Jennifer Williams is an Administrative Law Judge for the City and County of San Francisco and a Trustee on the Alameda Board of Education.
Reflecting on City’s ‘In the Mix’ Event
On April 28, the Alameda Collaborative for Children Youth and Families, along with the City of Alameda, the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD), Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, and Assemblymember Rob Bonta co-sponsored an event called “In the Mix,” an all-day workshop on mixed-race identity for youth, families, schools and our community.
The day started with a powerful talk from Dr. Andrew Jolivette, professor and department chair of American Indian Studies, College of Ethnic Studies, San Francisco State.
“We have to move beyond simply wanting our identities as multiracial to be accepted,” Jolivette said. “We have to at this stage in the multiracial movement, push for programs, services and events to speak to the real everyday challenges, problems, successes and triumphs of multiracial people.”
One of the more moving presentations of the day included a panel of current and former Alameda students who identify as mixed-race, sharing their experiences growing up in Alameda as mixed-race children.
“What are you?” “Who are you?” “You are too light to be black.” These were common questions and comments that the panel acknowledged that they were asked growing up, navigating societal norms about what the “right” answer should be.
“I am human, just like you,” one presenter said her response became, after tiring of justifying her multi-ethnic background to similar inquiries from classmates and friends. A common theme among the youth panel was a shared need to have a safe space in school to talk about their mixed-race identity.
“We never talked about it,” one presenter recounted, “but how I identify is my choice, not for others to make for me.”
Two presenters who are now freshman in college agreed that a conversation about race did not occur for them until they took college classes on ethnic studies. Some panel members were not sure where they belonged. “The conversation about race needs to occur before college. We need to address it beginning in elementary school,” one student said.
Another student recounted how some of her teachers would drop her full name because they didn’t know how to pronounce it. One student of Latina and Filipina ancestry shared that a teacher was surprised to see her in an advanced math class, asking the student if she was sure she was in the right class.
“We deserve equal access to the college curriculum,” she said, offering to return to Alameda schools to mentor children of color and help them prepare for college courses. “If their parents didn’t go to college, who is modeling the right choices for these kids?”
For the first time in AUSD history, staff conducted a district-wide needs assessment to obtain a baseline inquiry of the socio-emotional wellness and behavioral health needs of its students. More than 1,000 students and family members responded to an online survey. In addition, staff conducted multiple focus groups with students of all ages across Alameda, engaging in group discussions split up by age, grade and gender.
Focus groups were also conducted in the African American student population. The preliminary results are telling. Across age groups, children reported feeling stressed and anxious at school, asking for more counseling services and a safe place to go to talk to someone. African-American students also asked for mentoring and a more diverse staff. Approximately 25 percent of students interviewed reported not feeling like they belonged to a community in their school settings. The full presentation of this critical work will be made at a public meeting in June.
This evidenced-based data is consistent with the youth panel’s comments about the state of our students’ overall needs. We must serve all students and ensure that their social-emotional needs are being met so that they can thrive in an academic setting.
In Alameda, we are grateful to partner with Alameda Family Services to provide onsite counseling support at our school-based health centers at the secondary level. But more intervention needs to be done in our middle and elementary schools, starting with an open conversation about race and identity.
Meeting these needs in our current budget crisis is one of the biggest challenges AUSD faces. Information from events like “In the Mix” and from the needs assessment, however, provide AUSD with the evidence they need to improve outcomes for all students and ultimately, to make Alameda schools a safe place for everyone to learn.
My heartfelt thanks to the committee that chaired this event with me: Lisa Bonta Sumii, Audrey Lord-Hausman, Christine Chilcott, Sarah Oddie, Cindy Acker, Eric Fonstein and Ana Bagtas.
I am grateful to everyone who participated in “In the Mix,” especially our young panel members who shared their personal stories with strength and resilience. The time to listen to our students and address their needs is now.