Doing our best
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Remarks delivered at the NK School Committee meeting, September 14, 2021 by Greg Blasbalg, chair.
At a time that we are approving some modifications to the resolution creating the DEI Advisory Subcommittee, I think it is important to take a step back to talk about why I supported the subcommittee to begin with.
First, I want to talk about the charge of this committee itself. The school committee set out areas that it wants the DEI subcommittee to examine with respect to the district’s practices. There are 13 categories listed plus a catch-all statement about “any other category protected by law." Race is just one of those thirteen. But somehow, at least among those who are opposing the work of the subcommittee, it has become all consuming. I have heard commentary asking why the DEI subcommittee is not looking at this issue or that issue – but the subcommittee has met only three times. They have much work to do, but they cannot examine all thirteen of their areas of examination in three meetings.
But again, I am very disturbed about the focus on race when the subcommittee has much more to talk about. The work of this subcommittee is about tolerance and understanding, not just race. Students can be intolerant, consciously and unconsciously, without being racist. I had a long discussion about these issues with an old friend who shared an experience from his own childhood that frames this perfectly. He is Armenian. By his own (and my own) observation, he would not say that he is black or even brown. He has no accent. But in elementary school he would sit down at lunch and open the lunch his mother packed him only to hear fellow students say “eeeww, what the heck is that” – “what are you eating, it smells awful”. He felt ashamed, different, and awful. Were those students racist? No. Were they hurtful? Yes. Can a part of social/ emotional learning in schools involve teaching students that they should recognize and embrace and their own and their colleagues' differences? Absolutely. Is that CRT? I don’t think so, but if you do, and you believe that children should be disrespecting those around them or making them feel uncomfortable because they are different, for any reason, then we are not going to agree about much.
I hate to focus on racism because as I mentioned, that is not even the sole focus of this subcommittee. But since the commentary from those opposed to the committee’s work focuses so much on it, I feel I have to address it anyway.
I have heard from many in emails and at the microphone saying things like – “we don’t have a problem in North Kingstown.” “We aren’t a racist town.” “There has only been one incident of racism in our schools “ (which is not true by the way – but it is generally impossible for the school department to share student disciplinary information). “Where is the data showing the numbers of racist incidents?” This all misses the point.
Let’s start with numbers. For me, there is not an “acceptable amount of racism” that could be quantified by any data. Whether the number of “racist” incidents is one, or a hundred, or somewhere in between, that is too many.
Second of all, saying that we can do better to deal with racism in our town does not mean our town is racist. Doing better does not mean we have been doing it wrong. Not to pick on Joan Beisel, our School Committee clerk who is here, but many of you know of her daughter Elizabeth. Many times in her training Elizabeth swam a personal best in a race. But she knew she could do better. Did that mean she did it wrong before? – of course not. Our School Department can be excellent and still strive to do better, and that is what this subcommittee is all about. It is not just about race. It is about people, and about making sure that we are meeting the needs of those people--however they may come, and with whatever makes them special--as well as we possibly can. So, yes, I continue to support the subcommittee, its formation, and the work we asked them to do.