On a Friday evening in February this year, an unlikely group assembled at Blessed Temple Community Church in Portland. Nearly 100 black youth from across the city were sitting face to face with Portland Police Officers, talking about their black lived experiences and issues around police brutality. It was a deep and frank conversation, spurred on by a screening of the film “The Hate U Give (T.H.U.G)” — which students and officers watched together before launching into dialogue. T.H.U.G explores the intersectionality of race and schooling – navigating a predominantly white school system against the backdrop of the killing of an unarmed black boy by police.
The event was organized by Paula DePass Dennis, a fifth grade teacher at Vernon Elementary School in Northeast Portland. Dennis is the founder of a local organization called DoPE (Dreaming of Potential Excellence), which provides opportunities for youth of color to connect with adults in their fields of interest and other community role models.
Each year around Martin Luther King Day of Service, Dennis hosts a DoPE seminar — in its first year in 2017, Dennis invited 100 black and brown girls to watch the film "Hidden Figures." The screening was followed by a catered lunch with one of Dennis’ former fourth grade students, now an electrical engineering student as the keynote speaker. After the movie, the students debrief the movie with a panel of black women who worked in STEM-related field. The girls ended their day by creating individual vision boards as a reminder of their goals to work in STEM fields someday.
Following this year’s screening of "The Hate U Give," Dennis has worked to engage Student Resource Officers assigned to Portland-area schools to receive appropriate training on working with students of color on campus in more positive ways. These events align closely with the goal of Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, an ongoing movement of critical reflection and honest conversation in school communities around issues of racial justice. The Week of Action is specifically focused on three main goals: 1) End Zero Tolerance policies, 2) Hire more black teachers and staff, and 3) Mandate Black History and Ethnic Studies Curriculum.
Dennis brings conversations on race, identity and equity into her own classrooms, too — every Friday, she invites her students into a Courageous Conversation circle, where they speak openly about historical events around race and their experiences as both white students and students of color. Sometimes, the conversations are uncomfortable — students calling each other out for being “too white” or not understanding underlying problems associated with colorblindness, for example. But without Dennis facilitating these conversations, she knows they very well might not be happening at all — or at least not in a productive way that helps students learn and grow from the discomfort of the experience. In honor of her efforts over a long and industrious career focused on equity and inclusion, Dennis was honored with OEA’s Ed Elliott Human Rights Award at the OEA Representative Assembly in April of this year. As a colleague wrote of her, she is “a champion of change; racial equity and human rights propel her through life.”