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Addressing racial inequality

New York Teacher
Masked people sitting at a large wooden conference table with laptops, pens and paper
Jonathan Fickes

Discussing issues at a recent New Utrecht HS Equity Team meeting are (from left) teachers Rosario Giarratana, Adesuwa Ohinunwu and Nate Floro, social worker Rebecca Setta and Principal Lane Litvin.

The historic uprising for Black lives in the summer of 2020 sparked educators at Brooklyn’s New Utrecht HS to launch an Equity Team to tackle racial inequality.

“After the murder of George Floyd, staff members came together and realized our school needed to be more proactive in addressing issues of equity and racism,” said special education teacher Adesuwa Ohunwu, a founder of the team.

“Equity Team is about addressing both school policies and school culture to ensure they are inclusive and equitable,” said Ohunwu, and the team was formed to “make shifts to existing structures so they are anti-racist” and meet the needs of every member of the school community.

Ohunwu said this had long been a priority for many educators at the school, but “the events of 2020 were a catalyst to get more members involved.”

That summer, Ohunwu joined several colleagues in trainings with the city Education Department’s Office of Equity and Access on developing programs like the Equity Team. They continued working with the DOE into the fall, learning about similar programs at other schools.

In its first year, the Equity Team held a forum on anti-Asian hate, discussing recent attacks on Asian communities in New York and how the school can support its Asian members. It also launched a recruiting event to draw educators from a more diverse base. Candidates met with Equity Team representatives, student volunteers and school leaders, who shared the school’s values and the work the school is doing related to equity.

The Equity Team has supported teachers with culturally responsive instruction and trained 15 staff members in restorative justice, a reparative and nonpunitive approach to addressing harms when they occur. Teachers also were given materials to support classroom discussions on identity and culture.

“This has been a very long time coming,” said English teacher Marissa Solomon, the UFT chapter leader at the diverse school. “A lot of our teachers feel relieved that it’s finally happening.”

The Equity Team created a student counterpart, recruiting and guiding 15 students to give them a voice on their priorities, including social justice issues. They helped implement the anti-Asian hate forum and educate their peers about COVID-19 and vaccines, and the Student Equity Team now is working to ensure “honors and AP class student populations are reflective of our overall student population,” said Ohunwu.

“We will develop some pilot changes for next school year, see if we make improvements and analyze and adjust from there.”