Above all, they simply hope that “the conversation keeps going.”
For all the stories depicting the challenges plaguing rural America, there are just as many stories, often untold, portraying the resilience and determination of local residents in seeking change for the place they call home. It is no secret that all communities in the United States must account for legacies, and realities, of discrimination. This task is anything but easy, yet rural communities are rallying to tackle these systemic injustices together; and many times, students, teachers, and schools are leading the way. Our rural public schools play a central role in how these tales unfold. Serving as focal points for idea sharing, personal expression, and human development, schools can provide the space and support needed for students and teachers to fulfill their visions of ‘what can be’.
Paradise, California, site of the infamous Camp Fire of 2018, is home to one such rural school district. Jori Krulder, a high school English teacher for over 20 years, adores the Paradise community.“ I really believe that Paradise Unified School District (PUSD) is the beating heart of Paradise,” Krulder reflects, “Kids need this connection, and our school, like all schools at their best, is a place where kids can come and have people that care about them.”
Yet challenges remain; recently a group of PUSD alumni have raised awareness to the fact that not all students have felt safe to be true to who they are. Through their actions, PUSD has heard the voices of all the different communities in Paradise and taken concrete steps to build a more inclusive and just school system.
“It’s important to keep the dignity of the community of Paradise alive, but I think it’s also important to give examples.”
In an effort to help PUSD become a site of compassion and growth, a group of eight Women of Color alumni wrote an open letter to the district recounting their personal experiences with racist and discriminatory behavior while at school. Inspired by the national movement for Black Lives and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the group shared their stories with the hope simply that the school and community would gain awareness of the realities faced by People of Color in the district. Knowing schools to be sources of strength and change in a community, Krulder believes that “if we’re going to bring more equity to our school, then awareness of the problems our students are facing is the first step.”
Melodie Chen-Glasser, class of 2013, is one of the women who led this effort at PUSD. She reflects back on her time in Paradise: “When I talk about my town with my friends, it was cool as a child because there was always so much to explore, and do, and be outside all the time…It was also really hard as I got older because I realized there was a lot of discrimination as well, especially toward my mom, who is Taiwanese.”
Sharing about the experiences that inspired her to act, Chen-Glasser recalls an interaction at the high school:
“[A man] was talking about how [his daughter] couldn’t get a good grade in college because all those Asian students were jacking up the curve. I don’t think he knew I was part Asian, and it really made me feel like I didn’t have a space at the higher institutions…I had other instances where my friends would say [derogatory words] or say racist things about my mom. I think something else that really stood out to me was my mom telling me that, ‘If you want people to think I’m not your mom, so you can blend in with this community and not have to deal with this racism, then that’s ok.’”
For Erica Neufeld, class of 2012 and contributor to the open letter, while many memories from Paradise are troubling, she believes it is important to recognize these experiences for what they are in order to change and grow together:
“It’s important to keep the dignity of the community of Paradise alive, but I think it’s also important to give examples. As much as we can say this community is nice, like I loved being so close to the natural world and the spaciousness and community life, there were also things I had to face after leaving which I realized needed to be acknowledged.”
Neufeld, whose mother is Thai, says that “the first time I noticed things was in middle school. In the grocery store, people would be really nice, and then they’d completely get rid of their smile when my mom started talking because she has an accent. Another time, someone came up to me and said others were spreading the rumor that my mom is a mail-order bride. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time. They had to make up stories to make sense of why she was there. It was never directed at me, but I definitely embodied some of that shame.”
Julianna Loera Wiggins, class of 2013 and a key figure in this effort, shares her story about growing up in Paradise:
“I have fond memories of really enjoying school, but there were these experiences that made me question what’s going on, that maybe there’s something a little more sinister going on. For example, one time when I was riding the bus and we dropped off one of my classmates and I saw a Confederate flag outside their front door. It didn’t really compute because I was in Paradise, not fighting for the South.”
Loera Wiggins recalls a personal experience with racist behavior at school: “I’m of Mexican heritage, and this one time I had worn a family poncho, and a teacher pulled me aside and said, ‘you need to take that off. You look like a terrorist,’ and I was terrified. [We grew up] with this embedded idea that ‘terrorist’ is bad, that it means to harm others, but I just thought what the teacher said was not right. This poncho is a gift, this is a part of me, an extension of me.”
“I fully believe that all of the teachers in our school, in different ways, care. This makes it difficult to just sit back and do nothing--not if we know our students are being hurt.”
All three of the alumni revered certain aspects of growing up in Paradise, yet having spent time away from their hometown gave them the space to reflect on and acknowledge the discrimination they faced. While the hardships endured by many rural youths often drives them to leave and not look back, these three alums were inspired to do just the opposite. Neufeld underscores that they “haven’t even thought about not doing anything. I don’t even see that as an option. I know it’s possible to change perspective. What needs to happen first is acknowledging that [discrimination] is there. I felt like there was not a lot of that going on.”
Neufeld recalls being alarmed by how some from their hometown were responding to the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. Recognizing that change can happen when communities of care join together to act, she began simply by reaching out to a friend from Paradise: “We’re all close friends and we each went through similar things,” they explain, “when all these marches were happening, I reached out to [a fellow alum] asking, ‘how are you doing?’ I reached out to her, and she reached out to other people, and we just got this group together.”
As friends reconnected and shared their emotions and experiences, an idea sprouted to write an open letter seeking only to tell another side of the Paradise story. One of the alums “said that her friend wrote a letter to her school district, and that we should do the same,” Neufeld continues.
Thinking back on why she decided to pitch in, Chen-Glasser explains:
“I thought this is something I could do which makes a difference and could have an impact somewhere, and I think it’s better that it came from the inside. I think there’s a chance that maybe one of the people who would hang out with me when I was younger would read this letter and think, ‘Oh, this is my friend and I trust her, and now I know there was something wrong back then.’ I felt like maybe coming from us, we could show people that things were not fine. They don’t have to change their political beliefs, but maybe they could shift their perspective a little bit.”
Hearing that many of these incidents occurred while at school made these stories “impossible to ignore” as a teacher, Krulder adds. “I can’t read these stories and say, ‘Oh yeah, that wasn’t real. It’s not a big deal.’ Teachers, even the ones that really don’t understand that there’s a problem, still care about students. I fully believe that all of the teachers in our school, in different ways, care. This makes it difficult to just sit back and do nothing--not if we know our students are being hurt.”
The power of place in this effort was just as critical as caring for, engaging, and supporting people. For Loera Wiggins, Paradise is their home, and is a place that she’s “always going to return to.” She affirms that “the community is important to me. My family is still there. We lost our home to the Camp Fire, and that led my parents and little brother to be displaced for some time, but I still have this very deep connection to our family land. That land is beautiful, it’s important to me, and I have four other siblings. That’s where we always return to.”
Channeling her attachment to her home, Loera Wiggins tells how the alums capture that sentiment in the letter, and that “we just want a community that we would return to, and perhaps even raise our own families in, or have a professional experience there...it would have felt irresponsible to not say anything.”
“None of these things were being spoken about,” Neufeld concludes, “So, the reason I went back was for my personal way to give back to my community, and also to heal myself and say I was able to do something for the people who are in my position as well.”
Charged by their experiences and the growing calls for racial justice nationally, Loera Wiggins, Neufeld, and Chen-Glasser teamed up with five other friends to write the letter that set off a wave of transformative action within the school district. Though they only intended the letter to raise awareness and spark conversation, all of them, including Krulder, were surprised by the overwhelming school and community support their effort garnered.
“It was a powerful letter,” Krulder recalls, “I was really proud of the community because they responded amazingly. The letter had some things that were not comfortable to deal with, like we’re not serving all the students. It could have been easy to say this is terrible and move on, but our superintendent is incredible and he embraced the letter and opened up a dialogue with the students about what we can do.”
Neufeld recounts how she “was shocked” by the support of their actions. “I didn’t know that there was going to be such a response, and I don’t know why [I’m shocked]. I guess it’s because I hadn’t seen anything quite like that coming from our community that quickly.”
Ramping up their engagement with the school after the letter rapidly gained traction, Chen-Glasser was just as surprised at the positive effort received from the community:
“There was no one that was trying to be negative in our survey, there was just a lot of grace and respect. I feel like a lot of people in the community also wanted to do something but didn’t know how, and this was a good way.”
“Our new normal is that we have to acknowledge that there are students with varying social identities on our campuses.”
In just two months during the summer of 2020, the eight PUSD alumni went from collecting their stories of discrimination and adversity in an open letter, to fully collaborating with the local school district to create solutions to the problems they voiced. “I felt like every time we suggested something, the school considered it and responded,” Chen-Glasser details, “We asked that the school say they were more committed to protecting their students of color, and they did.”
One immediate outcome of this process was the institution of a Social Justice Committee in the school district. Wasting no time, PUSD’s superintendent called a meeting between the authors of the letter, himself, and a core group of teachers, including Krulder,to take action. The result was the creation of a committee tasked with hearing student experiences and recommending actions the district can take to seek reconciliation and healing. The committee consists of school administrators, teachers, parents, and current students. The group is “in stages of understanding,” Krulder reports, “seeking to understand the students’ perspective on what is going on, and then to find actions to take to make real change.”
Neufeld and Chen-Glasser detail how the group “seeks out concrete ways we can make positive change for justice,” and doing so by involving the superintendent, school board members, teachers, parents, kids, and alumni. They add that parents are invited to share their experiences, or their precautions about this work, and what their students’ experiences were. The committee embodies an “egalitarian” and “collaborative” approach to the work. Loera Wiggins is an inaugural member of the committee, and attending the meetings and working together with the other members, she finds herself “back at home in this committee.”
Along with the Social Justice Committee, the district adopted a number of other initiatives all geared toward creating a more equitable and safer environment in PUSD schools. One such project is an anti-racist reading group where teachers, staff, and students discuss chapters of prominent texts on the topic. In addition, the collaborative team is putting together a mentorship program to link current PUSD students with an alumna who shares a similar background and experience. As the group enters its second school year, it is also expected to begin tackling more concrete aspects of the district’s transformation such as its policies and staff and student training.
With so much progress already made in such a short time, all three alums and Krulder are hopeful for the future of this effort. “Movements have to rise and fall, that’s why it’s called a movement,” Loera Wiggins says, “but that’s not the case here. What’s happened is a committee formed. Change is happening. Change has occurred. We asked for a statement, and a committee formed where the superintendent, all the principals, and teachers are attending.”
Chen-Glasser wants “it to grow on its own,” and “for it to become self-sufficient, and for the people who are [in Paradise] doing it and experiencing it to lead it” toward the change they seek.
Neufeld agrees, adding that “this has already gone so far beyond what my hopes were initially, and that it’s more potent coming from the people in the community; sustainable change is going to happen that way.” Neufeld also sees what the PUSD community has accomplished so far as just one step in a larger process for seeking justice and transformation: “This is one of many catalysts for more change, for people seeing that this can happen. Even a letter written by eight people can make such a huge difference.”
Above all, they simply hope that “the conversation keeps going,” Loera Wiggins confides, “I’m terrified that the conversations around race or thinking about race critically and social identities will end. I’m terrified that it will just turn back to a whisper because everyone is so ready to return back to ‘normal,’ but this is our new normal. Our new normal is that we have to acknowledge that there are students with varying social identities on our campuses.”
“You don’t have to do a big thing to be an activist, you can just be present and confident in yourself and people will notice that.”
The work of this collaborative team portrays the power of rural places to seek change. They show that change in a rural setting can be sustainable and resilient when it is built from a network of caring relationships. While the work of seeking justice for the historically marginalized in our rural landscape is difficult, and truly just beginning, the stories presented here show that others have traveled this path before, and that change is possible.
The first step toward community change begins by being true to yourself. By doing so, you are better able to stand up with others for the future of your community. Reflecting on this process, Chen-Glasser shares:
“I’m also part of the LGBTQ community, and I had to come out to people. So, the biggest piece of advice I have is that you have to meet yourself where you’re at…You don’t have to do a big thing to be an activist, you can just be present and confident in yourself and people will notice that. Take care of your mental health and build that community, and then you can get out there and start being more assertive with standing up for your rights.”
Similarly for Neufeld, “As long as you’re true to yourself, as long as you’re advocating for your safety and joy, you are doing so much already. Even though it will be hard, and there will be resistance, just keep going. You cannot be supported by others, as you fully are, until you accept yourself...I think that’s the most sustainable and impactful.”
Responding to her classmates, Loera Wiggins concludes with a Spanish phrase: “No tengas miedo, don’t have fear. Nothing will change unless you change something.” She adds that she hopes “people know that they aren’t terrible people if you’re having these conversations. Even I tense up a little bit when we talk about race, and when we talk about queerness, and you’re not a bad person if you do.”
Grappling with these issues can be “scary,” Krulder admits. Given the central role of schools in inspiring growth and change in rural communities, it can seem especially challenging for teachers who many not know how to facilitate these conversations:
“It’s easier and safer not to broach these subjects because it feels like you’re risking yourself. All you really need to start the process is to just start listening. Give students the space to tell their stories and to make meaning for themselves. If you do that, you’ll make better relationships with your students, your classes will learn better, and you’ll learn more too."
Rural Schools Collaborative would like to thank these alumni for their impactful work and for taking the time to speak with us. We would also like to thank Ann Schulte, our California hub contact, for connecting us.