Community forum: ACSD response to racism fell short


This week’s writer is Justice Elijah, a social and racial justice consultant and founder of Spreading Justice LLC.

After reading Addison Central School District Interim Superintendent Timothy Williams’s commentary in the Sept. 21 Addison Independent, it has taken me numerous revisions to articulate my feelings. I grappled with expressing my genuine emotions while hoping my heart would resonate with others as I engaged in this dialogue. I believed responding was essential, given my role as a BIPOC Consultant collaborating with the district to “do the work.” While some may argue that the school district intended to acknowledge our collective efforts, I must candidly convey that the mention of my name within the article did not feel like appreciation. Instead, it felt more like an attempt to dismiss Esther Charlestin’s experiences, conveyed through a tone reminiscent of, “I have a Black friend, and look at how hard we are trying.”

ACSD, you witnessed a Black woman depart from your leadership team due to the overwhelming racism she endured. Your response primarily revolved around justifying the internal investigation and emphasizing the completion of your task list. The emphasis seemed to be on your actions rather than acknowledging the harm inflicted. While I genuinely appreciate the mention of my name and our collaborative efforts, I believe it should have been presented differently. It should not have followed Esther’s narrative without a sincere apology.

I was deeply disappointed when my name was used as a partner in the “work” without any acknowledgment or an apology to Esther for her painful experiences. This issue is particularly close to my heart because I have been in Esther’s shoes. I have experienced harm within this community without acknowledgment or recognition — only justification for how they believed they treated me. What is often the case for many marginalized communities is that we share a collective trauma, as we understand that what happens to one of us could just as quickly happen to another. 

To compound this, the district failed to credit Natasha Causton and Michelle Steele, who played instrumental roles in creating the BIPOC space. Their unwavering commitment and tireless efforts cannot be overstated. They demonstrated extraordinary dedication by actively seeking external funding sources and hiring me as the BIPOC consultant. In doing so, they exhibited remarkable allyship and leveraged their privilege to advocate for and champion the establishment of this space. It’s vital to recognize that the BIPOC space goes beyond being a mere gathering of BIPOC students. It serves as a safe space, a haven of support, and a place where these students can be themselves without the weight of systemic oppression bearing down on them. What might seem like an hour on a schedule for some holds a much deeper significance for these students. Within that allotted time, they found rest from the daily struggles and microaggressions. They could finally experience safe community building. A place where their voices are heard, their experiences validated, and their identities celebrated.

Over the past year, I have had the privilege of engaging with these students and absorbing their stories. What I have encountered is not just a year’s worth of experiences; it’s the culmination of several years’ worth of stories that shed light on the profoundly ingrained issues of racism, discrimination, and a glaring lack of inclusion within our community. These narratives are poignant reminders of these students’ ongoing struggles and the urgent need for change. This is why the lack of acknowledgment of Esther’s experience is so disheartening when the ACSD is so focused on “doing the work.” 

I write this Op/Ed hoping that the hurt, disappointment, and anger will subside as the days progress. I implore the community to join the conversation and contribute positively to the ongoing work. The endeavor to dismantle racism and white supremacy culture is not accomplished through a few emotional workshops, a book club, or merely displaying a Black Lives Matter sign. It necessitates time, unwavering dedication, and a transformative change in lifestyle to unlearn oppressive ways and structures. I do not want this Op/Ed to serve as a deterrent from trying, for we are all human and bound to make mistakes. However, accountability and apologies must resound louder than the disrespect exhibited by the district.

Here are several practical steps I believe should be taken:

1. Offer Esther an official, public acknowledgment for the harm she has endured during her tenure.

2. Sustain an open dialogue about how to rectify the harm inflicted.

3. Continue actively engaging and collaborating with BIPOC individuals on matters related to these topics.

4. Be receptive to correction when wrong and foster an environment where learning and growth are encouraged.

5. Remember that forgiveness is not an entitlement; all we can do is put forth our best effort and commit to the work.

Let us forge ahead toward a more equitable, inclusive and just community.

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