It has taken me over a month to decide how to write about a recent event I witnessed. I have felt rage and anger and disbelief. I have felt grief and sadness and resignation. The feeling that has risen above all of these, however, has been hope and faith in humanity.
Perhaps I am still naive, but I believe that our local community has been unaware of the challenges we face at this particular school (and more broadly) and that when we know, we will be the change we need to see to ensure that our students feel welcome and included and valued. This also might make some people uncomfortable, and I invite you to sit with that feeling and consider stretching into something new.
On Tuesday, December 13, 2022, less than a month after the hateful violence at Club Q in nearby Colorado Springs, the Denver Public Schools-affiliated Slavens School PTA voted 13 to 8 to approve a restaurant fundraiser with Chick-fil-A, an openly anti-LGBTQ+ corporation. I would like to explicitly thank the 8 people who voted against the fundraiser for standing with Slavens students and families and for affirming inclusion and care in our decisions. Even small votes like this are part of our individual and collective legacies.
The PTA vote took place after three months of debate among members about whether financially supporting the anti-LGBTQ+ activity of the national restaurant owners would be inclusive and affirming of the entire school community. Multiple PTA members spoke about the harm caused to students and families by supporting this fundraiser. Key school administration and PTA leadership members abstained from the vote.
To dispel any confusion, the anti-LGBTQ+ activities of the owners of the national restaurant chain continue today. Chick-fil-A owners continue to donate to orgs trying to prevent the passage of the Equality Act, which would add federal protection as a protected class for LGBTQ+ people from discrimination. The Slavens PTA has a long-standing culture of prioritizing fundraising above all else. Focusing on fundraising is antithetical to the PTA mission, and this fundraiser will undermine the National PTA policy supporting LGBTQ+ students and their families.
The Slavens PTA serves a school community of over 700 students, with a membership roster this year of approximately 140 members. The Slavens community deserves to know what is being decided in their name. I believe that the majority of Slavens families would not agree with the PTA vote and that they would prioritize inclusion over fundraising. My goal is to raise awareness in our local community and to encourage more families to speak up about what we want our school community to represent. Discrimination and exclusion are more likely to happen in homogenous, privileged environments unless consistent action is taken to protect inclusion and equality.
Slavens is known in many circles as a “good school” with Blue Ribbon status and the highest fundraising numbers in the Denver Public School district (approaching $500,000 each year). The waitlist for incoming transfers is over 200 students long. It is also one of the whitest and most affluent schools in a district that is much more diverse (Slavens is 79% White and 7% FRL in a district that is 25% White and 59% FRL), raising questions about private funding access and disparities in educational equity. Most schools in the district do not have access to even moderate levels of private fundraising.
There have already been efforts among some families in the Slavens community to advocate for culture change at the school, not only for LGBTQ+ students and their families, but for all students who are not currently having their needs met: neurodivergent students, racially and culturally diverse students, economically diverse students, and gifted students. A Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee within the PTA was created in 2020 and the school has a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) for its middle schoolers.
A Slavens PTA events guideline document encouraging inclusion and in support of the school’s stated values was approved by the PTA in May 2022 (which was unfortunately ignored during the December vote). Efforts at community-building have been met with enthusiasm and appreciation. Key staff members are working very hard, every day, to ensure that every student in the school feels welcome and valued. The school’s demographics are slowly becoming more diverse.
School segregation and the subsequent exclusivity of school communities is not limited to a few schools. Segregation has increased in public schools nationwide over the last 30 years. People living with a significant amount of privilege and who are surrounded by a homogeneous community are at greater risk of perpetuating stereotypes, discrimination, and exclusive behaviors based on their experiences or lack thereof. Concentration of resources has increased as families with means engage in hoarding tendencies and scarcity mentalities, working for “the best” for their own kids without regard for the larger community of children and families.
School-based nonprofits trend towards a focus on fundraising (often with crisis messaging) instead of advocacy or a greater community-building role, despite the National PTA’s mission statement to the contrary. Much of this behavior arises out of fear and isolation and a lack of connection to community in general. All of it can change if families with the privilege of choice choose something different (ie. Integrated Schools).
Imagine what could change if the time and effort spent on fundraising at individual schools was instead focused on regional/state/national advocacy for increased educational funding and equitable distribution to meet student needs everywhere? Imagine the economy we could build if we invested in every single one of our students instead of relying upon a few nonprofits at a few schools to favor the few over the many? Imagine if we worked in solidarity with every community to build a future our students looked forward to living?
The truth is, segregated schools, even those with significantly more financial resources, are not serving their students the way truly integrated schools could. Many of us (white people) struggle with talking about race and racism because we did not grow up in diverse environments and we don’t live in diverse environments now. We instinctively know that we don’t want our children to have these same barriers to being in community with and working with people from many backgrounds.
We have to work against the prevailing tide and take steps to learn new patterns, new choices, new ways of being. It won’t just automatically happen because we’re good people and we treat everyone kindly. I wish it was that easy, but it isn’t. Change comes from discomfort and if we refuse to feel uncomfortable, if we refuse to pop the bubbles of ignorance and guilt around ourselves, then change will not come.
The community and connection we seek exists. We just have to be willing to leave our isolation, guilt, shame, and competition with each other behind and open our eyes to the work and effort already underway without us. Open your eyes and embrace discomfort. I’m right here with you. We’ll do it together.
Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.
White Folks Facing Race
- Melanie Asmar writes “A once-segregated Denver school fights to stay integrated 50 years after historic court order” in Chalkbeat (1/16/23)
- Notes From The Backpack podcast from National PTA “Why Your Child’s School Isn’t More Diverse” (1/18/23)
- Nice White Parents podcast from The New York Times