by State Board of Education student member, Autymn Wilde and Board Member, Harium Martin-Morris
For the past year, the State Board of Education (SBE) has focused on educational equity and social-emotional learning. We believe our work should be informed by looking at our policies through various lenses. We need to understand the issues and barriers from multiple viewpoints while being able to talk openly. To that end, members of the SBE gathered in May to discuss books we had read related to our areas of focus. Harium and I read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
From my point of view, I had many shocking revelations about social injustices against blacks in our country. The book’s impact on me was so powerful, it is impossible to convey through words. Our book club tried to explain the text through a group activity called a ‘privilege walk.’ There are many formats for doing the walk available online, but the basic idea is to have a group of people all form a line and take a step forward or backward if a statement applied to them. Most statements were based on race, economics, disability, and sexual/gender orientation. At the end of the statements, when all of the participants are scattered across the room, they’re asked to shoot a crumpled piece of paper into a bin (that symbolizes success). Some are close and some are far from the bin, so not everyone succeeded. Afterward, we discussed why success varied and how privilege or lack of it was a factor based on things beyond our individual control. From that experience, I realized you cannot remove your own lenses and look through an ‘equity lens.’
Before this activity and reading the book, we created policies based on our own experiences. But the privilege walk took us from a conceptual understanding of obstacles to a physical, tangible experience of the barriers and trials people face.
From my perspective as a board member and black male, the book shows the connectivity of the black men we see in our jails today, the trends in laws that put them there, and how our perceptions taint our views. This forces us to ask ourselves important questions: are the lenses we use to look at our students of color clear or tinted in ways that predict outcome? Is our K-12 system helping feed high levels of incarceration? And more importantly, if we are feeding the jails, what policies can we put in place to stop feeding the school-to-prison pipeline? The book challenges us as policymakers to look at issues from multiple viewpoints and to think about the ramifications of our actions. It was very encouraging to be able to have a direct and candid look at one of the greatest injustices carried out against a group of people in this country and to understand the impact on our schools and the community-at-large. Change begins with conversations. This book group started that conversation.
More about Autymn and Harium:
Autymn Wilde is a senior at Central Valley High School and a student member of the SBE representing Eastern Washington. Harium Martin-Morris, is a Board Member of SBE and former School Board Director in Seattle.
(Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Direct, WSSDA’s quarterly collection of inspiring stories, news and updates from around the state.)
Image credit: New Press, 2010.