Isabel Peralta is a recent graduate of Galena High School. Over the course of this summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent unrest, Peralta says the need for students, parents, and school administrators to reevaluate the core of public education quickly became evident. To that end, Peralta and others formed Washoe County School District Students for Change.
During the group’s short existence, they have formally asked the District to develop an anti-racist narrative in programs and initiatives, in particular, a review of textbooks, library materials, and the racial makeup of teachers.
Some requested reforms are taking shape.
The group is focused on changes to the education system with an abiding confidence that education is one of the foundational aspects of understanding the nation and larger world.
On this edition of the Wild Hare, we chat with organizer Isabel Peralta about Washoe County School District Students for Change and more …
(See music credits below podcast transcript)
Washoe County School District Students for Change came together over the course of a few months this summer. According to Isabel Peralta, the context is ripe for reform.
“As I’m sure we’re all aware of the recent events over the summer after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, a lot of people, and that includes students, were essentially compelled to reevaluate their perception of the world, especially students who may not have been introduced to these sort of topics before.
“And in the context of what our group is trying to do is changes to education,” Peralta said in a phone interview. “Because we believe that education is one of the foundational aspects to our understanding of our country and of our world.”
On August 14, the Washoe County School District prohibited its teachers and staff from supporting Black Lives Matter while at school. According to the statement, the move was intended to accommodate diverse political views. For Peralta, politics and bigotry should not be conflated.
“Sometimes we have to tell people that racism isn’t okay. And that’s a conversation that we have to have. More recently, however, the Washoe County stance towards BLM, Black Lives Matter, is the idea that we have to be accommodating to people with several different political perspectives. And that itself is conflating the idea that having white supremacist attitudes, having homophobic, transphobic attitudes, being anti-Black is a political stance when in reality, it’s something that endangers your students and your staff, and we can’t accommodate for bigotry.”
I was a high school English teacher 35 years ago and remember the Gulf War. Operation Desert Shield was a topic that regularly derailed intended lessons. But I have no idea what it’s like in a high school in 2020. I asked Isabel to describe the culture at Galena High.
“Of course this varies between high school to high school, especially in this district. But overall, there are problems in perhaps a teacher, administration witnessing acts of bigotry and then not being present or the sort of ally to their students need, to actually do anything about it, to change it.
“Or there are the voices of students who are students of color or LGBT often being minimized in the scope of the culture of the school. There are instances we’re learning more and more where students are not, do not feel visible within their curriculum. They don’t feel visible within the makeup of the teaching staff. And that combined with the overall day-to-day hatred and bigotry that can come with just being a student surrounded by peers … to put it lightly, who are raised differently and do not have the support of your teachers, administration that comes into play in really damaging the livelihoods of students out there at school.”
With BLM protests attracting armed counter protesters in Douglas County, Nevada and other communities across the nation, I wonder if these political sentiments play themselves out in Washoe County schools.
“I imagine, not that I’ve confronted it. It definitely does play out in schools,” Peralta said. “It plays out in the attitudes of some parents that I’ve been seeing comments from, claiming that effort for anti-racist curriculum is simply un-American. And that’s something that I heavily disagree with because it also feels like that your African Americans or Latino Americans, are not as much a part of this country and the history of what makes it as White Americans that we are taught about on the daily (basis).
“So yes, there is resistance towards the message and the mission because they conflate it with Marxism and anti-American and violence. But really, education is for the wellbeing of your students and if you’re not willing to protect all of your students, then what are you doing?”
In a time of exotic conspiracy theories, it is not unlikely that the call to deconstruct white power structures is misunderstood or otherwise misconstrued. Are your efforts with Washoe County School District Students for Change misinterpreted?
“A lot of that misinterpretation is grounded in fear and fear of change. A lot of what has been … the effort to actively deconstruct White supremacist structures is something that people are uncomfortable with. And that uncomfort is been fueled with hate and fear by people actively trying to preserve those structures.
“And then that fear is also supported by the notion that racism is simply nonexistent in this country. That it’s something of the past, and instead of working toward change, instead of working towards uplifting the voices of historically marginalized communities, we are all at a point where we are all on the same, we’re on a level footing, and that’s simply not the case. And we have an obligation to ameliorate these institutions.
“And that’s what Washoe County School District Students for Change is doing, is that we’re taking an institution, which is education, which is so fundamental to our upbringing, so that we can make sure that not only students from historically marginalized communities feel safe and feel listened to, but we can also raise their peers and other students to be, you know, not misguided by that sort of fear and acknowledge the institutional flaws that we live in, that we live with, but that that sort of change isn’t grounded in fear, but it’s grounded in acknowledgement of what needs to be done.”
The Washoe County School District is large with more than 64,000 students in nearly 100 schools. Change is not easy to effect across so many schools and socio-political lines. Is Washoe County School District Students for Change just a student exercise, or do they feel empowered?
“It is such a big district. And it’s going to be a challenge. But we already have good reception from plenty of very supportive teachers, plenty of supportive adults. I’m starting to meet more influential people in our community who are really happy that there are students who care about this enough to do something about it. However, it’s not very, it’s disheartening to say the least, to be working with members of Washoe County, and then have them be so receptive to our voices, our voices of not being, non-black students working towards a goal founded in Black Lives Matter.
“For Washoe County to disrupt this collaborative session towards dismantling racism in our district and then seeing Black Lives Matter as a political stance, these aspirations for diversity and inclusion are, again, the word ‘disruptive’ because teachers can’t address these efforts and align themselves with them.
“So it’s a double edged sword where we do feel supported and empowered by the reception we’ve received so far, but we realize that there’s a lot of work to do, because there’s just a lot of work to do.”
Music Credits as reported through the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance
Artist: Les Hommes
Label: Schema Records
Label: Bureau B
Artist: Kruder and Dorfmeister
Label: Bureau B
Song: High Noon
Artist: Kruder and Dorfmeister
Song: Personality (Jungle mix)
Artist: DJ Rodriguez
Album: World Wide Funk (Ohm Guru Presents)
Label: Irma Records