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On Thursday night, Ashland High School senior Te Maia Wiki choked up while telling a community ceremony about the inclusiveness her little sister is experiencing. Wiki didn’t have that when she was younger. 

On Friday, the Ashland School District held a day of equity training at Southern Oregon University to do even better at providing a safe and welcoming environment where all students feel they belong. 

The district has required all its more than 400 employees to take a “Foundations of Equity” training or an equivalent. From accountants to bus drivers, from maintenance workers to teachers, everyone in the district is learning a common language and a common approach. 

The district held its first training in August. On Friday, it delivered the foundational equity training for those who missed the August training and more advanced discussions for those who are farther along. 

Students say the training matters.

High school senior Annie Siegel said the district’s equity training sends students a strong message of recognition. Junior Simone Starbird said the training makes her think district leaders are listening. 

Charlie Bauer of the Southern Oregon Education Service District helped create the training. He said he did not know of another district in Oregon that required all its employees to take equity training. 

He said the training is particularly powerful for employees such as bus drivers and janitorial staff, who sometimes feel like they don’t matter to district leaders and yet are often the most important daily contacts for some students. 

Andrea Townsend, the district’s director of equity and learning, said equity has to be more than the work of a few passionate people. The training facilitates deeper conversations to address racism and systemic bias. It explores issues such as implicit bias, which are unconscious attitudes toward groups of people, and microaggressions, which are indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. 

The training helps people relate to the experiences with similar examples in areas such as gender, physical ability and socio-economic status. If people who are skeptical of the concept of microaggressions can associate it with their own lives, it starts to create empathy, Townsend said. The training also teaches people how to be allies and supporters when they see bias or microaggressions happening to others. 

Townsend said the training drives lessons home with specific local examples. 

“People keep saying, ‘I didn’t know this was happening in our valley,’” Townsend said. 

The school district’s nearly 2,500 students are 74% white, with Latinos making up the largest underserved population. The district’s teachers are 89% white, and diversifying the workforce is among the school board’s goals. 

Townsend praised the school board for taking a two-day course on equity training so they also can engage in the conversations with the same language.

School board member Jill Franko said equity is embedded in the district’s strategic goals. 

“We won’t be successful until all our kids feel like they are attending a district where they feel safe, welcomed and supported,” Franko said.

There was certainly some grumbling Friday about the required training. Some teachers felt the time could be better used in the classroom or on other training. Some staff members said they already treat everyone with respect and don’t need to learn new terminology or don’t see a problem.

Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove said misinformation about equity work that equates it with liberal philosophies creates some resistance. He said the district is taking it slow and keeping the work focused on making things better for the children. 

As the day wore on, some skeptics found value in the training. Even if they didn’t fully embrace the narrative, they reported the sessions were interesting and informative. Conversations about the material continued in the hallways between sessions. 

Middle school math teacher Allen Lambert saw purpose in the day’s training even for people such as himself who were already engaged in equity practices. 

“It’s part of figuring out who we are and where we go from here,” he said. 

Tito Soriano, a district program analyst, was one of the facilitators for session discussions Friday. He said the training creates a safe space as people learn they have probably said or done something in their life that was damaging to other people. But the training empowers people to talk openly about the hurt and the willingness to listen offers powerful healing, Soriano said.  

Before the day’s first session, the tears flowed for Teresa Cisneros of Southern Oregon ESD. One of the day’s leaders, she found herself thinking of how the school system has improved in her more than 20 years as a district parent. 

Racist incidents and bias in the childhoods of Cisneros’ adult children still cause her and them pain. She said the teachers and her children didn’t have the language to talk about the incidents then, but her youngest daughter and her teachers are able to work through things better now. 

Talking about equity issues is difficult and deeply emotional but also cathartic, as seen at the Thursday night event. More than 100 people from diverse walks of life gathered in Ashland High School’s courtyard to dedicate a Native American canoe donated to the district.

The Otterlifter Canoe was placed in front of the district offices next to the high school. It sits along Siskiyou Boulevard, Ashland’s main thoroughfare. Valuing people who have been traditionally underrepresented ran through remarks made by students, teachers and Indigenous community members. 

School board member Eva Skuratowicz said the ceremony encompassed for her the district’s goals.

“It just reminded me why we need to focus on equity, diversity and inclusiveness because important voices have been missing,” she said. 

Te Maia Wiki, the president of the high school’s Native American Student Union, moved to Ashland in February. She said her experience in Ashland has been better than at her past schools. 

For her, Thursday night was more evidence the district is trying to make real changes.

“Seeing all these communities together is beautiful,” Wiki said.

- Jake Arnold, OSBA

Nadine Martin (left) and Chantele Rilatos with her son, Jasper, sang at a gathering at Ashland High School to celebrate the dedication of a Native American canoe placed next to the Ashland School District offices to honor Indigenous peoples. Martin and Rilatos are the daughter and granddaughter of Grandmother Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who used the canoe to teach Native American traditions. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)