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Courageous Community Conversations

Portland Teacher Hosts Powerful Events for Black and Brown Youth

By Meg Krugel | Editor, Today's OEA

Portland Police officers engaged with young black students on the topic of police brutality in the black community.

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.

Every Friday, Paula Dennis 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.

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.”

Navigating Equity, in My Own Words My Journey as a Teacher of Color

By Paula De-Pass Dennis

I began my career in education as a Kindergarten student in Mexico, where I was taught by a loving community of brown women. In the early 1970s, my family moved to Oregon, and my mother was part of the Black Panther Movement. She started a breakfast program in the basement of our church, and as a child, I’d start my morning having conversations with people who looked like me — black women and black men, talking to me and empowering me. That feeling — the importance of those relationships — really stuck with me, and I knew then I wanted to be a teacher.

I attended Jefferson High School, and there were a handful of white teachers who really engaged the students of color on campus, and I’m still in contact with quite a few of them. But when I look back on my time as a student in Oregon public schools, I remember having only one teacher who was a black woman, and that was in
elementary school. The impact she had on me was so significant; I wanted to be that person for other little black girls who come
through our school doors. 

Representation Matters. The school where I currently teach is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, and as part of that, our 5th graders do a culminating exhibition on one topic they’re really passionate about. It can vary from animal rights, to ending homelessness, to addressing domestic abuse. Last year, I had a group
of students who wanted to work on Black Lives Matter; they asked me, “Ms. Dennis — can we set up a GoFundMe?” I told them I didn’t think the Exhibition project was really about raising money but to tell me more. They said, “We want to raise some money so that we can hire a black teacher because we don’t have very many here at
Vernon, and after 5th grade — that’s it. All the teachers at our Middle School program are white.”

I was almost in tears when I had to tell them, “It’s not about the money.” Year after year, black teachers are shut out of the hiring process. Last year, Portland Public Schools had 10 positions open, and zero were filled by people of color.

Before coming back to the classroom last year, the bulk of my career was spent as a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA), coaching other teachers on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. I loved that role, guiding our district in adopting the Beyond Diversity curriculum, and implementing the C.A.R.E. (Collaborative Action
Research for Equity) Program. In that program, we’d look at the “4 R’s” — Realness, Relationship, Rigor and Relevance. I’d go into classrooms and watch how teachers interacted with their students.
Sometimes, they’d tell me “I want to build a relationship with a particular student who seems disengaged.” Yet, their teaching spot was in the front of the room, while that student sat in the back. I’d ask them to evaluate where they delivered the lesson in proximity to that student. How do you build a relationship when you’re as far as East from West?

As a teacher of 5th graders this year, I make a point to build time in our days for Courageous Conversations around race. Most of my students are white, and we spend a lot of time unraveling the idea that “we’re all the same.” We talk about what it means to be white, and that my experiences are very different from theirs. We must teach our young black boys to walk with their hands outside of their pockets, how to interact with the police, how to hold their receipts in-hand until they leave the store. These are the lessons we teach our kids of color that their white peers aren’t being burdened with. This is hard for them to acknowledge and see.

So far, the response has been good with the parents of my students, though they seem uncomfortable using the “R” word. They’ll say, “I’m glad you’re talking to my kids about… that stuff.” And I’ll say, “Oh, race? Yeah. That’s who I am.”

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