The culmination of a year-long social justice and racial equity journey
By Lizandaa Alburg, Nikki Baker, Sue Butterfield, Lakresha Fresse and Carrie Odgers Lax
“In the spring of 2020, we watched George Floyd being murdered as a result of police brutality. We also participated in rallies and marches to demand the arrest of the officers responsible for the death of Breonna Taylor. We were forced to consider all the ‘unintended consequences’ and ills inflicted by institutional racism, oppression, prejudice and discrimination. The Equity Seekers was created as a means to support education professionals in the difficult and necessary work of building an environment of social justice and equity for all and breaking down the systems of racism and oppression. Our journey began in September 2020 and continues on … Passaic County Education Associations is committed to work for equity in our schools and communities. We invite you as individuals, schools and districts to join us on this courageous journey.”
When five active union sisters needed to respond to the turmoil of Spring 2020, they decided to start in their association community. They invited fellow union members to “Join the Journey” by signing up to become an Equity Seeker. The excerpt to the left was our written invitation.
We founded the Passaic County Education Associations’ Equity Seekers as a group dedicated to providing members a space to examine our feelings, prejudices, and knowledge about equity and the impacts of systemic racism in a monthly thematic virtual environment. There is no roadmap for equity work; nor were we starting from the same vantage point. It was an intentional decision to acknowledge that “wherever it takes you is where you should be.”
The Equity Seekers ultimately drew in members from at least 10 local associations throughout Passaic County. Conscious that through education one can increase awareness, host challenging conversations and join the movement towards equity, participants acknowledged the responsibility to promote racial equity and social justice within their classrooms, schools, districts and communities.
To advance this work, we chose nine monthly themes, including Voting, Black Health, Black Wealth and Businesses, Ensuring Diversity in the Curriculum, and Eliminating the Educational Divide. For each theme, a collection of resources was developed, pulling together books, videos, movies, podcasts and more from reputable and reliable sources such as the National Education Association, Black Lives Matter at School, Rethinking Schools, and the Zinn Education Project. These resources were designed to meet the diverse needs of learners, to support state-mandated curricula related to diversity and inclusion, such as the Amistad Mandate, and to provide professional development tools to support our members in this critical work.
Resources, meetings and actions
In addition to resources, a collection of individual, classroom/school, and community actions was shared each month, providing participants with concrete ways to reflect and engage in the work independently, collaboratively, or in community. In April/May, for example, actions for the theme Eliminating the Digital Divide included attending a board of education meeting and learning more about district technology policies in their hometowns, inviting students to the next Equity Seekers session to discuss their technology experiences, and posting a graphic on social media that illustrates the digital divide to spark personal discussions.
As the saying goes, “music is the soundtrack of our lives.” In addition to resources and actions, the Equity Seekers curated and shared YouTube playlists connected to the monthly themes. The playlists provided auditory and visual components to complement the journey of all educational support professionals (ESPs), teachers and other education professionals. Songs such as “Glory” by Common and John Legend or spoken word recordings such as “The Average Black Girl” by Ernestine Morrison added sensory experiences to bring life to everyone’s journeys. The playlists allowed participants to feel the beats, energy and mood of the journey in their hearts and souls.
Monthly virtual check-ins served as a brave space for participants to share the successes and struggles of their journeys. A “brave space” is a place where participants can engage in honest but sometimes difficult conversations with mutual support and understanding. During each checkin, we lifted up individual stories, tackled tough questions and shared highlights from that month’s playlist. Several of our check-ins featured guest speakers who shared their expertise, including nurse Sheila Caldwell and Deborah Cornavaca, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Phil Murphy.
Just as part of the history of the United States includes enslaved people following signs placed by allies to reach freedom, so did the Equity Seekers create each meeting as a stop along the collective journey for truth. The plan was commemorated with digital “badges” sent to participants after each meeting, adapted from the family quilt story of Ozella, an example of an enslaved person’s freedom journey.
Individual participants varied with each meeting, but the bond among like-minded people committed to social justice work grew. In the winter, Equity Seekers partnered with NJEA’s REAL Movement in a two-part series discussion on “Racialized Capitalism” that engaged participants from all over the state.
In June, after the culminating session titled PCEA Equity Seekers: Barbershop Edition, the Equity Seekers decided to have an in-person, outdoor celebration to recognize their fellowship while providing an opportunity to meet community partners and support minority-owned and member-owned businesses. The decision to seek out these businesses was an intentional effort to “practice what we preach”—a theme that surfaced repeatedly throughout this journey. Finally, all participants were invited to share their abundance and bring perishable foods for the Silk City Community Refrigerator in Paterson.
Planning through an organic process
This may sound like an elaborately planned and structured sequence of events; in fact, it was the result of an organic process in which the founding members spent many hours brainstorming, discussing, organizing and preparing for each meeting. One of the early discussions was about how to most effectively communicate with our Equity Seekers community, share information and keep everyone engaged between monthly check-ins.
Materials needed to incorporate different forms of media and be visually appealing, easy to navigate and well organized. A trio of tools was used to create visual media and curate resources: Canva, Sutori, and Padlet.
Canva, a graphic design platform, helped create social media graphics, the calendar of monthly themes, and the posters for the celebration in August.
Sutori is a collaboration and presentation tool that organizes content along a vertical timeline. Sutori showcased our monthly actions because of the ease with which we could embed a variety of media files along with content from other websites and online platforms. Its simple navigation menu allows users to quickly and easily find specific information, and the streamlined format is equally beautiful on computers and mobile devices.
The monthly resources needed to be well organized, but also visually appealing. Padlet’s shelf layout is perfectly suited to this type of curation, sorting resources into specific categories and easily adding descriptions to posts. A Padlet shelf was also used to provide a single resource where members could access all Equity Seeker materials in one place.
Rounding out the collection of digital tools were some familiar favorites: YouTube to curate monthly playlists, Remind to text members about upcoming check-ins and events, and Facebook and Instagram to connect with members and share the journey.
To attract members to the work, the Equity Seekers name and logo was developed with help from the NJEA Communications Division. In fact, the entire project depended on and succeeded because of support from all levels of association governance and staff. The decisions, however, remained firmly with the members leading the Equity Seekers project.
Diverse experiences and skills
Furthermore, we each brought our own work experiences and skill sets to this project. Among ourselves we are an ESP member, teachers, and a technology coach; local and county governance leaders; professional development and UniServ consultants; and members and leaders of committees from all levels. Our range of experiences and the wealth of connections resulted in a well-rounded Equity Seekers project in which eventually guest speakers and guest participants brought our message across the state.
The June Barbershop Edition may best illustrate this collaboration. The format evolved as plans were made to address the theme for June: Black Men. Equity Seekers developed questions for the panelists to address mental health, anxiety, the importance of self-care and systematic hiring practices. The panelists were all in the education field and shared their experiences—it was an emotional 90 minutes.
Perhaps panelist Donovan Coney best summed up the session, “Black men don’t have a single narrative.” As it did every month, the June virtual meeting started and ended with music from a playlist created especially for the theme.
What’s next for the Equity Seekers? We shared our journey, including the structure that developed and resources, at the 2021 NJEA Convention. We plan to continue the virtual meetings with a new theme for the 2021-22 school year: “Breaking Bread.” We are all committed to the journey for equity, and open to experiencing all the stops and challenges along the road.
Lizandaa Alburg, Nikki Baker, Sue Butterfield and Lakresha Fresse are members of Passaic County Education Associations. Alburg, Baker and Fresse work in Paterson, Butterfield, who is president of the PCEA, works in Passaic City. Carrie Odgers Lax works in Summit in Union County. She previously worked in Ringwood, Passaic County. They can be reached at email@example.com.