Public School, Pandemics, and the Future of Girls of Color
For many in California and beyond, these last weeks of August mark the first day of the public school year. And, for most, those first days, weeks, and months will be held virtually. While this is not as we’d hoped, it is an eventuality that doesn’t surprise us: the Walter & Elise Haas Fund launched the Education Learning Lab back in April so that community members, across generations, perspectives, and avenues of action, could mitigate this and other emergencies through collective thought and action.
That need continues, and so does the work of the Education Learning Lab.
We convened two Learning Labs over the summer. During those sessions, we focused on how, amid this time of upheaval, we might build equity, increase justice, and amplify joy for girls of color in the Oakland and San Francisco Public School Districts (OUSD and SFUSD).
This challenging, important work was aided by the contributions of Melanie Dzib — one of the Fund’s inaugural Bay Area Youth Fellows. A 2020 graduate of OUSD’s Coliseum College Prep in East Oakland, Melanie took part in a (virtual) six-week fellowship at the Fund. During her time here, she learned about the role of philanthropy in the social justice ecosystem. As a Learning Lab assistant, Melanie researched and recommended grants towards systemic educational change.
As a recent graduate, Melanie also added her valuable insights to Learning Lab proceedings. She shares the following thoughts with us all:
In the time of uncertainty, prejudice, separation, and fear caused by this pandemic, time spent with others — even virtually — is valuable. That was clearly the case with the two Learning Labs I participated in this summer. Each was composed of diverse, multi-generational groups of 20; half youth and the other half adults working in the education system as nonprofit service providers, teachers, school and central district administrators, or funders.
The focus of each Lab was on how might we reimagine the future of high school during and beyond the time of COVID-19, with a focus on equity, justice, and joy for cis, trans, and gender non-conforming young women of color. As a collective, we worked towards addressing issues experienced by this population in public school.
Learning Labs are structured so that youth get both a leading role and the first chance to speak. This is significant, as normally those of advanced experience and age claim positions of power. As one example of how the Lab operates, picture an adult voluntarily ceding their talking time to make more room for youths’ voices.
This multi-generational space further emphasizes young women of color’s readiness to join (and direct) conversations about their future and how best to address issues of inequity, racial injustice, and mental health. The adults present demonstrated what it could be like to work alongside youth as allies, providing guidance and perspective as needed.
Opening up a conversation about the public education system’s flaws, and about the injustices experienced by young women of color, clarified the need to empower youth as their own best advocates. Our first hand insight is essential to any progress.
Young women of color are underserved within the education system — the data clearly demonstrates this. According to Valuing Girls Voices: The Lived Experiences of Girls of Color in Oakland Unified School District (from Alliance for Girls, one of the nonprofit partners in the Learning Labs), girls of color experience missed opportunities and inequalities within the educational system. As one example provided by the report, consider the fact that while one out of three girls in the Oakland Unified School District is Black, two of three girls who get suspended are Black.
African-American and other Black girls are disproportionately impacted, and that exacerbates the disadvantages they face in pursuing or maintaining their academic success.
It is essential that we understand the areas within the educational system that fail to support and prepare girls of color. When we do this, we can better redirect and transform schooling experiences.
For myself, I do not want to fall into the stereotype of being unsuccessful, simply due to having grown up in a low-income community of color. I want to be prepared for a future in which I can be successful. I wish I had had more guidance in accessing programs, scholarships, and networking and internship opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), particularly those that are inclusive of undocumented students and focused on empowering young women.
With the benefit of these resources, I would be more prepared, confident, and hopeful about creating a better future for myself. Within these opportunities, I would have been able to develop and reinforce different kinds of skills, connections with peers, and career options.
What young women like me learn, experience, and get taught affects our future in society well beyond our days at school. It manifests our need to provide guidance and to create substructures for young women of color so that we can become leaders, valued by society, and claim our share of major roles.
Providing safe and welcoming spaces, such as the Learning Labs, is crucial. Our society otherwise leaves voices unheard and — oftentimes — even silenced. During this pandemic, hope and advocacy for change are more relevant than ever. It’s up to us to work towards the improved future we desire and deserve.