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Teachers, activists aim to form caucus for racial justice in Buffalo Teachers Federation

Teachers and community leaders gathered Wednesday afternoon at Broderick Park to discuss the best way educators could help achieve racial and social justice. Their solution? They want to form a caucus inside the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Eve Shippens, BTF member

Right alongside the Niagara River on a windy day at Broderick Park, Buffalo Teachers Federation Executive Committee member Eve Shippens asked a group of notable community activists-- how can union members push for racial and social justice within our schools.

“I am an alumni of the Buffalo Public Schools. I choose to teach here. Almost all of my students are students of color,”Shippens said. “We already have organized people. We already have organized money because unions, we pay our dues. We endorse politicians. During political campaigns, we have a stance and lobby. So it's time for us to really start using our union power to hear what is needed in our community, the community we serve, and start using what we already have. The structures in place to start making systematic changes.”

For Shippens and the other teachers attending, the beginning of systematic change involves listening. Close to 80% of the Teachers Federation is white. 

It’s worth noting the majority of speakers Wednesday afternoon were women of color, including former Buffalo police officer Cariol Horne.

Denice Barr works with leadership groups on Buffalo’s East Side. Years ago she worked as a parent facilitator in the Buffalo Schools.

“Let me say this as clearly as I can. Black and brown kids have been put in situations, black and brown people have been put in situations where they have been tested before in areas where people lost their lives. They were test subjects,” Barr said.  

Barr then asked, ‘How much does the community value black and brown lives if they are willing to rush them back to underfunded schools?’

“As a community activist, we're having lots of conversations with lots of people, and people are scared. And they should be scared because you're talking about children's lives here," Barr said. "And I tell people in my organization, in the city of Buffalo, it will take one child to die. And all hell will break loose. Think I'm kidding? Watch.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Denice Barr

Fragrance Harris Stanfield spoke to the group as a long-term substitute in the BPS. She said the lack of resources plays a part in her decision to homeschool her children.

“Being a sub to the Buffalo Public School system continues to help me know that I must continue homeschooling my own kids,” Stanfield said.

Stanfield's frustration stems from issues with communication and a lack of support. 

"As a long term sub, I'm in the same classroom pretty much for months, if not the entire school year. Just helping parents navigate to be able to help their their students be successful in class. Some of the main issues that I saw as a teacher was, number one, parents were not reached. A lot of parents were not contacted," Stanfield said. "I had parents reaching out to me saying, 'I don't know if you teach my child or if they're in your class, but you're the only person who answered me so could you please direct me to who I need to speak to about this or that?' And that was sent to me. You're finding me, a substitute unlisted under general, I have no site, you know. And that's a problem. If I'm a substitute long term and I'm in a classroom for 10 months out of 10 months, you would think that it would be listed."

A protestor by the name of Chrno Cross has been active with groups marching in the city the past few months. She believes much of the reform being discussed needs to come from a state level.

“Whenever something happens whenever we enter a recession, education is one of the first things to get cut," Cross said. "Except the police budget is always one of the first things to get increased and that needs to change and that needs to stop. And that's coming from pressure at a state level.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Protestor Chrno Cross

Cross said you could improve curriculum all you want, but as long as students remain in poverty, they will have trouble succeeding.

“But if we don't address the fact that people are living in WiFi and technology deserts, they are going to be unable to keep up. And then the families that need education the most to bridge that gap between poverty and building generational wealth, are going to fall through the cracks,” Cross said.

The founders of this group is looking for 200 members total from the Buffalo Teachers Federation to join their cause. That's about 5%. Shippens is hopeful they can do it.

“We just need to grow it and we need to make sure that we are educating our membership on what needs to happen in order to have real unity with the community and solidarity and uplift these issues,” Shippens said. 

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.