Community Matters

Rooted in Race: Our Community’s History of School Integration

Layla Garms, Shamika Starke
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January 18, 2023

Whether you grew up attending school in Forsyth County, in North Carolina, or in another state altogether, you likely understand how important it is to have access to quality education, in an environment that’s affirming and supportive. And yet, data shows us that a child’s educational experience can vary greatly depending on what neighborhood they live in, the color of their skin, or their socioeconomic status.

If you visited the UnDesign the Redline exhibit earlier this year or read our blog post about the local history of redlining, you may already understand some of the systemic reasons that we see disparities in our schools. To dive even deeper into this history, we encourage you to explore Rooted in Race, an online exhibit curated by our community partner Triad Cultural Arts. The exhibit explores school desegregation policies dating back the 1950’s, while also lifting up stories of local residents who lived through this history.

In this blog post, staff members Layla Garms and Shamika Starke share impactful moments from the Rooted in Race exhibit and how this ties back to the Foundation’s work to advance equity in education in Forsyth County.

Since you have both experienced the exhibit, can you start off by sharing why this exhibit is important for all community members to experience?

Layla: It’s important for all of us to understand our own history. It has been said that if you don’t know your history then you will be doomed to repeat it, and I think there is some truth to that. It’s also important for everyone to understand how we got to where we are now. The racial inequities that exist within our district today- things like the achievement gap – are a result of the systemic marginalization and devaluing of Black and Brown students that has come before, and it’s not a reflection of the students’ academic potential or ability. When we don’t understand what factors have caused the results we see, we are far more likely to blame the victims.

I hope that through this exhibit, our Forsyth County community can begin to have open and honest dialogue about what has taken place in our district, our state and our country with respect to education, and work together to create better outcomes for all our students, because we will all be better off if everyone has the opportunity to thrive through a sound education.

Shamika: I think it’s essential for our community to have a common understanding of our history and its impact, particularly on people of color, so we may advocate for and implement equitable, culturally conscious change that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of our past. I hope that as people digest the stories shared by members of our community, it will create a common thread of empathy and a new level of understanding resulting in structural change that prioritizes the educational experience and outcomes of our Black and Brown students and families.

The Rooted in Race Timeline section gives a detailed outline of the local, state, and national struggle for equity in education since the 1950s. Which key events stand out to you and why?

Layla: Most of us know the importance of decisions like Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; but a lot of important decisions that have taken place since have not been as widely publicized, including some more recent events that have happened locally and on state and national stages.

In the 1990’s, The 1997 Leandro v. North Carolina case was really significant. That case held that every student has a right to a sound basic education, and because of that, individuals and groups across the state have been able to advocate for more equitable policies and practices in order to meet the standards that Leandro names.

Our district’s adoption of the School Choice plan under Don Martin in 1994 was also a huge turning point for us locally, because that was when you really began to see the racial makeup of schools change. Many people have said that that plan was created to end desegregation; I don’t know if that was the intention, but because we are still largely living in segregated residential communities, that was certainly the impact.

I also thought it was interesting that our first Black school board member, Dr. Lillian B. Lewis, was elected in 1960; Dr. Malishai Woodbury was passed the torch of Black female leadership forward when she became the first Black chair of the Board of Education in 2018.

Shamika: I agree with what Layla shared and believe the Leandro case is an important event to highlight. Also critical was the adoption of the district’s school choice plan under Don Martin, as it essentially resegregated our schools, drawing lines on maps without also considering the structural and personal impact of policies like redlining. It essentially resegregated our community.

Can you reflect on the Community Voices who participated in this project?  Are there any stories that spoke to you on a personal level?

Layla: I was really moved by Norma Corley’s story in the 1960’s section. I cannot imagine being a young Black girl trying to integrate an entire school. She was only a child and yet she was met with so much scrutiny and hatred. I was impressed by the strength and fortitude she displayed, and her determination to be successful in the face of such adversity. There are many powerful stories from local heroes like Norma who helped to make our district what it is today.

Shamika: Norma Corley’s story really moved me as well. As a Black woman and a mother to an elementary school child, my eyes swelled with tears as I imagined my daughter in Norma’s place, having to navigate the trauma of being the only Black student while having to prove her worth, and doing it in an unsafe and non-affirming environment. At one point, Norma shares that she remembers just “always feeling like [she] was walking a tightrope,” and that resonated with me because I’ve experienced similar feelings in my life, education, and professional career.

Listening to DD Adams share her integration experience also spoke to me. I appreciate her vulnerability and transparency in sharing that her “integration experience” in the 1970’s was like having a rug pulled from beneath her. That left me inspired by her strength and resilience in achieving personal success after being uprooted from what felt like home to being expected to learn and thrive in an unfamiliar, unwelcoming, and even unsafe school environment.

As a child and even an adult, I often feel I need to be twice as good and work twice as hard as my white counterparts to achieve the success I deserve. Which is why I think my mother thought sending me to a predominantly white boarding high school 150 miles away from my home in Brooklyn, NY, was the right thing to do. At 13, I was expected to transition from a predominately Black and Brown, culturally affirming school experience to one where I was the minority. I had to learn how to navigate this new world where I constantly felt I had to prove that I belonged.

The difference between my experience and that of residents like DD Adams is that their families probably did not have a choice, while my mother did. But even her choice was influenced by the narrative that a predominately white, prestigious institution gives minorities access to better opportunities that staying home cannot. I’m grateful for my mother and don’t hold any animosity for the choices she made on my behalf because her choices gave me access to amazing opportunities. That said, the negative impact was having to navigate the complexities of micro- and macroaggressions and internalized racial oppression, which I’m still healing from today.  

Based on your own role on staff, can you give a few examples of how the Foundation is working to strengthen equity in local education?

Layla: I’m a program officer on the Community Investment team, focusing specifically on advancing equity in education. We are partnering with our school district in a variety of ways, as a thought partner, a funder, and an advocate for local students. Our Community Grants program is working with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on initiatives that are designed to improve outcomes for students of color, including improving access to accelerated and gifted classroom settings, addressing adult biases in schools and helping them to adopt equity-minded approaches, and improving overall school culture by supporting programs and projects that are centered around meeting students where they are and helping them to grow socially, emotionally, and academically.

Shamika: I work closely with our Black Philanthropy Initiative, which has a grantmaking focus area around advancing equity in education that was informed by our 2018 Rethinking Philanthropy research report. The Women’s Fund also holds education as one of its primary focus areas because education must be addressed if we are to improve the economic security of women and girls. The Women’s Fund also remains cognizant of the intersection of gender and race — and the significant role they play in life outcomes. In addition to our grantmaking, both initiatives offer learning events throughout the year to bring together members, volunteers, and the public to learn about critical issues impacting Black residents and women and girls in Forsyth County.

RESOURCES FOR CONTINUED LEARNING

  • Explore the Rooted in Race online exhibit
  • Learn more about the exhibit’s creators: Triad Cultural Arts and Dignity Justified
  • Watch a recording of The Women’s Fund of Winston-Salem’s Ideas to Action event which incorporated the Rooted in Race exhibit and highlighted community members leading the way in school diversity and equity:
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