Efforts to improve racial and school inequities must start with a hard conversation, and it should happen in communities and classrooms across the nation.
“We are missing the real talk. It’s the elephant in the room,” said Viviana Andrade-Fullwood, a panelist at the recent Understanding Hampton Roads forum sponsored by the Hampton Roads Community Foundation in partnership with Norfolk State University and its Robert C. Nusbaum Honors College. Norfolk Southern Corporation was presenting sponsor.
The community foundation launched this initiative in 2019 to spur civic engagement and to help improve racial inequities in Southeastern Virginia.
|Event panelists (l-r) Danielle Robinson, Ke'Shawn Kumsa, Rodney Jordan, Myaah Hayes, Dr. Aaron Spence, Barbara Hamm Lee, Viviana Andrade-Fullwood.
At the recent event, which was held at Norfolk State University, more than 900 people signed up to watch the first episode of the new documentary America to Me. It examines the intersection of race, inequities and education through the lens of students at Oak Park and River Forest High School in a suburb of Chicago.
Held in the University’s L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center, the forum included a panel of Hampton Roads education officials and an NSU college student. Barbara Hamm Lee, executive producer and host of WHRV's Another View, moderated the panel. She also interviewed a mother and son featured in the documentary and led a question-and-answer session with the audience.
Panelists discussed troublesome school issues in the film and how those same problems impact local schools.
For example, a school board meeting in the film addressed trends in school data that showed a significant and growing gap between the academic progress of Caucasian and African American students. It was data that school leaders had not focused on in more than a decade.
Virginia Beach Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence, a panelist, said that’s too long. Schools must review data frequently to pinpoint where students struggle and the types of resources that can help. Beyond the data, teachers and school staff must acknowledge any bias and work to build authentic connections with students.
“You must build deep relationships with children before you can teach them anything,” he said.
The panel included Ke’Shawn Kumsa, a former student at Oak Park and River Forest High School who now lives in Texas and plans to go to college to become a music engineer. He said his experience at schools and those of other African American students, differed from the opportunities of his Caucasian and affluent peers.
“I didn’t get what everybody else was getting. I was getting the hand-me-downs… the hand-me-down education that somebody else had picked through,” he said.
Audience members raised questions about the role of local school leaders to ensure equity in the classroom, among other topics.
Norfolk School Board Member Rodney Jordan, a panelist, said officials must be willing to talk about the problems as well as develop policies that enforce equitable solutions.
About Understanding Hampton Roads
Understanding Hampton Roads is the Hampton Roads Community Foundation’s effort to advance civic engagement in Southeastern Virginia. It includes forums on key topics to help build understanding and inspire action that brings people together to help improve life in our region.