Montclair schools’ work to combat bias and racism must extend well beyond this month’s Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, the co-founder of one of the groups involved in the effort says.

“This will not be an overnight fix,” Rodney Jackson, co-founder of Teachers Undoing Racism Now (TURN) and a Renaissance at Rand Middle School social studies teacher, said.

“Educators must embark on a journey of self-discovery, self-critique and an action plan to better understand how racist tendencies manifest in the classroom.”

The Week of Action is a national initiative centering racial justice and equity in the classroom. From Feb. 1-5, classrooms in Montclair focused on “discussing and learning about Black history and culture, institutional racism, civil rights and anti-racism movements, and about how to take actions that will promote equity and fairness in schools,” according to the district’s website.

The district drew on Black Lives Matter’s “13 Guiding Principles” to provide guidance and context around the material: restorative justice; empathy; loving engagement; diversity; globalism; queer-affirming; trans-affirming; collective value; intergenerational; Black families; Black villages; unapologetically Black, and Black women.

TURN sponsored events including the rollout of the Teacher Institute for Black Lives, which the district described as “an opportunity for teachers to share their best lessons with their peers on any topic related to studies of Africans in the diaspora.” The Montclair Education Association’s 8:46 Project — named for the time George Floyd spent with his neck under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee before dying — and MapSo Freedom School (an anti-racist community group in Maplewood and South Orange) co-hosted a curriculum and lesson-planning workshop leading into the week.

“With everything the district is doing, such as having an anti-racism policy, initiatives to address equity and anti-racism workshops, there is still lots of work to be done with the racial disparities in special education, treatment of Black and brown parents, and the disregard of issues Black and brown students face,” Jackson said. 

“This past summer of protest by African-American parents and students speaks to the alienation parents and students of color are feeling in the district. The recruitment, hiring and retainment of African American educators will go a long way in dealing with issues of systemic racism.”

At multiple events over the summer and fall, students and parents said they were demanding accountability for students of color, and protested the district’s removal of a student equity advocate (a version of the position was later restored, with a revised job description and title). Kellia Sweatt, president of the National Independent Black Parent Association, in August spoke at an event by a group calling itself 100 Moms and Students of Color, describing multiple incidents of racial harassment. 

Teachers at Nishuane Elementary School wore Black Lives Matter shirts at the end of the BLM Week of Action earlier this month. TURN (Teachers Undoing Racism Now) is looking to continue educating teachers so they better serve their Black and brown students.
Courtesy Montclair School District
Teachers at Nishuane Elementary School wore Black Lives Matter shirts at the end of the BLM Week of Action earlier this month. TURN (Teachers Undoing Racism Now) is looking to continue educating teachers so they better serve their Black and brown students.
Courtesy Montclair School District

At the same event, a rising ninth-grader described other students insulting and bullying her, and targeting her with racial slurs. Her family has filed a tort claim alleging the school system didn’t stop the bullying, as well as a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Jackson said the curriculum should mirror the makeup of the district — and that there must be more Black, Indigenous and people of color in the room to work on it. Just putting BIPOC individuals into the process isn’t enough, though, he added. 

“Most importantly, those curriculum writers must have knowledge of African American, Latino/a, Indigenous, women and LGBTQ histories,” he said.

Jackson said TURN believes that starts with recruiting and hiring – and then keeping – more African American teachers, especially men.

The Montclair school district referred Montclair Local to its online materials about the Week of Action when asked for comment on the activities and lessons. 

Among week's activities: was a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action T-shirt logo design contest, sponsored by the MEA and its 8:46 Project. The contest was won by Charles H. Bullock first grader Hattie Hudson-Plush and Glenfield Middle School seventh grader Valentina Roever. The week ended with staff wearing black or Black Lives Matter clothing.

Efforts to continue educating teachers, as well as the community, are slated. TURN will be running the Teacher Institute for Black Lives during the first two weeks of March. It’ll focus on topics such as the truth about the Emancipation Proclamation, Black Wall Street and the history of lynching.

Jackson said the program came about because teachers were concerned they lacked the background knowledge to teach Black history or the history of other people of color.

The biggest hurdle educators face in trying to deal with the impact of systemic racism is recognizing that it exists, he said.

“In order for there to be serious efforts to confront systemic racism, people need to understand what systemic racism is and how it looks,” he said.  “Once there is an acknowledgment, then we can move forward.”

From there, Jackson said, it’s important to address micro- and macro-aggressions that educators may commit themselves. To assist in this, TURN offers discussion groups, study groups and other forums on how to become anti-racist.

An earlier version of this post mistakenly included a photo from a previous Week of Action without clearly describing it as such. An earlier version of this post also incorrectly described the T-shirt contest as hosted by the district; the MEA tells Montclair Local its 8:46 Project planned and carried out the event with the help of MEA leadership.