Congressman Levin hosts forum on diversity, inclusion in schools

Venus Johnson
Venus Johnson, a San Diego native who is now a junior at Howard University, spoke at Mike Levin’s panel on diversity, equity and inclusion in schools.
(Karen Billing)

On Feb. 26, U.S. Representative Mike Levin held a virtual panel with local Black leaders in education to speak about the challenges and opportunities for Black students and increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in schools.

In light of a nationwide push against systemic racism, Levin hoped the discussion would help to understand the disparities that need to be addressed to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education regardless of their race, ethnicity or zip code.

“One of the best ways we can address issues of bias and equality is to start by having candid dialogues and conversations like this. And most importantly, to actually take action based on what we learn from these discussions,” Levin said.

Levin’s panel included two standout college students from Howard University; Dr. Luke Wood, the vice president of student affairs and diversity and inclusion at San Diego State University; UC San Diego professor and critical race theorist Dr. Thandeka Chapman; and Encinitas Union School District trustee Marlon Taylor, the first Black resident elected to a public office in Encinitas.

“There are frequent times I’m the only Black face in a space,” said Taylor, also a board member of Encinitas 4 Equality and chair of multiple action committees on the North San Diego County NAACP. “Having two young daughters, I felt it was very important for me to take the opportunity to throw my voice out there into our community.”

EUSD board member Marlon Taylor
(Karen Billing)

In Encinitas, Taylor said his goal on the school board is to give students the skill sets they need to grow up and become adults who are comfortable having these types of conversations, arming them with the tools to be anti-racist allies, “unafraid to speak truth to power and create change.”

He wants to continue to amplify Black voices and stories in his community and encourage an honest and age-appropriate telling of the country’s history in schools that includes “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

“I believe that while we still haven’t made it where we need to make it, there’s been a lot of great things that have happened that we have all contributed to. We need to tell those stories because you have to understand how bad things were and how bad some things still are,” Taylor said. “It’s time that we start having these conversations and teach these lessons.”

In his comments, Taylor reflected on his own experience attending school in St. Louis. He said it wasn’t until years later that he realized that his high school guidance counselor had never approached him about his college options or scholarships, however, whenever a military recruiter came to the campus, he and other Black students were in the auditorium.

“I had a great career in the Navy but I often wonder how things would have been different had I had some of the same opportunities that other students had,” Taylor said.

Panelists Venus Johnson, a San Diego native who is now a junior at Howard University and David “Tre” Edgerton III, a Howard student from St. Paul, Minn., also spoke about not having a lot of guidance or support about their options in higher education. While both Johnson and Edgerton found themselves at an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities), they did not even know that HBCUs existed and neither did their classmates.

“I had no real knowledge of what an HBCU was. I had no real concept of Black education, I wasn’t immersed in Black literature or culture because it wasn’t in the framework of my educational spaces,” Johnson said. “I was reading AP course books that subconsciously instilled a European reality while passively suggesting systemic racism.”

Edgerton said among other reforms, teachers and administrators need implicit bias training and there needs to be a curriculum that teaches students about their history and the contributions the Black community has made.

“We need change because education is liberation,” Edgerton said. “Because yes, MLK had a dream, Malcolm fought and Obama hoped. But the next generation, my generation, needs to know how Carter G. Woodson talked, how W.E.B. Du Bois thought, how James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison wrote. How Ida B. Wells inspired, how Marsha P. Johnson led, how Stokely Carmichael spoke and how you and you and you and you all got together to fight systemic racism that kills Black bodies and discourages Black minds.”

Chapman (a graduate of Spelman College, an all-woman HBCU) echoed the fellow panelists’ calls for stronger college counseling for all students as well as well as other K-12 reforms, including high-quality pre-school programs, high-quality learning environments for English language learners, an ethnic studies curriculum, anti-racist and anti-bias teacher trainings and the need for more teachers of color.

“When a Black student has a Black teacher of color they are more likely to go to college and more likely to be retained in college, particularly in the STEM field,” said Chapman. “A Black teacher in STEM for a Black student means everything.”

Since joining the Encinitas board, Taylor said he has been disappointed with the lack of Black faculty and he would like to see the district and others in North County actively recruit and retain teachers of color.

Dr. Luke Wood
(Karen Billing)

Wood said the lack of representation in staffing is an education issue overall and one they are trying to overcome at SDSU.

The university’s Building on Inclusive Excellence hiring program aims to support the success of students from historically underrepresented communities by focusing faculty searches on candidates who meet criteria aligned with the school’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Last year on Juneteenth (the holiday that marks the emancipation of slaves 156 years ago), the university announced a cluster hire event for faculty members who had experience teaching or servicing Black populations. The response has been overwhelming.

“There are very tangible, practical solutions that can do it if there’s a will to do it,” Wood said.

Often the only Black girl in the room, Johnson said she never felt a true sense of inclusion— which she defined as feeling respected, reflected and expected— until she got to Howard.

“It is not my Black duty to discuss Black needs in White spaces, however, it’s the duty of White spaces to reflect Black needs, to honor them and to proactively understand them,” Johnson said.

She encouraged others to imagine what America would look like with honest diversity, equity and inclusion as the blueprint and challenged all policy makers, educators, voters and parents to make a personal commitment to action.