Easton Responds to Calls for Anti-Racism

Easton, Redding and Region 9 Boards of Education Create Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committees, Barlow Alumni and Students Form Social Justice Clubs

Across the country, activists have sustained months of protesting, sparked by the death of George Floyd and fueled by what many see as excessive force in police response to these protests. This activism has sparked conversations about racism in communities everywhere, including Easton.

With the national conversation about race resurfacing, many Americans have come to realize that the first step is to be more educated: Books about race have been selling out as people try to understand more about race and racism in the United States. Anti-racist initiatives around Easton, too, have focused on education.

The Easton Public Library has offered resources for those looking to educate themselves about anti-racism. The Easton, Redding, and Region 9 Boards of Education created a joint committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Joel Barlow High School (JBHS) alumni started a social justice group to encourage the school district to establish anti-racist curriculum, policies, and programing, while current students have founded a social justice club at the school. 

Easton Public Library

The Easton Public Library has maintained a presence throughout the pandemic by sending weekly emails, offering curbside pickup, and now beginning the process of reopening. As civil unrest spread, the library added an Anti-Racism Resources section to their website and suggested anti-racist books in their weekly emails. The webpage identifies both books and other multimedia resources for beginning conversations about race with people of all ages.

Shannon Bruchal, library assistant, explained they added the new page to the website “to begin a conversation, educate ourselves, and lead to understanding and change.” She expects that anti-racism resource section of the website will remain up for a long time. 

The library also has a display with books about anti-racism for in-person visitors to peruse. 

Boards of Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force

During a regular joint Easton/Redding Boards of Education meeting, Redding Board of Education member Heather Whaley called for the creation of a diversity, equity, and inclusion task force. Both boards passed a motion to establish a committee on diversity and inclusion; shortly thereafter, Region 9 created its own. The boards agreed to operate as a joint committee, as they do with the policy committee.

Although the committee has also been referred to as a task force, it is officially designated as a committee. This means they must adhere to the same rules as other committees; the public is notified of their meetings and invited to attend, and public participation is encouraged. 

Easton and Redding Boards of Education, school administrators, and community members at the Board of Education meeting when the motion to create a Diversity and Inclusion committee was passed. –Kelly Wendt photo

The committee’s charge is to advise on the operation and financing of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives related to eight focus areas. The focus areas include hiring practices, discipline, curriculum, policies, and professional development. The full charge can be viewed here

Committee membership comprises representatives from each board, but also extends non-voting membership to staff, community members, and students from every school in the district. Members will be selected via an application process in the coming months. 

The current members of the committee will be meeting to “determine what the application for community members will look like,” said Whaley. “Once committee members are identified, that’s where the real work will begin.”

Priorities for the committee once full membership is established will likely entail looking at school policies in the immediate term, and determining what goals will be achieved in the next several years. “The idea is that this is going to be an ongoing, sustained effort,” said Whaley. 

Easton Board of Education Chairperson Jon Stinson echoed Whaley’s sentiment. “I’m very supportive of [forming the committee]. No doubt about that. I think we have a lot of things going on right now, and I’ve heard from some people in the community about needing to stay focused on reopening. But we also have to stay focused on this.”

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Funding

The Region 9 Board of Education allocated $45,000 in funds from the fiscal year 2019-20, which ended on June 30, toward initiatives related to diversity and inclusion for the fiscal year 2020-21. Cheryl Graziano, the vice-chairperson of the Region 9 Board of Education, explained that there was a budget surplus that allowed them to commit the funds at the end of one year for use in the future. 

The $45,000 represents a small amount of the Region 9 budget surplus from the last fiscal year. Approximately $1.5 million of the surplus was returned to the towns of Easton and Redding.

No funds have been spent yet, but they will likely go toward initiatives at JBHS related to staff professional development, training, and curriculum enhancements, according to Graziano. Of the $45,000, $5,000 has been designated for evaluating the humanities curriculum at JBHS. Short term and long term steps for use of the funds were discussed at the Aug. 6 Region 9 Curriculum Committee meeting and will continue to be a topic at upcoming meetings.

Additionally, in late July, the Easton Board of Education approved a $2,250 donation to Samuel Staples Elementary School (SSES) to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The money will be used to buy books for each grade level, to be selected by the building administrators and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The goal is to select books that address topics related to diversity and inclusion. The remaining funds will go toward supporting professional development efforts of the diversity, inclusion, and equity committee.

ER9 Social Justice Group

The JBHS community also mobilized as protests spread throughout the country. Alumni started a petition that gained 475 signatures of support, and developed a comprehensive curriculum guide to address systemic racism within the Easton and Redding school district. The petition called for immediate changes to address racial injustice and develop anti-racist curriculum. 

The ER9 Social Justice Group meets on Zoom. –Abbie Winter photo

Among the specific action steps outlined in the curriculum guide are calls to collect and release equity data, such as data on the relationship between race and disciplinary measures (detentions, suspensions, and expulsions) and student achievement measures (academic tracking and attendance); offer counseling services specifically designed to support people of color at the school; and develop a mandatory course in ethnic studies to be completed in the ninth grade.

Alumni have since coalesced into a ER9 Social Justice Group, comprised of students, alumni, and community members with the mission to achieve equitable education for individuals across all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities (physical, emotional, mental, intellectual), nationalities, ages, incomes, religions, and language. The group considers the allocation of $45,000 in funding a step in the right direction, and asked that JBHS educators review the curriculum guide.

“My passion for education and social justice stems from my experiences at Joel Barlow High School where I experienced discrimination based on race, sex, and religion,” Jazmin Jinnah, class of 2015 alumna and member of the alumni club, said. “I graduated in 2015, and even though five years have passed, other marginalized students are experiencing the same discrimination.” 

Follow this link to find the group’s petition, curriculum guide, an option to join the listserv for email updates, and a form to get involved with JBHS SJ. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to er9socialjustice@gmail.com. They will be hosting Community Hours twice per month beginning Saturday, September 4. Reach out via email with questions.

Student Social Justice Club

Current JBHS students also entered the national, and town-wide, conversation about race and racism through forming a student club, called United and Mutually Equal (U&ME). Rising junior Chaya Benton took initiative to get the club started. She says she was inspired in part by writing her Sophomore Speak Out paper, in which she reflected on her experiences with racism at school.

Tallulah Whaley (left) and Chaya Benton (right), the founders of U&ME. –Photo provided by Tallulah Whaley

Upon deciding to form the club, Benton and fellow rising junior Tallulah Whaley began reaching out to students to see who was interested; initially, over 20 students expressed a desire to participate in the club. They are still in the process of becoming an official school club. Once officially formed, Benton and Whaley hope to engage club members in conversations about a variety of social justice topics and plan a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Benton hopes the club will be a place where students can communicate comfortably with each other, even about uncomfortable topics. However, like many of the initiatives around town, she also hopes it will create sustained changes at JBHS.

“It could make the school easier for kids of color to attend knowing that there is a club where they can learn more about their history without being afraid to ask during a class period,” said Benton. “I hope that the club can carry on and can make a difference in the school!”

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