Institutional racism is perhaps the most difficult form of racism to eradicate. It is deeply embedded in our legal system, our financial system, our justice system, even in our public schools. But one Connecticut parent and pastor found that speaking up was enough to make a change.
Rev. Kari Nicewander was attending her son's fourth grade class to see presentations about Connecticut History, a topic covered by every fourth grade in the state. Nicewander watched as each student in the class, dressed as an important figure in our state's history, gave a speech about their chosen subject.
"I still wonder if I would have noticed it, if my son were white," said Nicewander. "I wonder if I would have noticed it, if all the children were white."
As each child gave their speech, Nicewander became more and more upset. Every child gave a speech about a white person.
"The students in that class were learning that the only people who matter in the history of Connecticut are white," said Nicewander. "That may not have been explicitly taught, but it was fully communicated that day. And that is teaching white supremacy."
Nicewander addressed the matter with the teacher. The teacher agreed with her, but said that there weren't any materials about people of color in the history of Connecticut written at a fourth grade level. She showed Nicewander the books made available to the children – each one written about a white person.
After the meeting, Nicewander began asking what to do about the issue. A friend suggestion that there were enough people in the community with the skills to write the materials themselves. So that's what they did. Nicewander contacted the school district who agreed to use the materials if the group wrote them. Twelve people, representing Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford – where Nicewander is the senior pastor, Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, the First Congregational Church of East Hartford, Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, and the Episcopal Diocese of Hartford, along with some parents in the community, began researching. In the end, each of the twelve wrote a resource on one person of color who had an impact on the history of Connecticut. The district even provided resources for measuring readability levels so that all the materials would be written on a fourth grade reading level.
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By the following year, the fourth graders in the district had a new set of people to choose from during their Connecticut History Project. The district curriculum specialist even connected with the CT State Department of Education. They are currently editing the materials in order to make them available state-wide.
Nicewander says she was fortunate to have a group of talented people willing to work together and committed to eradicating racism. But the work isn't done. She hopes to see some of the Racial Justice resources of the Connecticut Conference used to provide Racial Justice Training in a local elementary school, a training that would involving faculty, staff, students, and parents. Perhaps this could be a pilot program that eventually is copied throughout the state.
"Institutional racism is real, and our schools are still teaching white supremacy," said Nicewander. "In order to dismantle racism, we need to work together, use the resources within our congregations and our conference, and keep our eyes open. Together, we can remove this poison from our churches, our schools, our nation, and our world."