Santa Barbara School Board member explains anti-darkness

The Santa Barbara Unified School District reported 12 incidents of racially motivated harassment or violence, at seven schools. The report came after a district mother spoke out during a public comment at a Santa Barbara Unified Board of Education meeting about her son’s specific experience and called on members of the council to do more for his son and children in the district. Community members rallied around the mother and other black children in the district.

At the March 15 school board meeting, Deputy Superintendent Frann Wageneck gave a presentation on the district’s plans to respond to racial incidents, which many public commentators criticized. At that same meeting, the district approved a contract for James Joyce, founder of Coffee with a Black Guy, to facilitate restorative conversations with affected families.

the Independent sat down with Board Member Wendy Sims-Moten to talk about her perspective on anti-darkness in Santa Barbara and the school district, and the communications needed to facilitate change.

At the February 22 meeting, how did you feel hearing a mother and other community members talk about their experiences and their children’s experiences with anti-Blackness in the Santa Barbara School District? My main thought when she arrived was, “Are we taking good care of her son? From her? That’s the main thing we need to do when someone has been hurt: make sure we take care of them and their needs. I also thought of the young boys who did this evil and wondered what was going on there. What happened to make them think it’s okay? But they’re children and they’re still developing, so we know how impressionable their young minds are when it comes to our communities, our actions as adults, and the world at large. I think we can take this opportunity to get to the root.

I was just very sad and disappointed that we were here again. “Enough already” was in my brain. Speaker after speaker not only shared what had happened to them, but also generationally with their children. For whatever reason, we just don’t want to deal with it. This has obviously been around for a long time and it won’t be resolved tomorrow. We will overcome this and fix it, but fixing does not mean tomorrow; it’s a long process that we’re going to have to go through. I think we can do it, but we can’t do it without being honest.

Why is it important to acknowledge anti-Blackness in these conversations, rather than having a general conversation about racism? Because it was never recognized. It really gets to the heart of what we haven’t touched on in this country. It’s just. You have to call it because that’s what it’s all about; there is no way around it. The fact that people wonder why we call it that is anti-black. You question yourself before you believe.

I’ll never forget one time I was going for an interview in this county, and I talked on the phone before I went to the interview, and when I got there, somebody said, “Oh, you don’t don’t watch how you talk on the phone.” It’s anti-black. That’s why you have to call him. So you have a certain perception of how black people should speak? So yes, you have to call him.

You have to be precise because it is specific. Words matter. The more specific we are about this, the more tangible it becomes. If you want to generalize, you will never get to the root. It’s like saying you don’t see color, because then you don’t see me.

What can the district do to address teachers, administrators, or any adults working in the district who have become defensive and decided they don’t need to know about anti-racism because he thinks he’s not racist? It has to start with your own personal work. We shouldn’t expect people to suddenly change and start doing what they haven’t done. It has to come in phases. Maybe you don’t think you’re racist, maybe you’re indifferent, but until you find out, you don’t really know until you look outside yourself- same.

I think it starts with culture and having a culture in our school district where those conversations can happen. You know, life moves and changes, and how do we make sure we evolve with it? Start by going back and examining what made you want to be a teacher in the first place. Don’t expect someone to start talking about racism when they’ve never done it before and are uncomfortable.

As a black woman, I’m not necessarily comfortable talking about it, but I have experience, and sometimes that comforts you. It should be a slow and steady change. Maybe you’re not ready to have these conversations, and if you’re not ready, don’t force yourself, because you’re not really going to add or contribute to this conversation.

I think we have to start with those who feel ready and want to do it. As we have these conversations, don’t expect that because we’re focusing on that, everyone will agree and suddenly change who they are. I think we all grow, but it has to be at their own pace. I think for our teachers, there are a lot of things that are mandatory in this world, and it’s unfortunate that we have to enforce kindness, respect, and empathy.

What more can the school district do to be transparent, like providing details on the 12 incidents of racial violence? The school does not exist without the community, so it is important that we incorporate community engagement. I think we can also better explain our education codes, what we can and cannot say.

But this confidence does not exist. We need this relationship; it’s almost like a public-private partnership. We have to recognize where the people are.

Can you talk about your own experience raising your son in the Santa Barbara school district, and how conditions have or haven’t changed since then? What I went through with my son growing up in the district always reminded him of who he was and was aware of how the world was going to see him as a young black man.

I was often the one attending parent meetings for my son, due to my husband’s work hours, but he grew up in a two-parent household a lot. There were times when I needed to step in with my son, because there was this perception that I was a single mom, so I said it. I said my son has both parents in his house, and whatever my son is going through, one has nothing to do with the other.

At the board meeting, when people were talking about their experiences, my heart sank, because the experiences that I’ve had, my son and my brothers have had, don’t change. But now is the time to initiate lasting change and not stray from it. Keep calling it what it is.

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