By Imani Scott-Blackwell
For the past two-plus years our community has struggled to find its footing under Dr. Demond Means as our schools superintendent. He has received no shortage of criticism (some justified, some unjustified) starting almost immediately upon his arrival. Simultaneously, we have watched as an ever-increasing rift has grown dividing our community into two camps: those that support Dr. Means and those who do not. I am writing this two-part series to highlight some of the arguments swirling around on either side for those who have been unable (or unwilling) to engage with this tumultuous conversation. Additionally, I aim to contextualize what is happening here in Athens in contrast with equity in education efforts elsewhere in the nation. Finally, I want to issue a word of caution to us all regarding the current dynamic that I perceive between the community-at-large, the Board of Education, and the Superintendent.
The crux of this conflict lies in the claim that supporters of Dr. Means are advocates for equity while those who are critics of Dr. Means are opposed to the progress of marginalized children, Black students in particular. This has forced many to disengage from the discussions as not supporting the Superintendent is currently grounds declaring you a racist who does not want Black children to know how to read. I do not doubt that there are racist individuals that do not want to see Black and Brown children thrive….however that dichotomy completely erases the potential existence of a third group: People who do not support Dr. Means because they disagree with his tactics and/or strategy as feasible solutions that will increase academic achievement of Black students in CCSD. I am going to focus on this third “unicorn” group that the current discourse seems to consider impossible to exist. It’s a shame that I must write this piece from a position of fear. Fear that I will lose the support and mentorship of community elders here in Athens that I have respected and learned from for many years. Fear that not only my work, but also the risks, that I have taken in this community putting my physical body on the line and exposing myself to increased police surveillance and attention due to the nature of my work and my commitment to fighting for equity, justice, dignity, and respect for marginalized people in this community, will be completely disregarded and ignored by those who wish to condemn me as a sell-out for not getting behind Dr. Means. Fortunately, my ancestors have already shown me that it is useless to live a life based on fear and I must have hope that all of us have the capacity to change and transform our beliefs, attitude, and impact. That being said, I would like to publicly and clearly state that I do not support Dr Means’ VISION for our school district (of course, I wish him well as an individual) and here’s why…
1. I have followed Dr. Means strategy since he first presented his vision to the Chamber of Commerce upon his arrival back in 2018. I perceive two key components to his vision: increased rigor & expanding pre-K. I think those are great baseline priorities. However, they are also common-sense solutions. When you have 100-plus kids on a waitlist for pre-k, it only makes sense to increase your preschool offerings. When you want to increase student achievement, it only makes sense to increase rigor and expectations in the classroom. These are enhancements directly in line with a “status quo” approach. Nothing radical about these solutions yet those who do not support Dr. Means are the ones being branded with wanting to uphold the status quo. Not to mention, that somehow tactics that have been highlighted as successful interventions across the nation are nearly absent from our discourse. I have heard little on our plan to recruit Black teachers, Brown teachers, Spanish-speaking teachers though that is a national demand with proven effectiveness in raising academic outcomes. I have heard little about changing policies that structure the school-to-prison pipeline despite its prevalence in both national and local efforts for at least the past 5 years. I have seen no divestment from punitive discipline being used to fund more counselors, social workers, and behavioral specialists. I’m troubled to see equity being used as a buzzword but failing to reflect research-based solutions that are being demanded across the nation.
2. We must contextualize equity and progressivism in Athens with parallel efforts that are taking place across the country to really see where our initiatives fall on the spectrum. Let us not forget that we are in the South, in one of the most conservative states in the nation. Any equity issue that we are working to address in Georgia in 2019, communities is less conservative (read: anywhere but the South) areas in many places have already begun implementing and optimizing solutions. We simply need to look to those communities and adapt successful tactics to CCSD. We are not asking anyone to reinvent the wheel. Anything we are trying to do now has already been done elsewhere. I encourage you to compare our CCSD strategic plan with the strategic plan for Oakland Unified School District and tell me if you can tell which one is actually focused on equity with specific, measurable goals for measuring success by demographic we are claiming to serve. The difference between equity and equality is that equity makes space for meeting the specific needs of one group without having to apply that solution to the whole. It’s about intentionality and systemic change. Changing what is taught in the classroom and adding additional buildings does not change the system any more than “Black faces in high places” changes a racist system. Diversity is a myth. Remember, our schools superintendent, police chief, and sheriff here in Athens are all Black men. I think we can all agree that has not eliminated racism from policing or classrooms in Athens Clarke County any more than Obama’s presidency took the racism out of the structure of this country.
I personally struggle to accept the bare minimum when I know this community deserves more. I sense the trauma that folks have from the last superintendent. I personally resonate with the desire for Black leadership and bristle when I see a Black man being targeted. At the end of the day, I recognize that all parties involved in these debates has been harmed either by the previous superintendent or by generations of white leadership acting in bad faith. That being said, it is in these times that we must hold each other in love, compassion, and grace when we see the hurt and/or trauma others have experienced in the past beginning to show up in how they respond to us or respond to situations. We never completely heal from trauma. We only get better at recognizing and avoiding the cycles of responses and behaviors that emerge when we are triggered.
With the above having been said, Part 2 of this column will likely trigger some readers and that is okay. While this section focused on strategic disagreement with Dr. Means, Part 2 will focus on the nefarious “invisible hand” potentially guiding CCSD governance and discourse that is driving the division in our community for the benefit of lining the pockets of private contractors and out of town consultants. As always, I hope to be wrong but if I am right than our problems at the school district level are only just getting started.
Imani Scott-Blackwell was a 2018 CCSD Board of Education candidate for District 5. She is a community organizer, activist, and owner and strategy consultant at Going Rogue, a local consulting practice for non-profits and small-businesses.