Rachelle Warren remembers the first time someone made her aware of her race.
The Waco Independent School District administrator was in third grade when the campus bully referred to her using a racial slur. Warren did not know what the word meant at the time, but she knew it was intended to hurt her and that it was not supposed to be said.
She told her parents what happened, and they talked with school officials. As a third grader, Warren did not know exactly what transpired between her parents and school officials, but she knew that suddenly the campus bully who had intentionally harmed her was now doing everything he could to make sure no one else hurt her.
“I learned the power of being aware of a piece of me that I had no control over that was presented to the world without my permission,” she said during a recent Waco ISD board workshop. “I also understood how important it was for me not to be silent.”
Waco ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon also understood the importance of not being silent after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis in late May. She sent an email to staff after his death in which she shared her desire to make the school district an “anti-racist organization,” Warren said.
Two teachers responded to Kincannon’s email with a “thank you and” response, asking the superintendent what the district’s next steps would be in becoming an anti-racist organization. They were Scherrie Jones, a sixth grade English and reading teacher at Tennyson Middle School, and Kimberly Haynes, a special education facilitator.
Kincannon connected Jones and Haynes with Warren, the assistant superintendent for student services and support. Kincannon brought Warren with her from Belton ISD, where they both worked before joining Waco ISD and where Warren had already started similar conversations around race and racism.
Together, Jones and Haynes drafted the resolution the Waco ISD board adopted Thursday night, declaring itself an anti-racist organization. The board only made a minor modification to the resolution that states the school board and superintendent will “make a commitment to not only be non-racist but anti-racist, when they see or learn of acts of intolerance, hear or learn of words of prejudice, see or learn of acts of injustice, they speak up against them, they confront the situation and they take action with urgency, equity and unity.”
Trustee Stephanie Korteweg suggested the board amend the resolution to include “communities of color” because the racism happening across the community is not limited to Black people. She said the ongoing separation of migrant children from their parents at the Mexico border came to mind, but she did not want to detract from the pain Black people have endured.
“There are communities of color that are also dealing with pain, but for fear of deportation, they don’t speak up, or for fear of never being able to see their family again or going to a country that they didn’t grow up in,” she said. “I don’t want to detract from the Black community because I think the pain is real, but I also want to acknowledge the pain that other communities of color have also had to endure.”
Korteweg said discrimination and racism look different in different communities.
“There have been some recent difficult situations for other communities of color,” she said. “I can think of a specific example of a group of pastors meeting here in town, speaking Spanish, and someone came up to them and told them to go back to their country when they’re American citizens.”
Board Secretary Norman Manning agreed with Korteweg’s recommendation and said discrimination and racism does not just affect the Black community. He pointed out that most Waco ISD students are Hispanic or Black.
Jones said she hopes to involve students in this work soon, possibly by inviting students to be part of a race equity committee. That is something she saw while serving on Fort Worth ISD’s racial equity and excellence committee on a volunteer basis.
“They are the ones we wrote this resolution for, and we want to make sure that they have an opportunity to share,” she said of including students.
While Jones is new to Waco ISD, Haynes has worked for the district for almost six years and has thought about starting a group in which students and staff could talk about race, racism and inequity.
“I felt like in that group we might end up just commiserating and not making a whole lot of progress because we would be a group of those who had similar thoughts,” Haynes said.
But when Haynes and Jones got together to talk about what they could do to initiate the process of addressing racial inequity in the district, they found that they wanted to reach out to individual campuses to identify campus leaders who could help them lead the effort.
“We just didn’t want to continue an idea of commiseration or blame,” Haynes said. “I looked at different racial equity committees that have been created in different districts around Texas, and it just popped into my mind that we need a resolution because this will show a commitment from our board to the idea that we’ve got work to do.”
As a woman of color, Haynes said, the way Kincannon, who is white, showed vulnerability in her email made Haynes want to be a part of the effort to address racial inequity and racism in the district.
“We’ve got a foundation to start growing from,” she said.
The resolution is now integrated into the fabric of Waco ISD’s expectations, Warren said. The next step for the district will be forming a racial equity committee that will engage in professional learning to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what race equity means and how it applies to the district.
“It will ultimately become a place where we can review in some cases and preview in other cases policy and procedures so that we can make recommendations to ensure that we really are moving forward in a way where race equity has been considered,” she said. “We want the committee to become a really vibrant forum where folks on our campuses and in our district offices are engaging in a larger conversation with the Greater Waco area.”
For Warren, this resolution aligns with her longtime practice.
“Wherever I go, this conversation is simply part of my practice, and it is always gratifying when I am joined with others who may or may not look like me or may or may not sound like me but who all appreciate the importance of seeing the fullness of what our students and our colleagues present,” she said. “If we are willing to talk about something potentially as personal and complex as race, then along the way we also become really skilled at talking about all kinds of differences and in building systems and processes that will allow us to equitably distribute our resources so that everyone really does achieve at the highest possible levels. It always comes back to student achievement for us.
“A student’s race is just as much a part of who they are as their scores on the last test,” she said.