Our school board had a tough job this year. Dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic was a challenge, and members often struggled to agree on how to handle mask mandates and whether or not to allow in-person classes. Constituents who weighed in on these issues deserved respect regardless of their opinions and sadly, that respect was not always apparent in the readings of the testimonies. That lack of respect from some board members points to the need for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs to be a part of everyone’s training in our schools.
First, let me thank Mrs. Dominique and Mrs. Knight for their eloquent and powerful testimonies at the June 1 school board meeting in support of including money for DEI in our school budget for the coming years. They drew attention to how the average school curriculum ignores the treatment of African Americans in this country. While they specifically referenced the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, there are many more incidents of institutionally-supported racist violence throughout the nation omitted from curriculum. We must learn about these because every incident left lasting trauma that remains with us today. The News-Miner helped with an opinion piece by Eugene Robinson entitled “It was much more than Tulsa; it was a pattern of American history” on June 3, but much work is still needed.
Let me expand. While we did not have the large scale violence experienced in the Lower 48, we had all manner of systemic racism here in Alaska directed at all people of color, especially Alaska Natives. We had Jim Crow laws, housing covenants, segregated schooling and widespread discrimination in many areas of life. We had language prohibitions which created generational economic disadvantage, forced relocations of communities and abusive boarding schools. That systemic racism is still alive and well here today together with other forms of bigotry. The damage done is passed down through generations and, if not brought out into the open and addressed, continues to fester. We must teach about this history, not to make anyone feel bad, but to prevent bad things from continuing.
Of course, school should not be the only place that children learn to treat others with kindness and respect, but, for some, it may be. Parents cannot teach what they do not know, and many parents were provided a woefully inadequate presentation of this nation’s history. I have taught many college students who were shocked at how much they had missed about the history of Indigenous people in this country. Many of these students were also parents and were adamant about wanting better instruction for their children. No student ever said to me, “I would have preferred not to learn this” although several shared with me how it had changed their view of those around them even though learning about it was painful.
I have taught teachers who were seeking recertification credits in Alaska who knew nothing of what I have noted above. Some were also uninformed about Lower 48 history with one who thought that no lynching had ever taken place in their home Southern state. If our teachers do not know history, or if what they have learned has left them with prejudices that affect how they will teach students, then we have a serious problem.
Including DEI in our schools is vital. If our teachers and staff do not have the basic information they cannot pass it on to students. When students (and parents) do not receive truthful information, they will not understand why things are the way they are. They may even believe that George Floyd died from a fentanyl overdose rather than murder. When the truth is hidden we all suffer. If we do not know the different events that contributed to the need for DEI programs, we will not understand the root causes of outcome disparities within our society and we will not take the right actions to end those disparities.
For those who cannot see the need for DEI programs, please look within and ask why you feel this way? Is it because learning about what happened to others is too hard to handle? If so, imagine how much worse it would feel if it had happened to you, if your relative had been murdered because of race or sexual orientation, or your house had been burned down. Wouldn’t you want every tool available to prevent that from happening again? DEI is about caring enough about each other to make sure we have tools to prevent another Tulsa Massacre.
Jenny Bell-Jones is chair emeritus of the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This work represents her opinion and not that of the department.