Delta students, alumni, faculty demand that district address racism

DELTA, CO – About 60 protestors, many waving signs, stood outside the Delta County School District office this evening just before the regular district meeting to support Paonia High School alumni Marisa Edmonson and Jordan Evans. Edmonson and Evans had recently sent an open letter to district officials, signed by about 450 parents, teachers, students, and community members, demanding that the district address racism in the schools by implementing eight specific steps.

Amanda Campbell, left, and Merrily Talbott join the protest in front of the district building.

Some of those steps include banning clothing on campus that depict swastikas and the Confederate flag; adding authors of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) background to the syllabi; and including “racial equity, diversity, and inclusion in the district’s vision and core values”.

Edmonson, who graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont earlier this year, and Evans, now a student at Eastern University in Philadelphia, were at the meeting to address the board during the public comment period. Edmonson said that she and Evans had met with the school superintendent, Caryn Gibson, on Monday to discuss the letter’s demands and had walked away feeling disheartened.

“I personally didn’t feel heard.”

Getting the word out

It took less than three days for the women to spread the word via Facebook and their own personal network that they would be speaking at the meeting and needed their community’s support. Although the meeting wouldn’t officially start until 6:00 pm, by 5:30 at least two dozen friends and friends of friends were standing in front of the small building. Within a few minutes a large crowd of masked supporters filled the parking lot.

“We understand that the district is pretty overwhelmed with Covid,” Edmonson said. “I think everyone is overwhelmed with Covid. But I think that Covid has also just enhanced, shown us even more that we are a very divided nation and a very divided community here.”

Edmonson said she and Evans were inspired by college friends who were doing similar letter writing campaigns in their hometowns. “[They’re] trying to get, like, changes made in their education systems in their predominantly white, suburban counties. And I was like, well you know what, I think Delta County could use that too because I’m a student of color, my brother is a student of color. We’ve been through the school system here. We know that it’s…it could be better.”

Everyday racism

Edmonson, whose father’s family came from Bolivia, said that much of the racism she experienced as a student were “constant microagressions”. She recalled jokes about “hopping the border or fence”, “weird comments about my hair, people derogatorily compare it to Black hairstyles that they thought were nappy and gross.” She said people would tell her that “it was be super easy for you to get into competitive elite institutions because you can just put Latina on your college applications.”

Evans, who attended Vision Charter Academy, said that while she experienced some racism, her younger siblings who are now going through the public schools have it even worse.

“They experience so much more than what I experienced,” she said. “A lot more just blatant racist behavior, such as, ‘You’d be prettier as a white girl,’ ‘Your curly hair looks like public hair.’ A lot of slurs.”

Evans said that although they’ve received a lot of support, they’ve also gotten their share of criticisms since releasing the letter.

“When we first started, the majority of people were like, ‘We don’t have a problem here. What are you talking about? There is no issue here.'”

She said that that feedback inspired them to begin collecting written testimonies from some of the signatories of the letter. Many of the testimonies, some of which were submitted anonymously, can be viewed on the Facebook page that she and Edmonson had launched to organize and promote their efforts, and will also be shared with district officials.

“Let’s submit these [testimonies] and show that there are some serious issues that obviously a lot of us have missed.”

Marisa Edmonson, left, and Jordan Evans after they spoke at the district meeting.

District statement and public comments

Before the public comment period, board president Jan Tuin read a statement on behalf of the board.

“Delta County School District is committed to educating and treating all students with equity and respect,” Tuin said.

“As a school district, we condemn all types of discrimination and injustice while promoting equitable opportunities and keeping our schools safe.”

Board secretary Linda Ewing also shared her thoughts. “I read your testimonials, and they broke my heart. Please don’t assume that we’re not listening because we really, really do care.”

During their public statements, Edmonson, who spoke first, and Evans, who followed her, read excerpts from the testimonials and read the eight demands from the original letter. Others who spoke during the public comment period in support of the letter and calls for change included community activist Pete Kolbenschlag, Learning Council director Alicia Michelsen, former school board member Caren von Gontard, and Paonia High School sophomore Carmen Rodriguez.

The Learning Council director Alice Michelsen reads her statement.

During her brief testimony, Rodriguez said, “The zero tolerance policy isn’t really zero because if it was, teachers wouldn’t let white kids yell the N word in the hallway.”

Celebration and relief

Once the public comment period had ended and the board moved on to the policy review section of the meeting, Edmonson and Evans left the building and were greeted outside by a loud burst of applause and cheers.

When asked how they felt, Edmonson said, “Better than when we left last time [on Monday.”

Evans said that the statement that Tuin had read at the beginning of the meeting “made it a lot better going in. I was like, okay, they actually listened to something we said.”

They said that they hope the district will agree to their request for a work session to discuss in more detail the eight demands in the original letter.

From left: Carmen Rodriguez, Marisa Edmonson, Jordan Evans, Pete Kolbenschlag, Alice Michelsen, and Caren von Gontard.

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