On Thursday Aug 8th, I attended a packed meeting at the Horace Mann school building on 24th and Cherry in the Central District of Seattle. People gathered to discuss the fate of this building, which the African/Black community has turned into a vibrant educational facility called the Africatown Community Innovation Center.
Over the course of the summer, various organizations such as the Umoja P.E.A.C.E Center and the Amistad School have reinvigorated this dormant building, and have welcomed parents, educators, and youth from the community to organize programs in the school, teaching everything from how to raise bees to how to program computers.
At the meeting, youth of all ages spoke about the benefits of these programs, and how they were learning vital skills they would not be able to learn anywhere else, including in Seattle’s mainstream public schools. They also spoke about the sense of confidence, pride, and self-awareness they found learning from folks who understand them and where they’re coming from.
Parents spoke about how they had struggled to find culturally relevant summer programs for their kids, and had eventually decided to pool their resources to create their own programs at Horace Mann. They described the building as a “village” where they could collectively support each other raising their kids to face all the challenges Black youth face in this racist society.
All of this is a testament to the creativity, resourcefulness, intelligence, and self-activity of the Black community in the historic Central District. It reminded me of a point that my friend John Garvey made – students are able to learn better when there is trust between parents, youth, and the school itself.
It was clear from this meeting, that such trust does not currently exist between this group of parents and the leadership of the Seattle Public Schools.
Wyking Garrett, who chaired the meeting, reminded everyone of the urgency of the issues of the table, considering that the Seattle Public Schools are currently being investigated by the federal government for racism against Black youth. Black students are three times as likely as white students to be suspended from Seattle schools.
Parents and educators who spoke had various perspectives on how their efforts to build the Africatown center relate to the issue of racial equality in the public schools as a whole. Seattle Public Schools superintendent Jose Banda and several other SPS staff sat in the front of the room listening to the various speakers who addressed them. One person put the issue pointedly: “We believe you want to educate our youth. We are not confident you know how to educate our youth.” Omari Tahir-Garrett, a former teacher in the district, outlined a long history of corruption and racism in SPS, situating the current efforts to build the Africatown Community Innovation Center as part of a much longer struggle against white supremacist institutions that have systematically denied an education to Black youth. He held a banner honoring Trayvon Martin. Other community leaders spoke about how the programs in the Horace Mann building could be pilot programs, examples of what is possible, which could then be spread into the public schools themselves.
Port worker Leith Kahl read this statement from the African-American Longshore Coalition supporting the Africatown center. He also emphasized that public education itself was started in meetings like this one; people who had been denied an education by the system organized themselves to educate their youth, and launched a movement demanding free education for all. He said that Horace Mann was part of that movement, and ended by asking “What would Horace Mann do?”
The very existence of the Africatown Community Innovation Center poses these questions to any observant listener. However, the contradictions are sharpened by the fact that the bureaucrats who run Seattle Public Schools want to take the Horace Mann building away from the community. In a recent letter, they had imposed an August 15th deadline, saying that the community needed to be out of the building by then. As superintendent Banda reported on Thurs night, they plan to renovate the building so that Nova can reoccupy it. (Nova is an alternative school that serves a majority white student body) .
In his attempt to explain why it is necessary to displace Black students to make way for white students, Banda described an elaborate Tetris game of funding and management. He said that Seattle Public schools are facing growing enrollment, and overcrowding. He said Nova needs to be moved from its current location so that location can be expanded as a middle school, to take the pressure off of the currently overcrowded Washington Middle School. SPS reps encouraged the parents and educators present to find private funding to pay rent to house their programs elsewhere.
In response to these points, Wyking Garrett pointed out that Nova is a commuter school; its students are not primarily from the Central District, they come from all different neighborhoods and are used to commuting long distances. In contrast, the Africatown Community Innovation Center primarily serves people from the immediate neighborhood. Another person emphasized that the community was not going to leave the building – period. He said that he’d be willing to aid superintendent Banda in pressuring Olympia or the corporations for more funding to deal with overcrowding, but that this problem could not be solved by displacing the Africatown Community Innovation Center.
This is all happening in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified, going from majority black to majority white in recent decades. Black parents and community members are attempting to reverse the tide of displacement of Black people from the neighborhood by focusing their programs at Horace Mann, in the heart of the Central District, turning it into a Black/African community hub.
One of the white SPS administrators completely ignored this context, and the long history of community struggles around education and gentrification in the neighborhood when she said that the Africatown community had “not been present yet” when SPS had developed its multi-year plan for the neighborhood schools. She flippantly disregarded community members’ attempts to defend their neighborhood from displacement when she suggested the programs in the Horace Mann building could just be parceled out to other schools as after-school programs.
This is typical of bourgeois Seattle thinking, where everything can be redesigned at whim to fit some abstract macro plan for “development”, ignoring the wishes, desires, and concrete, real-life activities of everyday people, especially Black people, who actually live in this city. The histories of entire communities become “not present” in the imaginations of these bureaucrats. And these are the people we entrust to run a school system that is supposed to teach history to our kids! If they can’t even recognize what’s been going on in the Central District in recent years, how many other aspects of Black and African life will they erase from their history books?
In this technocratic, bureaucratic Seattle, everything becomes standardized, from the architecture of the condos and the coffee shops that move in, to the pacification plans of the police who defend them, to the curriculum and testing in the schools where Black students are three times as likely to be expelled. And of course, it’s not just Seattle, the same problems are going on in different ways across the country and around the world. Capital colonizes everything it touches.
As a teacher who is forced against my will to implement these bureacrats’ “plans”, it was particularly interesting to watch the district administrators stumble over themselves, attempting to answer basic questions from such a well-organized and thoughtful community. They try to count and measure everything via standardized tests and rubrics. And yet, it seems like they simply had not accounted for the possibility that folks from the Black community might have their own, well-organized plans. They seemed overwhelmed by the militancy and resolve of people in the room. As a teacher who interacts with young intellectuals from this neighborhood on a daily basis, I was not at all surprised – I was cheering folks on.
I’m sure the administrators are now working overtime to prevent the outcome that was in the back of everyone’s mind in that meeting – the possibility of the community refusing to leave the building. This would mean that if the SPS officials want them out, they’d have to rely on the police to try to force them out, and the Seattle Police are not exactly a popular institution these days, especially in the Central District. Of course, if it comes to that, all of the contradictions of race, class, gentrification, differential suspension rates, etc. would come right into the forefront of Seattle politics. It might be hard to start the school year with business as usual.
In the end, Superintendent Banda offered to delay the eviction until the 31st, and to form a task force to negotiate with Wkying and other community members about the fate of the building.
Of course, this does not resolve anything, it simply gives each side more time to organize and prepare for the next encounter. Whatever the outcome of that encounter, it will have historic implications for anyone connected to education in this city. The Africatown Community Innovation Center has already become a focal point for the community to self-organize, to figure out how to challenge racism throughout the schools and to brainstorm concrete alternatives to the forms of teaching and institutional organization that are failing Black students. The community that has gathered there seems intent on making sure this project is not repressed or dispersed, and teachers, parents, and students throughout the district should support their efforts.