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They want to ignore it so you have to make them not ignore it
An interview with the people behind Racism-Free Worcester Public Schools
Trigger warning: This post contains reference to sexual assault and harassment.
There’s a new Instagram account out there called Racism-Free Worcester Public Schools and to be quite frank it kicks fuckin’ ass. The feed details mostly anonymous accounts of racism, sexism, xenophobia and the like in Worcester Public Schools. Teachers calling majority-person of color classes “zoos,” teachers date-raping other teachers, teachers dividing classrooms by ethnicity. Nightmare stuff. It has very quickly racked up a huge following and the people behind it already have an item on an upcoming School Committee agenda and a list of nine demands for the administration. I reached out to them for an interview and a few days ago I hopped on a zoom meeting with four of the people behind it. For the sake of not having these kids ripped apart by racist townie trolls, I am only using the first two letters of their names. I transcribed the interview word-for-word and it includes a lot of me saying a bunch of stupid stuff per usual.
Before we get into it, the group has a petition going, which you should sign, and a list of nine demands for the school administration, which you should read. The demands include getting cops out of the schools, implementing restorative justice for disciplined students, a more inclusive dress policy, mandatory health and consent classes, cultural competency training for staff, ethnic studies curriculum, diversity counselors and more transparency.
I feel strongly this page has the opportunity to do a lot of damage and hold the administration’s feet to the fire in a way they won’t be able to quickly shake off as they want to do and have done before. So yeah, here’s the interview and maybe share this post with your friends and consider subscribing if you haven’t already and if you have thank you I love you.
Bill: Racism-Free WPS has pretty quickly racked up a huge following. I’m on it on my phone right now and there's more than 2,000 people following it. Did you guys expect it to take off like that when you started this?
Di: Honestly, no. I don't think we expected it to reach something of this size because like, with similar accounts, even within Central Mass. schools... There's Black at AKF and then there's Voices of Shrewsbury, Voices of Hopkinton. They're all much smaller. 1,000, a couple hundred. I don't think we expected it. I don't think we expected it to reach 2,000, almost 2,500 now.
Bill: Yeah, 2,399. So maybe if one of you wants to take it from the top. What was the origin story here? What was the genesis of this and why did you decide to create it?
Mi: All the accounts. Black at AKF and Voices of Shrewsbury. We kind of just noticed there was a lot of inequality at Worcester Public Schools and something needed to be said about it. Because there wasn't a lot of... This has been talked about before, There's been a lot of inequality and the administration isn't giving a full statement about it. With everything happening with Defund WPD and all these things, we felt like now would be a good time to finally give some demands.
Bill: There has been a big upswing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement of people locally getting more involved in local politics and trying to push for some righteous changes. Last year, there was a big to-do with the school committee and the superintendent about racial disparities in discipline rates and dropout rates and suspensions and the like. It's definitely been an issue in Worcester for a while. Maybe continuing with your line of thought, Mi, what's the best result of this Instagram and the stories it's bringing to light impacting the way the school runs?
Mi: We included that in our nine demands. Maybe get a new administration, that would be nice. When we saw the School Committee evaluations, that was a little tough. When we saw the majority of them giving a proficient evaluation for the superintendent. I think we need to see a big change. Just a really big change.
Bill: Well, a new superintendent would go a long way, wouldn't it?
Mi: Just a question, is the superintendent elected by the school committee?
Bill: She's hired by the School Committee. The easiest comparison is the school committee is the board of directors and the superintendent is the CEO. The School Committee has hiring and firing authority over the superintendent, but the superintendent makes most of the decisions with the input of the school committee. They give her policy directions and then she carries them out. The School Committee, last year there was a big to-do about her contract, right? They opted to renew her contract. They could have not done that. They could have not renewed her contract and then started a search for a new superintendent. That's sort of the way it works, the School Committee starts a search for a new superintendent and then can hire one. But unfortunately, everyone on the school committee besides two or three of them are just townies and Maureen Binienda is, like, Queen Townie and that’s how she got the job, and yeah, she's not good on race issues.
But anyway, back to the Instagram, a lot of these stories are startling, striking, horrifying. Did you expect to get so many submissions detailing this sort of stuff?
Mo: I don't think we expected quite as many as we got. And there are still a good amount that have to be written out and we get submissions still. I think that it was started. It was called Racism Free WPS, so it started with racial discrimination, but we also got an influx of like, sexual harassment and homophobia and xenophobia. So like, it kind of really grew from where we expected, I think.
Bill: I've noticed that and they’re all interrelated issues, they're all worth promoting. So I want to go down the row here and ask everybody what submission stands out to you as being particularly awful or indicative of the problems in Worcester Public Schools. Mo, we'll start with you since you just spoke.
Mo: The one that comes to mind, because I identify as queer, is the one where the crew student came out and was harassed for being queer by the coach of the crew team, that one really sticks with me. It's something I've also experienced but I didn't experience it in school. But to know that people are going through that in a place where they're supposed to be safe hurts.
Be: I would say all the stories at Goddard. I was in Goddard Scholars and I thought I was the only one going through it, but then seeing everyone else who was also going through it. Like, feeling excluded, being put down, and I was at South technically on a point of privilege. I was on Goddard and I was still left behind by my peers and my teachers and my guidance counselors. Imagine how far I was put down and how even further like, honors college students were put down was, like, absolutely terrifying because we're so unprotected.
Bill: Can you expand on the point of being left behind? I find that interesting but don't quite know what you mean.
Be: Like, I was kind of like a token. It just looked good to have a Latinx student in Goddard Scholars, you know. I was low income, first generation. They would be like, what's that story about the girl who immigrated to America? ‘Esperanza Rising,’ I think?
Bill: Oh, I'm unfamiliar with that.
Be: Oh, it's like, a story they make you read, and for them it was like, this harrowing tale, and for me it was my family's reality and they weren't taking it seriously, you know? It was just insensitive. Am I making sense?
Bill: Yes, you are. So they made you read that story about immigrating to America and all the problems that come with that. And everyone else is like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe anyone would ever have to do this' and you're just sitting there like, 'Yeah... right, right.'
I also found that to be interesting because, part of the problem with Worcester Public Schools in general is they kind of just like, pick and choose the kids they're going to care about and leave a lot of kids with almost no resources. That's kind of a big problem. It demonstrates the racism inherent in public education. It's bad in Worcester because Worcester is kind of like, a poorer school district. They don't have the money a Wellesley or Weston would to hook every kid up, so they kind of just choose favorites. Di, what sticks out to you?
Di: I think for me the story that sticks out the most is the story of the teacher who was date-raped by her colleague. Because for me seeing all the stories from different survivors coming forward, it's very obvious there's a big problem with predatory teachers being scattered through the school system. Who knows if they chose to become a teacher for other reasons, right? If the school system is so inundated by predatory and pedophilic teachers, it really creates this sort of hostile and unsafe environment and it was pretty visible for me just on a day to day. Joking about a creepy teacher was a very commonplace thing.
Bill: Oh, yeah, I remember that too.
Di: Yeah, it was just very normal if a teacher was looking down a student’s shirt, it was made into a joke as opposed to something that was like a larger systemic problem. A lot of us as kids we didn't really know better, but it was also a way to cope. How do you deal with a teacher looking down your shirt, you know? I think that just knowing not even teachers are safe from sexual violence in Worcester Public Schools is something very terifying. If not even teachers feel comfortable stepping forward, then how on Earth could students really do that? How can we know that students will feel safe and they will be responded to appropriately?
Bill: Yeah, that's an interesting point. If you see your teacher, who has the protection of a union, not come forward, what position does that put kids in? That's a real problem and it's something that's not often talked about, because how do you talk about it if you don't feel safe coming forward? How do you get the discussion going? Mi, what stands out to you?
Mi: So I went to Doherty and there was like, this bathroom hall pass thing you had to have. Seeing the amount of people getting called out for just being out in the halls. So I guess the amount of people teachers called out was like, disproportionate to white students being called out. That's something I never noticed because I was never called out for it. So I guess I'm like, at that point of privilege where I don't have to get that kind of harassment from teachers. But just hearing about the amount of students of color being called out just for the way they look, I guess. That was really troubling to hear. Like you said, they pick the students that they care about and they really just go off of that. There's a lot of students whose parents know teachers and like, all these weird little connections. So it becomes hard to get the right connection with teachers. When students had those connections they would be allowed a lot of leniency. It was really weird to see. So there was that and I'd say, there was a lot of posts about suicide attempts, and that really stood out to me. The amount of teachers who... you know they're not trained for it. They don't take it the right way. It's hard to see that students aren't treated for their mental health concerns.
BIll: And mental health isn't something the school district invests very heavily in. There aren't a whole lot of counselors, if any. I'm not even sure if there are any. I'm sure there's some case workers but that's not the same thing. The hall pass thing is interesting because that's sort of how you see the way kids internalize that they're bad kids. When you're walking around and teachers for racist reasons automatically expect that you're doing something bad, you're like, well fuck, I guess I'm bad. That's kind of the way that it works. And that's really sad. So I don't remember the hall pass story. How did that work, you needed a slip to walk around?
Mi: Yeah, you need a slip that would let you go to the bathroom, go to the nurse, go to another room. You can't be out of class without that hall pass but I've seen people... I hope it's not like snitching, but there are some people that don't have the right kind of hall pass or don't have one on them... But just hearing that people of color are called out more for it than others, it was troubling to hear.
Bill: So like, obviously this administration is bad on race issues and related issues. Pretty much any issue, they're bad on. The teachers union is sort of the same. So if the admin isn't going to do anything and the teachers aren't going to do anything, sort of leaves it up to the kids, right? What besides this Instagram, what do you think kids can do to combat all these problems?
Be: Kids could definitely go to school committee meetings. Put pressure on them. Bother them. Keep asking them questions, keep asking them why this hasn't been fixed, like why does my school still have lead in their water, why do teachers still get to pick on students of color, why do I see principals suspending students just for like, walking around, you know? Put pressure on them because if not they're not going to do anything.
Mi: You do see small groups of students try to do so but unless we have something big happening it's not going to work out. After the Parkland shooting we tried to do a little walkout but when the teachers heard about it they steamrolled over it. That was supposed to be for a march to stop gun violence. They kind of steamrolled it and made it into, 'Oh, this is a peace walkout,' like, you know, ‘Just be kinder to your friends.’
Bill: Oh, yeah, I remember that.
Mi: Yeah, that was really rough. So I imagine that if we want to get things done we'd have to get a large group.
Bill: Yeah, it's going to take some solidarity for sure. If you're working in small groups, couple people here, dozen people there, it's not going to put the pressure needed.
Di: I think that something that unfortunately that COVID has made more accessible are the School Committee meetings. Because they're available via Zoom and you can just pop in, whereas before you had to drive up to a place, which is pretty inaccessible for younger students.
Bill: Good point.
Di: It's more possible and more accessible. Which is kind of what we want to do with the account is just tell people these things exist. And a lot of the account is just creating dialogue, which is really important in a place that's never really had it before. We do want to create dialogue, but we also want students to feel more comfortable taking bigger steps too, in demanding what they want and taking bigger actions too.
Bill: That's an interesting point and I think that that is definitely the thing that this Instagram account could achieve the most and the fastest. A sort of consciousness raising that, you know, kids can look at this Instagram and go, ‘Oh, it's not just me.’ These are all real problems and they're connected problems. This is a pervasive problem in the school district. I feel like kids, when they go through a hard time in school, have a tendency to think that it's just happening to them, right? And this is something that the Instagram could accomplish. This is actually a symptom of a much larger problem. Are you planning in any way to take this IRL? A forum or take it to the School Committee?
Mo: We wrote our demands, so that is live. We have a petition that has hundreds of signatures. Our goal with that is to bring it to the school committee and have them engage with it. With any set of demands the ideal outcome is that we adopt them all but also having a set of demands and the Instagram is awareness raising. Having them and seeing that people are pushing for this. There are people behind this that are willing to fight for it, that;s sort of the bigger picture message we're sending with the demands.
Bill: It's just basic politics. If all the superintendent is hearing is, ‘Oh, it's great that three kids got into Harvard last year, you're doing a great job,’ you know? And everyone on the school committee is like, ‘Well if the kids read for 20 minutes a day they might be a little smarter,’ and no one is actually applying pressure that, no, there are real systemic problems in the school district, they're more likely to ignore it. They want to ignore it so you have to make them not ignore it. You could definitely get a petition on the School Committee agenda and have a hearing on it and I think that would do a lot of damage. And if you need any help I can connect you with the people who know how to do that most effectively.
Di: Yeah, it's on the agenda, it's already been submitted.
Bill: Oh, it's already been submitted! Oh, okay, cool, I missed that. Do you know what meeting it's going to be on?
Bill: Still waiting on that. That is interesting. I will certainly cover that meeting. That is going to be the way to bring this into the forefront. Be prepared for townie racist backlash, unfortunately, because I covered a group of kids last year who made a push to get the superintendent's contract not renewed, and they were not treated too nice by the townies. Not to scare you or anything. It's fine, they're just idiots. I don't know, I think I might be out of questions unless you guys have anything you'd like to add on this.
Di: I think gearing up for a student town hall or some kind of forum where the administration actually chooses to listen to students would be like, something that I would really want to see from the administration. To know that you care about these issues even if you might not.
Bill: Yeah, at least put on the show of caring. A student forum would probably be very well attended and I think that would do a lot.
As always thank you for reading and if you subscribe, thank you so much for subscribing. If you don’t that’s fine but maybe consider it. It’s only a few bucks a month and the more subscribers I get, the more I can write. I am about halfway to being able to do this full time and I am so, so grateful for that.
I was going to write about the Blue Lives Matter mural, but it’s honestly so pathetic that I’m not going to give it the attention, save for linking to this slideshow and pointing out how hilarious it is that they wanted to do a mural and instead settled on painting the department’s logo outside the Police Station building. They really got BLM good with that one, huh? Also worth considering that they raised $5,000 to do this and it definitely didn’t cost that and the guy says the rest of the money is going to local charities, but I’d like to see the receipts, know what I mean?
Until next time, my sweet babies!