SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Yazzie’s first brush with racism came when he was just 4 years old.
He was living in Provo, where his parents were finishing college at Brigham Young University.
One summer morning, as he was playing outside with some friends, their ball got kicked into a neighbor’s yard.
“I was the closest one, so I opened the gate and went in to get the ball. I heard this man yelling inside his house. He came running out real quickly and was yelling at me to get off his lawn. And then he said, “I want you to get off my lawn, you dirty Indian.’”
Yazzie, Provo School District’s equity and diversity coordinator, said he recently celebrated his 54th birthday. “Fifty years later, it’s still embedded in my mind and in my memory,” he said of the experience.
He shared his story with members of a Utah State Board of Education committee Friday as they considered recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Equity of Educational Services for Students.
The recommendations ask the State School Board to “intentionally engage in anti-racist practices to ensure that underrepresented, historically marginalized and underserved students feel safe and welcome at school.”
Yazzie, who serves on the racially and ethnically diverse 15-member committee that advises the State School Board, said he hopes Utah students never have to experience what he and others have experienced, “especially when they come into our schools. Our schools are supposed to be safe.”
Although the advisory committee’s work on the recommendations got underway in January, board documents suggest a greater urgency to take action in the nation’s moment of racial reckoning and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are collectively concerned about our students who are witnessing and navigating the ongoing social unrest caused by the increase in racialized and xenophobic public discourse, the disturbing images of the killing of unarmed Black citizens by the police, and the numerous protests the Black Lives Matter movement has organized across the nation in response to these unsettling realities,” the committee’s memo to the State School Board states.
The committee’s recommendations include the State School Board adopting a resolution denouncing racism and racial inequalities in Utah schools.
It also recommends that teachers and administrators are provided anti-racist, bias/equity literacy professional learning, “as well as opportunities to learn about themselves and minoritized groups to raise awareness and promote change within our educational system.”
Another recommendation asks that all teachers receive training “to conquer the digital divide, so all students have access to learning if school districts must rely on digital learning or use a hybrid model for students.”
Additionally, the committee recommends that families who struggle using technology and academic language receive support so they can navigate online content and help their children.
Last, the committee recommended that “relevant and inclusive curricula, academic content and resources are provided to reflect the experiences of minoritized groups.”
Rozanna Benally-Sagg, who co-chairs the advisory committee, thanked members of the board’s Standards and Assessment Committee for considering its recommendations.
“Our students are having a hard time. When we have these inequities, especially with race and ethnicity, it interferes with their academic and educational success. We want to be mindful. We want to be proactive rather than reactive,” Benally-Sagg said.
Yazzie said the recommendations and other work by board staff “is developing the framework for the future.“
“It’s important work. It’s right up there with everything that we talk about when it comes to academics and social-emotional needs. When we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, it’s right up there. You know, we all want to see success for our students. Now it’s bringing all our various perspectives together and having that open dialogue and discussion,” Yazzie said.
Patty Norman, state deputy superintendent of student achievement, said state education leaders are carefully reviewing data of Utah students, teachers and communities as they work to address issues of education equity, inequality and racism.
“These are the types of things that need a lot of conversation, a lot of stakeholder input, because the work is huge and it is timely,” she said.
The Standards and Assessment committee voted to accept the advisory group’s recommendations and forward them to the full State School Board for consideration.