Note - this article was adapted and featured in Volume 7 of the Social Innovations Journal on June 29, 2021.
This is the second monthly feature in our Cultivating Community series, where rural classroom teachers nominate school district policy actions that have made a difference in their community. Our first feature was Cusseta, Georgia, and this month's highlight is from Red Bluff, California. Lee Shilts was the nominating teacher and will receive a $250 dollar classroom grant!
RSC's John Glasgow coordinates this program and is the author of this article. The Cultivating Community project is part of the I Am a Rural Teacher campaign.
In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) people across the country, calls were raised again to combat the persistent racist policies and behaviors that have plagued our communities for far too long. While major urban centers throughout the US drew the attention of media outlets and public officials, similar movements for justice and equality were also germinating in small towns across our rural landscape. These ongoing fights for justice in rural places often go unacknowledged in comparison to their larger and louder companion movements in cities. However, rural America is incredibly diverse, if not increasingly so, and a growing number of grassroots organizations are collaborating with local governments, and schools, to let that diversity shine and thrive.
Injustices most certainly endure in small towns as much as in the big cities, yet it may be those qualities so treasured in rural America—close-knitted-ness among neighbors, a deep connection to place and the land, and a shared desire for community growth—that offer these groups calling for justice a pathway for meaningful and effective policy change. This fondness for their home and care for the lives of friends, family, and future generations is what inspired a group of alumni from Red Bluff High School, in Red Bluff, California, to band together with the local school administration over problems of injustice and inequality. Calling themselves Red Bluff Alums for Justice (RBAFJ), the group coalesced in response to the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier this year, and has already collaborated to set in place the foundations of lasting policy change for students, teachers, and the whole Red Bluff community.
Supporting the group in their efforts to work together with the school district, Lee Shilts, a dance teacher for Red Bluff High School, has lived in Red Bluff her entire life. A strong sense of family and feeling invested in the growth of the community are essential for Shilts, and are what has continued to inspire her 30-year career at the school she herself attended. It is through this desire to see her lifelong home flourish that Shilts recognizes problems still remain for realizing equity among all community members:
“The difference between the racism in our school and community when I was a student here thirty years ago and now is that it was more blatant then. It was more widely accepted, and seldom had consequences. Now that we have a more diverse population and more access to information, the racism is more implicit. Counselors, staff and administration [at the school] have specific rules and policies against it, students are aware that it is unacceptable, but it still exists.”
Although Shilts admits that “the need today is not so different from what it has been in the past,” she notes with a bit of hope that “the recent divisiveness our nation has experienced exposed a need for deeper examination; a new push for communities, including our own, to grow and change in terms of acceptance and equity for all people.”
“When our kids tell us of their experiences and the need for change, as the Red Bluff Alums [for Justice] have done, we have to listen.”
In Red Bluff fashion, when the need for collective action arises, Shilts explains how student voices are typically valued for local decision-making:
“One area that we’ve been really strong in, whether it’s the school or our work or our businesses, is that people have a great respect and love for children here…It’s a belief that runs deep in everyone. If our kids didn’t bring a piece of information, we may never have changed our minds about it, but if our kids say it then we listen.”
Even once students have graduated and forged their own professional paths into the world, as is the case with the members of RBAFJ, Shilts affirms that when they “tell us of their experiences and the need for change…we have to listen.”
It was on this foundation of community support, amid the national backdrop of renewed calls for racial equality and restorative justice, that a core group of Red Bluff alumni first met on social media.
One of four board members for the group interviewed for this feature, Alana Hinkston (Red Bluff class of 2012), recalls that RBAFJ started out rather humbly. “This really started with a message being like, hey guys, with everything going on during the summer, let’s get together and see what we can do at the high school.”
As ideas were shared and conversation about how to engage back home progressed, members of the group grew increasingly excited for the prospects of their vision.
Alana’s younger sister, Adrienne Hinkston (Red Bluff class of 2014), saw “this as an opportunity to dig in and say, ok it was like that for us, but it doesn’t have to be like that for our younger siblings and cousins, and the future.”
Similarly, Delaney Sheffield (Red Bluff class of 2018) remarked, “You see all these big changes happen in big cities, but you don’t ever see a small town push for social justice changes within their community. And so, for me, seeing a big group of people come out of this town who wanted that [change] was really exciting.”
Alana added, “For me, the impetus of wanting to do this came out of being a Black student who went to Red Bluff high—there definitely were elements that could have been improved. Now I’ve learned a little bit more, and lived a little bit more, and now I’m able to partner with and help the school do more for its students of color.”
Jane Kinner (Red Bluff class of 2014) agreed, “Thinking back to my experiences growing up, I think there was a lot of things that I had to unlearn…I think for a lot of us in this group that story is true. We all had to unlearn some things or our minds were opened in different ways that we didn’t get to experience when we were in Red Bluff.”
“Now I’ve learned a little bit more, and lived a little bit more, and now I’m able to partner with and help the school do more for its students of color.”
Bonding through this shared background and drive forward, RBAFJ wasted no time compiling an organized set of policy recommendations that they wished to share with the local school board. Talking through these points, Alana clarified that “for me the biggest thing was pushing for getting things systematically changed. One of the things that I’ve learned is that if we don’t actually change the systems and the way that metrics are measured, or success is measured, then you’ve had a really good program but you’re not actually making change.”
Adrienne continued, "We looked into ways to make changes both from a faculty and staff perspective as well as a student perspective, so that the whole culture and experience is better. We talked about doing antiracist training for staff members and changing the curriculum. But on the student side, how can we create a safe space for Black students and people of color? How can we have a diversity representative? How can we have the student newspaper more involved? We’re trying to look at it holistically so that all across the board we’re leaving nothing untouched.”
Though the group was certain that their ideas would benefit the students and staff of Red Bluff High, Adrienne revealed that “when we were initially planning our demands and what we wanted, we weren’t sure of what the reaction was going to be."
A critical part in the group’s strong momentum is that the administration and alumni already knew each other and had grown up together, and so the strategies for discussing policy and collaborating to bring about change are distinct from those of similar movements for justice in urban areas.
“What has made it a different conversation from what it could have been,” Alana explained, “is that we’re not people coming in from the outside. You saw us when we were ten falling over soccer balls…People on the board are pastors we grew up with; people who are basketball coaches, we grew up with their kids and we’ve ridden in their cars to go to games. At first it was like, ‘who are these people,’ but then as we started to put more faces to it, they know us. I think what we learned was a lot of tactics we thought we would have to employ, because that’s what you see in the big movements, actually aren’t as useful or necessary.”
Jane added, “The superintendent [Todd Brose] has been a point of contact and he knows us. We knew that going in, and that he would be willing to work with us and on the side of social justice. It hasn’t been a seamless process. We came in with a lot of ‘here’s some actionable steps you could take,’ and the school board was not receptive to that or the language we used. So, it’s been a lot of teaching moments.”
“What has made it a different conversation from what it could have been is that we’re not people coming in from the outside.”
As one of those early teaching moments, Delaney told how in the “first meeting, we came in and we were talking to the school board and it was awkward as they were getting to see who we were again, but when we really started seeing change and seeing them grab onto our ideas was when we personalized it a little bit and they could see we were people too and not just this group that sent this letter to them that stirred up a lot.”
Alana acknowledged this learning process by sharing how “there was a moment where we were learning what the school had already done and who the players were. Relearning the system of the school was a big part for me when entering into the conversation. You come in with your ‘1, 2, 3,’ [suggestions], but sometimes you have to listen and learn too to get an idea of the context.”
Through conversation, collaboration, and a shared vision for a stronger Red Bluff community, the RBAFJ launched a partnership with the Red Bluff High School to tackle issues of equality and justice together. The first outgrowth of this new partnership has been a school-wide survey administered to staff, teachers, and students to assess the relative experiences of each person in the school and to ask “provocative” questions about race and equity in the district.
Alana summed it up, "The best first move was doing this survey, and getting [the district] to get a survey team made and actually asking those questions so that we’re working from data. What we’re finding is a lot of the data about what’s going on in schools or systems is from urban centers, they’re not from rural areas. That was the biggest thing, trying to get that and then using that data to make future decisions. From that data you can put in better policies and better programs from what’s actually true in rural communities.”
“Sometimes you just have to start and get the ball rolling… Have a conversation and make how you feel known because you never know who else might be thinking the same thing or may be on a similar journey.”
While the partners still wait for the results of this survey, RBAFJ has already had a direct impact on the lives of students in the Red Bluff community through a new scholarship program designed to aid BIPOC students, students identifying with other marginalized identities, and those working on social justice as they graduate and consider post-secondary options.
Even in the classroom, Lee Shilts said she has noticed changes from the cooperation between the district and RBAFJ. In addition to being more aware of language and behavior, Shilts described how students “are trying to create more of an open dialogue and address some things we have not been aware of.” In the spirit of inclusion and awareness, the school has also launched new antiracist and implicit bias trainings for faculty and extracurricular programs.
Moving forward, the group expects to further cement their relationship with the school district in an advisory role for the district’s LCAP [local control and accountability plan]. “It outlines their goals in a lot of different areas,” Jane detailed. “It’s basically a way to report to the state what they’re doing, what their goals are, and how much funding they’re going to need to meet those goals. We’re what they call a ‘stakeholder group,’ so we’ll get to work with the superintendent next year to formulate the district’s LCAP.” By partnering with the school to outline the school’s vision for the next several years, RBAFJ will be able to help ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion remains a primary focus.
Underlying all these changes is a basic care for people which has guided both RBAFJ and the district alike in their decisions:
“First and foremost, that’s what you need in social justice,” Alana revealed. “We can talk about all this, but at the core it’s caring about people as people and treating them as such. Then you think about all the systems that were put in place for that not to happen.”
But even while many feel that we inhabit a time in history where collaboration and common good have been subverted for division and anger, Adrienne reminded us that “sometimes you just have to start and get the ball rolling…Have a conversation and make how you feel known because you never know who else might be thinking the same thing or may be on a similar journey.”
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