SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Systemic racism has always been a problem in South Kingstown, according to BIPOC Advisory Board Facilitators Robin Wildman and Jonathan Lewis, but from crisis comes opportunity.
The circumstances of our time have forced people to come face-to-face with many things rather left swept under the rug, and the confrontation of these things has allowed progress to happen.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm, if you will,” Lewis said. “George Floyd brought this to the forefront, we got lucky with this superintendent, we got lucky Robin just retired. It’s a lot of things.”
Wildman, who brings years of leadership and expertise in teaching Kingian Nonviolence, hopes to see the school district take on systemic racism and inequities by examining it through every lens possible.
“The goal is to get everybody to look at every decision, every action, with a lens of anti-racism and anti-discrimination,” Wildman said. “Is this lesson good for all the kids? Is it going to uplift children? What about this book I’m going to read? How about the way I talk to my colleague.”
“The ultimate goal is for this to become part of the way people exist,” she added.
This past summer, following the death of George Floyd, a concerned group of intergenerational and international community members came together to work on a set of demands for the school committee. Towards an Anti-Racist South Kingstown (TASK) came forward with the goal of creating anti-racist policies and practices, looking holistically at problems like whitewashed curriculum and lack of representation — Mwangi Gitahi sees the role of the advisory board as means to ensure these things actually happen.
“I think the work we’re doing is incredibly important, because it has the potential to change the education experience for a lot of kids,” Gitahi said. “For all kids. That’s the hope.”
And while the work is incredibly important, the work is also a huge burden.
“We’re not policy makers by profession,” he said. “We didn’t go to school to learn to make policies, but we’re creating a framework for future policy making.”
On the issue of curriculum, community member Wayne Everett wants the schools to improve the way they teach local history — especially with regard to the experience of the indigenous community.
As a member of the Narragansett Tribe, he wants all students to learn about this — and not just by having one day or one unit to focus on First Contact Nations. Students, Everett said, need to be learning about the experience of indigenous populations from multiple lenses all throughout the year.
“From the very beginning, we were here,” he said, “and we’re still here.”
Some haven’t been waiting for the schools to teach them or their children about the role South Kingstown has played in the slave trade. In a letter to the editor earlier this month, community members Jennifer Krueger wrote about studying her families genealogy, and how she learned her family held the last person officially enslaved in South Kingstown.
Prior to the letter’s publication, Krueger reached out to BIPOC Advisory Board member Charlene Traynum about ways to make amends and work towards resolving systemic issues within the community. This stuck out to Traynum because while most people acknowledge there’s a problem, they don’t feel they bear any responsibility in creating it.
So if someone doesn’t believe they’re part of the problem, how do you get them to be part of the solution.
According to Traynum, who’s efforts to serve the BIPOC community began long before the death of George Floyd, one of the most important things people can do is realize who they are.
In South Kingstown, especially, you have to know your family history and the impact of your last name. As Everett pointed out, many members of the indigenous community have always had to prove who they are and have remained connected to their ancestry. Many of those who haven’t had to prove it, have no idea who they are.
Being able to recognize privilege is hugely important, according to Wildman, and can mean the difference from someone being just an ally and being an anti-racist.
An ally can feel bad and empathize with members of the BIPOC community about the trauma they’ve endured, but an anti-racist actually does the work to change those things.
“An anti-racist is some who’s actually going to stand up and right the wrongs that have occurred since time and immemorial — since European contact,” Robin added. “If students and staff don’t know how to be an anti-racist, we can show them how. There’s lots of work to be done.”
The work the advisory board is currently doing to help create this change is an anti-racism and anti-discrimination policy. It’s completely brand new and written entirely from scratch, but the goal is to create equity for all students.
There’s lots of work to be done in order to begin righting wrongs, and thankfully, the board has been met with support from district leadership.
“This present superintendent is like minded,” Wildman said. “She wants equity that will lead to justice.”
“We couldn’t ask for a better partner,” she added.
Credit is also due to the members of the board who have actively worked to these means.
“It’s a beautiful mix of wonderful people who have the best interests of the students in mind, in all the work we’re doing,” Wildman said.
Other members of the group include Ashley Fry, Becci Davis, Bernice Evans, Ginger Mombelly, James B. Thompson, Jesús de la Torre, John Thompson, Johnette Rodriguez, Maghnee Gomes, Paula Whitford, Robert Cruz and Susana Vasquez.