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Committee works to balance the scales

Want to hear a surprising statistic? Twenty-nine percent of Pennsylvania’s public school students are people of color, while only 4 percent of teachers are. That is why PSEA has been such a strong advocate for increasing minority representation in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

“We believe it’s critical to attract and hire more educators of color,” said President Rich Askey. “We believe black lives matter. And we believe the best way to demonstrate that is to advocate tirelessly for better representation in our classrooms. Children respond more to actions than words, and seeing people in a position of power and influence who look like them speaks volumes.”

This sentiment drives the work of PSEA’s Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) and the 3.1(g) Task Force, which work to identify issues and resources that support an increase in minority involvement in our schools and in our Association at the local, region, and state levels.

We recently spoke with the chairperson of the Minority Affairs Committee, Darlene Edwards, to get her thoughts.
PSEA: Describe what the Minority Affairs Committee does and what it’s trying to accomplish.
Darlene Edwards: The MAC’s mission is to work to get members of color involved in all levels of PSEA, from local to region to state. We also actively work to help PSEA achieve its 3.1(g) goal — a goal that looks to have appropriate representation at local, state, and national levels.
Part of our job, however, is to do more than just meet a numeric goal. We recognize that educators of color are essential in our schools and in our union. Through our philanthropic efforts, our training efforts, and our advocacy efforts, we strive to make PSEA as diverse as the children we teach.
PSEA: Recently your committee was tasked with providing an update to a 2010 report that made recommendations for increasing involvement of members who are minorities.
Darlene Edwards: The report provided an analysis of the diversity of PSEA, or lack thereof, and attempted to identify barriers and strategies.
Each committee member reviewed the report and answered a series of questions about whether the findings in the report are still valid today. We compiled those responses and submitted them to President Askey for review. We are excited to see the direction PSEA decides to go in authentically increasing our diversity and truly becoming anti-racist in policy and practice.
PSEA: Do you think the committee’s work is even more relevant in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and what’s happening with the protests and activism across the country right now?
Darlene Edwards: The MAC has always been relevant. However, I do believe that there is a renewed interest in voices of color speaking authentically to what is happening in our communities.
We are, of course, happy to have a place in the discussion. However, we also realize that the MAC does not speak for ALL members of color, and we encourage our white colleagues to engage with members of color — listen to their stories and involve them in their locals.
We also recognize that there is a time for us to speak, and there is a time for us to work with our allies to foster growth and progress. We are educators and teachers of color. It shouldn’t take a national crisis for us to be relevant.
PSEA: What are you hoping to see come out of this committee in terms of changes to public education in Pennsylvania?
Darlene Edwards: Our committee is going to do what it has always done. While the recent events and protests have put these issues into the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, our committee is always thinking about these inequities and how to improve.

To that end, we will continue to advocate for programs that engage students of color in hopes of bringing them into the teaching ranks. We will continue to train our members to become active members and leaders. And we will continue to encourage PSEA to engage in hiring practices that promote diversity and equity.

We are also going to take some time to celebrate that our sister is now the NEA president. We remember well when Becky Pringle was appointed to chair the Minority Representation Committee for MAC. As she moved through the ranks of NEA, she has always come home to us, most recently to speak at our MLT in 2018. She is our member, and we are proud to support her in this new role!

MAC members respond: “Why is it important to you to see more people of color in the education profession?”

“The population of the students that we work with is changing; it’s becoming much more diverse - in color and in other ways as well. But the teacher population isn’t. It really helps the students to have more diverse staff, in that they see people like them. All of us have this need to identify with people that are like us, and it forms a connection, especially with kids. We have to empower our kids, and we have to teach our kids about diversity and about the real world, and how can we teach them about the real world if the microcosm they’re supposed to practice in doesn’t really reflect that? “Another reason is that amongst the staff themselves, when you have teachers of color, it helps to open up conversations. Sometimes you can hear things that people don’t even realize, and then you start to say, ‘You know what? When you said that, that didn’t make me feel very good and if you say that in front of a kid, it’s going to make them feel really uncomfortable.’ Having staff members of color often helps to open up conversations that are important.”

Nanda Mitra-Itle – School psychologist, IU 13

“As a middle school teacher, I actually have encountered several students of color who have told me that I’m the first teacher of color that they've actually had. And that means they’ve gone through several years without seeing a teacher of color. But having me as a teacher can be a motivator for them to say, ‘Oh, I can actually do something else. I can go to college. I can reach that dream that I’m trying to achieve."

Bylly Jo Morton – Sixth-grade math teacher, Central Dauphin School District

“I think it's important to have more people of color in education because we have a great need, especially in our inner cities, where there are students of color who need someone like them to touch base with and connect with on a daily basis.”

Dwayne McCarthur – Paraprofessional, Susquehanna Township School District

“We need to increase the number of ESP of color in our schools so that the kids can see the diversity among staff members and feel comfortable talking to a secretary, a paraprofessional, a bus driver, a custodian, as well as a teacher or a school counselor.”

Tikeesha Clemons – Middle school secretary, Norristown Area School District