Last week, City Park turned into a platform for a panelist discussion on social injustices and racial inequities.
Called the Uplift and Amplify Event, which took place on July 21, audience members socially distanced their chairs in the grass and wore masks to listen to a discussion on racial issues within the country and Brentwood. Organizer Zinah Abraha — who’s been involved in various community activities to bring awareness to racial injustices in America — stood at the microphone to open the event with a reminder for the audience.
“This is a safe space, and we’re here to listen and approach these conversations from a place of empathy and love,” she said. “A lot of these stories are extremely personal for these students, so let’s take a moment to, as we listen, ask ourselves, ‘Are we listening from a place of defensiveness or dismissiveness, or a place of empathy and love?’”
The event entailed student speakers and questions for the panelists, who varied in age and race. One question asked the panel, “How has my proximity to whiteness affected the ways I prioritize talking about racial issues?”
Tyler Rust, panelist member, was asked to answer the question first. Rust is a Brentwood U.S. history teacher whose district-initiated transfer from Heritage to Liberty caught media attention in 2018, as student protesters flooded the school board meeting to decry a perceived punishment for Rust kneeling in protest of police brutality.
“My proximity to whiteness is obvious to everyone if you look at me,” said Rust, a white man. “It’s something I have to own up to and acknowledge as an educator when I talk about issues regarding race and history … in my curriculum, race comes up frequently, and I don’t ignore it. I try to not only acknowledge my proximity to whiteness but … to be part of our safe space together to acknowledge that we do need to be aware of privilege and bias, and I am not immune to this.”
A young panelist named Marcelo Clark pointed out that the end goal of talking about race isn’t simply to hear about the pain and trauma that black people have gone through.
“Of course, that’s important, but the end goal should be to have empathy to understand how these problems have cause so many institutional issues within our society ... slavery was a long time ago, but its effects are long-lasting,” Clark concluded.
Another Brentwood teacher — Allison Popovich of Krey Elementary School — said that while she didn’t believe the school district would ever restrict teachers from offering certain curriculum to children, there needed to be a stronger consciousness around equity in education materials.
“It goes beyond a cultural doll that we’re going to trace and draw your country of origin’s flag on it and put it in the multipurpose room, so we can celebrate how we’re all from different backgrounds,” she said. “Of course, we want to celebrate that, but that’s one thing, and we don’t do it all the time, because it takes away from other things that we think are more important. We need to shift our thinking and remember that this is important.”
She went on to note that while teaching fractions is important, her primary goal as an educator is to make sure her students go into society as good people.
When Dr. Lamont Francies, senior minister of Delta Bay Church of Christ, took the stage, his voice filled the park.
“The heartbeat of racism is denial. I’m going to say that again: the heartbeat of racism is denial, and so, in order for you to be anti-racist, you must first confess that ‘I have a little racism in me.’ All of us have to go ahead and do some self-reflection,” Francies said. “When Jesus was sitting down at the last supper, he was looking at his disciples and he said, ‘A traitor is right here among you.’ The disciples didn’t look at each other, they said, ‘Lord? Is it I?’ In other words, we all have a little Judas in us … and if we continue to deny it, we will continue to let this system flow, and flow, and flow.”
Francies spoke of the importance of looking at systems of racism, along with the difference between mobilization (protesting) and organization (taking measured steps to effect systemic change).
“We have to see who’s in power, who’s making decisions, why they’re making the decisions, and we need to go and vote and … we need to start asking the right questions,” he said. “If we don’t understand how racism works, we’re going to ask the wrong questions, and we’re going to get the wrong results.
“Brentwood, if you hear me, you have to start reading books that are going to challenge how you are — start looking at how racism operates. Look at the racial hierarchy in this country. (Ask yourself) why is it this way, what can I do to fix it? … If you want to live in a society where racism is not the prevalent issue, then it takes you reading, it takes you writing, it takes you organizing, it takes you speaking true to power.”