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Minnesota students, alumni launch anti-racist education reform campaigns

Petitions have been circulating on social media the past month or so, demanding school reforms in Minnetonka, Eastern Carver County, Rochester and elsewhere.

Minnetonka High School
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson
Student Jinhyoung Bang decided to go public with her concerns about the lack of teacher and curriculum diversity in the Minnetonka Public Schools district.
Finishing out her sophomore year in the Minnetonka Public Schools district, Jinhyoung Bang, 15, spent time reflecting on how systemic racism has impacted her educational experience. 

In a seventh-grade math class, a peer jeeringly called her his “personal calculator.” She’s Korean-American — born in Korea, a Minnetonka student since kindergarten. 

“Things like that always rubbed me the wrong way, but I never had the foundation for understanding why it was wrong,” she said, adding microaggressions like that are common in the district and “brushed over by the white staff, who think it’s not that big of a deal.”

She’s also only ever had white teachers. So she’s wondering how lessons about the lynching of Emmett Till and “To Kill a Mockingbird” might have been different coming from a teacher of color. 

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Inspired by the groundswell of social justice awareness and calls to action that rippled across the state, and well beyond, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Bang decided to go public with her concerns about the lack of teacher and curriculum diversity in the district, and her frustration that social justice education often falls on the shoulders of minority student groups.

She created a Change.org petition to bring greater awareness to these issues. More than 4,500 students, alumni, parents and community members ended up signing it, adding comments of support and validation. “I’m really surprised,” Bang said of the outcome. “Frankly, it opened my eyes to show these issues have been going on for a long time and there are a lot more supporters of the things I’m asking for.” 

Jinhyoung Bang
Courtesy photo
Jinhyoung Bang
Bang is not alone in her efforts to raise awareness about social justice issues inside local education systems. A number of similar student- and alumni-led petitions have been circulating on social media the past month or so, demanding similar reforms. Responses from district leaders have ranged from invitations to discuss the issues to communication breakdowns. 

‘A different way to educate people’

Sydney Goggins, a white alumna of the Eastern Carver County Schools district —  which serves the cities of Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska and Victoria — launched a similar Change.org petition in early June, titled “Demanding racial justice from District 112.”

The 2016 graduate currently attends the University of Minnesota law school and lives just a few miles away from where Floyd was killed. Initially, she got involved in the ensuing racial justice movement by joining protests, making phone calls and signing petitions aimed at state and city officials. Looking to take action on a more local level, she invited her high school classmates to join her, on Instagram, in reflecting on social justice shortcomings in their district. 

The responses began to flood in, she says. So she launched a Change.org petition to give it more structure and asked respondents to note their graduation year. In just a week, she collected 1,228 signatures. 

“I think a lot of other people who reached out to me — people of color, LBGTQ people — have a lot more trauma that they carry from those years,” she said in an interview. “It wasn’t uncommon to hear racial slurs, homophobic comments. That was just sort of the environment that was created, and I don’t think anybody thought anything of it. It wasn’t until I left District 112 that I realized there could be a different way to educate people.”

Her online petition — which she folded into a written letter that she addressed to the new superintendent and mailed to district headquarters on Monday — included a list of five action items, including professional development on implicit bias for all staff, as well as a a review of current social studies curriculum “to ensure that it contains accurate historical and contextual teaching on social and racial injustices and recognition of privilege.”

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“I shouldn’t have to learn about the HIV epidemic in the ’80s and how disproportionately it affected people of color, when I’m 19. That’s embarrassing, that I didn’t know that,” she said. “Even microaggressions — I didn’t know what that meant until I got to college.”

She asks district leaders to ensure that any reforms include input from marginalized communities. But the actual labor of dismantling institutional discrimination, she adds, should fall on white staff, administrators and alumni. 

Sydney Goggins
Courtesy photo
Sydney Goggins
As of yesterday afternoon, Celi Haga, a spokeswoman for the district, says the letter Goggins sent hadn’t yet been received by the district. But, when provided a link to the online petition, she says it looks as though there is room for collaboration. “I think the work of the district, especially with greater intentionality over the past year, indicates that we are in agreement that more work needs to be done to provide educational equity for every one of our students,” she wrote in an email to MinnPost, including a summary of the new equity work, which included implicit bias training for all district staff and leaders this past school year. 

Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams, who joined the district on July 1, wasn’t available for a phone interview. But Haga wrote: “We would welcome the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Goggins and talk about what’s going on in the district and identify ways we can partner to help our community grow stronger.”

‘Our petition was bombarded with racial slurs’

Three alumni from Rochester Public Schools — Serena Shah, Isabella Ou and Ohemaa Kyei-Baffour — launched a petition calling on their district to implement anti-racist education reforms across all grade levels. 

They’ll all be heading into their fourth year of college this fall, but felt compelled to help fix an education system that they believe failed them — and their white peers — in some pretty significant ways.

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“With all of the recent events, there’s a lot more petitions going on, and a lot more people going a step further than reflecting and trying to take action. For me, that’s how it started,” said Shah, who identifies as Asian-American. 

Deborah Seelinger
Deborah Seelinger
Their 10-point list of reforms includes things like working with students and the community to find alternatives to the school resource officer program, updating the school website to include anti-racism resources, and training all staff to address any anti-Black microaggressions from both students and staff.

“We often hear words like ‘diversity,’ ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ being thrown around,” said Ou, adding these buzzwords often end up meaning different things to different people. “So spelling out the exact ways to do something, and how this is important, is much more clear.”

They’ve collected more than 1,300 signatures of support, predominantly from alumni who have included their graduation year. Early on, prior to requiring an email address to sign on, their petition was targeted by non-supporters. 

“Our petition was bombarded with racial slurs and nasty words,” said Kyei-Baffour, who identifies as African-American. “It took us back a bit. But we realized that’s why we’re doing this — so people can see there’s so much racism, so much ignorance happening.” 

Don Barlow
Don Barlow
They deleted the offensive comments, but saved a copy to share with district leaders. So far, they’ve talked about their petition with just a handful of school board members, including the board chair, Deborah Seelinger. “I would say, overall, the items in the petition are not new concerns for our school district,” she said in an interview with MinnPost. “So we really look at the opportunity to talk to students, or anyone, as both a learning opportunity and an engagement opportunity.”

Director Don Barlow, the only Black member of the board and father of district graduates, says all of their demands “were relatable and understandable.” He hasn’t yet had a chance to talk with the three petition authors, but he’s encouraged by the fact that these reform asks are being led by former students. 

“Everything, from my point of view, is doable. We just have to undertake the effort. It’s much easier to maintain the status quo,” he said in an interview. “I think, if we really want to address graduation rates, and discipline and participation in AP [Advanced Placement] and honors courses, the groundwork must first occur.”

‘I never thought about how big it would get’

Since launching her change.org petition about a month ago, Bang has curated nearly 100 testimonies, detailing negative racial comments and racial injustices in Minnetonka schools — including things like white students using the “N-word” at school without consequence, and students of color being told their names are just too difficult to pronounce correctly. 

She’s also connected with like-minded parents and alumni in the community, who are helping her craft a list of demands, or action items, to be presented to district leaders. “I never thought about how big it would get,” she said. “I just felt like people need to be aware because I bet some people weren’t even aware of the issues students of color face. So I made the petition.”

Dennis Peterson
Dennis Peterson
The district superintendent, Dennis Peterson, however, says he has not yet read her change.org petition. Nor does he agree that it even is, in fact, a petition at this point. “It’s not a petition until they present it to somebody,” he said. “It has not been presented to me for reading.”

Some of Bang’s peers followed her lead, sending Peterson emails that echoed the concerns and calls to action included in her change.org petition. One student of color says her email exchange with the superintendent — in which he wrote: ‘I realize you have much to learn about life, and I wish you well,” after taking issue with the tone of her message — left her feeling patronized and made to feel “as though my thoughts are not important or worthy of consideration.” (She shared her email exchange with the superintendent with MinnPost, but asked to remain anonymous.)

Peterson says he has received emails from students, but “not in support of the petition, per se.” Asked to respond to the above-mentioned student’s experience, Peterson told MinnPost to “finish the loop,” asserting he’s in “good rapport” with all the students he’s communicated with.

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“I don’t disrespect any of our students,” he said. “And I welcome their input — but they need to be respectful to us, as well.”

Having read her friend’s email exchange, Bang says student-led demands for change have not all been well-received. 

“This experience has taught me how deep-rooted the issues in the school system are,” she said.