The Diversity Discussion: Learning from history to foster inclusive future

"I think it's the only way that we're going to survive as an education system and as a country is to come together in a diverse environment,” Tulsa teacher Kate Knox says, on our country's racial divide and the critical role schools play in easing decades-worth of tension.

This story is a chapter in our project safe schools initiative we're calling "The Diversity Discussion.”

We want to explore the historic, cultural separation in Tulsa, and efforts from the city and school districts to create a more inclusive environment.

So we start the discussion with perhaps the city's best example of a high-functioning, multicultural setting in Booker T. Washington high school.

Recently ranked by niche.com as the state's best public high school with an "A+" overall grade based on academics, teachers, and diversity, among other categories.

And while students and staff rave about the campus, they are not shy speaking about Tulsa's continued challenges.

“Learning to make connections across differences allows them to think deeper and feel deeper,” Knox said.

In one of Tulsa Public Schools most diverse settings, English teacher Kate Knox tackles tough issues head on.

She begins her class with a 15-minute “connection circle.” It's a safe space allowing her students to share highs and lows about their day.

“Within three weeks I've seen them address really deep issues,” she said. “Poverty, the lack of food source for them in north Tulsa. The use of the 'n' word in literature and pop culture.”

But while the school environment promotes acceptance, Ms. Knox says the outside forces of bias are real.

“When I hear them speak of problems or issues, it's issues with adults who don't understand their culture … who make assumptions based on what they look like,” Knox said.

Sadly, her students experience the most superficial forms of racism first-hand.

“I'll have my hair down and it'll look pretty and stuff, and people will tell me 'I look pretty' blah, blah, blah,” Jhade Bonner said. “I'll come with my natural hair or something and they'll look at me some type of way."​​​​​​

Keimora Edwards said, “They're very judgmental. And, it's unnecessary.  Some of the things they say is uncalled for." 

These teenagers discuss important problems, like the generational impact of the Tulsa race massacre, the stark contrast between north and south Tulsa.

Across town, a similar conversation.

Middle schoolers at Thoreau Demonstration Academy are studying the 1921 race massacre.

On a recent field trip to Greenwood, they learned about the devastating impact on the area known as 'Black Wall Street.’

"An entire prominent place was completely decimated within a day,” seventh-grader Charles Carter said. “It's completely terrifying to think about."

The students learning tough lessons from history they hope will have a positive effect on the future.

"I think a lot of good things can come from it,” seventh-grader Erica Ray-Franks said. “Like, we can study and see what's gone wrong and how to do better now.”

Sophie Torres, 7th grade: " I think there's tons of room for improvement, but I think we've done way better than we did in 1921."

Just today in his State of the City address, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum talked about a five-year comprehensive plan to tackle racial disparity.

It's called Resilient Tulsa, and it includes small business development in minority communities and partnering with education to address industry skill gaps.

 

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