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'Enough is enough' : WNY educators speak out against systematic racism

Hundreds of Western New York educators gathered on the steps of Buffalo City Hall late Tuesday afternoon to voice their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. From elementary to collegiate, urban to suburban, educators, parents, students and officials of all levels stood in front of Niagara Square to address their roles in confronting systematic racism.

“Can we keep going from rally to rally, fighting for a change we know needs to happen but will not?” Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) Principal Demario Strickland asked a crowd of protesters.

“No!” the crowd shouted back.

The active back and forth was one of several that occurred over the rally’s two hours.

“We need to acknowledge and I need to educate myself on the roots of white supremacy,” said BPS Teacher Adrienne Spurio.

Spurio put a call out to teachers to check their own biases and leverage their white privilege.

“I must critically think about the fact that nearly half of our Buffalo City School students are black and over three quarters of the teachers are white,” Spurio said.

According to a 2019 NYSED Educator Diversity Report, only 14% of the teachers in Buffalo are teachers of color.

Buffalo State Assistant Professor Dr. Tiffany Nyachae questioned what higher education institutions are doing about the problem.

“Where is your black faculty colleges and universities?” Nyachae asked. “I had to get a whole PHD to have my first black teacher educator, black professor.”

Derek Baker, principal of Sweet Home Middle School, touched on reforming suburban schools. He says a colleague once said to him of Black children, "You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink." Here are all the ways Baker says educators can "make them drink."

“We can make them drink by hiring black teachers—yeah I said it—hire black teachers!” Baker shouted to the applause of the crowd.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Derek Baker, principal of Sweet Home Middle School

“We can make them drink by getting involved in school board meetings.”

“We can make them drink taking a stand.”

“We can make the drink by holding hand and hand.”

“So the question is, can you make them drink?” Baker asked the crowd.

“Yeah!” about half of the crowd answered.

“C’mon say yes we can,” shouted Baker. “Can we make them drink?”

“Yes we can!” the crowd went back and forth with Baker a few more times.

On Monday, former New York State Board of Regents Vice Chancellor Adelaide Sanford spoke to the current board, emphasizing at a state level many of the concerns heard in Buffalo late Tuesday afternoon.

“If you, the Board of Regents, educators for the state, do not begin to require your mandate to be in charge of education, to take up the responsibility of developing curriculum, that speaks education for justice. I put that upon your heart and mind and conscience,” Sanford said. “Silence and feeling sorry. And saying I didn’t do it. And I’m not the one. And my parents weren’t slave owners. And we didn’t own slave ships. But you benefited from the results of it. And the benefit that you have enjoyed, you have not extended to us. So I say to the four young people, I wish I could protect you. I wish I could love you enough that no harm could come. I wish that I could educate you so well that no one would trample you or misunderstand you, but I can’t. I can only give you the assurance of your worthiness. Of your brilliance, of your capacity. Of the power of your ancestors. Of the wealth of what you have in your mind and in your heart and in your spirit. But I say to those of you who are on the Board of Regents, it’s your turn.”

The rally continued to grow in size over its first hour as speakers discussed the general frustration coming to light from recent protests. Buffalo Board of Education President Sharon Belton-Cottman said she has never been prouder to be an American than she has the past two weeks.

“When I was a kid my mother used to say I’ve had enough. Enough is enough,” Belton-Cottman said. “What do you think was said over the past couple of weeks? Enough is enough.”

At one point, protestors took a knee in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd as the names of victims of police killings were read.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
BPS Principals Jennifer Stockmeyer and Gayle Irving-White reading the names of victims of police killings

Following the silence, speakers took back the podium, including Tanika Shedrick, Buffalo PS 92 BUILD Community School Principal, encouraging everyone to empower students.

“Guess what? Our young people are watching. Our young people are watching,” Shedrick repeated. “And guess what? While they are watching they are dying. We have to empower our young people. We have to empower them to speak up and speak out. We have to empower them to get out and march with integrity and march with dignity on the shoulders of their ancestors. We have to do it. We don’t need to be saying, ‘Oh they were rioting and they were looting.’ No it was an uprising.”

“Now we have your attention. Now we have your attention,” Shedrick repeated. “But here’s the thing about it. We don’t need the uprising that just happened on the streets. But students, you have the power to hold your teachers accountable. You know how? You do it by telling them what your thoughts are. You do it by telling them what your goals are and guess what? The sky is not the limit it’s just the beginning. Here’s the thing about it. For so long, we’ve taught black and brown kids how high they can go. How tight they have to sit. How nice they have to be. But guess what? There’s a rhythm beating within their hearts. And we have to get it out. We’re going to say today is my day. We’re going to say the time is now. We’re going to say I am somebody. But we’re going to say I’m black and I’m proud.”

Strickland wrapped up the rally giving assignments to teachers, which included:

-Engage in critical conversations no matter how uncomfortable

-Find new ways to educate Black students and close the achievement gap

-Pronounce their names correctly.

Organizers say they are not done and plan to be back June 30, three weeks from now, with a list of demands.

Strickland closed the rally with these words—

“I want to leave you all with this. Not only do black lives matter, but black minds matter.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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