Teacher pitches unique perspective in D200 bid

Gina Harris, educator and union leader, says her voice is needed at the board table

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

An Oak Park teacher and leader within the country's largest teachers union, is vying for a seat on the District 200 school board. Gina Harris said she was drawn into the race after realizing that "our students of color don't feel like the school belongs to them." 

In 2016, Harris was elected one of seven directors who represent the 130,000 members of the Illinois Education Association — the statewide branch of the National Education Association. 

Harris said her candidacy is shaped by her experience as a teacher, the fact that her own daughters once attended the high school, and her role as a member of the D200 Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee. 

"I saw we were making progress with the committee, and I thought I should run to continue that progress," said Harris, herself an Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate, during a recent interview. "It seemed like a really good fit and really good timing because I'm a teacher and I know there weren't any other teachers on the board. That representation matters because the conversations we'll have about implementing something are different when you have a teacher in the room." 

Harris, who teaches in nearby Maywood, is the only candidate for the D200 board to get endorsed by both Wednesday Journal and the OPRF Faculty Senate, which represents teachers at OPRF. The Oak Park Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers in District 97, announced their support of the Faculty Senate's endorsements. 

Harris said she has experience training educators in how institutionalized racism works. 

"I've seen people shift their views," she said. "When we trained the IEA's board of directors in institutionalized racism, I had multiple people come to me and say the training has changed what they do. I know it's possible." 

Harris said she hopes that the D200 school board can engage faculty and staff in similar training that is deep and ongoing. Unfortunately, she said, OPRF isn't quite where it needs to be with respect to implementing substantive professional development. Whatever training the high school has undergone so far, she said, has not seemed to translate into better experiences for the majority of students of color.

"When I came to the [Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee] meeting, I said, 'I'm not sure what you're doing, but I'm finding that it's not effective." 

For starters, Harris said, her own daughter, who graduated from OPRF last year, experienced racism at the high school. Harris said she's heartened by the progress the district has made in just a few years — including the pending decision to launch a pilot restorative justice program with a cohort of roughly two dozen faculty members and the hiring of a new HR coordinator who Harris said is focused on recruiting and retaining minority hires. 

However, she hopes to see more. 

"I would like to see us be a lot more aggressive with the restorative justice and equity work we're doing," she said, while acknowledging that changing the environment at OPRF will take some time.

"Everyone is pushing for a big, quick fix, but this work doesn't quick-fix," Harris said. "For cultures to shift organizationally, it takes a couple of years for that to take place." 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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Reader Comments

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Jasper Long  

Posted: April 8th, 2019 12:56 PM

I agree, Wes Gathings.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: March 31st, 2019 7:24 AM

Wes: You sound easily offended. There's not much that I can do to ameliorate that, I fear. I'll only point out that Jameel first brought "Ebonics" (his term), profanity (used frequently against other posters) and racial politics (which is ripping OP apart if you bothered to look) into the discussion. Jameel: There you go again.

Wes Gathings  

Posted: March 31st, 2019 4:40 AM

You know Alex, your volley of ignorant comments easily the surpassed the mild annoyance I had with Jameel's post. From your need to Google Translate his comments to your claim he perpetuates "certain stereotypes" to your suggestion he not use "Ebonics (peppered with profanity)" you are conveying quite the image of an arrogant and probably contemptible person. I would have written fewer words and been more concise but I feared you would need to run to Google Translate again versus using your own imagination. Every noun I thought to address you as was inappropriate for the board and unbecoming of a gentleman. How's that for the stereotypes I'm perpetuating?

Jameel Rafia  

Posted: March 30th, 2019 7:48 PM

"Black victimhood".. Hahahah,....now I'm playing the victim. Theres no stopping with you I see. You must be the expert on who can say what, and when they can say it.. And the only reason I believed you were because the way kiss up to white people.. you talk types of shit to me, but let me see you defend Latinos against white people

Alex Garcia  

Posted: March 30th, 2019 4:05 PM

Jameel: I'm not white. Latino actually. So, I'm not quite sure why you're looking to me as an authoritative source on what you should do to mollify white people. Maybe for starters you could not use "Ebonics" (peppered with profanity) or infuse all of your posts with black victimhood tropes?

Jameel Rafia  

Posted: March 30th, 2019 1:03 PM

Alex, obviously you dont understand, Blacks don't have to do anything to be stereotyped. Even if I spoke the best of Kings English, and wrote in the manner of Tani-hasi Coats, I would still get followed in the supermarket, Stopped in traffic ( DWB), looked at as a danger. What should I do to appease white folks. Alex, so I don't perpetuate the stereotype..??

Alex Garcia  

Posted: March 30th, 2019 9:13 AM

Jameel: Caricature or not, all you do is to continue to perpetuate certain stereotypes. In any case, good to know that you can speak intelligible English when you want to. ;)

Jameel Rafia  

Posted: March 29th, 2019 7:51 PM

So I grew up in extreme poverty, and dropped out of school in the 6 grade, I admit I cannot write in the Standard American style nor do I speak in such form. By dropping out I had a lot of time to hang with the guys; you know what we did most of the empty time.? It's called. "Playing the Dozen" Where we talked about each other's clothing, made fun of a person looks, talked about how many raoches a person had in their house, the Crowd laughed very hard at how a person couldn't enunciate a word; as kids this is what we did, and we did it until one person cried, left the group because of hurt feelings. I am a Grown man now, I dont play the Dozens anymore. I wish you people will grow up as well.

Jameel Rafia  

Posted: March 29th, 2019 7:00 PM

Alex, it's ok. That's what most people do on this site. Try to be-little others, win points for putting people down, trying to show the master you are brighter, and smarter than nem other Negro kind... by the way, me speak ebonics... k

Alex Garcia  

Posted: March 29th, 2019 10:03 AM

Jameel: I've pushed your comment through Google Translate and... nothing. What language are you speaking? It's entirely undecipherable.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: March 28th, 2019 8:09 PM

my mouth is shut right now! (OK, sorry for the sarcasm or whatever....)

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: March 28th, 2019 5:07 PM

Jameel. 1st Amendment cuts both way. Have to take the bad with the good. Now this forum could be shut down at a moments notice since it is a privately owned forum. The beautiful thing about the 1st amendment is most can't keep their mouths shut.

Jameel Rafia  

Posted: March 28th, 2019 4:34 PM

Do some people on here ever shut they mouth, I mean gosh- damit, you dont know everything, become an expert on taking restraint on your tongue..

Les Golden  

Posted: March 27th, 2019 8:58 PM

Gina, you seem like a fine person, but I hope there is much more to your candidacy than eliminating racism. Years ago I floated fictitious candidates from the LMNOP Party (League of Minority Nations of Oak Park), American Indians from Oak Park by the name of Leonard Running Bear and Balmer Lions (a play on the Balmer lines of hydrogen, beloved by astronomers, that nobody in our educated village pickup up on). Their candidacy was based SOLELY on creating classes in American Indian culture. It was a satire of blacks, who only seem to care about black issues, and gays, ditto. There are other issues! As far as racism, let us say that every teacher and every administrator is a blatant black-hater. Let's say they spend every evening at KKK meetings figuring out ways to keep the black people down. Does that prevent the black parents from helping institute a love of learning in their kids? Does that prevent the black students from going home right after school and studying? I studied in high school until 1:00 a.m., after track and cross-country practice and an hour of practicing my trumpet. Anti-semitism was rampant, and remains so today, in our village (I can name names), and especially in the Democratic Party and its members of Congress.

Les Golden  

Posted: March 27th, 2019 8:57 PM

(cont'd) But that 1950's and 1960's and 1970's anti-Semitism when I was growing up - in the Oak Park Little League, in some of my neighbors' homes, in college admissions, in the Dominican Priory whose fathers stood across the street from Oak Park Temple and jeered at the Jews who had the guts to build a synagogue across the street, from the parents who yelled at my Bronco coach dad when he lost a ruling from the ump saying "that's what happens when your coach is a Jew" - didn't stop me from studying and reaping the rewards as an adult of being educated. I made my own damn equity! Accountability is a buzz word of which government officials make a mockery. For example, who's accountable for the $500,000 in cost overruns at Field playground resulting from design flaws and shortcuts by the contractor? Who? Just pass the cost onto the taxpayer. It's the same thing with the grade chasm. Who's accountable? The racist teachers who seemingly spend all their time at KKK meetings figuring out ways to keep the black people down? Who's accountable? I say, the parents, the students. Gina, if you're elected, rather than sit in y9our CCB committee and point fingers at the teachers and staff, and demand that they take awareness classes to remediate their blatant racism, organize sessions with the parents and the students about dedication to learning, study habits . . . and personal accountability.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 27th, 2019 9:11 AM

Does she teach in Maywood or Oak Park school districts? Will she lead the way in identifying and terminating racist teachers and administrators?

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