broke out, one of the lawsuits alleged, after a student used a racial slur at an off-campus party.

“Seeing those things occurring more and having parents and members of our school community come forward and sharing their stories ... it just seemed like we needed to act and do something,” Retzlaff said.

Five volunteer trainers who entered classrooms Thursday to lead discussions with seventh- and eighth-graders came from different corners of the valley.

Among them were Marvin Woodard, Jr., coordinator at Southern Oregon University’s Multicultural Resource Center; Lt. Hector Meletich, who oversees patrol operations at the Ashland Police Department; and Matthew Reynolds, who directs Crater Renaissance Academy’s drama and dance department.

Reynolds guided Spanish teacher Sulema Pimentel’s students through their session. He shared pieces of his own story as a person of color in the Rogue Valley, but, per the curriculum each leader used, he focused mostly on asking the class questions to get them thinking about their own experiences in school.

He encouraged students to listen quietly and respectfully to each other. He had them snap their fingers if something that was said resonated with them.

“It’s not about punishing, or shaming or guilting right now,” he said. “We’re learning.”

The students, seated in an open rectangle, wrote their answers to questions such as “What does respect mean to me?” and “What’s the difference between fitting in and belonging?”

“If you’re trying to fit in, you’re trying to change something about you to fit into whatever’s like normal,” said a student in response to the second question. “Whereas belonging ... it’s like you’re fitting in but without changing yourself.”

The room was silent as the class watched a video of kids their age sharing comments people made to them about their race or ethnicity.

“You’re so pretty for a black girl ... she has a Jew nose ... you can’t take a joke.”

Reynolds then invited Pimentel’s class to talk about microaggressions they have heard.

One student shared that he’s biracial, but others often dismiss his Asian identity because of how he looks. Another student who said he was Jewish shared that he had heard people say anti-Semitic things and joke about Nazis around him.

Reynolds compared microaggressions to the burning, irritating effect of a mosquito bite, asking students to think about “what that does and how that breaks down in our system as far as, well, do I just fit in here or do I belong here?”

People of color often face pushback when speaking up about microaggressions, with reactions ranging from accusations of being too sensitive to being reversely racist or creating division.

“Sometimes people do say, oh, it’s by talking about race that we’re causing this division,” Montenegro-Fix said. “And we know that’s not the case. We know that color exists, children see it, and they need words to be able to explain what they see and why is there different treatment ... to me it is more of an indication of the work we still need to do when people push back from that point of view.”

Lack of equity goes beyond feelings, however. State data highlights disparities in achievement for students of color.

Oregon’s assessment data provides one example. On average over the past three years, groups the state considers underserved ethnicities — American Indian/Alaska Native, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students — scored 17.1 percentage points lower on their middle school language arts assessments than all students, and 23 percentage points below white students.

Gaps were slightly larger in math for the same age group. Underserved ethnicities scored 17.6 percent below all students in their three-year assessment average. They were 23.3 percent lower than white students.

The students’ training ended with a challenge of sorts.

“What do you want your school to be?” Reynolds asked his class. “Not what you think we want to hear. What do you really want your school to be?”

“Maybe just a safe place for everyone,” said one student. “Whether they may have a different religion than other people, or if they are part of the LGBTQ community or their gender ... just like a safe place where people can talk about stuff.”

“A place where people can have fun and laugh about things that aren’t offensive,” said another student.

“At the end of the day, how do you want to feel when you walk away from here?” Reynolds asked the class.

“Like you’re not depressed and you don’t have a ton of homework,” a student said.

The class snapped in agreement.

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneMatthew Reynolds talks with Ashland Middle School students during homeroom class Thursday afternoon.