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How George Floyd’s death gave rise to change in a largely white Utah school district

Teacher’s email was catalyst for school board’s journey of discovery and potential reforms, board member says

SHARE How George Floyd’s death gave rise to change in a largely white Utah school district
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Yan’tu Barber, a fifth grade teacher at Terra Linda Elementary School, poses for a portrait in front of the West Jordan school on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Barber wrote a letter about systemic racism in schools to members of the Jordan Board of Education, the superintendent and area supervisor. The district created a multicultural specialist position, and Barber will be one of a few who serve in that position.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — A couple of years ago, teachers in the Jordan School District were summoned en masse to a high school for a mandatory training.

Fifth grade teacher Yan’tu Barber, who is Black, recalls scanning the rows of seats in the cavernous auditorium.

“So when I walk into a room I’m instantly looking for people who look like me. I’m trying to find the first person that I can sit next to or that I can relate to and I can at least give a head nod to, so they understand what I’m going through. But man, I look, I’m looking around, I’m looking around and the only person there is me,” Barber said.

Barber said his sense of isolation worsened after George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

“I mean, it’s hard already. Most of my administration is white. Most of my area supervisors are white. The superintendency is white. I have a tough time believing that they understand my plight, not to say that they can’t be aware of it,” he said.

Floyd’s death prodded Barber to reflect on his career and how he had lost “touch with what’s important” as he chased his ambitions to eventually move from the classroom into an administrative position.

After Floyd’s death, he felt compelled to speak out on issues of racial injustice and systemic racism. “Then you feel like, ‘Man, am I putting myself at risk by speaking up? Is anybody else feeling the same way?’”

If no one else felt compelled to bring issues of race relations, equity and diversity to the attention of school district leaders, Barber said he wondered if he could count on anyone else to support him.

But he also thought about what he experienced growing up Black in Utah. He and his mother moved frequently. Barber said he went to seven or eight different elementary schools. They moved to Indiana for a while, returned to Utah and Barber finished high school at Granger High School in West Valley City.

“There are some things that I saw when I was a kid that haven’t really changed a whole lot to where we are now. I mean, man, I’m 41 years old. Things should have most definitely changed,” he said.

“There are some things that I saw when I was a kid that haven’t really changed a whole lot to where we are now. I mean, man, I’m 41 years old. Things should have most definitely changed.” — Yan’tu Barber, Jordan School District fifth grade teacher

Effects of silence

Barber’s first step was sending the following email to members of the board of education, his area director and Jordan School District Superintendent Anthony Godfrey:

“I‘m hurting, upset, extremely disappointed, and sad. As educators we have the power to make lasting impressions and change the future of our country. I strongly believe that if we make the investment now it will pay dividends that will impact future generations. I’m saddened that no one in leadership seems to be aware or chooses not to be of how their silence has negatively affected the very communities in which they serve.

“The reason why we have systemic racism in schools is because the people in higher positions do not reflect the communities that they’re making decisions for. This is not a one time thing or a one-off. As a Black man l feel even more isolated and alone in my pursuit of true equality. This is not optional for me. I’ve been so concerned about getting an admin appointment that I’ve lost touch with what’s important. I have a black fist tattoo that l got when l was 18 because l knew that for the rest of my life that l would have to fight for equal treatment. Schools are institutions and agents for change. If we cannot speak openly and honestly with our students and stakeholders about injustices, then we are perpetuating the systemic racism problem. We need to be better and support all and l mean all of our students and staff.

“There’s so much more but I’ll stop there. As we move forward l have to value myself and speak eloquently to injustices regardless of how it might impact my future opportunities. This is a critical time for us not only as a school but as a country to really be reflective and demand change. I will never ask for any special treatment but l will demand fair treatment. I just hope that we don’t let this opportunity pass us without doing everything we can to CHANGE the system.”

Barber said he received a variety of responses, some of which pointed out the district’s discrimination policies.

“I’m thinking, ‘What the hell does a discrimination policy got to do with what I’m talking about?’ You’re missing the message. You’re missing the entire picture.”

But the response from board member Matt Young stood out as “a really genuine response. He sent back a response that was in the realm of, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize this. I’m sorry that I kind of dropped the ball,’” Barber said.

After receiving Barber’s email, Young said he thought about what he had written and the larger context of the local and international protests that followed Floyd’s death. Barber asked some “very candid questions with regards to ‘Why are you all silent and why are you not taking a position?’

“I realized that I am in a position of influence. As a member of the board of education, I do have a responsibility and an opportunity to affect positive change,” Young said.

Speaking for himself, Young said the tipping point was Barber’s “frank questions and a realization that we can do better.”

After soliciting buy-in from the rest of the seven-member board, Young committed to lead a series of conversations with Black educators, parents, students and others in the school community as a process of discovery and to determine what policy changes the board could enact to address issues raised by Barber and others.

“I believe we do far more harm than we do good if we simply started a discussion, have a discussion and take no action.” — Matt Young, member of the Jordan School District Board of Education

Uncomfortable conversations

Jordan District’s administration, meanwhile, has hired three ethnic and cultural diversity specialists, who will start this academic year. Barber applied for one of the positions.

Young told board members at a recent meeting that he expects the process could take several months but he is committed to learning, having frank conversations and then bringing his findings to the board for action.

“I believe we do far more harm than we do good if we simply started a discussion, have a discussion and take no action,” he said.

Young said the school board needs to approach the work with humility and a willingness to listen and learn.

“I look at the panel in front of us. We are all white individuals that have a very different background than the people that we’re going to be talking about serving,” Young told board members recently.

“What are your thoughts as to how we can move forward to begin this discussion on how we can better understand what it must be like for Black members of our community, the challenges that they uniquely face, the things in our policies, our blind spots that we’re not seeing, and what we can do to better?”

Board member Darrell Robinson said the board has demonstrated that it unafraid of uncomfortable conversations, referring to its response to a spate of teen suicides in 2018.

“We made a long-term commitment to not only address the issue, but to become a leader in the state and we did. Within a matter of a year or so we became a leader in the state and in mental health services and well-being. I think a similar approach needs to be done here,” Robinson said.

Board President Bryce Dunford agreed.

“I know we’re coming late to the table, but it’s the crisis that gave me a glimpse that something needs to be done so I’m grateful for the crisis. I’m grateful for the effort,” he said.

“This board is willing to listen, identify what is broken. Tell me what’s broken and we’re committed to fixing whatever is broken. I recognize that in opening this door, we may see more rats (in the cellar) than we ever dreamed, or in ourselves. I, for one, am committed whatever we find to walk down the path.”

‘Great dialogue’

Barber has many ideas, such as diversity training for students, noting the district offers such training to educators. Some three-fourths of Jordan District’s 56,400-plus students are white, while Blacks make up about 1%, according to state data. Latino students are the largest minority group in the district.

“We just assume because they go to school together every day, that they’re supposed to know this. ... If we think diversity training is important of our teachers, then we should think it’s important of our students,” he said.

Barber said he also wants the district to examine its recruitment practices regarding educators of color.

Young, who is leading the school board’s efforts, conducted a two-hour meeting this past week among six Black educators, board members Robinson and Jen Atwood, Godfrey and others.

Barber described the exchange as a “great dialogue.”

“We were able to speak openly about some of the challenges we have faced in both our professional and personal lives. It felt like when we left the meeting that most of us felt better about the district’s efforts to address diversity in the district,” he said.

Young said the meeting was the “opening dialogue of what is going to be quite a long road.”

He added, “To be honest with you, it was two of the most impactful hours that I’ve had in a very long time.”

One of the attendees told the group he had attended a similar meeting with district officials 15 years ago and it didn’t go anywhere.

Because of that, Young said he feels “an extra weight and responsibility” that these conversations result in meaningful actions.

“We can’t not do anything this go-round, especially with how willing they were to just share their individual experiences and as grateful as they were in sharing those experiences. For us not to do anything with that would be just a betrayal of trust,” Young said.

‘Let’s go for it’

Michelle Love-Day, alternative language services consultant in the district’s Teaching and Learning Department, said Jordan District recently hired three specialists to better serve students of color and English language learners.

Initially, the district planned to hire a single “ethnic and culturally diverse specialist,” according to the initial job posting.

As Love-Day conducted interviews for the position it posted in June, she recognized the scope of the candidates’ respective talents and that the district could benefit from staffing multiple positions.

When Godfrey asked her what she was seeing and thinking, “I looked at him and said, ‘Do I really just have to hire one?’ ”

“He’s like, ‘What do you mean?’ ”

“I’m like, ‘There are three people from this group that I would love to bring on board in different capacities for what we need to do in this school district,’” said Love-Day, who joined the Jordan School District in March.

“I mean it was probably within two hours he called back and said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ ” she said.

The positions include a culture and diversity specialist, a language and diversity specialist and a parent outreach specialist.

Love-Day said she was grateful when one of the Black educators who attended the recent meeting with board members and top administrators asked whether the discussion was just an exercise in lip service that she could point to the district’s hiring of the specialists as evidence of its commitment to equal access, respect and equity training for employees and students and the recruitment of a diverse workforce.

“That’s when I was able to say, ‘Well actually, I have three new positions in my department so they’re definitely putting teeth behind it,’” she said.

Once the specialists are on board, the next step will be notifying principals that trainings are available, Love-Day said.

“I’m hoping the parents will be the ones behind it to say, ‘I want them to come in’ and most of the principals to do that. Once they see how wonderful and refreshing it is for everyone, it will be a yearly thing. ... So, I’m excited. I’m super excited.”