Potsdam Central superintendent responds to opposition of planned racial justice presentation
POTSDAM – Some Potsdam Central School parents opposed a presentation by racial justice writer and educator Debby Irving.
The presentation, which was planned for high school students last Friday, was ultimately canceled when school was delayed due to extreme temperatures.Following opposition from parents, Potsdam Central School Superintendent Joann Chambers defended the district’s decision to have Irving speak at the district, which she did on Jan. 13 for a parent and community presentation that was attended by about 30 people.
Chambers said the presentation was meant as a means to address racism, which she says has been needed for a long time.
The full statement from Superintendent Chambers is as follows:
“In 2016, when I was a relatively new superintendent, there was a racial incident at the high school that got some community-wide attention, thanks to social media. This occurred just prior to our Christmas break and many of our recent graduates were home from college. I ended up meeting with a group of about 10 of them, all students of color. These were students I knew well, as I had been their high school principal just a year or two before. That meeting was one of the most impactful days of my 30-year career as an educator. It was highly emotional as these students recounted, one by one, the experiences they had had in our school system. It wasn’t so much about hearing the N-word, though there were plenty of instances of that. It was more about little things that had happened to them and quite frankly, their disappointment in some of us that we had not noticed and intervened.
“At the time, I would have said I was someone who treated all students the same; I might have even used the term colorblind. I did not grow up with a lot of money, and I was the first in my family to go to college. It was a source of pride for me that I had risen up beyond my circumstances. I believed all things were possible through hard work and perseverance.
“What I came to understand is that, as a white woman, I had no idea the extent to which people of color experienced the world in a way that was vastly different from my own experience. As an educator, I knew I had to do better so that our students could feel safe and included in our schools. I have also come to understand that, while only about 9% of our students are students of color, 100% of them will be leaving our school and going out into a world where they will work with people whose experiences are different from their own. I began to feel a deep commitment to ensuring we are preparing all of our students for life beyond high school.
“I have now seen Debby Irving’s presentation three times. The first time was with teachers in the Malone Central School District last winter. The second time was during the community event last Thursday, and the third time was with our staff last Friday. I have received lots of feedback, both positive and negative from staff who have seen the presentation, as well as from staff and parents who have not. As I reflect on it all, here’s what I want you to know:
“We have needed to talk about race and racism for a long time. Our students of color and their families have not always had the most positive experiences in our schools and we owe it to them to do better. We also owe it to our white students who will have to work with all kinds of different people after they graduate.
“Bias exists in all of us. Biases are formed based on what we experience and are exposed to. Having a bias doesn’t make us a racist, sexist, or any other “-ist”. It makes us human. There should be no shame or guilt associated with knowing you may have a bias. Debby Irving's presentation is not an effort to shame or lay guilt on anyone.
“I truly believe almost everyone thinks all people should be treated with fairness and kindness. I absolutely want this for every single one of the students in the Potsdam Central School District. By becoming aware of our own biases, we can actively work on them.
“As educators and parents, we can actively counter biases students might develop by exposing them to a wide variety of stories and historical events. Our job is to challenge their thinking so they can draw their own conclusions. This idea is the basis of Debby Irving’s presentation. She talks about the economically privileged and sheltered childhood she had. When, as a young adult she went to work in an economically-depressed area of a city, she believed the people of color who lived there were in their circumstances because they didn’t work hard. Then she told us what she learned about the G.I. Bill and how the banking and real estate industries made it very difficult for World War II veterans of color to buy a house, which made it harder for people of color to acquire wealth. This knowledge challenged her prior bias about the reasons so many people of color lived in poverty.
“The statements above apply to many other areas, in addition to race. If a female student doesn’t learn about the historic contributions of women, she won’t believe that she, too, can accomplish great things. If a child of gay parents reads only books with families with a father and a mother, they may not see their own family as normal. If a transgender student doesn’t encounter historical figures and fictional characters like them, they may believe they don’t belong. If a student with a disability never sees successful adults who also have challenges, they may not know what is possible. A child who does not feel they are as valued as others can not and will not learn as well as they could.
“Was Debby Irving the right choice? I don’t know. Based on the results of the staff survey, she was a good choice for many. The presentation has definitely started conversations, and that’s a good thing. We are all coming to this from different places, so there will be no one approach that will work for everyone. We are learning, too, and there will surely be mistakes and missteps along the way, However, I hope, in working with the Board, administrators, parents, and teachers, we can come up with lots of ways to talk about and disrupt bias so our schools can be a place where every student feels safe and can learn. This is uncomfortable work. I don’t enjoy having staff and parents upset with me. But I think with discomfort comes opportunity. It is only when we stretch beyond the edges of our comfort zone that we learn and grow.
“The high school presentation scheduled for today has been postponed due to the school delay. I would like to work with Debby Irving to provide an opportunity for all parents to view her presentation before we reschedule the high school student program. We will allow parents to opt their children out, but I truly hope those who have expressed opposition are willing to see the presentation themselves before making a final decision.
“I would also like to clarify something I have heard. We have been 100% transparent about this program from the start. I know parents are busy and may not have time to always read my newsletter or the principals'' newsletters but this information has been shared many times in many formats. Debby Irving did a parent and community presentation on Thursday, January 13th. I sent out a newsletter the previous week, we advertised it on our Facebook page, and it was in NorthCountryNow. About 30 parents and community members were in attendance. Mrs. Towne also shared information about the high school presentation in her newsletter last week. The Board of Education was informed about the presentation last June when the Equity Committee did a presentation, and the Board and staff were told about this at the beginning of the school year.
“I believe today's school delay has given us a gift of the opportunity to pause and work together. I appreciate those who reached out in a respectful way and to acknowledge that you know I do what I believe is best for your students, even if you had concerns about this presentation.”