What I Learned During Pittsford Central School District’s PTSA Diversity & Inclusion Committee Meeting | by Calvin Eaton

What I Learned During Pittsford Central School’s PTSA Diversity & Inclusion Committee Meeting by Calvin Eaton

Two black women leading the charge to speak truth to power all while putting their own bodies, minds, and soul on the line in order to protect their black children against a racist system 🗹
A standing room only community room filled with mostly white concerned, ashamed, and embarrassed parents and citizens 🗹🗹
Local media outlets and white reporters standing at the ready like moths to the flame consumed by the fire 🗹🗹🗹

The above narrative is not a scene written for a community play set in the early 1960’s Jim Crow south. It is not a scene from a Hollywood film set during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement. This is a first hand account of events that took place in room 107 of the Pittsford Community Center (35 Lincoln Ave) on Monday April 29th 2019 in the town of Pittsford, NY . At least one hundred concerned (98% white) parents, students, and community members joined due paying members of Pittsford Central School District’s PTSA Diversity and Inclusion Committee for their monthly (and notably previously scheduled) meeting that was themed 100% around the recent slew of racist allegations and stories from all around the district of Black, POC, and other marginalized groups and its Superintendent Michael Pero’s tone-deaf and for some, racist response to the allegations.

It must be noted that the allegations and stories that are pouring to the media from parents and students alike are nothing new. These stories go back decades, many during the ten-year tenure of Michael Pero and many before. These stories are all over social media and proliferated by chat rooms and text messages between students and most recently the Democrat and Chronicle, Spectrum News, and 13 Wham. One black woman parent came specifically to share accounts of the emotional trauma that she continues to deal with  from both of her daughters, one now in college. She was clear to share that her college bound daughter is still affected by the culture of racism that her Pittsford education breeded. Thank god we are out of there was her daughters sentiment. The emotional mother was there to ensure that no other children are damaged by a culture of racist complicity.

“Thank god we are out of there”

Facebook comments regarding the allegations ( many of which have merit, according to the superintendent) have shown the same divide that allegations of racism in other small suburban districts elucidate:

  • The school district’s leadership has failed to take any meaningful or appropriate action over decades.
  • The school district has failed to hold itself or the bad actors accountable.
  • The school district has refused to call out racist behavior.
  • The school district has made a political issue out of situations that affect their students of color, their LGBTQIA students, their Jewish students, their immigrant students, and yes, their mostly white students.

The trauma of racism in no uncertain terms affects every single person it encounters and it was clear on last night that the ignorance and complacency of the Pittsford Central School District under the leadership of Superintendent Michael Pero has cultivated a toxic, racist, homophobic, and nasty culture and undercurrent that is so pervasive; so normalized that one Jewish student spoke up and said that when he found out a swastika was defaced on his car; he initially thought nothing of the issue. It was only after his mother “freaked out” that he realized the gravity of the incident.

After a relatively status quo and in my opinion playing nice by Nea Frost (black women Urban Suburban parent) and an impassioned, purposeful, but still professional calling out by Urban suburban parent of five Tanisha Johnson it wasn’t until the second half of the meeting that the palpable energy and visceral emotion started to show. You see the first half of the meeting saw black women doing what black women have done for decades when it comes to speaking truth to power. The first half of the meeting was quite literally led by two black women who were/are thrust into their leadership roles almost by default. Last night could have been ripped from the pages of Civil Rights history as a small instature but big in voice Tanisha Johnson called out Superintendent Michael Pero, called out the district, and laid out succinct action plans on how she and her husband planned to move forward. She shared about the candid and honest conversations that they have had in private with Michael Pero about racist incidents, bullying and harassment that has not only plagued their children but many other children throughout the district.

  • Black women have always put their bodies and souls on the lines to save not only their children but all children.
  • The white PTSA leadership in the room quite literally handed over the emotional and mental burden of this work to the only two black women on the committee and sat back and watched while saying few words.
  • Just like every single Equity Rights movement in the history of America, Pittsford’s PTSA has forced Black Women to do the emotional heavy lifting of their district’s racism that has gone unchecked and unattended for decades.
  • None of this is acceptable

“Just like every single Equity Rights movement in the history of America, Pittsford’s PTSA has forced Black Women to do the emotional heavy lifting of their district’s racism that has gone unchecked and unattended for decades.”

As comments from questions began to pour in it was clear that the PTSA committee led by Nea Frost and Tanisha Johnson did not have all the answers. Nor should they be expected to.  Most early civil rights movements dont’ have all the answers. All the pieces are not clear. Black women have to play the role of facilitator, moderator, healer, communicator, be all things to all children and their parents as well as protect and serve the needs of their own children. It is a complex and deeply layered dynamic that I was able to witness in real-time quite literally just how I have seen in the movies which was all at once emotionally wrenching (and devastating) and overtly fascinating. Asian American and Indian American parents asked questions wondering if all racial experiences would be considered at Wednesdays meeting with Michael Pero. A few seemed to misunderstand what is meant when a Black woman says “person of color” (POC) but none offered to attend with or co-lead this meeting. It was clear that even for the parents of marginalized identity students that the heavy lifting and emotional work would left to the Black women.

  • Other comments came from parents and students wanting to make sure that bullying and incidents against Jewish students, trans students, female students, etc would be brought up and attended to
  • A male parent asked about data control and feedback loop; clearly weary over how much trust can be put into the PTSA that is in essence, an extension of the district that at the end of the day will protect itself and only itself.
  • This barrage of warranted, emotional and appropriate questions, comments and concerns were directed to the PTSA committee at large but 98% of the answers and leadership came from Nea Frost and Tanisha Johnson

I so wanted to stay silent and be a fly on the wall but after so long my spirit could hold back no more. As I watched my surrogate black mothers take on the emotional heavy lifting and leadership of a movement that was so much bigger than the two of them; I stood up and implored the room that it was literally up to all of them to lead the movement against Pittsford Central School District and hold the district accountable. In so many words my main point was this; Pittsford Central School District will fight to the death to protect itself at all costs. Not the students, not parents but itself.

Pittsford Central School District will fight to the death to protect itself at all costs. Not the students, not parents but itself.

The meeting which went over an hour and a half and was impassioned, emotionally charged, and honest but due to the exemplary leadership and balancing of Nea Frost and Tanisha Johnson it never went totally off the rails and was guided and direct in its focus. Only because of the greatness of black women. This carried on until almost the end when off the cuff comments from Lisa Chen who wasn’t even present for the entire meeting threatened to derail the spirit. Town Board member Kevin Beckford, ended the meeting sharing his personal account of moving to Pittsford a town that he hoped would lead to a better life for his family and now two years later witnessing his daughter lose all her self-esteem.

It was abundantly clear that Pittsford cracking facade of perfection via excellent test scores undercut an insidious and toxic culture of bigotry, racism, sexism, antisemitism, bullying, complacency, and complicity. Time will only tell if the community is finally ready to draw the line in the sand and say enough is enough.

Words of Wisdom

  1.  Black women are powerful and strong. Protect them at all costs. If you consider yourself a white ally do not leave the emotional and physical heavy lifting to the shoulders of black women.
  2. Keep the students, their stories and their trauma, at the center of every single conversation. Students voices need to be heard and honored.
  3. Pittsford Central School District will fight to the death to protect itself at all costs. Not the students, not parents, but itself.

What Can You Do to Support

  1. Attend PTSA Meeting
  2. Listen to marginalized voices
  3. Write letters to the Pittsford School Board and Superitendent
  4. Protect black women

Sources for Reading

  1. Allegations of racism in Pittsford school district sparks firestorm on social media. Here’s what people are saying,  Democrat & Chronicle
  2. Pittsford school district asks state to review its policies, calls meeting over racism allegations, Democrat & Chronicle
  3. Concerns about racism expressed by Pittsford parents; district announces special meeting, 13 Wham
  4. Pittsford graduate: Superintendent’s response to alleged racism is ‘incredibly troubling‘, Time to Educate Democrat & Chronicle
  5. Racist stickers found in Pittsford, WHEC 10
  6. Why are we still struggling with this in America?” Kevin Beckford brings change to Pittsford, WXXI News Kevin Beckford is a man on a mission to increase staff diversity, University of Rochester
  7. Pittsford denies supremacist with walk against racism, Democrat & Chronicle
  8. Police: Racist fliers in Brighton, Pittsford don’t break law, Democrat & Chronicle

Published by Calvin Eaton

(he/his/him) Calvin Eaton is a disabled community educator, content creator, and social entrepreneur, whose area of expertise includes antiracism, equity, justice, instructional design, and program development. In 2016 Mr. Eaton founded 540WMain, Inc. a non-profit online and community-based organization for accessible education and events that promote justice for all.

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