By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
In the wake of ongoing protests around the world sparked by the death of George Floyd, the “America to Me: Real Talk Montclair” initiative that was launched March 1 in Montclair has taken on a broader scope, with a more urgent sense of purpose.
What began as “watch groups,” in which community members gathered virtually in small groups to discuss the TV docuseries “America to Me,” are now becoming “action groups,” with participants looking for ways to take part in a social justice moment and make anti-racist changes now.
The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence developed the “America to Me: Real Talk Montclair” initiative as an effort to seed racial justice leadership through training and discussions of the 10-part television series, which focuses on class and race disparities in a public school in a Chicago suburb similar to Montclair.
On Sunday, June 14, more than 300 community members gathered virtually to share what they learned through those watch group discussions, held this spring, and further deepen their racial literacy.
“We started developing this process a year and a half ago, and response to it has been really overwhelming and exceeded our expectations,” said MFEE Executive Director Masiel Rodriquez-Vars. “We had people who despite this pandemic said we want to soldier on and not wait for in-person watch groups in the fall. They led their watch groups online, and we’re hearing from folks that they’re learning and growing a lot, that this is very difficult work, but they’re taking personal accountability for their own actions and inactions.”
“Change rarely comes from a place of comfort,” said Dave Caldwell, co-chairman of the initiative and one of the MFEE board’s youngest members. “But the goal is to take actional steps to build a community where everyone can feel safe.”
The first hour and a half of Sunday’s event was conducted in a webinar format that featured a conversation with Dr. Bettina Love, award-winning author of “We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom” and associate professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia.
The initiative’s two facilitators, Montclair State University professors Dr. Tanya Maloney and Dr. Bree Picower, then hosted a panel discussion with “America to Me” series subjects — former assistant principal of Oak Park River Forest High School Dr. Chala Holland, teacher Jessica Stovall, and student Jada Buford.
Rising Montclair High School senior Destiny David performed India Arie’s “I Am Light,” and
rising senior Jaden Walker read a poem he had written titled “You Told Me.”
The last hour of the event was an opportunity for participants to split into smaller Zoom groups to listen and share what emerged through the watch group experiences that took place this spring, and to brainstorm ideas for action within the Montclair schools and community.
Rodriquez-Vars told Montclair Local that the conversations around whiteness that took place in the spring watch groups were the among most challenging for participants. “These are people who have been friends for 25 years, raising kids together,” she said, “and it was hard. Some people were upset. They became angry, defensive, sometimes hurt, because we don’t often have these conversations where we’re really asked to reflect on how we perpetuate racism by our own actions or inactions.”
Because the subject of whiteness was so challenging, it was not surprising that it was among the main topics of discussion at Sunday’s virtual event.
“People refer to Montclair as a bubble,” Picower said. “There’s this idea that people love the community because of the diversity, but at the same time, not everybody is willing to scratch under the surface to see how racism and whiteness is at play within that bubble.”
Maloney asked Love, whose work on diversity and inclusion in education has been an inspiration to the initiative, what she thought people in Montclair could do to push
themselves from the idea of this diversity that they so value to a place of real change.
“If it’s all about your feelings then it’s performative,” Love said. “So we’re asking folks what are you willing to do, outside of marching, outside of making signs and giving money. We need co-conspirators, folks who are willing to go to their boss Monday and say, ‘Why are there no black people on the executive floor’ or people who are willing to say, ‘I make more money than this black person or this brown person, why is that?’
“People who are willing to go to their school board Monday and look at how money is divided and say, ‘There are some disparities here,’ to ask, ‘Where are the black teachers?’ We need parents to say, ‘Hey, we’re not doing high-stakes testing anymore.’ We need white folks to start listening to black people, and then look at how they can use their power and resources to leverage those things and make change.”
People of color need to decide at what level they want to enter and engage in this battle — it is not the responsibility of people of color to end racism, Love said: “Black folks did not start racism, and it’s not our job to end it. Some things can’t be our fight.
“To be black in this country is to live in a constant state of exhaustion. We are dying and we are exhausted, waiting on reform.”
Maloney asked the same question to the three panelists from “America to Me” — Holland, Stovall, and Buford.
Stovall talked about the toll on her own health brought on by trying to get people to listen to her, day after day, about the unequal treatment she was seeing in her school.
Buford agreed. “In high school I didn’t realize how much trauma and emotional labor I was experiencing, and how much trauma black kids experience from pre-K to high school. So you need to heal from your trauma and take the time to take care of yourself. If you’re not good to yourself, you won’t be able to get the job done.”
Holland added, “Kids are telling us something every day — even in their silence, in their lateness to class — kids are constantly speaking to us.
“We shouldn’t have to rely on kids to orally voice what’s happening. They’re telling us every day by showing up or not showing up.”
And, she added, changes that will be made may be uncomfortable for some. White people, she said, may have “some things taken away or looking different, things that have yielded them privileges historically and within our educational system. They are not going to be prioritized. There needs to be an institutional will to make those changes.”
Discussing action steps to be taken, Maloney suggested that instead of beginning new organizations and committees, people “pivot that into anti-racist action in your work place, school system, politics, and family. It could be something as simple as making your own social circle more diverse.”
In fall 2020, the project will host another set of watch group leader training sessions, watch groups, and a one-time screening. There are also some limited options for summer 2020 watch groups. For information and to register, visit mfee.org/america-to-me/america-to-me.html.