‘The moral imperative is so great’: Nevada Joint Union district to consider anti-racist, inclusive approach | TheUnion.com
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‘The moral imperative is so great’: Nevada Joint Union district to consider anti-racist, inclusive approach

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

Although it’s not yet known whether the changes will stick, American culture is shifting.

The NFL has admitted it was wrong for its treatment of Colin Kaepernick (although a team has not yet hired him); the Confederate flag has been banned from NASCAR races; Confederate monuments are being removed from public squares across the country; and anti-racist book lists have grown in popularity across the internet, in addition to the usage of the word “anti-racist” itself.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, and the subsequent global protests advocating racial justice, localities have begun reflecting on their symbols and actions, some looking to make changes.

Nevada County appears to be moving toward that goalpost with the creation of a collaborative, multi-institutional task force on racism. The Nevada Joint Union High School District, too, after Superintendent Brett McFadden issued a statement on combating racism and interrogating unconscious biases, appears to be part of the same process — with pressure coming from former and current students.

After Floyd’s death, Michael J. Sekerak, a 2013 Nevada Union High School graduate, who is teaching chemistry, math and English in Spain, had a desire to get involved in an inclusivity and anti-racism project. Working with his friends on anti-racism actions at other school districts across the U.S., Sekerak wrote his own anti-racism petition, with collaboration from peers, to be implemented at the school district.

Having sent the petition to local school administrators before going public with it, he said he also rewrote the petition about a dozen times with influence from former and current students to ensure the approach was collaborative and more of a partnership than a directive.

Sekerak said as of Tuesday the petition has gained over 700 signatures — whose names range from former graduates dating back to 1970 and as far forward as the Class of 2030 — with demands, kept intentionally broad, aimed at making the district explicitly anti-racist, allowing students to have a more inclusive learning experience and to promote implicit bias and inclusivity training for teachers. He plans to present the petition to the district board on July 22.

Part of the inspiration for the petition, said Sekerak, was that he didn’t realize his ignorance of history until leaving Nevada County — never hearing of the LGBT or feminist movements, stories of Malcolm X or the Stonewall riots. The teacher admitted that while he saw students waving Confederate flags in the Nevada Union parking lot, he never knew why that could be seen as racist and offensive.

“My issue is I didn’t know what the issue with the Confederate flag was until I left Nevada County,” he said.

Rising senior at Ghidotti Early College High School and student-member of the district board, Maggie Aguilar-Diaz recently signed the petition. She said she too only recently learned of historical events like the celebration of Juneteenth or the Tulsa Race Massacre — where black people were attacked and killed by whites due to what historian Carol Anderson said was resentment for their accrued wealth. Aguilar-Diaz said she wishes there were deeper, more nuanced discussions about race and racism in school.

“It’s rarely talked about,” she said. “It should be taught more in school, and it’s a real issue.”

Some former district students, like Bear River High School 2020 graduate Sonora Slater, said that while she’s been aware of racist student actions in the district, many of her teachers have done a good job of tying present social issues to historical ones. She said she’s very aware of several movements pushing equality and civil rights.

“We definitely learned about the dark side of history and we never ignored that,” she said.

A PRIORITY

McFadden, who has seen the petition and talked with Sekerak, said he’s been on a listening tour recently, talking with students and parents to understand the depth of racism, bigotry and bias in the district and county.

“I’ve discovered through that dialogue that this continues to be an ongoing and deeper issue than perhaps many want to admit in this community,” he said. “There’s general interest in the district to bring together the focus on race and unconscious bias.”

McFadden said he’s spoken with students of color who have reported outright racism, having been called the n-word and other slurs “beaner”in the community. The superintendent has tried to also hear stories from same-sex individuals and students with disabilities as well.

While the district is a part of current crises — tied to the economy and to public health — the superintendent said the issue of racism and bigotry needs to be continuously addressed, and that it likely won’t be resolved even beyond his own lifetime. Nonetheless, he said, the district needs to try to reach better, more inclusive benchmarks, not relying on “one-and-done” workshops: it needs to be part of organizational and individual core values, he said.

“The issue is so important and the moral imperative is so great that it warrants that we have this dialogue and we bring about ongoing, sustained attention to this issue,” he said.

Other students have noticed explicit racist symbols being pushed in public spaces in the county — sometimes on school grounds.

Rising junior at Nevada Union Leena Kohlmeister said she’s seen a handful of students with large pickup trucks wave Confederate flags — in addition to Trump and American flags — in the school parking lot.

“(The Confederate flag) does not stand for a good thing, and I don’t think these kids really know what it means and what they’re representing,” said Kohlmeister. “I think they’re just uneducated and their parents are putting stuff into their heads that isn’t true information and they’re getting stuff online that is false information.”

Rising junior at Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning Abigail Richards, who has signed the anti-racist petition, said she’s seen people wave the Confederate flag around Grass Valley. She agreed with Kohlmeister that many of these people aren’t bad, just unaware of many historical events.

“I think the biggest issue is people being uneducated,” she said.

Aguilar-Diaz said having more stories of people with different experiences will only add educational value to students and staff members. She believes the actions set forth by the anti-racist petition are achievable.

“I hope moving forward NJUHSD makes plans to hear out our community and put actions into place. I hope our NJUHSD community will have more conversations on these topics,” she wrote in an email. “Everyone should be able to feel safe in our school district. If we educate ourselves we can get there.”

‘NOW IS THE TIME’

Sekerak hopes his petition, and collaborative actions, will help change both the culture and policy of the school district and beyond.

“This needs to be a public effort in order to actually change the culture,” he said. “It can’t come solely from the school.”

From across the ocean, the teacher intends on staying involved with the anti-racist petition to help make change in the district and to hold administrators accountable. He also hopes more people locally take it upon themselves to initiate these sort of changes.

Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay, part of the county task force on racism, said this period is a good opportunity for school leaders to step back and learn from the moment, and not try to institute quick fixes that may not be the best answers, but rather look for solid, long-term solutions.

“I think this is more of a time you need to listen, to learn, and make sure that what we do is the right thing to do,” he said.

Sekerak agreed that people should be reflecting on how their beliefs and actions shape their environment.

“We all need to take the time and take this opportunity to reflect on our own ideas and our own practices and see what needs to change in our lives,” he said. “It should have happened long ago. Now is the time to be pushing for us, now is the time for us to do the work.”

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.


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