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League of Women Voterswill host forum on racism

By Ben LumpkinDaily Planet staff
Friday August 31, 2001

In an effort to understand and overcome institutional racism in Berkeley, the League of Women Voters plans to host a series of “conversations on race” beginning in early October. 

Whether it’s in the area of education, health care, housing, employment or city government, the opinions and needs of people of color are not given the attention they deserve in Berkeley, said Marissa Saunders, chair of the League of Women Voters’ Education Committee and the person who came up with the idea for the meetings. 

“I’ve been talking to people and going to all these meetings and realizing that the underlying problem was racism,” said Saunders, who is African-American. “Flat-out racism was happening, but no one would say it was that. 

“I’m seeing how divided this city is becoming,” Saunders continued. “It’s the blacks, the browns and the whites, and the whites have all the power.” 

A number of community leaders welcomed the idea of the meetings as a way to identify what racism looks like in Berkeley today – and come up with strategies for confronting the issues. 

“I think it is always timely to have a conversation on race,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Miriam Hawley, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters.  

“Really it is an opportunity to have people tell us when racism is happening and how we can do better,” Hawley added. “We need to move ahead with our efforts to be a more inclusive city.” 

“It’s a very positive move forward to focus on the areas of inclusion where we’ve failed in the past,” said Mark Coplan, former president of the Berkeley PTA Council.  

“We’re Berkeley. We’re progressive. We totally believe that. But are we inclusive?” 

In discussions about school issues, too often complaints from parents and students of color are pushed aside with remarks like “you’re overreacting,” or “why are you making a big deal out of nothing?” Coplan said. 

White parents and school leaders need to make more of an effort to understand why certain actions are viewed as racist, said Coplan and others. 

“There is a point of view out there that is trying to claim that there is no such thing as racism any more,” said Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. “I’m of a very different opinion. We need to continue examining and addressing (these issues).” 

Fike said it is particularly important to raise awareness of these issues in school districts like those in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, where the majority of teachers are white and the majority of students are students of color. 

Race is a particularly sensitive issue in Berkeley schools, because of the profound gap in the academic achievement of white students and students of color that begins in the early grades and widens as the students move on to high school. 

In 2000, Berkeley High’s African-American students’ standardized test scores earned them a score of 516 on the state’s academic performance index, well below the state median score of 675. Taken together, Berkeley High’s white population scored 894, in a year when only 5 percent of high schools in the state scored above 800. 

“Once African-American students leave the fifth grade, something dramatic happens to them,” Saunders said. “The test scores show it, the attendance shows it, the suspensions show it.” 

And yet, after years of recognizing and quantifying the problem, the school district has yet to make notable headway in addressing it, Saunders said. 

School district officials say they are just as concerned about the lack of progress as parents, but they say much is being done to address the problem. An early literacy program initiated in the last four years is helping to close the gap in student literacy skills by the time they reach third grade – so all students will be equally prepared to succeed in the higher grades. 

The high school has launched a number of initiatives in the last few years, including tutoring, mentoring and – new this year – intensive literacy instruction, to help students who begin ninth grade with crippling academic deficits. 

Still, said Board of Education President Terry Doran, there is a strong perception in the Berkeley Unified School District, and in urban school district’s around the country, the low test scores by students of color are a symptom of unequal opportunity – schools failing to meet these students’ needs.  

In the African-American community especially, there is indignation that school officials did not do more to see their input when creating programs to address the achievement gap. Had they done so, the programs would have been more successful, said Saunders and other African-American parents. 

“Nothing has worked,” Saunders said. “This community has to start from the bottom, all over again.” 

Doran said he hoped a series of discussions on race like the one proposed by the League of Women Voters would “break down barriers to talking about race in constructive ways.” 

Those planning the meeting say they will accomplish this by creating a “safe environment” for people to talk about race without pointing fingers at one another. The first meeting in October – at a date yet to be determined – will begin with poetry and skits aimed at illustrating instances of racism in Berkeley. There are plans to use humor to diffuse what might otherwise become a tense situation.  

A comedian might talk about how certain words and phrases, used in the right context, are interpreted in different ways by whites, blacks, Latinos, etc. The hope is that such activities will create a comfortable environment, preparing people to separate into small groups to talk about race. 

“It could make it comfortable for people to say things that in other circumstances they might get attacked for saying,” Doran said. 

Saunders said she learned important lessons about how to have a discussion about race during an earlier attempt, organized at Washington Elementary School a few years ago. On that day, participants in the meeting divided up into groups based on race and them came back to share their findings with one another. Instead facilitating interacial communication, the meeting only helped the racial groups become more firmly entrenched in their differences, Saunders said. 

At the first League of Women Voters meeting in October, participants will be divided into groups at random Saunders said, so people from different racial and economic backgrounds can work to sort out common miscommunications.  

Furthermore, there will be the knowledge that this in the first of many meetings, so people will have a real incentive to learn to work together, Saunders said.  

The first meeting will be used to develop strategies for community actions that reduce both the perception and the reality of racism, Saunders said. Later meetings will be used to follow up on the plans and see that they are implemented. 

Saunders is looking for volunteers to help with the planning of the meeting and serve as facilitators of the group discussions. She also needs donations of food – and a meeting space. She can be contacted at 898-7625.