Outside and inside, leaders' steady push on equity

How effort grew from small battles to community-wide cause

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

When Melanie McQueen first joined APPLE (African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education) in 2010, the group was the only local organization that she knew of dedicated to fighting for equity. Her involvement began with a personal interest in working for racial equity, and over the years, her focus has grown to encompass the wider community. Like many of the leaders on the forefront of the effort, she pushes for racial equity even when she might not be realizing the benefits of her efforts. 

Today, McQueen is the president of APPLE, but when she first got involved in 2010, she notes she was driven by a racial issue her daughter experienced as a student at OPRF. She was encouraged to bring her concerns to APPLE and joined the group at that time. While her daughter is now pursuing a Master's degree at Harvard, McQueen says that on many levels, she knows her work is not done.

With a child graduating from Longfellow and another at Julian, she continues to see the need for equity work throughout the schools and the village.  "APPLE is doing the exact same thing that was pressing 30 years ago. At that time, no one was standing with them. Now, we have more allies. That definitely helps. It helps that we have each generation sharing why it's so important; from students, parents and organizations in and out of the schools. When we came into OPRF, it always felt like my daughter didn't have any protections."

From advocacy on the personal level, she has seen the movement evolve to advocacy on the school-wide level and says the recently adopted equity policy is a step in the right direction. The challenge remains in the next steps.

"Now that we have the equity policy in place, we still have to do the work. We have to get down to the granular part. It's not just a policy. How does it relate to suppression? To teacher behavior? If you put aside feelings and people being uncomfortable, then you can get the work done."

At the District 97 Oak Park elementary schools Carrie Kamm, senior director of equity, says the conversation is much the same. Getting an equity policy passed was part of the battle, but much remains to be done. "To date, we have worked at building the capacity at multi-levels within our organization to disrupt inequities on the district level and at individual schools. We need to develop people's capacity to do the work, which can be complex and difficult. We want people to be more ready to lean in as opposed to retreating."

For Kamm, one of the benefits of being a leader in the fight for equity is what it means for the community as a whole. She notes, "The policy really communicates about what our community's values are. Getting everyone -- families, faculty and the community – on the same page sets a common language and framework."

From her perspective in the school district, she says the challenges in being a leader reflect the challenges in the larger community as well as the challenges specific to a school district. "In our country, engaging in conversation about race can be difficult. At the school level, how do we differentiate learning experiences for our faculty so they can come into this work wherever they are? It can be trying. It can bring up emotions."

Seeing the bigger picture can be another challenge, according to Kamm, because school districts are complex institutions with a lot of moving parts. "For us, the bigger picture is kept closely-tied to student learning. We want all of our students to leave District 97 ready for a rigorous high school experience and ready to say yes to the opportunities in front of them."

McQueen notes that the bigger picture also encompasses life outside of the school walls, another challenge in the push for equity. "Parents play a role; we can't control over 3,000 households outside of the school. We can demand standards when you walk in that door. Swastikas end today. The N word ends today. Micro-aggressions end today. When you demand excellence, that's what you get. We don't want to be a mockery of a school district."

At the high school level, she says the implementation of the equity policy will likely require rethinking some norms. "We do not want bad behavior and overlooking situations to dictate what our culture will be like because we want equity. We are saying that if I see any child breaking the rules, they are going to suffer the consequences no matter what they look like."

Going forward she says the challenges will be real. "You just may find out that white students, Latinx students and black students are all doing this, and there are still more African American students breaking rules. Does that mean we're racist? No. It means we have something else to work on. We need to give our African American students a path and show them they can do better and we expect them to do better."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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