Jennie Sherwood and Mikayla Stahl
BLM Changemakers Work to Improve Schools and Town
With many ways to combat the racial inequality issues in America after George Floyd’s murder, East Lyme residents have tried to take part in the national movement in whatever way they can. Real change takes organization, and that is exactly what this new group has done over the summer.
ELHS graduate of 2013, Ben Ostrowski, created the East Lyme for Black Lives Matter group following a Niantic protest he organized on June 7. Starting as a Facebook group, it gained over 400 members in the course of a month and began its mission of making East Lyme a more inclusive place.
“It would have been easy for our town to ignore the issue,” Ostrowski said. “From the protest I organized, we realized that if we wanted to make everlasting change in our town then that comes from policy. It became clear that there needed to be an organization with tasks and subcommittees.”
Other East Lyme residents wanted to get involved, such as 2016 ELHS graduate Serena Valentin.
“I went to the protest Ben organized and asked him how I could be more involved,” said Valentin. “For me, I think that education is most important with this issue, especially for public schools like East Lyme.”
The East Lyme for BLM group is made up of three subcommittees: one on the town, one on planning events, and another on the school system. Ostrowski and Valentin are involved with the school system subcommittee. The group has created several documents outlining potential policy changes, staff training days, racial education, and more they want to implement. They want to do as much of the work for the schools as they can to make it as easy as possible. ELHS teachers were eager to support this mission. Headed by Assistant Principal Henry Kydd, educators formed a group that met with East Lyme for BLM throughout the summer to discuss steps on implementing change for the school year.
“I see it as almost my responsibility to make sure that the things happening in the world are reflected in what I choose to use for students,” said Spanish teacher Jessica Garcia. “As an institution of education, we need to be responsive to the BLM movement.”
The creation of this group has resulted in a very busy summer for all involved, but they won’t hesitate to demand action.
“It is so important to give a voice to people who are struggling, especially when you’re in a position where you have privilege,” said Valentin. “East Lyme has a lot of work to do in the area as far as making people of color feel more welcome and having more of a voice.”
BLM Group Fights to be Prioritized by School System Amidst COVID
Dramatic change is occurring to all schools in East Lyme due to warranted concern about the spread of COVID-19. The East Lyme for Black Lives Matter group’s concern is that racial safety will take a back seat and eventually be forgotten before tangible changes can occur.
“My parents always say that we’ve done so much, but I don’t think that’s true yet,” said Ben Ostrowski, organizer of the group. “As an ally, I don’t want to take my foot off the pedal at all. Until policy changes, we don’t know if we’re actually succeeding.”
East Lyme school administration plans to hold a diversity training professional development day for staff on Oct. 9. Superintendent Jeffrey Newton commented to the Saga that they “have not planned out the professional development yet for October 9… We have to open our schools first, while focusing all our efforts on that task. That is priority number one.”
However, East Lyme for BLM feels that Oct. 9 is not soon enough, as it will happen more than a month after students return to school and start asking teachers about the movement. Nickie Padilla, a member of the group, wrote an email to ELPS staff and administrators saying, “It is our hope that professional development [regarding diversity training], in some capacity, will occur somewhere in the four days that have been set aside prior to the start of the school year… Addressing this issue cannot be delayed until Oct. 9.”
At the Board of Education meeting on Aug. 17, group members proposed a 30-minute lesson on diversity training for staff to be held on a professional development day. They also wanted a statement to go out to staff and parents stating that action is being taken.
“[The BLM movement] is a part of reopening. We have to be prepared to talk about the subject,” said Padilla at the BOE meeting. “At some point we have to take a stance… Not making a statement is making a statement.”
The Saga reached out to three BOE members, including chairperson Tim Hagen, none of whom responded with comment. On Aug. 22, Mr. Newton sent out a document of Equity/Inclusion Resources to all ELPS staff, stating that “these resources can assist in having discussions with students on these critical matters. It is not mandatory that you review these at this time, but we wanted to ensure that there were resources that you could access prior to the start of the year.”
“I am hopeful because of the ambitious and supportive response from many teachers… but actions speak louder than words,” Serena Valentin stated. “Equity/anti-racism training for teachers is our top priority, and we will continue to push for that until there is a definitive plan.”