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By Candice Richardson, The Seattle Medium
While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in all sorts of policy-making plans and infrastructure across the country, one group in particular is not allowing the pandemic to affect progress.
They are the 21 individuals who make up the African American Studies Workgroup. The workgroup was commissioned by the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) as part of a legislative requirement from Senate Bill 6066/House Bill 2633 — sponsored by St. Rep. Jesse Johnson, OSPI, and Washington Education Association for the 2020 legislative session — to expand Ethnic Studies within Social Studies curriculum in the state in order to shine a stronger light on African American history and culture for grades 7 through 12.
Members of the group, co-facilitated by W. Tali Hairston and Anthony Shoecraft, include: Angela Stubblefield, Angelina Riley, Anthony Brock, Bonita Lee, Brooke Brown, Denisha Saucedo, Dr. James Smith, Dr. Kamara Taylor, Dwane Chappelle, Emijah Smith, Frederick Butts, Jamarkus Springfield-Worles, Julien Pollard, Lisa Rice, Marcia Tate Arunga, Melyssa Stone, Roberta Wilburn, Savanna Jamerson, Shanta Watson, Shyan Selah, and Victoria Thompson.
“In our current climate of social unrest around race relations issues, it is important we have leaders who genuinely understand the value of education, opportunity and economic mobility in our community,” says Johnson, who added the bill received support from those in the legislature and community who recognize the importance of African American history and the extent to which it has been excluded from school curriculum.
“I like the African proverb that says until the lion has the ability to tell his story, then, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter,” said Dr. Roberta Wilburn, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in Education & Diversity Initiatives at Whitworth University in Spokane and one of the members of the workgroup.
“I think that is the reality of American history and culture, is that the people who have been telling the story have glorified and have told it from their perspective; and their perspective has been sanitized, and it has been skewed and many people have not wanted to look at the reality of the Black experience in this country. And so, I think this committee was formed to not only correct the inequities, but misinformation,” added Dr. Wilburn.
Workgroup member Emijah Smith, Community Engagement Manager for Seattle Children’s Alliance, is personally aware of the gaps that are missing in the current social studies curriculum as it pertains to the African America experience.
“I grew up in a segregated Central District [of Seattle]. So we had more Black teachers, who could give you some insight around our history,” said Smith. “But otherwise, you didn’t get any type of the African American’s contributions to the world. You just got a little short snippet of slavery and Martin Luther King, and that’s what’s been going on for decades, way too long.”
Anthony Shoecraft, co-facilitator for the workgroup, was tasked with leading the charge on fulfilling OSPI’s requirement from the state.
“There’s two recommendations that the legislature advised OSPI to do,” says Shoecraft. “One was to recommend some materials to be integrated into existing social studies curriculum that gives African American History, more of a robust presence. The second was to recommend the kinds of professional development [needed] for instructors, as they implement this curriculum.”
However, the work is easier said than done.
Over the summer, organizers were charged with identifying potential members of the work group that had interest in diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, experience in developing or presenting comprehensive education materials in K-12 education, could demonstrate their role as an educator or community leader with valued expertise in African American studies or history, and could represent a cross-section of geographic diversity (i.e. a mix of suburban, and rural locations).
In addition, the group, working remotely via Zoom, had five weeks to formulate and submit their recommendations in time for the 2021 legislative session. By contrast, previously formed American Ethnic Studies Workgroups for other ethnicities had up to two years to create curriculum recommendations.
“This process was very non-traditional and extremely fast, which meant that we have to facilitate this hard and drive it really hard,” said Shoecraft, as he touched on the concern some in the workgroup have had in making sure the work they’re doing is thorough.
“My hope is that [the legislature] recognizes that this work, and the contributions of people of African ancestry in this country in it, is so vast [that] the recommendations process should never be under resourced and limited from a time perspective.”
Having dedicated their time and energy to the process around their day jobs, many group members have expressed a desire that their work thus far be considered phase one in an ever-evolving program.
Group member and international recording artist Shyan Selah is not a traditional educator, but has a long track record of producing youth experiences in the education arena via motivational speaking, lecturing and performing. From his perspective the work has only just begun.
“This work we’ve all come together to do is a major undertaking that is going to require unique resources and continued support across the board. The level of need for our youth to have proper academic access to its culture is immeasurable,” Selah said. “This is an awesome challenge.”
Despite the restrictions spawned by both time constraints and social distancing, members of the workgroup agree that maybe because of the pandemic combined with the social justice climate, now is perhaps the most opportune time to correct the oversight on African American curriculum and foster greater community within the culture.
“COVID may have helped [us],” says Dr. Wilburn, as it relates to the amount of work they were able to do in a short period of time. “We were able to get all these people from different areas of the state together, and we didn’t have to travel anywhere.”
“It was about community. It was about the village, it was about bringing the collective genius of Black people together,” added Wilburn. “So not only were we preparing to implement, looking at African American History and Culture, to go into the curriculum, we were really modeling best practices on how to connect with people and how to conduct meetings in a more equitable way.”
Currently the group is in the midst of subcommittees broken down by policy, professional development, curriculum, and pedagogy (i.e. the ways and methods the material will be taught or presented). The range of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and geography within the group help to ensure each topic is benefiting the collective knowledge of the workgroup.
“The expertise at the table, I think is really enriching,” Smith said. “We have scholars, we have PhDs at the table, we have professors, you know, so we’re not just sitting around, making stuff up. We have people there who have a knowledge base and expertise. So we’re learning from each other, as well as, and we’re building off of each other.”
“I think this was a good first step,” Selah stated. “It’s now a matter of how does it evolve and mature its way into the institutions, into the classrooms. But the minds that were selected to come together to do this are nothing short of both individually and collectively brilliant.”
According to Shoecraft this work goes beyond social equity. He sees it as a method of generationally giving back: working together to take the knowledge and expertise that has been passed down from community elders and paying it forward to the next generation.
“COVID shined a bright light on a reckoning that needed to happen,” says Shoecraft. “Relationships, connections and engagement simply matter for our kids…I consider it an honor to be part of this work with people like this. Ultimately this is an act of ancestral appreciation.”
The African American Studies Workgroup is currently finalizing their recommendations for the new proposed Social/Ethnic Studies curriculum and will turn them in on November 15th.
More information and updates can be found at the Office of Public Instruction at https://www.k12.wa.us/about-ospi/workgroups-committees/currently-meeting-workgroups/african-american-studies-workgroup