BY S. RENEE MITCHELL
Having a conversation with Nichole Watson about educational equity issues is like sitting in front of a pressurized fire hose. You will quickly become drenched with her comprehension of the issues, engrossed in historical perspectives and inspired by her unapologetic passion for Black children.
“I am my ancestors' wildest dreams,” she noted on her personal website, NicholeWatson.com, “and it is my goal to dream wildly about the next generation.” Based on a grant-funded partnership between the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) and the National Education Association, Nichole, an Oregon-born elementary school teacher, was released from her job at Rosa Parks Elementary School at the end of the 2018-19 school year. In her classroom, Nichole was known as a caregiver, a coach, and a comedian. Her job duties as the Developer of Racial Equity & Community Partnerships at PAT are to strengthen its racial equity organizing and build stronger connections between the teachers’ union and parents and community organizations that serve children of color.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, Nichole facilitated a restorative-justice conversation at Wilson High School addressing several racially offensive incidents at the Southwest Portland school. Nichole also organized a series of neighborhood-based events to share knowledge and receive input about how to use the state’s Student Success Act dollars to improve public schools. The Racial Equity Task Force is holding another community conversation in Portland for the Latinx/Chicanx community on Thursday, Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Jefferson High School, 5210 N Kerby Ave.
During Black History Month Nichole plans to build momentum on the national Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, an annual, now-nationwide campaign that began in Seattle in 2016. Last year, 62 out of 89 PPS schools participated. This school year, Portland Public Schools (PPS) passed a resolution encouraging educators across grade levels and content areas to voluntarily engage in the weeklong activities, which Nichole called “a huge victory.” The Racial Equity Task Force hopes the resolution will increase the initiative of teachers offering lessons about structural and systemic racism.
Additionally, Nichole plans to focus on these four priorities:
Build the influence, programming and sustainability of the Racial Equity Task Force so that it maintains a sustainable presence within PAT, and that task force activities involve community partners and parents of color;
Amplify student voice so that youth are fully supported when planning and taking collective action on social-justice issues;
Develop racial and gender equity-based, professional development trainings that supplement what is being offered in schools by PPS; and
Document achievements of the Racial Equity Task Force in order to inspire and empower other teacher unions across the country to follow suit.
“We are attempting to build a bridge between classroom and community,” Nichole said. “It has not always been perfect. But at least we’re doing something – and that feels good.”
OCF and Black Student Success In 2018, OCF launched a statewide Black Student Success Initiative to increase investment in education, close gaps in opportunity for Black students and facilitate meaningful community partnerships that help tackle root causes of educational inequity. We are listening and learning from those working around Oregon to stimulate dialogues and bring people together to increase Black student success. Former Oregonian columnist S. Renee Mitchell gives voice to those who nourish the roots of Black students as a way to feature new ideas and learning models. She is a self-proclaimed Creative Revolutionist, is an award-winning writer, community advocate, multimedia artist, and founder of the nationally award-winning youth resiliency movement I Am M.O.R.E. (Making Other Resiliency Experiences). Her deepest desire is to help people use their innate creativity to find their unique voice and then use it to let go, gather up and move on. Learn more about Renee at reneemitchellspeaks.com.
Photo by Caleb Wolf